I'm going through what I now call "autostrada withdrawl." Having just returned from four fantastic weeks in Italy, I find myself once again trying to adjust to driving under 100 mph. Being self- employed I only go on vacation every five years or so and I usually end up in Italy visiting family, which is fine with me, because no matter where you are in Italy there is always something fun and fascinating to see or to do. This year I finally managed to get to the Alfa Romeo Museum in Arese (Milano). I've been in Milano before, but last time we went in August, which is Italian vacation month (Ferragosto) and everything literally shuts down. Before leaving the U.S.A. I called the Alfa Museum to make sure it would be open in July. We were assured by the man who answered the phone that the museum would be open the entire month of July -- Monday through Friday, 9am to 12noon and 2pm to 4pm -- Italians take very long lunches.
Our family is from the southern tip (the toe) of Italy called Calabria, so that is where we head when we go to Italy. My son and I planned to go to Milano which is over 1000 kilometers north, on July 15th. The last time we went up to Milano from the south we took the coastal autostrada from Pisa to Genova then to Milano. This year we wanted the most efficient and fastest way to get there, so we looked at the map and noticed that the central autrostrada from Bologna to Milano was straight as an arrow on the map.
Calabria is considered the rural south in Italy. It has perhaps the most beautiful and cleanest beaches in the country. It has a rapidly growing tourist industry, catering to mostly northern Italians and Europeans (it has long been overlooked by Americans). It is as "Italian" as one can get. The terrain is extremely mountainous and there are medieval and ancient towns perched on literally every hill or mountain. Farming has always been a challenge in the region, but throughout history, people have always managed to accomplish it (teste dure). Due to its strategic geographic location it has also been one of the most fought over chunks of land on the planet. This was the land of Pythagoras, and almost every culture, has left its mark on Calabria. Ancient Greeks and Romans, Byzantines, Saracens, Arabs, Lombards, Vikings, Normans, Turks, French, Spanish and American. Even Hannibal and Attila left their marks on this land. Ruins abound in this area. However, because of the constant pillaging, plundering, and pirating over the ages, the ruins are much less dramatic than those in other regions.
Unlike other areas of Italy which benefitted from their independence as city-states 500 years ago, Calabria was feudal until the unification of Italy in the 1800's. Garibaldi, Italy's "George Washington" used Calabria as his staging area to drive all of the foreign governments out of Italy and bring the peninsula together as one country.
Today Calabria is developing rapidly. It boasts perhaps the highest literacy rate in Italy, as well as a one of the largest professional populations in the country. It still has its share of problems -- the mafia still exists here, though it is invisible to tourists and most others. Unemployment is also high, but then I live in California, what's new about unemployement. Italians in general and especially Calabresi are extremely regional people -- that's important in the next portion of my story.
My son and I set out for Milano on the July 15. My wife demanded that we promise to be careful and not drive fast. I promised -- since in Italy speed is relative anyway -- there would always be someone going faster than us no matter how fast we drove, so I could always claim that we were being passed regularly. The Autostrada south of Naples is truly an engineering marvel. Following what was essentially the ancient Roman road, "Via Popilia," the autostrada in this area goes from sea-level to over 7000 feet at Mt. Pollino.
We began our trip from an area called Lamezia Terme (Nicastro- S.Eufemia) on the Tyrrenean coast. I had reserved an Alfa 155 rental car from Europcar (Avis), but as usual they gave me something else. It was a Rover 618i -- 1.8 liter 16 valves (nice but not an Alfa). That's another story dealing with small print and the word "comparable or better." At least it had air conditioning. The Autostrada immediately heads north-east inland toward the beautiful city of Cosenza. It winds somewhat here just south of the Cosenza area. The road is literally built on a massive concrete shelf attached to the side of the mountains. We pass Cosenza and immediately start our assent toward Mt. Pollino which looms before us filling our windshield from 70 miles away. The travel is fast. The autostrada has only 2 lanes in each direction but it is not difficult to drive 100mph here, and slower traffic stays in the right lane, however keep in mind that trucks often decide to pass one another and you may have to brake very, very quickly. We quickly reach very high altitude -- looking to the left the city of Castrovillari is visible way down at the bottom of the valley below us. Bridges of staggering height straighten out the path and link the mountains together. Suddenly the road dives into tunnel after tunnel -- some 3 kilometers long! The tunnels and bridges are amazing. There are no flat spots up here. You're either inside the mountains or suspended between them. Windsocks blow next to the bridge; signs warn of common high gusts of wind (raffiche del vento), that can send you very close to the armco on the side of bridge if you are not ready. Detour signs sometimes warn of construction zones up ahead where crews are resurfacing the road or repairing the expansion joints which take an enormous amount of stress from the severe winters at this altitude. The road surface is remarkably smooth. In the rearview mirror daytime headlights are approaching quickly. My son is driving doing 180kph and we are about to be passed as if we are standing still. We move over. It was a Mercedes. Throughout the day we will be continuously passed at these speeds by Alfa 164 Twin-Spark-Turbos, Mercedes, Volvo Turbos, Audis and Hondas. Yes, Hondas. Italy is now finding out what it is like to battle strong Asian competition. This will either improve Italian cars or kill them. We have now passed the summit at Mt. Pollino and we will soon leave Calabria and briefly enter the picturesque region of Basilicata. We approach the city of Lago Negro. The nearby lakes are visible from the autostrada. Because of the number of long and high bridges and tunnels it took an additional 5 years for the government to finish the stretch of Autostrada between Lago Negro and Castrovillari. What a ride!
