Previously published in Quattro Quarterly. Text and photos by Andreas Dharmawan.
In the slightly overcast balmy morning, with barely any sleep but fully energized, my date, Audi S5, and I board a ferry at Cadenabbia, a town just south of Menaggio, with the destination Bellagio. Many travel programs and books have been published about this region. It is not hard to imagine why. This is the land of Leonardo Da Vinci and Michaelangelo.
Picture Gallery, Multimedia Driving Map
When the ferry is about at the midpoint between Cadenabbia and Bellagio, the view before me is beyond fantastic. The mountains in this region are confident mountains. They are not shy. They go straight up without any hesitation. It creates amazing backdrops for the colorful coastal towns along the shores. And these coastal towns are separated from the inland towns by these giants.Picture Gallery, Multimedia Driving Map
The steep brows and the meandering coast lines make it impossible for the road engineers to build the straightest roads. Because of these characteristics, the towns here have a lot more hairpins than the ten hair saloons in my neighborhood. So if you are a hairpin nut, this will be your heaven on earth.
Since water is the source of life after the energy of the Sun, it is very easy to see why this body of the dark, marine-blue water, originating from the Lombardy glaciers, supports the incredible vibrant atmosphere. Everything here; the colors of the Italian architecture villas, the scent of the blooming rainbow flowers, and the sound of the chirping birds seem to be more vivid. It is hard to describe in words. It is the inner feeling I experience by being here.
The lush colorful vegetation electrify the already gorgeous panoramic scenery. This place is an ecstasy pill for the visual cortex. This is one of the few places that I will go back again and again because I will always learn and experience something new about the land, the people, the culture, the roads, and myself.Picture Gallery, Multimedia Driving Map
How it all got started
Bee-stung lips, seductive eyes, and athletic yet sexy body shape are the attributes that Angelina Jolie and Audi S5 have in common. So, it was an easy decision for me to setup a date through the Audi Driver’s Day program (http://audi.com/driver) with an S5 for my spring driving vacation to Lake Como, Italy. Speaking with friends, Chris, Christiane, and Miriam, at Audi Forum, Ingolstadt, I learned that George Clooney has a villa on Lake Como. So, maybe, I would see Clooney, Pitt, Jolie, and Damon there. Maybe, they would be there planning for the Ocean 14.
Over the years coming to Germany, I had met many Audi Club International members. Like in the previous visits, I connected with the Audi enthusiasts on this side of the pond to exchange stories about driving vacations over delicious Königliches Gemüse. This king of vegetable, albino asparagus takes approximately 36 months to cultivate. Barbara and Marcus from Nurnberg chapter met me in Ingolstadt. It had been two years since we saw each other. But like meeting my best friends from high school, regardless how much time had passed, we were able to reconnect instantly and had fabulous time as if no time had had passed. It was because our shared passion for the enjoyment of Audi driving over the most beautiful roads in the world.
After dinner, I settled into the S5 cockpit. The beetle inspired red leather sport seat, the driver centric interior, the white and red glowing instrument panels, the piano black trims, and the silk-soft ceiling material created a very calming ambiance. The sport seat hugged me like a mother holding a newborn. The consistent touch and feel of the dashboard, the buttons, the steering wheel, the door panels, and the middle console demonstrated the non-compromising craftsmanship. This interior was so soothing and perfect-fit. I felt as comfortable being in this car as staying at the Starwood W hotel room!
With the key was still in my pocket, I pressed down the clutch and the brake, and then pushed the Start/Stop button in the middle console. The deep sonorous burble of the 354 hp V8 FSI engine transcended this soothing interior into a jet fighter cockpit. The white and red glows of the instrument that created the contemporary hotel-room ambiance when the engine was off, now radiated the F22 Raptor jet fighter cockpit feel. I admitted I had never been in an F22 cockpit, but I had seen pictures of it and I could only imagine. I dimmed the glow to simulate the stealth mode. What I was missing was the night vision and target tracking equipped helmet and the anti-G suit.
