Tuesday, July 12, 2005

My Dream Vacation, Part 4: Driving in the Bermuda Triangle

I had some nightmares about driving in a foreign country, particularly Italy. After all, during my first visit, our tour bus driver told us (as translated), "Red lights are merely a suggestion for driving in Italy."

So, it was with great trepidation (which I didn't hide very well from my traveling companion) that I approached the rental car counter as we left Firenze. Our scheme was to rent the car on our way OUT of Florence so that we didn't have to bother with driving around the big city. Florence is a walking city anyway, and that would've seemed a waste. However, the problem with renting a car IN the big city is that you have to drive the car OUT of the big city.

So, with all of that in the back of my rather negative attitude, we were waiting for the taxi outside the Hotel Adler Cavelieri at 10 o'clock that morning after 5 days in glorious Firenze, I twiddled with the rental car voucher....and just happened to notice that the dates we were to rent the car were all wrong. The travel agent had booked us to rent the car on the day we arrived in Florence, which was, of course, incorrect. We were screwed before we even started.

We both agreed that the best way to approach the rental car agency, Europcar -- a name which would subsequently produce terror -- was to allow them to tell us we screwed up. And they did. "You do not have a car, madame," said the very polite man at the reservations desk. After much fiddling and conversation between Val and the reservationist, he produced a car some 45 minutes later. As we were about to climb into the car, we noticed it was a stick shift. We politely informed him that we booked an automatic, and that we cannot drive a stick shift. He looked perplexed. This appeared to be a very grave problem.

It seemed that the only thing that could be done was to contact the U.S. Europcar agent, and begin the rental process all over. So, he dialed the phone, explained the problem in English to the person on the line, and handed the handset to Val. She did her best to explain the problem. The U.S. office promised to fax a voucher to Europcar in Florence immediately.

It turns out that "immediately" in the U.S. has the same meaning as "immediately" in Italy, at least in this case. Five hours later, we were still in the little cramped, non-airconditioned office. Val had the extremely bright idea to stay put in the office in the single chair provided patrons, so that when the staff went to lunch they would look at us and feel guilty. While I don't know if that scheme worked, something happened very soon after they returned from a rather lengthy lunch. Even though they had called three times for us, the voucher still had not arrived. However, one woman who took over for our reservationist suddenly said, "Madame, I have a car for you," even without the required voucher. She explained that it was a larger, more expensive car, but it was an automatic and air-conditioned. We mentally leaped for joy, and thanked the entire staff for their kindness.

The Mercedes was a 220, a shiny black testament to fine workmanship. Val sat in the driver's seat, and I surrounded myself with all kinds of city maps in the passenger's seat, and, with directions on how to get out of Dodge firmly in hand, we set off...

And immediately found ourselves in a speedy, rolling quagmire. We were in the steets of Florence, going this way, going that, and the map seemed to make no sense at all. After we crossed the Arno, I said, "I don't think we should be crossing the Arno," but Val took a right turn at the next bridge and all was well. When we passed the last Firenze sign (with a line through it), we breathed a sigh of relief. We blissfully had no idea that things would go downhill from there.

We selected the smaller roads rather than the auto strade because we wanted to enjoy the countryside during our journey. However, the SS road took us up into the mountains along a narrow, winding path, an effort that made me car sick the entire trip and that proved to be an intense effort for the driver. We did see some marvelous terrain when we reached the top, stopping at a local bar. The locals sat in the bar, watching us as we walked in looking for toilets and maps. We figured out quickly that tourists don't normally come through these little towns, even in the middle of the summer.

It took us 4 hours to reach Forli, the last big city before we would drive into Ravenna, and we knew the mappy.com directions wouldn't be good enough. So we pulled into a little gas station and looked for a better map. Val looked in her little Italian phrase book the word for "map", and tried using her limited vocabulary on the gas station attendant. He spoke no English, but tried to be as helpful as possible while gently correcting her Italian. We found the city map of Ravenna and headed off, knowing that in one hour we would be in that magical city.

As the navigator, it's my duty to assure the driver that (1) we're not lost, (2) I know exactly where we are, and (3) we'd be in town, safely ensconced in our hotel before dinner. Numbers 1 through 3 flew out the window quickly. As soon as we hit the borders of Ravenna, I was quite aware that we were very lost. I couldn't find a single street on the map, as I tried to make out hidden street signs that flew past the window. We finally gave up in frustration and headed for the city centre.

The city centre isn't large in Ravenna, but it's laid out in a fashion that defies logic. There is no grid, just winding streets that may have three names within one block. We could not find the hotel, Albergo Cappello on Quattro (IV) Novembre Street. After an hour of driving around, knowing we were late to begin with and fearing we could not check in if we were any later, we decided to just park the car in the John Kennedy Piazza (at least we'd remember the name), and hoof it from there.

Once we got out of the car, finding steet names was slightly easier, and with Val's map skills we found the hotel, which, as it turned out, was only about two blocks away.

The Albergo Cappello is located off a piazza where there is no parking. Guests are told to "park anywhere, there is ample parking close by," but fail to tell you that all streetside parking has a limit. However, the next morning as we re-parked, we followed some "P" signs and happened upon a garage. The large, gruff Italian man in charge seemed to understand what we wanted, and with Val's limited Italian, we understood that we booked lodging for our car.

