Quest For Driving Perfection: GTO Europe Adventures, Part 2

GTO2_edited-1If you’re not familiar with the GTO Europe Adventures Saga, we ended part one having just returned to Italy after our Western Europe trip. We visited Germany, Belgium, Amsterdam, and stopped at some notable cities in between. At this point, we decided that we liked traveling and we especially like traveling in the 2005 Pontiac GTO.

So, I shared more of my dream sheet with my wife who, ironically enough, had a dream sheet of her own, and we went to planning. After checking off Stelvios Pass and the Nurburgring, along with the GTO proving her reliability, we began expanding our horizon’s and became a little more ambitious.

Ascea 3In the military, we manage our vacation time with leave days, and since we were planning a really big trip later that year, we tried to keep from using our leave days and maximized our three- and four-day weekend off-time. These are periods granted by the base commanding officer to base-wide commands for multiple days off during special holidays periods. For us, being in Italy (Italians have a lot of holidays) it worked in our favor. The only caveat being we’re limited on how far we can travel outside of the immediate area because we weren’t actually on leave — usually a 250-mile limit or so.

At the time, we had just been granted a long weekend. At the last minute, we decided to take a road trip to Paestum and Ascea deep in the Salerno, Italy region. After the small task of wrangling up the two wild men, we packed up the car and headed south. We hit the beach once in both towns and took lots of scenic pictures along the way. The drive in between, however, was what sold me on driving in Italy.

A few weeks later I made it to Lecce, having been one of the cities on my Top Gear: Must Do Dream Sheet that I had created shortly before I came to Italy. I found out it was a nice, quaint little town in the heel of Italy, about four hours from where I lived in Naples at the time. While there, we visited a zoo about an hour from Lecce for the kids. It was a type of zoo safari, and to be honest, I was just happy my interior didn’t get zebra’d. It wasn’t all fun and games as my trunk latch broke (a common issue with GTO’s) which left me locked out of the trunk for about three hours. Not to forget the 88 Euro toll I had to pay once I got into the region as well. I’m still sore about that.

Back to the fun and excitement that is auto racing. I later received free tickets for the Super Star track event at Vallelunga. Aside from cranky children and pushy Italian crowds, it turned out to be a very nice day. We arrived a little late, but as usual, the racing wasn’t on time anyway. The event ran a little out of order with the GT Sprint class going after the F3 and lower level GT class. I met an American named Michael James Lewis. He drove the No. 5 F3 car for MJL Racing. He turned out to be a nice guy from California and personally took me around the pits of his race team. There were also a few crashes and spills, most of which I missed or simply did not have enough zoom to capture. Never the less, it was memorable and a great time.

A few weeks later, my wife and I decided to take a trip for two. We had a good friend willing to babysit the entire time, which was nice, so we packed up the GTO and headed south. The destination was the region of Materea where we would see the Sassi cave homes being restored. The drive down wasn’t too much to write home about, as it was dark, late, and kind of sketchy in a few areas combined with “surprise” road construction. However, it was still clear skies and we pretty much had the road to ourselves on the way down.

After arriving, we checked into the hotel and headed to central Materea, found food, and then called it a night. The next day we stayed local to see the sites, and ate plenty of amazing food. Not until the day after that did things really get exciting, as we ventured out more to make our way further south. The first stop was the ghost town of Craco. The trip to the town alone is noteworthy because it required a little 4×4 action in the GTO.

The GPS took us to what at first was a really nice route towards Craco on roads that were full of double-switch backs that constantly changed elevation. Amazing for me, but not so much for her as she says it gave her Nurburgring flashbacks. All of the fun and shenanigans came to a screeching halt once we came across what turned out to be a small bridge under construction. While going over possible solutions to my problem, I remembered that somewhere between the construction and the corners we developed a scale for my wife’s discomfort with my driving of corners in general. The scale went from zero to Nurburgring with Stelvios Pass being a five.

After attempting to find another route around only to get more lost and end up right back where we started. I’m pretty upset at this point because the GPS was convinced there was no other reasonable way to get to where we wanted to be. After coming back to the bridge in question I noticed there was a very sketchy bypass bridge next to it. How sketchy you ask? Well, the path and access to the bridge screamed “don’t do it, you’re going to get stuck and possibly damage the car.” So, naturally, I proceeded as my wife started to progressively freak out.

Me: As long as I keep it going nice and easy we should be good.
Her: OMG. OMG. OMG …OMG He’s really doing it!
Me: Thinking, ‘Man if I get stuck this is going to suck.’
Her: I’m past Nurburgring right now and I think I’m going to throw up. I can see the bottom of the ravine.
Me: (laughing) Did you say past Nurburgring?
Her: Yes, significant chances of death right now, so serious.
Me: Crying, laughing.
Needless to say, we did finally get across. I meant to take a picture of it but didn’t. As expected on the way back from the Ghost Town of Craco the GPS took us an entirely different direction to get to the highway then what we came — surprise!

