Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Day 13 - Rome - Viterbo - Siena

What a difference a meal makes!

When we last spoke with you, we had just returned to the Hilton Rome Airport Hotel after enjoying the sights and sounds of Rome, but certainly not the tastes. The bad taste in our mouths (literally) from the previous day seems to have set the tone for the day, a day in which little seems to go right. But all of that will change.

We wake at the impossibly early hour of 5:15 so that Austin and Norma can check in two hours in advance of their “international” flight to London on Alitalia. From there they will catch a transatlantic flight to Washington on Virgin Airways, but it has been cheaper to book these flights as separate tickets. Buyer beware; cheaper is not always better. Although Rome to London is clearly an international route, requiring check in two hours in advance, Alitalia considers it a domestic flight in terms of baggage allowance. While Austin and Norma are permitted something like 50 kilos per person on the transatlantic flight, Alitalia permits only 20 kilos per person and the resulting overweight charge wipes out nearly all of the savings we had realized. Live and learn.

Despite complying with Alitalia’s 2 hour advance check in requirement on this international flight (for which international baggage limits do not apply), the first Alitalia customer service rep does not show up for work until a half hour later. Meanwhile, across the lobby, British Airways has been checking in its passengers on a Rome to London flight departing at the same time for over an hour. Passengers wait patiently in line while prim BA staffers, in 1950’s style hats, explain to them what will happen when they get to the front of the line, anticipating and solving problems so that the whole affair goes smoothly. The bedlam that is the Alitalia side of the concourse presents a stark contrast. Having to pay a couple of hundred dollars in overweight charges does not help the mood.

But in the end all goes well and Austin and Norma are checked in, clear security and are off to the States after saying their goodbyes and we head back to the hotel to sleep – at least until the sun rises.

A few hours later we head back to the rental car pavilion at Fiumicino to pick up our final rental car of the trip. The efficient check in process we have experienced with our two previous rental cars this trip from Europcar has now given way to the utter confusion of the Avis counter. In the U.S. they may try harder, but they hardly seem to be trying at all here. When Bill goes to the pickup area, the midsized sedan he has reserved is not available, so they offer an “upgrade” – to a gas guzzling behemoth station wagon unfit for Italian cities. Bill balks at their generous offer and we end up with a sporty Alfa GT, smaller than we had originally requested but with amazing speed. It is a bit cramped, but fine for the driving we are going to do, so we take it and head for the A12 autostrada, planning on meandering along the coast and making our way to the ancient city of Viterbo, a city in which a friend’s son had studied last year and who highly recommended visiting.

We ease onto the highway, adjusting mirrors and seats, trying to make ourselves comfortable in this Italian rocket, when we notice a periodic beeping from the dashboard. This being a European car, the warning lights and messages are not flashing in Italian, as we would have expected and which we could make some sense of, but rather in German, apparently having been reset by the previous occupant. As we rocket down the highway, behind schedule, sleep deprived and attempting to deal with the aggravation of the incessant beeping from the dashboard, we struggle to read the owner’s manual so that we can change the language that the warning messages appear in to English or Italian, a task slightly complicated by the fact that the owner’s manual is written in Italian. Suzy attempts to read the instructions to Bill, but her terrible pronunciation coupled with Bill’s limited language skills, plus the necessity of weaving in and out and around the slower cars (which is just about everyone else on the highway), make this an impossibility. Adding to the tension is our growing realization that our leisurely jaunt up the coast and our confidence that we will “find our way to Viterbo” is clearly overly optimistic. We will be lucky to get to Viterbo in time for lunch, if we are fortunate to find a road that goes there. Suzy, with the owner’s manual in one hand is attempting to unfold a map of Lazio (the region around Rome), so we can find the small road to Viterbo, but the map, which has been folded a couple of dozen times to fit into its perfect bookstore shape and size, when unfolded is actually bigger than the car, obscuring the windshield and getting in the way of the stick shift. The small portion that we need is, of course, printed right over one of the folds, requiring the entire map to be unfolded and refolded backwards. Suzy finally manages to isolate the relevant section of the map folded into in a manageable size, alarm buzzers buzzing and terrified motorists swerving off the road to avoid being run over, and we begin a series of large circles, driving first in the direction of Viterbo and then, almost magically, returning to the A12. Several aborted routes later we decide to drive north on the autostrada, past Civitavecchia and take the main road to Viterbo. Perhaps a restaurant will be open when we arrive. At the very least we can get out of this infernal car and away from the telltale warning beep.

