Driving through the fog and traffic in a minibus on a damp autumn day on the way to Maranello, home to Ferrari, was certainly less glamorous than I expected. Where were the gleaming red cars of my imagination?
Three hours later, we arrived in a small industrial town of about 17,000 inhabitants, at a not particularly elegant, but very welcoming hotel, opposite the Ferrari factory. "Buongiorno," said the friendly, beaming grey-haired man behind the reception desk.
Then I heard it. The unmistakable roar of a car zooming around a nearby test track, the most thrilling sound in motoring. Moments later I caught my first glimpse of one of the many brightly coloured Ferrari cars that can be spotted cruising the streets. Finally, I was beginning to understand the fascination that so many people have for the town where the carmaker's history is rooted, and why so many tourists make the pilgrimage.
Situated in the Emilia-Romagna region of northern Italy, Maranello and its larger neighbour, the city of Modena, lie south-east of Milan, about 50km from Bologna. Thousands of fans, or tifosi, as the Italian call them, travel to Maranello each year to pay homage to the carmaker.
The history dates to 1947, when the first car sporting the famous prancing horse badge left the factory floor. Were it not for Ferrari, this nondescript town would be unknown, but thanks to its association with the brand, everything in Maranello now revolves around and celebrates the carmaker. Restaurants here are either completely Ferrari-themed or decorated with Ferrari memorabilia, including signed pictures of the greats of the racing world - snapshots of restaurateurs posing with Michael Schumacher, Fernando Alonso and Felipe Massa and the like - model cars and even limited-edition Barbie dolls clad in Ferrari racing suits.
Fans mill around the town in Ferrari jackets, soaking up the atmosphere and hoping to catch a glimpse of some of the new and classic cars that can be seen cruising the streets, while lucky car owners make the trip to the factory to customise their Ferraris, a popular pastime.
"It is very rare to have two Ferraris that are identical," said Stefano Lai, the director of communications for Ferrari, explaining that everything down to the type of stitching on the car can be chosen by the owner, as long as the additions don't compromise standards. (Last year 6,250 cars were produced at the Ferrari factory. The cheapest of these would set you back about €170,000 [Dh865,400] our guide, Valeria, informed us.)
From walking into a showroom and placing your order to actually receiving the car is a year-long process, because these sought-after vehicles are always made to order. Mr Lai explained that the buyers are sent regular updates and scale model of their car to whet their appetite as they wait for their wheels to arrive. Orders cannot be fast-tracked, even for an extra sum, Ferrari says.
Rumour has it that fans can often be seen climbing up trees and pylons in the town to gain the best view of the latest cars being driven around the test track.
The next day, on a bright, crisp morning, we visited the Ferrari factory, where Ferraris have been manufactured for more than 60 years. I had always imagined car factories as dirty and noisy affairs, but this was the opposite. Workers dressed in neatly pressed red T-shirts and trousers were working quietly on each detail of the cars. There was not a spot of oil in sight, and natural light streamed through the large windows. There were even potted plants.
Valeria said that in the mid-1990s, the chairman of Ferrari, Luca di Montezelmo, who is still in the role today, set about creating a work environment that emphasised light, greenery, cleanness and functionality. The process is ongoing, and the roads and pathways connecting the various factory buildings are meticulously maintained. The Italian company called upon architects such as Jean Nouvel to design some of the structures.
The cars are worked on over several stages in different buildings - from product development to the finished car. Only the car bodies and chassis are manufactured a few kilometres away in Modena (the birthplace of the founder of the company, Enzo Ferrari) then brought back for the final assembly. The entire Maranello headquarters and factory cover more than 500,000 square metres; the large complex, effectively a small town in itself, is known as the cittadella Ferrari.
In one building, where various parts of the engine are produced, highly complex and dextrous robotic machinery is left to work independently for ultimate precision. One example of this is where one machine passes trays of cylindrical alloy engine parts to a robotic arm-like machine, which then picks them up one by one and dips them into an ice-cooling vat to shrink them to the required size. The factory is notably uncrowded; I saw fewer workers than I had imagined would be needed to produce these sophisticated cars.
