Driving: Orvieto-Assisi-Florence

We have a new acronym, ABHT, another bloody hill town. (See the blog from October 17.) After schlepping, by train, to lovely Orvieto on Sunday, our next stop was to be Assisi. We had all decided that instead of taking the train from Orvieto and then on from Assisi to Florence, we would drive. This would save us many transfers and schleps to and from train stations with heavy bags. Therefore, after breakfast on Monday morning, Angie and I trekked down to the “new town” part of Orvieto (a pretty painless walk to the funicular and took that down to the train station, which was close to the Hertz office) to pick up a rental car.
When we reached the funicular station, we gasped as we saw the morning mist over the valley. Angie took some cool pictures.
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Like so many things on our trip, the task to pick up the car was more complicated than it needed to be, since the car that was reserved for us was not ready, and had to be picked up by the gofer guy from some place that was not nearby, then washed and vacuumed before we could leave with it. That took close to an hour. None of the in-and-out in 10 minutes that you get at US car rental agencies. We were a tad anxious when the car still wasn’t ready at 11:25, given that we needed to check out of our hotel at 11:30 and that necessitated driving back up some winding roads to the old town. We managed to finally get back to a parking spot near the hotel and while Angie checked us out, I went to our room to get Pat and Janet, and start hauling our bags downstairs. The hotel people didn’t seem too unhappy that we were cutting the timing so fine but Angie and I tend to be rule followers and we don’t like to inconvenience people. The hotel has a 11:30 AM checkout and a 1:30 (13:30) checkin so we know they would need the time to prep the room if they had more guests arriving.
So, my first experience ever driving in Italy was driving a car I’d never driven before (Fiat 500L). With a stick shift, which I haven’t driven in over 10 years. On streets that were barely wider than the car. In the mountains.
The first thing I had to get used to was finding first gear instead of trying to start from third. Only took two or three tries. Then we had to load the car with four suitcases, four backpacks, a bag of food and four women, and head off toward Assisi, the second hill town on this leg of the trip. The descent from Orvieto was challenging, especially since Angie prefers to drive when we are riding on switchbacks and I was worried about making her feel ill. But we had set things up so only I could drive so that’s the way it was. It was actually ultimately for the better because we work best when I drive and Angie navigates, since she’s a very good navigator. We plugged along and got onto a highway and started thinking about LUNCH! There are supposed to be a ton of cute hill towns in Umbria, though we didn’t really know what was a hill town and what wasn’t. Seeing a sign for Perugia, Angie and I decided that it would be a good spot for lunch. The name sounded familiar and we were sure Rick would have some recommendations for places to eat there.
So, I wound the car up the mountain, around more switchbacks, looking for parking near the center, in an attempt to minimize walking and steps/hills. I’m sure you can imagine how that worked out, and if you are friends with Pat Powers on Facebook, you don’t have to imagine.

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When we parked, Angie got out the Rick Steves and discovered he doesn’t even mention this town. But she knew she’d read about it somewhere. So she pulled out her iPad, on which she’d downloaded a Rough Guide book about Italy. She found the Perugia section and some recommendations, including a pizzeria that they said was probably the best in Umbria. We plugged the name of the rough address into Apple Maps and started up the hill, much to the concern of Pat and Janet. On the up side, there were some tremendous views from this lovely town.

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Another tangent here. I am famous for my tangents. On this part of the trip at least, we’ve found that Apple Maps is more useful than Google, which seems to not know where we are some of the time. Sometimes, I try both but we’ve generally had more luck with Apple and the English male voice of Siri.
Back to the story. We trekked up and up, climbing some shallow but steep steps. Janet and Pat wanted to give up and just pick a random place, but suddenly, we were there. We walked into a full restaurant and the warm glow of a real wood burning pizza oven.

