A Road Trip: Panda Conquers Italy (Part Two)
By James Wong
There can only be a few experiences that can top waking up to a beautiful Tuscan morning in the countryside. The crisp air would, at first, invigorate your senses, pulling you out from a night’s slumber. Walking outside of your heated room, you’ll then realise how perfect the weather is – cloudless skies, temperate temperatures, a warm sun on your back – but best of all, is when you notice the serenity of the surroundings. Not a sound can be heard for miles around, and here you can literally experience true tranquility. Sometimes a lone car or two would pass on the nearby roads, giving hints of civilisation in this otherwise natural paradise. The morning certainly made the drive the night before worthwhile, as we weren’t quite sure what to expect when light came and showed us what we have driven into.
We took a slow drive towards Greve, where we had breakfast in a cafe that was open. I don’t know if it’s an Italian thing to do, but on several occasions we had to park on the kerb (note, not next to the kerb) because there was simply a lack of parking space anywhere remotely nearby. Seeing as how others were doing it too, we just followed suit. It was rather hilarious seeing the tall Panda mounting a high kerb rather clumsily, giving the impression that it would topple anytime. It, however, did nothing of the sort, instead only waiting faithfully for us until we came back, like a loyal dog sitting un-leashed.
We planned to make Greve a hub from which we would drive to the nearby towns and cities. On the first day, we explored the little Tuscan towns which surrounded Greve. What made these towns most intriguing is the roads that led toward them – undulating mountain passes, sweeping long lanes and sometimes terrifying hairpins. There was even a point in time when the GPS pointed the car towards a mind-boggling one-way dirt path down through a plantation to reach the main road on the other side. I was extremely reluctant because once we went down that way, there is no way to turn around and go back up. Hesitantly, trusting the intelligence of my GPS which has served me well, I went down the hill.
Thankfully, it led to the correct road. Despite the rather challenging roads, the Tuscan countryside was undoubtedly one of the best drives of the trip. The quaint untouched towns were most spectacular, offering a myriad of superlatives, ranging from housing the best Italian butchers of the country, to having the most breathtaking scenery. Some towns were also almost free from tourists, so much so that we could smell the home-cooked pasta in the air, hear the children playing in the garden and look at people putting out the laundry.
The Panda dished out as much fun as it could muster here, but once it had to move upslope, the engine lost breath all the time, requiring rapid downshifting to keep pace with the traffic. This is not forgetting that it had a heavy load of three persons and some luggage. It however, revs willingly up to its redline, unlike some of its diesel counterparts which would be useless in the upper echelons of the rev band. This is most impressive. In the corners, its height also limited its potential, as it has a wonderful chassis underneath that tall box, which loves to be chucked around, and would be, if not for the sensation of almost tipping over in spirited cornering. I would expect the Fiat 500, which is based on the Panda, to fare much better on these roads. Fuel consumption remains stunning despite my hard driving style, although diesel does cost twice as much here as it does at home in SIngapore.
The next day we planned to head towards Florence. A nightmare for any driver by any measure, judging from all the stories I have heard. The drive towards the mighty city was actually quite bearable, if not a bit too long, but where it started to get bad was when we entered the walls of the city. Traffic was unusually low at this time of the year (End Winter) but parking was as usual almost non-existent. We practiced our well-versed kerb parking here again, confident that we will not be fined because everybody was doing it.
Walking down the street however, seeing foreboding bodies of cars having their wheels removed, lying on the road with the horrifying parking fine plastered on the windscreen made us think twice. Did we really make the right decision?
Certainly, when in Rome do as the Romans do, but are we going to risk a fine and even a missing wheel or two? In the end, after weighing the risk and the time we had left, we stubbornly left the car at the kerb to fend for itself. Seeing more victims of illegal parking, we had then realized that cars which still had their wheels on had some sort of parking permit pasted on their windscreen. We had no idea how to obtain it, or why it offered so much privilege, so we continued our way into the city.
After several hours of touring, we walked back cautiously to our car, afraid of what we might see. Nearing the car, we were relieved to see it still had its wheels intact. However, we weren’t so lucky this time. We were fined (probably by the Carabinieri, Italy’s Military Police) for some offence we couldn’t decipher. And the amount? 106 Euros. Certainly a painful lesson learnt.
Our next stop was in Bologna, Italy’s forward-looking industrial city. We took the Autostrada again, finding ourselves passing many tolls along the way. In fine Italian tradition, the Panda’s driver power window started to make strange noises, possibly because of a weakening motor overused by winding up and down to pay for tolls. On several occasions I found myself praying that it would wind back up because if it didn’t, we could have quite a situation on our hands!
