Sunday, October 19, 2008

On the road again

My first trip with the magazine takes me right into the heart of Italian supercar country...

People sometimes question the car as a means of long distance transport, and you know what? They’re right. If you want to get from London to Italy by the following morning, nothing beats a plane. However, when it deposits you 300km away from your destination and well into the hours of darkness, things start to become complicated, as I found out on my trip to Modena.

I’d love to say something more glamorous was involved, but in fact, the transport that myself, one of my colleagues and a very large case full of exhibition equipment had to pile into was a 1200cc Fiat Grande Punto. Our collective knowledge of Italian geography was non-existent and our faith in the sat nav was about to prove misguided.

After a brief trip onto the autostrade that we assumed would take us all the way, a computerised voice directed us into the outskirts of Milan. I wobbled away at the helm trying to reconcile unlit roads, driving on the right and late-night fatigue. However, it soon became apparent that my driving was the least of our worries.

The first rule of driving in Italy is… there are no rules. In the entire trip I only saw one vehicle indicate and, even in the dead of night, lights were an option. So, it seems were speed limits – at one point I went to slow down as we were approaching a police car rather faster than the law allowed and the local drivers just kept streaming past. Overtaking was also somewhat of an art with Puntos and Pandas darting into the slightest gap left by the car in front.

We drove on, following the Tom Tom’s increasingly baffling instructions. Once clear of Milan all we could really tell was that the surrounding countryside was very flat. The route took us through a mixture of tree-lined rural roads, run down villages and dubious looking industrial areas. In my naivety it took a while to twig what all the groups of young women standing by the road were. Virtually the only people we saw in the next 250km were prostitutes – it seemed to be an interesting take on Catholicism.

The following day after a short, restless sleep we met up with our two bosses and went to set up the exhibition. That completed we headed off onto the road again and up to Maranello. We had been due to meet a friend in Ferrari Formula One team, but an end-of-season rush had put paid to that plan. Instead we took a tour of the Galleria Ferrari and drooled at decades of F1 cars, along with 288 GTOs, F40s and the new California.

That night we were invited to a dinner held by the organisers of the show at what was reputedly Enzo Ferrari’s favourite restaurant. Along with my colleagues from the magazine sat a well-known Nascar engine designer, an AMA Superbike rider and a former F1 driver turned IRL racer. It already felt a little strange, but the night was about to take an altogether more surreal turn.

As the meal came to a close, we were ushered out of the restaurant for ‘a surprise’. About 200 yards away from the main building stood what appeared to be barn. Here the owner stopped and proudly explained (via a passing Indy 500 winner acting as interpreter) that this building had once been a famous brothel frequented by none other than Benito Mussolini. He had bought the building in its entirity and transported it brick-by-brick to the new location and recreated the 1930s interior - as a museum apparently.

He showed us around with pride (after all not everyone has a pre-war brothel in their back garden), but something didn’t quite seem right. People started commenting on various things – half empty bottles of (contemporary) mineral water, an equally up to date DVD collection in some of the rooms and a less than pleasant smell. We began to suspect the ‘museum’ offered a very hands-on approach to history.

Having safely made it out of Mussolini’s shag pad we retired to the hotel. In the morning we left early for the first day of the exhibition. In between manning the stand and interviewing our fellow exhibitors for the magazine, I switched on my phone to find a voicemail from the garage I’d left my TVR with. Taking a deep breath I phoned them back agreeing to the quoted price. Maybe next time I should haggle.

The following day we left the exhibition early and entrusted the hire car to our corporate overlords who were making their way back seperately. Our transport back to the airport was a taxi. In most respects this made sense – he would surely know the roads better than us and avoid a repeat of our scenic route over. However, there was a typically Italian approach to booking the cab and it finally turned up an hour and a half later than intended.

To start with all was fine. We made good progress on the A1 autostrade with surprisingly little traffic for a Friday afternoon. Then, approaching the final toll, we came to a grinding halt. Nobody was moving forward as the road funnelled back down to three lanes from the huge width of the tollbooths. There was just a sea of beeping, nudging Fiats jostling for position. After about fifteen minutes even this ceased and people got out and started smoking and chatting. I half expected to see Charlie Croaker and a fleet of Mini Coppers flash past, but he failed to turn up.

Three quarters of an hour later we finally started to move – now seriously behind schedule. With just moments to spare we arrived at the airport scrambled onto the plane. From there the journey back was easy, but sitting on the plane I found myself reflecting on something: I’ve been to Italy several times before, flying to an anonymous concrete airport then taking a coach up into the alps, yet it felt like the first time I’d really seen the country. Without doubt our nocturnal road trip three nights before had been a less efficient means of transport, but it had given us the chance to really travel. The car, it seems, still has its uses.

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