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We took a number, though we were the next in line. Fortunately, a group was getting up to leave within moments of our arrival. We sat down and perused the menu. Angie and I picked out a pizza each and Pat and Janet picked one to share. I was pretty hungry but I assumed I’d have some leftovers to take with me. I picked the Margherita. When it came, I was a bit disappointed at the sparse offering of basil on it. However, I have to say this was the absolute tastiest pizza I’ve had in Italy to date. I ended up eating pretty much the whole thing, though I did insist everyone else at the table try it. Yum yummy yum. The place was named Pizzeria Mediterranea, and I can see why people queue up to eat there. I would go out of my way to eat there again.
We wandered back down to our parking space through a small market. We bought some olives. Janet bought some cannoli (though it was not as satisfying as we hoped), and we headed on to Assisi.
This is another hill town, attractive to tourists primarily becuase it is the birthplace of St. Francis of Assisi and home of some major Cathedrals related to him and St. Clare (Chiara in Italian).
Angie is going to do the blow-by-blow for Assisi in a separate post, since it didn’t do a lot for me and two nights was more than enough.
I’m focused on the car-related parts of these few days, including our delightful effort to get into, park and find the flat in Assisi. The instructions as we read them implied that we needed to park in a lot outside the main part of the town and be guided to the flat by someone representing the flat owners. Or something. We drove all the way to the top of the town trying to figure out where we were supposed to go, and then back down to one of the parking lots. We called the rep, who said we were in the wrong parking lot, so we had to figure out how to pay how to get out (go to a kiosk and give a person our money) and go and park in a different lot. We parked and rode up an elevator, confused because we had been told we would take an escalator. The elevator brought us out to an indoor area with a coffee/gift shop. We wandered around and found another lift, and took that, but it was unclear where to go next. We called the rep again, but she wasn’t much help. We asked for help in the coffee shop, which directed us back up the second elevator. But where to go from there? We finally figured out that we needed to walk up a ramp to reach the escalator. Except it wasn’t one escalator, it was a series of three! We finally got up those escalators to find we still had an uphill walk to the square where our flat was located and we were met by the woman who was to let us in. It turned out that the confusing instructions were supposed to direct us to DRIVE to the square in front of St. Chiara Cathedral to drop our bags at the flat (which the rep never mentioned any of the times I called her), after which we were supposed to drive back down to leave the car at the named parking lot! The instructions mentioned “the square” but not which square, nor the order of operations.
I was pretty worn out by this point. Driving up and down winding hills is hard enough without not knowing exactly where you have to go. I did not raise my voice, but I did make it as clear as I could to the woman who met us that there were some details in the directions that seemed to have been left out and that I was not a happy camper. Let’s face it, Angie and I have a few degrees between us and we are not dumb women, but the directions went from A to E without clearly explaining where B, C and D came into play. Not one escalator but three, plus two lifts and a walk! Not to mention the bit about parking in the square. I was even more disturbed when I found that our “flat” had no kitchen. It turned out there wasn’t really much of a grocery store in the upper town, but we found ways to make it work (and the folks in the little market near our flat were lovely!). The flat did have a fridge and a crappy coffee maker. The coffee was good but making it was too messy so we stuck to the crappy kettle!
But, if you think that was hard, wait till I tell you about trying to drive in Florence!
We left Assisi for Florence on Wednesday morning. It was much more straightforward for us now we knew what we were doing. Angie and I went to get the car and bring it back up to the square so we could load up, and we were on our way. Getting out of Assisi was pretty easy and we worked our way toward Florence with one stop at an outlet mall that had a McDonalds, where we didn’t eat enough. You’d think we would have learned that lesson by now, but getting into the flat turned out to be a bit challenging once again so it was late by the time we ate and every one was a bit worn out again.
Florence has very rigorous rules about driving and parking in the center of the city. Even if you drive accidentally into what is essentially the congestion zone, you can get hit with a hefty fine, and you can get fined for every time you do it, even if you do it on the same journey. Therefore, Angie was working with the route mapped on my phone and a map of the restricted zones laid out on her iPad. With only a little trial and error (mainly due to heavy traffic and the rain that had descended upon us), she managed to navigate us into the best parking lot for us to get to the Air bnb flat we were staying at in Florence and as best as we could tell, without going into the zone. I had to walk to the entrance to the parking garage to send a message to the manager of the unit that we were on our way. We were supposed to text when we were half an hour away, so we figured by the time we got ourselves organized and found a cab or cabs to take us the short distance to the flat, someone would be there with the key. Except, despite Rick Steves saying there would be cabs outside the parking garage, there were none to be found, and it was raining. So, we talked among ourselves and decided we would gird our loins and walk to the flat, which was less than a mile. The longest part was waiting for a traffic light to change so we could cross a square, so the walk was pretty straightforward if you don’t count the rain. When we got to the flat, we didn’t know where to go because it appeared the person due to meet us hadn’t arrived! We waited about an hour! Either my text that we were on our way hadn’t gone through or something had gone wrong on the other end. Oh, and the flat on the 4th floor was up over 80 steps!
We were again pretty frustrated and tired by then, especially since the rental car needed to be returned near the airport as well. Angie and I took a deep breath, went to the loo, and waded back out to the parking garage to take the car to the airport. Being dusk and a bit miserable out, this was another challenging driving experience for me. The traffic was heavy but at least Angie’s navigation was spot on. However, we were not helped by the fact that the first gas station we came to (so we could return the car with a full tank) was impossible to get out of in such a way that we could get in the far left lane to get to the car rental center. Which meant we took a nice long detour on the highway before being able to double back and get to the dropoff place. Dropping the car at Hertz was the easiest thing we had done all day. We then had to wait for the shuttle to the airport terminal, then take a bus to the downtown train station to get back to the flat. We paused at the station to buy our train tickets for Saturday (three changes was the best we could do to get from Florence to Nice!), found a very hectic grocery store where we could pick up supplies, and then worked our way back to the flat on foot to our very concerned and hungry relatives, arriving at 7:30 PM. They had at least had some snack food, while Angie and I realized we had only eaten a handful of potato chips since our very inadequate McDonalds lunch. Remember the lesson. Eat well when you have the opportunity when traveling! We had a lovely dinner of soup and salad, chased down by homemade lemonade and ouzo before falling into our beds.

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