After an obligatory test drive in suburban Melbourne to assess my mettle in a Prancing Stallion, I’m cleared to fly to Ferrari HQ.
The dream factory
On arrival at Maranello in northern Italy, security staff black out my phone cameras with stickers and bundle me onto a bus for a no-photos tour of the fabled firm established by Enzo Ferrari in 1947.
Among buildings designed by architecture idols Jean Nouvel and Renzo Piano, I witness automotive fantasies come to life. The process is as astonishing as the end product.
Workspaces are controlled for temperature, humidity and noise levels. Humans toil beside robots at moving production belts that pause for timed stops at each workstation, and 200 trees filter the air in the engine assembly plant.
The process climaxes at the heart of the assembly line when the power train and body are fused together in a union nicknamed “The Wedding”. Lastly, in the upholstery section, interiors are clad in stitched Pelle Frau cowhides – or tailored in pinstripes, denim, cashmere and more – under Ferrari’s money-no-object, hyper-customised Inedita program.
The induction continues at the Ferrari museum, with its prototypes in wood and steel and displays of road and racing cars from the past 70 years. Then it’s down the road to lunch at Montana, a Swiss-chalet-styled restaurant and de facto shrine to Ferrari F1 drivers – especially the greatest of all, Michael Schumacher. His images and race accessories adorn interiors under light fittings sculptured from exhaust pipes.
Back at HQ, test driver Roberto gives me a brisk run-through of how a 488 GTB works. I nod and smile and try to look as if I’ve got this. Then, after helping fit my luggage into the teensy front trunk, he hands me the keys to this late-release, libido red, turbo-charged (0-100km/h in three seconds) creature. The mid-life road trip in Emilia-Romagna begins.
A word on comfort: the human space inside a Ferrari is tight and I have no earthly idea how anyone can reverse when there seems to be no clear sight lines backwards, but the seats are total babe-cradles stitched in black and red leather. Once you get in, they don’t want to let you go. The feeling’s mutual.
I push the start button, nudge the right paddle forward to put it in gear, and try to look casual as I nose the precious hardware out the gates of Ferrari World into the real world. Of course, looking casual is difficult when your rig roars to life like a rocket blasting off to Mars.
Driving a car of this calibre is faintly alarming. The engine’s snarl suggests a latent power I really don’t want to unleash. But, equally, sitting at the wheel of a half-a-million-dollar vehicle that’s coveted across the planet, it’s hard not to feel as if you’re winning at life.
This is not a sensation I normally associate with my own life. But that’s what the keys to a Ferrari do. They transform the bearer.
The transition from puritan to petrolhead is swift. Suddenly I’m doing 80 in a 50 zone and I honestly don’t feel a thing. No guilt, no stress, no worries at all. Just the thrill of the G-force. The car feels alive, its energy pulsing through my body like electricity.
The first stop is Sassuolo, a short sprint from Maranello and home to a ducal palace daubed in 16th-century frescoes of variable quality. But it does have an elegant 17th-century Bernini fountain and panoramas along the Secchia Valley to the Apennines that, with the promise of Tuscany beyond, give pause for pleasant thoughts.
A security guard watches the Ferrari while I’m inside the baroque palace. Almost every itinerary stop includes a secure parking spot, which is kind of unsettling but probably wiser than leaving something so valuable sitting unguarded on the street.
The strict instructions, and the fact it’s worth a fortune and not mine, encourage me to take very special care. On the first night, in the fortified hill town of Castelvetro, the official itinerary suggests I drive to dinner at vineyard restaurant Opera 02, an agriturismo minutes down the road. But I decide not to risk driving in the dark on unknown roads, and feel vindicated when the last kilometre or two of the uphill route to Opera 02 turn out to be unpaved and diabolical.
I tell cab driver Francesco I was supposed to drive a Ferrari up here and he laughs in disbelief. “Absolutely not! It’s really, really bad.”
Like everyone I meet, he’s intrigued I have a Ferrari. This region of Italy, aka Motor Valley, is also home to Lamborghini, Maserati, Pagani and Ducati, so locals tend to be automotively obsessed. “I know some friends who, instead of going out with the girlfriend, they pull down the car and rebuild it in the weekend,” Francesco confides. “It’s crazy, but that’s it.”
The terrace at Opera 02 overlooks a steep valley stitched with grape vines and studded with farmhouses and hay bales that glow gold in the evening light. The setting is a fitting match for chef Nicola Pini’s winning dishes of mushroom flan, deer with rhubarb and a cheese platter partly sourced from a local farmer who knows all his 15 cows by name.
That night in my cosy, comfortable suite at Locanda del Feudo, which sits within Roman fortifications dating to 280BC, there’s time to reflect on a turbo-charged day.
