“Italians are used to anarchy on the roads,” said the lovely young man behind the Hertz counter. I smiled at him and nodded knowingly while my inner voice talked to me in a mild state of hysteria.
He was right though. I’d already spent a week driving through Tuscany and experienced the ambivalent approach to road rules but the word anarchy raised my concerns to a whole new level. Driving through Tuscany was more of an adventure, the regular missed turn, tiny country roads, the easy flow of motorways, narrow village roads and a surprising lack of signage. But as we’d travelled into Turin on the bus I noticed how crazy the traffic was – fast and aggressive in a mad semblance of organised chaos. I was a little worried about getting out.
My daughter and I had three days of driving ahead of us – Turin to Venice, then Venice to Rome. We didn’t have a GPS but my girl is a brilliant navigator so I wasn’t at all worried. Our first leg was Turin to Venice in one day. All my research indicated it was an easy 4.5 hour drive on the motorway, interestingly Hertz man suggested it was even less.
It took 30 minutes on the motorway to understand why he thought this. The fast lane is reserved for those drivers racing along at an easy 150-170km/hour. At the sedate 120km I was travelling it was like being in a cartoon. And heaven help you if you got in their way!
The general consensus is that driving in Italy is full of suggestion. Speed limits are a guideline, lanes are useful but if you don’t know which lane you want keep a tyre in two – just in case. Indicators are only for trucks but you better be quick as they squeeze into gaps designed for a sedan.
It didn’t take long to fall into the traffic pattern – slow cars and a convoy of trucks in the outside lane, middle lane reserved for the average driver and the trucks built for speed, while the inside lane was useful for overtaking it was definitely the reserve of the very fast. The traffic was always dense, from Turin to Venice the outside lane was a never ending queue of trucks, but despite this it flowed. A dance of weaving, merging and interchanging vehicles; it just needed an orchestral manoeuvre as accompaniment.
I won’t lie; the motorways were scary at times. The self-assurance of Italian drivers zipping in and out of the traffic at rapid speeds didn’t convert to us in our tiny Fiat 500. More than once I felt like a bug on the arse of an elephant just waiting to be swiped out of the way by its trunk.
The confidence Italians have seems to cover all transport options – scooters, buses, bicycles and even walking. More than once I wandered through a piazza unclear of who had right of way. Bologna excelled at this, on many occasions I dodged pedestrians, cyclists (who by the way also text while riding!), scooters whose riders chatted away on their phones and buses driving randomly through the throngs. As a pedestrian I learnt very quickly that pedestrian crossings are just a courtesy – if you want the car to stop you have to step in front of it, otherwise they just keep going.
The narrow cobblestoned roads of Italian villages and towns offer a unique challenge to buses, and even occasionally to cars. Sitting on a bus in Naples watching the driver negotiate streets designed for one car but filled with parked cars and a bus approaching, only to do a three point turn at the end of the street to drop off a passenger … mind-blowing! At the end of our one hour bumpy, challenging and at times nauseating trip I wanted to kiss his feet when we safely arrived at our destination.
Interestingly I’ve brought some of the Italian driving habits back to Australia with me; unfortunately they aren’t going down real well on these roads. Indicators do need to be used here, I can’t be ambivalent about my lane choice and drivers won’t let you pass if you flash your lights.
I’m clearly better suited to the Italian way.