We were barreling down the Autobahn in southern Austria at 170 km/hr (106 mph). I was pushing the little Mini as fast as it would go in order to not be devoured by the bigger Audis and the BMWs. We had left Bolzano, Italy (in search of Oetzi the Iceman) that morning and were heading back to Munich. After surviving the Swiss mountain pass (see Trouble in Switzerland), we had enjoyed several wonderful days in Nice (View of Vieux Ville in Nice), and endured painful road construction on the Italian Autostrada near Milan and Genoa. We were now in the Austrian Alps south of Innsbruck and the views were fabulous.
“I have to go to the bathroom,” said my daughter, who was crammed into the miniature back seat of the Mini.
“So do I,” said my wife.
“OK, I’ll take the next exit to make a bathroom stop,” I replied.
At the next exit I got off the Autobahn to find a rest stop, gas station, or restaurant where we might find the proper facilities. Instead I found more road construction.
I followed the detour signs and wound the Mini through multiple hairpin turns down a narrow road until we arrived at what looked like a truck stop. At least it used to be a truck stop. Currently all of the buildings were closed and the parking lot was empty except for a couple of trucks.
“You two are going to have to hold it. Everything looks closed. Maybe it’s because of the road construction. Let’s get out of here.”
I drove around the area looking for a way out and back to the Autobahn. We couldn’t go out the way we came in because it was a one way temporary road. After several minutes of searching I determined the only way out of the area was through a gate. I pulled up to the gate and checked the control box. Everything was in German. It looked like I needed to insert a special card into the machine in order for the gate to go up and let us out. This I did not have. I am not a trucker on the Milan to Munich route.
I backed out of the gate lane about 50 meters and turned the car off. We had three choices. Drive the wrong way up the narrow one way road with the hairpin turns and gamble that we wouldn’t run into a semi, wait for one of the sleeping truckers to wake up and need his espresso, or ram the gate with the Mini.
Door #1 sounded too risky to me. I had no confidence in the Mini’s ability to withstand a head-on collision with a semi. Option C also seemed like a bad idea, especially since it was a rental car and I would have to pay for the damages. It would have to be Plan B. We would have to wait it out.
Luckily, it wasn’t long before one of the trucks lumbered toward the gate. As the truck reached the gate, I snuck in behind it. As the barrier went up, I followed the truck through the gate to freedom.
The road took a convoluted route up, down, and around but eventually sent us back onto the Autobahn. I waited to get off the Autobahn until I found an official rest stop. The ladies did their business and on we went to Munich.
Several months later I saw a charge from Sixt, the German car rental company, on my credit card statement. It was a mystery to me, since it had been a long time since I rented the Mini. After some communications with Sixt, I learned that the Austrian and Italian roadway bureaucracies had collectively determined that I had defrauded them of a toll fee. According to the Italians, I had gotten on the Italian Autostrada through a toll booth and never exited. I had vanished from the Autostrada without paying the toll.
The Italians told the Austrians, who in true Teutonic efficiency then tracked the Mini to Sixt. I was billed for the missing toll fee, an extra fee for losing the toll slip, a fine for driving on the road without paying the toll, and administrative fees for the various agencies to handle all of this business. It totaled $184.
I didn’t even think about disputing these charges. I would lose any effort to battle the European bureaucracy (for example, see the Swiss Train Chief). It was an expensive bathroom stop, and the bladders stayed full throughout.
“The flight is canceled.” I said. “It’s so typical of the French to go on strike and screw things up for everybody.”
We were supposed to fly to Nice in the south of France to meet up with our former foreign exchange student named Natacha (yes, I know that sounds Russian and not French; she even has a brother named Boris!). The French air traffic controllers had called a three day strike, and Air France had already changed our flight to avoid it. We headed to the airport hoping for the best. The flight was scheduled to leave at 3 pm. It was now 4:30 pm.
“We have two choices.” I said to my wife and daughter. “We can wait until 9pm for the next flight, but that is likely to get canceled too. Or we can go home and come back tomorrow and hope that the Frenchies have found something better to do than continue the strike, like drink wine and eat cheese.” Neither of these sounded good, since we were supposed to meet Natacha at 7pm.
As we were waiting to get our checked bags back from luggage purgatory, I had another idea.
