We went to Italy for Christmas last year. Ten days in Venice, Florence and Siena--and it was everything it should be: cold, beautiful and romantic.
But getting there, across the Hautes Alpes of France into Italy, was the real adventure.
It began on a Sunday just outside Avignon in the South of France. We had been living there for two months as part of a year's sabbatical and had promised ourselves a return trip to Italy after visiting Venice and Florence during the crowds of September.
Road rules in our family: My husband, Ritch, drives and I navigate, a job that includes choosing the route. This I had done, and, as we were warming the engine of our 10-year-old VW van ready to head off for vino, pasta and multo bene amore, I told Ritch the plan: We'd skirt south along the Riviera, cross into Italy, cut diagonally over to Venice, then down to Florence and Siena, returning home via the Italian and French rivieras.
'We'll Go This Way"
"Why retrace our route?" Ritch asked. He studied the map briefly. "Here, we'll go this way." He pointed to a more northern route. "It looks shorter, anyway."
So off we went, turning off Highway N-5 onto a country road that took us through the vineyards of Chateauneuf-du-Pape and Cotes du Rhone.
We hit the first snow and ice well before we saw the first mountains. Five miles later we were in it for real, fighting the road for firm footing. We had no chains.
We snail-paced our way up the mountain with mist billowing across the snow and temperatures that laughed at our heater. At the summit we enjoyed a moment of exultation. It was all downhill from there.
The guards at the French-Italian border glanced at us from their warm little station and waved us through. We'd been counting on buying some Italian lire at the bank that we assumed would be at the border. Wrong--no bank. But no problem, we figured. After all, we had credit cards.
The van had not been starting well and, true to form, it stalled. But Ritch popped the clutch, and we set off for Venice.
At a loud pop from under the floorboard, the clutch suddenly felt like mashed potatoes. Something was dreadfully wrong. The car would not go into gear.
We coasted to a stop and looked around. We were still high in the Alps. We hadn't seen a car for 100 miles and were at least 35 miles from civilization.
It Was Downhill
At least we were headed downhill. Ritch started the motor and gravity did the rest. At 40 m.p.h., the gear box engaged and all was well.
Or so we thought until we saw, coming up the road like a white-coated army, a herd of sheep. Ritch slammed on the brakes and the van stalled inches away from the lead sheep.
Like two great waves, the herd parted, their bells tinkling stereophonically as they surrounded the van and merged to continue on their way.
Breathing deeply, we let the van glide down the mountain.
And into a belt of fog so thick that only after it was a mile behind us did I realize that I had missed the turn-off to the town of Cuneo, spotted in bold type on our Michelin map, which surely meant that it was large enough for a mechanic. Or at least a hotel that took credit cards.
Ritch was not exactly gracious about this. "It's my job to drive, and I'm doing it," he said. "Your job is to find us a town. So wake up."
I did. It was just a few miles down the road. Borgo San Dalmazzo, it was called, and, at the first stop sign, the van died. Ritch cursed; I stayed silent. After five minutes the van started.
By that time we and the van were drained, pushed beyond all limits of equanimity.
Then, there it was, glowing like the Star of Bethlehem on that cold and miserable night: the blue-and-white symbol of a Volkswagen garage.
We pulled in, retrieved our luggage, locked the van, checked the garage's opening time and walked across the road to what looked like a seedy little bar.
No Italian, No Lire
Shivering with cold, no Italian in our vocabulary, no lire in our wallets--we told our story to the people inside. We tried to do it in French, English and German. They advised us, in Italian, to use our hands.
We did and suddenly everything was " no problema ." Sure we could eat there. Pay with francs or dollars. There are hotel rooms upstairs. No problema.
We were delighted to be safe, and the people of Borgo San Dalmazzo were delighted to have us there. The cafe owner's wife, mother and two children took us to the best room in the house. The bed sagged so deep that it looked like a taco and the bathroom was down the hall. But it might have been the Ritz, we were so grateful.
The first part of our trek had seemed like a nightmare in slow motion; now we were moving at 78 r.p.m. There was that first bottle of wine, ordered by us for medicinal purposes. There was the second bottle of wine, ordered to go with dinner. There was Enzo, the burly Sicilian truck driver who came in with his buddies--a cast of real characters--and sent a few bottles from their private stock to our table, then came over to help us drink.