Friday, 8 July 2011

Driving on the Continent

In our family, I do the driving on the right, my husband drives on the left. Which means I get the continents (namely Europe and the US) and he gets the islands (namely the UK). You might think this sounds like an unfair division of labour, but trust me, I get the better end of the bargain. Driving in the UK is horrible, with too many cars on too few roads. Whereas in the US and Europe it is mostly just you and the endless open road.

I used to drive a lot in the US, particularly when I moved from Maryland to go to university in Arizona. There is nothing quite like driving across the US continent - the landscape changes are dramatic and the four or five days on the road lull you into a traveling stupor. But driving in Europe is pretty enjoyable as well. So far I've driven in France, Spain and Italy. The highways are mostly in better condition than US highways, and the traffic is usually pretty sparse. The views can't quite compare with the Southwest (I'm partial to deserts) but they are quite stunning.

Our latest driving trip was in Tuscany. We went along with my husband's parents to try to find some of the places his grandfather fought in during WWII. We knew we might be driving into some relatively inaccessible places, so in the interest of not getting hopelessly lost, for the first time ever we rented a sat nav.

Fredo the monster truck sat nav

As with many technologies you manage to survive without until you try them, I never want to go without one again. The best part is how they cut down on shouting. I come from a pretty shouty family, where my husband fits in well. But his parents are more peaceful types and probably wouldn't have appreciated our normal operating procedure, which is to voiciferously criticise each other's methods of driving, map reading, directing, parking and turning around. And when we are not criticising each other we turn out attention to shoddy map design and the country's inadequate and/or misleading signposting. With the sat nav there was still a small amout of shouting, but it was mostly directed at the sat nav (nicknamed Fredo) when it (infrequently) led us astray up one way roads or (frequently) confused twists in the road with turns.

And there were many twists in the road. I usually averaged about 40 kph, even though the speed limits said I could go 70 or even 90. Fortunately we didn't meet many other cars.

twisty roads in Tuscany

Tuscany is hilly country, and we went pretty high up into those hills - to 1000 meters at one point, which is  pushing mountain height for the UK. And consequently we saw some spectacular views.

Farming on steep hillsides

View from the highest point

Due to inadequate planning (poor maps and no compas) we were unable to locate the place where we thought grandfather was wounded (rather luckily on his trigger finger, ending his participation in combat duty). Upon our return home we did more thorough internet search and discovered we had probably gotten within 250 meters of the hamlet, so another visit may be warrented. 

We were able to visit the Castello di Vincigliata near Florence, which grandfather's company tried to take (unsuccessfully due to its defensive position). It offered more spectacular views and a vision of luxury - if anyone is interested, they rent the place out for weddings and functions, and offer wine tastings of their very own wine produced on the estate.

Castello di Vincigliata

Castle courtyard
Castle garden with view

All in all an enjoyable introduction to Italian driving. Next step, Sicily!