On Thursday, we interrupted several days of intense immersion into Italian culture. No centuries-old artwork. No historical city tours. No ruminations on how Italians used to live and still do because of it. Instead, we jumped into a little modern Italian phenomenon.
From the Sistene Chapel to sports cars. From basilicas to motorcycle assembly plants. From paintings worth a million-plus Euros to cars worth a million-plus Euros.
The Dish and I, plus OU alum Darrell Bull and his son Mitchell, left the OU engineering group Thursday morning. The students took a charter bus from Venice to Arezzo to begin their summer study abroad program. We took a train from Venice to Bologna, and by late Thursday night, we were in Arezzo, too. But in between, we stopped off for a tour with MotorStars. Francesco Bini met us at the Bologna train station and spent literally 10 hours tooling us around the region, with stops at the Ducati motorcycle plant in Bologna, the Ferrari campus in Maranello and the Lamborghini headquarters in Sant’Agata Bolognese. We traveled around in a nine-passenger Mercedes van, which Francesco uses in his 10-year-old business. The entire day cost something like 200 Euro each. That gets you into all three plants, plus transportation and lunch. It’s a good deal if you’re a tourist who doesn’t know your way around.
With us were Jonathan and Jessica, a couple from New Jersey on their honeymoon; this was Jonathan’s day, after what sounded like several Jessica days.
I’m not a gearhead. Mitchell Bull knew all about the cars and their histories and their performances. He seemed to know more than the people giving the tours. He knew how the engines worked and how much they cost and what models meant what. I judge cars on how reliable they are when you turn the key and can use them to go get a load of grass from Allen Sod Farms on a Saturday morning. But I still enjoyed the day. Learned a lot. Saw a slice of Italy I had never considered. The Dish even drove a Ferrari. Here’s what we saw.
BOLOGNA IS NO SANDWICH
I had heard of Bologna, Italy, most of my life. Ever since one of my early teachers — second, third, fourth grade — read us a book over the course of several weeks. I couldn’t remember the title, but I remember it had something to do with Bologna, Italy, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I googled it up and there it was, the title from 45 years ago, and the internet says it’s one of the best children’s books ever written. From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil F. Frankweiler.
Bologna is a city of some 370,000 residents, but with 836,000 metro population. It’s a big place.
Bologna is home to the University of Bologna, which opened in 1088 and is the world’s oldest university.
From the inside looking out, Bologna seemed like most big cities. Had sort of a Pittsburgh feel to me. From the outside looking in, which means driving freeways to get in and out of the city, it was picturesque, with lots of trees and some mountains. Sort of like Spokane. But truthfully, we didn’t actually see much of Bologna. We were headed for the world of high-performance engines.
Let me tell you how out of tune I was with the concept of our day. Until we actually got in the Mercedes van, I hadn’t heard of Ducati. And even after hearing the word, I didn’t know Ducati was a motorcycle company.
But Ducati is a world-renowned cycle-maker, both for the competitive sport of racing and for people who love to ride cycles on the street.
Natasha was our guide through Ducati, and she was both passionate and informative about her company.
We got a tour through Ducati’s assembly plant, and Ducati was serious enough that Natasha placed a sticker over the lens on every cellphone entering the plant. No photos.
Ducati employs 1,000 workers and cranks out 40,000 cycles per year. Its fastest bike costs 65,000 Euros.
The plant was fascinating. All the workers wore Ducati uniforms, and many of them had Shell oil patches. Shell is a major sponsor of Ducati bikes. Seemed interesting to me, since I figured Shell (which apparently is called Advance Oil here in Europe) was a Houston company. But Darrell Bull is a petroleum engineer; he told me Shell actually is a Netherlands/English company. Who knew?
Our tour group included about 15 people. Natasha at one point asked everyone what they did for a living. When I told them what I did, these two guys from Canada came up and started talking NBA with me. In fact, I hadn’t heard that Kyle Lowry had re-signed with the Raptors. They informed me.
Natasha was cool with us being from Oklahoma. She said, “home of Reba McEntire.”
No holes in that theory.
I thought Ducati was pretty cool. But I had no idea what was awaiting in Maranello.
Maranello, Italy, is a town of about 17,000. It’s about 40 minutes outside Bologna.
