Travel 2006 – Mugello

Thursday 7th/Monday 11th September – Mugello, Italy

Italy – what can I really say about it?

Let’s start with Thursday, which was really entirely eaten up with travelling. We got a good early start on Thursday morning, which turned out to be just as well, because the M40 was grindingly slow after a “police incident” (explosives found in the woods alongside the road apparently) and we had to drag the long way round to Robert’s. Anyway, once we were all in my car we made remarkably good progress to Gatwick and only arrived a few minutes late at the car parking drop off point. Once they had taken the car away we proceeded to the not-very-fast bag drop and finished the check in process I’d started the day before. We checked in online as soon as that option was available and managed to snag the emergency exit row. The bag drop and security took about an hour, but we still had enough time to go to the Seafood Bar for lunch, and to do some shopping before we called at Chez Gerard for coffee. By then, a delay of one hour to our flight had been announced, so we were in no hurry. The flight itself was unremarkable, though we were glad we’d eaten before hand. The industrial tuna mayonnaise sandwich was truly nasty (one bite was enough) and the chicken sandwich was no better. I handed them back with one small bite out of each… The stewardess had the grace to admit several other people had complained too…

Anyway, we made it to Bologna eventually, only to arrive at the car hire desk just behind Trevor Carlin and Martin Stone who were muttering that we might be late, but at least we had luggage, which is more than they did! We collected the car, plugged in Doris, and set off on to the Italian highways. The A1 motorway would take us most of the way to Mugello, though it wasn’t the easiest of drives. The road itself is being rebuilt, pretty much, as they try and straighten it. This means that some bits are very narrow, with contraflows, while the completed bits go straight through the mountains in a series of long tunnels. Outside the tunnels the weather was vile (foggy, wet, low visibility) and inside Doris the Sat-Nav wouldn’t talk to us! We finally made it to the hotel, which turned out to be about 10 miles up a twisting mountain road, around 9.15.

The restaurant was shut, so they sent us back down the hill a short distance to Da Gianni, which was a terrific little family-run place, where I had prosciutto and then grilled rabbit with spinach, and we drank a number of bottles of the local red wine, before we hit the biscotti and vin santo instead of dessert. Total cost? Around €25 a head. We lurched back to the hotel full and content, and unpacked quickly before heading for bed.Friday was find the circuit day. It was, as advertised, about 25 minutes away, but needless to say it wasn’t quite as easy as we could have hoped. There was a certain amount of driving round in circles in Scarperia while we tried to locate the accreditation office, but we did eventually track it down, and then the circuit entrance, which at the moment is down a very narrow country lane (though to be fair they do seem to be building a new access road which looks as if it will take the strain off the town, and speed up access generally). We arrived just in time for testing, to discover that all press offices should be like this! There were 3 or 4 electric sockets per desk, along with a bank of 8 screens every two rows. The wifi access was spotty but was eventually fixed, and pretty much everything except the toilets was spot on. The toilets, to be fair, were clean and shiny, but they were also the so-called Turkish toilets where you stand over a hole in the porcelain. If you wanted to sit down, you had to use the disabled toilets, which didn’t lock… That led to most of the women queuing for the disabled toilets, usually with a friend in tow to guard the door! Still, it’s otherwise a stunning facility, and the drivers mostly loved it.

Dumbest question of the day? From someone who really should have known better… Chris Weller to Mika Salo, clearly forgetting that his ex-driver was once employed by Ferrari and this is a Ferrari test facility… “Have you been here before?” Mika’s answer? “Yes, every day for x months…” He was on fine form, as were Bas Leinders and Peter Kox, the former admitting that the car’s getting a lot better now the team have realised that he knows a thing or two about getting the best out of a race car, and the latter feeding us coffee, but only if we didn’t mind plastic cups, because he has to do the washing up himself! Luckily, the weather perked up as the day wore on, so we left the circuit early and headed off into Scarperia, where we wandered round a bit looking at medieval buildings before we set off back to the hotel, looking for a gelateria on the way. It proved elusive but we finally tracked one down on the outskirts of Barberino del Mugello, which made us all happy.

