On the 8th day of our trip, we were planning a one day stop in the small hilltop town of Orvieto. This being my first time driving in Italy, I was especially proud of the fact that I had managed to get the car from Milan to Montalcino, by way of Lake Como, San Miniato, and Modena, without any issues. Orvieto is a small wine region in the southern part of Umbria that straddles the neighboring region of Lazio, and is known for being a producer of simple white wines both dry and sweet in style from grapes like Grechetto and Trebbiano. After spending the last few days in Tuscany, (an area known for its famous red wines like Chianti and Brunello di Montalcino) I thought Umbria would be a nice change of pace. At this point in my story, there are 2 specific decisions I made on the 1st day of our trip that I would like to highlight, as they will play a larger role a bit later: The 1st was the transmission request I made from the rental car agency – which was an automatic. I have never had the pleasure of learning how to drive a stick shift, and I certainly wasn’t going to start in a foreign country. The 2nd was the declination of the insurance agreement offered by the rental car agency, as I have full coverage for a rental car anywhere in the world through my credit card benefits agreement. This seems to be fairly standard practice when renting a car. I always decline the insurance, sign on the x, then return the car without issue. I know how my benefits work…
When we left Montalcino that morning, I had a little hiccup with the car getting into gear while in reverse. The car would stick, then roll forward a bit, but eventually reverse would be achieved. In hindsight, I probably should have paid that detail a bit more of attention and tried to resolve it then instead of ignoring it. Hindsight is 20/20. We’re speeding down the autostrade and I can see the medieval town of Orvieto in the distance. We pull off at our exit and start climbing the hill, following the signs for our hotel. The town is small and the hotel was easy enough to find, the problem was that I was parked in the middle of a one way street and was blocking traffic. The locals did not like this. I dropped off my wife to get us checked into the hotel, and pulled a bit further down the street to get out of the way of the honking angry horde. I found an illegal parking spot to hold me over, which seemed to irritate the locals less, on one of the steepest streets in all of Italy (or so it seemed), just behind a parked car. A few minutes, and endless stares of confusion from the locals later, my wife returned with instructions on where to drop the car. I put the car in reverse, and tried to back up a few inches to give myself some room to maneuver, and that’s when things got sticky. The car started rolling forward. I put the parking brake on and tried to reset my situation. Again, I tried to reverse up the hill a bit and the car just kept creeping forward. Slowly, steadily moving forward against my will. At this point, I was about 2 inches from the parked car in front of me and had no idea what to do. My wife got out to assess the situation and stood in front of our car as I tried one more time to back up the hill. My foot touched the gas pedal one last time, and that’s when our 2 cars kissed. Without fail, when our 2 cars touched, the window above us flew open and an older Italian woman was glaring down at me. She began screaming at me, and gesturing towards the car, which was most certainly hers. My wife went to get the concierge at our hotel to help translate for us, as things were spinning wildly out of control. He explained that this was not her car, but her daughters, and she will be here in a few minutes to sort this out. I was the one who initiated the fender bender, and so I was the one who was going to have to deal with the consequences. However, I know what a car accident looks like. I know what situations are forgivable and what situations require damage repairs. This was literally 2 cars kissing. Like parallel parking in Chicago kissing. This was not an international incident that required a trip to the US embassy, as was being played out by my “victims” mother. When the owner of the car arrived, I explained to her what happened, and she was actually quite understanding. She said that she would like to have her car looked at by a mechanic, and when he gives her an estimate on repairs, we can discuss further. The concierge hopped in my car, and backed up without any problems. Clearly, he has done this before.
That evening I got a phone call from the hotel desk, asking if I could come down and speak with the owner of the vehicle, who was waiting in the hotel bar. She had a repair quote in her hand from the mechanic. Apparently to correct the damage inflicted by my Fiat, the mechanic was going to have to remove the entire back end of her car, plus mend the scratches, which meant a coat of paint. This translated to 1,000 euros. That is was what our little afternoon kiss was going to cost me – 1,000 euros. That’s a big number. My car had no damage, so to be given a piece of paper that said I was going to have to pay 1,000 euros was insane. She asked me for my Italian rental car insurance agreement, which I explained that I declined because it would nullify my credit card rental card agreement (which is in bold, yet fine print on my contract). I told her that I would contact my credit card company, and that they would fix this for me. They did NOT fix this for me. Very unapologetically, I was informed that only damages incurred to MY vehicle would be covered. This was a surreal moment. I was in Orvieto to learn about and drink cheap white wine, not get robbed by a local for more money than I was planning to spend on my entire trip, but what I could I do? I was in a foreign country, with no real grasp of the language, and we had 2 very different ideas about what really took place on that hill. After about an hour of negotiating (some may say pleading) I managed to work the quote down to 600 euros, which she said could be adjusted if she paid cash. I was never suggesting that her car didn’t have 1000 euros worth of damage, however I was damn sure that it wasn’t my car that caused it. 200 euros. 200 euros is what she finally agreed on, to be paid in cold hard cash.
I’m fully aware that this blog entry is far less about wine, and serves as more of a cautionary tale to my fellow travelers. So to sum up my experience briefly: always read the fine print on your rental car agreement, and NEVER rent an automatic transmission for driving in Europe. Take the time and learn how to drive a stick, you may just save yourself a couple hundred bucks.