“What about a road trip?” I said. “We can rent a car and drive there. We should be able to get there by midnight.” Munich to Nice by car is 800 kilometers (~500 miles) – about eight hours of driving. “We can call Natacha and tell her we’ll be late.”
“Road trip!” they chanted in reply.
I hiked over to the Sixt counter while the ladies waited for the bags. Since it was peak tourist season and I didn’t have a reservation, there were very few cars available, and all were at outrageous walk-up prices. I ended up getting a brand new Mini Cooper. Cool! I’ve never driven a Mini before. This will be fun!
I also had to rent a GPS unit. I have one of my own, by I had purposefully left it at home since I thought I was going to be flying on a plane, riding in a taxi, and taking the bus on this trip. I had no desire to drive in central Nice.
Suitably outfitted with Mini and GPS, I picked up the girls at the curb outside of the departure door, and quickly discovered my first mistake. The car.
The Mini might be considered a fine automobile if you are by yourself, are taking it across the city to pick up a book at the library, prefer a rock hard suspension, and if you have never driven a real BMW. It is not the right vehicle for a cross-country trip with three people (two of them women), three suitcases, a backpack, a carry-on, a large tourist camera, two purses, snacks, three cell phones, three water bottles, and an iPad. Especially if it is a two-door model.
“Why did you get a two-door?” asked my wife.
“Uhh, it’s what they gave me. It was the only thing available.” I replied. I didn’t admit to forgetting to ask the Sixt woman about this feature.
This Mini didn’t have a trunk. It had a small cubbyhole behind the rear seat. I managed to stuff my backpack and the carry-on into the space and slammed the back door shut. I piled the suitcases into the back seat by wedging them through the space between the front passenger seat and the rear quarter panel. The Mini had about four inches of space on the floor behind the front seats where my daughter, sitting in the back seat, could put her feet. If I sat back there, my knees would cover my ears. She squeezed into the little available space in back while my wife and I claimed the front seats.
I put the clutch in gear and took off into the Munich rush hour traffic. Every time I looked to the left I banged my head on a handle attached to the Mini’s ceiling. I had to crane my neck down to see out of the windshield. If I straightened up my vision included the inside roof of the car. The seat was hard and my legs were cramped after five minutes. Only eight hours to go.
I relied on the GPS to tell me where to go. This would prove to be my second mistake. I managed to set it to speak English instead of German. Das gut!
We left Germany behind and crossed the skinny part of Austria, then raced across Switzerland. The view of the Alps was spectacular while we climbed higher and higher. A few hours later we were getting close to Italy. The sky was darkening. It happens every night.
“Look! There is a tiny mountain village named Splügen!” I called out as I read the road sign. “What do they do in Splügen? Hello, I am from Splügen. Excuse me, I think I just Splügened.” After five hours in the car I found this to be the funniest thing in the world. My wife rolled her eyes. My daughter groaned.
And then we came upon road construction signs indicating the road ahead was closed. We got off the main road and followed a semi in front of us, while peaking at the detour signs as they flashed by. We drove a few hundred meters on a parallel one lane road and then came to an impromptu tee in the road. The semi turned left, but our rental GPS told us to turn right. So I turned right.
The road wandered down a short valley and then took a hairpin turn to the left and up a slight incline. In a daze I slowed to first gear to take the turn. I cranked the wheel of the go-cart I was driving and scampered around the hairpin. After a hundred meters I was doing it again in the other direction. In my head I was thinking “can this be the right way to go?” I trusted the GPS, it must be right. I was tired, cramped, and cranky. I should have been relaxing in a hotel room on the French Riviera after a stupendous dinner and a bottle of wine. Instead I was manhandling this Mini up a couple of Swiss hairpin curves in the dark.
After three more hairpin turns my decaffeinated brain finally overcame its stupor and kicked into gear. This can’t be the right road. How would the semis handle this? These turns are so tight there isn’t enough room for a truck to make the turn. I had to turn around.
I stopped the car. It was pitch dark outside. I got out to have a look around. From the Mini’s headlights I could barely make out that to my left was a sheer drop off. Depth unknown. There was no guard rail. To my right was a sheer cliff. Height unknown. Then I comprehended that the road was only one lane wide. About 15 feet. There was no way to turn around. There was also no way I was going to back down the road through those hairpin turns. I had to go forward.
