Italian Drama: Motoring Through Sicily in a Ferrari California

OUTSIDE GO

The nose knows: The fire-breathing Ferrari California

The nose knows: The fire-breathing Ferrari California

[This article appears in the Spring 2009 issue of Outside Go—click to read it on their site. All photos shot by Joshua Paul.]

A quintessential Italian landscape: Rolling grapevine-covered hills, sheep tended by crooked-back herders, and ancient stone castles outlined against the bright-blue Sicilian sky. Beautiful, no doubt, but as I’m screaming down the road in a brilliant-red Ferrari at 130 miles per hour, there’s precious little time to look.

Fifth gear, and the Ferrari California’s 454 horses are absolutely howling. I trigger sixth, and the convertible picks up more speed, the wind ripping at my hair. My apologies for spoiling the peace, but chances like this come along once in a lifetime. [It’s true: Get a behind-the-scenes glimpse in my blog.]

City scape: Slipping through back alleys in a Sicilian mountain town

City scape: Slipping through back alleys in a Sicilian mountain town

There are road trips, and there are road trips. Exploring the dramatic island of Sicily by sports car is a good start, especially knowing that Italians adore any bella macchina. Bring the newest Ferrari out on the road-a car virtually no one has seen in the actual aluminum flesh-and you’re an insta-hero. Cries of “Bravo!” and “Bello!” follow in the California’s hot exhaust like ticker tape.

Interior life: Hands on the wheel, heart in my mouth

Interior life: Hands on the wheel, heart in my mouth

Earlier, I parked on a street and an elderly Sicilian gentleman worthy of a Mario Puzo novel stopped and said, “Ah, with this car go fast as you want; the police will close one eye. Actually, they will close both.”

Sicily is the nearly 10,000-square-mile island being kicked by Italy’s toe, and its modest economy has ensured an Old World atmosphere comfortably frozen in amber. The interior is given over to grapes, olives, and villas that have seen no new masonry since WWII.

Who wouldn’t leap at the chance to test out Maranello’s latest creation here? After all, deliveries of 400 Californias to the U.S. won’t begin until summer of 2009. No wonder Ferraris are such good investments: The company keeps supply well below demand, which helps account for the $200,000-plus price tag.

What that dough gets you is Ferrari’s first-ever hardtop convertible, which the company is targeting to first-time buyers. (The name comes from a 1950s model, the 250 GT California.) With the top up, it looks like a sexy coupe, but hold down a button and 14 seconds later you’ve got a sensuously contoured convertible.

Hair whip: Photographer Joshua Paul strikes a pose

Hair whip: Photographer Joshua Paul strikes a pose

The 4.3-liter V-8 engine is located in front, allowing room for two optional backseats with seatbelts-appropriate for any Hobbits you know-or buyers can do without, saving weight and leaving the area for, say, bottles of prosecco.

It’s sexy but certainly not a hardcore sports car like the track-oriented 430 Scuderia. This grand-touring model is meant for joy- riding. The front end is pure Ferrari-though the back is swollen, the result of accommodating that folding hardtop trunk.

I had just one concern as I set off from a village on the southwestern coast: Would it drive like a pure Ferrari?

Then I pressed the red start button on the wheel, and the engine erupted with a throaty, primal growl. To those who wonder at the allure of Ferraris, who can’t fathom how a car might be worth hundreds of thousands, I would offer up that sound. The magic of the brand derives from that rumble, both raucous and rapturous. From the moment the California spoke, I knew it was the real deal.

The sound of speed: Oh, baby, but is it aural.

The sound of speed: Oh, baby, but is it aural.

Moments later, I dropped the top and zoomed onto the autostrada. Italians have mastered something we Americans have not: the habit of staying in the right lane unless passing. And though the typical Fiat van seems to average around 100 mph, when drivers see a Ferrari in their rearview mirror they happily bow to the side, honking in encouragement. It seems incumbent on me-a duty, even-to not disappoint, but rather to drive with the speed and élan that the iconic Italian brand deserves.

The California has a new seven-speed, dual-clutch transmission controlled with Formula One-style paddles behind the wheel, and it shifts quicker than a manual. I hammer through the gears like Muhammad Ali, each hard shift triggered at a screaming 8,000 rpm and accompanied by a pleasant jolt to the solar plexus.

I pass through messy and vivacious Palermo on my way east to winding mountain roads that make up part of the infamous Targa Florio racing route. Begun in 1906, it was a death-defying race that attracted manufacturers like Porsche, Ferrari, and Maserati. Even Enzo Ferrari himself raced. It was all but stopped in 1973, considered too dangerous and ridiculous even by Sicilian standards.

The car certainly attracts attention as I pass through small mountain towns. Two old men astride rusting Vespas, cigarettes held loosely in mouths; a fat man sitting by the side of a lonely road as his wife tends the olive trees; a trio of young boys who run after us-all call out salutations.

Fans.

Fans.

Discretion is the better part of valor on these roads that once made up the Targa Florio. The narrow two-lane roads have lousy asphalt, and the curves tilt toward cliffside edges without guard- rails-as if the road engineers were encouraging catastrophes. The California’s steering is tight and direct, and I’m happy to cruise along at a sweet, casual rhythm.

Flow: Typical Targa Florio stretch.

Flow: Typical Targa Florio stretch.

I stop at the high village of Caltavuturo, built on the steep slope of a mountainside. After taking care to park with wheels to curb, I struggle up the stone road in search of an open restaurant for lunch. I ask directions from a matronly woman, who responds in rapid Italian. Soon another woman appears on a balcony above and begins to contradict loudly. “No,” she cries. “Don’t send them there. The pasta is dirty!” Soon they’re yelling at each other, and I’m in the middle of a longstanding neighborhood fracas.

Old (old old) town: Striking my own pose in Sicilian town of Caltavuturo

Old (old old) town: Striking my own pose in Sicilian town of Caltavuturo

Ah, well. Back to the car.

But I’m happy as I get the big, thick steering wheel in my hands. The cockpit is beautiful, with soft tan leather and supportive seats. Soon I’m blasting along the side of a cliff, feeling the car working with me, a beautiful instrument designed to carve up the road. Forget any fears that the California doesn’t drive like a Ferrari: All is as it should be.

And then it happens. I round a corner to find a heavy construction truck ahead. I jam on the brakes, returning the car back to legal speeds and reality. All blind corners; I must wait to pass. (A Ferrari does not lend you greater patience.)

A 1980s Fiat Panda, not much bigger than a refrigerator box, pulls up behind me. The driver blindly swerves into the left lane-not able to see if there’s oncoming traffic-and slowly shudders by.

He holds out his hand, palm up, in a classic Italian gesture, as if to say, What’s wrong with you? You’re in a Ferrari! Then he passes both me and the truck.

I shake my own head. Sorry to disappoint, signor, to fall short of your expectations of driving with speed and requisite verve. But finding myself in a Ferrari on Sicilian roads proves that life really is beautiful-and I’d like to keep it that way. If only to drive one more day.