By Scott Heptonstall
It’s the dead of night. You’ve been travelling for hours. You’ve woken up from your comfortable bus ride disoriented and not sure which way is up. But there, in the distance, a shining neon sign sparkles in the darkness. It is a sign of hope. A sign of the Italian Autogrill.
While this holy Mecca shines like a lighthouse to weary travellers along the motorways of Italy, within is a world unlike any other. Your average run-of-the-mill Autogrill will consist of three main kingdoms; a shop, a restaurant/fast food counter and toilets. These three amenities are the Earth, Wind and Fire of the motorway service station world.
1. Toilets; when nature calls. As we all know, ladies poop sunshine and rainbows, so this area is merely a receptacle of those waste products. For the gents, if you haven’t quite mastered the art of peeing into a moving target such as the bus toilet then this is a nice stationary loo on which you can hone in on your talents.
2. Restaurant/fast food counter; happy meals for happy travellers. This is going to be one of two options; a typical McDonalds-type red, white and blue, yee-hawing fast food joint, or a delicate buffet spread of fine Italian pastas, breads and salads. If you go for the fast food option then just make sure you say “cheeseburger” in an Italian accent to minimise any confusion between yourself and staff. In fact the entire menu will be in English but there will always be a language barrier between how you have pronounced “McNuggets”. Option two is your lasagna-ridden panini fest. You are perhaps not going to understand the menu here so best bet is to point at what you want and smile. The food is actually not half bad but I would stick to the foods which are the correct colour. For example, lasagna is yellow and red, not grey. You may be happily surprised by the quality of food in the Autogrill as it far surpasses the typical reheated fare of American gas stations.
3. Shop; until you drop. This is the gold mine of the bargain-seeker. For some reason, Pringles are a set standard in Italy and will remain at €2. Oil prices may go up, the wealth of the euro could go down, Italy could descend into civil war, but the Pringles pack will remain at €2. So reliable are the Pringles, that there is talk of using it as a currency when the euro collapses …. Back to the shop. If you are living on the cheap then you are going to want to look out for the red “sconti” signs. These are discounts and should be swooped up and cherished.
I can only provide you with a small taste of what the Autogrill is really like. It is a world unto its own and is waiting for you to come and discover it. Spend some time there. Take a loved one for a meal. This is first date material.
I will leave you with a little known fact: “And all the roads we have to walk are winding. And all the lights that lead us there are blinding”; Oasis, Wonderwall, 1995. Many believe this to be an iconic love song but I think we can see from these lyrics that Noel was in fact singing about the Italian Autogrill.