Veneto: Natale in Italia, Terza Parte / Christmas in Italy, Part 3

The kids and I woke up at the very civil hour of 8:30 on Wednesday morning, but Jason had already had his coffee and left. I assumed he had gone to the gommista for new snow tires, as he had been talking about it the past few days, while keeping a nervous eye on the weather.

A flurry of texts from him after we were up and about confirmed as much, indicating that his situation had become ever more compromised as he stood in line with about twenty Italians at one of the only open gommista in town. Everyone was worried about the weather. Everyone wanted new snow tires. There was no room to haggle, much less converse. Signore Gommista was smiling as he made a fine profit that day, the best day to sell snow tires: December 27 as half the city emptied out to head north to enjoy snow concurrent with a winter storm warning.

I tried to mitigate total apartment destruction and pack for me and the kids until Jason returned home, annoyed but reassured.
“You don’t even want to know how much I spent,” he muttered.
“I actually do,” I said. Not out of any penny pinch but more morbid curiosity.
“He said he could not sell me chains for the tires because the chains would not fit in the wheelcase.”
“Oh?”
“But the fee also includes off-season tire storage.”
“Oh.”
We were still trying to pack and organize as the kids zoomed around in high spirits.
“I’ll tell you later,” he said, “how much.”

We herded the team down to the car, along with a collection of suitcases, toy bags, snack bags, diaper bags … we are very much in the Napoleonic army mode of travel. Staging everything in the foyer until Jason could bring the car around from the other side of the piazza, we watched the rain fall on the wet flagstones in front of the palazzo. We quickly shoveled all small people, bags, and accoutrements into our wagon, and got on the road under grey clouds. Eleanor fell asleep quickly, before the A1 autostrada split into ‘panoramica’ and ‘direttissima.’ This drive is always a challenge for me, because the route between Firenze and Bologna is twisting and steep, tunneling through the Apennines. I typically am a shade of green, well before Bologna. But the grey skies and ruta diretissima worked in my favor, and when we emerged before Bologna I was feeling fine. The flat plain of Emilia Romagna rolled out before us, under more clouds and rain. In fact, the rain never stopped.

As we crossed over into the Veneto, the rain picked up. Victor and Eleanor chattered in the back seat. We turned north to climb into the Dolomites, and saw the waterfalls coming off the mountains were forming large icicles and walls of ice. “Oooh, pretty,” we cooed. Infrequent vertical ice gave way to freezing rain, then heavy snowflakes. We were nowhere near our final destination, and it was getting dark fast. Snow started sticking to the ground, first as a low cover, then in larger mounds. The climb was no joke, either. Every few kilometers felt like we gained another one to two hundred meters. This was like driving the highway in Colorado, where you turn south from I-70 because someone in the car thought it would be fun to drive to Leadville. The road was blasted out of solid rock.

Fortunately, we were driving north, so we had the inside lane that was not covered in ice leading to a 600-meter spill and a quick death. Jason kept the car in second and took the turns slowly as my palms began to sweat. I started to feel like one of those Reader’s Digest “Drama in Real Life” stories that I used to read at my grandma’s house as a kid, where the mom capriciously tosses a box of Nilla Wafers into the trunk just before they set out on a roadtrip that will evolve into a struggle for life. I mentally catalogued the contents of our snack bag.

Victor and Eleanor began to bicker. I asked them to hush, but Jason set his jaw and said it was better, that he preferred background noise when driving like this. It felt like a bit of divine retribution, or at least a Campbellian test, for a person who had been celebrating the successful passage of his written Italian driver’s test just a week before. “Maybe we should go back to Belluno and stay there, instead,” he said under his breath.

We rolled into Forno a Zoldo, a small town with a uniformed Protezione Civile officer at the one intersection, holding a lollipop. She was watching out for all the drivers on this dark, snowy night out on the SP 251.

We waited in line with a few other stopped cars as she lollipopped through drivers with chains on their tires. Jason rolled down the window and she stuck her head in.

