Italy has a long motoring history. Some of the best high-performance vehicles – Ferrari, Lamborghini, Maserati – are made there. Italian automobile designers and manufacturers have always been at the forefront of the industry.
Driving in Italy also has a certain reputation. It can be a challenging but rewarding experience. In late June, after touring Rome, I decided to find out for myself.
Italy’s trains will get you to major cities and towns, but if you want to really get a feel for the country, particularly the southern portion, the best way to do it is by automobile. We caught a train to Salerno, where I had booked a car.
The destination: Cilento, whose Cilento and Vallo di Diano National Park and its archeological sites of Paestum and Velia were added to the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1998. Located on the “shin” of the boot, just south of the Amalfi Coast, Cilento is known for its beaches, rugged terrain and spectacular cuisine. It was in Cilento that American scientist Ancel Keys developed the theory of the “Mediterranean Diet,” which he publicized in his 1975 book How to Eat Well and Stay Well the Mediterranean Way.
A car was a must. The nearest train station was almost 10 kilometres away from our villa. Now, the last thing the world needs is another North American journalist “mangiasplaining” Italy, but the differences in the driving cultures demand some examination.
Here’s a list of Italian driving tips.
If you’re visiting Rome and eager to drive around the Eternal City, it’s best to follow one simple rule – don’t. Don’t do it. The Metro covers most of the city, taxis are readily available, Uber now has a foothold and Rome is extremely walkable. Driving in Rome will test you in ways you don’t want to be tested. Just say no.
Everyone in Italy drives stick. If you want to rent an automatic you’re going to pay a lot more. That is, unless you ask to rent a GPS. When I picked up my car in Salerno, I asked to rent a GPS and was told it wasn’t possible to rent one separately but that I could take a car with a GPS built in. I took the offer and lo and behold I was presented with a five-door Opel Mokka Crossover SUV six-speed automatic at no extra charge.
Beware the GPS
Initially, I used the GPS frequently. I found that the GPS chose the “fastest” route (by a minute or so) and these routes were also the most complicated. As detailed as the GPS’s maps are, they didn’t account for nuances of small Italian roads. The GPS got us to the general vicinity but we often found ourselves misdirected.
Once you’re off the major autostrada, you will be driving on roads that were built to accommodate horses and carriages, not automobiles. They’re narrow, they’re winding, and they snake their way through the terrain. In Cilento, a picturesque 15-minute drive would involve an average of three hairpin turns and some very close 120-degree turns. Small cars are a plus. At times driving the Mokka, it felt like I was trying to squeeze a watermelon through cannoli.
Be prepared to pay for mistakes
Make a wrong turn on these rural roads, and be prepared to drive another kilometre or so before turning around. On a drive to the archeological site of Paestum I made the same wrong turn on both the preliminary and return trip (this may be a Cilento record). I was once forced to make a 20-point turn in order to change direction without driving off a cliff.
The phantom lane
It’s a fairly well-known fact that there is an unofficial third middle lane on Italian two-lane roads. It’s the passing lane. Don’t worry. Italians know how to use it. As a tourist, all you need to know is that when someone roars up behind you, you must move to the right and let them blow by in the “middle” passing lane. It’s not unusual for people to pass on turns, narrow stretches or bends. Just get out of the way.
Did I mention, keep right?
When you are on the autostrada, keep in the right-hand lane unless you are passing. And I don’t mean in a North American, “I’ll keep right if I remember to” kind of way. Stay in the right lane. If you don’t you will make everyone angry and they will hate you.
Obviously, don’t drink and drive
Italy has a blood alcohol limit of 0.05 per cent. That means you could be charged after consuming a single glass of wine or beer.
Don’t take it personally
North American drivers, who are accustomed to a land where the car is king, take any vehicular slight seriously. We’re territorial drivers – that’s “our lane” or “our parking spot.” In Italy, on the roads at least, there doesn’t seem to be the same possessive mindset. When someone wants to overtake you at 140 km/h, you let them. In Canada, that would be considered a challenge to your manhood.
Go for it
Driving in Italy can be frustrating (of course, driving anywhere can be frustrating). It can be daunting. But it is extremely rewarding. There is no better way to get to know the country. In the cities, take the train, the tram and your shoes. Do not, however, miss out on the chance to explore the outskirts by automobile.