by Brett Peruzzi || Author's Links
There are very few rental cars with automatic transmissions in Italy.
I learned this when I was planning a trip to Tuscany in 2000. Automatic transmissions were twice as expensive as standards, and there wasn't a single one to be had in Florence, my destination. I hadn't touched a stick shift in twenty years, and then only a few times, so I wasn't exactly proficient.
My traveling companion, on the contrary, had owned nothing but standards her entire life and offered to teach me. Somehow it seemed to be a reflection of my masculinity, or lack thereof, but since she didn't want to get stuck doing all the driving, I agreed to give it a go. So practice I did, and I came along just fine within a few sessions, but suburban Boston on a Sunday is not quite the same as rush-hour Florence.
We rolled out of the airport parking lot in Florence, a bit tentatively, and it didn't seem so bad at first. My experienced companion was at the wheel, with me riding shotgun and using my passable Italian to translate the street signs. The Fiat Punto we were in was a soup can with wheels, and probably about as durable in a crash. But most of the other vehicles were about the same size, so at least we had a level playing field, unlike in the U.S., the land of monster SUVs.
Then we hit the city center: absolute chaos. Traffic coming from seemingly all directions, weaving, braking, accelerating, in a kind of internal combustion ballet, that was miraculously choreographed to never collide. Lanes did not exist. Motor scooters buzzing by, a hair's width from our fender, so close that I could have whispered in the ear of their riders. The traffic repeatedly slowed, stopped, then started up again with a snarl and surged forward.
One of the tricks the locals seemed to employ was to only look straight ahead, never back, or not even to the side. Act like you're the only vehicle on the road until a collision proves otherwise. The look of absolute calm, bordering on boredom, that was uniformly cast on this multitude of striking, sunglasses-clad Tuscan faces was surreal to me.
My companion started to stress out, but at least she could continue to shift gears with a semblance of confidence. I no doubt would have choked under the pressure, stalled the engine, and subjected us to the verbal wrath and tooting horns of hordes of Florentine motorists.
Italians are excellent drivers, I'll give them that. They are, generally, as competent and relaxed as the average American race car driver. They yawn through maneuvers that would make most suburban American drivers white-knuckle the wheel. Italians have very few accidents, but when they do, or so I've heard, the fatality rate is quite high because they're usually going very fast. There are some misconceptions about speed in Italy however that many Americans seem to hold.
First, there's that kilometers versus miles-per-hour thing on the speedometer. I swear even though we know that kilometers are only about two-thirds as fast as miles per hour, we get excited seeing those big numbers and think we're going really fast. Also, the scale of roads and cars in Italy is much smaller than the wide open American roads, so you appear to be going faster and passing things quickly. This illusion becomes all the more compelling on those tiny Italian streets that are the width of an urban American sidewalk.
Then there's the dreaded Autostrada, the Italian highway system, the setting for so many tales of high-speed terror by friends who had driven in Italy before. It was, in my experience, the most relaxing place to drive. Other cars were not hurtling past me at 150 miles per hour, flashing lights and beeping horns. A bit faster by American standards, sure, maybe on average about 80 miles per hour, but in a very controlled and generally courteous fashion. The Autostrada is wide, kept in wonderful repair, well-marked, has emergency call boxes at regular intervals, and was relatively uncrowded.
And, unlike in the U.S., you can get good food! Seemingly every 50 kilometers or so there's an Autogrill, a chain which appears to have a lock on the Autostrada food concession. But being a chain does not mean Autogrill is insipid. While in America we get stuck with the likes of McDonald's and others of its ilk, Italians savor fresh al dente pasta and other well-made dishes at their highway rest stops.
I daresay that you can get better food on Italian highways than you can in many American cities. And besides being good, it's also quick, cheap, and efficient. And right inside the door of each Autogrill is a stand-up coffee bar, typically jammed with people tossing back espresso and cappucino, refueling themselves before they head back out onto the road.
But eventually you must exit the Autostrada, and often your destination, when it's not the chaos of a big city, is the second-worst place to drive in Italy: small towns.
Small towns in Italy typically feature confusing, impossibly narrow streets that lead God knows where. Of course, most of these streets pre-date the age of the automobile, and Italians are smart, or perhaps stubborn enough, to have no intention of making the streets easier for cars to navigate by demolishing centuries-old buildings or a beautiful piazza.
And once you get lost, and you no doubt will, you will probably find no one who speaks English, unlike in the cities. And if you speak some Italian like me, chances are your questions will be answered rapid-fire, using words you don't know, and you'll end up getting more lost. A little bit of knowledge, as they say, can be dangerous. More than once, my rehearsed, single-sentence question, delivered in decent Italian, resulted in a torrential response, with the depth and detail of one of Dante's Cantos from The Divine Comedy.
There's another thing to fear when driving in Italy, and it can be summed up in three words: winding mountain roads. Italian road builders must be required to put in hairpin turns at least every half-kilometer, then one going in the opposite direction half a kilometer later. And the really fun roads aren't wide enough for two cars, so you have to pull onto the shoulder when another car approaches from the opposite direction.
On blind curves this results in quick wrenches of the wheel and involuntary gasps and yelps from you and your passengers. I was climbing a mountain road en route to a village in Chianti, and encountered another car on a curve where there wasn't even a shoulder on the road--just a steep drop into a vineyard in the valley below. The other car came so close that our side mirrors hit, snapping back like slingshots on their springs as he sallied forth calmly and I gritted my teeth.
And apparently the road budgets in Italy have very little money available for guard rails on these mountain roads, since they were quite a rare sight, even at cliffs where you'd fall a long way if you didn't corner tightly enough. Unlike the litigious and hyper-cautious U.S., Italy seems to assume that if you're going to drive on their roads, you know what you're doing, and if you don't, too bad!
But to paraphrase an old cliché, when in Italy, do like the Italians. I believe one of the secrets to their driving prowess is their ingestion throughout the day of what adds up to a liquid speedball--a long, alternating succession of stimulants and depressants. They drink espresso all morning, wine at lunch, espresso again in the late afternoon, more wine at dinner, and maybe a final espresso after dinner. They get jazzed up on the espresso and then relaxed by the wine, and it seems to produce--and my personal research supports this--a constant state of intense calm. They are alert, yet relaxed at the same time. Then they go to bed, get up in the morning, and do it all over again.
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