Florence and the Machine - The Perils of Tuscan Car Rental
A Tale of Whoa
It was the morning after the night before and our last in Florence…. for the time being at least. We’d had a wonderful night at Teatro del Sale, a few ‘old school’ photo-booth snaps and a few nightcaps in a few bars on the way back home to Bellosguardo. A truly fabulous evening in fact - Great food and great fun.
I woke, and through the open shutters of the incredibly beautiful Torre di Bellosguardo, (Blog Post Here), I could see a morning of hazy sunshine and broken cloud. Our medieval oaken bed had given us a great night’s sleep, and as I gazed through the morning light, and over the rooftops of the city below, I contemplated that the only thing missing was the smell of percolating coffee. So, without further haste, and tearing myself away from the splendid view, I set about filling my trusty but battle worn Bialetti coffee pot with water, for our daily caffeine fix.
Our train was due to leave at 10.30am, arriving in Chiusi at 11.30ish in time to pick up our little Fiat 500 (or equivalent) hire car from Avis, and onwards to Montepulciano.
Montepulciano had always been a dream destination of mine ever since my first mouthful of its delightful red wine, and from thereon, the images I found of the vineyards themselves. I don’t know if you do this, but I always Google search the winery or vineyard I’m drinking. Putting these pictures next to the wine really helps me complete the picture of the wine I'm drinking, the family involved in its production, the terroir and the ambience. It helps build a familiarity and a bond that only increases my pleasure, unless of course you find you are drinking a wine from a chemical factory in Detroit - Then best not to know.
The Bialetti started to bubble and released its wonderful rich aroma and our perfect morning was now complete.... and not a terrible Nespresso in sight.
Now, glancing at my watch, I recoiled far enough against back in shock, that I slammed my head against the stone mantle of the probably the biggest bedroom fireplace in history. The shock was solely due to the fact that my watch clearly showed the time to be nearly half past nine. Kati finally stirred, either from the sound of the blood spurting from my open wound, or the noise of it hitting the 15th century parquetry floor.
Not usually woken until the coffee cup clinks on her bedside table, it seemed to take a moment for it to dawn, a most inapt phrase given the circumstances, on her as to what I was trying to get across. In effect, I was calmly letting her know that we were a tad late in waking, that we should rise quickly from our dreamy slumber, maybe skip showering, pack (ever the thinkeraheaderers), forgo breakfast, ring for a cab, (forward planning again), pay the bill, sign the guest book and vacate. That’s what I was saying in effect….. In actuality I was screaming it - Half a trail of breadcrumb scattered swearwords and half head shaken utterances of disbelief. How can you sleep in until 9.30 when pretty much every day for the last 15 years you rise at 6 or 6.30? It’s not like we’d tied one on the night before or anything, ... taken of the local herbs, bolted schnapps and danced to the strains of DJ Jazzy Gianni Gee until the crack of dawn. We’d eaten well, walked a bit and had quaffed a few wines, sure, but it was very gentle. The amount may have been a lot by the Dalai Lama's standards, but not much for a couple of holidaymakers out on town.
Everything was done as required and supremely quickly, but the cab was taking its time to get from the city below up to the hotel. I’m pretty good at pacing but decided to play it cool and to just take a few more photo’s of this Medici masterpiece before we left. I was very sad to be leaving as it had been a joy, and a great privilege to have been able to stay here. There was still an outside chance of making the train but it was so far outside that you would need a pair of binoculars to see it - A very feint chance indeed.
We galloped into the station, Kati looking after the bags and me chasing down the tickets and platform number. I need to point out that this isn’t us. This had never happened before. We were…. are very calm and organised travellers so this was all a bit new. Our loud and frenzied kerfuffle soon fell silent when I looked up at the Departures board however - The train had gone. It wasn’t a long wait for the next one but there would be repercussions I was sure. We grabbed a coffee and a couple of surprisingly delicious ciabatta sandwiches from one of the bustling platform cafes, authorised our new tickets, don’t ever forget to do this, as travelling on Italian trains without doing so can be quite costly as on the spot fines abound, and boarded our new ride.
