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Born to Shop: Autobiography from the Autogrill

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By Suzy Gershman

I am afraid of the dark. I am afraid of heights. And I am really terrified of Italian highways that go over viaducts and leave you hanging out there in the breeze while Enzo in his Fiat is soaring past you at 150kph. So Sarah, the Editorial Director of Born to Shop, drove today. We curled around the gorgeous houses and flowers and trees with a constant view of the sea and then hit the highway right outside of Genoa. Christopher Columbus clearly left because there was too much beach traffic on a Sunday.

Since breakfast was not included in our rate at our Italian palace hotel, we headed to France, hungry. We stopped at the first Autogrill we found past Genoa. The Italian highway routes have many service areas, only some of them have Autogrills. Since I especially like shopping at these, we held out. Imagine our surprise to find that everyone in Italy was having Sunday brunch at the Autogrill.

The line at the caisse for the ticket was huge and then the line to order was huge. Couples had split up so that one person guarded a table while the other waited for food and then juggled coffee, fresh orange juice and croissants (called brioche in Italian, go figure) through the mob scene.

Our little rental Benz takes diesel fuel so when we stopped for gas, I just said diesel. Then I learned that there are two kinds of diesel, the one that costs 1.09 a liter and the one that costs 1.13 a liter. Highway prices are always higher and usually gas is less expensive in Italy than France, so we filled the tank. As it turns out, when we got off the highway in Antibes, diesel was 99 cents a liter.

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We made a ritual of stopping at several Autogrill shops before we left Italy. It was hard to give up the idea of shopping for Italian goods. At one store I found two containers of Caldo Caldo, a product I discovered years ago that then went the way of the dinosaur. Now it's back.

Caldo Caldo is what I call 'magic coffee'. It's a plastic container about the size of a cup that has a small nuclear bomb inside it. You depress the bomb, shake for 40 seconds and voila, steaming hot coffee. I paid an outrageous 2,50 euros (almost $4) per cup in order to bring home two for my kids.

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One for the road. Photo by Suzy Gershman.
Each Autogrill has a small supermarket where you can buy all sorts of things. They even sell alcoholic drinks, which I find amazing– although, considering how the Italians drive, I'm not sure if this is for the drivers or the passengers. As we approached Imperia, the olive oil capital of Liguria, there were many containers of olive oil for sale. But none of it the 'fruity' style that I like. I am holding out for a day trip to Spain to buy olive oil.

While at the Autogrill, I considered taking half a Xanax because I was so frightened by the viaducts; Sarah bravely drove onward. When we crossed into France, I sang Le Marseillaise which I learned in the 5th grade. That sure came in handy in my lifetime.

Since it is the last day of the Cannes Film Festival and traffic can be fierce, and since I do know the 'back way' into town, I decided we should scoot about on the beach road and avoid La Croisette, which was certain to be blocked off anyway. I thought I was a genius until we hit a barricade of police and a 'deviation' because of a bicycle rally.

We pulled up in front of the hotel– the hotel formerly known as the Cannes Hilton– to see for ourselves the complete (and stunning) renovation that has turned the just re-opened hotel into the Palais Stephanie. And yes, of course, I know 'someone', otherwise how in the world would we get a room!

Suzy Gershman has been known as The Born to Shop Lady for over 25 years while traveling the world and reporting her series of guidebooks, magazine articles and television spots.

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