Monday, April 25, 2011

Driving in Italy can be an adventure

Saturday & Sunday, April 23-24
Most of Saturday is taken up with traveling from Georgia to Latvia to Rome, and then back “home” to San Salvatore. We have reserved a car in Rome, because now we have Randall, Lela and Micah with us. It has been three months since I have driven, and it takes me a few minutes to feel comfortable, but I have driven in Italy before and am not apprehensive. We did not pay extra for GPS, because we will be on main highways almost all the way, and these are well marked. We have ridden our bikes all around the local area and I can find my way around here just fine. However, if we had planned to go to a number of new cities, I would not have hesitated to pay the fee for GPS.

A few years ago, we had to maneuver through cities such as Roma, Milano, Prato and Modena, and we wasted a good deal of time getting lost and asking for directions. We had printed out online maps with driving directions, but in many cases they were useless. It’s not that the directions were faulty, but Italian streets can change names multiple times in a single mile, or they fork off into two parallel streets that run side by side, and you must decide which fork to take before you have a chance to see any street signs. And speaking of street signs, that is probably the worst problem with using online directions, because the directions might tell you to turn right on via Carciofi, but there may be no sign for via Carciofi at your particular intersection. Actually, they may very well be a sign, but it is thirty feet above your head, engraved in aging stone on the side of a building, and you will never see it because the cars behind you are urging you ahead with honking horns.

Now as we drive up the coastal highway from Fiumicino to Pisa, I am reminded of the trait that most stands out about Italian drivers: They drive at very different speeds. I am driving at about 115 kilometers per hour, and I am passing about two thirds of the other motorists. The others are passing me, some at speeds that that must be around 150 kph. It is growing dark, and the roads are generally well lighted and the edges marked with reflectors, but there are some dark spots and unexpected twists and turns. I want to find someone who is going my speed and follow his taillights at a safe distance, but everyone is either going faster or slower. Once in a while I find someone going at my speed and follow until he exits, and then I search again for another leader.

Drivers in Napoli know how to maneuver round-abouts
without slowing down unneccessarily and causing traffic jams.
I have driven mostly in Central and Northern Italy, but we did rent a car in Roma two years ago and spent most of our time in the narrow streets of the Amalfi Coast. This was challenging, but I learned by watching other drivers to manage the tight and sharply curving streets. I confess that I was among the slowpokes during that trip, however. I think the only place I would be hesitant to try would be the streets of Napoli, where drivers have a different set of rules. I have watched the traffic there, and it is scary, but it actually flows amazingly smoothly. If two cars are approaching the same intersection at the same time at 90 degree angles, it looks like a collision will occur because neither car is slowing down. However, as they get closer, it will be apparent that one car is about five feet closer to the intersection than the other. The car that is behind will brake just the slightest bit, allowing the other driver to enter the intersection first, but then the second car will continue at almost the same speed and zip just a few feet behind the first car. It will look like a narrow miss, but both drivers understood the rules and the traffic flow continued with only an imperceptible interruption.

In America, both cars would have slowed way down, and then one driver would signal the other to go ahead, in a very safe and logical way, it would seem. However, the Italian drivers have caused much less disruption to the flow of traffic, and since the roads are crowded, traffic would be at a perpetual standstill under American rules. Nonetheless, old habits are hard to break, and I don’t know if I could handle this style. In any event, it is almost impossible for me to figure out the parking rules in most Italian cities, so I will continue to avoid cities whenever possible, and Napoli in particular.


  1. Based on your story, driving in Italy can be a good venture! If you're driving on unfamiliar streets, it would be best tp bring a map with you. Of course, it is also good to prepare extra car parts like tires and other tools for car repair. You know what they say: it pays to be ready for anything.

    John Prue

  2. I have driven the streets of Rome and they like to drive on sidewalks too! I almost had a nervous breakdown!! I decided, taxi or bus or walking after that!


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