Four for the Road: Off to Italy

July 9

When you think about driving in Europe you usually imagine yourself in a convertible, with a gauzy scarf around your head, wearing dark sunglasses, one hand on the steering wheel, speeding through hairpin turns with the Mediterranean sparkling far, far below and Cary Grant behind you, wondering at your prowess behind the wheel.

Or maybe that’s just me.

Despite my ample imagination, I have never once lived out that fantasy here in Europe. I’ve driven a number of cars, most of them very small, for longer distances than perhaps they were meant to go. Cars with names like “Twingo.”

Things have changed since I drove here last (about four years ago). The cars have been Americanized. They’re bigger. For the first time, I’m seeing SUV’s on tiny roads. Mini-vans. The drivers of these cars don’t seem to realize how big they are. They plow past blithely, making some roads instantly single-carriage. European driving, never for the faint of heart (and I think anyone who has ever driven with me will say I am no shy flower behind the wheel), has become a bit more exciting.

All packed up

Our car is a called a “Mireva.” It has funky doors that open away from each other. No idea what this adds besides interest. It’s a compact 4-door and our suitcases (and us) just fit. But it’s comfortable and has (exciting to me) 6 gears! How fast do you need to go to get to the 6th gear? Stick with me kids, we’re gonna find out.

The Mighty Mireva

We’ve made the drive from Montpellier to Nice before, but past that, it’s all new. When we hit Monaco, Melisa and I are like little kids, looking for the big “welcome to Italy!” sign. What are the kids doing, you ask? Mostly coloring or watching a movie, occasionally looking up at something we point out. The sign comes, and it feels like Christmas. Italy! The kids look up. “What?”

Here are some things that are different about driving in Italy than in France:

  • Folks are reluctant to insure you in Italy. Along with Israel, Australia, New Zealand, Ireland, FYI. We get around this by renting the car in France. For some reason that does the trick (yes, Grandma, we let the company know we’ll be taking the car across the border into ITALY).
  • The signs on the road are only sort of reliable. Actually, that’s not so different from France.
  • Sheer drops down to the ocean and tunnel after tunnel mark the drive (at least on the Northwestern coast). Who knew there were so many mountains here? All a bit hair-raising.
  • We can’t read ANY OF THE SIGNS. Usually, we try to bone up on a local language before we travel, but for various reasons before this trip, this did not happen. A problem for obvious reasons (hello, life with little kids).

Other than that it’s easy. And the 6th gear? You hit it at about 100 km/hr (about 60 mph). Given that the speed limit for European highways is 130 km (roughly 80 mph), it’s essential.

We drive along, oohing and ahhing over the views and trying to figure out what exit we need to take to hit our overnight stop, San Bartolomeo al Mare, on the Italian Riviera. We get off an exit too early (having skipped the GPS and the Michelin map being slightly indecipherable) and end up driving, for the first time, on real Italian streets along a beach road to the next town. Now I do get to live out some of my Grace Kelly fantasy, driving up and down the steep inclines and hairpin turns. Cary Grant is not on my heels, but there are a number of Italian drivers looking interested (to pass me). I ignore them, and try not to be too distracted by the views. The guard rails look like I remember them in the U.S. around 1976.

At last we’ve reached our overnight destination!

We drop our things and head straight to the pool. The sky is clear, bright blue, and white umbrellas flap in the breeze of the patio. All that’s missing is our rosé.


We take a walk to the beach, packed even at 7 pm, and head back for dinner.

Kids on the Riviera

Magnolia took this. The next Annie Liebovitz.

We have booked our hotel with a demi-pensione, which means dinner and breakfast are included in the rate. (Dear food snobs: this is a tourist town and we have two kids in tow. Didn’t seem worth seeking out the little gem). We sit at a table marked with our room number and inevitably, there’s some confusion over what to do next (that lack of Italian again).

Italians eat a number of courses, and when we checked in we were asked to select a primi and secondi for ourselves and the kids. We’re momentarily confused by the antipasti course, but go with the flow, following the other diners into a pretty room stuffed with plates of food. Unfortunately for the hotel, Jasper is here. Jasper is a buffet-buster. It’s his favorite way to eat. Seeing him take on the buffet in Italy, with its beef carpaccio and marinated seafood dishes, is pretty entertaining.

Everything is delicious. There is a little tension when we have to convince the kids that the homemade gelato in the dining room will be better than the Cars 2 and Barbie ice creams they were offering by the pool. Essentially, we threaten them with no dessert if not gelato. Isn’t their life difficult? The pouting stops after the first bites of cioccolato, vaniglia and fragola (chocolate, vanilla and strawberry). There’s one dramatic moment at the table when Magnolia sticks out her tongue at our harried waiter. Here’s when we discover if Italians really do love children (even ours). The waiter grins and sticks his tongue back out at her. All is well.

Looking out on the balcony

The next day, we’re driving in Italy in earnest, along the coast, past Genova, Lucca, turning to the interior to pass Firenze, and tempted by the signs to Roma! Bologna! Pisa!

Finally, our exit in Chianti. We see immediately why it has entranced people from around the world. The hills are rolling and green, covered in trees and vineyards, and marked by umber-colored stone villages perched at their peaks like cake-toppers. It’s a castle paradise for a princess loving little girl, even if the castles are more medieval than Disney. The sky is a clear, strong blue with not a cloud in sight. We wind up hills, only to twist back down the other side. I’m getting my sea-legs with all the corkscrew driving.

There are more views, more vistas, than you can count. Around every corner is something pretty or remarkable. Dusty little locandas and casas right on the side of the road, grand villas embraced by pot after pot of bright geraniums, wizened old men standing side by side, smoking and talking as you amble past in your Mireva.

We find our turn off for Muricciaglia, the estate where we have rented our house. A winding and steep stone road leads down to Ovile, our home for the next two weeks. We pull up outside the stone terrace I’ve been imagining as my own private retreat for months. It looks just as I’ve pictured it.

"My" terrace.

Our hosts, Mimma & Franco, are in their 70’s and have owned the estate for 13 years. They welcome us with great warmth, offer us Campari and soda and conversation, suggesting the market in Panzano for Sunday morning. The kids are met by Ado and Ida, visiting grandchildren about their age. Everyone is happy.

First impressions: the air smells of lavender.

Outside one of our doors.

The sound you hear is of bees buzzing and cicadas singing. The yard is filled with butterflies. The view is hilltop, of olive groves, forests, vineyards and the occasional stone house. It’s spectacular, from every window and patio. And the colors are my favorites: deep greens and bright blues.

Deep sigh of contentment.

The pool beckons, and who are we to say no? We don’t.


6 Responses to “Four for the Road: Off to Italy”

  1. 1 Amy W July 10, 2011 at 3:12 pm

    Thanks for the virtual vacation — I am loving these posts and daydreaming about referring back to them sometime when we attempt to do Europe!

  2. 3 Claudia Gabriela Amaya July 10, 2011 at 3:34 pm

    I am enjoying reading about your vacation!!! Looking forward to your next post.

  3. 5 PAT PARKINSON July 10, 2011 at 6:43 pm

    This is wonderful! Thanks for the detailed descriptions & insurance side note to Grandma. I am enjoying every post……… please keep them coming!

  4. 6 placestoplay July 30, 2011 at 9:52 am

    Looks great! Are you still travelling, would love to hear your experiences keeping the kids happy!

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