Thursday, January 06, 2005

The Long Journey (prt I) - Milan to Valle d'Aosta

Our Fiat 500F, newly purchased, street parked in Milan's Navigli districtHere's the plot: Christmas 2004, a crazy English guy and his Italian girlfriend decide to buy a Fiat 500 in Milan and drive it back to London... no, really, we did! The photograph shows the very car parked up in Milan prior to its lengthy ordeal.

This particular car is a 1971 Fiat 500F Berlina. We bought it (with loads of help from my girlfriend's very kind brother) from a classic car collector in Milan. It has only ever had 3 owners, including us and him! That's pretty amazing. And best of all, the first 32 years of its life were spent in a cosy warm garage being looked after by a proud old mechanic who had it since it rolled off the production line and that little engine fired for the first time.

(We were naturally cynical about this claim at first, but people who have examined the vehicle subsequently have all agreed it's been looked after very well, so it probably is a true story.)

This is one very original, very nice little car. Don't get me wrong, it's a Fiat 500 which means it's small, it handles like a bucket of frogs, it smells, it averages 40mph (65kph) and it rocks if a knat farts in the wrong direction - but damn, it's cute!

And so, on the morning of the 30th we loaded the little car with all our Christmas luggage and (via a local mechanic to fit a new battery - long and boring story) set off along the motorway for the Italian Alps. The luggage all fitted nicely on the back seat and I, despite being 6'3", had no problem folding myself in to the passenger side of the surprisingly spacious 3' high car. My girlfriend drove because it was on the wrong side of the road for me, you have to double-declutch and she'd had about 5 days' practice hurtling around the streets of Milan. However, we learned two things fairly quickly.

One, the motorway is not like central Milan. Central Milan is Fiat 500 country. There it rules. People smile and let you go. Old folk wave nostalgically as you grind the awkward little gearbox. No one seems to care that you don't even have a 0-60 time (the car tops out at about 55mph). Motorways couldn't be more different. There we cease to be an object of nostalgia and beauty and become a nuisance and a menace. People hate us!

Two, Italian drivers are *%!*&^%s! Excuse the sweeping generalisation - clearly not ALL Italian drivers are *%!*&^%s, just like not all English people like roast beef, but suffice it to say even my Italian girlfriend had to admit they're pretty appalling after about an hour on the motorway. They tail-gate, they drive too fast, they don't leave room, they're impatient - everything you don't need if you're trying to get a little old car from a to b with as little fuss as possible! I could rant for an hour on this subject, but... ach, whatever. There really is no point in raising my blood pressure.

We bit our lips, hoped that no one collected us from the rear, and continued our journey up towards Valle d'Aosta, nestled in the Italian Alps, where we intended to spend our New Year. To be honest, the 500 isn't too tiring. It doesn't make an unpleasant whiney noise like you might expect a tiny 499cc engine to make. In fact it makes quite a soothing "putt putt" sound, so were it not for the 120mph Mercedes and BMWs whistling past our ears, we would've been quite relaxed. Trouble is the prospect of instant death doesn't exactly set you at ease, so I was very relieved when we got off the motorways and in to the winding mountain roads.

Progress through these was steady and we spent a lot of time in second gear, but we had no pressure to go flat out and the little car can climb out of anything because of its very low 1st gear! And we pretty much remembered where to go from a visit to the same villa a year previous, so we didn't get lost which is always a bonus. We left Milan at about 1pm and arrived at the mountain chalet for about 6pm - 5 hours to go about 220 kilometres. Alarm bells were ringing, but we decided to get on with our New Year celebrations and cross whatever bridges the trip threw at us as they came.

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