Road trip Italia

Road trip Italia

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Article: Graham Little

It wasn´t the most auspicious of starts to a road trip – I couldnt find the seat belt in my car. The guy handing over the keys, Gert, smiled benignly at the poor, mollycoddled child of the British Nanny State sitting in the car below him.

“She hasn´t got one,” he replied. “There are no securities in this car. Don´t worry, she is great, just give her plenty of gas.”

“She” was an Alfa Romeo Giulia Spider Veloce hired from classic car travel company, Nostalgic Vintage Car Travel, or just plain Giulia, to her friends. For a day motoring along Italys world famous Amalfi Coast, I was her Romeo, though at first we werent so much star-crossed lovers as culturally challenged strangers.

For starters, Giulias steering wheel is on the wrong side. Then, as I pulled out onto the road for the first time, I discovered that Giulias brakes didn`t work. Or rather, they do work but not in the same way as any car Ive driven in the past 16 years. Her middle pedal has to be jumped on and squeezed hard until it almost touches the floor. Even then, Giulia only slows down gracefully.

Coping with this requires a soothsayers anticipation of danger, which would be fine anywhere except Italy. Italian driving is governed by nerve, cheek and lightning reflexes. Drivers must behave like they are part of a pack. Travel fast and close to the other wildebeest and you´ll be okay, but a moments hesitation at a junction, a slight sign of weakness or betrayal of your inexperience and youre history. It needs an excellent working relationship between man and vehicle, which takes time to develop, and the middle of hectic Pompeii was not the place for us to get to know each other.

I pulled off the main road to get my bearings and a breather. Two young men sitting in the shade of a tree started clicking suggestively and pointing at Giulia. “Bellissimo,” they exclaimed at us, followed by a flurry of Italian that was clearly a gratuitous declaration of passion for my little red Spider. I smiled proudly as we headed back into the maelstrom. At the next set of lights an old man outside a café began shouting and blowing kisses. I had to get Giulia out of the city before someone pinched her bottom.

Halfway along the main road between Pompeii and Salerno a mountain pass takes you high up into the hills and down again to Ravello, an ancient town on a spectacular site overlooking the Amalfi Coast. Giulia purred enthusiastically as I let her have as much gas as I dared on the narrow, winding road. I soon got the hang of driving on the wrong side, wrestling a steering wheel without power assistance and braking without electronic input. And you know what? It is proper driving. It is driving without distraction. No radio, no flashing lights, no nonsense. Just a beautiful, sleek vehicle of natural beauty and curves and no make-up.

We meandered down to Ravello in style. Like every other settlement overlooking the Amalfi Coast, it balances precariously on the side of a mountain. Cars aren´t allowed into the serene old town, not even beautiful red Giulia Spiders; they have to be parked before the tunnel that cuts through the rock and into the old piazza.

It´s a great place to stop in any case; theres a little restaurant and café before the tunnel that surely has one of the most spectacular settings in Italy, with a large terrace overlooking the yachts moored in the bay in front of Maiori town. They serve paninis named after towns on the coast, and excellent coffee.

I felt completely sophisticated and continental by this stage. At lunch, sitting in the sun gazing out at blue seas and bluer skies, I caught myself dabbing the corners of my mouth with a handkerchief. I have never done that before in my life, as I usually employ the back of the sleeve for such maintenance. I swaggered lazily (an oxymoron of a movement except when performed by Italians) back to Giulia, and we set off down the hill to Amalfi.

Minutes later, with sunglasses on, black hair fluttering in the breeze, stomach full of panini and gelato and driving a classic convertible Alfa Romeo along the most famous road in the country, I was the most Italian person this side of Berlusconi. Of course, it couldn´t last. I took off my shirt, thus regrettably exposing myself immediately as an Irish tourist in a hire car. But hey, it was 30 degrees!

The Amalfi Coast road has more twists than Rapunzels plaits. And with Giulias lack of power steering or brakes it was taking my full concentration and strength to keep us on that road. Although driving the Amalfi Coast regularly features on lists of the best things to do before you die, I discovered that you can either look at the scenery, or you can drive. You can´t do both. Well, you can, but only if you want driving the Amalfi coast to be the final thing you do before you die, rather than one of the things you do before you die.

It is a monumentally stupid place for a road or a construction of any kind. The men who first settled a 5Okm stretch of sheer rock sliding into the sea set new standards of belligerence. The road is quite literally carved out of the jagged mountainside, and snakes along halfway up betwixt sea and sky. There are few places to stop, more bends than a David Beckham free-kick session, and to be quite honest it´s not the most relaxing of journeys. Giulia didn´t like it, and at one stage farted in protest as I gave her too much gas with the clutch still engaged.

Positano is a special place, and one of the highlights of the Amalfi Coast. Like all of the towns along the famous stretch of coastline it´s well below the road and almost completely devoid of parking spaces, so my advice is to drive the road and tick that box, and then return by boat to visit the town properly. Above the beach, sloping, narrow streets are festooned with the colour of flowers and art, and scented by cooking. Visitors walk round like Scooby Doo, hypnotised by the smell of food wafting through the air.

A re-visit by boat also provides a true appreciation first of the pure insanity of even building on the Amalfi Coast, and then of the incredible power of fashion, which turned this inhospitable rock face into a legendary place to see and be seen.

And if you´re interested in being seen, there is only one way to travel. The Giulia Spider will invariably be the smallest car on the road, but if youre driving one in Italy, everyone will notice, trust me. It´s like turning up at a pool party with Sophia Loren on your arm. Except Giulia has aged better.