I’ve never been a very lucky person. And the only raffle I ever won was for a bottle of “two-buck Chuck”. If you can call that winning. But every now and then, the travel god’s do smile on us. And sometimes that smile lasts for a few days, or weeks.
I recently did a 2 week trip to Italy, centered around the Formula1 Grand Prix race in Monza. Most of my adult life has involved a passion for cars…and fast ones. Since Italian wine is another passion, a trip to tour Italy’s wine regions coupled with the car race seemed the thing to do. And since my wife is not a car nut, I decided to do this adventure alone. That may explain why a lot of good fortune followed me for 2 weeks (sometimes traveling alone has its rewards). Always the independent traveler I set out with a fairly loose schedule, intending to merely wing it. I did pre-book a few places, but figured I could always change the plan. I did.
My first stop after the long USA to Italy flight was in the northern Alps area of Italy…a place called Aosta valley. Awesome beauty, not too crowded, and well located for exploring scenic mountains and villages. Driving to Aosta was a breeze. But finding the hotel I booked was a daunting task…took me 2 hours driving in circles, parking and walking, and trying to follow directions by locals (in Italian). As I finally located the small place I started to think the travel gods were against me. Although Aosta is a cute town, it’s very small, and so is the hotel. And I felt like I was getting a cold. And my plan was to stay here several nights and explore the area’s scenery. Maybe things will turn positive on day 2?
After a tough 1st nights sleep, even with excessive grape medicine, I awoke with a new attitude. And a new plan. Check out early and head off to Rome. Now if I can only get the hotel guy to let me leave early with no penalty, and if only I can book my favorite Rome hotel. Praise be, the travel gods are at work. Turns out the hotel really needed my room for someone else. And on-line I was able to secure the Rome reservation…they had a cancellation. Good timing is everything!
The drive from Aosta to Rome takes about 6 hours. Traffic is light and weather perfect. And my car is a Volvo convertible. Open air, and fun. Another piece of good fortune. I’ve often tried for a convertible but never connected before. Things are looking great
Since I’ve driven to, and into Rome before, I arrive with no mistakes. And with good fortune it’s only 3pm, so no city traffic. I breeze into the Borghese parking garage with intention to pay to park for 3 days. Pricey but convenient. Oops, wrong turn into garage…I enter the rental car area. Heck, since I have a Hertz car maybe I can talk the counter girl into letting me park there. I have doubts. But the travel gods are smiling and I’m able to schmooze the nice girl into a free parking spot. She then gives me a “get out of garage free” ticket to use when I leave. Now one last request…can she get me a taxi to take me to the hotel. You bet…yes!
Traffic in inner city Rome is always a zoo. And now it’s getting towards rush hour, and besides it’s September. So lots of tourist all over the place. Glad the taxi guy is a typical aggressive Italian. Actually he drives like me. As we approach my hotel, the streets are closed by security people. We get stopped. “What gives”, says the driver (my guess for his Italian). “Cinema”, says the cop. A movie? Yep, turns out my hotel is center stage for the new Julia Roberts movie, “Eat, Pray, Love”. We get admitted so I can check in. Cool, a movie being filmed outside my hotel. And even, more luck, just outside my room’s window. I can even see the balcony across the way where most of the movie takes place. The good timing continues.
After a fast unpacking, I head off to St. Peters…it’s now about 5pm. No crowds this time of day. Perfect for getting some great “no people in the picture” pictures of the Basilica inside. Even a shot of the St. Peter statue with no people. Timing. And as the sun sets, it pours onto the main altar through the small windows in the cupola. An amazing effect and almost religious. The travel gods, or ???
For 3 days in Rome the sun shines. And the temperature is not too bad. I see everything as usual, and eat my brains out in my favorite places. As I depart, with my “get out of garage free” pass, I’m thoroughly satisfied. Hope the rest of the journey is as good. Or better?
My original plan after Rome was to go back to the Alps and drive some of the mountain roads and take lots of pictures. But something called me in the Piemonte region…I’ve heard Barolo wine is Italy’s best. And besides I’ve not been to that area yet in my travels. Since I also do a wine blog, I have some contacts in the US and in Italy. A friend the in States told me about a well respected restaurant in the Barolo area, that also has rooms. So before leaving Rome I got on-line and took a chance. I sent Nino Rocco, who runs Da Felicin in Monforte, an e-mail. Any possibility of a room for 3-4 nights? Normally they are booked in September, but amazingly he accommodates me. And since he’s heard I write travel and wine articles, he goes above and beyond. I nab an apartment in their new building! Bedroom, kitchen, nook, balcony, etc. All just recently renovated. And for a major discount, since I offer to write his place up on my blogs. Timing, timing, timing.