The journey was good. we laughed most of the way and scenery from Florence down to the Val D’Orcia was lovely. Chiusi is a handy spot to alight for Tuscan travels because of the car hire facilities right outside the train station and this was the plan. Turning right out of the station and walking no more than 200 yards we came to the Avis office, or to put it more correctly, the closed Avis office. It was lunch time and there was one of those typically Italian hand written 'phone number in case of emergency' notes Sellotaped to the door. Not so much a phone number actually - more like the serial number of a bran new modem, for it went on forever and was something that my phone clearly didn’t recognise. Eventually, and after many, many different variations on a theme, we connected but nobody picked up. It was time to readdress the situation, find a bar and have a coffeeI I know some of you would have opted for beer but this was still early lunchtime and the way that Italians are in small towns, with their sacred midday sabbaticals, there might be plenty of time yet for a bottle of Moretti or two. Eventually after leaving numerous messages, we were contacted and told that someone would be across to open up the shop and organise our car in three hours time. THREE! The missed train had pushed us, as feared, into the lunchtime hiatus and it was going to prove costly. There was nothing else to do, so we settled in for the long haul in a cafe across from Chiusi Station. Kati was initially thrilled at the prospect of filling a a few hours in the local shops until she realised that they too were closed, and that they only seemed to sell very ancient disposable cameras, dusty packets of detergent and wasps, mostly dead wasps at that. I only hoped they hadn’t perished whilst waiting to pick up their own Fiat 500 (or equivalent) car rental.
There was a Hertz place there too but as the phone number taped to the door appeared to be the same, certainly in length, that the possible decision of change horses in midstream became immediately redundant. We waited, without WiFi, over empty coffee cups, taking it in turns to look after the luggage and to stretch our legs whilst window shopping for recently deceased Hymenoptera. Eventually, after about 4 hours of not getting drunk, I saw someone jiggle their keys outside the old and now very familiar Avis place and I was away. Lankily legging it up the hillI. It turns out that this isn’t even the place you go to pick up your car. I had looked at the cars out on the street and in the tiny car parks nearby and hadn’t been able to spot a viable rental option so, on the one hand it was a relief, but on the other, if we’d known earlier that we could have made a nuisance of ourselves at the depot itself, we would have done so. The kindly but befuddled representative filled his car with our belongings and finally we were on our way to pick up our little Fiat 500 (or equivalent). Suitably diminutive and able to drive into most of the narrow Renaissance streets, it was the perfect choice. When we got there, it was more like a car showroom than a rental. I explained in my perfect Italian that we merely wanted to rent a vehicle and not buy one, but he simply replied that he didn’t understand a single word I was saying. He said this with his facial expressions rather than in actual words, but I speak facial expressions even more fluently than I parliamo Italiano. This and the fact that he totally ignored me.
Kati is the driver amongst us and so it fell to her to fill in the reams of paperwork needed to waste plenty more of our time. It was now becoming apparent, as I have a keen eye, that again, no actual car seemed to be on the forecourt that was suitably Fiat 500 (or equivalent). After having a look in, around and under most of the vehicles in the place, I couldn’t see one anywhere or even remotely similar. This search would have to wait, however, as I was being summoned to the business end of the establishment, or shabby makeshift countertop, as I like to call it. It would appear that after all this palaver, I had emailed them the previous day to cancel our booking and that no car was currently available for us. I raised my voice sufficiently to let myself know, in no uncertain terms, that I most definitely hadn’t, and that maybe it was time to speak to someone who might actually work there. The man was becoming very flustered, ... as was I. We were meant to be staying at a very small B and B in Montepulciano and it was one of those places where you arrange Check-in at a certain time so that someone could stop their merry grapery, and grape related exertions, and let you in. That time was now long gone.
