Food Feature: Veni, vidi, vehicle

Driven to distraction on my Roman holiday

Driving in Italy requires three things: 1) An international driver's license. 2) A car. 3) Balls. Big brass ones.

We kicked off our trip in Roma with a couple of days of walking. Roma is packed end to end with things to see — the Trevi Fountain, the Piazza Novana, the Pantheon — but you don't need a car for any of it. Between the metro, the buses and the taxis, you'll save yourself potentially fatal aggravation. But we'll get back to that.

After a few days in Roma, we hopped a train to Firenze (Florence), another town where you can easily travel by foot. But we wanted to go farther, to the hillside. And the best way to do that is by car.

We picked up our rental car, a tiny Daewoo Matiz, in Firenze on the main route out of town. It was a three-cylinder thing that, after cruising the streets of Atlanta in my '71 Chrysler Newport, felt like a go-cart. After negotiating a few piazzas and roundabouts, we sped into the Tuscan hills through countless small towns of yellow stucco buildings and old stone bridges, up into the hills until we arrived at Dicomano, about an hour away. There are three bars, three restaurants, a drug store, and a couple of grocery stores in Dicomano, but not much else. We passed through and headed up the mountain to our rented villa overlooking the town.

The place was cute and reasonably priced, but the kicker was the view. Leonardo couldn't have painted a softer, prettier scene. A ridge of mountains to our left held the storm clouds at bay, a dark gray mist leaning over the edge. Rays of sun shone through the cracks, spotlighting the green valley and yellow town below. We did little but sit in the yard and gawk.

The next morning, we cruised around and found yet another stunning view up and around the mountain, followed by another and another until our little three-cylinder car could no longer take the rutted gravel road.

After a couple of days of small-town living, we headed into the Chianti region through hills and valleys lined with vineyards. There's a reason many of your Grand Prix and Formula 1 drivers are Italian — they get practice every day just driving to the grocery store. The roads are narrow and twisting; oncoming trucks take up more than their own lane. Any number of times I headed for the shoulder — on the edge of some precipice or raging river — to avoid an oncoming truck, praying there was enough room.

We finally arrived at Sienna, a medieval town with fewer tourists than other towns in the region, but plenty to see. The floors of the duomo, or cathedral, were uncovered for a two-week display for the first time in 30 years. Several biblical scenes, famous battles and other stories were depicted in marble inlay. We took the less scenic autostrade back to Dicomano. Not much to see, but it took a third of the time.

In the morning, we loaded up the car and headed down the highway back to Roma, sad to leave the lazy life in the country but anxious to get back to the city and see what we'd skipped.

We intended to park the car at some small town with a train station and take the train into Roma. But there are very few exits on the autostrade, and next thing we knew, we were on the outskirts of town. We stopped at a tourist information office and asked the lady where we should park our car for a few days. She convinced us it wasn't a safe idea and our hotel was a straight shot into Roma. Why not just brave it?

Driving in Roma rush-hour traffic is like being tossed into the Colosseum during one of its big blowouts — chaos, combat, the roar of the crowds, the blood — something that's incredible to watch but you're always glad it's not you down in the pit.

Traffic "laws" — stop signs, red lights, lanes, everything — are viewed as a mere suggestion. Pedestrians hardly look as they walk out from between parked cars. Vespa vermin swarm past you on both sides, even when traffic is stopped. No eating a cheeseburger while talking on the phone and arguing with the kids in the back seat in Italy. The road signs are tiny engraved marble plaques mounted in the sides of the buildings some 20 feet up where they're impossible to see. Even with three attentive navigators, we were lost within minutes of hitting the city. When we finally found the hotel, we got lost just trying to find a parking deck two blocks away.

But we got there — covered in nervous sweat. We left the car in the parking deck for a few days and got back to the method of transport the gods intended: our feet.


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