There are many beautiful places on this planet, but few have the combination of history, scenery and outrageous gastronomy offered by the Tuscan hills of Italy. Similarly, there are many beautiful cars on the planet, but few mix in the tantalizing charm of practicality like an Alfa Romeo.
It's for the first set of reasons that, when it came time to choose a summer vacation destination, my wife and I couldn't resist the temptation to book a week in Italy. And, it's for the second set of reasons that, when Alfa Romeo kindly offered to let me borrow a Giulia while I was out there, I jumped at the chance.
This, then, is the tale of my week.
Welcome to Italy
I picked up the car at a Fiat service station on the outskirts of Rome, but not just any service station. This was Giannini Automobili, a noted tuner of classic Fiats. While I waited the requisite amount of time for the contact I'd been given to finish his smoke break or whatever it is Italians do when impatient Americans are pacing around waiting for them, I took a wander through Giannini's small museum and drooled over the propped hoods on many a modded 500.
And then, there was my Giulia. At first blush I was a smidge disappointed that it wasn't a fire-breathing, bright-red, 505-horsepower Quadrifoglio, but as soon as we hit the road any doubts quickly faded. We were first headed south to Pompeii, a tourist destination notorious for break-ins, and the subtlety of its sophisticated, silver paint here made me feel more comfortable that this car wouldn't be a target. Plus, the extra comfort of this Veloce model paid off in spades.
Beyond that, the first time I put my foot down to merge into the morning Roman rush hour I realized that I would not be lacking in acceleration from the 280-horsepower turbocharged four.
We made it out of Pompeii with nary a pocket picked nor window smashed and made our way Praiano to our first night on the Amalfi coast. The scenery here is astonishing, truly remarkable, but the drive down there was so terrible that I can't possibly recommend it. Imagine a tiny road, barely wider than a single car. Now imagine cars going in both directions, and add giant tour busses. If that weren't bad enough, layer on hundreds of suicidal tourists wandering the streets while equally fearless scooter pilots insert their oil-burners into every possible opening.
It was a proper introduction to the reality of Italian motoring. Only the comfortable seats, plush appointments and excellent sound system of the Giulia helped us to stave off an early case of vacation remorse.
The drive back north was equally fraught, and it was on one of the approximately three million low-speed switchback turns that I started to notice a very slight squeak in the steering wheel as it was turned far to one side. It only seemed to appear after I'd been wrenching on the wheel for quite some time. The brakes, too, complained loudly at every stop, and there were plenty of stops to be made filtering through traffic.
If that weren't enough, the left bolster of my seat started to squeak on the right-hand turns. It stopped after a time, only for the right bolster to begin issuing the same complaint on the left-hand turns. Minor annoyances, these, but annoyances nevertheless.
On the highway, though, the Giulia was a peaceful rocket, calm and relaxing enough for me to tolerate the 350-mile drive up to Loro Ciuffenna, but still sprightly enough to help me avoid the blinker-averse, lane-splitting maniacs who thrive on Italian highways. It wouldn't be long before I took the Giulia through some much, much tighter confines.
Looking to grab a quick slice of pizza for lunch, my wife and I turned to Google. This, as it turned out, was a very bad idea. Google Maps routed us down a narrow, one-way street that just got more narrow until I was convinced I was going to wind up like Aziz Ansari and Eric Wareheim on "Master of None."
After a few hundred yards worth of doubtful progress, I started to back my way out of the street, but a local came out of his home to offer support. After he stopped laughing he assured us that we could make it through. And so, with the mirrors folded and my wife playing the role of spotter, we did indeed squeeze between the buildings, Giulia proving it's sized perfectly for all sorts of Italian roads.
From then onward we relied on the car's integrated navigation system, which was sluggish and basic but never tried to route us into oblivion. It also was kind enough to warn us before we drove into restricted portions of Italy's many medieval cities. That didn't stop us from screwing up once or twice, though...
Through the course of the rest of the week we three -- my wife, my Italian fling and I -- made many trips across the Tuscan hills, covering some of the most pleasantly flowing roads I've ever had a chance to experience. The Giulia truly felt at home here. With the car's DNA mode dial set firmly to Dynamic, the car felt remarkably taut and responsive given how pliant it had been on the highway.
I'd have preferred a manual, but the aggression of the automatic transmission didn't leave me wanting much when driving aggressively myself, and the steering feel and throttle response were top-shelf. Looking back now, more than a month after returning to the States, as much as I miss the many amazing meals we had out there, I miss the drives out to find those restaurants just as much.
Though not without its foibles, the Giulia was a great companion for an amazing week in Italy. In the market it's positioned against the BMW 3 Series and Mercedes-Benz C-Class, but number of thumbs up and knowing smiles I got from random roadside Italians during that week made it clear that, in Italy at least, there really is no comparison.