Berceto marks about the halfway point between Parma and La Spezia at the Ligurian coast. Instead of taking the direct route back to Milan, we meandered through the hinterland, following endless poplar alleys, geometrically laid-out waterways, and long rows of ancient maple trees that stood out against the sky like giant sea urchins. Milan, Italy's second-biggest city, is surrounded by vast industrial areas, anonymous housing developments, and interchangeable shopping malls. On a Monday morning, the drive from the southern to the northern outskirts is a two-hour stop-and-go-affair. Thanks to the mild winters, old cars age well in Italy, where on a congested road one might encounter Fiat's entire product portfolio, from the 1949 Topolino to the 2011 Punto.
The Royal Park of Monza is open to the public, and for a small fee you can also visit the racetrack and the pits. Il Autodromo di Monza is not only known for the Lesmo and Parabolica bends and for La Curva Grande, but also for the two banked corners that define the high-speed oval constructed in 1954. The original track built in 1922 consisted of a very fast infield and a second, partly overlapping, larger loop that together measure exactly ten kilometers in length. Inspired by the Indy 500, the oval was erected to stage the Monzanapolis race series. Despite the dramatic architecture, the extension to the circuit was a commercial disaster.
Since Ferrari, Maserati, and Jaguar had trouble adjusting their cars to the imported high-strength Fire-stone tires, all the races were won by Americans driving Offenhausers. Formula 1 used the long track in 1955, 1956, 1960, and 1961, but after Ferrari driver Wolfgang von Trips and fourteen spectators were killed during the 1961 Italian grand prix, the infield was practically doomed. The last race held on the banked section was the 1969 1000 Kilometers of Monza.
More than forty years later, the concrete bowl looks like a well-kept monument from the Mussolini era. Each bend is still overlooked by a crow's-nest platform perched on a pedestal high above the token Armco. From up there, the flagman, a photographer, and a race inspector used to monitor the approaching vehicles. While most sports cars could take the banked corners flat out, the grand prix machines had to lift to protect the tires and the suspension. Today, the circuit is largely intact, but the two halves of the bowl are partially moss-covered and the pavement is broken in places. Although the chicanes that were set up in the mid-'60s to slow the cars no longer exist, one can still follow the racing line through the bumpy concrete and cobblestone. It is possible to drive from the beginning of one banked curve along the pockmarked back straight to the end of the other curve, but the final section is now part of the new track.