Blame it on Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Genevieve and Two for the Road, but I have always loved cars. As a little girl, I lugged around a box of die-cast Matchbox classics and as a shy teenager, the only body I wanted to check out was the 1969 Volkswagen Karmann Ghia parked around the corner from my high school. It's no wonder that, for years, I've wanted to participate in a vintage car rally.
Enter Mille Miglia, Italy's historic 1000-mile rally from Brescia to Rome and back. Discontinued in 1957 after a tragic accident, Mille Miglia was reincarnated in the 1980s as a three-day vintage car race with an overnight pit stops in Ferrara and Rome. Participating cars must represent models from the original 1927 to 1957 rallies, which race through the smaller state roads, hugging corners in towns as well as countryside. Since I have lived here full time, I've made sure to be first in line when the cars parade through Rome, showing off names like Abarth, Fiat, Alfa Romeo, Bandini, OM, Cisitalia and Healey, among others, loud engines and racing colors. I've talked a good game about getting behind the wheel, but even though a Fiat Topolino and VW Bug qualify, my own 1971 VW Karmann Ghia doesn't make the cut.
This year, my champagne dreams and cylinder wishes came true. No, I 'm not going to tell you tales of how I hopped into a 1955 Maserati 150S and sped my way through a bit of Lombardy, Emilia Romagna, Umbria, Lazio, Tuscany and back. There were no free seats available. But I did follow the Maserati thanks to a chance meeting. Next thing I know, I'm a backseat driver in the Acqua di Parma sponsor car for the last leg of the race, from Rome to Brescia.
And what an amazing twelve hour ride it was. On Saturday morning, we cut to the chase (think autostrada) and sped to San Quirico d'Orcia in Tuscany to catch the cars approaching. We hit the pavement, cameras ready. This would be the only time the cars slowed down during the day's adventure, and the only time I was able to get a clear shot. From there we hugged the curves of the Sienese hills, passing through several towns including Buonconvento and San Casciano in Val Pesa. We watched drivers take quick food breaks when they stopped for time trials and even passed a few as at local gas stations on our way through Tuscany.
We accompanied the cars to the center of Siena, a non-competing car in the rally of vintage vehicles. In the famous Piazza del Campo, an Alfa Romeo Super Sprint honked us off the road. The drivers were focused on racing, not giving camera faces as we would do each time we were greeted by any flag-waving, photo-taking, cheering spectator. I waved back, perhaps not the photo op they were looking for. The race moved forward, but we were hungry and took a not-quite-as-quick pitstop in Cerbaia at La Tenda Rossa. This deviation put us behind the race so we darted across Tuscany to Emilia Romagna to head off the racers at the Pista di Fiorano, the famous, private Ferrari test track.
Enzo Ferrari once claimed that the Mille Miglia was "the most beautiful race in the world," and happily, I'll claim that the Pista di Fiorano is the loveliest lap track in the world and beyond. The classic cars politely filed in line ready to take their turn at the nearly three-mile circuit in Maranello. Yellow and Ferrari red peppered a landscape of greenery and pavement, and engines revved loudly as the sun set behind the track. The scent of burning fuel was intoxicating. Or maybe I was caught up in the speed of the event. It was racing at its most beautiful.
From Maranello, we advanced to Parma and got lost in the roundabouts. We met up with the rally on a two-lane strada statale near Casalmaggiore. And thus began our own race to catch up to Acqua di Parma's Maserati, cheering as we passed the competing cars while facing oncoming traffic--and cheering when they passed us back. In Cremona, we saw a vintage Mercedes in a minor fender bender and a piazza completely filled with fans of all ages at 10:30 pm. I think it was the very small town of Manerbio whose crowds were largest, sitting outside at small coffee tables, where we passed a Mad Max-inspired time trial stop- desolate, lit by fluorescent over head lights. But we couldn't stop because the winners had almost reached Brescia, twenty minutes away. And with only two minutes to midnight, we made it to Brescia's Viale Venezia and the finish line.