Driving our rental car this summer into the medieval hill town of Assisi, Italy, my husband at the wheel and our three traveling companions, I was excited to showoff my prowess of knowing how to drive through Assisi’s maze of ancient windy streets and arrive at our hotel’s front door. I had spent a week in Assisi 15 years before, had stayed at this hotel, and knew what most people don’t, that you can drive directly to your hotel, unload baggage, and then park in the carparks provided outside the walled town, rather than park first and then drag your luggage over the ancient uneven limestone streets, kathunk, kathunk. I was way cooler than than most people.
We made good headway up the first two narrow hairpin curves and terraced lanes that crisscross the town. Upwards we drove into the heart of the town. We passed the magnificent Basilica de San Francesco on the left; our hotel like the Basilica was on the western side and nearer the top of Assisi’s 1300 foot elevation. We would easily find the hotel if we kept going up and west. But on the next street there was no hairpin leading west, only east. No possibility of backing up or U-turning. The streets were too narrow. So we kept going, hoping for a westerly road. At the central Piazza del Commune one could go west but only on foot; it was permanently blocked off for pedestrians and cafes. Further up we weaved. We passed a car park and church after church until the very top — La Rocca, the fort, that sits guard with its spectacular 360 degree view of the Umbrian Plain below. We paused to take in the view, then set off downward in search of west. One of our wise companions suggested we drive down and begin again, but, no, I was determined not to fail.
“Try that way,” I told my husband, and our wise companion doubted that the street went through. I insisted. What possibly could go wrong? except we’d have to turn around. The narrow street got narrower and narrower; we folded in the side mirrors and kept going. It was exciting. We were definitely headed in the right direction. At the next downward turn – a steep almost 45 degree incline – at about 30 feet in we encountered a “T” intersection. The road dead ended at a high stone wall with the roads off to the left and right. I got really excited then — we had made it!
As we peered through the windshield around the corners, these tight 90 degree angled streets were in reality not streets but wide, gently sloping, steps. Could we drive down the steps? No one but me entertained that idea.
So here we were in our standard transmission rental car, on a 45 degree angle facing downward, surrounded on three sides by high limestone walls, our baggage obscuring the rear window and side mirrors collapsed for clearance. I sank down into the seat. My best thought was to call Hertz to order up an industrial sized magnet attached to construction crane strong enough to lift the car up and out of this impossible mess that was all my fault.
My dear husband, the driver, grasped the situation quickly and calmly. I didn’t trust how long the calm part would last but he ably began working the hand break and the clutch interchangeably as he backed up inches at a time, then rolled forward, another few inches, rolling forward again, over and over and slowly, slowly he negotiated the hard cavernous walls. Two of our companions carefully – to avoid hitting the stone walls – slipped out the back doors and directed him, one on either side, slapping the back window with their palms when he was about to hit stone. I prayed for our success as well as for my husband’s sense of humor after this was all over. He kept his cool even as the clutch did not but it held. The burning rubber smell dissipated by the next time we used the car a few days later. He expertly backed all the way to the parking lot we’d passed earlier, where we called our hotelier who suggested we park right there. He’d walk over and get our bags, and we should walk to the hotel. After much needed refreshments at a Piazza cafe, we arrived at the hotel in approximately 1 minute. We were very close all along as I knew, but our mode of transport made all the difference for reaching our goal.
There’s a lesson in this for me. Pride, stubbornness, having the answer, all of the above?