Travel and Culture

Alf in Italy – Driving in Italy – Part 1

Aug 25, 2016

Here is a collection of motoring feats from my times in Italy, most of them not possible to repeat in Australia, some committed by me, others by the Italians, almost all at least stretching the rules. Please do not try these at home.

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First I must warn you that some of the incidents I’m about to share are irresponsible, dangerous and definitely illegal. Some are only inconsiderate and represent motoring bad manners. I do not endorse some of the behaviour described, nor encourage the total disregard of the road laws of Italy that are obeyed to the letter by all Italian drivers. I did not set out to disobey the laws of a foreign country, I had no alternative. If l hadn’t creatively interpreted the law I’d still be stuck at that roundabout in Montesilvano.

Secondly, we all know how Italian drivers are characterised. They think they are Formula One drivers who often mistake a small Fiat for a Ferrari; they have no respect for road laws and are the worlds’ most creative parkers. They ignore red lights, set their own speed limits and regularly perform passing manoeuvres on the crest of a hill or block narrow country roads with slow primitive three wheeled vehicles with a couple of pigs in the back. And the road system is, well, Italian. Of course like all stereotypes there is just enough truth to ensure that driving in Italy can be very interesting.

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When an Opportunity Presents Itself……

We are in Montesilvano driving toward Pescara. The morning peak hour traffic is moving at its normal sluggish pace. The road is totally inadequate for the traffic volume. The best progress is made by the scooters that zip in and out between the cars and force their way to the front at traffic lights. Patience is required. As the long single file of cars creeps forward I hear a siren. A quick check in the mirror shows an ambulance behind. Remarkably the whole line of traffic moves to the right to let it speed through. Before anyone can move back a Volkswagen Golf has lurched out in to the vacant lane the ambulance has made and is speeding down the centre of the road behind the ambulance. They both disappear into the distance. If there is an opportunity to get ahead of everyone else grasp it with both hands. This quick thinking gives a new meaning to the expression “ambulance chaser” and is an example of the sometimes admirable Italian trait of being clever and cunning to your own advantage. Furbo in Italian. This is very impressive cheek.

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Parking……..

  1. I’m in Pescara with my brother in law Enzo. We are looking for somewhere to park. We could park in the large car park by the station but that would involve a walk back to the butcher. Much better to park close by, but of course there is no vacant spot. This is not a problem for Enzo. At a street corner he mounts the footpath to get the car off the street. Having created his own personal carpark we leave the car blocking the foot path and stroll into the butcher opposite. “Occasionally,” he explains, “you have to park in the wrong place.” I look up and down the street. There are a lot of cars occasionally parked illegally. Most in fact. Across street corners, in no parking areas, on the footpath, double parked.
  2. In Pescara again and Sandra needs to go to the post office. So apparently does half of Pescara. Every parking bay is occupied and there is a parallel line of double parked cars. So you need to go to the post office and there is nowhere to park. Easy double park, put the hazard lights on and dash in. I wonder if you’ve been lucky enough to get a park at the kerb how you ever get out through the line of blinking double parked cars that are blocking you in? Perhaps I should not do this. Feeling considerate only lasts a second. I double park, switch on the hazard lights and wait for Sandra to return. Occasionally you have to park in the wrong place.
  3. Having survived the worst that the horrific traffic of Palermo we find an unexpected bonus, free parking in Piazza S. Giovanni Decollato not far from Palazzo dei Normanni. Not only free but there is a vacant bay. This is almost too good to be true. And so it turns out. It is free as the signs confirm but this is Sicily and there is a minor complication. As we get out a shifty looking man appears from nowhere. It seems that he runs a type of insurance business. He tells us that he looks after the cars parked here. “For a few Euros I will take care of your car. I will watch it and make sure nothing happens to it.” Sure. But this seems a cheap price to pay to someone who cares so much about the safety of visitors’ cars.

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The Autostrada…..

