I was tired. It was evening and the light was fading among the orchard painted valleys of north central Tuscany. I’d never driven before on Italy’s harrowing road system, and after seven hours from Mestre/Venezia, through Ravenna. Bologna and Firenze I was spent and, for lack of a better description, shell-shocked.
Even the Autostrada, the magnificently smooth and well maintained expressways-like US Interstate highways-is daunting for the uninitiated. Despite posted speed limits of 100 kilometers per hour, roughly 70 mph in the US, the actual traffic speeds routinely surpass 120-130, with some drivers burning past and around slower drivers at 140-150. That the streets and highways of Italy are not simply littered with bodies and debris I can only attest to either the amazing skill of Italian drivers or sublime national luck. Tailgating is as much a part of the national culture as Chianti and olives. Changing lanes can be a religious experience, as those faster drivers, charging along winding roads through long dark mountain tunnels, appear so suddenly that you’d better be on your best driving game; well aware, ready to punch that accelerator and having a hole in the near solid wall of trucks in the slow lane to dive into. It is no easier on the smaller narrow winding mountain roads of Tuscany, where drivers seem little concerned for ancillary driving concerns like gravity, simple physics and what may be coming around the next blind turn.
Now Ipride myself on a better than average sense of direction. It served me well through a war, and uncounted world travels, but by the time we reached the town of Montelupo Fiorino, just outside Florence, those skills were wearing a bit thin. I was beat. I needed a beer and, at least for the day, I was done with Italian traffic.
Our hotel was in the tiny town of Capraia(pronounced Cha-pr-Ia), just across the Arno River from Montelupo. Easy enough, it would seem, but the Italians love their roundabouts and eschew stop signs, except in the rarest of instances. Narrow hilly winding streets and weariness quickly had me turned around, and literally driving circles around Montelupo to the point of near frustration. In the days to follow my Italian would become a bit better-not much, but a bit. That night, as tired as I was, even my native English was proving a challenge. Beside me, the wife was also growing increasingly frustrated, with the situation and with me. It was time to set my male-can do it all alone-ego aside and ask someone for directions.
Below the Montelupo castle, from which townsfolk fought a war in the middle ages against a hilltop castle in Capraia, I asked two old ladies for directions in my primitive Italian, sprinkling as many “Scuza, Senoras,” and “Grazies” as possible. Though they spoke no English, the ladies spoke slowly enough, pointing in general directions and speaking slowly that I picked out a hand full of familiar words, like “ponte,” which I knew to mean bridge. Thanking them almost to an absurd extent-the only thing I didn’t do was bow and kiss their hands- I climbed back into the car and headed off in the approximate direction they’d pointed.
Still, we ended up turned around and unable to find the “ponte” across the Arno. The Capraia castle seemed no closer in the quickly fading light. The tension in the car was building exponentially, and i felt a fight brewing if I failed to locate the hotel anytime soon.
It was then I spotted another old woman, hobbling in a dress and black orthopedic shoes towards the gate of her typically Tuscan home. She was facing away, a pink sweater pulled across her shoulders as the temperature sank with the setting sun. Her pewter hair was drawn in a tight bun at the back of her head.
I pulled to a stop and leapt out, calling to her almost before the car door was closed.
“Perfavore, Senora,” I said, “can you tell me how to get to Capraia?” I politely begged, in a curious mix of English and Italian.
As the old lady turned, my heart sank at the dark glasses she wore.
“I would love to help, dear,” she replied sympathetically in Italian, “but I am blind.”
Tomorrow: Capraia and Hotel L’ Fiorino