On the Autobahn
The sonorous whirl of the engine gave me the tingling sensation when I shifted from second, to third, to fourth, to fifth and finally to sixth as I entered A9 south. In an almost deserted Autobahn, on late Saturday night, I reached the cruising speed of 230 km/h at the altitude of about 500 meter above the sea level. Audi once again performed its sorcery. It was easy to understand how the R8 fooled me on how fast I was actually going. But to experience similar feel on the S5 was a big surprise.
The full moon brightened the rolling hills of the Bavaria along A96 towards the Austrian border. The clouds were abundant but thin and very high. It reflected the moon light to illuminate the beautiful agriculture landscape in a much better way than the green night vision goggle. The rolling hills were filled with yellow flower plants called Raps. This plant produces oil that later is processed for bio-diesel.
Bayern Drei and Antenne Bayern were two of my favorite radio stations. The timing could not be any better. The road opened up. A long stretch of empty Autobahn came to my target range. Bayern Drei played the theme song from Eddie Murphy’s Beverly Hills Cop. I dropped the gear from sixth to fourth because I was just leisurely cruising at 180 km/h. The rev went up. I pressed on the accelerator and up shifted every time the needle reached about 6200 rpm. The speedometer needle moved effortlessly to 200 km/h, 225 km/h, and it finally rested at the artificially limited 250 km/h. The bright waxing moon was my guardian angle this night. The engine softly hummed at 6200 rpm to maintain this speed.
The adaptive shock absorbers, the new Audi dynamic assist steering system, and the beautiful sculpted aerodynamics provided an amazingly confident drive at this blistering fast land speed. I slowed down to 220 km/h to devour the large radius bend, and the sensation was out of this world. I looked at the car navigation system and it told me that I still had over five more hours to go. I was looking forward to the next five hours of blissful driving.
Driving to Lake Como was a joyful driving in its own class. Earlier, from the top of the mountain, I looked down this steep and lush brow and there lied hairpins that snaked towards Lake Como. Not only the hairpins got me excited, but also the zigzags between the hairpins that were shaped by the contours of the mountain. I could not ask for more. I waited at the top till the oncoming traffic from the bottom passed me. After confirming that there was no more oncoming traffic, I turned off ESP, pressed the clutch, put the gear on first, and there I went. I shifted to second to quickly gain speed to about 50 km/h; not too fast because this was not a race track.
I kept both front windows open so I could listen to the echo of the whirls and burbles of the V8 FSI. I didn’t have a chance to shift to third because I needed to slow down for the first hairpin. I trail braked with my left foot leaving the clutch untouched. As I neared the hairpin apex, I performed right-left-right (Scandinavian flick) turn and let go the left foot trail braking and applied the accelerator to rotate the car. It was a nice surprise to learn that this S5 was so much easier to rotate than the S4 B6. The almost 50/50 weight distribution, the 40/60 front/rear Quattro setup, and the new application of reinforced steel technology on the center tunnel and the B pillars had to have something to do with it.
I got too excited on the first one and I was expecting the S4 B6 characteristics, so I fished tail dramatically. I looked down again to reconfirm that there was still no car coming up. I shifted to third to devour the zigzags while maintaining the speed at about 50 km/h. In my head, I heard one of my driving instructors, “Do not coast! Either on the brake or on the gas! No coasting!”
Coming to the second hairpin, I braked hard with the right foot, I clutched in and shifted to second, I moved my left foot to the brake paddle to do the rest of the trail braking and setup my right foot for the upcoming acceleration to rotate the car again. As I neared the apex, I did left-right-left turn this time and then I was on the gas. It was almost perfect on the second one. Ninety eight more hairpins were probably still waiting for me before I would arrive at Lake Como. This was better than…uhm…I could not think of anything else. This was the only thing I had in my mind. This was ecstasy.
This S5 communicated the road feel to my hands through the adaptive suspension and the precise steering system. It told me how much power I had applied and how much more I had in reserve and ready to be unleashed through the fine tingles and whirls and burbles. The car drift and rotation were communicated through the cocoon-like leather sport seat to my spine so I could perform the necessary minute adjustment on the power, the braking, and the steering. It was an amazing human-machine bio feedback system. At this moment I was the Iron Man!
