Motoring to Matera

June 12, 2011

We left the villa early, leaving the key on the terrace table, as instructed, and pulled the green door tightly behind us. After a nervous wait at the bus stop, a blue SITA bus finally came rumbling through the tunnel and stopped right where we stood.

Waiting for the SITA bus in Praiano

The passengers at this hour were mostly locals, possibly heading to work or shop in the larger towns south of Praiano. I know that cars despise these lumbering behemoths that take more than their share of this already constricted road, but I always admire the deftness with which the drivers maneuver them along, navigating the ubiquitous hairpin turns with ease. Their signature horns that warn oncoming drivers rounding the bend always make me laugh, sounding more like clowns trying yodel than a bus honk.

I sat back to enjoy the ride, gulping in our last glimpses of La Costiera Amalfitana. I craned my neck to keep sight of a moped in front us — there was a dog perched on the back, looking quite content as his owner leaned right and leaned left.

Salerno, a large city compared to the villages along the coast, shortly loomed into view and the bus pulled up to a bustling transportation hub at the edge of the water. Our car rental office turned out to be just a couple of streets away.

The clerk took us outside to inspect our pristine silvery-blue Toyota — some unfamiliar European model — and handed us our keys. Saying goodbye to the Mediterranean, we headed due east, in the direction of the Adriatic. We zipped across Basilicata, skirting Eboli (where “Christ stopped”) and through Potenza. The autostrada was a breeze.

Frankly, I don’t know what all the crying is about regarding driving in Italy being so frightening. If you stay on the main roads and out of the big cities, it is truly “nothing to the problem.” It is something to the problem if you are crazy enough to take your car into Firenze or Roma. You’d have to be nuts to do that.

But generally, the rules are much the same as ours here in the U.S.A., and the drivers often less dangerous than the idiots I see zooming along the freeway from Sacramento to San Francisco. It is not the act of driving in Italy that can make you crazy once you get into a town, small or otherwise. The problem is getting lost.

Our road map was impeccable. After about two and a half hours of easy driving, the signs announced Matera just ahead. Gliding effortlessly along, we consulted our Google Maps printout, ostensibly stating the way to the parking garage in Matera where we had already reserved a space. But, as you might guess, the map — or more likely the town’s miserable signage — failed us.

We got close, recognizing a few of the street names, but never the one where our elusive garage was hiding. Twice I pulled over to ask someone on the street. We were driving in circles, getting frustrated. Finally, there it was. It was not well marked; we were just glad to find it.

I pulled into the opening that led steeply down into the covered garage. Coming from the street, I had to swing around a stucco wall that curved precipitously towards the space below. I miscalculated and the passenger side was dangerously close to the wall. Gino yelled, “STOP!”  I pressed the brakes and noticed that his door was inches from the rough wall.

I drive a five-speed sportscar at home. I learned how to drive on a stick-shift 42 years ago. I detest automatics. I know how to drive. But this entrance was straight down, rivaling the steepest San Francisco street, and I was teetering on the crest. I put the car into reverse, but at that angle, only succeeded in squealing the tires.

With every attempt, I came closer and closer to the wall, not making any headway and actually making things worse. In my haste, I didn’t think to put on the emergency brake and ease it off as I tried to reverse.

Finally, I muttered, “Screw it,” and gently let the car roll forward, wincing as the door scraped the stucco, a sickening, gagging sound. So much for the pristine paint job. The attendant below waved us into our designated spot and we hopped out to inspect the damage.

“No dent,” I said. “And the scrapes just look like surface damage.” I licked my finger to wipe off the dust. But the scratches were deep and it would take more than buffing to get these out. For a fleeting moment I wished I had purchased the extra insurance. But I shook it off, accepting the mishap as just one of those things. I’d deal with any ensuing problems from home. We were in Matera now and we had things to do and places to see.

[Note: I recently read a TripAdvisor review of our hotel which was posted a month or so after we had been there. I cackled, calling Gino over to see it. Feeling much redeemed, I read aloud to him: “If arriving by car, the parking (which is underground) is also quite hard to find and has a very bendy, steep and narrow entrance (a lot of car paint on the wall)…beware!]

Harrumph!

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