Leaving Basilicata behind, we enter the region of Campania. Within a few minutes we arrive in a large beautiful valley -- the extremely modern looking city of Sala Consilina comes cascading down the slope of the mountains to the northeast of us. The autostrada suddenly makes a left and we are soon again making an assent, this time we are in the Alburni mountain range (approximately 6000 ft.). The autostrada again is literally a shelf attached to the side of the mountains. The Alburni are extremely jagged looking mountains that loom up into the sky to our left. To the right we are overlooking a valley several thousand feet below us. The towns and the railroad bridges look so tiny. The arched ruins of a Roman aqueduct are scattered throughout this area. We are heading straight toward an extremley large pointed hill. A medieval town is precariously perched on top of it. We don't go around it. We go underneath it. We enter a very long tunnel. Exiting the tunnel we are now surrounded by rich green pastures and fields of wheat. A river is weaving its way through the countryside. This view is not at all what you would expect to see here. It looks like a painting. The towering Alburni dramatically tower above everything with jagged blue-gray peaks. Just below them are soft green hills rolling along with parcels of cultivated farmland forming a quilt, and then an ice blue river winds its way through the entire scene. This could easily be the background of a renaissance painting. Soon we are past.
We are now coming into a very rough part of the autostrada. The signs indicate that we are quickly approaching the Salerno and Naples metropolitan area. The autostrada is tighter here. It seems much older. The traffic starts to increase -- it's not nearly as much fun to drive here. Constantly, we are impeded by slower traffic and we are forced to drive at speeds under 170kph (105 mph). We will not be going into Naples so we take the bypass road toward Avellino to avoid the traffic. We soon reach another autostrada and we must get a toll ticket to enter. The Autostradas north of Naples are all toll roads. Now we are on one of the newer segments of the autostrada. Most of this section has three lanes in each direction; slower traffic rarely impedes your travel. On our left (southwest) looms Mt.Vesuvius. It is always hazy in this area. On our right we are passing a castle. Castle ruins are visible throughout Italy. Castle sighting is one of my favorite passtimes in Italy but not today. We approach the main autostrada now. This one links Naples and Rome. It has extremely high traffic. Originally it only had 2 lanes of traffic in each direction but when I was here in 1990 they were adding a third lane in each direction. I was amazed this year to find that all of the tunnels in this long stretch had been removed. The engineers opted to remove large sections of mountain to widen and straighten the autostrada. As a result, this section is now incredibly fast. Our 1.8 liter Rover (aka-Honda Accord) maxed out at a top speed of 220 kph. (130mph) and it was easy to sustain that speed for most of the trip toward Rome. Since my son was driving I often found myself looking for that invisible brake pedal on the passenger side of the front seat. The autostrada is fairly straight here. It is not completely flat, but it certainly is comfortable to drive at 130mph. As a passenger whizzing through this section of Campania and Lazio you tend to relax and just enjoy the gently rolling scenery punctuated with vinyards and citrus orchards and sunflower farms in full bloom.
