Italian: Italia) is a country in Southern Europe. Together with Greece, it is acknowledged as the birthplace of Western culture. Not surprisingly, it is also home to the greatest number of UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the world. High art and monuments are to be found everywhere around the country. It is also famous worldwide for its delicious cuisine, its trendy fashion industry, luxury sports cars and motorcycles, diverse regional cultures and dialects, as well as for its beautiful coast, alpine lakes and mountain ranges (the Alps and Apennines). No wonder it is often nicknamed the Bel Paese (the Beautiful Country). Two independent mini-states are surrounded entirely by Italy: San Marino and Vatican City. While technically not part of the European Union, both of these states are also part of the Schengen Area and the European Monetary Union (EMU). Apart from different police uniforms, there is no evident transition from these states and Italy's territory, and the currency is the same. Italian is also the official language in both countries.
Italian drivers are fast, aggressive and skilful. Lane hopping and late braking are the norm and it's not uncommon to see cars tailgating at 130km/h. Don't expect people to slow down for you or let you out. Rather, seize the moment. As soon as you see a gap, go for it. Italians expect the unexpected and react swiftly but they're not used to ditherers so whatever you do, do it decisively.
Much driving etiquette is dictated by unwritten rules. Flashing, for example, means 'Get out of the way' or 'Don't pull out 'coz I'm not stopping'. But if an approaching car flashes you, it's warning you that there's a police check ahead. Similarly, the car horn can mean everything from 'Watch out' to 'Ciao' to 'Let's celebrate, the traffic light's just turned green'.
When driving in cities watch out for traffic restrictions. Many city centres are off-limits to unauthorised traffic and if you slip into a ZTL (zona a traffico limitato - reduced traffic zone) you risk being caught on camera and fined. City driving also involves dealing with one-way systems, scooters appearing out of nowhere and narrow streets better suited to horse-drawn chariots than modern cars. To escape the worst mayhem, drive in the early afternoon when traffic is at its lightest and parking is easier. Which brings us to...
Parking is a major headache. Space is at a premium in towns and cities and Italy's traffic wardens are annoyingly efficient. Car parks do exist but they usually fill up quickly, leaving you to park on the streets. If you park between blue lines make sure to get a ticket from the nearest meter (coins only) or tabaccaio (tobacconist) and display it on your dashboard. Note, however, that charges don't apply overnight, typically between 8pm and 8am.
You'll find filling stations all over but smaller ones tend to close between about 1pm and 3.30pm and on Sunday afternoons. This isn't as irritating as it might sound as many have self-service (fai da te) pumps that you can use any time. Simply insert a bank note into the payment machine and press the number of the pump you want. Remembering, of course, to distinguish between benzina (petrol) and gasolio(diesel).
What to carry in the car
Apart from your driving licence, car documents, insurance papers and reflective safety vest, which you're legally obliged to carry, it's worth having some coins for parking meters. Also, if you're travelling with kids, keep some plastic bags to hand. Car sickness is a real possibility on winding country roads and things can prove messy unless you're prepared.
Hiring a car in Italy is easy enough - agencies are widespread and all the usual rules and regulations apply. But bear in mind that a car is generally more hassle than it's worth in cities, so only hire one for the time you'll be out on the open road. Also, think about what kind of car to get. Rural road surfaces are not always the best and many agriturismi and beaches lie at the end of long, axle-busting tracks. Similarly, road signs can be iffy in remote areas, so consider paying for sat nav.
Here are a few roads to try out.
- Bolzanoto Cortina d'Ampezzo, Dolomites.
- Montepulciano to Montalcino via Pienza, Tuscany
- Sulmona to Pescasseroli via Scanno, Abruzzo
- Chia to Porto Teulada, Costa del Sud, Sardinia
- Vietri sul Mare to Sorrento, Amalfi Coast, Campania
- Potenza to Metaponto, Basilicata