I resigned myself to this fate. The safety of my family was at stake. I had horrible visions of TV shows and movies where the car plunges over the side of the mountain road and bursts into flames as it rolls down and down into oblivion. Why do I always run into trouble in Switzerland? (See my other Swiss misadventure here). I vowed never to return, but this time it’s just passing through. Does that count?
I hunched over the steering wheel, peering into the darkness and praying that no one would be coming down this road from the other side of the mountain. I stayed in first gear, lunging and lurching around each hairpin turn, up and up towards the mountain peak. I lost count of how many times I spun the wheel first one way and then back again.
After what seemed like an eternity I took the last turn and the road straightened out on top of the mountain. I had made it! I now knew the euphoric feeling that mountaineers get when they reach the summit.
I passed a deserted café and a tranquil lake. The road then started to descend. What goes up, must go down. I could barely detect the lights of a city in the distance, on the valley floor below. How many hairpin turns away is that place?
For another eternity I crept downward, staying in first gear or coasting in neutral. Down and around, endlessly down and around went the Mini. Until finally the road straightened out and joined a wider road stretching into civilization. We were finally in Italy and I was a nervous wreck. At least we were alive.
I found out later that I had inadvertently driven the San Bernardino Pass road in Graubünden, Switzerland, one of the highest paved roads in Europe. (I was going to say “accidentally” driven, but that sounds bad in this context.) This road was featured in a Top Gear episode where the three guys try to find the best driving road in the world.
I ended up on the mountain road because due to the road construction and the f$%#*$! GPS navigation system I missed the route through the San Bernardino Tunnel. Yes, there is a tunnel through the mountain, which is the easy way to get into Italy on this route.
The top of the pass (at 6,778 feet) is the dividing line between German speakers and Italian speakers and is where the Rhine River basin starts. It is only open in the summer, primarily for mountain hikers. Luckily it was early summer when I was there, so the snow was gone. The route was originally a mule track in the fifteenth century. A road for wheeled vehicles was opened in 1770, and improved in the 1820s.
The bypass tunnel was opened in 1967 to facilitate passage by big trucks and tourists who rent Minis. It is used by all, except for those weary travelers who blindly obey their GPS systems.
How often do you get to see someone 5,300 years old?
I was going to be driving from Nice, France to Munich, Germany. I thought I could go on a route via the Tyrolean Alps in Austria that cut right through the mountain town of Bolzano, Italy. Bolzano is the site of the South Tyrol Museum of Archeology. This museum holds the remains of Ӧtzi the Prehistoric Iceman. I was dying to see him. I think he was dying to see me, except for the fact that he was already dead. And frozen.
On the day before my visit to Bolzano, Ӧtzi was in the news again. The latest scientific analysis of his body has finally indicated his cause of death. Murder!
Ӧtzi was a Neolithic man frozen in a glacier thousands of years ago. He was found in 1991 by two tourists trekking through the Oetz Valley on the boarder of Austria and Italy. His body was revealed after the glacier receded. Analysis of the body showed that he was 46 years old when he died, was about 5 feet, 2 inches tall. Since his body was frozen in time, scientists have been able to determine many things about who he was, how lived, what he ate for his last meal, and how he died using the latest in genetic and other testing.
Ӧtzi had brown eyes, relatives in Sardinia, Italy, was lactose intolerant, arthritic, and had Lyme’s disease. He was also predisposed to heart disease, and infested with whipworm, an intestinal parasite. The contents of his stomach revealed his last meal was venison and ibex meat. He had a diet of bread and cereal porridge, which when combined with his lack of dental hygiene (including cavities), resulted in his having very bad breath and periodontal disease.
Ӧtzi was found with a bow and arrows, and a copper ax. His clothes included a cloak made of woven grass, a coat and leggings made from goat skins, and a bear skin cap with a leather chin strap.
A hole in his collarbone suggested he had been hit by an arrow. The most recent news announced he had been likely killed by a blow to the head. Perhaps he had been in a fight with a mountain man from another tribe and was shot and then clubbed to death.
His mummy is now kept in a special climate controlled room at the museum. Visitors can see him by looking through portholes.
I was interested to see Ӧtzi and learn more about the investigation. I got to Bolzano on a Monday afternoon. I checked into my hotel and asked the clerk how late the museum was open. To my dismay, I learned that the museum was closed on Mondays. My schedule wouldn’t permit me lingering in the town the next day. I was disappointed, but explored the town nonetheless.