Again our destination today was Milano so we did not intend on going to Rome. We had accomplished the first half of our drive today arriving at the outskirts of Rome at about 3:30pm. We stayed on the Autostrada and now the next large city would be Firenze (Florence). The autostrada between Rome and Florence is initially fairly straight. The architecture of the villages slowly becomes more and more renaissance and less medieval. The terrain is not really mountainous but it is not flat. The road soon becomes twisty and the speeds of travel must come back down to around 100mph though there are some stretches that allow top speed. Now I was driving. When we stopped for gas just outside Rome we switched drivers. Gasoline in Italy is expensive at 1795 lire per LITER, it works out to just over $5 per gallon. The fill up cost 83,000 lire or $55 dollars for about 11 gallons of gasoline. It feels like the money jumps out of my pocket whenever I stop for gas. Every gas station on the autostrada has a BAR. European countries have interesting attitudes toward drinking. A great deal of responsibility is placed on the individual. A BAR sells everything from ice cream and candy, to beer and hard liquor. There is no minimum age for drinking here. Drinking in public seems OK and a roadside beer is not unusual. Personally, I don't drink, but it is interesting to see how liquor and drinking and driving are handled in a different culture. It is also curious that on the entire trip observing the sustained high speed of traffic, we did not see one traffic accident. As a matter of fact I have only seen two wrecks in all my trips to Italy. If speed kills then I am surprised that we didn't see the road strewn with carnage and wreckage. I don't know what the traffic accident rate is, but it would be interesting to see how it compares with ours. I'm sure the statistics are not unuasually low but I imagine that they are probably around the same as the USA.
Billboards along the road now announce each town as you approach. Each billboard has a painting of the village and often when you look up into the mountains you can recognize them. The mountains are relatively low and there is a great deal of rolling land. Farming is more efficient in this region. Large fields of blooming yellow sunflowers line the road. Onward toward Florence. The traffic is starting to increase and I am forced to dramatically reduce speed. Sometimes it feels like I'm on the I405 during rush-hour. Very little of Florence is visible from this part of the autostrada. This section has not been very enjoyable nor efficient for our journey. Finally we pass Florence and begin travelling toward Bologna. This section of autostrada is really different compared to everything else. We follow it into the mountains. It's twisty -- it's tight -- the curves are hard and there are trucks everywhere -- continuously passing one another. The Italian government is currently planning to build a new autostrada to link Florence and Bologna, because of the danger and sluggishness of this particular portion of road. Everything is relative, when I say sluggish I'm referring to the fact that traffic tends move at speeds lower than 90mph!!! Originally built to accomodate 15,000 vehicles per day it now handles close to 50,000. Currently an argument is raging between proponents of the new road and the "verdi" (environmentalists). The environment has leapt to a top priority in Italy. The new cars use unleaded gasoline (benzina "verde") and there is a strong anti-litter campaign which has had a remarkable effect on the country. A few years ago the cities began closing off sections from automobile traffic because of the damage being done to historic building and attractions by exhaust.
Our seemingly endless journey between Florence and Bologna ends and I am pleasantly surprised to find that the next stretch of road between Bologna and Milano is truly as straight as the map indicated. Not only is it straight -- it's flat as a billiard table and there are three lanes of travel in each direction. There is considerable traffic in this stretch but all of the slower traffic stays to the right. The left lane moves at speeds well above 100mph. We maxed out at about 220kph (130+mph) and sustained those speeds for long periods of time. It completely boggles the mind that even at 130mph there are still vehicles moving faster than us that demand to pass. I tried to tuck in behind a few of these drivers and keep up, but I would eventually just watch them disappear into the horizon ahead of us.
We planned to visit the Museum in the morning. Our goal tonight was to find a McDonalds and then visit the piazza in front of the Duomo. The world has become dramatically smaller in the last decade. Years ago they opened the first McDonalds in Rome and it was expected to be just a tourist thing, but believe it or not McDonalds has become quite a popular place for the locals now. McDonalds are quite common in Italian cities. We set off toward the center of town. Sure enough within a few minutes we spotted "golden arches" on the side of a building. We found a place to park and we went in. Milano is more cosmopolitan and European than any other Italian City. Since it is Italy's business center it is much different in that respect. Since it was heavily bombed in WWII it is essentally a new city by Italian standards. Streets tend to be wider and the buildings are less historic. This particular McDonalds was in the "Quartiere Cinese" (China Town) section of Milano. Many of the stores sported signs written with Asian symbols. By the way, a Big Mac, Coke, and large fries combo deal was 10,000 lire ($7). Being in Italy, surrounded by great food -- it always amazes me that I can actually begin yearning for a burger...
