Around Northern Italy in a Fiat Panda

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The Contessa and the Commendatore Visit the Home Country

Tuesday Oct. 9: Milano ⇒ Gattinara ⇒ Alessandria

food & lodging

Food & lodging notes

After breakfast in Milano, we walked to the Stazione Centrale to pick up the rental car. Our first encounter with Italians behind a counter. The bewilderment of the first-time visitor to Italy in this circumstance was captured admirably in Harrison’s Italian Days:

You learn that there is a gratuitous step in the purchase of almost anything… You tell the man behind the cheese counter, who gives you not the provolone but a slip of paper on which hieroglyphics are scrawled. You present this to the cashier, along with your payment. You then take the cashier’s receipt to the cheese counter, where you recover your cheese. This is true except when it is not true…

Our dealings with the Hertz girl eventually resulted in the appearance of a diminutive white object called a Fiat Panda “Young 2” (see footnote 2), our constant companion for the next two weeks. A Fiat Panda is a laughably tiny car: 750-cc engine, boxy as a military truck, and graceful as a trunk falling downstairs. Standard 4-speed transmission. For this we paid more than twice what it would cost to rent a full-sized car anywhere in America. Gasoline, of course, is the most expensive in the Western world, $5.75 per gallon during our travels. The rental-car business seems to operate on a “hot car” basis: I’m convinced that our car had been turned in by its previous tenant minutes before we arrived. There was no 44-point checklist testifying to its minute inspection.

Driving in the city is not all that different than in the USA; it’s just more personal. All the cars are smaller and there are millions of mopeds / motorcycles. One is not so isolated in a car (certainly not in a Panda!). One makes eye contact a lot and proceeds on the tacit agreements thus forged. Well, at least we didn’t hit anybody.

We got ourselves out of Milano and onto an autostrada directly and on the first try, navigating by map. As in Paris, streets change their names every block. We then proceeded to misjudge the exit for a service area and take an exit that had no corresponding autostrada entrance (this is fairly common). In the end we circled all the way back to Milano through suburban towns and re-entered the autostrada at the same point as before.

Our first destination was Gattinara, the Piedmont town from which comes the wine of the same name. Although its reputation for quality is spotty, Gattinara at its best is one of the great Italian reds. We’ve loved it for years. We located the town, which is some way off the autostrada, after what seemed like a very long period of driving with intense concentration. It wasn’t really all that long. We had not fully realized the toll jet-lag was taking as we worked to internalize the conventions of the Italian roads.

Gattinara was closed. It was about 1:00 in the afternoon. As many times as we had read about the mid-day Italian shutdown, I suppose we never quite believed in it. We learned that normal working hours extend to 7:00 for many establishments, so they’re open for people to browse during the daily passeggiata (see footnote 3), the evening walk.

A Dining now at the Red Oxen in Alessandria. To Gattinara after picking up car. Lovely old town. To Alessandria through farm country. They were burning stubble. Landscape flat and golden. Red-tiled roofs, 2-story barns of brick and stone. Munched bread and drank S. Pelegrino (we breakfasted at the City Hotel and had a coffee in Gattinara).
K Everything closes between ~11:30 and 3:30. When do they get anything done? We speculated, cynically, that the term “to get something done” probably has no exact translation in Italian. It’s great for window-shoppers, though, and we proceeded to window-shop Gattinara.
A Roads — autostrada — are good but could be better marked. Once you are on a road, no signs confirm what road it is. This is troublesome because one can switch roads and get very confused. Stopped at a service area (servizio) and bought a detailed map of Piedmont.
K Available maps all seem to have been published in 1978 or 1980 at the best; road-building proceeds; confusion reigns. Much of the autostrada network is new.

It took time to learn how to read Italian road signs. After a few days we began noticing that the state roads (marked SS, or strada statale) do indeed occasionally have signs saying what SS you are on; we just had to learn what they looked like. SS roads are always marked by yellow rectangles; signs directing you to them are in yellow. Likewise, autostrada or A roads are always green. These conventions and other similar ones are carried through with truly impressive consistency. But we never did find any marking on the autostrada to tell you what you were on, once you were on it.

K Notes on autostrada driving. I did not realize they are as lawless as the Autobahn: no speed limit. 70-100 km/hr. (44-63 mph) is consigliata, recommended. Driving tactics are wholly different. Because of the great speed differentials, the traffic picture around you changes with startling rapidity. The one crucial performance parameter for autostrada driving is torque: the ability to accelerate at speed. Needless to say the Panda is gutless in this department, zero to sixty sometime this month. With arrow-straight and level roads, as I attempt to pass a truck at ~120 km/hr. (75 mph), a Porsche that wasn’t there when I started to the left is suddenly on my bumper flashing brights. That’s the theme; the variations go on for days.

What’s good about the marking of Italian roads is that there are almost always lots of signs directing you to interesting destinations. The autostrada in particular are easy to find and get to for this reason: look for and follow green signs. In cities there are frequent (to the point of confusion and overload) signs pointing the direction of other cities and/or this city’s center (centro, everywhere denoted by the same graphic symbol).

In small towns and on SS roads there are signs at each intersection pointing the way to (or the way to the way to…) nearby towns. The bad news is that there may be exactly one sign. If I want to get from Gattinara to Ghemme, I had better not miss the one Ghemme sign on the road I’m travelling.

We did see the sign for Ghemme, and therefore succeeded in reäcquiring the autostrada A26. We had made the mistake of not asking our hotel which exit to take. We passed by the Alessandria Sud exit and took Alessandria Ovest (why I cannot say). Sud would have been correct. While we could have made our way there easily enough on surface roads, as we figured out later, the tollbooth operator instructed us to turn about and reënter the autostrada. Trouble was, the exit served two different autostrada, and the one we got on was not the one we had left. The horse out of the barn, we exited at a service area and bought a map. Alice placed a call to the hotel to tell them we would be late. You have to picture it: sun going down, lost, massive trucks whizzing by the flimsy outdoor phone booth that we didn’t know how to operate. When we finally got through Alice’s Italian was fugitive. She blurted, “Nos siamo Dawson. Siamo perduto!” or roughly, “We are Dawson, and we’re morally bereft and damned!” I hope the concierge was amused.

A Stayed the night at Residence San Michele, a business hotel and meeting center. Very comfortable — we may be the only pleasure travellers here.
K Comfortable, yes, and expensive (ouch). This is the one occasion on which the Michelin Red Guide led us somewhat astray. We speculate that the current hotel may have been built new (it looks it) on the same site as the Residence San Michele that was described in Red.