When I think back to road trips that I’ve taken in the U.S., I don’t fondly think of rest stops. More often than not, I recall dimly lit parking lots, shady-looking characters lurking by a picnic bench taking drags off slinky cigarettes, seatless toilets in malodorous bathrooms, and–if you’re lucky–there’s toilet paper. I once got stuck inside the stall of such a bathroom, and it took a good seven minutes of yelling (and trying not to breathe through my nose) before my then-boyfriend heard me and helped me escape. I’m still traumatized.
Even if you find a slightly more urban place along the highway to stop, you’re still limited to fairly predictable chain fast-food joint, a greasy diner, or a soulless gas station food mart. And while predictable can be comforting or even good, what if you could have something more…something better?
Taking our tour groups on chartered buses, I’ve visited quite a few rest stops, and the ones in Italy are impressively different than what we might know in the States. The best-known rest stops are actually a chain called Autogrill, and they’re also in France. If it’s merely for a bathroom break, we typically find a smaller one–about the standard size of a fast-food restaurant. Once you pass the turnstiles, make a beeline for the clean, toilet paper-equipped restrooms, which sometimes have an on-duty attendant (whom you could kindly tip after you’re through). Sometimes there’s even a private shower stall available for those who really need to freshen up.
If you fancy a quick and delicious coffee, sandwich, or pastry, saunter up to the cashier, let them know what you want, pay, and take your receipt to the behind-the-counter attendant. They’ll hook you up so you can have a little kaffe klatch with your friends or other travelers passing through. My pals and I prefer a nice little caffè macchiato–espresso “stained” with foamed milk.
For a lunch stop, you can find Autogrills that are so vast that they straddle the autostrada or freeway. Downstairs, you find the same set-up as the smaller rest stops. Upstairs is where you find a really cool dining experience. There are pasta stations where you can get a small platter of your favorite noodles and sauce. Can’t decide? Get a bis (two selections) or even a tris (three choices), all on one plate. How about a salad? You can choose an already-made salad or build your own. And let’s not forget that you can also have grilled meats cooked to order, roasted veggies, and other savory hot dishes to choose from. And if that’s not enough, get some fresh fruit or rich pastries for dessert. All that and some wine, juice or a soda should be enough to satiate any weary traveler.
When you’re ready to leave, make sure you pick the correct stairs to exit, lest you end up on the wrong side of the autostrada. You don’t want to go towards Firenze when you really want to end up in Roma. Make your way downstairs and brace yourself for the veritable labyrinth of shopping you are obligated to navigate in order to get to the exit.
Rather than actually buy something, I tend to let myself just browse. I’m fascinated by the quirky products that sort of resemble convenience store fare but are particular to that country or that region. While you might want Doritos, why not try “Freeky Fries”? Kit Kat’s fine, but Loacker’s “Quadratinis” (chocolate and hazelnut wafers) are divine. And just as wine and coffee are distinguished by terroir, new trends in chocolate bars feature (sometimes questionable) packaging that show the exotic origins of the fine delicacies.
And in the big rest stops as in the small ones, you can buy everything you never knew you wanted at a rest stop: books on Pope Francis, card games, wagon wheels of cheese, bulbous logs of salt-cured meats, bling-bling headphones, and trusty GPS devices. These Italian rest stops are your one-stop bathroom, shower, hot meal, snacktime, souvenir, convenience store heaven. I could spend hours in these fancy rest stops…or at least a good seven minutes.