Gripping the steering wheel tightly, hands sweating, I am totally concentrated on the road. Thoughts of nothing except what I am doing, what others are doing, and what might be the outcome of an accident at the speed of 130 kilometers and hour, 81 MPH. I feel fear. It is only normal to feel it. You, dear reader, are with me in my little 52 miles to the gallon Hyundai i20 on the Italian Autostrada out of Venice. We are headed north and in a little over an hour we will be close to the Austrian border.
I wish I had time to look up and view the Alps near the border, but the big double trailer trucks dwarf my little red Hyundai. Most cars in Italy are small. We are small compared to the more crash-worthy SUVs. We are cooking along at a speed of 130 kilometres and hour. That is fast, but feels much faster with the lanes much smaller than American lanes and Italian highways have no siding, and make one feel coralled within a concrete fence with no places to get off in case of blown tire or car trouble. Trapped in three lanes of possible disaster! One split second of bad judgement or not being awake, and curtains.
Driving in Italy will cause you to be totally focused on the road. Anybody who suffers from high blood pressure, I recommend you to use the train or bus. As the countryside flashes by I am forced to be like the Italian drivers: aggressive, skillful and fast. If you want to drive slow, don’t expect people to slow down for you. In the left lane you will look in the mirror and suddenly there will be someone going 150 km/h who will try sweep you from the fast lane with a flash of their lights. You vacate the lane ASAP. You will feel herded and then a bit angry that someone is so aggressive. Eventually you learn to deal with it.
Tailgating is a way of life. Tailgating at 130 km/h is nerve wracking, and they do it all the time. You move to the far right in the slower lane. That doesn’t help as they still get right up behind you, 2 or three feet away. You look in your mirror and see their snarling grin. You could count the freckles on their nose. Braking would be a catastrophe, and you seem greatly endangered. They will stay right there, pushing you along. You can’t go to any slower lane than the one on the right, and if you are behind a truck, there is nowhere to go. Yet they keep pushing. I tell my wife that there must be some sort of aggressive anger in all this. She is not in agreement. Defensive driving is how I drive, but here I am forced to be doubly careful. The car cemeteries are full of cars with crushed rear ends. My head is filled with the many accidents we have driven past, and some of them were not pretty.
|Police Don't Have Fast Cars|
The middle lane is for passing and faster drivers, while the third lane to the left is for the Italian speed demons. The limit here is 130, but many go 150 or more, even with video cameras along the autostrada. Believe me when I say 150 is blazing speed in comparison to the other two lanes.
We survived our trek on the autostrada but what about other driving problems? More stress and more challenges await. Italy does not have the police driving around looking for broken tail lights, missed stop signs, or other traffic violations. They are not out looking for criminals by using the “pull over” routine. Italy has far fewer criminals and a hugely lower homicide rate. As far as speed limits, my village has three main streets where from outside you enter the village, and 400 yards before the village the mayor has placed an orange box which holds a video camera. If you are exceeding the speed limit you will receive a letter in the mail with the fine you are expected to pay listed, thus saving the salary of one or two policemen. These cameras dare also place on entrances and exits to state highways and along the autostrada. My navigator (GPS) helps me to watch my speed as it will beep as a warning when I am approaching an autovelox camera.
Other cash generators: The inner cities will post a sign as you approach the very center of the city, and this sign informs you NOT to proceed, but to turn away. If you don’t and enter the center, you will have your picture taken and later you receive a large bill. If you are driving a rental, the company gets the bill, and deducts it automatically from your credit card. Italian cities make a pile of money on this! We were caught by camera by accidentally taking a wrong turn into one of the narrow streets made centuries ago for horse drawn carts in Bologna. Suddenly realising, innocently that we were in the ZTL limited traffic area: It was too late to escape. and later we received the bill in the mail. That was one of the first times I heard my wife swear in English. Hearing her swear in English with an Italian accent is pretty funny, so it helped to relieve the shock of it all.
Maybe you are thinking of NOT driving in Italy. There’s more. I would never recommend driving in Rome. Talk about hair raising and a stress full experience. The traffic there is humungous, and they all know where they are going. You will be guessing a lot. There is no time to depend on the English speaking voice in the Navigator. Besides, there is absolutely no parking in Rome, give it up!
