You might think driving in Italy while on vacation is a great idea. Touring the wineries of Tuscany, admiring the neat rows of vines spread across the hillsides. Stopping in romantic little villages for two hour lunches with plenty of vino to help you to your siesta spot. Coming around that turn of the road to see a sea of the yellow flowers across to the horizon. You could take the bus I suppose. Buses run between some of the towns in Tuscany. Of course, you would be dependent on the bus schedule and also be prepared to use your own two feet on occasion to get where you want to go. But it could be done. For travellers sprinting across Italy in a couple of weeks, taking the bus doesn’t sound very romantic, and probably would take more time than most people have to spend.
So a car it is. Yes, I can see myself now, cruising down the country lanes outside of Siena in a red Alfa Romeo Spyder sports convertible while I think about what to have for dinner. That’s what they drive in those old Italian movies, even the ones in black and white, I just know it. But first one must pick up the car and get to where one’s dream reside. That probably means driving in an Italian city, because they don’t typically have rental car offices in small, out of the way Tuscan towns. Driving in the city, that doesn’t sound nearly as much fun…
Getting out of a major European city in a car can be a tricky and complex operation. I study maps for weeks before the trip, as if I am attempting a winter climb of Mount Everest. I print out several different scale maps of the area. I zoom in on Google Earth to the exact location and memorize the street configuration. I use Google Street View to know what I am up against. I even map out my own directions, since most of the computer generated driving directions are wrong most of the time. The goal is to get out of the maze of city streets onto a major road that connects to a highway that intersects with a freeway that leads out of the city.
Maps in hand, configuration memorized, views in mind, we prepare to set out. After all the planning and preparation, I don’t even drive, I make my wife Lisa do it. The reason for this is that I can only do one thing at a time. I can’t drive and read the several layers of maps, street views, and street signs needed to escape the city’s orbit without crashing into oncoming traffic. If I drive, that means Lisa navigates. If she navigates, we usually end up going around in circles for hours until we run out of gas, while she asks me where on the map we are.
We take a left, a right, a left, and finally a right, adeptly navigating the Roman one-way streets. Yes, we can do this! Confidence builds as we hit the major road, then the highway, and finally the A1 freeway. We have successfully driven out of Rome! We are racing down the Autostrada! That wasn’t so hard. I didn’t even use all of the maps I had printed.
Cinque Terre. Five Lands. A magical destination on the Mediterranean coast of Italy of five villages on five bays below terraced mountainsides interlinked by hiking paths and a railroad line, but no roads. We drove effortlessly across the Tuscan hills to the outskirts of Florence, then veered west to the coast and north to Shangri-La. There are actually some roads that go into a couple of the towns. We took one road from the Autostrada which connected to a road into Monterosso al Mare. As we came down the steep hill towards the town, we noticed there were many cars parked along the road for hundreds of meters. Oblivious to this fact, we kept going, only to discover that at the town entrance there was a gate blocking our path. Only residents can drive into the town. Many Italian cities and towns have zones where only residents can drive. The zones are enforced by automatic cameras that record the license plates of cars being driven in the zone. I had heard stories of tourists receiving tickets in the mail many months after their vacations because they (sometimes inadvertently and sometimes multiple times) had driven in one of these zones.
OK, we can deal with that. We reversed course back up the hill, and came across a small parking lot. Defying the odds, I somehow knew there was a spot for us in this parking lot, even on this glorious and spectacular summer day. I knew that we could park on the road up the hill about a mile or two away and walk down, but I was not looking forward to the walk back up the hill to the car later in the day. Didn’t we deserve a spot in the miniscule town parking lot? I mean we came all the way from America to see this picture perfect little town by the Mediterranean Sea.
Yes! There is somebody leaving! Lucky day! We patiently waited for a couple to load their stroller, their child, and their dog into their Fiat so we can greedily claim their spot. As we pulled in, I shouted “I proudly claim this parking spot in the interests of our Italian tour and aching feet!”
Of course, we couldn’t park there for free. So I went to do battle with the automatic parking lot fee machine. The first thing I noticed is that it would not take a credit card, only cash. On top of that, it would only take coins. What kind of country is this where the parking lot machines don’t take credit? I rummaged through my pockets for one and two euro coins. I found a couple, but not enough for the entire afternoon. I went back to the car and checked with Lisa.