Craco was nice, yet eerie at the same time because you’re looking at what used to be years ago. Apparently, people did live there until it was abandoned in the early ’60s. Now it’s just a tourist attraction of crumbling buildings. We were tempted to hop the fence and go sneaking around but we restrained ourselves. We left Craco and headed to the beaches of Policoro where my wife’s fancy of sea shells became pretty apparent. About two hours and a pound of sea shells later we left and had lunch at a quaint restaurant in the nearby town.

Fast forward a few weeks later and I had a fender bender with a Fiat. Nothing serious, and totally fixable outside my pride being a little hurt. Long story short, my friend John who was stationed in Germany at the time had a new hood that I needed. This hood was a Glastek four-inch cowl he had never used for the GTO he brought to Germany. The only catch was, I had to go get said hood as shipping was just unbelievably expensive (about 700 Euro from him to me).

Conveniently enough, the visit would allow me to see the ‘Ring a second time and truly get to enjoy it like I wanted to the first time. At the same time, I was asked to test a new brake kit that retro-fitted Gen 2/3 Cadillac CTS-V brake on to the GTO. So I took up the offer and combined them with a new set of Michelin Pilot Super Sports. I topped it all off with a few suspension upgrades and I was ready for round two at Nurburgring!

Two weeks later and we’re off to test my newly equipped brakes on the infamous Nordschleife with my wife and kids in tow. This time, I had a plan to ensure I get to enjoy every bit of the ‘Ring and then some. The day of the Nurburgring brake flogging, my wife took the youngest and went on a wine tour, while I took the oldest and my good friend John. After the first lap around, we were very surprised. The combination of properly selected rubber and increased braking ability really woke the car up. I even found myself going head-to-head with a AMG C63 and a few M3s. Outside of that, I must say the day really couldn’t have been more perfect. Compared to my last trip — this was straight up legendary!

The next day, my wife and I decided to make a family day worth of trips. We found ourselves revisiting Stephan’s Wine Paradise — a wine shop in Sankt Goar that she’d seen the day before. Nice place and very good stuff that’s all family-owned. This ran into the afternoon when we headed to Heidelberg to see a historic castle. The town looked pretty modern until you approach old town, and then it sends you back in time. After taking a small tram up a steep hill, you’re down the street from a castle. It’s unique in that it’s one of the most significant pieces of the renaissance north of the Alps. There’s a functioning historic brewery and pharmacy museum of many things to see there. I’d say, if you find yourself in Heidelberg, it’s definitely a place to see.

We headed back home to Italy with a stop in Verona, Maranello — home of Ferrari, and Sant’Agata — home of Lamborghini. Verona — being the home of Romeo and Juliet, is definitely a place to see for couples — a beautiful, and in some cases, pricey city to see depending on what you want to do. The first stop after Verona was the Ferrari Museum, and to be honest, I was not very impressed. There was no A/C and the air seemed a bit stuffy which didn’t make me feel any better about spending 40 Euro ($47 U.S. bucks) on four tickets. However, to drive a moderately modified, yet pretty loud GTO in the otherwise sacred town of Maranello on the other hand, was awesome.

The weather was wet and a bit dewy which I think kept the Ferrari count down a bit. I did run into a Ferrari test driver on the Autostrada just outside of town — a light blue Ferrari V12 Berlinette with the factory plastic still on it. He didn’t pay me any attention until he rode past my driver side and saw the hood. So he slows down and starts trying to bait me into chasing him (started out in front instead of right next to me nose-to-nose). I got pulled about a car or so and it was steady after that (mostly because he probably let off). Win or lose, its still cool to play with a Ferrari on its home turf.

Next up was the Lamborghini Museum which was about 45 minutes or so away in Sant’agata, Bolognese — a farm town as it turned out. A little smaller since it’s practically a showroom with many generations of Lamborghinis and a few prototypes. Compared to Ferrari it was a lot cleaner and all around less gaudy. You get to park on the facility grounds — or at least I did, but I think the GTO may have had something to do with it.

I would  suggest if anyone came here that they check out the Lamborghini Museum over Ferrari, unless you’re just dying to see the Ferrari Museum. There are tons of test-drive shops all over both towns, and since they are both in the middle of nowhere — plenty of room to get on it. All in all a nice little trip with a few more stops added in than I originally intended, but nice none the less.

For my wife and I, this only fueled our desire to travel even more than our first big trip. We set our eyes on Eastern Europe when we would see Cracow, Poland, Bucharest, Romania, Thessaloniki, Greece, and Dubrovnik, Croatia. You’ll need to wait for part three of this saga to know more about our last adventures and to learn a little more about the GTO.

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About the author

Cardea Blue

Cardea Blue has been writing off and on for the past few years while on active duty in the U.S. Navy. Having traveled the world doing what he loves, he picked up a few things about the car scene abroad. Current projects include a '98 WS6, '05 GTO, and a V6 Firebird. Cardea's primary passions are engines, no matter the make or manufacturer. He is a freelance contributor for Power Automedia.
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