Don’t let the Italians intimidate you. It doesn’t matter how fast or slow you are going, someone is going to be riding your butt. I get braver as the trip goes on, but I never go faster than I feel comfortable. Sometimes I pull over if they are making me nervous, but usually they have found a way to pass me before that happens. I have only seen one accident in my travels. Italians seem crazy, but they are great drivers and despite what I am doing they always manage to avoid me.
Get a good map before you go. I always use a Michelin map, purchased at most tour stores (ie AAA, Barnes & Noble…). GPS is becoming more popular and more readily available, although has its short comings in the smaller more rustic areas. Even when using GPS, make sure you know where you are headed and don’t follow it blindly. ViaMichelin is a good site for planning before you go and you can print out routes you create on-line. See my resources page here.
You have to throw away everything you know about directions when driving in Italy.
There are no exit numbers and things are not marked logically (for the typical American). When traveling, you begin by going in the direction of the largest city. You will need to navigate by knowing the names of the towns along the road you need to travel on. Also, look your map and find the three largest cities near or past your destination because many signs post the major city that road is traveling toward and wait to post the smaller cities until you are almost there. As you travel, keep your eyes open for these towns. Eventually, as you get closer to your destination your small town will appear. For example: when traveling to Baschi from Rome, you will head towards Florence first while looking for the exit to Orvieto. After taking that exit you will begin to look for signs for Baschi. You will not see any sign for Baschi until the exit. You must also know the Italian names for all the cities.
Signs are posted everywhere and when you come to a round about, you may need to go around more than once just to make sure you’ve found what you are looking for. It can be more than a little overwhelming! Cities are marked with a blue sign, the arrow is pointing to the road you must take. B&B’s and agriturismos are usually white, historical sites are marked with brown signs, autostradas and major freeways have a green sign. Just remember that keeping up with the flow on the round about is key and don’t be intimidated.
ROADS AND TOLLS
There are several different kinds of roads. The easier, bigger and fastest are the autostradas which are marked by a green sign and an A. The most important thing to remember here is to STAY TO THE RIGHT at all times until you are just ready to pass. While on the autostrada, you will notice small signs in the median marking the distance to major cities and the city of the next exit. This will help you anticipate when you need to exit. These are also pay roads and you will be charged by the distance traveled. Each time before you enter these, you will stop at a booth and take a ticket by pushing a red button or grabbing an existing ticket already waiting for you. When you exit the autostrada, you will get in a line marked ‘Biglietto’ (ticket) to pay your fee. Above each lane is a photo depicting the method available, some will have a picture of a credit card as well as money/change. You can pay with your card in these lanes if you don’t have enough cash. Anyway you choose, the total owed is displayed on a screen for you. Just make sure you DO NOT get into the line for the commuters who have prepaid cards. These are usually the shorter lines and are the blue lanes marked TELEPASS. I always keep my change handy. Some lines have a person who will handle the transaction, other lines require you to insert your ticket and then you pay the machine. The system is similar to the toll bridges in San Francisco.
There are larger but less direct roads that are free and then your typical two lane country roads. Traveling through Tuscany, these will be what you use the most. For those with a weak stomach be warned, it is very easy to get car sick wandering around in the country.
PARKING AND OTHER DETAILS
When parking, most lots have a pay machine that gives vouchers for the amount of time you will be there. Again, I keep lots of change handy. If you are parking somewhere that doesn’t have the spaces clearly marked, make sure you have a way out no matter how the next person decides to park. I have seen some very creative arrangements.
Getting gas is similar to the states, just make sure your tank is full before Sunday or any major holiday as the stations do tend to close at these times. Gas in Italy is expensive; it will make you look forward to coming home and filling up here. The trade off is that distances are shorter.
Before driving away from the office with your rental car you will want to verify whether the car uses diesel or regular fuel and make sure they show you how to open your gas tank. Also, have them actually show you how to open the trunk, release the parking brake, start the car and put it into reverse. You may feel silly at the time, be it’s better than struggling with it while a bar full of men look on. I learned the hard way that the stick shift often needs to be pushed down for reverse. Most brakes are very touchy, after your first day driving you will know why. Once on your way, toss a local Italian paper in the back window and keep all belongings out of site when not in the car.