“Uhmm, we need more coins. Do you have any?” I politely asked my dear wife.
“I don’t know. I think so. Let me look in my purse,” she replied.
I call Lisa’s purse “the magic sack” because you never know what you might find in there, it is large and holds many things, but it doesn’t seem to exhibit the weight it should, based on its contents. Thus, it is like a sack used in a fantasy adventure computer game. You can put many things into it, but the weights don’t count against your limit of what you can carry.
“I’m sorry, I don’t think I have any euro coins right now. I think I spent mine on a macchiato this morning. Would any of these small coins work?”
“I don’t think you understand the gravity of our situation. We want to walk on the beach and the boardwalk in this beautiful seaside town. But if we don’t have one more one euro coin, we are going to have to choose from one of two choices. Behind door number one is the choice of vacating this preordained ultimate parking spot and driving two miles up the hillside and parallel parking on a steep, narrow road driving a manual transmission car in the midst of crazy traffic. Then we have to walk back up the hill later this afternoon. Behind door number two is the choice of leaving the car here and trusting the parking lot gods to not come and check our windshield for a parking pass. Because if they do come, they will tow our car with our luggage in it back to some faraway place where tourist rental cars go to die. We’ll have to take a very expensive taxi ride to wherever that place is, then pay some ridiculous fine, plus exorbitant storage fees.”
“Let’s search the car!”
We checked the glove box. We checked the floors, and under the floor mats. We checked the trunk. We searched our luggage, our backpacks, and camera case. Finally, nearing exhaustion and utter defeat, I spied a shiny object tucked in the crack of the back seat. It was not a chewing gum wrapper. It was not a bottle cap. It was a one euro coin!
“Hallelujah! We can rightfully and legally claim our God-given parking spot!” I cheered.
I raced back to the machine to input the coin and receive my cherished parking day pass. The coin was in, and my itchy fingers were waiting to pounce on that pass as soon as it emerged, newborn baby-like from the parking lot machine womb. And then, nothing happened. I waited, with a perplexed and worried look on my face. Nothing. Na da. The machine sat there doing nothing, like a stone face on an ancient totem pole, mocking me. I shook the machine a little bit, in the naïve belief that it would move things along. Then I started to get angry. Really angry. Un-vacation-like mad. I shook the machine harder and harder. It did nothing.
Maybe some time limit had expired on entering coins in a single transaction. I didn’t know. I didn’t care. I resolved to keep that ultimate parking space, whatever the cost.
“Let’s go. We’ve wasted enough time in this parking lot. I want to see Monterosso.” I said as we sauntered away.
It was truly a glorious afternoon on the Mediterranean coast. We walked along the boardwalk, had a nice lunch in a café overlooking the beach, and had our daily gelato fix. By 5pm I knew it was time to go. We were pushing our luck with the parking lot gods.
Sometimes when I know I am parking in an unauthorized location, as I walk towards the parking lot I get an uneasy feeling, deep in my stomach. Is it there? Or is it gone? Has it been towed to the creepy impound lot under the freeway where the guy running the impound lot looks like Charles Manson? The closer I get, the more anxious I turn. It’s just around the next bend, I can almost see it, is it there?
Yes! My lucky day again! The car is still where we left it. But, remember one must inspect the windshield. Alright! There is no ticket under the wipers! I have run the gauntlet and emerged supreme. Parking in the ultimate parking spot for free, saving our aching feet from walking two miles up hill, and getting away with it. The euphoria was extreme. I had never felt so alive.
One day, almost a year after leaving Italy, I got a nice envelope in the mail with an Italian postage stamp on it. The town of Riomaggiore (one of the towns in the Cinque Terre) sent me a ticket for infringements of the Italian Highway Code. It was in Italian, but I could make out that it was a ticket for speeding 71 Kph in a 50 Kph zone. The violation was determined by an automatic camera system on the road. The Riomaggiore police kindly asked me to send them 180 Euros to pay the fine within 60 days. If I didn’t they would then ask me for 337 Euros. As if I am going to pay it! If some Italian process server shows up at my door in the US I am not going to open it.
Maybe I can’t ever go back to Italy. They might have issued a warrant for my arrest on the automatic speeding ticket. I don’t know. But if I ever do go back, I am taking the train.
Steve Skabrat writes at Escape from Cube Land
Top photo by Sugar n’ Pickles; others by author