Off to the side while they were talking I noted a cocker spaniel. He was asleep when we parked, but came awake and sauntered over to sniff the tires of the car, not us. Then he leisurely went back to his place in the stoop of the apartment a few feet away, and drifted back to sleep.

The Albergo Cappello is a delightful hotel in a terrific location (if you don't have a car) in the middle of town. There are plenty of restaurants and bars around, and the local sights are just a few blocks away. We had to locate the hotel clerk, as reception was empty, but we found her quickly enough in the bar down below. She was very friendly as she took us to the elevator to show us our room. However, once we got off the elevator, we immediately discovered another flight of marble stairs had to be climbed to reach the room. I was beginning to realize that almost all hotels in Italy involve stairs.

Our room was larger than the usual European hotel room (or a Motel 6, for that matter), with wonderful windows that let in the light. The air conditioning was termpermental, but we finally figured it out enough to coax a little cold air. The bathroom, while not as grand as the Adler's, was quite nice, and featured a large tub with adjustable shower nozzle.

The hotel has only 7 rooms, 7 rooms in an older building but with modern conveniences. The hotel is attached to the old medieval tower, which we could see from our window. The hotel featured a large reception room which offered a breakfast nook and many magazines and brochures about Ravenna.

But we were here to see Ravenna, specifically the old cathedral, the mausoleum and the baptistery. Val was quite focused, once we reached town, as she wrote her Master's Thesis at the University of Chicago on the medieval baptistery. She could see it in her mind but she'd never been there. As she was to discover in an emotional wakening upon walking into first the cathedral and then the baptistery, seeing photos in a book is not the same as being there.

And so it was an exciting moment to watch as we climbed the stairs that lowered us into the San Vitale cathedral. I was immediately struck by the fact that very few tourists were there. (Actually, there weren't any tourists at all in town. No, that's wrong -- it's just that most of the "tourists" were Italian. Very few Americans, it would seem, traveled to Ravenna.) The cathedral looked enormous and stark even though it was one of the smaller ones I had seen this trip, but the visitor is immediately drawn to the delicately formed mosaics which have made this region famous. The last supper in the dome was an amazing sight; it's hard to realize that workers spent their whole lives putting these mosaics together.

The mausoleum was located in the courtyard just outside the cathedral. This building is amazing, and its mosaics are just as powerful. Only a few are buried here, which means it's a building not used much, a fact which has helped preserve its art. When I entered, I noticed how dark inside it was and slightly claustrophobic -- I did not have to bend to enter, but I noticed how small the doorway was, a testament, I supposed, to smaller men in the 13th century.

After we exited the site of these two buildings, we found ourselves back down winding streets and came face-to-face with the baptistery. Or at least Val did, as she recognized the nondescript, octagonal stone building immediately. "This is it," she said softly, and we entered the lone doorway quietly.

The magnificence of the Neonian baptistery isn't immediately evident until you look at the details. Remember the adult men entering the baptistery once a year? The same rules apply here, and as they sink into the baptismal waters, they stare above to the ceiling and see a naked mosaic Christ being baptised in the River Jordan. When they rise again slowly to answer the bishop's questions, they would see his head surrounded by a large ring, almost a halo, painted onto the wall in back of the font. Gold and blues glitter as the light hits the mosaic stones. It is truly unbelievable to behold and find yourself wondering how the ritual went so many years ago.

We left Ravenna after two nights, after having seen those three magnificent examples of architecture and religiious belief in the Dark Ages. (The cathedral had been brought "up to date" in the Renaissance, with ungainly but modern paintings having been added in the blank spaces of the ceiling.) We agreed that we would take the auto strada to get out of town. Surely getting out of town wouldn't be as bad and lengthy as getting in?

It almost was, as we found ourselves having to turn contrary to the map. But we got back on the right road, and drove up to the ticket booth to begin the auto strade.

Except that I couldn't figure out what to do at the ticket booth. I couldn't pay money, it wouldn't allow for it. Finally the light went on and Val said, "Oh, we just take the ticket!" We then figured out that when we exit the auto strade, we punch the ticket, and the machine will tell us how much to pay according to how far we've traveled. Ingenious.

We hit the auto strade with renewed enthusiasm for our trip, having just witnessed what few have ever seen in Ravenna, and with a firm belief that "we can do this!" And driving on the auto strade in a straight line seemed a lot easier than finding your way in a little town. We decided that I would drive, for the most part, while Val navigated. The division of labor would save us, we were certain.

The auto strade usually has three lanes of varying speeds:

The right lane: Go the speed limit.
The middle lane: Go slightly above the speed limit.
The left lane: What speed limit?

I discovered almost immediately that if I stuck a toe into the faster lane, I would find a car driving up my butt, coming out of nowhere at tremendous speeds. So I learned to first, decide if I really do want to get into that other lane, and then, secondly, pull the wheel sharply and go like hell until I could get over into the right lane again. When that other car narrowly misses you because you're too slow, and you see the Renault's bumper just inches away from your own, you try not to take it personally. They don't. It's just driving.

So we escaped the Bermuda Triangle of Ravenna only to find ourselves in another of Dante's rings of Purgatory, the speedy auto strade.

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