HOW TO SURVIVE ON THE ROADS IN ITALY

I have just finished a three week holiday in Italy. We departed from our home near Bordeaux in South west France and after a four day 2000 kilometre road trip via Avignon, Viareggio and Fiuggi, arrived at a well renovated old “trullo” in Puglia near the heel of the boot of Italy. After driving around Puglia for 2 weeks, we headed back home, but I realised that there were some lessons learned along the way that potential visitors to Italy need to be aware of, before they consider arriving in this wonderful, romantic country.

Author: Diesel43 (own work); CC BY-SA 3.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons

Author: Diesel43 (own work); CC BY-SA 3.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons


Surprisingly, Italy is considered to be one of the most stringent, toughest and complicated countries in all of Europe for someone to be able to get a driver’s license, needing an incredible amount of preparation, lessons and practice before one is allowed out on the roads on one’s own. Small children still in their cots, instead of being read children’s bedtime stories about a female porridge thief and three bears, are nightly read the questions on the driving code that they will face sixteen years hence in the written portion of their driving test. Because of this, all Italians consider themselves to be outstanding drivers no matter what age they are, how much experience they have, the nature and quality of their hearing, eyesight or mental state nor the age, power nor condition of their car.

This self-confidence can be quite confusing, frustrating and downright terrifying to visitors to Italy, so after 2 weeks in Puglia, where even most northern Italians are scared to venture out onto the roads in anything less than an armour-plated Hummer, here are some things that you should know before rushing to that romantic Italian road trip.

No matter how fast you drive, it will always be too slow. You can be belting down an autostrade at 130 kilometres per hour in a 90 kph zone, and a woman in her late 80s, in a 1957 fiat Bambina, will sail past you as though you are standing still. Speed and its limits have no meaning in Italy, as locals will drive at speeds that are needed to get them to their destination at a specific time, rather than anything to do with actual speed restrictions. However, do not be tempted to drive in the far right lane on motorways as this is the preserve of large cross border trucks, whose drivers have not slept for the last 48 hours, and who will be steering their rig with one hand while working their espresso machine with the other, in an attempt to stay awake with the use of strong coffee.

via Wikimedia Commons

via Wikimedia Commons


Stop signs are only recommendations. You only need to actually stop at a stop sign if there is a large truck blocking the intersection, if there is a really good coffee shop on the corner, or if you need to stop to dispose of your household rubbish bags into one of the large public bins placed strategically at all major intersections on country roads. Once stopped at a stop sign you may leave your car, but not for longer than it takes to down a morning cappuccino and a cornetto-a-la-crema. If you do take longer (like trying for a second cappuccino), drivers in cars that are backed up behind you will get angry and start to nudge your car into the intersection in front of the oncoming trucks.

Author: F l a n k e r; CC BY-SA 3.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons

Author: F l a n k e r; CC BY-SA 3.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons


Italians have lightning speed reflexes. They also expect other nationalities to acquire this skill by osmosis just by crossing the Italian border. This is something which they, as a nation, have developed through rigorous training from a young age by learning to catch individual ripe olives as they drop from the tree on a windy day. This skill allows them to dart out in front of your car (note that this includes pedestrians as well as drivers), in the belief that you will be fast enough to take evasive action, and thus not smash into their Fiat Panda, nor maim grandfather Giuseppe on his way to buy his weekly SuperEnalotto ticket.

Author: Tennen-Gas (own work); GFDL / cc-by-sa-3.0,2.5,2.0,1.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons

Author: Tennen-Gas (own work); GFDL / cc-by-sa-3.0,2.5,2.0,1.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons


The meaning of cars flashing their lights. If the car coming towards you is flashing its lights it can be for a number of reasons. It could be that there is a police speed trap up ahead (though this is highly unlikely as speed is not a real offence), there could be an obstruction on the road ahead such as a cross-eyed, disorientated Bocce player getting ready for his next throw, or it could just be that the oncoming motorist is in a good mood. If the car is behind you, flashing of lights can only mean one of two things. It generally means “get out of my way”, but if you are in a high speed zone, it may just be that you are being flashed by the hearse in a funeral procession, and you will need to pull over, get out of your car, remove your hat and bow your head in respect for the dearly departed as he races for the last time at breakneck speed to his burial plot, followed by the fleet of mourners.