Disembarking at Bellagio, I quickly find a parking spot. At 9 am, the restaurant hostesses, waiters, and waitresses are setting up outdoor tables and chairs on Italian gardens, terraces and promenades. The morning sun is finally able to break through the thinning clouds. At the top of the mountains, fresh snows deposited last night give the bright white auras. Colorful flower beds and hanged flower pots are everywhere adorning stores, hotels, and restaurants.
The city cobblestone roads add the already historical ambiance of the Italian architectures. Almost all structures here have the privilege to witness humanity since the Roman’s time. Were they able to talk to me, I would be having a time travel journey on top of my driving vacation. It would be like listening to bed time stories from my grandparent the other twenty eight grandparents before them.
Bellagio, like many towns in this region, is built on uneven land. The narrow small streets and alleys go up and down in so many directions. Strolling through this labyrinth and not worrying about getting lost is the best way to discover the magic hidden in many nooks and crannies. Craft stores, fancy boutiques, restaurants, hotels, and bakeries provide all kind of the enjoyment of living. An old grandma sitting outside a store greeting passer by is not only a postcard moment but a day-to-day occurrence here in this town.
The pace of live here is at snail pace. Why would it be otherwise? The serene atmosphere induces peaceful minds. People in this town radiate contentment. There is no other place to go to because this is the place to be.
Drive to Como Town
After a few hours of relaxation at Bellagio, I set the navigation system to Como, one of the biggest towns on the lake. I decline the navigation system recommendation to take the ferry route. So, I follow the street sign to Como till the navigation system picks SS583 to Como. This road hugs the coastline all the way to Como.
One time at another town, the navigation system recommended me to take a short cut due to traffic conditions. A smart and very exciting feature I thought at first until I found out that the S5 would not fit on the road it recommended. Imagine how narrow the street was when an S5 could not fit. On each side of the road were two rows of two stories houses. There was no side walk. The houses’ front doors were right on the edge of the street.
SS583 is not a wide street either. It is about as wide as the 18-wheeler truck, but it is a two-lane road without the middle lane marking. It would not make sense I guess to put the middle marking because the two halves would be so narrow that only Smart cars would fit. Even more interesting this road literally cuts through old towns. From time to time, I see similar color and architecture on two opposing houses. I just get the impression that I am actually snaking through what used to be their living room.
I thought that after three Audi Driving Experience programs, one go kart intensive instruction program, and driving vacations in some of the most treacherous mountains near Cusco-Peru, Las Alpujarras-Spain, and Tibet, I would be ready for any kind of non-off-road roads. Well, I am proven wrong once again. This time, I am tested and challenged by impatient Italian drivers.
Skinny Fiats and Renaults, tiny milk trucks, motorcycles, and bicycles rule this road! They rampage this road at a very high speed and they take aggressive maneuvers. I apply all skills I have learned, at the end, I still have to pull to the side because grandpas and grandmas on rustic Italian outdoor cafes are flagging me with the blue with yellow diagonal stripe handkerchiefs.
I try everything to apply the unfair advantages I have over those soap boxes with wheels. The 354 hp, 325 lb-ft torque, 40/60 front/rear Quattro setup, close to 50/50 weight distribution, the adaptive suspension, the dynamic steering system, the oversized disc brakes, and 245/40 R18 tire patches don’t matter on this road. I shift between second and fourth. I use trail braking on corners and accelerate right on the apexes. I focus my vision on the direction where I am going and let the peripheral vision to handle the rest.
Every lesson I was taught to smooth my driving to get the best line, I apply it today to no avail. My heartbeat goes higher and higher and finally, I have to succumb and let the white milk truck to pass me. SS583 is similar to Le Mans track where there are multiple classes of vehicles competing; the skinny cars, the tiny trucks, the motorcycles, the bicycles, and the regular cars. No wonder they are so many Italian names in the Grand Prix history. They are born racers. Even grandpas and grandmas drive at blistering speed on this winding road. Someday I will understand how the most serene and content people of Bellagio turn into aggressive drivers once they are behind the Fiats and the Renaults.