And Maranello is home to Ferrari. You talk about a company town.
The Ferrari campus is huge, with 3,000 employees, a fabulous museum, a production plant and headquarters, and all kinds of subsidiary businesses.
We engaged in one of those satellite businesses. We drove a Ferrari.
Actually, the Dish and Darrell drove one. It cost a bunch — 80 Euro for 10 minutes. I didn’t need to be driving any sports car. That was never my gig.
But the Dish always has had a thing for cool cars. I enticed her 35 years ago with a Smokey & the Bandit Trans-Am. I grew out of my Trans-Am phase pretty quick, but she still has a taste for cool cars. She always has wanted a Jaguar, but unlike that trip to Venice, I never promised her a Jag. She’s on her own for that one.
Anyway, the Dish got to take a Ferrari California out on the streets of Maranello, and I got to go along, sort of in the backseat. An employee had to sit up front, so I was in the back of the California, which has four seats in name only. Our guide scooted his seat up far enough that his knees were against the dashboard, but I was sitting sideways, with still no place to put my feet. And while they sat down deep, well below the windshield, I was sort of elevated.
You know how those cool dogs ride on tool boxes in the backs of pickups, the wind whipping their faces? They ride like they’re emperors and everyone in the cab is their servants. That’s not what I felt like, but that’s what I looked like. The wind whipped me senseless as the Dish drove around town.
She said it was great, that if you touched the gas pedal, zoom! If you nudged the wheel, zip! She said it was quite a thrill.
Before driving the Ferraris, we toured the Ferrari museum and campus.
The Ferrari museum, which costs 15 Euro alone, was fabulous. The first floor dedicated to Ferrari’s success in Formula 1 racing. Lots of cars, lots of exhibits, lots of information. This was like going through the Bear Bryant Museum in Tuscaloosa, except instead of seeing houndstooth hats and Bear Bryant game plans, you were looking at some of the coolest race cars ever built.
I liked Ferrari’s evolution of racing helmets. It sort of mirrored football’s evolution. Back in the 1970s, when the famed Nicki Lauda was champion, the helmet was a basic burnt orange, with a solitary sticker on it. Now, of course, the helmets are flashy and splashy. Same with football.
The upstairs of the museum has many of Ferrari’s popular commercial cars over the years, with a total salute to California. The museum sets a backdrop of Beverly Hills and Rodeo Drive, San Francisco, Pebble Beach and Westside LA to display its cars. Turns out the California market was the best for Enzo Ferrari and he has embraced the Golden State. Even named one of his popular models California.
Ferrari is proud of its story and it ought to be. A 45-minute bus ride around campus fills you in. Enzo Ferrari (1898-1988) started the company in 1947 with 15 employees. Now that company produces 7,000 cars per year, all via order.
Almost everyone working at Ferrari, from tour guides to assembly line machinists, wears a Ferrari uniform, which looks like one of the Formula 1 racing suits.
The streets of the campus are named after Ferrari’s successful Formula 1 drivers. Just outside the test track is Michael Schumacher Square, for the German who dominated Formula 1 in recent years.
Ferrari has a waiting list of customers. It takes three months to produce the custom-made car — which basically go for 200,000 Euro (about $270,000) and up — but a year to be delivered.
Our tour bus actually got to go out on the test track, which sounded like a big deal.
Like I said, I’m not a big car guy or a big racing fan. But I love passion. And most of the people visiting the Ferrari campus were passionate about what they were seeing. So were the people already on campus.
Finally, Francesco drove us to Sant’Agata Bolognese, a village that seemed about 30 kilometers outside Bologna. It has an estimated population of 6,500 and a manufacturing plant of another magical automobile name. Lamborghini.
Here’s the story they tell in Lamborghini Land. Ferruccio Lamborghini was a tractor magnate who bought a Ferrari and found it defective. The clutch stayed in various forms of disrepair. He figured out what he thought was the problem and received an audience with Enzo Ferrari but basically was told that it was operator error and nothing was wrong with the car.
So in 1963, Lamborghini started his own sports car company.
Audi, which is owned by Volkswagen, now owns Lamborghini, but the company still is churning out funky sports cars in the assembly plant in Sant’Agata Bolognese.
