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A1: The Highway of the Sun Stretches from Milan to Naples

“Piling into automobiles, with striped deck chairs strapped to the roofs, Italian families clogged the A1 to reach coveted beaches along the coastline.”

Strenuous climbs on bumpy, dust-caked roads: this was how people traveled in the boot of the 1950s, before a dense zipper of avant-garde roads criss-crossed the country, uniting Italy forever.

The expansion of road networks, as well as the increase in incomes and paid vacations, helped turn August into the month of the summer exodus: a typically Italian phenomenon, born from the holiday closures of the big factories (an initiative led by car giant Fiat). 

Piling into legendary Millecento or Seicento automobiles, with striped deck chairs strapped to the roofs, Italian families clogged the A1 to reach coveted beaches along the coastline. Fiat, eager to sell its cars to all Italians, produced one million Fiat 600s between 1955 and 1960. And Italians longed for the latest innovation on the market: the demand was so high that Fiat had no choice but to produce and produce. The advertising campaign focused on the concept, almost revolutionary at the time, that a car that could be also intended for leisure and camping. Italians, prey to post-WWII consumerism, took the bait and the automobile soon became a symbol of independence and emancipation as the Vespa had been before. 

And as soon as the highway opened its lanes, car sales increased. Was the highway built because so many more people were buying cars or did people buy cars because there was now a highway to drive them on? The phenomena reinforced each other. 

The A1, or Autostrada del Sole (Highway of the Sun), was a futuristic vision, a financial scheme that promised to jump-start an economic boom. The dream was to connect the cities of Milan, Bologna, Florence and Rome to the Partenope of Italy: Naples. The name was a guarantee of happiness: a highway that invited sunbathing and good sea air, far from the gray and fog of northern Italian cities (a long lasting stereotype). For one traveled south along the A1 to the sulfurous lands of Naples, to the fire of the active volcanoes of an imperishable summer. 

Before the highway was built, “most of the roads were left over from Caesar’s time,” and it would take two days to reach Naples from Milan. With the highway, only seven hours! 

To conceive the A1’s model, Italy’s best engineers embarked for the United States, where they studied the country’s robust highway system and designed Italy’s own masterpiece of civil engineering. A 300 billion lira (more or less 154 million euros today) miracle for 755 km of road. 

The laying of the foundation stone was on a rosy day in Milan’s San Donato comune in May, 1956. Eight years later, the work was finished a surprising three months early under the scorching sun and not without a few casualties, sacrificed between elevated bridges over the Tiber and rivers of bitumen.

On October 4th, 1964, the A1 was inaugurated by Aldo Moro, Prime Minister at the time, who declared: “Thus was laid out this new very modern road that facilitates traffic, develops the economy, and makes our country more alive and richer.” 

The North and South of Italy were finally shaking hands. Voyagers on the A1 were sustained by 56 service oases in the asphalt desert, all based on Italy’s first roadside rest area, born on the Milan-Turin highway as early as 1947 when Mario Pavesi decided to promote right there, under an arbor of ripe beans, his family cookie factory Pavesini. 

But it was on the A1 that Europe’s first bridged Autogrill, designed by Angelo Bianchetti, opened in 1959 in Fiorenzuola d’Arda. Autogrill was the best place to be in the 60s. Within the establishments was everything from fuel to banks, telephone booths to tourist offices. Italians went to lunch on Sundays in the bridged truck stops while watching cars whizz by under the large windows like at the Monza racetrack. Like hotels on the Las Vegas Strip,  Autogrills were the best for sightseeing and often locations for weddings in the 60s.

The Autostrada del Sole is the oldest highway in Europe and is still the longest in Italy. In 1954, there were just one million car trips along the road; by 1964, there were already six million. According to ANAS, in 1991, about 70,000 vehicles passed through the A1 in August and in 2019, 111,000 cars. A number that continues to rise–along with gasoline costs.

Let’s hop into the car. The route starts from Milan. Heading south, voyagers of the 60s and of today pass the Bolognese towers and San Luca on the horizon. Florence is near and the hills roll towards the horizon. One finds oneself at the gates of the beautiful Medicea, in the center of a vast area, where there stood, and still stands today, a symbolic work of the A1 in memory of the victims who fell during the works: the Church of Giovanni Michelucci, a sail on the horizon, silhouetted chameleon-like against the sky.

Venturing onto Umbria, however, the colors turn pastel, and the mountains of upper Lazio appear. Further on, irresistible Rome beckens: the Eternal City. 

And finally, the Siren that bewitches all and never lets go: Naples with its melodious song and monstrous wings.

Courtesy Archivio Storico Autostrade per l'Italia