FAILURE TO LANCIA . . .

or . . .

HOW RENTING A CAR IN ITALY TAUGHT ME TO SOLVE PROBLEMS. With my billfold.

at the lancia grill, panicale, umbriaPANICALE, Umbria, Italy – It’s a Saturday. And a civilized, but somewhat early departure. We’re spending the day with Paul and Betty. He’s an Italian wine importer back in the States. They had just blown in from Rome for two intense weeks of wining and dining their way across Italy. And on this particular day we had our tourist plates heaping full. So, chop, chop, let’s go.

We jumped in and fired up the renta-Lancia and . . . WHAT’S THAT NOISE? Better yet, what’s that eerie silence? Key goes in here, turns to the right. Still. Way too quiet. Especially in Lancia Central. No door lights, no seat belt warning ding, ding dings, no radio hum. No, nothing.

Maybe it’s jet lag but Paul’s as baffled as I am. And he has two Prima Donna Lancias he drives daily in Maine. But yet, he throws up his hands at the utter lack of logic here. Did I mention that this car is literally brand new? Exactly zero miles on it when he picked it up in Rome. Zero. Picked it up, turned it on, drove it here non-stop and parked it.

So. There we were. Standing in the shadow of the tower of the contessa’s palazzo, kicking pieces of gravel around the parking lot. And recalculating our finely tuned plans for the day. And thinking of the tone of voice we hope Paul can take with the rental company when he gets them on the phone. About that time, our neighbor Bruno drives by in his 30-year-old, used-to-be red, Fiat Panda. I wave my hi-how’s-it-going, garden-variety wave. I really couldn’t do the omg-save-us! wave. He fixed our howling mad, guest potty two days ago. Gratis. And well, I just couldn’t seem this needy, this soon. Which worked out fine. He waved and kept going, anyway.

There is a God. And he’s got his avenging angel Bruno backing up the one-way street toward us. “Che succede ragazzi?” What’s happening? Where are we off to? Since you ask: We’re headed nowhere, Bruno. Not with this rig. “Open the hood” he says. Ok, I guess we could have gone that far, maybe. He points at the battery, gives us a “What on earth did you do THAT for?” look, rolls his eyes and said “AntiFurto.” Which becomes our new fun Word of the Day and means anti-theft device. And it is what Bruno is calling that iPad sized thing hanging off to one side of the battery, just bristling with important-looking wires. Yes, I was gently nudged out of Iowa State’s Mechanical Engineering program at a young age. It is clear even to me that the idea spot for this AntiFurto to be would on the top of the battery.

gmb pensive Midge castiglione del LagoSo, why was it laying down there in the first place? How did that happen? Which is exactly what Bruno still wants to know as he picks it up, mounts it back on the battery, and cranks its big lever, locking it back in place. He makes that international hand motion sign for “Uh, turn the key?” We do that and it is all systems go. Thanks, Bruno. He shook his head, gave us a sympathetic “good luck” wave over one shoulder and he was gone. Before we can think of some other trouble for him.

And we were left thinking: surely we could have been so much more manly and guy-like if we’d just had coffee first? Yeah, that’s it. So off we go to GMB (in the zona industriale, Castiglione del Lago) to solve that problem. Which, if you haven’t been there, trust me, GMB is sufficient grounds for getting on a plane and curling up with that inflight magazine for a few hours. For me, it is the sweet, pastry-filled center of the known coffee-drinking world.

Happily our truculent Lancia actually got us there. Coffee’d up, there remained the one true test, can it get us back? As it turns out, no, actually. To be fair, it did start when we asked it to. And we were soon barreling up, up the twist-y turn-y hill road past Villa Le Mura when Paul swears he heard a little mechanical “THOCK.” Motivation ceased, our theater went dark. Which was an awkward moment since, as I implied, we going UP hill. Did our AntiFurto fall off again? Is there some sort of fighter jet ejection seat devise that blows this big honking device physically off the top of the battery at road speed?

antifurto italian for anti theftHmm. Did you know they have dayglow roadworker vests in the side pockets of these cars for just this kind of event? We figured that out well after I’d guided Paul backwards down a hill, into a farm driveway totally commando, sans light up vest. Next time, we will use the vest, I think pessimistically.

Safely off the road and parked in the tall grass, we now know enough to pop the hood and sure enough, the rascally Anti-Fur Toe has jumped ship, again. We do what Bruno did, again. It starts, again, and we were soon on the phone telling the rental company to park this one where the sun don’t – oh just get us another one. Please.

havinga-gas-with-lanciaThey were happy to trade us it turns out. But only if we would take life and limb in hand and drag this bad dog to Arezzo. Arezzo?! I’ve been as lost as I ever want to be in Arezzo. It’s an actual town. It may even be a city. I remember well trying to worm my way thru Arezzo to their monthly antique fair a year ago. So, I was tepid about adding this side jaunt to a program that had already taken on shades of Amazing Race reality TV show.

