Seeking culture, we found adventure

To look at me, a tailored lady of a certain age, you'd never guess I once got around by flagging rides, braving all manner of weather and drivers, knocking about without advance reservations. In fact, I am incredulous now: I prefer my hands on the wheel, I don't leave much to chance, and I'm not nuts about the windswept look. But, there it is: I am a former hitchhiker.

Mind you, I confined my hitching to one area: Italy. And I hitched for high cultural purpose. Compelling this mode of travel was my student status. Even more compelling, I was a graduate student, based in Bologna. Fortunately, in the 1960s hitching was safe and legal, sort of.

For company, I had my French roommate, Florence. Like me, she was determined to savor Italy. For cover, we dressed in pantsuits, scarves, pearls. Then, brandishing guidebooks, we hoisted thumb, tentatively: Would the "Queen Elizabeth look" stop anything?

One truck driver aside, our choices not only stuck to driving but, Italians being immensely proud of their country, they'd point out landmarks while supplementing our classroom Italian with idioms. Clearly then, this was the student's way to go.

And we went: Venice, Ferrara, Parma, Ravenna, and, of course, Florence. When in school, we studied like crazies, our travels forcing a work-hard/play-hard regime. The result? Excellent grades in subjects now forgotten and unforgettable memories of the people and places of Italy. Foremost is our most ambitious trip: a four-day visit to Tuscany and Umbria, in which rain played a major part.

Granted, it was risky resuming our road show during the spring rains, but in our cabin fever we'd conceived a desire to check out the landscape of the Renaissance paintings we both loved: Was it really blue? At a break in the weather, we scrambled out of town to see.

Day 1 was exhilarating: imbibing the work of painter Piero della Francesca in Arezzo; breaking into verse sighting the hilltop town of Gubbio at sunset; making Perugia, our first scheduled overnight.

It was rain-free and done with one driver, a charming book salesman. At first we didn't notice the sudden drop of temperature. But later, in our unheated pensione, we noticed nothing but. Shivering in bed fully clothed, including our shoes, we cheered ourselves with choral readings of our guidebooks. Then, in desperation, we pulled the rug off the floor.

Day 2: We lurched onward. Though Perugia's steep streets nearly leveled us, we rallied at a workers' cafe and headed south, to Assisi. There, after warming to Giotto's frescoes, we confirmed it: The background of the surrounding plain really is blue. Funny though, how suddenly everything turned black. Storm clouds! (Henceforth, it rained nonstop.)

Splashing into Spoleto, our southernmost destination, we found another unheated pensione, meaning another night spent in our clothes. We woke next day feeling Cubist – and looking it. We made a plan: Sightsee indoors, where we'd arrange transport home. But it was Sunday. Everything was closed. What next?

That's when we started talking crazy, about "hopping over" to Orvieto. The map showed Orvieto in bold type. Bold type meant open all night. Let's go. That the map showed no bold-type road connecting the two dots did not register. Locking arms under our one umbrella, we sloshed to the edge of town and stuck out our thumbs. Niènte.

Well, let's start walking, then. Nothing happened, of course, but we kept walking. We trudged, cold and soaking, several kilometers. Niènte. We shifted to the middle of the road, daring anything to appear. Niènte. On we slogged, in a landscape so quiet we could hear the rain: for urbanites, eerie. Giddiness seized us: Had we stumbled into a Raphael painting, about to disappear into the far blue yonder?

As we rounded the figurative bend, an ancient Renault chugged into view and stopped. A door creaked open, and the four occupants rearranged themselves to admit, against all physics, two more bodies. Once the door was ever-so-carefully closed, we proceeded, rocking like a Ferris wheel, engine groaning, achieving a pace not much faster than a walk. But we were still happy to be there.

Mario, Stefano, Giuseppe, and Walter – "Walter"? – were members of a local band called Gli Arciduchi (the Archdukes) enroute to Rome for their first major club date. Recordings and fame would follow if their car held up and, importànte, if they found a female vocalist. Did either of us sing? No, we laughed, and provided proof.

We parted shortly thereafter at a fork in the road. With ardent apologies, they deposited us roadside, in the mud. Umbrella up, we began trudging toward the town of Todi, only to halt at a stunning sign: Bastardo. Was it a campaign poster? A cue from Dante? (It was, we learned, an inn.) Whatever, we honked with laughter.

Several leagues past Todi, also closed, we came upon a roadhouse open for business. Great: a place to dry off, feed our famished selves, negotiate a ride. To our distress, it was empty, and the only fare served was alcohol and candy. We ate Baci chocolates. As the afternoon wore on and our hopes dimmed, we prayed for a truck.

Enter – finally – the Two Gentlemen of Florence, our prospects. Aristocratic even in fishing boots and floppy hats, they looked like Bronzino's portraits of Renaissance dukes – aquiline features, a "nothing could astonish us" look. They reeked of hauteur, whereas we just reeked. We approached their table to pitch our plea. Florence, whose French gave her a firmer grip on Italian, got us going.

With only a nod, they agreed. So very, very grateful, we got in their car. But minutes later, they stopped on a bridge. They cast their lines over the side, then immediately reeled in and returned – laughing (and proving that fishing, indeed, relaxes).

In Orvieto, they walked us through the duòmo, then took us to Siena, our third overnight, and found us a pensione, this one heated. After bidding our two gentlemen a warm addìo, we slept 12 hours.

Next day, our last, we roamed Siena's duòmo and replayed our misadventures, citing them by just a word – "Walter," "Baci," "Bastardo" – our laughter wafting through the vaulted space. What tales we'd tell our friends stuck in Bologna.

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