For the moment, since my ego cannot handle the defeat easily, I blame the narrow road. It turns out the Italian drivers are the ones with the unfair advantage. They don’t have to slow down when there is oncoming traffic. They just keep their rapid speed constant through the zigzags, and switch backs. Maybe they slow down by 2 km/h for the hairpins. With the S5 however, I have to find crevices on people houses so the oncoming traffic can fit.
All in all, it is a very fine driving adventure, especially after I take time to bring my heart beats to normal by enjoying the postcard perfect sceneries from the various vista points along SS583.
Driving to the center of Como, I see the parked milk truck that passed me forty minutes ago. Turning onto the Lungo Lario Trieste main waterfront street, the traffic gets really busy. Near the roundabout I see rows of Ducatis, BMWs, Hondas, Suzuki racing motorcycles parked like the Deutsche Bahn railway table. Across the street at the Golosita corner outdoor café, the riders are congregating and enjoying the beautiful sunny day. The red, yellow, green, blue, and orange riders’ customs and helmets add to the already colorful ambience of this town.
This street is filled with many aromatic Italian restaurants. Hundreds of people are having lunch with their families, friends, and lovers. Seafood is the specialty. The daily catches from the Lake Como are the highlights of the menus around town.
Driving this wide S5 on the narrow cobblestone street creates some scene when there is oncoming traffic. Some Italians noticed the “D” Euro license plate and greeted, “Guten Morgen.” Others are probably just wondering; who is this ridiculous tourist who jams his large car onto this narrow street? Fortunately, looking at the parked Porsche Cayenne, BMW 5 series, and Mercedes E class cars, I take comfort from the fact that they are many ridiculous Italians too.
There is nothing special going on here. This is the typical weekend day when locals enjoy the beautiful day with friends and families. With the beauty this place offers, it doesn’t require any special event for this place to give away its extraordinary charms.
“Entro prego, vi renderò un pranzo squisito,” restaurant hosts and hostesses along this road are fishing for customers. I settle on a restaurant that still has the best outdoor table for one. The row of blooming cherry trees add contrast to the picture perfect lake view. A small amphibious plane is taking off from the middle of the lake. Several ferry boats are shuttling the cars and people between ports. A flock of pigeons is feasting on bread crumbs offered by little kids.
I pick one dish out of the standard five-dish Italian meal. I have many hours of driving ahead of me and probably eight hundreds more hairpins to do. So, I can’t eat too much. When the local baked fish topped with homemade tomato sauce arrives on my table, I am unimpressed. It looks very plain compared to how the French chefs decorate their chef-d'oeuvre. But when I put the small slice of the fish on my mouth, this local chef authenticates his magic. The soft texture of the fish slowly melts and the tasty juice combined with the homemade tomato sauce create a seductive culinary ensemble. What a perfect day in Como!
It is after midnight and I am staring at the ceiling the four-person sleeper cabin of City Night Line train bound for Amsterdam from Munich. I am sharing this cabin with a German business man traveling to Brussels, a Netherlands grandpa coming home after visiting his son and his family in Innsbruck, and a young Australian backpacker who is on his 9th month on the road. Each of us has stories from our life journeys. But tonight our journeys cross path on this train, maybe only for this only one time, but then again maybe not.
As I am about to fall asleep, my mind drifts back to Lake Como. The word “harmony” comes to mind. The rhythm of life and the beautiful natural setting are in accordance creating the ambiance of contentment. Come to think of it, I feel the same way about my date, the S5. Technology, craftsmanship, sportsmanship, engineering, and emotion blend perfectly into one.
In the world where many car manufacturers are competing over beastly horsepower, Audi produces yet another fine machine. S5 doesn’t require any fiddling of the horsepower setting, the gear box setting, the launch and yaw control programs, the anti slip differential setting, the torque distribution modes, and the turn-signal duration setting to drive it in the spirited manner. All I have to do is to press the Start/Stop button with the key in my pocket and then drive. That simple! And simple life should be.
Drifting asleep, I promise myself to go back to Lake Como again and again till one day I finally find harmony in my own life.