The Austrian Bathroom Stop

Ausfahrt sign

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.

Bolzano Alps view
The Alps near Bolzano, Italy.

“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.

Ausfahrt sign
Excuse me, but I have to ausfahrt!

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.

Alps drive.
A drive through the Alps.

“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.

Alps view near Bolzano.
The clear mountain air of the Alps.

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.

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5 Tips for Parking in Cinque Terre – Driving in Italy, Episode 3

Monterosso by the sea

Cinque Terre. Five Lands.  A magical destination on the Mediterranean coast of Italy of five villages on five bays below terraced mountainsides interlinked by hiking paths and a railroad line, but no roads.  We drove effortlessly across the Tuscan hills to the outskirts of Florence, then veered west to the coast and north to Shangri-La.  There are actually some roads that go into a couple of the towns.  We took one road from the Autostrada which connected to a road into Monterosso al Mare.

Monterosso by the sea
Anchovies, anyone?

As we came down the steep hill towards the town, we noticed there were many cars parked along the road for hundreds of meters.  Oblivious to this fact, we kept going, only to discover that at the town entrance there was a gate blocking our path.  Only residents can drive into the town.  Many Italian cities and towns have zones where only residents can drive.  The zones are enforced by automatic cameras that record the license plates of cars being driven in the zone.  I had heard stories of tourists receiving tickets in the mail many months after their vacations because they (sometimes inadvertently and sometimes multiple times) had driven in one of these zones.

OK, we can deal with that.  We reversed course back up the hill, and came across a small parking lot.  Defying the odds, I somehow knew there was a spot for us in this parking lot, even on this glorious and spectacular summer day.  I knew that we could park on the road up the hill about a mile or two away and walk down, but I was not looking forward to the walk back up the hill to the car later in the day.  Didn’t we deserve a spot in the miniscule town parking lot?  I mean we came all the way from America to see this picture perfect little town by the Mediterranean Sea.

Yes!  There is somebody leaving!  Lucky day!  We patiently waited for a couple to load their stroller, their child, and their dog into their Fiat so we can greedily claim their spot.  As we pulled in, I shouted “I proudly claim this parking spot in the interests of our Italian tour and aching feet!”

Of course, we couldn’t park there for free.  So I went to do battle with the automatic parking lot fee machine.  The first thing I noticed is that it would not take a credit card, only cash.  On top of that, it would only take coins.  What kind of country is this where the parking lot machines don’t take credit?  I rummaged through my pockets for one and two euro coins.  I found a couple, but not enough for the entire afternoon.  I went back to the car and checked with Lisa.

“Uhmm, we need more coins.  Do you have any?” I politely asked my dear wife.

“I don’t know.  I think so. Let me look in my purse,” she replied.

I call Lisa’s purse “the magic sack” because you never know what you might find in there, it is large and holds many things, but it doesn’t seem to exhibit the weight it should, based on its contents. Thus, it is like a sack used in a fantasy adventure computer game.  You can put many things into it, but the weights don’t count against your limit of what you can carry.

“I’m sorry, I don’t think I have any euro coins right now.  I think I spent mine on a macchiato this morning.  Would any of these small coins work?”

“I don’t think you understand the gravity of our situation.  We want to walk on the beach and the boardwalk in this beautiful seaside town.  But if we don’t have one more one euro coin, we are going to have to choose from one of two choices.  Behind door number one is the choice of vacating this preordained ultimate parking spot and driving two miles up the hillside and parallel parking on a steep, narrow road driving a manual transmission car in the midst of crazy traffic.  Then we have to walk back up the hill later this afternoon.  Behind door number two is the choice of leaving the car here and trusting the parking lot gods to not come and check our windshield for a parking pass.  Because if they do come, they will tow our car with our luggage in it back to some faraway place where tourist rental cars go to die.  We’ll have to take a very expensive taxi ride to wherever that place is, then pay some ridiculous fine, plus exorbitant storage fees.”

