A languid road trip to Italy by Jaguar. What could possibly go wrong?
The combination of Italy, twelve cylinders and pleasant company ought not leave space for prosaic considerations, such as reliability or fuel economy. But worries have a habit of finding their way, nevertheless.
It had been a rather testing day, with little sleep and an unusual amount of stress, right at the end of a particularly challenging summer. The back aches, the tired mind is dulled on one hand, yet feverishly edgy on the other. The three issues at the forefront of any immediate consideration are: a welcoming bed, the board computer’s average MPG calculations and the engine temperature gauge.
As the night is relatively cool and the Autobahn relatively clear, the engine temperature thankfully shows no signs of panic – yet. The average MPG, on the other hand, remains disconcertingly high. And that bed, well, that’s still some 300 kilometres further south.
The omens had, in fact, been rather awful, as any sceptic could have guessed, considering the machine intended to carry my better half and my lesser self halfway through Europe is not exactly well-known for either robustness or solidity: the Jaguar XJ, in this case the example I’ve owned for the past six years, and which has not spared me quite as much trouble as it might have, given the level of care I lavish upon it.
Yet the one woe that had failed to trouble me during that time was the dreaded roadside breakdown. Until a mere few weeks before the Italian adventure was about to start, that is. And only a few weeks after the Jaguar’s air conditioning unit had finally been made operational once again – after years of varying attempts, which had been foiled by either lack of funds or good ol’ incompetence.
Having retrieved the car from my trusted garage after the breakdown (the result of a blown fuse, rather than a blown cylinder head, as had been the ADAC roadside assistant’s diagnosis), I was presented with yet another obstacle to my ambitious, but hardly outlandish intention of taking the Jag to Italy: an average fuel consumption of nine miles per gallon. Easy peasy for the average Jensen owner, maybe, but difficult difficult, lemon difficult to my self-employed, humble self.
Not being quite the full-scale fool, I had obviously been aware of any V12 engine’s drinking habits from the beginning, but the XJ’s 5.3 litre unit (a later, May ‘Fireball’, as well as catalytic converter equipped version) had actually accustomed me to fuel economy in the 18-13 MPG region. It was therefore back to the garage for the Jag, where the mechanics would now have to work quite a bit to affirm my trust.
A day and a phone call later, I find myself anxiously awaiting the results of the repairs I’d just commissioned. A need for new spark plugs and ignition cables were the best theory for the reasons behind the V12’s gargantuan thirst the mechanics could come up with. Installing new spark plugs, as any Jaguar enthusiast will be aware, is a particularly time-consuming effort and therefore dreaded by those who cannot perform it themselves.
All that could be done now was to wait and hope that it would do the trick and prevent a stop at the pumps every 15 minutes or so during the not exactly swift journey from Hamburg to Il Bel Paese.
The wait for the spare parts eventually proved to be the main irritation over the remaining days before the trip to Italy would have to start. It was also the reason why I could only pick up the XJ merely hours before the latest possible departure, and with its – hopefully reformed – drinking habits untested.
And thus, finally, after a jarring few hours on the Autobahn, with almost solely heavy load lorries for company, and a surreal very early morning odyssey through the thickest of fogs of the Rhine valleys close to the German-Swiss border, the cuddly bed beckons.
Grüezi Schwyz! In the past, I had hardly enjoyed my driving stints on the roads of the Eidgenossen. The motorways had appeared too narrow and the speed limits too drastic when behind the wheel of cars such as an Audi A8 or a Porsche 997, especially as I personally cannot stand cruise control driving. The Swiss also have a habit of being not exactly fast, but nonetheless irritatingly unpredictable drivers – apart from the Ticinese, who seem to combine the best/worst of Swiss and Italian driving styles.
Now, unexpectedly and astonishingly, after all these terribly annoying troubles that had almost led to us using the lady’s modern car for this journey, the XJ shows the ace-up-its-sleeve: the sense of calm aplomb it lends its driver under the right set of circumstances. Circumstances such as these, in fact. With the V12 unhurried and its relatively narrow body, the XJ seems to have been built especially for the bends of Swiss motorways.
Floating along the sweeping turns though the middle of the alpine valleys, next to the banks of the Vierwaldstätter See or along one of the many slopes feels like second nature to the car. Other people’s driving doesn’t matter, either, and neither does the strange Swiss radio programme. Unlike powerful modern cars, the Jag doesn’t feel under-stressed here, but also not out of its depth at all. Faster speeds and progress would be possible, but appear unnecessary. Not with this scenery and the kind of comfort the Jag affords. No wonder they used to refer to it as the Sovereign around here for quite some time.