Elsewhere on the premises, where the final stages of construction take place, among the cars being worked on were the popular 458 Italia and California models. Most buyers favour the classic Ferrari red colour, but some were in graphite grey and black. The majority of these are destined for the United States, Ferrari's largest market. But what about Abu Dhabi, home of the new Formula One Grand Prix circuit? There is, after all, a shade of blue in Ferrari called Abu Dhabi.
"The Middle East is an important market," Valeria said, pointing out that there was a 30-per-cent increase in Middle East sales last year, while globally Ferrari sales dropped five per cent. But she added that buyers in this region are reluctant to wait so long for the cars. Given the attention to detail that I saw going into making the cars, it is no surprise that the process in so lengthy.
"We need to educate the emerging markets," Valeria explained somewhat patronisingly.
Sadly for car enthusiasts, this factory tour is normally reserved only for a privileged few - those who own a Ferrari. Among the highlights of the tour for me was the Ferrari Classiche division. In this separate workshop, a specialist team restores highly valuable, classic Ferrari cars to their former splendour. Some of these precious objects are kept covered by tarpaulins, hidden from the gaze of visitors at the request of their owners. Fortunately for us, a few other owners didn't mind factory visitors enjoying the beauty of their historic vehicles, some of which are worth millions of euros. Quite apart from the value of the cars, the restoration work that goes on here will cost the owners from about €500 (Dh2,545) to €500,000 (Dh2.5m), depending on the scope of the project. The Classiche division is also home to the vast archives of the technical specifications of classic cars - defined here as any Ferrari that is more than 20 years old.
Next, we moved on to the Galleria Ferrari, the official Ferrari museum, just down the road from the factory, where the story of the carmaker is told through pictures, memorabilia and, yes, more cars. This is the site that most tourists to Maranello visit - it receives 200,000 people a year. To keep the crowds happy, the exhibition is regularly refreshed with different additions, through exchanges with other motoring museums and loans from proud owners and collectors. Thus it features a large collection of classic and newer cars, including a fully working replica of the first Ferrari manufactured, the 1947 Ferrari 125 S.
There is also a reconstruction of the founder of Ferrari Enzo Ferrari's office, and a shop selling pricey souvenirs, including Ferrari T-shirts, model cars and even Ferrari-branded pencils. It's here that I learnt the origins of that famous prancing horse logo. It was originally the symbol on the Italian World War I pilot Francesco Baracca's fighter plane; it is believed he died after he was shot down by ground-fire. Enzo became friends with the late pilot's parents, when he met Countess Paolina, Francesco Baracca's mother, after a race he won at the Savio track in Ravenna. At the Countess's suggestion, Enzo adopted the logo in tribute to the fallen hero.
Having visited the factory, which is such a unique and authentic experience, the museum did not seem nearly as inspiring. Nonetheless, the fanatics that made the journey seemed to be enthralled by the cars and the trophies from Ferrari's Formula One victories.
Being Italy, one of the main attractions in Maranello is the food. We lunched at Cavallino, just across the road from the factory and a favourite restaurant of Enzo Ferrari himself. Our attentive waiter brought a seemingly infinite number of courses with tender mozzarella, deliciously fresh pastas of all descriptions dressed in creamy sauces, as well as a beetroot risotto. As is tradition, the meals were always capped off with a shot of rich, dark espresso that somehow never tastes as good anywhere else as it does in Italy.
The decoration of the restaurant, with pictures of drivers and cabinets of memorabilia set amid the rustic Italian interior, ensured that our conversation kept returning to those famous cars. Naturally, Ferrari followers will get immeasurably more out of a visit to Maranello, but it is nevertheless an educational and worthwhile day trip for even those who are not motoring geeks.
Of course, for fans closer to home who are unable to make the journey to Italy in the near future or those who cannot afford a Ferrari, one of the attractions at the newly opened Ferrari World theme park on Yas Island, called Made in Maranello, takes you on a virtual tour of the factory.
If you go
The flight Return flights from Abu Dhabi to Milan on Etihad Airways (www.etihadairways.com) cost from Dh3,475, including taxes
The info For more details on Galleria Ferrari, visit www.galleriaferrari.com or call 00 39 0536 943 204. Entrance is €13 (Dh66) for adults