I’ve always been deeply interested in Italy. The history, the cars, the food, the people, their unique way of life, I just loved all of it. For years I’ve wanted to go experience it, and recently I spent 12 days exploring most of Northern Italy driving between Milan, Modena, and the northern lakes. I drove the whole time too, and while I got to see some beautiful things, it wasn’t without its headaches.
For this trip I had something very practical, economical, and comfortable, even if it wasn’t all that interesting: a BMW X3. A high-riding diesel SUV turned out to be the best car for a trip like this because if anyone tells you driving in Italy is a dream come true, they’re 100 percent lying.
Sure, there are plenty of pretty views, but not even the Alps and beautiful lakes can make up for the stresses of narrow town roads, manic drivers, and a complete disregard for road rules. Driving in Italy isn’t like driving anywhere else in the world.
I even read up on Michael’s guide before going so I had a vague idea on what to expect but I still couldn’t believe some of the things I saw. Japanese drivers, for the most part, are quite well behaved. Of course like everywhere else, there are few terrible drivers here and there but most of them are guilty of hogging the fast lane or taxis suddenly stopping to pick up passengers. In Italy, there was no consistency.
The main reason for this trip was to go along with the annual Pagani Rally, but also to check out the Villa d’Este concours and take in the local culture by visiting various museums, showrooms, and collections. That part of the trip was great—getting to and from said places was less enjoyable.
Take lanes as an example. In towns and cities they’re virtually non-existent. You have no idea if you’re driving down a two-lane road or a three-lane road. The size of most roads suggests one lane but drivers would say otherwise. Not that having painted lines on the road would make any difference. Italians seem to believe there can be any number of lanes you want, just make it up as you go along. Basically, if there’s a gap you can fit in it. Even if you can’t, just try anyway!
Then there’s the small matter of speeding. I’ve never seen such a complete disregard for speed signs in my life. The national speed limit is 130 kph (about 80 mph) but it’s not unusual to see people going a lot more than that. God forbid that you hold them up in the fast lane. They will tailgate you with their indicators on (because manners) until you give way to them.
The problem of speeding isn’t necessarily bad—it can just get quite hectic when everyone else on the motorway is wanting to go above and beyond the speed limit. In the cities though, it’s not really an issue because the lanes are clogged up with people trying to make their own lanes and because the road quality would prevent you from going over 30 mph.
Italy’s bumpy road surface made me glad I was in the X3 and not some low-slung sports car. For a country that’s so famous for producing low and wide supercars, their roads aren’t exactly designed with them in mind. Like everything, it’s so inconsistent.
On the motorway it’ll be smooth and flat then suddenly there’ll be random bumps and potholes. In the city you could be driving on tarmac on second then on cobble stones on the next.
I could keep going on about the many things that stressed me out, like the parking situation in central Milan. If you park your car on the street it will definitely get damaged in some way. If you park in a secure garage, it’ll cost a small fortune. There are also people parking on the sidewalk, which is apparently normal. I kid you not, there were some cars parked in the middle of the road. Tokyo has a parking shortage too but people don’t just leave their cars in the middle of the road.
After seeing some of the crazy driving that had gone on in Italy prior to joining the Pagani Rally, I’m genuinely surprised there weren’t any major hiccups with those cars. The rally started off from the factory in Modena, making stops at Valeggio Sul Mincio and Sirmione before staying at the town of Stresa on the very pretty Lake Maggiore.
Throughout the five-day drive across Northern Italy, the rally made its way to Vercelli, Lake d’Orta, and Bergamo before wrapping up at the stunning Castello Sforzesco di Milano. It was a real privilege to see all the Paganis parked up within the historic castle. It was one of the highlights of the trip for sure.
It doesn’t really matter where these cars could’ve gone—there’s never a dull moment when 20 or so Paganis are driving together. Some of the owners really took to the local way of driving and just blasted down the motorways.
The X3 did struggle to keep pace with them at times but when we got to the smaller towns full of speed bumps, we were able to catch up.
After following these Paganis for nearly a week it was somewhat refreshing to see some other cars driving around on the crazy Italian roads. Luckily, while they may drive like lunatics there’s a real sense of a true passion for cars in Italy. You can tell from some of the cars the locals drive around in.
During the weekend of Villa d’Este Lake Como was flooded with lots of interesting and quirky cars such as an E61 BMW M5 Touring, a BMW Z1, a RUF CTR, and of course a Citroën 2CV.
While touring Northern Italy with the Paganis we came across some great local cars. The yellow Fiat 500 was a genuine highlight for me. Who doesn’t want to see one of these in its natural habitat? While waiting for the Paganis to drive down Lake Maggiore a couple of rally legends also appeared; an original fifth-generation Toyota Celica and a Lancia Fulvia. I mean, the Paganis were cool but seeing these two randomly was just was impressive. The Celica, in particular, looked well-loved. I can’t remember the last time I’ve seen one in showroom condition.
Other random cars that appeared on the rally included a matte black Rally Fighter, which even next to a car park full of Paganis managed to turn heads. From the weird to the simply beautiful, the random red Fiat 124 Spider at Bergamo was proper Italian goals.
One of the best random cars I saw was a Lamborghini Huracan from the Italian police fleet. By pure coincidence the officer had just pulled into the same petrol station we were at for a quick toilet break before setting off fighting crimes against fashion I presume.
But without a doubt the highlight of the entire trip was seeing a Mercedes-Benz CLK GTR on the road. The owner, a guy named Genio, joined up with the Pagani rally on the last day at Stresa. Seeing what can be argued as the precursor to the Zonda on the road with a convoy of Paganis was a truly special sight. Mad respect to him for actually driving this car out regularly and not keeping it locked up in a garage.
The thing about Italy is because everyone drives like lunatics, it somehow works. It’s all organized chaos. There’s no also doubt they love to drive and they love cars, which means there’s always an interesting car around the corner.
An Italian road trip might sound good, and it is so long as someone else is driving you in a car that you’re not responsible for.