He tracked down the email but it had nothing to do with us and was in a completely different name but that didn’t seem to matter at all. I delicately explained the usual procedure for booking a car, paying for a car, picking up a car and driving a car away, but it was clearly not a process he was yet aware of. After much toing and froing, and acting as if he had done us an enormous favour, he announced that they had found us a car, that it was not a Fiat 500 (or equivalent) and that it was over with the mechanics being repaired, but that it was an upgrade on our original Fiat 500 (or equivalent) vehicle of choice…. Oh, and that it wouldn't be ready for about another hour or so. The further good news was, that the mechanical issue being fixed wasn’t a life threatening issue and that it was merely a minor hitch with the rear view mirror. He also said something about it being an Audi and through my increasing sense of irritation, I figured that at least a little Audi A1 would be a suitable replacement for our requested Fiat 500 (or equivalent). We had to take the news, and the further delay, on the chin, and continued on with the paperwork.
After much tapping away on his computer keyboard, that to all intents and purposes, might as well have been made by Fisher Price Toys or the Sugar Plum Fairy for all the use it was. Our man from the unemployment exchange looked up again, pressed his invisible glasses back up the bridge of his nose with his forefinger and notified us that we had already paid in full and so he didn’t require our credit card details as they were already on file. Now, as much as the news of my bogus cancellation came to me as a foul smelling teenage sock comes to a house proud mother, the news of my having paid, when I most certainly hadn’t, came to me as the completely the opposite. This sock was now freshly laundered, and smelling of the sweetly scented Frown-be-gone tree, but it did present a moral conundrum. Do I let it ride? Do I play along with this game, for the waste of our day, or do I pressure him into accepting a second, bonafide payment from us? What if he taps away on his fictitious keyboard again and realises his mistake? Would the embarrassment of being caught out in this elaborate sting be too much to bear? Would Kati, my adoring, and loyal girlfriend be so mortally shocked by my deceit that she would demand a taxi to the nearest airport (There are no rental cars available here, don’t forget) and fly home, disappointed and alone? Nah, I went for it. It seemed only fair. To be honest, Kati was as patient as could be and supported me fully in the deceit. She was by now very aware of my previous militarylike campaign planning regarding these trips of ours, and if I say I hadn’t cancelled and paid in full, she was going to believe me, …. especially having borne witness to the incompetence of this refugee from land of common sense.
So, after 6 hours we still had no car, but with a booking, a mystery cancellation and a false payment, we gathered our belongings and waited out at the front gate, staring at all of the 'equivalent' looking vehicles, with me swinging from the fence like a forgotten schoolboy waiting for his ride home. My eyes firmly fixed on the horizon for a cloud of dust and an Audi with our name on it. Time passed, maybe 45 minutes, then finally I saw it and it was huge. Certainly not an 'equivalent', but to be fair, definitely an upgrade, especially if you were looking at transferring the Untied Nations to an airport in a hurry, but for Kati, who was only used to driving a tiny Toyota Echo to the shops and back, it would feel like climbing into Malta. I could see the panic spread across her face like a dark shadow, only lighter and less shadowy. Kati had never even driven on the wrong side of the road before, let alone along winding and often blind cornered country lanes.... and now, as a first, in a car the size of a small island in the Mediterranean (or equivalent). Eventually, the enormous black beast came to a stop like a great steamship at disembarkation. I counted at least 3 funnels….. Kati petrified but stoic, I was stoic but petrified, but I needed to be calm. I needed to fill her with confidence and belief. “Holy F**k!” I cried, “It’s the f**king Titanic!”. I knew the Titanic had 4 funnels but for the life of me at the time, I couldn’t think of the name of a three funnelled ocean liner that had suffered a similar fate. Now, as I write this, many more suitable options come to me readily.
