“This car: 60 years old today!” the petrol pump attendant said, pointing at a newspaper headline celebrating the occasion that read “La Macchina Piu Amata Dagli Italiani” – The Most Beloved Italian Car.
“I am a Cinquecento expert!” he announced with Italian braggadocio as he filled the tank, dipped the oil and cast an eye over the engine. To be honest, there wasn’t much for my husband and I to check. Ours was a 1965 model, and with no radiator, fuel gauge, air-con, radio, or even seat belts, it was very much a lo-fi driving experience, which suited me fine. I was happily transported back to my days of vintage motorcycle ownership – the visceral pounding of an air-cooled engine, the smell of hot motor oil, and the sensation that something will probably break at some point but that it’s all so simple you can fix it yourself at the side of the road.
Driving a Fiat 500 through the back-roads of Italy
We had collected our wheels from Spider Lifestyle, a vintage car rental company in Sorrento run by the unflappable Sergio, whose briefing consisted of pointing out a few dents in the bodywork and explaining the starting procedure: “Turn-a the key, pull-a the lever, off-a you go!”
There were also a couple of immaculate Sixties Alfa Romeos tucked away in his garage but for what we had planned, the well-loved Fiat 500 was the perfect vehicle. We were heading south from Sorrento, along the coast to explore the wilder, lesser-known region of Cilento. Seldom visited by non-Italian tourists, who tend to stick to the Amalfi Coast, Cilento is the summer destination of the Napoletani who converge there every August.
As a worldwide road tripper and lifelong owner/willing victim of vintage vehicles, I found the Fiat 500 the obvious choice for this trip through back-roads Italy – as crucial to cultural immersion as gorging on the local mozzarella and hitting the limoncello. To embark on the journey in a soulless hire car from the airport just wouldn’t have been right. And anyway, air-con, satnav, electric windows? Who needs ’em? There is something fundamentally satisfying about the physical, analogue engagement of winding a chrome lever, navigating with a paper map, and indeed, the almost primeval skill of gauging just the right amount of throttle and choke to start an engine.
Then there are the noises, smells and vibrations that have been eliminated from the modern motoring experience. Why have a pine tree-shaped air freshener dangling from your mirror when you can wind down the windows and let in the scent of real pine needles?
We bid arrivederci to Sergio, cranked open the sunroof and nudged our way through Sorrento’s horn-honking, choked-up streets. American tourists were tramping the black lava pavements and climbing ancient stone staircases, pausing only to discuss their Fitbit readings or queue for coaches to Vesuvius and Pompeii. But we soon left them and the traffic jams of Amalfi behind and as the road opened up, the Cinquecento revealed itself to us as the ultimate time-travel machine.
Our first stop in the past was way beyond even the birth of the Fiat 500, all the way back to 600BC when the Greeks came to settle in Italy and built the city of Paestum on the Tyrrhenian coast. A world away from Europe’s more famous ancient sites, Paestum’s languid atmosphere provided a dreamlike amble through time. The ruins are set in pleasingly untamed grounds with no crowds or queues for tickets but Paestum’s amphitheatre, the city walls and the temples with their grand Doric columns are some of the best-preserved in the world.
It was while cruising Paestum’s main drag that we first experienced the “Cinquecento effect”. Old men sitting at roadside cafés stood to wave as we drove by, animated by nostalgia. Our attempts to pay car park fees were brushed aside and strangers struck up conversations about the car, sharing their own Cinquecento stories – tales of overloaded family holidays, courting couples and comedy breakdowns flowed. Our Fiat was photographed and patted with a fondness usually reserved for a beloved pet.
This was the car that got Italians on the road and forged a national passion for motoring. Launched in 1957 to a population still in the throes of post-war deprivation, the original came with a price tag of 560,000 lira (the equivalent of €270/£241), making it accessible to all. With its cute yet cool curves and stylish detailing, the Fiat 500 won the hearts of both Italian men and women – and as we were discovering, its place in the national psyche has never wavered.
As we made our way inland, the country became wilder and the road twisted through mountainous terrain where deep gorges carve through the hills and glassy green rivers provided spontaneous swimming opportunities. The roads were empty here, occasionally revealing sleepy villages where life continued as it had done for generations. Sun-bleached plaster crumbled beneath balconies festooned with scarlet geraniums and fast-drying laundry. Elderly ladies in housecoats sat chatting on doorsteps, their brightly coloured Crocs (worn with socks) their only concession to the comforts of the 21st century.
We crunched the Fiat through the gears around hairpin bends and coaxed it along mountain tracks as we headed back to the coast. Arriving in time for sunset at Santa Maria di Castellabate, a gentle seaside town, we watched families making their evening promenade and teenagers playing beach volleyball, leaping silhouettes against a streaky pink sky.
