Do You Think You’re Cut Out to Drive in Italy?
Remember the old saying when in Rome do as the Romans do? It’s not often I would insist on keeping to the old saying. If you plan on driving a car in Italy it is important for you to do as the Romans do, there is no other way. You can do it and I am sure you will live to tell your tale!
Welcome to Italy, brave it!
The immediate dismay at watching an Italian pull into a parking spot and leaving the car with its butt sticking out in the street is completely understandable but what are you going to do about it? Nothing. He certainly is not concerned about it, so why should you be? All there is to do is go around it. But the space between his car and traffic is too small? Welcome to Italy. You can’t just sit back boiling like a pot of water, there’s already a line of cars behind you honking their horns and colorfully swearing in a language you most likely cannot comprehend. Brave it and patiently drive your car forward, carefully calculating the distance between the awkwardly parked car and the traffic on your left. This single feat will be one to cross off your bucket list and it will give you a great adrenaline rush!
Italian Pro Tip: Don’t rent a big SUV or Van. It may be tempting to have the sense of security in a large vehicle, but you’ll never make it down 60% of the streets in Italy with a car that big.
Life in the fast lane
While on the autostrada (freeway or tollway), unless you are going way, way over the speed limit (which is already at 130 km/h or 81 mph), I strongly suggest you stay out of the left most lane (the fast lane or like the Italians call it “la corsia di sorpasso” literally, the passing lane). If for whatever reason or conviction you think you have what it takes for the fast lane, think again. You will have a speed demon right on your tail, flashing his lights until you move out of the way or go into a panic attack.
One way is not the only way
When driving anywhere south of Rome, while you are still in Italy I assure you, the rules get bent dramatically. So much so that it is not uncommon to be driving on a one way street and run into a presumptuous Italian who is, wants, or plans to go the wrong way. Your instinct is probably to panic but it is best to go into co-operative mode. You will notice their face giving the classic “puzzled with a grin” look, only making you more upset. Instead of blowing your top, freezing, or attempting to go backwards, manage to pull as close to the side of the road or wall as you can and stop. Let the Italian with a better sense of space wedge their way through. In the mean time you can just throw your hands up in the air and do your best impersonation of an Italian.
BEEP! BEEP! “Out of my way!”
Nowhere in the world are horns and blinkers used as much (Oh wait, perhaps in New Delhi and Jakarta). I have now personally driven in the USA for 19 years and I don’t recall having used the horn more than a handful of times while driving, I swear. In Italy, the opposite is true. Don’t be rattled or scared if at every street you hear horns happily chanting away. Italians cars have a language of their own; horns, honks and beeps are used to say “Ciao,” “Here I go,” “Look out for me,” “You better not go,” or “I am waiting to see if you will let me go,” or simply “I am going. Get over it!” Don’t forget, a light beep at a corner also means “Careful, around a blind corner.”
What about blinkers? If a car in front of you flashes its blinkers, it is not to ask for your permission or in hope that you will yield, it is telling you “I am going,” and all you can do is get out of the way. Driving in Italy is not about being on your moral high-horse to judge and ridicule other drivers, it is about facilitating the flow of traffic, even if to you it appears quite the opposite.
Vespas on the right, vespas on the left, vespas everywhere!
While motorbikes of all shapes and sizes are subject to the same rules as other motorists and vehicles this does not seem to make a difference in Italy. Vespas, bikes and motorcycles seem to own the road, so watch out. When approaching a light, they come from all directions like a swarm of bees (or wasps would be a more apt analogy as vespa means “wasp” in Italian). Stay calm and watchful and keep in mind that they know what they are doing (most of the time). The truth is, you will have no control or influence on these pests and they pretty much watch out for themselves weaving in and out of traffic.
Big city driving
Don’t even think about it. If you plan to spend time in the big cities like Florence, Rome, Milan, etc. DO NOT RENT A CAR. You will end up paying a lot more in parking (if you can figure out the uber-complex parking pass situation) and are likely to get a few fines for not being allowed to drive in the city center due to alternative day driving. Public transportation is the best, fastest and cheapest way to navigate in the big cities. Take my word for it!
Tap into your inner Roman
Watch how the Italians drive, understand their habits so that you can go with the flow rather than against it. If you pause or waffle, you are sending a message of weakness and most Italians will go around you making things even more crazy for you. While most Italians drive like crazy bats out of hell, I am also convinced that we are some of the best drivers in the world (sure you can call this Italian pride or presumptuousness).
So if you want to get behind the wheel and live to tell your tale, be confident and decisive. It really is a key part of experiential travel that is freeing and loads of fun to let loose and become an Italian driver!
For more information on transportation in Italy we encourage you to check out our Guide to Italy.