Anyway we exited the autostrada and we arrived at an intersection. The street sign on the left said "Via Alfa Romeo" so we pretty much figured that was the way to go. A little down the road there was a parking lot entrance. We stopped at the security booth and told the watchman that we wanted to go to the museum. He instructed us to go through the gate follow the road to the parking lot and that his fellow watchman would be there. After we found the parking lot we did not see the guard but assumed that he would probably be in the nearby building up ahead. We parked and walked to the building -- the guard was talking to someone else and then finally turned to us. I told him that we wished to visit the museum. He asked for "documenti" we gave him our passports which he looked at and placed in his desk. He informed us that they would be returned when we left (kind of Mission Impossible-like). He then directed us to go to the large building across from us, enter the front doors, turn left and go up the stairs. After entering the building, a woman (employee) walking down the hall quickly intercepted us and asked if we were going to the museum. When we said "yes," she told us to follow her, which we did. She asked where we were from. I said California. She made a very positive expression and said "che bella." I've found that thanks to T.V. ("Baywatch, 90210, Melrose Place..."), California seems to be more popular than ever to Italians. Due to the large number of television channels that are now available in Italy, current and old American T.V. shows dominate the airwaves. It is especially entertaining to watch a program that you have seen at home in English, dubbed into Italian (The Big Valley, Blossom, Thirty Something...).
She took us to the elevator and we went up to first floor -- first floor in Italy is the second floor here... what we call the first floor is called the ground floor in Italy... When the doors opened she told us that the museum was just across the courtyard in the next building. We said thank you. We entered the museum and instantly went into "Alfa overload." Where to start... The museum is kind of a multi-split- level complex. The oldest cars are at the top. We immediately went to the top where cars that I'd only seen in pictures were. The egg- shaped 40/60 Aerodinamica(circa 1910) caught my eye immediately. It was truly weird. Thepictures that I'd seen of it never revealed how truly awkward it was. Unlike a modern van it's more like a regular open car with an egg-shaped cover placed on top. The top floor of the museum is like a time machine. A Darracq is one the first vehicles displayed to give the flavor of Alfa's roots. Early Merosi engines with examples of pre- WWI cars filled half of this floor. Jano's creations filled the other half. Some of the most fascintaing features were these early race cars. It was amazing how perilous these machines really were. Often drivers shared their cockpits with spinning unshielded drive shafts as well as other hot or dangerous car components -- safety gear would come at another time. Drivers sometimes would use their own trouser belts to hold themselves in the car. Others would rather take their chances with being thrown out in an emergency. The race cars were large and unwieldy by today's standards, but they were fantastic -- painted in their dark Alfa reds with slightly bluish tints these cars were the pinnacle of technology of their era. The metal-work was obviously handcrafted. Some of the metal was not perfect. Some of the vents were slghtly irregular. Human hands hammered, cut and shaped these materials. The tires were like rubber-edged wagon wheels with wooden or metal spokes. And the suspensions were adopted from horse-drawn carriages of only slightly earlier times. There were constant refinements but these were the early days and technology would begin accelerating quickly.
It's obvious that Alfa always had a keen interest in sporting and racing vehicles. Almost all of the production cars had sprouted from or soon became competition vehicles. Going from one display to the next it was obvious that it would only be possible to only get a glimpse of each car. It was impossible to adequately ponder each detail.
We moved on to the post WWI cars -- the Jano cars -- the beginnings of Alfa's "glory days" -- a 1925 RL SS, a RL Targa Florio, a 6C1500 Super Sport...the legendary P2s and P3s...and on and on. Suddenly we move into the cars of the rich and famous that culminate with the stunning light blue 1938 8C 2900 Lungo. Here is a car that surely belonged to a movie star of Hollywood's "golden age." Its long exagerated hood and streamlined appearance inspire a tasteful decadence that may never be revisited. It's obvious that these were not cars for the masses but at this point in its history Alfa was not trying to compete in the volume market. The elegant 8C 2900 B Lungo is accompanied by its even more competitive cousin, a red 8c 2900 B Le Mans. These two cars epitomize an era. Other models that demand attention on this level are the incredible bimotores. Power that could only be harnessed for short periods of time. Chassis and tire technology would still need time to catch up to this type of power. However the lessons learned on these cars were not wasted -- the tipo 158 and 159 ("Alfettas") are also here -- the cars that galvanized "the Alfa legend" in the post WWII years and launched what we now call Formula 1.
Each car has action photos and stories on display at each exhibit. Pictures of the drivers, as legendary as the cars themselves, give the visitor a perspective to understand the significance of each and their symbiotic relationships -- names like Campari, Nuvolari, Farina, Fangio... When the pathes of these drivers and these cars crossed there was no doubt that history was being made. We move on, lest I rant some more...
