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The Autostrada

My cousin Nancy and her husband George had never been to the hometown of where our grandparents came from in Puglia. That town is a little village in the province of Foggia on the top of a mountain named Alberona.

Along with our cousin Carol and her boyfriend Ron we had toured Sicily for a week and had planned to leave Sicily, take the ferry from Messina to the mainland, then drive to Alberona where our cousin Antionette would be waiting to greet us.

Sounds like a simple trip, right? Not so fast. It proved to be two days we would never forget. The ferry ride from Messina to Regio Calabria on the mainland was great. It was early in the morning and the sun rising was a beautiful view. No problems. The ride from Regio Calabria to Alberona in Puglia would take about 3 to 4 hours. We both had cars and the ride was mostly highway, called the autostrada in Italy, so it would be smooth sailing all the way through Calabria then Basilicata and into Puglia.

To say Italians drive fast is to say Frank Sinatra couldn’t hold a note, just not true- they drive super-fast! I was going 75-80 just to keep up with traffic and drivers were passing me like I was standing still! Nancy and George who were following us in their car were also getting passed.

All was fine. We were holding our own and was on time to get to Alberona by lunchtime. Nancy and George would meet the family, stay overnight then drive to Rome and a flight home. Carol, Ron, Cathy and I would stay an extra day.

Just getting out of the region of Basilicata we pulled into a rest stop, in Italy called Autogrills, in the town of Lauria. If you’ve never been in an Autogrill in Italy, you don’t know what you are missing. Food abounds, everything from paninis to pasta dishes and meat dishes. All freshly prepared. You can walk down isles of shelves and buy cheeses, pasta, pastries, and limoncello. It’s like a supermarket on the highway! Of course, there are restrooms and you can fill up on gas.

We had a bite to eat, used the restrooms, and were ready to drive to the pump to gas up. Ron and Carol were going to drive the other car while Nancy and George were transferring to ours. Ron put the key in, but it wouldn’t start. Wouldn’t turn over. Oh oh. Big trouble.

Of all the times we visited Italy (this was our 15th time) we never had car trouble, but now we did. The cars were Hertz rentals and in the glove, box were provided emergency numbers. We called the numbers, there were two, but nobody picked up. We called every ten minutes, both numbers and still nobody answered.

Finally, after about forty minutes of trying we got somebody to pick up. Naturally they spoke Italian and lucky for us I can get by speaking the language. We told them where we were, and that the car wouldn’t start. They said no problem (everything in Italy is no problem) they’ll have a tow truck there. “Quando?” I said, when.

“Un ora” an hour.

O.K. An hour is not so bad. Three hours later a tow truck arrived driven by a smiling young man named Gregorio. Late? No problem. He hooked up our car, loaded up our luggage on the top and Ron, Carol, Cathy and I climbed on while Nancy and George followed in their car. We looked like the Beverly Hillbillies as they rode down Sunset Boulevard on the opening of their show.

Where did we go? Out a driveway behind the Autogrill down a road about ten minutes to Gregorio’s father’s garage. We waited almost three hours and the garage was ten minutes away!

By this time, it was getting late. We assumed that Gregorio was going to fix whatever was wrong with the car and then we’d be on our way, late but at least back on the road. Wrong. Gregorio told us he only towed the cars, doesn’t fix what is wrong. Now what.

Back on the phone and we wound up calling Hertz in New York! They told us a replacement car would be waiting for us in Salerno. Salerno? That was all the way over on the other side of Italy, but we were told it’s the only place where there is an available car. How were we to get there? The problems were adding up and Gregorio gave us one more problem, it was six o’clock and he was closing.

What? Closing? Where would we go? Where were we going to spend the night? We were six people with luggage and only one car. Gregorio gave us a life saver. His uncle Beno had a hotel just down the road, we could stay there the night. It was called Happy Moments Hotel. One problem saved. We loaded everything in Gregorio’s tow truck and drove down the road to the hotel. Nancy and George followed.