That evening we headed back to Da Gianni for dinner, and this time I had pasta with wild boar sauce, and would have had pigeon, but somehow my order went missing, and I got the vegetable, but the piccione never showed up. It was probably not a bad thing really. By the time we asked about it, I’d kind of lost interest so the idea that it would take another 30 minutes meant I decided not to bother. The others seemed to enjoy their steaks and/or rabbit and the frittura mista were good even without the accompanying main course. Once again I couldn’t have managed a dessert, so we hit the biscotti again, before retiring to bed.

Saturday started ludicrously early, because qualifying started at 9. The hotel breakfast room was packed to the gunnels with tourists (at 7.30? Who on earth breakfasts at 7.30 on holiday?) so we went straight to the track instead. For what happened during the day, anyone who is interested can read the reports. Mostly the weather got steadily worse and by the time we made it back to the hotel it was looking like it might never stop raining. We decided we wanted to eat somewhere else this time, so Cassandra (who speaks better Italian than the rest of us) asked for a recommendation. The hotel people suggested a restaurant in Prato, on the edge of Florence, called the Veranda. They even gave us directions (which didn’t help). They said to turn left at the first roundabout, but neglected to mention (or didn’t know) that it’s now the second roundabout as a new one has been added. The upshot was a misguided tour of Prato in the pouring rain before we finally found the place. Once again it was a family-run place, and it was heaving with locals. The trouble was we were wedged in under a TV set that was blaring away showing a football match, which meant conversation was very difficult, and they kept messing up the orders. I had a very good starter of seafood risotto, but didn’t think much of my main course, veal with mushrooms, as the sauce was very glutinous, and not in a good way either. In addition, we were between the kitchen and the rest of the room and anyone wanting to get to the toilets also had to squeeze past us. All in all, not an experience I’d care to repeat, even for a risotto as good as that.

Getting back to the hotel was interesting too, because the restaurant owner told us to go to the first traffic lights and then follow the road up to Pontenuovo, except the traffic lights have been replaced by a roundabout (in fact by the roundabout we should have turned off at on the way to the restaurant), something we only discovered after going a long way out of our way in the torrential downpour…

Sunday was another early start, so we got the jump on the tourists by heading down for breakfast at 7.15, thus beating them to it by 15 minutes! Anyway, we headed off to the circuit in fog and driving rain, and spent as much of the morning as possible skulking in the press office and getting the work done. That meant we were able to get away around lunchtime, so we headed down into Florence, parking just by the riverside, and heading off for a walk. It had stopped raining, which allowed us to take lots of photos of the old buildings along the Arno, before stopping to drink Italy’s most expensive cappuccino, before the heavens opened again and we decided to abandon our look around. We retreated to the hotel after a titanic struggle with the local traffic and some very interesting manouevering on my part. We finally escaped from Florence and made it back to the hotel, stopping off at the restaurant Carmagnini del 500 to reserve a table. We ended up eating a superb meal in an historic setting, served by very charming waiters. We went for the €32 gourmet menu, starting with some superb bread, moving on to a plate of near perfect pecorino cheese and some goats’ cheese, both of which were packed with flavour. Next up was pappardelle pasta with a ragu of duck meat, and then rabbit rolled and roasted. It was soft, melting and served with baby new potatoes and some spinach. Brilliant! The Montepulciano we selected from the wine list was excellent too, and only Glyn could manage dessert (a chocolate/ice-creamy thing); the rest of us had biscottini and vin santo (there’s a pattern developing here), and finished off with coffee. The price per head, including aperitifs? Around €45 each… It would be very hard to eat that well in the UK for that sort of price. It was made even better by the fact that this fine establishment was within walking distance of the hotel.

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