I have driven in Naples and in the south of it, and trust me, I don’t want to go back. Following a priest talking to one of his flock, driving down the center of two lanes, very slowly. People swerving back and forth as if it were a slalom ski course on wheels. I learned there that my defensive driving was huge detriment. Hesitating, even the smallest sign causes the drivers to take advantage of you, cutting in, going across, changing lanes, etc. They seem to have an inner sense of hesitation in others, they search for weaknesses and go for it. They are addicted to this. They will even drive around you if you hesitate at an intersection to check for traffic. They don’t look both ways, they just drive on! You will be saying WTF, even if you don’t use that type of language! Maybe you will learn the Italian hand signals for that, too. I was a fast learner.
Now I get to my favorite subject in Italy, stop signs. Italians do not stop for stop signs. This is a serious problem for American drivers. If you come to a stop sign and stop when it’s not necessary, you may get rear-ended. They do not expect you to stop! This causes you to be looking into the mirror to anticipate a possible rear in disaster, while you are looking in all directions. At my driving school the instructor told me to stop at signs, especially when taking the test, but then he laughed because he knew. He knew I would have a problem with this. I also had a problem with turning right on a red light, something back in the states I was accustomed to. Don’t you dare do that here, as the lighting systems are different, and you may end up being hit from the side.
I have written in my blog that Italians are not big drinkers. You thought they were, right? Almost 100 percent of the time I see people drink only one glass of wine or beer for dinner. I have never seen anyone drunk on the street. Maybe in the past grandpa put several bottles of vino on the table and everyone imbibed, but now the police will impose a large fine on the driver who is 0.05% over the limit. They will impound your car. For a newly licensed driver like me, they just take your license away—something of a disaster for me, as it took me a great effort to acquire the license . If you drive a foreign-registered vehicle or a vehicle with Euro Zone plates and are caught over the limit, they will impose a huge fine, and collect one quarter of the maximum fine on-the-spot. It will be all above board, you are not being stopped by the mafia, they will give you a receipt before you start walking to the nearest village.
Italians love the stick shift system, they swear by it. They love the thrill of control, of revving up, and they shy away from cars fitted with automatic. Almost all cars made in Italy have stick shifts. I have never ridden in one with automatic drive. I believe that they all feel a bit of formula 1. In every Italian there is a desire to race. Maybe it is because they live cooped up, trapped by the population, the traffic, the extended families living together in one house. Maybe getting out on the autostrada they can feel the freedom I feel when driving on the highway in Arizona, Colorado and New Mexico! Who knows? Just remember that before you travel to Italy, be sure and request an automatic drive. Otherwise you will be given a manual shift car.
Parking in Italy is one big cash machine. The only answer is a baggie of coins. The parking machine is sometimes difficult to understand how to use it. In any tourist village you will find few parking areas, and all are pay by the hour. In the center of any large city the parking zone will be more expensive. You will have to estimate how long you will be, insert some coins, push some buttons and receive a ticket for the hours paid estimated. There are also zones only to be used by residents, but It is okay to park in zones indicated by blue parking signs. These zones can be free of charge for some hours of the day and on Sundays, or pay by the hour as indicated by signs. However, expect to pay, and look for a machine that will take your euros. You must also use the time disk provided by the car rental company. It has a clock on it and you place the hands at the time you arrived. They watch for cheaters… Italy has a plenty of Parking Police, and tourists are fair game. Of course, another parking problem exists such as the time I arrived at San Gimignano and found all the parking filled. I ended up parking far outside and walking in. I am not a fan of walking a great distance in the Italian heat and humidity. There is no peace from this parking problem.
It takes real skill to squeeze yourself into a compact Italian parking place. They are measured for a small car. Almost all are parallel parkiing. That is one reason to have a small car. I have seen people park a car that I was completely sure it was an impossibility. In one try! I could never do that! I stood up and applauded them! They acknowledged with a smile. Smart cars make sense in this respect. I have seen people parking a SUV and they struggle back and forth to park it, and they give up. Are you beginning to see the frustration in driving in Italy?
The trains are comfortable and on time, the stations arrive in the center of the cities. The buses are a great answer for getting around inside the city. The subways speed you across large distances, in Rome and Milano. All this for a lot less than the rental fee for a car. There is a lot less worry about getting into and out of the cities. A bit of advice and a drive on the autostrada….