From someone who still doesn’t entirely know how.
I just spent two weeks in Italy, all of which was really quite lovely. I ate much delicious pasta, saw many beautiful sights, and learned the true meaning of public transportation frustration when the driver of the Circumvesuviana train, which goes all around a live volcano, stopped in the middle of the route just to have a nice little cigarette break.
But I also learned a few things while I was there, and since I wasn’t the first clueless American to show up looking to drive on Italian shores, I figured I’d help us all become a little less clueless, with a simple guide to driving through the heart of the former Roman Empire.
(Full Disclosure: Italy wanted me to drive through Italy so bad that I paid for all my own airfare, hotels, food, and really everything else I needed or wanted in Italy. Fiat was kind enough to loan me an Alfa Romeo Giulietta Quadrifoglio, which I picked up from a garage on the outskirts of Rome and which you’ll be hearing more about shortly in another article, but that was really about it.)
Before heading to Europe, I made sure to fill my mind with plenty of expectations, hopes, and fears. Italy was “God’s race track,” I’d heard somewhere, so that was bound to be good. Italy was also full of crazy drivers, so that was bound to be bad.
But ahead of everyone driving in Italy for the first time lies the Autostrada, the twisty switchback mountain roads that descend deep into majestic valleys, and a carbohydrate-induced food coma to balance out the adrenaline of desperately trying to avoid hitting anything like a repulsive magnet in a pinball machine.
And therein lies great driving. So with a AAA-issued International Driving Permit in hand, which really doesn’t seem to do anything except translate your already-existing license into a few languages, you’ll be ready to go.
As long as you know a few simple rules first.
Real simple. Don’t drive in Rome.
Legit, even a Roman taxi driver told me not to drive in Rome. Streets that are way too narrow for one-way traffic somehow allow two-way traffic, street signs aren’t so much street signs as they are engravings on buildings, and even then, only sometimes, because other times they’re not there at all, not like that would matter since streets often change names for no reason at all.
As an example, here’s an incredibly exotic Lancia Thema, driving down a Roman street. If you can tell me the name of the street the definitely not a Chrysler 300 is driving down, you belong in a government lab somewhere.
Oh, also, everyone drives more aggressively than any New York City taxi driver you’ve ever encountered, and you might die.
I don’t actually know about that last part, but, you know, keep it in mind, just to be safe. And if you’re really going to be safe, follow tip three.
I told one of the kindly hotel owners I met that I actually drove to that particular hotel. At first she looked at me wide-eyed in shock that I would ever attempt such a thing, and then she looked at me wide-eyed in horror as if I had just told her I only feast on the faces of bugs.
And treat it as such. Adventures can be fun, bringing you new experiences and filling you with a sense of personal exploration. Or they can be hellish, as you recognize you don’t know where you’re going, what you’re doing, or have any idea what the road signs mean. But you’re going to want to put yourself in the mindset that you aren’t going for a lovely weekend drive in your neighborhood. You’re going to be heading into unfamiliar territory, and that’s okay.
All of you are probably going to dump on me for wanting a nav system, but it really can be a lifesaver in Italy specifically, and in Europe generally. Streets, especially narrow ones in cities, can often be poorly marked. That is, if they’re marked at all. When you’re on an adventure, missing a turn becomes an inevitability. What’s worse is when you don’t even know you’ve missed a turn, and you’re halfway into Austria before you realize all the road signs are now in German. So bring a GPS system, either by using the one integrated into whatever car you’re using, bringing along a separate device, or using a navigation app on your phone.
You might be ready to scream at me about how pricey your phone-based navigation is when overseas, as it’s constantly downloading new maps on something like Google Maps. Google Maps can save some offline maps in a pinch, but what really saved my bacon a few times was Nokia’s HERE maps. I was able to download the maps for the entire country over WiFi, and it still provided turn-by-turn navigation.
Oh, and HERE is the wildly inexpensive price of free.
Your GPS is going to screw up at some point, so you’re going to want to be able to double-check it. Also, it might be British, saying things like “turn half-right.” Anyone have any idea what that jumble of letters means? Of course not. Half-right is for half-people. You’re not a half-person. You’re a WHOLE PERSON.
What I’m saying is, bring some back-up maps.
You’re not going to be shipping your Fox-body Mustang halfway across the world just to go driving in Europe like you’re some Doug Demuro-type of weirdo. You’re going to want to borrow a car, and likely some sort of rental. Do yourself and the rest of humanity a favor by renting something small and weird, because that’s what Europe is about. A Fiat Panda, an Alfa Giulietta, or even a Volkswagen GTD are all the right amount of small and weird.
If you end up renting a Renault Twizy, you’ve gone too small and weird. Try again.
I can’t stress this one enough. You’ll see things that look like a red circle, which means no vehicles allowed, or resident’s vehicles only, or no parking at all, or a sign telling you that there are speed cameras, or a sign saying “Sistema Tutor,” which you’ll think is a really great way to have one-on-one instruction in calculus or something but is actually the most nefarious speed trap of them all, the average speed camera. Some signs will make sense to you, and some signs will simply tell you to quit with all the bugling.
Memorize all of them, as you’ll see them frequently.
Okay, this is the one thing I didn’t understand about Italy, and the one thing I still don’t understand. Native Italians please, for the love of all that is holy, feel free to chime in. But every single driving regulation in Italy was more vague suggestion than enforced law.
And we’re talking the vaguest of vague here.
The speed limit on the Autostrada tends to be aboue 130 kilometers an hour, or about 80 MPH. And that’s great. Super great. You know how rare it is to find a speed limit that high outside of the middle of nowhere in Texas? Incredibly rare. And with all the speed cameras smothering the entire highway network, I expected everyone to be totally satisfied with that nicely quick speed limit.
And yet, I found myself dumbfounded. Here I was, tootling along at 80, in the right hand lane, when a Smart car with a wheezy diesel engine would come blasting past me at what seemed like 100 MPH, likely taxing that wheezy diesel to the absolute limits.
Speed cameras? Tutor system? Actual caribinieri? None of these things seemed to matter. Apparently you just floor the gas pedal to your heart’s content, and that’s fine.
And as for all those “no vehicles” or “resident vehicles only” signs, I remember asking a hotel proprietor where to park, at which point they told me to just park right outside. When I meekly informed them that I couldn’t, because I wasn’t a resident, they stared at me like I just told them I forgot how to chew oatmeal, along with a sigh and the only English words they seemed to be able to annunciate perfectly:
And make it a good one. Italy is so chock-a-block full of undulating topography, that if you don’t come back ranting and raving about how you, and only you, found the One True Greatest Driving Road in the world, then you did it wrong. Here’s my route, which I covered over three days, as an example:
Every single road I drove on along that route was The Greatest Driving Road In The World, even the terrible ones.
Let your GPS freak out for a while, it’s fine. You’ll see stuff off the beaten path you’ll never see otherwise.
I saw some cows.
It’s not like in the US, where if a guy is tailgating you it can quickly turn into a blind bloodlust of road rage. Tailgating is a way of life. When you see an eight car pileup on the side of the road, with all the drivers involved in good physical condition and looking slightly bored as I did outside of Pescara, you’ll understand how it’s all just a part of the landscape.
I don’t care if you’ve burned every Tutor System camera in the entire country, someone will always be going faster than you. Use the left lane to pass, and for nothing else.
Don’t drive in Rome.
And there you have it. You’re all set to begin your Italian Roadtrip.
As long as, you know, you remember not to drive in Rome.