We checked out of our hotel in Rome, took the train to the airport, and picked up our rental car. After a few minor detours, we wound up on the Via Cassia, on a quest for "a city on an island in the middle of a valley" called Bagnoregio. On our map of Italy, the city seemed to be near a large lake, so that description seemed to make sense, although we weren't able to find the city as we drove along the edge of the lake. It wasn't until we decided to start heading toward the A1 autostrada that it all became clear...
Bagnoregio is a walled city on a hill in the middle of a valley. Since we had a long drive still ahead of us, we decided not to back-track to see the city, but we stopped to have a snack and view it from a distance.
We continued on the A1 through Umbria and Tuscany to Florence. I had three small maps at Florence at my disposal, but none of them seemed to feel that street names would be at all relevant or helpful, so we wandered our way into the general area of town where I thought our hotel would be, and then we stopped and asked for directions at a little restaurant called Mr. Kebab. The guy behind the counter didn't recognize the name of the street that our hotel was on, but another woman in the restaurant did, and she said that we were very close-- less than three blocks away. She began giving me directions on how to walk there, but I told her that we had a car, and that changed everything. Sure, we were only three blocks away, but we literally couldn't get there from where we were. She indicated that we should drive south-west, away from the direction that the hotel was in, off the edge of the map, then turn north and go for several blocks until we hit a major street, then turn east and drive along the front of the old fortress for about a kilometer, then turn back south-west in the hope of getting to our hotel from that direction.
Florence is a rabbit warren of one-way alleys, all running off at acute angles, all partially clogged by parked cars, motorcycles, scooters, and bicycles. To make things more interesting, many of the piazzas are completely blocked off for cars, so the predominate mode of transportation is on two wheels-- mostly motorcyles & scooters, with an occasional bicycle. The main streets are perhaps the same width as a major six-lane road in the U.S., but there are no lane lines, and therefore no lanes of traffic, just a pile of cars maneuvering for position, with scooters and motorcycles swerving insanely in between. At a stop light, the flow of traffic resembles a landslide grinding to a halt, with cars tumbling into position like boulders, and scooters flowing into the cracks like smaller debris.
Needless to say, we wound up completely lost, and I was worried that someone was going to wind up dead-- either a scooter was going to get crunched by our car, or my husband was going to have an aneurysm. So we stopped and asked for directions again, this time from a Dutch or German guy who was walking his bike home and was extremely suspicious of approaching our car. We showed him where we wanted to be on our map, and he showed us where we actually were, and now those two spots were further apart than when we asked for directions the first time. While it was helpful to at least know where we were, he couldn't tell us how to get to our hotel, at least not by car.
We eventually figured it out and found our hotel, which wasn't exactly as advertised... It was in a old building which could have been quite nice, but the rooms were bleak at best, and there was no safe to put our valuables in while we went out to dinner, which wouldn't have been so bad if the door to the room had been secured by an actual lock system from the 20th century, instead of a skeleton key from the 1800's. There was also supposed to be a phone in our room, but when we asked at the desk, the guy told us that there was a pay phone outside on the street. (Maybe he guessed that the reason that we wanted the phone was so that we could make arrangements to check into our next hotel in Pescara a day early so that we wouldn't have to spend another night there!)
The hotel also advertised free parking, but they only meant that there was on-street parking available in front of the hotel. As we walked back from dinner, we became somewhat suspicious about the lack of cars on the street, so we studied the parking signs for clues. Based on my first French lessons from many, many years ago, I guessed that the signs were indicating that parking was not allowed on the street from midnight to 3am on Wednesday mornings, and it happened to be a Tuesday night. (I'm not sure what the Italian word for Wednesday is, but it resembles Mercredi, so there I am, thinking, "Lundi, Mardi, Mercredi... Oh, wait, I think the sign says Wednesday!") We checked with the guy behind the desk, and he confirmed that if we left the car there overnight it would certainly be towed, so we had to pay an extra 20 Euros to have someone from a garage come pick up the car and park if overnight.
And so we went to bed with not-so-fond feelings for Florence...