Driving in Italy – “Just a Suggestion”

One of my most vivid memories of Italy from our camper-car trip back in 1997 is of my father’s white-knuckled grip on the steering wheel as two painted lanes on the highway turned into five swarming lanes of Italian cars. There were no rules except “first come, first serve” and no regard for other road users. Almost all of the cars already had scratches and dents in them. We prayed and hoped for the best and somehow managed to get through it alive and accident-free.

And so it was with a little trepidation that I climbed behind the steering wheel of our rental car at Rome’s Fiumicino airport and headed towards the ring road. Luckily, it was not my first time driving in Europe, so I had some experience driving on the wrong side of the road while sitting on the wrong side of the car. And all the Roman gods must have been smiling on us when the rental company upgraded us from the smallest, cheapest manual car available to a luxurious, automatic Audi A1! Which was a good thing too, because driving in Italy is not for the fainthearted.

The tolled highways are in pretty good shape, but there are certain things you need to know before you set out:

  • The left-most lane are for faster drivers. Italians will expect you to get out of their way if you hold them up and they also expect you to squeeze into the smallest possible space between two other cars to do so. Granted, they will do the same for you.
  • Never pass another car from the right side. Trust me, it’s just not done.
  • The speed limit of 130 km/h is a just a suggestion.
  • If a large truck wants to overtake another slow mover and there is a gap in the fast lane, it will take it, no matter how hard you need to slam on your breaks to avoid crashing into it.
  • When you first get onto a tolled highway you will receive a ticket (sometimes you need to push a large red button to print it, but usually it’s there waiting for you at the gate). There are automated and manned toll gates when you get off the highway (avoid the gates for frequent users who have tags). The manned gates are the easiest to use, but most people head for them, so the queues are longer. We found the automatic gates confusing at first, but once you get the hang of them they are very convenient. Just make sure you have enough change.
  • We paid anything from €2 to €30 in tolls per trip, depending on how far we drove. The most expensive trip was from Venice to Rome.

Of course, if you’d like to see anything of Italy other than concrete highways and the inside of long tunnels, you may want to take the scenic route. That was our plan at first, but I found the tiny, twisty roads of the countryside exhausting and nerve-wracking. The speed limit on these death traps are supposedly 70 km/h, but the only vehicles adhering to that are tourists who are clutching onto their steering wheels for dear life, and rusty tractors. The locals will drive up so close to your backend that one good sneeze will put them on your rear seat and will maintain this (lack of) distance up until the point that you either chicken out and turn off to let them pass or until they can find a blind corner at which to overtake you. This, of course, instils no confidence in you when approaching a blind corner yourself.

Driving in cities holds its own challenges. The roads are peppered with traffic circles (enter on the right and exit on the left), sometimes two or three off each other and you have to keep your head to make sure you exit where you’re supposed to. Although Florence had cameras on top of traffic lights to regulate traffic, people in other towns consider a red light just a suggestion, and I had someone hoot and throw their hands in the air at me when I stopped at one. Fortunately, we never had the opportunity to drive in Rome, where the continued wail of ambulance sirens is now forever etched into my memories of this magnificent city.

Parking can be tricky if you’re not used to parallel parking or find squeezing into tight spaces problematic. In cities we always parked in large underground garages – they are a little pricier but centrally located, safe and easily manoeuvrable. If you park in the street it’s imported to know Italy’s colour code system – white spaces are either free parking or residents only, yellow are for the handicapped and blue spaces are paid. In most cases you have to prepay at a pay point and display the ticket on the dashboard, which is a little inconvenient if you don’t know for how long you’re going to be out. We frequently had to return to our car to extend the ticket, and suffered a few nervous hours where this wasn’t possible and we expected to come back to a car that had its wheels clamped. Luckily, this never happened.

I was a nervous wreck the first few days driving in Italy, but then one day I realised I was so busy concentrating on the road that I was missing the scenery, which is after all why we came to Italy in the first place. So I relaxed my grip on the steering wheel, unclenched my jaw and just went with the flow. And that was the moment it all became part of the adventure. After all, when in Rome…

For more posts in the Ciao Italy 2014 series, click here.

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