When I was in Umbria I stopped off at a small family-run winery just outside of Spello. Enrico, the nephew of the owner (the only one who spoke...
I hear a lot of people say they’re scared of driving in Italy and I, myself, had a terrifying driving experience there a couple weeks ago (involving me trying to drive a manual car through a round-about having only ever had three lessons). But after renting a car in Tuscany this December I learned a few “rules of the road” so-to-speak that, if you can remember them, will hopefully help you understand how to drive in Italy and ease some of your nagging doubts.
1) Italian vehicles that are larger than you have the right of way and their drivers will let you know how upset they are if you forget it.
2) Italian vehicles that are smaller than you have the right of way and their drivers will let you know how upset they are if you forget it.
3) Don’t rent a manual car if you don’t drive a manual car every day. I know it seems relatively easy and automatic cars are SO much more expensive to rent, but the complex system of round-abouts and ramps and twisty one-lane roads up and down hills and mountains make a manual car a bad choice for anyone but a pro. I freaked out after having gone only three kilometers (and being screamed at by 13 irate drivers), almost stalling out when trying to exit the round-about, and had to coast into a parking lot.
After hyperventilating for a bit I managed to put myself back together enough to drive the car again – straight back to the rental facility.
4) When Italians tell you a car is “really big, almost too big to drive”, don’t pay attention to them. This is a nation whose idea of a family car is a Fiat. When I returned my tiny manual in Siena, the guy at the rental place told me he wished he had more automatics but unfortunately all he had was a “really, really big” car that would be “really difficult” to drive. I was thinking it was a white, 15-passenger van or some such, but when he showed me the picture it was a sporty station wagon! I almost cried with relief! I’m 30 years old – I can drive a station wagon!
5) The speed limit on most Italian roads is a suggestion, unless you're over the age of 60. Then there's some supernatural force that won't let you get within 5 km of it.
6) Italians give roads names and numbers, but don’t expect to ever see a sign for them. Signs only tell you where the road leads (“Firenze”, “Siena”, “Roma”).
7) If you see a sign for “Siena” pointing to your left and then go straight another five kilometers, you may see a sign for “Siena” pointing to your right. But you know what they say: All roads lead to… well, everywhere.
8) Google Maps, my daily salvation in the US, is a force of evil in Italy. It makes no sense at all. I had printed out directions to everywhere I wanted to go and brought them with me, excited to save money on a GPS. I spent ten minutes trying to find “SS2” before realizing I would never find “SS2” (see #6 above).
9) Rent a GPS or enable large amounts of data on your phone. Why? See #6-8 above. (Typically, it’s cheaper to rent the GPS if you’re only driving for a day or two, but if you’re driving for a week or more your cell phone provider may have data roaming packages that are actually cheaper than renting a GPS. If you’re brining a GPS from home, remember to download the Italian maps before you leave!).
10) Get explicit instructions from your hotel or B&B on where to park outside the city or, if driving into the city to park, how to avoid ZTL zones (areas where you can’t drive within certain hours). My hotel pointed to a parking area on a map just outside the closest gates of the town walls. When I returned from a long day exploring I wound up driving around for almost an hour trying to navigate all of the one-way and limited-access roads to reach it before I decided to just park on the complete other side of town and walk across to my hotel.
It all wound up fine, and I was so glad to have made the decision to rent an (automatic) car. There are many beautiful towns and villages that aren’t easily accessible by train or bus, particularly during low tourist season when schedules are more limited. I had visions of missing one of the two busses that day and being stuck with no way to get “home”.
The driving itself wasn’t so scary (Los Angeles’s 405 is so much worse!); I felt more than comfortable once I got going and understood my new rules. I drove all around, enjoying scenery and countryside you rarely, if ever, see from a train, able to stop anywhere I wanted to, like you never could on a bus.
Moral of the story? With an automatic car and a GPS, a girl can do anything!
Jessica is a travel enthusiast and entertainment executive living in Los Angeles. Her independent travels through Italy have inspired her travel blog, OneDayInItaly.com