Nino treats me like family. I get a private tour of his wine cellar, and a list of local producers to contact. And on my first night’s stay, he treats me to a full course 3 hour dinner! I only pay for wine. So what the heck, a vintage Barolo (probably costs more than the dinner). From 9pm to midnight I indulge. And finish the bottle alone. Amazing food, great wine, and personal service. It doesn’t get any better than this. The only down side, is my apartment is in a separate building from the restaurant, and up a steep cobble stone street. Thank the travel gods I’m walking…although not too well.
Another 4 days in Italy and the sun continues to shine. Top down travel through the Piemonte and up into the Italian Alps. Lots of miles, smiles, and photos. Lots of great lunches and awesome northern Italian wines. Life is good. Could it get better?
The Formula1 Italian Gran Prix is at Monza, just outside Milan. Extremely crowded always…and race time is a nightmare. Where to stay? Realizing Lake Como, and Bellagio, are less than an hour from the track, I opt for a special small place my wife and I love. It’s called Perlo Panorama and sits high up above the town of Bellagio. Tremendous views, nice friendly family (we get a Christmas card from them every year), and low prices. Since I’m a long time, returning guest I score a “sort of suite” room. Big, with a balcony and view to take your breath away. The travel gods continue to smile. And so do I. Now on to the race.
Before leaving for this trip I attempted to contact Formula1 press department. I want to do an “inside the ropes” story and hope I can get some type of press access. No luck, but hey I only write a blog. Then another idea…what about contacting the television media that does the race? So I e-mail SpeedTV, a division of Fox Sports. Can they somehow get me inside? They respond “no”, but say they will forward my request on to Peter Windsor. He does the pit interviews for all the Formula1 races. I expect to never hear any more on the subject. Wrong! Within hours, Peter e-mails me back. He invites me to meet him at his hotel, near Monza, and maybe he can borrow some credentials to get me in. We set a time and I’m encouraged.
Peter is very gracious, but over dinner he says it might not work out. Oh well, at least I had the “good fortune” to meet with him and talk Formula1. But it does get a bit better. He invites me to the Saturday evening pre-race party in Como. At the Palace Hotel. On the water in Como. Free. I accept, of course. Could it get better? At the party there is lots of food, wine, and many race fans. Great conversations. Peter shows up and gives a short talk. Afterward I stop over to thank him for inviting me. He’s seems glad to see me, and introduces me to his partners (they are forming a new race team for the 2010 season). Ken Anderson is his technical partner and a wine nut. They tell me they need a “team wine” which I could help with. “But of course” I say. They invite me to dinner so we can chat about cars and wine. The travel gods continue to smile.
Race day is Sunday. But Friday and Saturday are practice days, and almost as much fun. And less crowded. On Friday I take the train from Lake Como to the Monza track. Great choice. No driving and parking to worry about, and the train station is literally at one of the track entrances. My timing is perfect as I arrive during the height of the Friday practice. Few people, leaving the bleachers empty and affording great photos and video. I’m in car nut heaven. As practice ends people start milling about. I head for the pit/press areas. Maybe I can just stroll in like I belong. It works. Although not the total inner sanctum, I am in the general press area just in time to see the press folks hovering around Ferrari’s new driver Fisichella. I get some up close photos, just like the real press people. Timing.
As the practice session comes to a close, I head out to the train station. I suck down a cold beer as the train arrives. Back to Lake Como and a relaxing evening. But nature has a surprise for me. Up to now the weather was perfect, clear and warm. As I settle in for the evening a typical Alps storm approaches. Wow, lots of lightning and thunder. All out over the lake. I grab the camera and get some awesome lightning shots. And some cool video with booming thunder. Could it get better. Absolutely…a brilliant rainbow at sunset. The travel gods smile again.
The Gran Prix is everything I could hope for. And the entire trip was amazing. Good weather, good scenery, good food, good wine, and good fun. Too bad I have to go back home. If only the flight was not so long and uncomfortable, even in Business Class. Well the travel gods smile once more. I always arrive at the ticket counters pretty early. I love to chat with the agents and schmooze. “I’d be pleased to take an upgrade to First” I joke. Especially since this plane is a 777 that has cubicle like “seats” big enough for a small family. I love these areas with a full size bed, a small secondary seat, a work table, and 2 windows that you can swivel your seat to face. After our good chuckle about an upgrade, I get my final piece of travel fortune. Turns out the agent has newly married friends…and they need an additional Business Class seat so they can travel together. Presto…I give them my seat, and I am now in First. It’s all about timing! And I thank the travel gods.