One chilly January morning Tanya, Sveta and I and I were sitting at Sveta's house, sipping coffee and staring at an old globe. After years of somewhat quiet family life, having raised nine children between the three of us, we had decided to have a girls’ night out. We all needed some friend therapy. Though one night would definitely not be enough. How about ten days? Sounds better! On another continent? Even more so! Where to? "Italy!" we said all together. Of course! Espresso, chianti, pasta, shopping, museums, hot springs and Italian hairdressers... No doctor could give a better prescription!
Two months later, after a five-hour-long delay, eleven hours of flight and a short but very intense sprint run through our connecting airport we dip into the thick Italian night, our suitcases happily rattling behind us on the weathered pavement of the narrow streets near Rome's Termini station.
Three days in Rome passed in a blink. Vatican museums, Villa Borghese, Spanish stairs, Piazza Navona, and of course Via del Corso, all topped with a generous amount of gelato, chianti and pasta did wonders for us!
It was time to move north for new adventures, so we went to pick up our rental car. As is often the case, the car we reserved wasn't available. This is sadly common when it comes to car rentals, in spite of reservations. ‘We will give you a nice and big SUV instead,’ said the clerk behind the counter. ‘But we wanted a small car!’ we said, having heard of the narrow streets so abundant in Italian towns. Unfortunately only the huge SUV was available. Probably because nobody wanted it...
Half an hour later we made it out of a multistory parking building, praising our brave driver Sveta. Navigating through Rome’s streets was quite exciting. Though not as exciting as our taxi ride a day before, when the driver crossed four lanes all at once and then began speeding on a tram rails while heading the wrong direction for some thirty seconds which to us felt like eternity. ‘Nothing could beat that excitement!’ we thought. But life is truly unpredictable...
Finally we left Rome behind and merged onto the highway.
It was already lunchtime. We were hungry after all the morning hassle, so we looked at our map, hoping to find a good place to eat. There it was: an old family restaurant with very good reviews, in a small town not too far from the exit. Perfect!
We pulled off the highway and into the picturesque Italian countryside. Green meadows and fields, soft rolling hills... only one lonely, steep hill with a spattering of stone houses tightly packed on top seemed to break the scene. In Italy, there are many small medieval towns that were built on hilltops and fortified with thick stone walls. Our navigation system guided us up the long, spiraling road.
Looking out the windows and admiring the weathered limestone walls, colorful doors, and flower pots, we hardly noticed when the street became narrower. At some point we were almost brushing the walls with our side mirrors. We had the strange feeling of sliding into a bottle’s neck. To our relief, we emerged into the central piazza. It was the smallest piazza I’d ever seen. But even so every attribute was in place: a cathedral, a museum, and a couple of benches. There were even four parking spots. And by some miracle, one was free! We had a delicious lunch and felt recharged enough to go back onto the road to face new adventures and discoveries.
Our first interesting discovery was awaiting us sooner than we expected: the street by which we arrived, had one-way traffic.
There was only one street leading out of the square into the unknown maze of narrow lanes.
We slowly squeezed between the buildings in our car, mirrors folded. Walls were closing in on us – the street seemed to become more and more narrow the further we went. And there it was: a stone wall at the end of the street.
It wasn't a complete dead end, just a T-intersection. But our car was a tad too long to maneuver... We thought maybe one of us could step out and help the driver navigate through the intersection and that way we might make it out of the trap. In reality, the space between our car and the surrounding walls was too narrow: we couldn’t even open our doors.
Our car was like Winnie the Pooh stuck in Rabbit's doorway, blocking all the other traffic from getting out of the town. The only difference was that dieting wouldn’t help… Our only hope was that some wizard with a magic wand would arrive to save us.
And heaven really sent us a wizard. The old man wasn't wearing a star-covered hat, and instead of a wand he had a shopping bag in his hand. "Oh-la-la!" - he said, nodding at our car and looking around. "Oh-la-la" were the right words to describe the situation, indeed. We flashed him our bravest smiles and said that we just want to leave the town. He said that’s a very good idea: our car was blocking the entrance door to his house!
Meanwhile, other people started gathering around us. Not because they didn’t have anything more interesting to do, but simply because we were blocking the entire intersection for cars and pedestrians alike.
Signor with the shopping bag quickly organized a rescue team.
For some time we were surrounded by shouts of "Dritto-dritto! Left! Right! Pull forward! Go back!" One lady was shouting her navigation advice from an open window on the second floor, entering the role of a professional dispatcher. The guys around us were working smoothly, as one team. Perhaps it was not the first time that they had to rescue strangers stuck in this intersection.
In the span of a few minutes what seemed before to be impossible came to reality: we made that turn, and accompanied with loud cheers, we went down the street to long-awaited freedom.
Villagers waved goodbye to us, and we saw hope in their eyes that they would never see us again.
It wasn't until we arrived at Pisa that we realized that cars without special permits are prohibited in most historic centers due to the narrow streets and a lack of parking. So we got lucky twice: made it out of the town without a scratch and without getting fined. Maybe it isn’t such a bad idea to read the road signs before entering small towns?..
The rest of our trip was pure relaxation. With the small exceptions of accidentally pulling an alarm in a restaurant in Parma, getting lost inside an old apartment building in Milan, burying and then digging up our corkscrew near the walls of Milan's Duomo (because corkscrews are not allowed inside the cathedral), losing each other in Florence (we agreed to meet under the naked male statue and there are dozens of them in the center), and a few other little adventures that occasionally happen to travelers. One day we’ll get on the road together again! Where to next time?..