A thousand miles through Italy

A thousand miles through Italy

Thu 29 May 2008 12:00 AM

The rain held off as we left Brescia Thursday night. Luckily, we had a low number and got out of town before the skies opened on less fortunate competitors. We were participating in the Grande Dame of Vintage Car Races, the venerable Mille Miglia. Touted as ‘the most beautiful race in the world, we set off to prove it true, yet one more time.



The Mille Miglia began in 1923 and was run every year until a fatal accident in 1957. Those 34 years were the start of intense competition between automakers. Each new year heralded enormous strides in mechanics: engine power, brakes, steering, carburetion. You name it-it just got better and better. Coachworkers were refining and streamlining the bodies of the autos, making them faster and more efficient to drive. The major players, some of whom are still ‘brand’ names today such as Alfa-Romeo, Ferrari, BMW, Jaguar, Mercedes and Bentley, wished to have a venue in which they could both advertise their wares and compete against one another in what was becoming the most popular sport in the world.


This was the age when the product had to be physically brought to the public to stir up excitement and sell the goods. What better way to get a large captive audience than by closing 1,000 miles of twisting and turning Italian roads to regular traffic and staging a race?


The course sent the cars winding from town to town, starting from Brescia, in the north, heading east through Verona and Ferrara, south through Marche into Umbria, on to Rome and finally, screaming up the west coast through Siena, Florence, Bologna, Parma and back to Brescia. In 1955, Stirling Moss, the famous British race driver, completed the course to victory in just over 10 hours.


Despite the tragedy in 1957, the race organizers were never content to retire their dream. On the 25th anniversary of the original race, they staged a commemorative run, inviting participants from all over the world. No longer a flat-out race, it was turned into a road rally that covers more than 1,000 miles over the course of three days. The route winds through back roads, not the autostrade. The larger towns that marked interim destinations in the original race have remained the same, but the route and stops in between change from year to year.


We had a clean run from Brescia to Desenzano, on Lake Garda, and through to Piazza Bra, in Verona, before retiring for the night in Ferrara. Our 1932 Alfa Monza was running beautifully. Despite the on-board GPS tracking unit that was annoyingly monitoring not only exactly where we were, but at what speed we were traveling, we managed a couple of ‘burn-ups’ with a Bentley and a few fellow Alfa-Romeos. Although it was the shortest leg of the rally, anticipation had built up our adrenalin level during the day. It peaked. We could have gone to sleep standing up in the corner.


But we weren’t here to sleep. The explosive sound of over 400 vintage autos firing up their engines intermittently guaranteed that we were up at dawn and ready to go, one after the other, in 20-second intervals. The Friday leg from Ferrara to Roma was the longest. We got in somewhere past 1:00am and fell asleep in our clothes. It had rained, but it was not impossible to handle. Tomorrow, we hoped, would be clear.


In all of my years of driving and getting hopelessly lost on the back roads of Italy, with the exception of the road to the Prada factory outlet in Montevarchi, only during the Mille Miglia do I see people lining the streets and pointing out the way to go. Mothers, fathers, boys, girls, babies in pushchairs, babies being held, dogs in tow-they are out in every town along the way and often they are along the roadside, helpfully pointing the way, cheering, waving, slapping our hands with enthusiasm. Years ago, I learned quickly to wear gloves after my hands became raw from so much ‘enthusiasm’!


The towns that we stop in along the way compete for the best welcome and often give ‘goodie bags’ filled with things associated with the town. The warmth of the Italian people is overwhelming, as is their pride in this ‘rolling museum’ of the most beautiful cars in the world-honoring them, paying tribute to the carmakers and toasting our hostess, Italy.


We finally reached the finish line in Brescia around 11:00pm on Saturday night. It had been raining relentlessly from the time we left Bologna in the afternoon. We were wet, tired and happy. We had done it once again! Another Mille Miglia! The rain let up just enough for my husband to light his cigar as we were greeted with a glass of champagne. Ahh, the best things in life…



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