Sarah had decided that her adrenaline gland needed a bit of a workout, so pointed us in the direction of Italy. Here we quickly learned a number of things about Italian roads and driving. Those little orange lights in the corners of cars are optional at best. Italians like decorating their roads with lines and signs and lights. Italians learned their roading design from the Romans. Straight is good. If there is a hill, go through it, if there is a valley build a bridge. In one day I have been through more tunnels & over more viaducts than I have ever been through or over before. The small tunnels are only half a kilometre long. But the thing we learned most is that on the Italian motorways you need to stay awake. Five cups of expresso awake.
The speed limit on these motorways is 130kmh. So everything is moving faster than this, often much faster, once providing a perfect example of the improvements Skoda have made to their cars over recent years. Skodas never used to get to 80mph, let alone pass Benzes that were cruising along at that speed. But not all of the traffic flies along the motorway at speeds variously greater than the speed limits, changing lanes without indicating, and sometimes just drifting around the lanes. For there are the trucks. They cruise along at a mere 90kmh or so, but occasionally pass each other, just to add that bit of excitement to the trip. They don’t indicate either.
With all of this overtaking going on, the Italians have developed a number of effective techniques to indicate that they may wish to pass you at some point in the future. Chief among these is simply sitting so close on your tail that they will be able to smell if you break wind.
But the worst thing about Italian motorways is the signposting. In a 2km stretch (ie one minutes travel time), there were two offramps, one onramp, and signs indicating which lane you needed to be in NOW! (the far one). Needless to say we missed that offramp the first time around. And of course rather than taking the “we will build offramps that people can take at motorway speeds, and slow down on the way out”, the Italians have taken the opposite approach. If you hit these offramps at 130 you are in Trouble. They start out as about 70kmh corners and get tighter. This is can be exciting.
It appears that the Italians now make up for the lack of gladiatorial shows by deciding not to install traffic lights at intersections. Or they just turn the ones they have off. But Italian traffic light techniques really do get amusing. The orange light means something, but I am not sure what. The red light means “stop unless you saw the previous green light”. If you do not move off the instant the light turns green, you are tooted. Streams of traffic in other directions or not.
Basically it appears that buying a car in Italy entitles you to a piece of the road as well. You do in fact own the road, so manoeuvres which may be considered slightly rude in other countries are perfectly acceptable, you do own this bit of road after all. This is of course the cause of some troubles to tourists, as they rely on borrowing parts of the road that Italians decide to lend them from time to time. Luckily for me, I was driving a Mercedes, which as we all know, comes with road ownership rights as standard. This allowed me, if not to fit in, at least make some progress.
After surviving some of Italys motorways, Sarah decided that her adrenaline gland was in fine form for a trip through the alps. She was wrong. These roads are great fun. Nice little hill on one side, a bit of a dropoff on the other, spectacular scenery, if a little blurry, the desire not to hold up any of those other cars around. The SL is not really designed for that sort of road, but stood up quite well. Though I don’t think that the passenger doorhandle used to be that loose.
While the SL is not really designed for shooting through the Alps, it is designed to grab attention. And in Italy it does. The number of second glances & outright stares is gets is amazing, even in its current bug splattered state (and it is very bug splattered – even the horizontal bit of the bonnet is covered in dead bugs). Then they see me & do a big double take. I figure they think I stole it.
We eventually headed into Milan for a bit of a taste of the fashion capital of the world. Or claims to be. Personally I think that there is one word missing from that phrase. Victim. This seasons fashions include sunglasses which look like they were designed by someone playing far too much playstation, distressed jeans (why pay extra for jeans which look dirty & torn?), and the silliest shoes that have been seen outside Imelda Marcos’s wardrobe. And yes that is just the guys. I know, I am not one to criticise peoples fashion sense, but these people…
But the worst thing about Italian cities is the motor scooters. Driving a car through a city where cars are outnumbered ten to one by the things, none of which obey any road rules, and seem to expect you to get out of their way is a one of lifes little experiences. I did shortly discover an effective means of dealing with them. Try to run them down & cut them up whenever you can. While it may not promote good Anglo-Italian relations, it does keep at least one side of the car free of the things trying to pass you. Which is useful if you intend to turn in that direction. Interestingly, the further south you went the more the riders relied upon hair gel for head protection. Mind you with the amount of gel some of these guys were wearing, in the result of sudden head/road impact, the road would probably come off worse.
