We had driven down Italy’s west coast as far as Pisa, and were sitting in a Mediterranean-front commercial campground, figuring out what to do. Sharon wanted to see Florence, but the countryside was in the grips of a heatwave, with highs inland in the 90s, so we weren’t going to sit around and tour the city. We wanted to drive in, see what we could, and drive out to the Adriatic side to get back to the (relatively) cooling influence of the seashore. The more I read about Florence, the scarier it got. It’s a medieval city with tiny one-way roads that allow only the smallest vehicles through, plus they have no-go zones for non-residents and massive fines if you stray into the wrong area. There’s a loop around the top of the central zone, roughly following the old city walls, and that’s what I decided to drive.
Set the GPS for no toll roads, pick a few waypoints to give us the route we want, and off we go. We cheated on the way down from the French border – the toll route is four hours, and the non-toll route is twelve as you pick your way down the coastal road through every fishing village. The E80 Autostrada just punches holes in the ridges going down to the ocean and spans the canyons with viaducts. I spent the first half of the trip either underground in tunnels or several hundred feet in the air on my trip down. The nice automated lady’s voice in the exit toll plaza at Pisa relieved me of 39 euros for my four hour toll road adventure and said arrivederci, so I don’t want to make a habit of that. This time we wanted to see the countryside, so non-toll roads it is.
Across the Tuscan countryside up the Arno river valley we went, past golden wheat fields, those columnar cypress trees that tell you you’re sure enough in Tuscany, and tiled farmhouses. It’s all coastal plain until you get to the outskirts of Florence, and my anxiety level steadily climbed as we got closer, the traffic picked up, and the roads got narrower.
I was getting into the Italian driving mode, where lane markers are more like guidelines and turn signals are wasted effort, but my main problem is I was a big van in a swarm of Fiat 500s and motorcycles and scooters. As long as I was fairly predictable they could flow around me like water, but I had to watch ahead, plus check both side mirrors for these jitterbug drivers overtaking me on both sides. I had my hands full. I don’t like to brag, but I never got honked at or received any rude hand gestures all day. Maybe they knew I was doing the best I could.
We got the loop road- SS67 – on the west side of town, crossed the Arno, and hung on for dear life. Sharon was having a ball – looking out her side of the Roadtrek, she spotted the Duomo and the bell tower down these ten foot wide streets we were passing, all in the no-go zone. To her, the lively driving all around us was just part of the show. She took all these photos with her iPad – obviously, I needed both hands, both feet, and some body English to complete my part of the navigational task.
We spotted towers which are remnants of the old city walls, a giant equestrian statue of somebody in the Piazza Della Libertia, and all kinds of amazing buildings centuries old. I breathed a sigh of relief as we came back to the river and headed upstream on the north bank.
Immediately east of Florence the foothills of the Apennine Mountains start – that’s the ridge running down the center of Italy. We were still on SS67, a narrow two lane highway that went through every village and climbed the mountains with a minimum of fancy civil engineering and a lot of switchbacks. It’s pretty much a 10% grade all the way up once you get past Ruffino (of Chianti fame) – I stopped and cooled off the engine once as the coolant temperature reached 220 degrees. Sprinters have a red light overheat warning at 255 degrees or so (right before the radiator cap blows and you boil the coolant); I rely of a Scangauge instead. If I stop at 220ish, I never pressurize my cooling system, and don’t have to worry about how much pressure my hoses can take. I’m retired, I have plenty of time. And the scenery up in the mountains was beautiful.
I was about the only RV on the road – I only saw one headed the other way all day. Most of the traffic were motorcycles, because motorcycle riders are the same the world over – every weekend, they head out to find a challenging road and see if their riding buddies can keep up with them on the curves. It was hilarious to see an oncoming rider leaning into the curve instantaneously straighten up 20 degrees and get back on his side of the road as he rounded the corner and saw the Great White Roadtrek taking up at least half the road. Sprinter Roadtreks are narrow by van standards, but this road was something. When the center line disappears as the road narrows on bad corners and through villages, that’s the engineers throwing up their hands and saying, “y’all figure this out – we don’t have enough road width for two regulation size lanes.”
It was with great relief that we reached the summit (907 meters, almost 3000 feet) and started down the east side through the Parco Nazionale Foreste Casentinesi. First some very steep hayfields appeared, then some terraced vineyards, and then we were descending through a widening valley toward the Adriatic. We checked into a beachfront campground just north of Ravenna – they’re all in the 20 to 25 euro a night range, easy on the budget and surprisingly comfortable – and aquainted ourselves with a new ocean as the day ended. I’ve done this in Florida- coast to coast in a day – and it’s about the same distance, 150 miles or so. This was much more enjoyable – we have literally never seen any of this stuff before. It’s all new to us.