We got there. But only due to Paul being able to drive and coordinate with his smartphone’s nav system at the same time. The system worked. We arrived at the car rental office. We had just talked to them and now the office was securely locked? When we found the operator, and did the key swap, he said, pointing, that our car was “down by the city park.” And yes, yes it was. Right under the Circus Coming to Town billboard was the twin of the Lancia we rode in on. Same color, same model. But yet. We have ignition! The key turns AND the motor turned on.

But, so did the annoying Danger Orange light on the dash shaped like Aladdin’s Lamp. We realized this about half way back across Arezzo, headed out of town. Something new to not relax about. OK, page 22 of the manual, something about that being the Must-Change-Oil-Right-Now light. Oh, good, pop the hood. Well, it’s got oil. Full as a tick, in fact. And you know what? We are so not stopping to change the oil on this back-up rental beater.

Later that same day, by then more closely approximating midnight, we were coming back from a seven course feast at a friend’s osteria in Siena, when Paul said, “Huh, look at that. No more warning light!” To which I was able to proudly reply, “I know. I fixed it” “Where was I?” Paul said unbelieving. “How’d you do that?”

“I fixed it with my billfold,” I replied. He gives me a look. Then looks back at the dash where he notices my billfold propped up in front of the light.”

Another travel problem solved. You’re welcome.

See you in Italy!

Stew Vreeland
pinkpoppie
PS: As you can see we did stop to smell the poppies in the midst of all these adventures. Worth whatever it takes to get to that sweet spot, isn’t it?

What a way to go. Car rental coup d’jour

Usually when it comes to car rentals I’m lucky to get a coupe let alone a coup. Have to say I think I scored a coup this time. First of all, this is no ad. I only wish I got paid for anything I said here. So, we went to Expedia where our daughter had such good luck in Italy last month. Typed in Rome and Nov 1 – Nov 16th and it was $600 plus USD. which isn’t terrible. $300 a week. And as we all know, car rental is a big part of any trip to any place. Necessary evil. But often the trip money we most hate to part with.

But then I thought I’d compare it to Kemwel. They’ve had good prices the last couple times we’ve gone to Umbria via Rome. So, I googled them up and typed in the same exact details. Now, I don’t want to sound brag-y or anything but -$406. For 16 days?! That’s what I thought. Should have seen how fast I got that paid for.

No idea what the deal is. One of the joys of off-season travel? Crisis in Greece? Who knows? Who cares why at this rate. I mean, look at the very next car down. $648. For a TWO door. Versus our FOUR door. And scroll down like maybe three or four cars and there is THE SAME EXACT CAR. For almost $700! And if you wanted that same car with an automatic it was within pennies of $1,300. Holy cats, Batman! I know, I know. Not everyone can drive a stick. But this corn-fed Iowa farm boy, I assure you, can. For that money you can go back to school. Driving School. And learn how to be shifty like me. The absolute only thing I can see different is that on our fab rate the mice type says “off airport supplier.” Well, ok, but for $300 you can shuttle me halfway to Sicily before I start complaining. But still. I thought I ought to do due diligence. So, I called Kemwel and asked and they said I should take the “Advantage” bus right from the curb and it is a five minute shuttle to pick up the car. Don’t worry. If it’s a total bust, I will Man-Up as they say and report back.

I have no idea if this rate is a fluke or that day only or what. Whatever it is, at this price, I’ll take it.

See you in Italy,

Stew Vreeland

Bringing Italy home with us

If you are like us, you get a taste of Italy and you don’t like letting go. We just got back from Italy but some part of us feels that we’re still there basking “Under The Tuscan Sun.”

But! Did we tell you we’re working on a way to stretch out that “being there” feeling? That’s why we’re helping start the first ever Italian Life Expo in Portland, Maine. June 9-11th at the Ocean Gateway right on the harbor, across from lead sponsor Auto Europe’s world headquarters.

madampresidenteDozens of exhibitors including generations-old, but undiscovered family vineyards from Lake Garda to artisans in copper from Montepulciano, prosciutto and cheese makers from Parma to tour operators from Siena, so many shiny objects to hold your attention.

Here’s Midge outside Spannocchia who, with Institute for Italian Studies, are lead presenters of the Expo. One day last week, after this picture was taken, Midge, Paul Turina of Turina Italian Wines, and other board members went into Siena for a festive dinner at Antica Osteria da Divo by Chef Pino di Cicco. Everyone came back raving about him and counting the minutes till they could see him again at the Expo.