As for that dreaded fuel economy display: a sudden push of the respective button shows an average rate of 22 MPG. Which might still be enough for Greenpeace to confine the car and its reckless owner to Gaia Molestor’s Purgatory, but is actually by far the best fuel economy I ever achieved in all of my years of ownership. It does appear as though those new spark plugs and cables have been worth the wait. Now all I can ask of the lump of British alloy is to please, please refrain from overheating. Please.
So Switzerland turns out to be pure pleasure. And not just for myself, but for the lady, somewhat surprisingly, too. Before this trip, she had hardly been the XJ’s biggest advocate, it must be said. The money spent on the car and its very saloon nature (she prefers feisty convertibles) had done little to seduce her, which made it all the more astonishing that some hours behind the wheel did.
Once we enter Italy, she inadvertently attracts quite a bit of enthusiasm herself, judging by the number of irritated/admiring glances by male, sideways-turned faces that keep on passing us by on the Autostrada. Which speaks volumes about the Latin approach towards appreciating the fairer sex, as well as the XJ’s rarity and reputation in Italy.
Unlike Germany, where the XJ has always been considered an old man’s car – albeit a dignified one for the cufflink-wearing breed of silver haired golf players – the Jaguar enjoys quite a different kind of reputation south of the Alps.
Thanks to Italian taxation laws, it was the notorious 2.8 litre version that used to be by far the biggest seller among series I XJs back in the day. Almost exclusively equipped with manual transmission, these cars were still hideously expensive and very rare. Their owners usually weren’t of the ripe, golf-playing variety, but rather dandyish playboys with an air of wickedness about them.
V12 XJs used to be expensive to such an extent that they were an extraordinarily rare sight indeed, usually to be seen with no less than captains of industry or higher nobility behind the wheel.
This kind of history and image means that even XJ40s are attributed a sense of dignity in Italy that can be but a faint dream of its owners over here in Germany. It also led to a scarcity of XJs on Italian roads – including today’s X351 version – to this day. During more than a week of driving through the affluent Lake Garda region, our Opalescent Gunmetal Grey-coloured example therefore wouldn’t get to meet any of its brethren.
As always, bypassing Milan equals getting stuck in moderate to heavy congestion and, thanks to being the passenger on this occasion, affords me the opportunity to dwell on the centre of the Italian economy’s bleak periphery. It is simply fascinating how even in the most glorious of evening glows, as on this particular early September day, the sense of desolation exuded by the concrete blocks and semi-high rises that clutter the outskirts of Milan overwhelms to such an extent that it forms the dominant impression of the entire region. Having never been to Naples and its notorious derelict satellite towns, I can but guess how dystopic a place these failed housing estates must appear to be.
On this road of sundrenched tristesse that is the Milano-Brescia Autostrada, only the resplendent Kilometro Rosso eventually seems to keep up the Italian end. Designed by architect, Jean Nouvel, this imposing, bright red high gloss wall acts as the architectural bracket unifying a technology park spearheaded by Brembo, the renowned brake systems manufacturers. It just so happens to be a powerful – and welcome – reminder of ‘the other Italy’, whose skills, creativity and enterprise makes this region one of the wealthiest and most productive in Europe. It’s just a shame that this is so hard to believe when one is confronted with the utter bleakness of outer Milan.
After having endured this cheerless – and seemingly endless – stretch of motorway, we finally reach Lago di Garda, or, to be more precise, the city of Salò on its western shore. After much consideration, we had decided upon Agriturismo Villa Bissiniga as our home away from home for the duration of our stay, which has its fantastic location, simple, but atmospheric lodging and welcoming staff in its favour.
Much less worthy of praise is the very simple (and not in the commendable sense) cuisine served there, albeit that is not nearly enough to offset the otherwise positive impression of this particular place. After all, Salò offers more than enough other places for decent breakfast, lunch, aperitivo and dinner – finding a decent place to sleep for a reasonable price is the more challenging endeavour. One with the kind of faded Lucchino Visconti flair that characterises much of Villa Bissiniga’s premises even more so.
Italy, of course, has traditionally acted as a chiffre for idleness, which could also be used as an apt term to describe most of our activities during the ensuing days. The XJ is naturally put to service on a few occasions for trips to nearby sightseeing locations, such as the hilarious Smurf’s Village that acts as an outlet shopping centre somewhere near Brescia, before we get to explore the city proper.
But before that, some, or any parking space accommodating all of 4.96 metres of Jaguar near the city centre needs to be found first, which does turn into quite a bit of a nuisance. Eventually, after a tiring search, we can finally, albeit far too briefly, enjoy the charms of Brescia.
Considerably less stressful an undertaking beckons in the evening, namely one of the rare occasions to explore Isola del Garda. This island, a private property, has always exuded a certain haunting quality whenever I passed it by on a boat during previous trips to Lake Garda. The villa at the centre of the island, what with its lush gardens and half Venetian, half Moorish architecture, is a larger-than-life kind of building that has always inspired me to fantasise about the operatic drama and world-shaking dealings that must be shaping everyday life behind those thick walls.
