red vespa in Italy

While normally I am a big fan of public transportation and opt for trains, planes, and buses while on vacation, our trek to Italy and Croatia required covering a lot of ground to remote locations.  A car was a necessity.

Although the driving was left in the hands of the guys, we’ve covered enough ground that I can make a few observations (albeit from the passenger’s seat) about driving in Italy.

  • People drive fast on the Autostrada.  Really, really, fast!
  • Tailgating seems not only permissible but encouraged.  Even when you’re going fast on the Autostrada.  Leaving any discernible gap between the car ahead of you is an invitation for someone to pass.
  • You need a navigator or two to read the map and watch for directional signs.  When your blowing by them at speeds of 100+ kph, you need some extra eyes reading them.
  • All roads lead to Rome – or so it seemed – as no matter where you are there is a sign pointing you toward Rome.
  • In rural areas, you’ll find lots of narrow roads, frequently on the side of a mountain, and frequently containing lots of switchbacks.  People still drive fast.
  • When you are driving along the steep side of a mountain, you probably won’t find any guardrails or warning reflectors.
  • On these narrow winding roads with no guardrails, drivers will pass on a curve.  And sometimes that driver is in a large bus or truck.
  • In the small, picturesque hill towns, the roads are very narrow and rarely go straight.  People drive on them, even though there is very little room on either side of the car.  We did this once in error.  After a stressful effort to get ourselves out of the situation, we learned to park outside the business area and walk. 
  • In the historic central area of many towns, automobile traffic is limited to people living there and delivery providers. There are fines for violating this regulation, often times delivered by mail to the rental car company who will, in turn, come after you for payment of the underlying fine and hefty collection surcharges.
  • Don’t expect drivers to stop for you in a crosswalk. Oftentimes you are going to need to dash across the street.
  • Motor scooters will drive between vehicles, even at high speeds on the autostrada.

The stereotype of aggressive Italian drivers has some roots of truth, but these observations are not meant to be demeaning.  We soon found ourselves conforming to many of these driving habits as well. After all, when in Rome (but hey, there’s no need to have a car in Rome). . . .

If you’re staying in one of the larger cities, like Rome, Florence, Naples, or Bologna, Italy, you’ll probably have no need for a car, and will get around mostly by foot or public transportation. If you want to take a day trip into the countryside, you can rent a car for a day or two. 

If you’re going to explore the beautiful rural areas of the country, like Tuscany or Umbria, you’ll need to have a car.