Sometimes automation is beyond me…
I’ve been studying for my Italian drivers licence for some time now and have been surprised at how much this has improved my confidence driving in Europe…
This was especially clear during a trip to France last month. Provence was our main focus and we took the opportunity to maximise our exposure to the Italian and French Rivieras on the way.
Our first night was to be spent in the old town of Cagnes Sur Mer, a small hilltop medieval settlement just east of Nice.
As we neared the centre of town, our GPS started giving us some strange circular directions. With little choice, we followed its advice in the hope that it would eventually sort itself out.
Soon we started climbing up to the old town and were relieved to hear the GPS telling us that the distance to our accommodation was ever reducing.
But we quickly found ourselves in a very tight situation on the very high hilltop with very limited space!
We were getting more and more tangled in a maze of incredibly steep and narrow one-way streets!
With no choice, I kept driving into this increasingly confined space, trying to read the French road signs that took up far too much of the limited space available. I vaguely remember hoping that none of the signs forbade traffic from entering the old town (in Italy, you can get a traffic fine simply by driving into an old town!)
At the top, the GPS announced that we had “reached our destination”…but there were no buildings that looked remotely like accommodation, no car-parking spaces and no turning space!
Panic set in as I rode the clutch trying to stay on the hill rather than slide off it!
Suddenly I spied an even more steep and narrow street down the hill and realised that this was my only course of action.
I turned the car to face the street and took a deep breath before plunging the car into first gear and moving forward towards the abyss.
Stu helped me face the challenge.
“Whatever you do, don’t put it in second, Cath! We could die!”, he shrieked.
I remember seeing a traffic sign that I didn’t recognise. Symbols for a person, a car and a dog shared the sign. I interpreted it to mean that everyone has right of way. The pedestrians who were on the street as I careered down in my noisy first gear quickly jumped aside, glancing in fright at my Italian number plate.
Sometimes coming from a country with a bad driving reputation is a good thing.
At the bottom of the hill, we agreed that we had no choice other than to try again. We had already pre-booked and paid for our accommodation.
So up we went again…
The same thing happened, only we were becoming good at it.
On the third attempt, we found a building relatively close to the top that appeared to offer public parking.
“It’s just like the autostrada, Cath. Just drive up to the entry, take a ticket and the boom-gate will open”, Stu advised.
I squeezed the car up to the entry only to find no ticket box!
Suddenly the boom gate lifted and I remember wondering how it knew I was there and what sort of parking lot lets people in without tickets.
I drove forward, only to see several huge steel bollards rise out of the ground in front of me, beyond which an automatic glass door loomed.
This was a very strange situation. I decided we weren’t meant to be there so I prepared to reverse out. However, when I looked in the rear vision mirror I saw that the boom gate had already lowered behind us!
We were trapped.
“OK, so what do we now!?”, I panicked.
After a few very long seconds, we noticed a man inside an office beside the glass doors.
Stu dived out of the car to ask him for help and I watched as the bollards sunk slowly and mysteriously back into the ground.
When Stu returned he told me that I had to drive through the doors and that he was not allowed to be in the car.
“But there’s not enough room for a car in there! And there are weird metal tracks behind the door!”, I replied.
“Just drive in!”, Stu insisted.
I moved forward, Stu helping me to judge the narrow entry. A few seconds later I was in the space but the man behind the window was gesticulating for me to go further forward.
The steel doors in front of me were now only inches away from the front of the car.
I edged further forward until suddenly there was a clatter and a clunk as the front wheels dropped into the metal tracks.
I couldn’t wait to get out of the car and flee from the confined space.
Outside, we watched as the steel doors opened and our car trembled forward all by itself on the metal tracks and quickly disappeared into a gaping dark hole before the steel doors closed behind it.
We looked at each other.
The man at the office spoke no English. He simply smiled and gave us a ticket. We smiled back, then loitered outside the office trying to read several signs on the window. We hoped that they might shed some light on what we’d just committed to. Indeed, the signs confirmed that this was an automated public underground parking lot for the severely space-limited hilltop community.
Panic set in.
“But all of our things are still in the car!” I called to the man through the glass, thinking primarily of my toothbrush.
A blank stare forced me to summon the best of my schoolgirl French.
“Le baggage…dans le voiture!”, I exclaimed.
The man rolled his eyes and waved his arms in the air before turning to a console and pressing a few buttons.
We walked back to where we had last seen our car but he waved us across to a similar space on the other side of the office.
Already too aware that we’d outlived our welcome, we waited patiently.
Behind another set of steel doors we heard yet more clanging and clunking. After a while, the doors opened to reveal our car and we watched as it wobbled driverless towards us.
We grabbed our bags from the car and placed them on the footpath, before waiting for the man to work miracles and turn our car around and suck it back inside the carpark.
Automatically, of course.
Unfortunately, the automated carpark had its limitations. The man explained in simple English that we needed to “go away and come back”.
So Stu waited with our things while I set off again, up the hill, through the narrow streets, down the steep street and around the loop.
I was getting very good at this!
Half an hour later we were safely ensconced in our accommodation, a lovely little ancient hotel in a little piazza beside the castle. We enjoyed an aperitivi at a bar on the piazza followed by a traditional French dinner in a small one-man restaurant surrounded by locals.
After the traumas of the day, we had no trouble sleeping..