An Alfa Romeo is no Ferrari. But for lovers of Italian cars who are short of cash, it’s the next best thing. I have been an ‘Alfisti’ ever since I first visited Italy on a coach tour in the 1960s with my parents.
50 plus years later, Luisa and I decided to travel all the ways to Naples – by train. Luisa immediately began looking at which churches and museums to visit. But I was on the trail of an Alfa – because there is one part of this journey that just has to be driven. And it’s called the Costiera Amalfitana.
The Amalfi Drive is one of the scariest coast roads in Europe. Much of the road is hewn from the near vertical limestone cliffs which plunge into the sea below. Make an error as a driver and you can end up in the rock wall, or worse still, in the sea. And even worse still, I stopped owning a car three years ago, so I am right out of practice. But it is on the bucket list, so I have to do it.
So here I was heading for Amalfi, the fabled path of the gods, but where do I find my Alfa? A modern one would be easy, safer and cheaper – but less exciting. No, I want a proper old Alfa Romeo Spider from the golden age, so we can whip along with the wind in our hair.
And that’s how I found Sergio, who runs a Sorrento classic car rental business. He had just the car and we would be staying in Sorrento for 3 days.
Despite arranging the rental months in advance, Sergio never got round to confirming where and when we could collect the car. Phonecalls, email and texts went unanswered, so we set off to the given address on a 40-minute walk through the 35c summer heat. The address turned out to be a private house – with no signs of life.
Fearing that this wild Alfa chase was going to prove completely fruitless, I ring Sergio again – and at last got a reply. Yes, everything would be fine, but it turns out we are at his house, whereas his garage is back in town. With slightly less enthusiasm, he agrees to send someone to pick us up – who takes us most of the way back to our villa.
After doing the paperwork and, of course paying much more than we would have done to rent a new car, we go out to inspect our 52 year old Spider. It looks lovely, but if you ever rent a car, you expect certain levels of safety and security to be part of the deal. To be fair, an old car won’t have quite everything we are used to these days – like airbags, power steering, alarms or anti-lock brakes. But we were also missing a few of the basics, such as door locks, seat belts, a working speedometer, and most important of all in Italy.. a horn. What about leaving it parked we asked? Sergio laughed and said not to worry, as it was fitted with a tracker. As to our belongings, well we could put up the canvas hood. Well it’s still a gorgeous car.
Luisa shuts her door and the handle comes off in her hand.
Time to go. The tough little engine started on first press of the starter button. The clutch is fairly light as I ease the long gear lever into first and release the largely decorative handbrake. Pulling out into the traffic was very much a lesson in assertiveness. While the locals can see this is an old car, no-one was going to offer a charitable wave to help us on our way. But they are alert – and you won’t catch them napping and accidentally running in to you. We keep the roof down at all times so we can see what’s going on and get thoroughly burnt by the sun. I do miss the security of a seat belt and Luisa worries about falling out on a sharp bend.
The Alfa dates from a time when cars were at least 20% smaller than today. Small almost means light and nimble. It handles beautifully. The brakes are excellent – which is just as well given the number of obstacles that appear from nowhere around each hairpin bend.
The engine is just 1750cc, and if you lift the bonnet, a proper engine is what you see. Oily alloy rather than black plastic.
However small your car, this road is still like driving the Monaco grand prix with no real straights, very tight bends and no time to relax. I never make it as far as top gear, but it always feels fast.
At one point we stop behind a car that seems to be stationary in the middle of the road for no reason. We overtake it – only to find a huge coach bearing down on us. Some frenzied tooting of our non-existent horn and rapid reversing gets us out of harm’s way. This is the most stressful drive I’ve done in a l-o-n-g time.
Challenges like these mean it doesn’t take long for my shirt to be wringing wet with sweat against the vinyl seat. It’s partly the heat and partly the effort of turning the steering wheel.
Changing into second gear – where the windy roads demand we spend most of our time – requires smooth double declutching to avoid the sickening sound of grinding gears. I rarely succeed.
It’s impossible to drive down to the shore itself, so Luisa focuses on navigation as we head for the gorgeous seaside town of Positano. An opportunistic roadside bar keeper wins our custom by admiring the Alfa and finding a special place for us to park. We have a lovely lunch of Italian cold meats and cheese. I ask for a lemonade but our barkeeper seems to think I need a full strength limoncello – as if driving round here wasn’t dangerous enough. Throughout lunch, we were watched disdainfully by his cat ‘Fu-Fu’.
We follow a side road that winds down to the harbour in Positano – and park as soon as we find a place. This is an error as we are still a long way from sea level. Having bought a one-hour parking ticket we race down the steps to the sea and have no time to do more than buy iced water before staggering back up again. I distract myself by counting the 600 plus steps back to the car. We would have been better off coming here on the bus…
Fully recovered and slightly wiser, next day we set our sights on Amalfi. To make the most of the cooler time of day, I insist we have breakfast at 7am in order to arrive in the harbour car park in Amalfi by 8.30 to be sure there would be spaces. This works. We have a quick swim in the warm and already busy sea. Learning from our mistakes we leave the Alfa in the car park and find a bus to take us up to Ravello. The square is a beautiful setting for lunch and we marvel at a concert stage overhanging the cliffs.
The bus ride back is a very reasonable €3.50. Feeling good, we put our ticket into the machine – the parking fee is €49.
We drive back to Sorrento for 5.30 sharp and head for Sergio’s garage to hand back the car as agreed. True to form, Sergio is not there and we can’t even get through the external automatic gates. Thankfully, the shopkeeper next door knows Sergio well and lets us in – and happily takes the car keys into safe keeping. I am pleased that we are all in one piece after such a challenging journey.
Sergio calls me an hour later, having noticed his Alfa has returned. But his only real concern is the whereabouts of his keys… His commitment to customer service is consistent.
So that’s another item ticked off the bucket list. I am writing this from the air-conditioned comfort of a Trenitalia express train, heading for Turin at 200kmh. It’s 35c outside and I think I might have a snooze…
We attempted one more automotive experience in Turin. The home of FIAT, the Lingotto factory was revolutionary when it was built, complete with a test track on the roof. The building’s 500m length is the real reason for the use of the ‘500’ name in their model range. Sadly closed, the lower floors are now shops and offices. The test track is now an art installation, which is open 6 days a week. We managed to be there on the 7th.