We arrive in Viterbo just as the last restaurant is closing. It is 2:55 and it starts to rain. Viterbo will have to be enjoyed another day. We park the car (we count our blessings that we did not rent the station wagon), and eat half a tuna sandwich and a bag of chips at a little bar before abandoning our dreams of Viterbo and driving to Sienna.

Clearly this is a day in which we should have never got out of bed. We navigate the narrow streets of Viterbo, lined with medieval and renaissance stone buildings, following the signs to Siena and Florence, able to unfold just enough of the map to see that there are two routes to Siena, the more direct yellow road and the less direct red road. We opt for the yellow and signs indicate that it is about 120 kilometers away, somewhere around 70 miles to you and me. The road passes through a small town, bobbing and weaving over and around hills, curve after curve when our progress is impeded by a three wheeled vehicle driving around 30 mph. After a few minutes we decide to take our lives in our hands and pass it around a hairpin corners, finally putting the pedal to the metal (this car really flies!) when around the next bend . . . there is another lorry. So we begin a series of stops and starts, periods of great boredom of driving 20-30 mph behind every form of transport invented in the western world, punctuated by a rush of terror as we hurl around the obstruction praying that we don’t meet another car head on in the process. After a while we decide to abandon the direct route. We head east toward the autostrada, fully aware that the drive to the autostrada and from the autostrada to Siena will take an hour, but looking forward to the prospect of driving in a straight line with more than one lane of traffic.

We arrive at the autostrada just outside of Orvieto, descending upon the A1 from the mountains to the west of this amazing town, built on top of a huge rocky plateau. The sight of the city, as we descend from the mountains to the autostrada that snakes its way through the valley below, is the only positive experience we have taken away from this day. We need to hold onto that thought, because as we reach the exit for Siena, the bobbing and weaving begin again. Only this time the sun has set; it is dark and it begins to rain again.

It is hard to really understand what goes on in the minds of Italian traffic planners or road designers. They seem unable or unwilling to allow simple traffic patterns where complex will do. They seem afraid or disdainful of straight lines. Perhaps this is the same streak of artistic genius that resulted in the brilliant inventions of Leonardo and Brunelleschi. But it is hard to see the brilliance in some of the routing that goes on in Italian roadways. We have been able to unfold a portion of the map showing our route to Siena. Based upon our reading of the map we have made what appears to be the logical choice of taking the autostrada north to the exit that is even with Siena, passing an earlier exit that also gave indications for a road to Siena. We exit at Monte San Savino, follow the signs to Siena and are immediately routed back south again, parallel to the autostrada we have just exited, retracing our steps, but on a two lane road seemingly reserved for farm machinery. We curse the entire way back to the previous exit where we finally pick up a decent road for our triumphant entry into Siena.

Triumphant it is. A half hour later we are entering the city walls of this historic power, not exactly sure where our hotel is or how to get there. We do know that it is near the historic center of the town, so we follow signs for the Duomo and the Piazza del Campo, hoping to find signs to the Grand Hotel Continental (who exactly decreed the hotel “grand?”). We drive down pedestrian only streets, getting more than a few ugly stares, passing “authorized traffic only” signs until we finally drive into a piazza directly in front of Siena’s impressive Duomo. It is indeed a spectacular sight. Unfortunately the hotel staff (who we call from our parking spot in front of the Duomo) tells us that we cannot get to the hotel from the Duomo. We must exit the city walls, drive around to a different gate and enter there. We hang up, slump in our sporty little car seats and cry.

How we eventually arrive at the hotel is a mystery. Somehow, with warning systems beeping, pedestrians glaring and signs prohibiting we pull up in front of the Grand Hotel, tired and cranky and fed up. We are expecting disappointment as we enter the hotel lobby, realizing that that a 5 star hotel in Italy does not necessarily translate into service or luxury, but may simply mean that the elevator and the air conditioning always work. From the moment that we are greeted with a friendly “buona sera” it is apparent that this truly is a grand hotel and that Siena is just the antidote for a day we would rather forget. We check into our room, get a map of the city, begin a stroll through the streets of this elegant, sophisticated city and end up having the best meal of the trip. We’ve said enough for this installment, however. It’s time to say good night.

Buona notte.

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