The Lamborghini museum isn’t as extensive as Ferrari’s. But it’s got some crazy cars, including the Sesto Elemento, which Mitchell Bull tells me goes for a cool 1.6 million Euro. All I know is the Lamborghinis are much more colorful than the Ferraris, all of which seem to be red.
But we left Lamborghini talking not about its cars but its tour guide. I never did catch the gal’s name, but I swear, she was bi-polar. Charming one moment, frontier schoolmarm the next. Our best buddy one minute, wrapping our knuckles with a ruler the next.
She harshly laid down the rules of the tour through the assembly plant. No stopping. Must stick together. Yet she would suddenly stop, talk for a couple of minutes, then get angry that we all had stopped. She would tell us to stick together, then she would tell us to get in single file, about 10 of us. It became quite comical.
Almost made me write a note to myself. Next time I buy a sports car for 300,000 Euro, I’m going with Ferrari.
THE ITALIAN ROAD
* The day began and ended with train rides. Venice to Bologna at 6:50 a.m., Bologna to Arezzo at 8:18 p.m. The first train was pristine and quite empty. The last train was an old-timer, with compartments in each car seating six people. Both seemed fine, though. Train travel is rather fun and easy. More overhead space and more seat space than in an airplane. What more can you ask for?
* The terrain from Bologna to Arezzo was gorgeous. Lots of mountains and villages. Looked a little like Colorado, except better trees.
* Sometimes I can figure out what’s going on with the Italian language and sometimes not. Some words are similar to English, some are not. And then there was this on a highway gas station: SELF SERVICE. No accompanying words in Italian. And they can’t be marketing toward tourists. Americans don’t drive cars in Italy to any significant degree. I wonder if the concept of self-service gas stations was invented in the U.S. and the notion was so foreign to Italy, it had no words to adequately describe what you’re supposed to do?
* Lunch was a little café, arranged through Francesco, right next to the Ferrari museum. By far the worst meal we’ve had in Italy and I don’t even know what would be second. The Dish had a pizza that was equal to the worst frozen pizza I’ve ever eaten; I had a sandwich on badly-toasted bread.
* Dinner was slightly better. We ate at a place close to the Bologna train station. The Dish had lasagna that was pretty good. I had tortellini that was rather mediocre. But everyone is entitled to an off day, even Italian cuisine.
* While waiting at the train station to meet up with Theresa Marks, who spent the day in Bologna, we indulged. We all shared some McDonald’s French fries. They were moderately comparable to American McDonald’s. Pretty dang close, actually. But they charged us a quarter Euro for a ketchup packet.
Of course, I owned McDonald’s maybe that much and more. We had our first experience with pay toilets. That morning in the same establishment, while waiting on Francesco, they had unlocked the bathroom for us to use. But it was locked in the afternoon and they wouldn’t open it, directing us to go upstairs. Mitchell Bull went first and turns out it was a pay toilet; you had to dispense some coins to get through the door. When Mitchell came out, he held the door open for me, and I did the same for Darrell. So I didn’t feel too badly giving them half a Euro for two packets of ketchup.
* Speaking of McDonald’s, we spent a few minutes on an Italian turnpike, getting from Bologna to the Ferrari campus. They have commercial enterprises on the turnpikes, just like at home. Including McDonald’s. That’s right. McDonald’s has worked its way onto Italian turnpikes.
* Driving through a little village off the turnpike, going to Maranello, we passed a sign that caught my eye. I didn’t get to study the business, but the sign was unmistakable. “Route 66 Café.” Same dark orange logo and branding. Route 66 has some tentacles, I’m telling you.
* I’ve seen very few pickups in Italy. Lots of smallish enclosed trucks. Lots of hybrid-type vehicles for transporting goods and making deliveries. But few pickups. How do people get along without pickups? In America, everybody has one or knows someone who has one and is willing to share.
* The turnpike had a bunch of 18-wheelers, too. You’d have thought you were on I-40.
* Italy loves it some traffic circles. I’ll bet the Dish went around 10 in Maranello alone, driving that Ferrari.
* Driving from Sant’Agata Bolognese back to Bologna, we got behind a tractor going about 10 mph. Just like in Oklahoma.