Our BB for the night was tucked away among olive groves near the medieval hilltop town of Castellabate. This is the nearest Cilento comes to having a de facto tourist attraction. The picture-perfect town provided the set for the 2010 Italian film, Benvenuti al Sud in which an urbane northerner lands a job in the supposedly hick south, only to discover that it isn’t as rough and unsophisticated as he feared. A box office hit in Italy, its legacy is the coach-loads of visitors from Milan and Rome who now come to admire Castellabate’s alleys, piazzas and 12th-century castle.
As we continued south along the coast road, it became apparent that Cilento is by no means rough or unsophisticated but, like our vehicle, charming in its unpretentiousness. We found ourselves transported back to childhood holidays; no high-rise hotels or global coffee shop chains, but village trattorias imbued with a nostalgic bouquet of garlic, wine and a hint of pre-smoking ban cigarettes.
We motored on, through an unmanicured wilderness of olive, lemon and orange trees, bamboo and pines, splashed with explosions of disco-pink bougainvillea. Inside the Fiat, our thighs stuck to the vinyl seats and the engine wafted hot Castrol R as we swerved around potholes in a truly Italian style, negotiating roads cracked and misshapen by sun and subsidence.
Cilento’s lack of tourism has allowed enticing relics of the past to be left unmolested; derelict railway tunnels, faded Cinquecentos rusting on verges and a row of crumbling viaduct piers striding across a valley, an ambitious development plan, thankfully thwarted.
The physical engagement of driving the Fiat – the grinding of gears, the slippery grip on the skinny plastic steering wheel – combined with the sun beating through the roof, hot air blasting through the windows and a cocktail of sweat and factor 30 dripping off our foreheads, all made for an intense, if somewhat tiring, sensory experience.
But the journey was all the richer for it – we were most definitely alive – and living in a Sixties road movie. The turquoise sea to our right, the open road ahead, the childlike sensation that anything could happen. Maybe it was the sun, but we began to hatch wild plans to abandon our real lives, kidnap the Fiat, keep driving south and see where the road took us.
It is perhaps fitting, then, that the next day our Cinquecento conked out completely. As predicted, it was easy to diagnose – a sheared clip on the throttle cable – and just as easy to fix, or at least bodge. My husband nipped into the shop across the street, bought a pair of shoelaces and some balloons which he employed as a temporary repair and we were on our way again.
We were only slightly late to meet our host for the night, Sebastiano Petrilli – proprietor of the San Fantino vineyard and BB, and an all-round Cilento action man. After 20 years in London, he had returned to his homeland, fizzing with energy and ideas for Cilento’s future.
“I would like to see Cilento become an artist’s colony,” he said, “like Marrakech was in the Sixties, or Ibiza before the clubbers came.”
Seduced by our road trip, I found myself caught up in Sebastiano’s dream, making idle enquiries about property prices and picturing our rustic villa – with a Cinquecento parked outside, naturally.
We arrived in the pastel-painted harbour of Scario where Sebastiano whisked us out in a launch, hugging the coast, passing secret coves and beaches only accessible by boat.
“This is the longest stretch of coastline in Italy without a road,” he told us as we dropped anchor a few yards from a secluded beach and waded ashore, feeling like Robinson Crusoe. Hidden behind the trees at the back of the beach was a film set trattoria of red-checked table cloths and home-grown food served beneath the shade of a 200-year old carob tree.
Sebastiano uncorked a bottle of his San Fantino rosso and introduced us to a Very Important Person – his mother. She solved a mystery for us.
“In the Seventies they started to build a motorway in Cilento, they wanted to develop this coastline,” she told us. “Our family owned land they needed, they tried to force me to sell. I refused. I fought them for years. Eventually I gave a strip of our land to the FIA, the Italian National Trust. This meant they could never build on it. They had to abandon the project!”
I told her we’d seen the abandoned piers of the motorway bridge the day before. She smiled with rightful pride.
“They call her ‘The Warrior of Cilento’!” said Sebastiano. He gestured at the unspoilt paradise all around us. “She stopped all of this from becoming like the Costa del Sol!”
Next morning, as we packed the car for our last day on the road, Sebastiano came to see us off. “Aah, the Cinquecento,” he smiled, bemused. “If you like classic cars, I thought you would prefer something like an Alfa Romeo, something sporty.” I shook my head. “Oh no, this was the perfect car.”
And I meant it. The little Fiat, with its cheeky good looks and truculent ways had given us a special connection to this part of the world. We would be sad to hand it back. As we bombed it back to Sorrento on the main highway, we even managed to nudge the speedo above 100km per hour and overtake a couple of trucks. What more could you ask for in a hire car?
Lois Pryce stayed as a guest of Sawday’s at Villa Oriana Relais in Sorrento (rooms from €79 (£70) per night); Borgoriccio in Torchiara (rooms from €100 per night); Marulivo Hotel in Pisciotta (rooms from €70 per night); and Locanda San Fantino in San Giovanni a Piro, (rooms from €100 per night). For more information on her journey and for a suggested itinerary, see sawdays.co.uk/cilento. A Fiat 500 can be hired from €120 per day through Spider Lifestyle (spiderlifestyle.com).