Apart from the museum, Bolzano is a beautiful mountain town in the Tyrolean Alps. It has wonderful views of the surrounding mountains, and a pedestrian shopping street in the middle of town perfect for strolling on a summer night. It was definitely worth stopping in for the night. If you go, and want to see Ӧtzi, don’t go on a Monday.
The man on the dock grabbed the boy and thrust him skyward until the boy was sitting on the man’s head. The boy put his feet on the man’s shoulders, his arms out to the sides like he was a bird. “Uno, due, tre,” shouted the man and the boy in unison. The man launched the boy with all of his might. The boy screamed in delight as he flew through the air and splashed down into the cool waters of the lake. The man looked down to see three more boys in line for their turn at flying.
This went on for a long time until the man finally grew tired and went to take a nap on his lounge chair. His wife was seated next to him reading an Italian celebrity magazine. Did George Clooney sell his villa on the lake or not? Did he break up with his Italian supermodel girlfriend or not? Inquiring minds want to know.
We were staying for a few days in the small fishing village of Varenna, on the shore of Lake Como in northern Italy. It was time to take a break from traveling and relax for a few days in a small town. We were living like locals and enjoying the experience immensely.
We took the train from Milan to Varenna. It was only an hour’s ride, but we entered a totally different environment. Gone were the big city bustle, the traffic, and the noise. Here on Lake Como, the views were outstanding, the air was fresh, and the pace of life was peaceful.
A man named Enzo was supposed to meet us at the train station. We got off the train and didn’t see any men waiting. Instead, an older woman immediately approached me and asked if I was Steve. Well, yes, that’s me, how did you guess? (There were very few people getting off the train at this stop. I think our suitcases gave us away). I didn’t catch her name and she didn’t speak much English. I understood from her that she was Enzo’s sister. Maybe Enzo had gone fishing or something.
We piled our stuff into her tiny car and drove a few blocks to her house. We had rented an apartment from www.varennaflats.com in an old three story villa on the main road through the town of Varenna. The apartment was on the first floor, the woman and her family lived on the second floor, and Enzo and his family lived on the third floor. The house was built into the hillside overlooking the lake. The garage was carved into a cave in the rock under the house. I don’t know how they got their two tiny cars into the garage. I’ve seen bigger dog houses back home. The side of the house facing the street was covered in vines.
The house had a garden on the second level with a fantastic view of Lake Como. I would climb a narrow, steep stairway through an old tool shed to reach it. The stairway was dark and full of cobwebs and old junk. But as soon as I emerged from the gloom I could see across the lake to the town of Menaggio and the mountains beyond. It was a nice place to read a book and gaze at the sailboats making their way across the lake.
Once we were settled in, we walked down the road to the beach. The beach was not like a Caribbean beach or even a beach on a Minnesota lake. The beach was on a raised plot of land made from cement walls in the lake. It was covered in a coarse layer of dark, small pebbles. There were uncomfortable plastic lounge chairs and big umbrellas. A dock jutted out into the water. A tanned man with a large abdominal scar in a blue swimsuit came to accept payment for renting his chairs for the afternoon.
It was here that the man was sending the boys flying into the lake. The beach was crowded because it was very hot. Many places here don’t have air conditioning so spending an afternoon at the beach is the thing to do.
I walked down to the dock and jumped in. The water was cool and refreshing. I floated in a circle, taking in the view of the lake and the mountains all around me. I had to dodge a pack of wrestling teen aged boys to get out of the lake. They were trying to give a “wedgie” to one boy. Some things never change, no matter what country you are in.
Since we had a small kitchen in the apartment, we were going to cook some meals for the first time on the trip. We walked about 50 yards to the center of the village to go to one of the two grocery stores. This was not Costco. The store was about as big as a single garage stall. It was packed with basic food items and a large vacationing Italian family getting their sandwiches for a picnic. I made my way to one corner to look at some drinks and got stuck there for several minutes.
The children couldn’t decide on what kind of sandwich to have made and I couldn’t get out of my corner. Eventually they left and I could continue browsing the tiny store. You can only buy what you can carry, so it’s clear to me why most people here shop a little every day. Need some milk or some potato chips? Walk a few feet down the road from your house and buy some. No need to get in your car and drive a mile or two.
Make sure to visit the store in the morning like the old women of the village do if you want any bread, because it will be gone by the afternoon. The store didn’t have much selection but it did a booming business.