Tonight, I am granted at least the chance to take a brief look – which disappoints insofar as the villa’s interior architecture turns out to be surprisingly oppressive, thanks to a dark colour palette and windows that seem to be quite a bit smaller than they appear from ashore. Yet the garden delivers on the promise of its distant impression: it truly is an almost magical place, thanks to its opulent flora and knee-weakening vistas.
The family owning it, who organise these evening as a way of generating some of the income necessary to maintain the villa and its gardens, do not bear much of a resemblance to Burt Lancaster, Alain Délon or Claudia Cardinale et al, either. And neither are we invited to a lush reception inside the (non-existent) ballroom, but a lavish buffet of crackers, salami and cheese instead. All self-served on plastic plates.
But not everything is lost, as this very interesting evening comes to an end on the villa’s terrace with a concert of, well, classics of pop music interpreted in a style that would, allegedly, suit Johann Sebastian Bach’s sensibilities. Needless to say, any kind of cover of Phil Collins’ rightfully beloved ‘Groovy Kind of Love’ sung with a baritone voice and in a thick Italian accent can only bemuse.
Some days later, on our way to Verona, we arrange for a stopover at Valeggio sul Mincio, a little, picturesque village famous not only for its mediaeval bridge, but also for its pasta. And rightfully so, as a visit to Ristorante Alla Borsa proves. Its interior design might just as well be that of a Tyrollean roadhouse, and the service, headed by a waiter who appears to be Walter de’ Silva’s grumpy, more corpulent younger brother, leaves a lot to be desired (attentiveness and politeness being on top of that list) – but all of this doesn’t matter once the pasta arrives, which is an enchanting concoction of the most tender of pastes and extraordinarily aromatic filling, served simply with melted butter and parmesan.
The latter of which we have to nick from another, unused table, as Walter and his minions could not be bothered. But we can probably only blame ourselves, as we have already revealed ourselves as ignorant tourists by not complaining about the Insalata Caprese my girlfriend had ordered: half of it actually didn’t consist of Mozzarella di Buffala, as indicated by the menu. Those guests who make do with cow’s milk mozzarella probably also have a habit of doing without parmesan. Our bad, Signore de’ Silva!
Then it is on to Verona, which is flooded with tourists, yet still charming as always. An abandoned cinema in a side street acts as particularly poignant contrast to all those elegant young ragazze that can be made out among the onslaught of tourists – the range of Italian attractions is seemingly endless. And also includes caffè e dolci at a rather agreeable pasticceria before we head back to Salò.
There, and after yet another heavy congestion on the dreaded motorway, we enjoy the final, and utmost culinary delight of this visit – this being no faint praise, as Salò isn’t exactly wanting for agreeable places to have a bite at. But Osteria di Mezzo is simply the best among them. The family running the place are, plain and simple, the most warm-hearted hosts one can imagine, just as the chef nonchalantly delivers food that isn’t that far off Michelin-starred spheres. If creative, yet unpretentious cuisine happens to be up your alley, you simply need to go down that small alleyway to Osteria di Mezzo if you’re in the area – be it for the range of cheeses (which actually exceeds a fair few Michelin-starred restaurants both in terms of quality and quantity) or the surprisingly abstract apple dessert I couldn’t help but devour with the most basic of pleasures.
Regrettably, and not just because of that apple dessert, we have to pack the Jag for the homebound journey. A visit to Alfa’s Museo Storico is on the cards and quickly disappears again, as we decide to have one last pizza by the lakeside before our departure instead. It doesn’t make leaving any easier, it must be said. So it’s filling up the Jag yet again, before we finally set off.
The drive North is naturally not as cheerful as the outbound trip, but similarly comfortable, which is some consolation. This car obviously likes Switzerland, that’s for certain. Maybe that’s due to its additional cavity sealing, which it shares with the XJs imported here through Emil Frey. Or maybe not.
The one little glitch that has made itself apparent during this journey is that the air conditioning begins sending warm to hot air through the lower vents by the drive shaft after a few hours of operation, just as the centre console begins to heat up noticeably. The effect of this is more peculiar than dramatic, as the upper vents keep on blowing cool air into the cabin, but strange it remains nonetheless.
Yet I’d consider this a minor niggle among the bigger scheme of things. After all, this 25-year-old car has transported the two of us – as well as a Great Dane for certain stretches – some 3000 kilometres, purring away for hours on end. Bringing this particular car to the country of La Bella Figura had been a dream of mine for years. And it has not been a disappointment.
We at Driven To Write don’t do advertorials and pay for board and lodging ourselves. Really.