Summer begins, officially, during this long weekend in the United States. The Memorial Day holiday ushers in a feeling of long days, warm weather, vacation…
And road trips.
It’s a good time, for an audience of enthusiastic wine lovers, to start a series on driving in wine country. It’s more interesting and complex than it looks, especially from a multinational perspective: driving in Sonoma, for example, is a much different experience from driving in Burgundy, which is also very different from driving in the Douro Valley in Portugal or McLaren Vale in South Australia.
In recent weeks I have been fortunate enough to visit wine country again, seen driving a rental car on a solo trip abroad. The inspiration for this series came while driving in Tuscany, from Florence to Montalcino to Arezzo to Greve and back again, as I was confronted with a key characteristic of wine country that is surprisingly easy to overlook: wine is an agricultural product, which means farmland, rural landscapes, small country roads and few highways.
In Tuscany, it can also mean harrowing hairpin bends, ancient hill towns and cobbled lanes whose margin of error for a driver is as thin as a stiletto.
Fortunately, there is probably wine available at your destination.
Here are five insights into driving in wine country, the Tuscany edition.
First Thing’s First: Pleasure and Privilege
It is a pleasure and a privilege to discover different parts of the world in this way, and the world of wine in particular. Several times I rounded a bend or climbed a hill, and the view before me was indescribably beautiful, striking and painful. How deeply fortunate it is, and we are, to spend time in such places as part of our regular work and life. Full stop.
Logistics: Manual Transmission
All the cars I rented in Europe were manual transmission. Luckily, the car I drive at home (a Mini Cooper) also has a stick shift, so it’s a comfortable and familiar habit. This is useful in three ways. First, in Europe, cars with manual transmissions outnumber automatic cars. Second, cars with manual transmissions are more fuel efficient, which matters at the gas pump when filling the tank in Europe currently costs about twice as much as in the US.
Third and most importantly, cars with manual transmissions are more fun, experiential and, in my opinion, give the driver a more intimate machine-to-road experience. Nothing like the visceral vroom of a well-made machine applied to the narrow, steep, winding and difficult Italian roads.
Laugh, especially at yourself
There are comedic, almost skit-ready episodes of renting a car in a country whose language you don’t speak easily.
For example, asking the car rental agent for help in adjusting the dashboard interface from the previous driver’s language (German, in my case, at Florence airport) to English . Sounds simple, but it took three native Italian-speaking officers to figure it out.
Or returning the same rental car to an airport whose signage was so unclear and obscured that it took me four circuits to finally navigate to the rental lot. It was ridiculous, indeed, and a comedy of the absurd.
Not that I care.
Logistics, part two: the roads themselves
It should be remembered that the towns, and in particular the hilltop towns, in Tuscany are historic to the tune of hundreds if not centuries of habitation. Cars, much less highways, did not determine or direct their development. Men, and sometimes horses or cows or sheep, determined the organic development of cities and the passage (pedestrian) from one city to another. Today, that translates to narrow roads with, in some cases, a few inches between your own car and the gargantuan tour bus speeding down the hill towards you.
A second consequence of the organic development of Tuscan cities (and other European cities) is parking, which often means parallel parking. Because cities have grown at their own pace over time, the grid system familiar to Americans is almost non-existent. (In other words, Fourteenth Street doesn’t logically come after Thirteenth Street, in part because there’s no Thirteenth Street to begin with.) Turning a corner is a smooth process, not an angular one; in fact, there is barely a 90 degree angle on a road in sight.
Logistics, Part Three: Directions
Consider yourself warned: cellular reception in the Tuscan countryside isn’t great, especially when working with a US SIM card and data plan. Which makes navigating to a new destination interesting, whether you use GPS, Waze or Google Maps. A “simple” ride when mapped while stationary in a hotel room turns into a labyrinthine journey after one or two missed turns in a dead zone.
Not that I care.
Take-out? Allow plenty of time to get from point A to point B. It’s a lesson I suspect we’ll come back to many times in the upcoming “how to drive in wine country” series.