In we got. It was a nice car to be fair - Complete with quoits deck, table tennis tables and a very, very grand central staircase. I notified the engine room for half speed ahead, mopped Kati’s brow, uttered 9 Hail Mary’s and released the anchor. Then, after a few false attempts at actual forward movement, off we steamed at a steady 4 knots. The journey was going to take a while, but getting there safely was key. It was at this moment, 12 minutes into our journey and 400 hundred yards from the showroom, that we found out what had been wrong with the car in the first place. The whole rear view mirror console came swinging down from the ceiling (are they called ceilings in cars), like a medieval siege weapon swinging violently between us. They're not just a mirror these days either. There were cables, moulded plastics, a sunglass holder, the mirror itself and a myriad of things that had obviously been installed just for this particular moment - Just to make things harder than they already were. “Onwards” I screamed, reassuringly. “There’s no going back.” I had to give Kati directions out of town too, and so decided not to try and fix the swinging appendage until we were on an easily navigable road. So with one arm in the air, trying to keep it out of Kat's petrified face, and with one eye on the map, we edged out into country Tuscany and the slowest wild ride in history. Travelling at a steady 20 miles an hour gave me plenty of time and opportunity to fix the dangle. This I did, but only temporarily. It kept dropping like a hanged man every kilometre or so. The drive was supposed to take 14 minutes according to Google maps but we were already 30 minutes in when we came to a small town and some roadworks, complete with traffic lights, which we duly ran. They just weren’t seen by Kati, and I hadn’t said a word as I thought that after everything else she was going through, me pointing things out like red traffic signals might bee too much to take. I did notice however, that not only had we just run a red light but that we had done it directly outside a police station, and at 10 miles an hour affording them the best possible amount of time to spot us.
Still we drove on, even more flustered and trembly, until it became apparent that we were heading in the completely the wrong direction. We would need to turn round and go back the way we came, through the lights and past the cop shop, probably called a Cabinieria round these parts. Things would be different this time however, as we knew they were there….. Not so much the ‘Warning Roadworks’ sign though ATTENZIONE - AVVERTIMENTO - MORTE CERTA!!! which we hit on the starboard bow, then through amidship and all the way aft. The scraping noise, akin to that of that fateful iceberg, went on forever, as this was one very long car indeed. “F**k it!” we cried, and kept on going, never once looking in our rearview mirror, as that was now resting in my lap having been pulled out in an earlier fit of pique.
After many, many minutes later, with much peeking our nose out around tight corners and with a traffic jam of milk floats, tractors and unicycles behind us, we made it to the car park at the foot of Montepulciano and whooped with joy when we saw that the car space allotted to us by the Palazzo Carletti, was absolutely enormous.
After disembarking the sweat laden HMS Audi, it was time for the inspection, and there it was - A silver scratch running the whole length of the car on the starboard side. Shining brightly against the car’s black paint in the magical early evening Tuscan light. The car only left that car park once, on the day I proposed in a field overlooking Pienza, in the beautiful Val D’Orcia.
Kati got more used to the car on that day and the whole experience stood her in good stead for future trips when our Fiat 500’s (or equivalent) were booked yet again and also never received. We still had to return this one, however, and returning to Chiusi for 'drop off' would bring back no happy memories for us whatsoever. Once again, the dusty little office was closed but this time I was privy to a more direct and coherent mobile number. He wasn’t available to inspect the car personally as he was busy wrecking some other poor unfortunate's day, so had sent a minion across to take care of it in his stead. I had been dreading this moment. That scratch was hideous. The new fellow rummaged through the paperwork and the damage report and proceeded to inspect the car, but I began to feel my spirit soar. He was checking it as if making sure that all the previous damage was still there and in no way for any new signs of abuse. It was a magical moment. Of course, they’re totally incompetent, so why had I worried? He checked his little diagram to match up the marks on the car and ticked them off when he found them. Fantastic. This was genius at work and I could have kissed him. He didn’t even look at the scratch. Bloody brilliant. We said our goodbyes, with hearty handshakes and fled..... I mean, made our way to the station and caught our train on to Rome without a hitch.
4 months later I got a bill from a company in Chiusi, for the rental of a Fiat 500 (or equivalent) and with this, I gently swore.
Footnote: Yes, I know. The car really doesn't seem that big and Audi do produce much bigger ones but Kati had stipulated that the car must be small or the deal was off. To her, it really might as well have been the Titanic.