Towns / Cities Visited: 145
Countries Visited: 25
Steps Taken Today: 10,244
Steps Taken Around the World: 3,745,278
The day had finally come for us to begin the next stage of Operation Italy, and thus, rolling out of bed and gathering our belongings, we bid farewell to our temporary home. As seemed to be custom for us in Milan, leaving proved to be just as problematic as arriving was. Despite following our host’s instructions to hand our keys to the receptionist of the nearby building, she wasn’t having a bar of it and we had to wait for our host to frantically come and pick up the keys himself. Not to be downtrodden, we hurried of to the nearby Metro station to shuttle us to the Central train station. Now, don’t panic, we were not going to be having another episode of ‘Italian Rail Services Battle Royale’, we were simply here to reach the nearby Hertz Car Rental store. You see, part two of our adventure involved a good old road trip.
Regardless of our somewhat shambolic, emotional rollercoaster of a visit to Milan, the friendly man in charge of organising our rental exemplified everything a good customer service worker should be: friendly, welcoming, upselling without being pushy, and full of well wishes for our journey ahead. We may have entered the store a little frazzled by the morning, and tired of waiting by the time we were called up from our place amounts the hordes of others seeking a vehicle, but by the time we left he had put us in perfect stead to begin our journey full of excitement. He was a shining light and one of the only redeeming features of a city which had been otherwise nonchalant towards us, and for this we were extremely grateful.
It was a relatively painless operation to find our car, and note down the few extra scuffs not marked on the paperwork, and in no time we were bundling into our roomy SUV. In this instant our excitement bubbled over a little into the pot of trepidation as my partner stared down the beast of sitting behind a steering wheel on the left side of the car. Even as a passenger, it felt equally as unnatural to clamber into the right side and find myself not faced with the car’s controls. This was to be the first time we took on the challenge of driving on the right side of the road, and with slightly sweaty palms all round, and at a slight snail’s pace, we set our GPS for our midway destination, and crept out of the multi-storey car park and onto the bustling streets of Milan. For those of you who have never experienced it, driving on the opposite side to all of your former life experience, is mildly terrifying at best. Luckily the GPS took the stress out of navigation, so we could just purely concentrate on turning corners without colliding with oncoming traffic, and not going around roundabouts in the complete wrong direction.
Eventually we made it out onto the highway, although I will admit that we were somewhat confused by their toll system which saw us taking a ticket from a machine without having to pay, although it would all make sense later when we discovered you don’t have to pay to get on the road, only to get off it, as the toll depends on how much of the road you actually use. That being said, the tolls are a little exorbitant, especially considering that the only other way to get to most places is to take back roads that take up to five times as long. Nothing like ransoming off road usage.
As we sped along, we noticed one Italian stereotype has some pretty solid footing; there are some crazy drivers around, that’s for sure. As we made our way along at the signed speed limit, we were rather startled to watch cars weaving in and out of traffic at breakneck speed, cutting so close in front of people as they changed lanes that part of me was convinced we were about to become part of some horrendous, multi-car, high-speed pile up. It felt like being a kid who’s still lacking confidence on their bicycle, taking on riding on the road for the first time. As a few impatient motorists honked us before tearing past, we did our best not to let is rattle us, and after an hour and a half we were pulling off the highway and ducking into the regional northern town of Parma.
The point of our road trip, aside from simply making it easier and more convenient to criss-cross to all of the places on our list, was to take the time to visit places simply to enjoy their ambience and taste some food away from the mass produced, carelessly slopped-out fare so common in the tourist filled cities. Parking in a central car park beside a mall, we unfurled out of the car, stretched the stiffness out of our legs, and wandered off down the main street. Rich colours splashed across the buildings bring life to the street, and the identical shutters donning each and every building provide a unique sense of unity and consistency.
Finding very few dining options on the main strip, we ducked off down the winding side streets, keeping our eye out for something affordable but appealing. After a brief look, and with hunger pulling at us, we spotted a small trattoria. Peeking in, we spotted a group of men in suits talking business over a plate of pasta and a glass of wine. Assuming it unlikely that these businessmen were using the company credit card to fund mediocre dining, and with the menu offering to fulfil our desires, we headed in.
Before long, we had ordered and were chatting happily away over a cheeky lunchtime drink as our platter of freshly sliced local Parma ham and aged parmesan was set down before us with a basket of bread. It made for such a pleasant change after yesterday’s tourist trap Milanese meal. By the time our main course of handmade pasta reached the table we were finally convinced that our hope for a successful culinary adventure was finally had a chance of coming to fruition.
Inspired by our meal, fuelled by the fact that the nights Airbnb was equipped with a full kitchen, and impressed with the quality of the local small goods, our contented waddle back to the car included a detour into a local delicatessen to pick up some Parma ham in order to concoct something tasty for our evening meal. Nearing the car park once more, we spotted a gelateria, so naturally we headed over for a sweet treat before we completed our drive. With a huge array of flavours, each more appealing than the next, we eventually managed to make a decision and scurry back to the car just before the heavens opened and the rain began to fall.
Another hour and we were arriving at our final destination, Bologna, and checking into our accommodation in the northern suburb of Castel Maggiore. A trip out to our first large supermarket since arriving in the country made for a fun hour of rifling through the plethora of foreign products, including a truly mindboggling selection of dried pastas and antipasti options. As a chef, and just generally as someone obsessed with food, there has always been something cathartic for me about grocery shopping, and doing so in new countries was fast becoming a new hobby of mine. Picking up some chicken, tomato paste, and fresh buffalo mozzarella, we headed home to cook up a ‘naked’ version of an Australian favourite, the chicken parma.
Eager to be well rested to explore Bologna the following day, we tucked ourselves into bed before too long. As I lay there, my mind swirling in the dark, my heart found some peace knowing that our journey would not be solely full of overpriced tourist meals. After our experience in Milan I had been concerned that as travellers with almost non-existent Italian language skills we were doomed to endure a lesser culinary experience. Today had melted the chill of those fears, and in its place there was a warm glow of joy radiating from the knowledge that this country so renowned for its gastronomic delights, was likely to deliver more often than not. Would we have other lacking meals due to time restraints and proximity to major tourist attractions? Unfortunately, the likelihood was high. With that said, would there be paths less travelled, and chance discoveries, spruiking mouth-watering morsels which would season our trip with unforgettable memories far outweighing the mar of unsavoury experiences? Undeniably. With travel, we must take the bad with the good, but we must never let the bad take away from the good. We must wash the bitter taste of misfortune from our mouths and seek out sweeter encounters.