I’ve been traveling more than I intended and more than I wanted in the past month. I’ve experienced traffic jams, 20-minute flight delays, three-hour flight delays, long lines everywhere, and people trying to take my baggage off the carousel. I even allowed the threat of a blizzard to delay my arrival to Philadelphia by a day. But all of that is tolerable and expected after the 23 hours I spent in a car to go what should have taken three hours.
Please excuse this lengthy and not-exactly-food related post. I wanted to chronicle our tiny disaster leaving Florence. There are photos of everything I ate along the way, as well as the answer to the burning question everyone has asked: what about the bathroom?
Three of us (Alex, his father, and I) started the morning in Florence, doing the normal tourist stuff, and we planned to leave by 1 or 2 p.m. to be at Alex’s uncle’s home in time for supper. This lunch was my last meal before the ordeal: bread soup and Tuscan white beans. Delicious at the time, and a nice change from pizza and pasta.
As we were leaving the restaurant, the snow was starting to fall. Our waiter encouraged us to stay for a bit and wait it out, but we wanted to do a few more things in old Florence before getting on the road to get to Umbria.
12:45 p.m.: The snow didn’t look too bad, but it became worse as we walked through town.
Traffic was still moving. Visibility was low, but there really wasn’t that much snow.
2:30 p.m.: We headed to our bus stop to get out of the city and retrieve the car, but a friendly passer-by let us know that the busses weren’t running. We considered trying to get a taxi, but there were none to be found. It didn’t take us long to decide to start walking along the bus route, back toward the hotel.
At the time, we thought that once we got to the car, everything would be okay. The walk took less than 45 minutes, and it was nice to walk through the non-touristy parts of Florence and see more of the city. Plus traffic through the city was hardly moving, so we would have been stuck in a taxi (meter running) or in a bus, anyway.
We popped back inside our hotel for a bathroom break, to make a phone call to the relatives who were expecting us, and to ask the desk clerk for information on road conditions. Alex cleared the few inches of snow from the car and we attempted to get onto the feeder highway to the Autostrada.
4:00 p.m.: Traffic was completely jammed in the intersection. We couldn’t figure out why, until we reached the uphill curve to the highway that leads to the Autostrada. Cars were getting stuck, other drivers are coming out of their cars to help push cars up the hill, and we got stuck, too.
Alex actually asked an Italian man to drive our car up the hill while he pushed. At this point, we kept thinking that once we get to the Autostrada, everything would be okay. Getting there was a challenge, though, as there were lots of pauses as people could not get their cars up the hills. The side of the road was filled with parked cars whose drivers had given up.
5:15 p.m.: Eventually we did the same gave up, and I snapped this photo of the rental car to make sure we could identify it in the event that we needed to.
We walked back toward the hotel, again, and weren’t terribly surprised to find that it was just more than ten minutes walking to get back to our starting point. We stopped by a service station in search of tire chains, but they didn’t have our size. Alex might like for me to mention that he’s such a car guy that he noted our tire size upon initially examining the car – independently of expecting to purchase chains.
5:45 p.m.: I stayed in the hotel lobby, looking for information online, and Alex and his dad headed down the road to another service station we’d noticed on our walk from the old city to our hotel. Thankfully, they found an auto parts store just about to close and slipped in under the gate. Alex picked up the appropriate sized tire chains, which were the key to us getting up the icy slope.
We stayed at the hotel bar a little longer, enjoying a drink and looking for more information online. Alex had a chamomile tea; I had a Bittburger beer; and, Alex’s dad enjoyed a Jack Daniels. We snacked on potato chips and pistachios provided by the bar, and I had a Primal Strip. Of course we didn’t eat too much – we were convinced we’d be able to stop for supper once we got down the road.
7:00 p.m.: We walked back to the car, wondering if it will still be there. (Of course it was still there, no tow trucks have made it through the traffic jam.) Alex was tickled to have the tire chains, which were cheaper than another night at the hotel or train tickets. By this time, the snow had subsided.
9:23 p.m., 67118 km: Alex finished putting the chains on the tires. At this point I decided to start taking some photos of the dash to chronicle our time and distance.
We got back in the line of traffic creeping forward, but we soon found ourselves trapped when everyone had once again stopped. People were getting out of their cars and jumping across the median to a McDonald’s that has probably never seen this much business.
The other drivers were generally friendly and looked to each other for news on what was going on. We borrowed a cell phone from another driver to get in touch with the family waiting for us and got gems of advice like, “turn back and go to the hotel. Try it again in the morning.” Um, thanks – brilliant idea!
Although we had turned off the car and cuddled in our coats, we turned on the car and the radio for updates. If we trust Alex’s dad as translator, the news on the road conditions were more hearsay and complaining than actual fact.
And, this is where we stayed overnight. Alex was driving, I was riding shotgun, and Alex’s dad was in the backseat. At one point we were talking to him and I thought he was upset and ignoring us, but when he started to snore we realized he had fallen asleep. We were all getting a little touchy by this point, so I encouraged the men to get some rest. I tried to sleep, but I kept jerking awake with every noise and flash of light, so I listened to about six episodes of This American Life on my iPod and waited to see what would happen next.
5:45 a.m.: We saw one lane onto the Autostrada open, but police had the southbound onramp blocked. No one could head the direction we needed to go. However, thinking we are smart, I noticed that traffic seems to be be flowing just fine in the southbound direction. So we choose between heading west to Pisa and then south, or simply heading north an exit or two and turning around to go back south according to our original plans.
Dash updates: 9:37 p.m., 67119 km; 12:52 a.m. Saturday, 67119 km; 4:45 a.m., 67119 km; 7:56 a.m., 67161 km; 9:26 a.m., 67166 km; 2:46 p.m., 67381 km.
We found a rest stop where we grabbed some juice and had another bathroom break. Of course, yet again, we would have treated that oasis differently had we known we weren’t in the clear yet. Only the slightest bit further down the road, we realized that the southbound Autostrada wasn’t closed due to a slick onramp. We were stuck in a backup, again, for more than three more hours.
10:45 a.m.: The weirdest thing happened when the road was finally clear. Traffic completely dissipated. We went from total gridlock to an hour of slow moving through slush and packed snow to nothing. Everyone had broken free.
11:30 a.m.: We stop for another rest stop and an actual meal, our first since lunch the day before. Even though I had gotten almost no sleep, a bottle of wine sounded good, along with some fresh fruit, pesto and potato pasta, and a salad we shared in a roadside cafeteria.
After lunch, we still had almost two hours of clear driving. Finally, just before 3:00 p.m. the next day, more than 24 hours after we began our walk to the car, we parked safely at Alex’s uncle’s home. We stayed up for dinner and visiting, only to leave before dawn the next morning for our flight back to the U.S.