Summer starts, officially, over this long weekend in the US. The Memorial Day holiday ushers in a sense of long days, hot weather, vacations…
And road trips.
It’s an appropriate moment, for an audience of enthusiastic wine lovers, to start a series about driving in wine country. It is more interesting and complex than it sounds, particularly when considering a multi-national perspective: driving in Sonoma, for example, is a far different experience than driving in Burgundy, which is also distinctly different than driving in the Douro Valley of Portugal or McLaren Vale in South Australia.
These past few weeks I’ve had the chance to visit wine country again, as seen from behind the wheel of a rented car while traveling solo internationally. The inspiration for this series struck while driving in Tuscany, from Florence to Montalcino to Arezzo to Greve and back again, as I was faced with a key feature of wine country that’s surprisingly easy to forget: wine is an agricultural product, which means farmland, rural landscapes, small country roads and few highways.
In Tuscany, that can also mean harrowing hairpin turns, ancient hill towns and cobblestone lanes whose margin for error to a driver is as slim as a stiletto.
Happily there’s likely to be wine available at your destination.
Here are five insights about driving in wine country, the Tuscany edition.
First Thing’s First: Pleasure and Privilege
It’s a pleasure and a privilege to experience different parts of the world this way, and the wine world in particular. Many times I’ve come around a bend or crested a hill, and the vista before me was unspeakably, startlingly, achingly beautiful. How deeply fortunate it is, and we are, to spend time in such places as part of our regular work and life. Full stop.
Logistics: Manual Transmission
Every car I’ve ever rented in Europe has been manual transmission; fortunately the car I drive at home (a Mini Cooper) is a stick-shift also, so it’s a comfortable and familiar habit. This is helpful in three ways. First, in Europe, manual transmission cars outnumber automatic cars. Second, manual transmission cars are more fuel-efficient, which matters at the gas pump when filling the tank in Europe currently costs about twice as much as it does in the US.
Third and most importantly, manual transmission cars are more fun, experiential and, in my opinion, give the driver a more intimate experience of machine to road. There is nothing like the visceral vroom of a well-made machine applied to narrow, steep, curvy, challenging Italian roads.
Laugh, Most of All at Yourself
There are comical, nearly skit-ready episodes of renting a car in a country whose language you don’t easily speak.
For example, seeking help from the car rental agent to adjust the dashboard interface from the language of the previous driver (German, in my case, at the Florence airport) to English. It sounds simple but took three native-Italian-speaking agents to figure out.
Or returning the same rental car to an airport whose signage was so unclear and obfuscated that it took me four circuits to finally navigate to the rental lot. It was ridiculous, indeed, and a comedy of the absurd.
Not that I minded.
Logistics, Part Two: The Roads Themselves
It’s worth remembering that towns, and particularly hilltop towns, in Tuscany are historic to the tune of hundreds if not centuries’ worth of inhabitation. Cars, much less highways, did not determine or steer their development. People, and sometimes horses or cows or sheep, determined the organic development of the towns and the (pedestrian) passage from one town to the next. Today, that translates to narrow roads with, in some cases, mere inches to spare between your own car and the gargantuan tour bus careening down the hill toward you at top speed.
A second consequence of the organic development of Tuscan (and other European) towns is parking, which frequently means parallel parking. Because towns developed at their own pace over time, the familiar-to-Americans grid system is nearly non-existent. (In other words, Fourteenth Street does not logically come after Thirteenth Street, partly because there is no Thirteenth Street to begin with.) Turning a corner is a smooth process, not an angular one; in fact there’s barely a 90-degree angle on a road in sight.
Logistics, Part Three: Directions
Consider yourself forewarned: cell reception in rural Tuscany is not great, particularly when working with a US SIM card and data plan. Which makes navigating to a new destination… interesting, whether you’re using GPS, Waze or Google Maps. A “simple” trip when mapped while stationary in a hotel room turns into a labyrinthine journey after one or two missed turns into a dead zone.
Not that I minded.
The takeaway? Allow for plenty of time to go from Point A to Point B. It’s a lesson I suspect we’ll be revisiting several times in the “how to drive in wine country” series ahead.