By Roger Boylan
The Autostrada del Sole (“Highway of the Sun”), known as the “Autosole,” is the toll expressway that links Milan and Naples via Bologna, Florence, and Rome. In its 760-km. (550-mi.) length, its spectacular engineering, the importance of the cities it links, and the sheer beauty of the country through which it passes, it is one of the world’s great highways.
I first traveled on it in 1957, at age 6, as a passenger in a VW minibus with five women: three Americans and two Brits. One was my mother, and she was usually the one working the VW’s huge, near-horizontal, steering wheel and tree-tall gearshift lever. The other gals were friends of hers. It was a gap year on the Continent for them, and probably one of the most exciting adventures of their lives: a road trip in high summer from Geneva to Naples and back. with no men around to muck things up, just a tolerably weird little boy who kept to himself. For me it was just another perk of being a small Yank abroad.
Given my age, I was oblivious to the potentially farcical quality of the circumstances, which seem in retrospect to have been tailor-made for a script from the zany school of filmmaking (It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World; There’s a Girl In My Soup; and their ilk). Fascinated as I was by Italian roads and what they contained, I was too young to pay much attention to my fellow-travelers. No, I was busy developing a crush on Fiat 500s and 600s.
Actually, the Autostrada del Sole, as the knowledgeable reader will know, didn’t exist in 1957, at least not as a whole. But parts of it did, from Milan as far south as, roughly, Piacenza. Beyond that point ran the two- and three-lane highway known as the Superstrada, the state road built on or near the Via Aurelia and Via Flaminia, ancient Roman highways that had been one of the reasons for the prodigious ability of the Roman Empire to move vast numbers of troops from A to B at high speed. As armies have learned over the centuries, the main obstacle to rapid progress up the spine of the peninsula is the Apennine mountains.
The Roman soldiers of old sometimes bypassed them completely and made part of their trip by sea. We in our VW minibus had no such option. At a pace nearly as slow as that of the legions two millenia previously, we climbed the mountain passes from Lunigiana to Parma, and from Pistoia to Bologna, on the way to Florence and Rome. One of my more vivid memories of that trip is of various rest stops under spreading umbrella pines somewhere in the mountains while repairs were effected to the VW by Italian gentlemen who happened to be passing in their Fiats and Alfa Romeos and who were, unsurprisingly, falling over themselves in their eagerness to lend a hand to five foreign ladies, and indeed mechanical assistance was required with quite dismaying frequency. (One wonders if the VW really was such a limone, or if a certain amount of, shall we say, gallant sabotage was involved.) In the end, the not-so-magic bus finally got the job done and deposited us back safely in Geneva, after a 1,500-mile jaunt to Naples and Pompeii.
Next time I made the same journey was in ’65, in a Renault Dauphine. The Autostrada was finished as far as Rome and the Apennines had been, for the first time, conquered by Man. It had been no easy task: Engineers built 17 tunnels and God only knows how many bridges, many of which were roadbuilding marvels to equal anything built by the engineers’ Roman ancestors.
In the early days of the Autostrada del Sole among the big attractions for me, along with the views from the viaducts and the prospect of the occasional Ferrari tearing by at 150 m.p.h., were the ubiquitous Pavesi Autogrills, whose imminent appearance was announced on roadsigns at five-kilometer intervals, starting 25 km. out. The Pavesi Autogrills were fast-food restaurants, many of which were glass-and-steel bridges that straddled the expressway and from which one could enjoy an unparalleled view of, say, a churchtower in a medieval hillside village, or a rolling vineyard, while tucking into the antipasto of the day, or a surprisingly tasty “Amborger,” with the traffic flowing by underfoot.
Another icon I remember from my trips up and down the Autostrada del Sole was the AGIP sign in garish red, yellow, and black that adorned the Italian petroleum company’s myriad roadside filling stations. So enamored was I of the six-legged, fire-breathing dragon that was the company emblem and that looked, oddly, about as dangerous as a Labrador–indeed, it was popularly known as il cane a sei zampe, or six-legged dog–that I wrote a letter full of juvenile pleas to AGIP HQ and some weeks later received in return a bulky envelope containing a letter in ludicrous operetta-English, three adhesive decals of the creature, and one stuffed version thereof suitable for being dangled from one’s rear-view mirror. It dangled briefly in my mother’s cars but never in mine, but it may well still exist, in a forgotten corner of a distant attic.
I last drove down the Autosole in the late ’70s, from Milan to Rome, in a sky-blue VW Super Beetle that had nothing super about it. It was sluggish and noisy, but it was better built than its minibus ancestor of ’57, and managed to survive the journey, which also took me along tributary autostrade to the Adriatic coast, Venice, and the Adige valley, with greater fortitude, cruising at somewhat faster speeds than either the minibus of ’57 or the Dauphine of ’65.
Mention of these names reminds me that I’ve never driven down Italy’s central expressway in an Italian car. So I have still at least one ambition left.
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