We had no idea, when we booked a week’s holiday in Italy, that it would coincide with the classic car race, the Mille Miglia, passing close by us.
As Geoff and I are both of a petrolhead persuasion, this was a thrill we had no intention of missing: hundreds of the world’s most astonishingly beautiful old cars roaring their way along stage 2 of a 1,000-mile circuit from Brescia to Rome and back.
Friends invited us to join them on their balcony to watch the cars as they roared past below. No thanks, we said, we want to get close and inhale the fumes and play ’let’s identify the marque’.
We studied a map of the route and chose our viewing point beside a traffic-light controlled crossroads that we hoped might afford us the best views of cars both stationary and racing.
That was the theory. In practice, the junction was actually being controlled by a bouncy little chap in a peaked cap and overlong trousers with two deadly weapons, a piercing pea-whistle and a sort of lolly-stick for pointing at vehicles and waving them through.
He practised his technique a few times on the normal local traffic (if there is anything ’normal’ about any type of Italian traffic) and there were only a few near misses, no actual crashes, so by the time the race cars started appearing, Carlo the Controller was confidently in command.
Cars, lorries, scooters, motorbikes and pedal cycles bore down on him from all directions but Carlo could halt them in their tracks with one well-aimed flap of his stick.
A few of the local drivers, unaware of what was happening and how huge and significant this day was in their village’s history, noticed nothing untoward and drifted over the crossroads in the same heedless manner they had probably done for the past 60 years. Carlo remained calm, shrugged a bit, and turned his concentration to a row of heavy-breathing pantechnicons that he would not allow to pass until he gave the drivers the nod. Oh Carlo, the power vested in you, your hat and your lolly stick!
The simmering chaos on the road was replicated beside us on the pavement, where grown-ups, children and, inexplicably, dogs, threaded around each other as they sought the best vantage points.
At last, everyone settled down and the first cars started to appear. Carlo seemed so vulnerable out there in the middle, alternately flapping, bouncing and whistling like a furious football referee. I worried for him as wave after wave of Ferrari supercars bore down on him, their thunderous roar splitting the air and making the ground shake. These were the glamorous outriders, leading the way like overdressed, noisy, show-offs.
Carlo got them all through unscathed, and then the classic cars began their more sedate but no less thrilling passage past us.
After two hours they were still coming, wave after glorious wave of them, their occupants waving to us, their adoring, starstruck admirers.
By the time Geoff and I left we were sated with the thrill and spectacle of it all. And Carlo? I reckon he must have got home that night a dust-encrusted, fume-raddled wreck, his nerves strung to the point of exhaustion, his lips sore from blasting that whistle, his arm aching from flapping the lolly-stick.
What a good job well done, Carlo. I do hope we weren’t the only ones to appreciate what a hero you were.