Another thing which became apparent, is that the whole navigation/driver symbiosis works a whole pile better if the navigator keeps her eyes open. Map reading & direction giving is easier that way you see. To this day, I am not sure why Sarah decided that she would prefer to shut her eyes, but did at one point mention something about being on the side of the oncoming traffic.`
After a brief and uninspiring encounter with Milan (how can a fashion capital not have discovered architecture?), we headed south. Pulling into the campground in Florence, behind the oh-so original VW van full of kiwis & aussies, we set up base before exploring the centre of the Renaissance. Here Sarah found some art museum which kept her entertained for a while. There was also a pretty good science museum. Most of these artist types did useful things with themselves when they weren’t painting, and there was a pile of the stuff they did it with on display. And if anyone reading is interested in armour, the Stibert Museum is quite something. Less a museum than the contents of an eccentric gentleman’s attic. A damned big attic, with some really interesting stuff.
Continuing our zigzag route of Italy, we decided to pop into Ravenna to check out the mosaics. In the 5th century AD Rome was getting sacked, so the bosses decided to bugger off to Ravenna for a while till it all blew over. Of course you cannot hang out in a city without sufficient temple & churches, so they had to build a few.
For those of you who know, you will recognise that the 5th century was after the Romans had got the mosaic technique sorted, but before the paint roller was invented. Not content with putting pretty patterns on the floor (been done), they put them on the walls, and ceilings. Domed ceilings. These Italians seem to have a thing about putting stuff on ceilings. It is like the priests wanted people to go into their churches, raise their eyes skywards and think “how the hell did they get that there?, it must have been a miracle”. No doubt a few also thought “glad I stuck to tiling floors”. And by the way, the floor of the Sistine Chapel is quite nicely done, a little more quiet and understated than the ceiling.
For those of you in the know, Italy is home to two table top states – the Vatican & San Marino. So of course we had to visit them both. San Marino is a small mountaintop republic protected from sheer cliffs, impressive fortifications and an army of manic drivers. I think that in part of it’s history it prefers to forget, San Marino was a penal colony for Italians convicted of driving offences. To leave they must sell sufficient really tacky souvenirs to pay for a ticket back. Unfortunately none of these shops had anything about the history of the republic, and why it did not join with Italy when it was formed, so if anyone knows, can you let me know.
The Vatican of course, is in Rome, and no trip to Italy would be complete without a trip to Rome. Rome, capital of the empire which covered the known world. Rome, still with the parts which remained after the sackings handed out by barbarians, goths, popes, and various other people who didn’t forsee the value of the future tourist dollar. Rome, where you cannot turn without being run over by a moped. Rome, where not a building goes without a “Pope X was here” plaque. What remains of those buildings after they were stripped of their marble to build other buildings that is.
In a move which will surprise many, the Vatican moved with the times, and seems to have phased out the selling of indulgences, and replaced them with the selling of posters, books and some really tacky souvenirs. Then again the church never has been the arbiter of good taste, so the tacky souvenirs shouldn’t surprise. Unfortunately it appears that the Vatican doesn’t have the funding to provide decent explanations, or in a lot of cases, labels, for its varied collections, so if you are going to go, either buy a guidebook beforehand (or from one of the many conveniently placed stalls), or take someone who knows something about any of that stuff. Thanks Sarah.
Another little detail for anyone who is interested in heading to Rome to see how those ampitheatres managed to get so many people in and out and keep them entertained. Don’t. Go to Nimes, you can wander around all of the seating and passageways of the ampitheatre there. Then head to Pozzuoli (near Naples), where you can wander around all of the underground parts & figure out just how they got all of those animals up into the courtyard. Then head to Rome & have a look at what the ampitheatre must have been like before some Pope decided to turn it into a quarry.