“Let’s search the car!”

We checked the glove box.  We checked the floors, and under the floor mats.  We checked the trunk.  We searched our luggage, our backpacks, and camera case.  Finally, nearing exhaustion and utter defeat, I spied a shiny object tucked in the crack of the back seat.  It was not a chewing gum wrapper.  It was not a bottle cap.  It was a one euro coin!

“Hallelujah!  We can rightfully and legally claim our God-given parking spot!” I cheered.

I raced back to the machine to input the coin and receive my cherished parking day pass.  The coin was in, and my itchy fingers were waiting to pounce on that pass as soon as it emerged, newborn baby-like from the parking lot machine womb.  And then, nothing happened.  I waited, with a perplexed and worried look on my face. Nothing.  Na da.  The machine sat there doing nothing, like a stone face on an ancient totem pole, mocking me.  I shook the machine a little bit, in the naïve belief that it would move things along. Then I started to get angry.  Really angry.  Un-vacation-like mad.  I shook the machine harder and harder. It did nothing.

Maybe some time limit had expired on entering coins in a single transaction.  I didn’t know.  I didn’t care.  I resolved to keep that ultimate parking space, whatever the cost.

“Let’s go.  We’ve wasted enough time in this parking lot.  I want to see Monterosso.” I said as we sauntered away.

It was truly a glorious afternoon on the Mediterranean coast.  We walked along the boardwalk, had a nice lunch in a café overlooking the beach, and had our daily gelato fix.  By 5pm I knew it was time to go.  We were pushing our luck with the parking lot gods.

Sometimes when I know I am parking in an unauthorized location, as I walk towards the parking lot I get an uneasy feeling, deep in my stomach.  Is it there?  Or is it gone?  Has it been towed to the creepy impound lot under the freeway where the guy running the impound lot looks like Charles Manson?  The closer I get, the more anxious I turn.  It’s just around the next bend, I can almost see it, is it there?

Yes! My lucky day again!  The car is still where we left it. But, remember one must inspect the windshield.  Alright!  There is no ticket under the wipers!  I have run the gauntlet and emerged supreme.  Parking in the ultimate parking spot for free, saving our aching feet from walking two miles up hill, and getting away with it.  The euphoria was extreme.  I had never felt so alive.

We drove high on the ridge above the sea, curving around the beautiful bays.  The late afternoon sun was shining on the sea, highlighting the sailboats coming in from a time of leisure.  In time, we turned inland, back to the Autostrada and the road to Florence.

Cinque Terre view
A splendid late summer day at Monterosso
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CDW? What’s that? Driving in Italy – Episode 1

My little yellow Vespa!

You might think driving in Italy while on vacation is a great idea.  Touring the wineries of Tuscany, admiring the neat rows of vines spread across the hillsides.  Stopping in romantic little villages for two hour lunches with plenty of vino to help you to your siesta spot.  Coming around that turn of the road to see yellow flowers stretching to the horizon.  You could take the bus I suppose.  Buses run between some of the towns in Tuscany.  Of course, you would be dependent on the bus schedule and also be prepared to use your own two feet on occasion to get where you want to go.  But it could be done.  For travelers sprinting across Italy in a couple of weeks, taking the bus doesn’t sound very romantic, and probably would take more time than most people have to spend.

So a car it is.  Yes, I can see myself now, cruising down the country lanes outside of Sienna in a red Alfa Romeo Spyder sports convertible while I think about what to have for dinner.  That’s what they drive in those old Italian movies, even the ones in black and white, I just know it.  But first one must pick up the car and get to where one’s dream reside.  That probably means driving in an Italian city, because they don’t typically have rental car offices in small, out of the way Tuscan towns.  Driving in the city, that doesn’t sound nearly as much fun…

I saved a taxi ride by fortuitously planning to stay in an apartment near the Via Veneto in Rome, which happened to be only one block away from an office of a major international car rental company.  After a few days touring the sights, sounds, and tastes of Rome, it was time to move on to that idyllic vision of touring Tuscany by car.  The Roman-looking man behind the counter seemed polite enough, despite the verbal assault he was currently taking from a typically loud, obnoxious American tourist.  The tourist wanted a car with automatic transmission, somewhat uncommon in Italy and the rest of Europe.  “I’m sorry, sir, we have no automatics available,” said Antonio (according to his name tag).  In a huff the tourist stomped out of the office, taking his wife, two gangly teenagers, and fourteen pieces of luggage.