GPS systems do not work well in Italy. No matter how sophisticated they are, no matter what language or accent you have them using, no matter what celebrity voice you have downloaded, your GPS will only work occasionally when in Italy. The first problem is that the last time that there was any cadastral mapping done in Italy was in AD 122 when the Romans realised that due to bad mapping they had built Hadrian’s wall in Northern England, when it was really meant to have been built around Naples to protect the rest of the Roman Empire. The second problem is that many streets in Italy were built to take a single horse drawn chariot (with the side scythes retracted), and are much too small for modern cars, explaining the popularity in Italy for the revival of the Fiat 500. Your GPS will not understand that streets still in use can be so incredibly small and so will regularly have you reversing out of crevices the size of the gap in Lauren Hutton’s front teeth.

Author: Darren Meacher (own work); CC BY 3.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons

Author: Darren Meacher (own work); CC BY 3.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons


However, in life it is important to remember that “anyone driving slower than you is an idiot and anyone driving faster than you is a maniac”.

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18 Responses to HOW TO SURVIVE ON THE ROADS IN ITALY

  1. Suzie Reid says:

    One of your best Les!!

  2. danafacaros says:

    Good article, Les, and all so true! The minute you cross the border in Ventimiglia, things change: you now in a video game. What we’ve always found, however, is that if you have foreign number plates, Italian drivers automatically presume you must be a moron, so they cut you a bit of slack. If you’re in a car with Italian number plates, however, watch out!

    • leshayman says:

      Dana, as you and Michael have been my favourite travel writers for the last 20 years I am thrilled you agree. We are currently overnighting in a hotel in Bordighera just near Ventimiglia, so hopefully it will get easier from here on as we come home. We loved your app “Mangia” and used it all the time over the last 3 weeks. It made dining out so easy. Les

  3. Tim Collins says:

    Love the narrative L and V thanks a bunch BUT hmmm thinks … Except for the speed factor, I’ll see your typical Puglia driver and raise you one Chiang Mai granny in the new monster pick-up truck taking the grand kids to school.

    • leshayman says:

      Tim, grandmothers and mothers on a school run are a whole different world, and are the most dangerous elements of human endeavour, no matter where in the world. Whilst in Puglia we would not venture out of our trullo during school start/end times, along with most Italians. Les

  4. Tim Collins says:

    I am pleased to find amusement and enjoyment in the actions and antics of others – life is forever interesting wherever you may find yourself,

    Right now, I am compiling a photo essay of young Chinese tourists as they show their abject lack of driving skills on their rental scooters around Chiang Mai – helmets on back-to-front, side stands in the down position, feet dragging sandals along the pavement, and the passenger holding their totally useless freebie map in front of the drivers face as they roar across three lanes of murderous red songtheouws – bloody hilarious!

  5. David Goodman says:

    Love it! So much more fun than “Management” 😉
    Then again, you could now do an article on Italian management
    cheers, David

    • leshayman says:

      David, Victoria and I tried to have lunch in a Mercure in Bari (highly recommended by Michelin Guide). French hotel with Italian management is not a great combination. Les

  6. Enrico Negroni says:

    Les, I cannot agree with you more !!! and, please, think about I have to deal with that kind of jungle every day here in the crazy Italy…
    Just another topic to be remarked: traffic light meaning when on red.
    In Rome, in particular, you don’t have three colours: green, yellow and red.
    Red is segmented in portion as: almost red, fresh red, more than fresh red, red-red.
    Taxis are used not to stop with the first three just stopping with the red-red.
    So, despite all the clacsons you can get behind you, when getting the green, if you are first in lane, my advise is always to stay on place counting up to 5 and then move.
    Unfortunately this bad habit about red did migrate also to Milan… 😦
    Last but not the least…to make the picture easier we estimate to have about half a million of cars going around with no insurance… (most are “gentlemen” coming from Romania, Albania, and other funny countries)…
    Italy…wonderful place just for spending three weeks…a nightmare when living here !

    Ciao,
    Enrico

  7. hibbert says:

    Hilarious, we just loved this piece. Obligatory reading for those about to drive in Italy.
    We are surprised you actually made the return trip,by road, but thankful you got home safely!
    Ciao
    Peter and Ginny

    • leshayman says:

      P&G, tonight in Avignon with last driving leg home tomorrow. Good to be back amongst normal crazy drivers in France, rather than unpredictable crazy drivers in Italy. Les

  8. I remember when I first drove in Boston, MA (USA), which one might assume is civilized, I quickly learned there are 3 understood rules of “right of way”
    1. The older car gets the right of way
    2. The bigger car gets the right of way
    3. If you get eye contact with the other driver, you have to give up the right of way

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