While I relished the visceral thrill of getting my hands on a Ferrari, I didn’t exactly drive it like a boss. I struggled to get the car into reverse (twice), was hassled by street teens in Sassuolo for driving the 488 GTB like a nonna, and then took 10 minutes, possibly more, to reverse its impossibly wide and precious chassis into a (also very wide) garage at Castelvetro.
Also, shamefully, I was overtaken by a Volvo. And a silver Ford Fiesta. Don’t judge me. You’d be cautious too if you had to manoeuvre a high-performance car on low-performance country roads. Honestly, some of them date to Roman times.
A fine pickle in balsamic country
Italian breakfast buffets tend to look like children’s birthday parties, all layered with cakes and sweets and buttery croissants. Locanda chef Roberto Rossi’s spread is no exception, crammed with just-baked cheesecake, pear and chocolate tart and apple and blueberry slices. Plus muffins and cereals, a bowl of whole summer apricots, flat peaches, homegrown plums and 18 blends of tea.
Today’s touring schedule starts with a mid-morning call at Giuseppe Giusti, the pioneering producer that introduced balsamic vinegar to Modena in 1605. But the polizie municipale have other ideas.
I’m barely 10 minutes out of Castelvetro heading towards Modena via Arcadian scenes of vineyards and orchards when a traffic cop clocks my big red dollar sign and flags me down. When he demands my documents I feel confident. I wasn’t speeding or anything – my only crime is driving an outrageous car. But after consulting with two colleagues he returns to say the vehicle documents are in order but, alas, my licence is not. Italy requires foreign drivers to carry either an international permit or a court-approved translation of their home licence. I have neither.
Passing cars are slowing down to get a long, close look at the Ferrari felon. I ignore them, mostly, but when I catch one man’s stare he purses his lips in a whistle and raises his eyebrows out the car roof.
A kindly older policewoman takes over proceedings and informs me the fine is €4000 ($6000). “Four thousand!” I gasp.
“Oh, sorry,” she smiles apologetically. “Four ’undred.”
She asks me to sign the charge sheet.
“Il trasgessore – is that me?” I ask, incredulous that someone so innocent could earn such a damning title.
“Yes!” she laughs. We’re both giggling now. It’s so ridiculous and I’m such a fraud – driving a Ferrari I clearly can’t afford and am not legally entitled to.
I ask her what I’m supposed to do. I have appointments around Modena till late evening, and tomorrow I’m due to spend the day exploring the charming countryside of Emilia-Romagna.
She shrugs and makes an “I don’t know” face, then cautions me that every time I’m pulled over I’ll get another €400 fine. “But we are not going to chase you,” she reassures me. I make her promise.
Unlicensed to thrill
So I drive to Acetaia Giusti on the outskirts of Modena and tour stone cellars filled with antique barrels of agrodolce gold. Many date from the 18th and 19th centuries; a few have been in use since the 17th century.
“For a true balsamic vinegar, you never know exactly how old it is,” manager Eleonora Grattini explains.
Lunch is at Giallo Modena at the Ferrari house museum, comprised of Enzo’s family home and a sculptural new addition with gallery space and eatery crowned by giant yellow forks. The signature dish is Nonna Cesira’s tortellini – veal- and pork-filled pasta in parmesan cream that the eponymous cook once made for Enzo Ferrari. It’s not very filling but that’s fine because I need a strong stomach for what’s about to happen.
In lovely Modena, its walls painted ochre yellow in tribute to the fields of the Po Valley, guide Federica Comastri is introducing me to the city’s 12th-century, World Heritage-blessed, Romanesque cathedral. As luck would have it, Comastri is a licensed translator and has agreed to translate my licence and organise the court appointment to make it official. Everything’s sorted. Then the phone rings.
It’s Dario from Ferrari. He’s sorry, but they need the car back. Yes, he realises I still have another 24 hours to go and that tomorrow I was meant to drive high into the Apennines to the 1040-metre Cisa Pass. He was the one who suggested that drive.
Now he’s saying they can’t run the risk of me being caught again. Police could impound the 488 GTB and “we can’t allow that to happen”, he explains, quite reasonably.
The repo men will arrive in an hour, ample time to reflect on my (brief) flirtation with one of humankind’s most coveted status symbols. If this was my mid-life crisis moment, I’m relieved it’s over. The spell is broken. Life has returned to humble, and I’m happy with that.
After the handover – no nonsense, no tears – Comastri and I revisit Modena Cathedral to admire its facade panels depicting scenes from Genesis. The one showing Adam and Eve being banished from the Garden of Eden to a mundane life in the fields resonates most strongly. Except they were cast out of Paradise for taking too much licence, whereas I didn’t take enough.
The author travelled courtesy of Ferrari and Qatar Airways.
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