We arrived at an older looking hotel, certainly not a modern hotel, probably 20 or 30 years old and it was in the middle of nowhere. Who stays here I wondered? Workers working at a nearby project on the Autostrada was the answer.

Greeting us and standing on the front porch was Gregorio’s Zio Beno. What a character he was. Standing about 5’5”, arms extended with a bottle of wine in each hand standing in a pinstriped suit with polka dot tie and striped shirt (did he dress in the dark?) he shouted out “Benvenuti Americani” Welcome Americans.

He may have not looked like an owner of a hotel, but you couldn’t have found a more gracious host. Recognizing our trouble and being sympathetic to us he led us into his bar area and had wine and food ready for us. Cheeses and prosciutto, olives, bread, roasted peppers, what a spread. We all looked at each other and dug in. It had been a long day and we all needed a drink.

I looked at Ron and said, “this is all well and good but how are we going to get to Salerno tomorrow?” Zio Beno had the answer to that too. He had a nephew who would drive us. Gregorio had told him our situation and Zio Beno jumped right on it and contacted his nephew Stefano who had a driving service. Unfortunately for Nancy and George they would miss the trip to Alberona as they had planned to return to America the next day and hopefully catch their plane home. They’d make the plan but had to skip the visit. This problem cost them a day.

We ate a nice dinner then up into our rooms which really weren’t bad accommodations. Nice bed, clean sheets, bathroom clean. What else could you ask for? American tv? Not here.

The next morning, we all met in the bar area for a typical Italian breakfast. A buffet table was set with cakes, fruit, cured meat, cereal, juices and of course cappuccino and espresso. After breakfast we had to settle the bill. Beno looked at me and said in broken English, “I no charge you a lot, cento, ok?”

“Cento, only a hundred per tutti” Only a hundred for everything? Per couple?

He shrugged and answered “si” We gave him 300 plus a 60-euro tip. He did us a big favor. Next, we had to meet Stefano who was hanging around the lobby. Nice young man. Tall, good looking Italian boy with a perfect smile. He spoke English. “I know the way to Salerno. No problem” Again, everything no problem


I asked him if he drives like Schumacher, the race car driver. He answered with a smile and said “I get you to Salerno fast”

With that answer I knew he drove like an Italian and knew, George, who was going to follow us, would never keep up with him so I took the wheel in George’s car and he and Nancy along with Carol and Ron drove with Stefano. Driving was my occupation being a road salesman driving the highways of New York and the traffic all over the city and I figured I’d be better to follow Stefano than George.

Good thing I followed. Stefano drove like a typical Italian driver. Fast and all over the road. I had to follow closely. Stefano knew where he was going and I didn’t so if I ever lost Stefano I’d be lost, don’t forget this was in the days before Waze.

We got to Salerno on time and the traffic there reminded me of mid-town Manhattan, only worse. My God, I never saw congestion like this, and I drove all over New York! What could happen next? Wouldn’t you know it I had to find a bathroom. Fortunately, we were stopped in traffic, I put the car in neutral, jumped out and ran up to Stefano’s car and told him, pointing to a café, I ‘m going to run into that café and use the bathroom. He laughed and waved me on. I quickly ran into the café, found the bathroom, and ran out like a flash before anybody in there knew what had happened.

Stefano found the Hertz office and we piled out. He only charged us 100 Euro. Seems like 100 Euro was the going rate for everything. We gave him 125 and Stefano was off in a flash. We bid farewell to Nancy and George who were to drive to Rome, then turned to go into the Hertz office. Wouldn’t you know they were closed till 3!

What else could go wrong. We found a place to rest a while and have a bite to eat then walked around Salerno until the Hertz office opened. The Hertz people apologized and we got our replacement car, surprisingly there were no problems. The rest of the vacation went as planned.

When we got home, we made a claim to Hertz for expenses spent and they did refund us the money spent with no questions asked. Top notch company. My advice to anybody renting a car would be to make sure the help numbers are operational before anything and let a travel advisor handle any rental car problems. One phone call to a travel advisor and it’s their problem not yours anymore. They’ll handle it, that’s what they’re there for. They’ll solve any problem you can have.


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