Good times coming. If you are in New England this June, the Italian Life Expo may be your ticket to Italy. It’s never been closer.

Tickets go on sale this weekend. Check it out.

See you in Italy!

Stew Vreeland

Food and Wine comes to Panicale

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PANICALE, Umbria, Italy–Our friends Peter and Sarah are packing as we speak to head off to their lovely, newly renovated house in Casamaggiore, in Umbria. They just called last night to ask if we had seen the March ’09 issue of Food And Wine Magazine. It features our Umbrian hilltop castletown of Panicale. Sarah is a great and inspired chef and baker so she has a subscription. It isn’t in the newsstands yet. We’ve checked. But the How to Cook Like You Own an Italian Villa article IS online already.

Matt Molina, a chef at L.A.’s Osteria Mozza stayed at his boss’s house recently. That would be the Panicale home of Nancy Silverton. She is a co-owner of Osteria Mozza and the story line is about Matt’s food adventures all around this part of Italy. I’m getting hungry just reading about Panicale. And all nostalgic as well. But, we are taking action!

LOOK OUT ITALY. HERE WE COME. THE $700 CLUB?

We have plane tickets in hand and happy to have them. We chased prices up one side of the internet and down the other. We’ve made this trip hundreds of times and it’s an adventure buying every time. This time we found very good and reasonable $700 something on Alitalia. Boston to Rome direct. An overnight flight is an overnight flight. Direct flights makes life so much simpler and so much less room for that “Oh, sorry your connecting flight couldn’t wait and oh look there it goes without you” business. Plus, this non-stop flight gets into Roma at 7 AM. I’m good with that. Landing at say 10 or so after pulling an all-nighter finds me much less coherent than at 7.

Our car rental charge for three weeks were in the low $700 range. We went through, as we usually do, Auto Europe. No, this is not an ad. I WISH I got paid for mentioning them! Alitalia? Same non-lucrative deal. Anyway. We ran through our car needs and the bottom line kept coming in just under $900 – for three weeks. Part of the problem, one issue, was that we were coming into the country at 7 AM one day and leaving at 10 AM on the way out of country. So that Three Hour Day became a full day’s charge. Talk about not enough hours in a day. I could pay the charge or hang out watching the clock for three hours. After being up all night? I don’t think so.

So I called Auto Europe back and said “But what if we put our early-morning, post-arrival time to use and headed North by train to Chiusi. And picked a car up there at the train station? Chiusi is easy to get to by train and only ten minutes from our house. No sweat, they were all about that. That not only chopped a day off our bill, but they said they were also able to take off a “Rome airport delivery charge.” That was a new one to me. And in the “That Doesn’t Make Any Sense, But I’ll Take It” category they then said if I picked their car up in Chiusi I could return it to Chiusi or at the Rome airport-–for the same price. Our choice. Here’s what I got out of this exercise: I asked a few questions, had them email a couple written proposals to me, and didn’t take the first rate they gave me. And after a couple five minute phone calls, I had somehow saved almost $200. Highest and best use of my time all week!
springtime in Siena, Tuscany and Panicale, Umbria
LA PRIMA VERA IN ITALIA.

MA! Va le la pena. As they say. Umbria in Spring. In my mind I can almost see it, touch it, feel it. Whatever effort it takes to get us to the promised land is worth it. So, now that the airline and car rental planets have been so nicely aligned, we are holding our breaths and happily counting the days until our mid April touchdown.

Spring is one of the best times in Italy and we can’t wait to see our all our friends there. What a breath of fresh air it will be after a bundled up winter of snow to see the Umbian countryside in all its many shades of green. The fruit trees will be in bloom. And dozens of kinds of flowers, the early bloomers. We especially love the forty-foot-long yellow rose bouquet our house and garden set out on our pergola to welcome us home at this time of year. Grazie, grazie infinite, Casa Margherita.

Non vedo l’ora and I can’t wait, either.

See you in Italy,

Stew Vreeland

The purple and white spring flowers shown above are from Spannocchia outside Siena, Tuscany and the yellow ones are from our garden in Panicale, Umbria

FIRST IMPRESSIONS. ON LANDING IN FLORENCE.

FLORENCE, Italy–“Babbo . . ?” “D’amore?” Italian daddy getting his sleepy, curly headed toddler off the plane. Babbo must have called his son Love or Treasure, I don’t know how many times, just getting out of their seats and into the aisle. Made me ashamed of my parenting skills. I wanted to be that dad and have one of our kids be that lucky toddler for even just that moment. We are in a good place.