I walked down the street to the competition, the only other store in town. This store had some of the same items, but it also had more fresh meats and cheeses. I got some thinly sliced Parma ham, buffalo mozzarella, and a baguette. I was set for lunch…
Every day I walked through Varenna to a neighboring town. The walkway along the side of the road was very narrow and I had to be on constant lookout so I wouldn’t get hit by a car. The route was along the lakeshore for most of the way and very picturesque.
One day as I was coming back into Varenna, I saw a wedding party coming out of the 12th century church. There were about 40 people in the party. All of them were Asians. I think they were from Thailand. I knew people came to this little romantic village to get married. However, it’s a long way from Southeast Asia. The party stopped traffic as they walked down the main street, with the photographer getting a nice group shot with the old church in the background.
There were few streets in the town. Instead, narrow paths called contradas were between blocks of houses. A contrada was about eight feet wide, for pedestrians only, and was paved with rough stones. Since the town was built on a hillside to the lake, the contradas were steep and slippery when wet.
Ferries sailed between the towns on the lake. We went over to Bellagio on the other side of Lake Como one day to have lunch and shop. The Las Vegas hotel must have been named after this Italian town. Bellagio is a bigger town that was full of British tourists. It had a lot of ristorantes and shops. It seemed too touristy to me. I liked it better on our side of the lake in Varenna. It just seemed more authentic to me.
We saw the locals living everyday life in Varenna. The old women talked to each other across the street from their respective house windows. The old men sat in the square smoking and talking about the old days. The church bells chimed on the hour, with more peals at mass time. The two shopkeepers closed up their shops at 12:30pm for an extended lunch break. If you wanted a snack before 4pm, it was too bad for you. You were out of luck.
There wasn’t much happening in this town. No big cultural attractions, sporting events, or fancy restaurants and shopping. It was, however, tough to leave.
The main shopping street of Milan was almost deserted. The famous designer’s stores were still open, but there were few customers. It was late August in Italy and many people were on vacation. The sales clerks in the stores clearly wanted to be on vacation. The bored stares of the well-dressed Italian girls indicated that they were counting the minutes until closing time.
It was a sweltering afternoon. The temperature was in the mid-90s and humid. I darted into the high priced shops to cool off. I had no intention of buying anything. Thank you Mr. Versace for letting me get a respite from the heat.
Milan is one of the capitals of fashion design. Many of the shoes worn by the people of the western world are designed in the city. The designer shops on the Via Monte Napoleone are some of the fanciest and most expensive on the planet.
None of the clothes interested me. I was more interested in finding the nearest gelateria. I think the flavor for me that day was stracciatella (vanilla with chocolate chunks).
After much wandering, I stumbled upon the Four Seasons Hotel. Great, I have to go to the bathroom. Toilets can be tough to find in big European cities when you need one. Indeed, the lobby of the Four Seasons Hotel had the nicest bathroom in Milan based on my unofficial survey of one location. Black marble, gold faucets, and individual cloth towels to dry your hands. Excellent.
I took a seat in the lounge. My feet hurt and a few minutes rest would do me good. I was thirsty too. Perhaps some needed liquids would perk me up so I could continue my tour of the old part of Milan.
A tall, impeccably dressed, handsome young man approached me.
“Good afternoon, sir. Welcome back to the Four Seasons,” he said in a perfect BBC London accent. “What would you like, sir?”
It was actually my first time trespassing in this particular lobby, but I’m not telling. What I would like is to look like him and speak like him, neither of which was going to happen.
“I’ll take a look at the menu and let you know,” I said. I was a little annoyed that he spotted me for an American. Of course, the big camera around my neck and the baseball cap didn’t help my disguise. I picked up the drinks menu on the table.
One peak at the menu and I knew I was in the wrong place to get something to drink. A can of Coca-Cola was 11 euros. That was about $16. The same can back home at the grocery store would be between 30 cents and 45 cents, depending on whether you’re buying a twelve pack or a 24-pack, and depending on the sale. Even less for a Big Gulp at 7-11 on a cost per ounce basis. I guess location makes a difference. It was a nice lounge, but not that nice.
The mission to satisfy my immediate bodily needs was accomplished. When the waiter was looking the other way, I sneaked out of the hotel. I would get a drink somewhere else. Maybe even at McDonalds.
Travel Stories from Around the World by Steve Skabrat