The drive was surprisingly very short, and our first stop was at the Maserati factory at Modena. The Panda offered little image by way of being glamorous, and when we approached the front gate of the factory the guards gave us a curious glance and ordered us to park outside of the factory. Fancy this is how they treat one of their customers… But in Italy, image is important and we weren’t dressed to the nines either. In fact we just looked like a trio of lost tourists. Making our way into the factory from the carpark under the flyover, we saw at least a dozen Quattroportes and Granturismos out for their first test drive at the factory carpark. Maseratis have at least a test drive of a few tens of kilometers before they are delivered to their customers to ensure they are in good working condition.
Entering the factory, I was surprised by how cold and efficient it looked. I couldn’t really imagine how such a factory could produce such passionate cars like the Granturismo. A fantastic tour guide, an Italian himself driving an Alfa Romeo, brought us to the production lines of Maserati. Because of security reasons, I was not allowed to take any photos. The production line was clean, well-lighted and had pre-designated paths on where visitors could walk.
Each assembly line has a timer which counts down while the craftsmen assemble the car. As with the tradition of Maserati, each and every car is bespoke and as such has very specific requirements and specifications. This makes production much more intimate and less mass-market, allowing each and every car to be special. Each vehicle has a log sheet detailing all of its specific optional equipment and features, as well as a destination. The log sheet we were shown was of a Granturismo S heading towards Africa.
Ferrari supplies the engine and gearbox which is transported from another part of Italy. Poltrona Frau, one of Italy’s finest leather houses, supplies the leather which is stitched to panels by another assembly line. As with many parts of the car, they come from all over Italy to produce the final product.
At the place where they first start the car, I could hear very distinctly the exhaust note of the Granturismo S. The 4.7 V8 is a lot more grunty and melodious compared to the old 4.2 V8 and the sound is simply incredible. La bella macchina! I would go as far to say that it even sounds better than some Ferraris on sale today. No wonder that the Alfa 8C also shares the same 4.7 V8.
Visiting the factory was certainly an eye-opener but I wished it could have been longer. In fact, one of the greatest disappointments in my trip was that I did not visit the factories of Ferrari, Lamborghini or Pagani. There was simply a lack of time, a ten day trail-blazing drive across Italy, and we always had to get to somewhere next. For bike fans, you’ll be thrilled to know we also visited the Ducati factory.
In the next few days, we traveled hundreds of kilometers up to Venice, and then to Lake Como where we also crossed the Swiss border to shop at Foxtown, a major shopping arcade with competitive prices. After three hours at Foxtown, we returned to the Panda with three extra oversized pieces of luggage. We spent about 40 minutes brainstorming on how we should fit our entire luggage into the car. In the end, with some novel yoga maneuvering and ingenuity, the Panda swallowed it all, albeit with its suspension put on a strain being on overload. We managed to make our way back to Lake Como and then to Milan without an issue. The Panda remained faithful to us all the while, never faltering (except the power window) in the heat of the afternoon or the chill of winter’s night. A Ferrari even trailed its rear once on the first lane, just as I was getting bored on the Autostrada. I immediately gave way to the 612 Scagletti and it sped away. On the journey towards Venice, we also made a wrong turn which resulted in a detour of almost 60 kilometers! My friends are lucky that I love driving…
In Milan, just when we were about to return the car at the train station, we were allowed one last night with the car to return it to the airport. Reminiscing as I did on the plane back, the car has enriched our trip in more ways than one. To quote the starting text of Top Gear Top Drives:
“Even when it’s as spectacular a thing as a Ferrari F430 with no roof, sometimes the car just doesn’t matter. Because sometimes, the place you’re driving through eclipses everything. Sometimes, a road or a view or a city can make a car seem insignificant. Or maybe who you meet when you drive stays with you for longest, or what happens when you stop, or the laughs or adventures or incidents you have along the way. Even for those of us who love cars almost too much, the drive means more than the machine – puts it into its proper context, frames it in a beautiful, exciting or even hilarious way.’
More than just our simple rental car, the Panda has bonded us together by bringing us through its home country in the best way it can, offering hospitality when we are weary and bringing us home when we are lost. It serves without complaint, it soldiers on when the going gets tough. I salute you, Panda.
On the final drive to the airport, we couldn’t help but sing praises for the little Panda, even when we returned the car and saw a whole fleet of alternative rental cars ranging from Volkswagen to Mercedes. We were still happy with our choice, and would not have had it any other way.
And that is our trip. My Italian isn’t very polished, but…
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