RANTS & RAVES. FIRST, THE RANT

FLORENCE, Italy–As I said, we are in a good place. Except. I must do a rant on the new airport. OMG. Has anyone else had this problem? Please tell me it was just us on a bad day. Does anyone else think they’ve ruined the airport with their “renovations”? Who created this mess. I want names. I want them now.

Is this tacky of me? Everyone hates a complainer. In fairness, you may know I have bragged on the Florence airport here for years. Always a favorite. A jewel among airports in my book. I take it all back. They were closed or months to Renovate and all they did was Ruin. Shame, shame. Some how, they did not get the “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” memo. Ok, they had already started the goofy unloading thing where you get off the plane and jam your way onto a waiting bus. Then when it is totally stuffed with people and their bags, the driver puts it in gear and goes maybe half a bus length. And stops. You uncurl yourself from around a pole and get out. Totally Peter Sellers movie material and idiotic but everything else was so charming it was sort of light comic relief. Now it is just another annoyance.

Previously, there was one belt delivering up bags along the back wall of the first room you came to right off the plane/bus. Instant bags. Now there are two or three mini baggage carousels. But no baggage. Not without a wait. There was only one plane on the ground and it was ours. Only maybe 15 people waiting for their bags. And waiting. And waiting. The Italians in the group were throwing blind, running fits. A British expat, the picture of patient patrician ennui, said no bag ever comes in less than half an hour in this new system. Whattheheck. The plane is parked right there at the end of the bus right outside the door to this room. I’ve known Malpensa and believe me this is no Malpensa. Just tiny little Florence. And wait a full half an hour we did. The wait for the bags was almost as long as the flight. Unexcusable. And no excuses were offered to anyone by anyone. The Italians kept yelling at the staff behind the glass partition of Lost Baggage and didn’t even get a shoulder shrug out of them. Baffling.

In an aside here, yes I do know/admit that I have advised heartily against non-carryon bags. For this very reason. I was tricked. They changed the rules on us and only one carry on is now allowed on almost every flight in Europe. I will be blogging on that subject shortly. I have a plan!

oh we got dem mean old rental car blues in Italy this time
SUDDENLY . . . WE FOUND OURSELVES IN A LOWER RING OF CAR RENTAL HELL.

whats not to like in car rental in Italy today?
Oh, I’m wound up now. It use to be you came out of the door to baggage, had the customs guys totally avoid eye contact with you and you were in The Car Rental Zone. In the Arrivals building. Because you had Arrived. Well, the customs guys in the dove grey military uniforms and the German Shepards still act like you don’t exist and the car rental places? They do not exist. They are solid gone. Now you are just dumped directly into the Departures Terminal where you run into a wall of people trying to Depart. No clues to location of auto rentals at all. If you ask around someone may point you out the door. Where you are literally now on the outside looking in.

The building vaguely to the left as you go out the door of Departures is low, concrete and foreboding with chain link and barbed wire on most sides and there is one side with four windows cut in it, facing the parking lot. The concept appears to be that it is never, ever going to rain or snow here and you can just cue up OUTSIDE for your car. In any kind of weather, all year round without so much as a piece of plywood tacked up as a shelter. And you can stand there all you want. The people inside are so confused and distracted that they pay you no mind at all. At least that was our experience at autoEuro???? Their window was covered with notices in every language saying Stay Outside. Then. OK, if you HAVE to come in, one person in a group can maybe come in. BUT NO BAGS. Leave them somewhere? And so there you are. And really outside really looking in between the friendly notices. And no obvious door whatsoever. The only door that potentially could get you in the building is sort of white painted so you can’t see in and all it has to invite you in is three signs. All saying the same thing. All in English. Here’s what they say: Only Staff.

welcome mat is always out at the Florence airport.Naturally, here and in Wonderland, that could mean Come In because everyone is doing that anyway. With bags. I don’t care what their sign says, you can’t “leave bags unattended” in an airport. So you enter this strange world. Blank white walls, no signage, like a regular row of offices in your accountant’s building except with lines of irritable people cue’d up at the doors of each office. The Germans ahead of me had been given a car with at least one flat tire. They couldn’t even leave the parking lot. They had filled a whole sheet of paper with written explanation of their plight and then the frazzled clerk told them to Go to the car and wait and in half an hour someone would be there to fix the flat.

Perfect opening for RyanAir flights to Umbria. Can’t wait to give their Stanstead to Perugia flight a try next trip.

See you in Italy!

Stew

P. S.

I would love to hear positive stories of this new airport, because Florence is totally cool. And we have raves on downtown Florence coming up from the end of our trip. Let me know if this airport debacle was just me? Go to the “Comments” icon right here and tell me your experiences there in Florence.

OK, the next blog is a total rave! Promise. Just felt I had to warn travelers about this big sea change at our formerly favorite airport.