The hotel manager had arranged for me to borrow an Alfa Romeo Spider Duetto two-seater convertible (1982) for the afternoon. And now, after lunch, here it was, as promised, parked on the forecourt. ‘You’re familiar with left-hand drive cars I take it, Mr Clarke?’ she said, a touch apprehensively I thought. ‘I’ve had a Spider,’ I said. ‘Similar to this, but a later, fuel-injected model.’ A true statement — although I was as confounded by it as she was. She handed me the key and a map with a suggested scenic route marked in Biro. I climbed in, fired the thing up, and with a cheery wave, 10,000 exploratory revs and a pip on the horn I set off through the village.
Soon I was motoring along a deserted B road of buckled tarmac threading its way through the Tuscan hills. Perhaps the simplest way, in this media age, to describe the fertile countryside on either side of the road is to say that The English Patient was filmed here. With the sun scorching my brow, a wobbly steering wheel, and my right arm rowing up and down the gears like a galley slave’s, the Duetto was not a relaxing drive. But the throaty, grunting engine noise, then its appearance, drew an astonished stare from an old man stacking straw bales. And after a dozen miles, it seemed to me that an Alfa Romeo Spider and an empty B road in front of you, on a sunny day in July, is a pretty good way to see Tuscany for the first time, especially if your visit coincidentally marks the beginning of a new chapter in your life.
It was somehow odd to see olive groves punctuating wheatfields. (Here and there in the blistering heat a combine harvester was swathing it down.) The wheat grew right up to the stone walls of the ancient barns, which appeared to be knee-deep in it. The cone of Monte Amiata, an extinct, wheaten-coated volcano, was a constant point of reference.
I should have worn a cap, though. After 20 miles my forehead was burning up. So I parked the car in the shade of a tree just outside a medieval hilltop village and went to look for a bar or café where I could buy an ice-cold drink and maybe some sort of hat. But it was the middle of the afternoon. The village shop and bar were shuttered and there were no people, only cats. I conscientiously read the information board beside the remains of yet another Roman bathhouse, then I returned to the car, where, fixed by a wiper blade to the windscreen, was a parking ticket.
I consulted the hotel manager’s map and saw that I had almost reached the outermost limit of her suggested tour. From here I had a choice. I could return the same way I came or take a more intricate circular route (also marked). By now as familiar with the Duetto as I would have been had I owned it, I set off again with confidence and pleasure along the longer circular route.
About a mile down the road, however, splashes of rain appeared on the windscreen. Looking up, I saw that half the sky had gone black. I stopped again to raise the roof. A few miles farther on, going up a hill in the middle of nowhere, the engine began to pink and shudder. By changing down and down through the gears, while constantly searching with my foot for a sweet spot on the rev counter, I nursed it over the brow of the hills, then coasted down the other side.
The sky went entirely black and a minute later I was driving slowly and in darkness through a rain curtain intermittently flash-lit by forked lightning. Then the rain increased and increased to a point beyond which I’d never before experienced rain like it and the windscreen fogged up. The rain started to pour in through several points at the roof edges and puddled in the seats and footwells. Then the battery warning light came on and the power steering failed.
I heaved the car over to what I guessed must be the side of the road and switched off the engine. As if the rain pounding on the roof wasn’t deafening enough, a thunderclap exploded right overhead. I noticed that I was freezing cold as well as soaked to the skin.
I remembered reading somewhere that in spite of its peaceful, arable aspect, Tuscany’s climate is one of violent extremes. Well, it hadn’t taken me long to find that out. Searching my pockets, then the car for my phone, I realised that I’d left it behind. Fortunately, however, the search had revealed a tube of Mentos and I sucked on a strawberry-flavoured one while considering what to do next.