There are some things that need to be learned quickly, how to enter the autostrada for instance. For an Australian used to driving on a freeway at 100kmph in wide lanes there is a huge difference when the limit is 130kmph officially, but many drivers set their own speed limits and gaps between cars close very quickly. My first driving experience was merging from an Autogrill service station onto the A25 somewhere between Rome and Pescara. The entry lane is very short and the lanes are narrow. The technique is to take a quick look, spot a gap and jump on the fast pedal. First look, there’s a car 400 metres away. Easy I think, but an Alfa Romeo travelling at about 160 rapidly closes the gap. We are going to be at the same place at the same time. I wonder how long it will take for the ambulance to arrive, but the Alfa just slips across to the next lane and disappears into the distance. This confirms the stereotype that all Italians think that they are F1 drivers.

When I first joined the great tidal rush of cars and the slower bulky, threatening trucks on the autostrada I conservatively stuck to the right lane and tried to keep out of the way of crazy people who thought that the 130 speed limit was far too slow for drivers of their flair and talent. Oh, and delivery vans doing the same speed as low flying aircraft. I was happy to let everyone thunder past and toddle along hesitantly. But things changed. I had a good teacher who showed by example what to do. We were returning to Pescara from a weekend spent on the spectacular Gargano Peninsula in Puglia. It’s the bit that juts out into the Adriatic to form the spur on the boot of Italy. We are on the A14 which runs from Bari to Bologna. I watch how Paola, my sister in law, drives. First, quicker than I have been and without any of the over cautious approach that I have been using. The speed limit is open to interpretation. Nominally 130, Paola thinks 140 or 150 is much nicer numbers, so that’s the speed she does. In the right hand lane, truck ahead, check mirror, swing out, get past as quickly as possible and back in, smooth and easy. Passing again. What about the headlight flashing Mercedes that’s coming up behind? It must be doing 200. Go faster, get round, back into the right lane. The Benz disappears into the night and is just two red dots in the distance. When I take over the driving I take the same approach. Up the speed, constantly check mirrors, look well ahead and plan the way true to the traffic. In the less dense night time traffic this is fun. At 140 Kilometres zip by quickly. Sandra sleeps most of the way and blinks her eyes open just as we pull into the exit lane. “Slow down, you’re going too fast!” We are pottering off the autostrada at 80. She should have stayed awake for the fun.

Confidence in driving on the Autostrada is one thing, but there is always an unexpected challenge to test you. Road maintenance can provide surprises. We are on the A1, the Autostrada del Sole somewhere just north of the Arezzo exit. There is a gentle curve and the traffic is flowing calmly along. Just ahead there is a road maintenance truck stopped in the emergency stopping lane. In the right lane there is a workman with his back to the traffic, relaxed as you like repairing a pothole. No warning to the would be Ferrari drivers of his presence in the middle of the road. He is protected by single witches’ hat markers from the onslaught of speeding vehicles. He has effectively blocked the right lane and part of the centre. We are closely following a Volvo around a slower car. Heart into throat, right foot to brake pedal. We are going to come to a dead stop up the rear end of the Volvo. I can see the headline. “Incidente sulla A1, Quattro Morti”. Instantly the three drivers become a precision driving squad. We perform an auto ballet without rehearsal. Slow car into the emergency lane, me into the right lane and the Volvo moves slightly toward the centre guard rail to give us all space. One hundred and down to sixty, all in a perfect line. Swallow hard, wipe brow, give Sandra an unconvincing knew what I was doing all the time grin and wonder if the white knuckles gripping the steering wheel are a give-away. We merge in order and sneak slowly by the apparently unconcerned road worker who has had his back to the drama. To show that none of this was concerning in the least, as soon as I can I flash by the Volvo. That day I gained a new respect for the skill of Italian drivers and the effectiveness of Nissan brakes.

After reliving that incident I need a Negroni. I’ll return to describing driving in Italy in a future blog. When the shaking has stopped!

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Follow me, AKA Sandra’s husband, on my journeys in Italy as this sometimes bewildered Anglo-Saxon tries to understand this beautiful, complex, contradictory, frustrating and absolutely fascinating country.
(Written by Alf)

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