The Grande Tour
Preparing for our first European road-trip involves a frantic search for discounted plane tickets and blind faith in Booking.com. Five days, four nights equals hand luggage for me, but wife and daughter appear ready to emigrate. I remind them that our Roman chariot is a Mini. Images of Mr Bean circling the Colosseum with suitcases tied to the roof encourage lighter packing. They do not need to know it is a Countryman, the largest Mini this side of a Dakar special.
Departure day arrives and two of us are excited. My wife is an absent flyer – she would prefer to have her finger nails pulled than be cooped up in a space not much bigger than the 125 ml toothpaste tube she had ‘lost’ back at security. I call the nearest air steward and whisper: “Bring her ALL the wine”.
We land in Munich and bundle ourselves into a cream Mercedes-benz taxi. My wallet is 45 Euros lighter, but my mood brightens when I see how little Tetris is required to pack two large suitcases and cabin luggage into the boot of a Countryman. The girls are not amused.
What a joy to drive where fellow road users understand lane discipline and courtesy – remember that? And, do I need to mention what an unrestricted Autobahn can do to an ETA? Just two hours in and we have blasted through Germany, skipped across Austria and are barreling down the A22 motorway in Italy towards Verona when a black Brabus Smart Fortwo appears in the mirrors.
Game on! The grip and torque of the Mini enables punchy corner exits, but our young female pursuer is hanging on like a suicidal rodeo rider, the wider-than-itis-long Brabus continually threatening to pivot her into an olive grove. With suspension stiffer than Hugh Heffner (RIP), we have ‘a moment’ ourselves, hitting a monster expansion joint on a curved bridge: It is time to let the banshee pass.
One night in an industrial zone on the outskirts of Verona proves less romantic than the website suggested. We had planned to take more rural roads to Rome but the sat-nav says 14 hours if we avoid motorways so its back onto the A22 towards Florence for lunch.
A terribly British accent directs us to the centre of Fire-and-zee (Firenze, aka Florence). Squeezing through the narrow streets of the old city, taking two stabs at corners filled with volatile Italian pedestrians is not fun. Finding parking even less so. Mini, my ass.
I spot a hand-painted P on a wall and dive down into what appears to be a dingy, makeshift underground parking lot. No office, no ticket; just hand the keys over to a man in overalls who promptly drives off into the darkness. Okay then. We find a produce market and eat like locals, all the while wondering if we will ever see the Mini again.
We do, and so it is onwards to Rome and two nights in a new hotel alongside the warehouse of a wholesaler. A short walk to the train station means no parking woes for the Mini as we box-tick the Colosseum, Forum, and Vatican City.
Next stop is Venice, where we check into a slick new hotel in the heart of the pre-owned car dealer district. The sinking city is all crowded water buses, con artists, and graffiti. Who would have guessed we would be more excited about crunching the miles back to Munich the next day? But hey, we are already planning our next adventure, this time armed with Google Street View.