“You got chains?”
“No,” Jason replied.
“Is this car 4×4?”
“No.”
She shrugged. “Then you can’t pass.”
“We have a reservation in Santa Fosca.”
She shrugged again.
“I just bought these new snow tires today.”
She rolled her eyes. “Look, if you want to try it, and I do NOT recommend it, but leaving town here is a steep hill with a sharp curve. If you slide, turn around and come straight back; you won’t ever make it to Santa Fosca. But if you can make it up that hill, continue, and with care.”

We thanked her and drove away from the intersection, up the hill, up up up, and around the steep curve, still in second. We did not slip.

So we continued. It got darker, and the snow was blowing hard. The road was not good. This was a major winter storm even for the locals. The twisting mountain road was hard to discern in the headlights and the driving snow. We climbed, and climbed, hairpin after hairpin, and the weather got worse, and worse.

“How far back is Forno?” I asked.
“It’s been about four miles,” Jason replied. It felt like at least ten miles to me.
I could not believe we were doing this.
Jason continued to round the hairpins in second at increasing elevations.
Victor and Eleanor had stopped talking.
“Daddy, how much further is it?” Victor finally said in a small voice.
“A ways, guys. A ways.”
I intermittently monitored the max defrost button, which raised the temperature in the car to something like 100F. The ice accumulated quickly.

Finally, we reached the Passo di Staulanza, just after a town amusingly named Dont. It was a dismal scene. Snow was blowing sideways in sheets across the road. The signage indicated that six steep turns lay ahead before we arrived in our valley. The first turn was easy enough, but we fishtailed on the second one. I was trying hard to remain calm without much success. We made it safely down the next four turns, in first and second gear, without slippage. Finally we saw the lights of Pescul, and, just beyond it, our destination: Santa Fosca.

The roads were a mess. The snow had been falling so fast that no plow could keep up with it. We saw our first turnoff, and immediately got stuck, so backed out.

We continued forward. I started to whimper, “please let’s just call the hotel and explain to them what is happening.” But Jason was resolute. Our turnoff appeared again under the same name on a subsequent right, which we were able to access, although the ascent was steep and the road a lumpy, snowy mess.

We finally pulled into our hotel. It was still snowing hard.
“I wish we had taken this holiday in Sicily,” I grumbled. Jason laughed.

He got out of the car. The kids were still wearing their Florentine clothes.
“Where’s the big bag of their winterwear?” he asked me from the back.
“Their what?” I said.
“A huge bag of their winterwear.”
“It’s all in the suitcase,” I said.
“No, there is a huge bag … oh my god did we leave it at home.”

Apparently, we had. We carried the kids in their city clothes down into the hotel. Jason immediately made a trip out to buy them boots and gloves. I declined his offer to purchase boots for me, saying that mine were super and I loved them. Some of the wint
erwear was, in fact, in their suitcase; just not all of it. The critical pieces remained in our foyer in Florence in a huge recyclable shopping bag.

The kids now fully bundled, we trudged back down the snowy hill to a gastronomia for dinner. I slipped on the packed snow and bent my right wrist back and hard, cursing my boots for their lack of tread, making mental note to buy myself a new pair promptly the next morning.

Kids trotting off to the gastronomia in the storm.

Eleanor, initially irate at the snowpants situation, realized on the walk down the hill how incredible snow is. She’d never seen it before. Victor, ever the big brother, commented, “I’ve seen snow, but it didn’t look like this.” You got that right, kid.

Mom and dad had an adult beverage each while the kids devoured pizza and French fries. The gastronomia staff were sympathetic and doting, speaking in an accent and dialect that I could only guess.

We headed back into our snug, warm hotel room and quickly fell asleep after a trip from Firenze that had turned out to be much more than we’d bargained for.

In the end, we both agreed that the 700 euros for the ultra high performance snow tires had been well worth it.

We watched the storm continue from our balcony after we checked in.
The total snowfall was well over a foot.

There are more relaxing aspects of our days in Santa Fosca that I will record next for my reading public. Tomorrow we head to Austria, for more snow and sledding. Hopefully the drive will be a fraction as harrowing.

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