Sunday, May 06, 2007

On to Tuscany

Before leaving Ceriale we went to the local grocery store. Overall, we were not favorably impressed by the grocery stores in any of the parts of Europe that we visited. We found one full service chain in France named Auchon, that has wide selections of fish, meat and produce and also an extensive deli counter with numerous cheeses, pâtés and scores of prepared dishes ranging from the spectacular to the seriously dubious. This, sadly, turned out to be the highlight - the other chains we encountered, Audi, Champion, Lidl and Spar to name a few, were often little better than large convenience stores frequently with no deli or butchery and limited, poor quality produce selections. Following recent experiences in England, where the grocery stores have improved immensely since we shopped them regularly in the seventies, we had expected continental stores to be brimming over with yummy cheeses, bread to die for and sundry other delights. Well, how wrong were we? Outside of a few widely known cheeses such as Brie, Camenbert and Roquefort, all of the others that we tried are a long way from finding a place on our future menu. Same thing with the bread. A few obvious winners like baguettes and batards but, stray away from them, and most of the offerings we tried seemed in need of pre-chewing by a horse, or similar undiscerning critter.
A highlight of all the grocery stores was the cart management. To use a cart
it is necessary to press a 1 Euro (1 GBP in England) coin into a little box on the cart handle. This action releases a chain securing your cart to the cart in front of it and the same action locks the coin into the box. At the end of the shopping mission, the coin can be recovered by returning the cart to the corral, nesting it properly with the other carts and then inserting the chain dangling from the cart in front into the lock. This re-secures the cart and, at the same time, releases the coin. Needless to say, at $1.40 in Europe and $2.00 in England, there are no stray carts left around the parking lots and no cart crews required to round up strays. While a similar scheme in this country would get my vote, one wonders whether $0.25 - the largest US coin in mass circulation - would get the attention of the spoilers that selfishly unload their carts and abandon them in the middle of the lot.
Another difference noticed in all stores with multiple checkout lanes was that the cash register clerks were all seated - it beats me why the same is not the case here.
After getting underway it quickly became clear that the coast road, apart from providing the occasional spectacular view, was slow, stressful and completely devoid of stopping places. Our next stopping point was around 100 miles away and the prospect of leading a lengthy entourage of frustrated motorists for four hours or so, as we negotiated the incessant hairpins and narrow roads, seemed too much of a good thing so
we chickened out and got onto the Autostrada (Italian Interstate). This happened to be a Sunday and, unknown to us, Italy does not allow trucks to operate on this day. As a result, we had a relaxed and easy journey to our next destination. The Autostrada along this stretch of the coast is quite a piece of engineering. In the 80 or so miles that we traveled there were probably more than 20 miles of tunnels - many of them over amile in length - and 30 plus miles of spectacular bridge spans, sometimes hundreds of feet high, as the highway traversed the ridges and canyons. It turned out that this was the probably the best of the highways were we to see in Italy. The majority of the secondary roads are in poor condition, many needing much more than simple resurfacing. Already in debt to the EU to the tune of an entire year of Gross National Product, Italy remains one of the weakest sisters of the original EU participants and, with the lack of urgency and casual approach to all things work related, it is difficult to see how this condition might improve. As an example of the antiquated, make-work procedures tolerated, the postal service does not allow the general public to purchase postage stamps. To mail a post card, one must take it to a post office, shuffle through a line of waiting customers, hand the card to the agent, wait while the details are entered into a computer which then spits out a label. The clerk attaches the label to the card, collects the fee and then drops the whole into the mail. QED.
Overall, roadside services in Europe are on the minimal side - fine for filling up with gas but poorly served by restaurants and in no way conducive to "resting" as are their counterparts in the US.
Along this stretch of highway we passed Genoa, a major Italian port, and managed to catch a couple of snaps from one of the bridge sections as we zoomed by at 110 (kph).

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