While the main purpose of our current travels is gardening, it takes time to process what we have seen and the photos – the many photos – are best sorted on my home PC with its big screen. So the gardening content will have to wait. But allow me to tell the tale of renting a car in Italy. And because cars are so dull, I did not bother taking a single photo of our little Peugeot. Instead, I give you the unrelated glory that is the hillside village of Sermoneta.
We could not get to Sermoneta, or indeed to the gardens of Ninfa and La Torrecchia without a car. I said I would drive. Not from Rome. I have seen Rome traffic and I do not have a death wish. The town of Latina looked more manageable and I booked and paid for a car on line, even doing an advance check-in, to save time when it came to collecting the car, the company site told me.
We transferred by trains from Tivoli to Latina Scalo. I say trains, plural, because it took three, though the distance is but short. We have learned how to manage the Italian rail system with some confidence. I bought the tickets for the local bus from the railway station to the centre of Latina, thereby saving what seemed an exorbitant taxi fare.
But pride comes before a fall. Getting onto a local bus is easy. Getting off in the right place is something else entirely. We should have been able to alight a few hundred metres from the car hire company. By the time we actually alighted, we were 3.8 km away. Latina is a chamless 1930s city, built by Mussolini and off the tourist trail. This means no taxis to be seen and very – very, very – little English is spoken. I never criticise that. After all, we do not speak Italian so why should we expect them to understand English? But it can make life challenging.
No taxis, no rescue, the temperature was 33 degrees Celsius and we were standing by the road with a trolley case and day pack each. Fortunately we travel fairly lightly. Mark grimly declared the distance of 3.8 km as “do-able”. As in walkable. We had no other options. We trudged the 3.8km in 33 degrees of heat.
Never have I been so pleased to see a destination as the car hire place. Rarely has my relief been so misplaced.
The hire place was staffed by two men. The senior man was tattooed and utterly disinterested in us. The younger of the two was startlingly good looking and claimed to speak English (trouble was, he did not actually understand English and could not read English) and we could only assume he had just started work there. Not only that, when the gods annointed him as the Adonis of the car hire world, they decided to ensure that he not become conceited by removing any vestige of cerebral capacity.
Remember, I had a confirmed booking number for an automatic car, pre-paid, pre-approved, level of insurance cover selected, my driver’s licence verified and approved. It should have been a 3 minute task to copy my credit card details, get my signature and hand over the keys. Or so I thought.
It took an hour and twenty minutes to break me. An hour and twenty minutes of me standing at the counter while Adonis sat squinting at the computer screen, brow knitted in puzzlement. Repeatedly, I supplied my documentation, gave our physical address in NZ, my mobile phone number, refused exorbitant additional insurance (they tried to tell us that my pre-paid 70 euros did not include any insurance at all), refusing to authorise them billing all the car charges to my card a second, third and fourth time. At the end of 80 minutes, I cracked and lost my temper. This happens about once a decade. I shouted, I swore.
It worked. About 10 minutes later, I got the car keys. It was not an automatic but I was beyond caring. Adonis wanted me to smile and say that all was fine but I was past playing by his rules. It wasn’t okay at all.
Two days later, when we returned the car, Adonis was waiting. All I wanted was the insurance excess hold lifted from my credit card. He tried to charge me yet again the 70 euro charge I had pre-paid. Of course he did. But I am made of sterner stuff. I did not yield. He did try a weak attempt to make us suffer by refusing to call us a taxi, just handing me the number instead but a kind Italian gentleman helped us out and called the taxi for us.
We are not likely to ever try renting a car in Italy again. But tomorrow we fly to France where a rental car should be waiting for us in Rouen. It could not be worse that Latina. Truly, it could not. Sometimes travel can be difficult.
But look at Sermoneta! And the countryside of Lazio and gardens of Ninfa and La Torrecchia will follow.