Next floor finds us looking at a "different" Alfa Romeo [company] -- an Alfa Romeo that must help to rebuild a war-damaged Italy -- an Italy that has been bombed and destroyed, because of bizarre political aspirations alliances of dictators. Italy, in the post war years needed to rebuild quickly -- it needed factories, machinery and transportation. Alfa Romeo responded by building cars with the average person in mind. Keep in mind these were not average cars but rather cars that would still maintain that Alfa Romeo flare and style but would be more affordable to the larger market. Thus, we have the 1900 series (circa 1950+) -- the exhibits feature examples of a Berlina, a Super and Super Sprint... All testify to Alfa's new direction. This floor also contains the cars that so many Alfisti grew up with -- Giuliettas, Giulias, Berlinas... and a Duetto. The Disco Volante is also near this section.
The next section has the dream cars, the prototypes...show cars. These cars range from the 1971 Caimano to the more contemporary Proteo(the basis for many of Alfa's current cars). Though they are mostly styling excersizes it is very obvious at close range where some of the more common elements of Alfa styling have come from. Many lines on the Proteo for instance are visible on Alfa's new GTV and Spider as well as the Zagato of just a few years ago.
During our visit to the museum, another family (2 children, a man, and 2 women) was also "ooing" and "ahing" at all the wonderful pieces on display. We really didn't pay much attention to one another until one of the women and I started commenting on the value of the Stradale. She said that she and her husband were Alfisti from Australia and that they were visiting a childhood friend who now lives in Switzerland. Her friend was with them today as she too is an Alfa enthusiast. She said her name was Anna Rulli. I then overheard her husband speaking with a man dressed in an Alfa Romeo jumpsuit. It caught my attention because they were speaking a very familiar dialect -- it was Calabrese. I interrupted them and asked if they were Calabrese. They were. The Alfa technician was very happy and became extremely friendly. His name was Franco Ciccopiedi and his family was from Crotone in Calabria. I told him that we had just been to Crotone a few days earlier to see the Ancient Greek ruins and he was just so pleased. Nick Rulli, the man from the other group was asking him alot of questions about the cars and Franco was more than happy to answer them. He had been with Alfa Romeo for for over 30 years and knew everything about these cars. He had just recently been sent back to the museum to prepare one of the cars for a start-up. The previous week he had been working with Nicola Larini and Alessandro Nannini on the Alfa Romeo Team cars in the German Touring Car Series. My son asked him for a favor and he said "dimmi" (tell me). My son asked if he could view the engine on the 33 SC12, Franco quickly summoned someone to help from nearby, because lifting the rear cover required two people. They lifted it up. It was truly magnigificent. The flat 12 was huge, and in it's own way, a work of art. Franco enthusiastically pointed out the turbos and intercoolers on this particular car and even some statistics which I couldn't keep up with. When my son told him thank you, he closed it all up again. He told me that almost all of the cars in the museum are capable of running if prepared. He said that they had recently started the Tipo 159 and that it ran strong and LOUD. He mentioned that it was perhaps the loudest car in the museum. We talked about the Stradale and how rare they had become. I asked him about the Alfa "Indy Car" and he said that they have one in storage but that it was not something that the company was happy about. I asked if the Indy-engine was an Alfa or whether it was the Ferrari engine that had been built in the mid-80's when Ferrari had threatened to quit F1. He insisted it was an Alfa engine from the start.
He told me that one of his favorite cars was the TZ2(circa1963). He opened the door and pointed out how light everyhting on the car was. We asked if he would take some photos with us. He put his arm around my son for a pose in front of Patrese's Benetton.
Silvana was a friend of the Rulli family. She now lives in Switzerland. She too had Calabrese roots. When I told her that we were staying in the town of San Mango d'Aquino she said quite excitedly that one of her grandfathers was from Conflenti, a neighboring town and that her other grandfather was from Martirano, also a neighboring town which is where my father came from. This is all a funny coincidence, because these towns are all very, very small and somewhat removed from the beaten path. We all got a kick out of it. We exchanged addresses and said to "keep in touch." Who knows... maybe we will. In any event it was past noon and Franco was being chided by his associates -- it was time to close the museum and to say goodbye. We all said goodbye -- when we left Franco had a tear in his eye. I told him that I would send him a photo.
Anyway it was time to leave. We could make it back home by 9pm if we left now. My son and I got in our rental car and got back on the autostrada and headed south. It's amazing how much fun you can have at the Alfa Museum...especially when you run into a bunch of Calabresi. Now I am back home in California -- the roads are large, Alfas are scarce and the freeway has a 65mph limit which is strictly enforced..
Lorenzo Gigliotti -- Sept. 1996