Our Italian Breakdown – in the Rain, of Course
Sunday, May 12, 2019
We departed Zagreb on a rainy Sunday morning and made our way onto the highway that would take us out of Croatia, through Slovenia and back into Italy. Our destination was Padua, which I estimated we would reach in about four-and-a-half hours. It took us twelve hours to get there.
It was still raining when we reached Slovenia, but Melania Trump’s home country looked lovely through the windows of the car. I was sorry that we had to zoom through its capital – Ljubljana (pronounced “Lyubly-anna”) – as there was clearly much there to explore. The ever-helpful Wikipedia informs me that the First Lady herself was born in Novo Mesto — which we drove past but did not visit — but that she attended high school and acquired some post-secondary education in Ljubljana.
When I use the word “zoom” to describe our mode of travel, I am speaking more poetically than accurately: our rental car continued to stutter and hesitate every ten or fifteen minutes as we made our way back toward Italy. We were quite worried that the vehicle might stop completely in this country where we knew no one, had very little local currency, and possessed not even a smattering of the language. However, hunger overcame our concerns about the car and about an hour beyond Ljubljana we stopped at a roadside service centre. For the first – but certainly not the last – time on our three-week trip, we were astonished at the dining opportunities we found inside.
The Marche Mövenpick bistro on Slovenia’s A34 is one of a chain of 70 eateries around the world (some readers may have visited the one downstairs in Brookfield Place on Bay Street in downtown Toronto, which is not on the side of any highway!).
The one we stopped at in Slovenia puts typical roadside diners in North America to shame. It offers the hungry traveller anything anyone could possibly ever imagine wanting to eat or drink: all of it fresh and beautifully presented. We settled for soup, bread and fruit, which was delicious, but we could have selected freshly squeezed fruit juice, entrees with vegetables and pasta, salads, all manner of baked goods, elaborate desserts and, of course, rich delicious coffee prepared any way we wanted it. On a trip that took us to some of the great dining centres of the world, I realize it’s a bit odd for me to be raving about a highway diner, but given the location we were amazed at the size of the place, the variety and the quality of the food available, and the reasonable prices. (I was also surprised to find CBD cannabis gum and mints for sale alongside the candy at the checkout counter. These concoctions were as effective in reducing arthritic pain as any of the CBD options I’ve tried in Canada: i.e. not at all.)
Well fed, we set off again, and despite the constant irritant of the hesitating engine, all was well… for a while. Our GPS started speaking to us again when we crossed the border into Italy, the radio produced some nice classical music, and we were lulled into complacency. Feeling the need for coffee an hour or so later, we pulled off the highway and took a little break.
But that was the last straw for the car. It had done all it was going to do for us by way of favours when it got us out of Slovenia in one piece, and now it was done. Dead. Finished.
After attempting to get the engine to turn over for long enough that we feared we’d wear out the starter, we called the emergency number for the rental company. Or at least we tried to call it.
When we’d been in Italy the week before, we’d had trouble using our data and phone plan, purchased before we left Canada. It had worked fine when we got to Croatia, but now that we were back in Italy, our long-distance problems were also back, and we were unable to connect with the rental company via the toll-free number. Fortunately we were still at the gas station, and the attendant there helped Arnie to reach the person we needed to talk to.
That person told us (speaking Italian but with a translation app on his phone: as I’ve said before, technology is a wonderful thing when it works) that a truck would be there within half an hour to collect us and the car. He also told us that after we dropped the car off at a repair centre, we were to take a taxi to the car-rental outlet at the Venice airport. This was not the location where we’d picked up the car in the first place (the Piazzale Roma in Venice itself), but the airport – where we’d begun our visit to Italy one week earlier.
Sure enough, less than half an hour later, a flat-bed truck arrived and the driver (a very nice man who spoke only Italian and had no translation device on him) loaded up the car, invited us to join him in the cab, and drove us through the ongoing rain to the car-repair location in Mestre, which is a suburb of Venice. There he off-loaded the car, and after we had signed a bunch of papers, called a cab for us.
It was our great good fortune to have broken down where we did: the farther from the original car rental location we had been, the more complex the problem would certainly have become. But nothing is ever simple when documents are involved, so it was another hour at the airport before we finally got ourselves and our luggage transferred to a new vehicle. The new car was bigger (not necessarily a good thing in Italy where the roads can be very narrow) and had no GPS, but that didn’t matter to us then. It ran without stuttering and there was more room for us and our luggage, so we were good.
By now we were again ravenous but we were also really tired so we decided not to stop to eat first, but to go to our hotel in Padua – where we arrived just as the kitchen was closing. Once again, the generosity of the Italian service industry rose to the occasion, and they kindly agreed to prepare a meal for us before the kitchen staff went home. They could offer us pasta (which was delicious) and wine; however, the waiter told us sadly, it was too late for dessert.