Next in line, I gingerly approached the counter.  “Buon giorno Antonio! I am here to pick up my car.  Unlike my compatriot, I am perfectly happy driving a manual transmission.”  I cheerfully exclaimed. Antonio started filling in the appropriate forms. And that’s when I knew it was coming.  The dreaded CDW speech.  The task of renting a car is always complicated by the fact that one can buy extra insurance, called collision damage waiver (CDW), which covers damage to the car above and beyond what any reasonable insurance company customer would think is covered by their car insurance policy.  I usually decline CDW, because I am always reading in credit card company junk mail about how I am covered if I use the credit card in question to pay for the rental.  Plus, I have car insurance, it’s required by law, don’t you know.  I rented a car in France once upon a time from an agent who didn’t speak English very well.  The next thing I knew I was paying several hundred dollars extra for renting the car because of unintended CDW.  Don’t want that.  I could spend that instead on Peronis and gelato.  The CDW scam, uh, I mean legitimate business tactic for improving net income, is used widely in Europe on jet lagged and unsuspecting American tourists.  However, I will not be caught up in it again.  And besides, I haven’t been in an accident since 1990, and that was when I ran into a deer that jumped in front of my car driving through the north woods of Wisconsin at night, so that doesn’t even count.

Antonio spoke very good English.  He gave me the CDW spiel, I understood every word he said, and I confidently initialed in the proper place declining the unnecessary and extra coverage.  Ha!  I have defeated the dreaded major international rental car company at their game.  Take that.

“I’m sorry, sir, we don’t have any red Alfa Romeo Spyder convertibles available.  And I see that your reservation is for a four door compact car, with a manual transmission.” Antonio informed me once the paperwork was done.  “I believe that the color of your car is grey, sir.”

“Whatever” I say, just give me the keys so I can get to cruising hill towns and sipping Chiantis.  The luggage would not have fit in the Spyder anyway.

Getting out of a major European city in a car can be a tricky and complex operation.  I study maps for weeks before the trip, as if I am attempting a winter climb of Mount Everest.  I print our several different scale maps of the area.  I zoom in on Google Earth to the exact location and memorize the street configuration.  I use Google Street View to know what I am up against.  I even map out my own directions, since most of the computer generated driving directions are wrong most of the time.  The goal is to get out of the maze of city streets onto a major road that connects to a highway that intersects with a freeway that leads out of the city.  Maps in hand, configuration memorized, views in mind, we prepare to set out.  After all the planning and preparation, I don’t even drive, I make my wife Lisa do it.  The reason for this is that I can only do one thing at a time.  I can’t drive and read the several layers of maps, street views, and street signs needed to escape the city’s orbit without crashing into oncoming traffic.  If I drive, that means Lisa navigates.  If she navigates, we usually end up going around in circles for hours until we run out of gas, while she asks me where on the map we are.  We make a good team when I am the navigator and she is the driver.

We take a left, a right, a left, and finally a right, adeptly navigating the Roman one-way streets.  Yes, we can do this!  Confidence builds as we hit the major road, then the highway, and finally the A1 freeway.  We have successfully driven out of Rome! We are racing down the Autostrada!  That wasn’t so hard.  I didn’t even use all of the maps I had printed.

My little yellow Vespa!
Give me a Vespa or give me death!

Stay tuned for episode 2…

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