Driving in Italy raises many a question, but mostly why I am here? and how am I still here?. I’m manoeuvring around a thousand hairpin bends down the sheer face of an enormous mountain in a 1 litre city car so foolishly booked on a price comparison website. This is terrible. Crazy people keep overtaking and there’s nothing more than a wire fence less sturdy than the underwiring in my B cup bra protecting us from a 600ft drop. This is really terrible. My total lack of motoring enjoyment is perhaps one of the reasons why Jeremy Clarkson and I wouldn’t get along, but mostly why it’s so important to be prepared.
Italian roads are incredibly varied. From the bumpy straights of olive-tree-lined Roman roads and smooth, smug toll roads to hairy mountain passes, tight bends and hilly coastal cliffs; you’ll need something that can conquer all eventualities. A day exploring the hill towns of Puglia or an afternoon traversing the Marchian coast, for example, can dip in and out of all of these terrains.
There are three main types of road in Italy:
These free state roads are duel carriageways indicated as such by their blue signage. The speed limit is 110kph unless marked otherwise.
Did you know: Italy was the first country in the world to build motorways? They’re pretty nice, as far as motorways go, so it follows that you have to pay to use them. The autostrade / toll roads can be identified by their green signage, which lead you to toll gates. Avoid the gate that says TELEPASS, as you probably don’t have one of those, and head for one that indicates BIGLIETTO. Take the ticket and drive. You pay on the way out – our debit cards don’t seem to work but credit card works fine. Cash is probably the easiest to avoid card rejection stress. The tolls aren’t cheap; Monopoli – Ancona costs €32.80 (5 hours drive) and Ancona – Bologna costs €14.10 (2.5 hours drive). If you want to avoid tolls, beware – a 5 hour drive took us 11 hours as we endeavoured to be thrifty travellers. Time is money, we concluded. The speed limit is 130kph unless marked otherwise.
All of the provincial roads which connect regional towns are numbered. I love the idea of Countryside Lane No. 1736 in Cheshire. I suppose we have the A49, but it’s not as poetic. Speed limits are 90kph (55mph) unless marked otherwise.
I’m assuming you’ve not rented a car for the city (don’t) so we won’t cover that.
Aside from the morons in white Porches, you’ll see most Italians driving Fiats which is a reasonably good measure of suitability. A Fiat Panda with a diesel engine would probably see you right most anywhere, unlike the tin can Lancia we opted for to navigate the steep dirt tracks of rural Marche, where only first gear would see us to the top of most hills. We also discovered that super-low-cost equals zero customer service, so book directly with a trusted company – I’ve found Avis to be the best. Diesel is much cheaper than petrol, so it’s perhaps worth investing a little more in your rental car if you plan on driving long distances. Even the Lancia had a UBS port, so make some fabulous playlists on iTunes or download the Michel Thomas Italian audio course (it’s good) for your trip.
When booking your car, play around with the return date, if you can. We found that altering it by just one or two days changed the prices from €12 to €26 per day. Longer rentals also seemed to work out more expensive. We split a two month period in half and swapped the car after the first month to save about €600 – seriously! Buying your own GPS and comparing the price of liability insurance with that of an external provider can also help save money.
Petrol in Italian is benzina or super verde. Diesel is gasolio. Petrol stations on the autostrade are open 24 hours and most others keep typical hours with lunchtime closing – though some have prepayment machines at the pump, where it’s easiest to pay in cash. Select €5, €10 , €20 or €40 worth, insert the cash and fill up. You can also have a pump attendant fill your car for you but this will cost around 20 cents more per litre.
Parking signs are pretty self-explanatory, so just remember that blue lines indicate paid parking (there will be a meter nearby) and white lines indicate free parking then follow the signs. Sometimes there’s a time limit on free parking, so take the blue parking disc from your glove box to display your time of arrival.
Avoid parking in the centro storico – at best it’s a really tight parallel parking job, and at worst not allowed – and make the most of free parking in most places from 12-3pm as the parking attendants eat and nap. This will always be indicated on the blue signage (7,00-12,00 & 15,00-20,00; i.e. it’s free outside of these hours).
There are a few laws you should be aware of. Be sure to drive with dipped headlights on at all times and keep your ratio of passengers-to-high-vis-jackets equal in the car. You can get fined for failing to do either of these things.
It seems quite obvious, but don’t speed. It’s so tempting to keep up with the Italians on the AS, but when you rent a car, the fine plus the admin fee from the rental company really stings. And you won’t get the bill for some time after you’ve returned the car so comes as a really nasty and unexpected shock. Avoid!
A final piece of advice: if you are parking somewhere rural overnight, do not leave any trace of your delicious road-trip snacks in the car. How many ants can you fit in a Fiat cinquecento? If you park by a hedgerow just outside of Urbino, I can tell you that it’s about 10 million in 2 days. I guessed the word for CAR VALET (valetto per favore) and looked up the translation of ANTS (aviamo molte formiche!) and the ant massacre ensued.
Funnily enough (but it wasn’t funny – it really wasn’t funny), we had to return the rental car this very same day. I still have a nervous eye on my credit card statement in case the liability insurance fails to cover lingering ant infestations…