Have you considered driving in Italy?

by Joseph F. Lomax . If you have any questions or comments, please mail me at: lomax@usna.edu

Gentle Reader

What this IS NOT: This is not an advertisement nor a call for you, specifically, to drive in Italy.

What this IS: Is a collection of impressions and helpful suggestion to make it possible for you to make a more informed decision about driving in Italy.

There is nothing to compare to seeing Rome explode before you as you come around the Guiseppe Garibaldi statue on the Passeggiata del Gianicolo. As you continue across and down the Gianicolo Hill, you see Anita Garibaldi on a rearing horse with a baby in one arm and a pistol in the other. Glimpses of Rome slip in and out as you drive along the windy road. The brightness of the scene caused by sleep deprivation gives it an unfamiliar edge and all you can do is stop and gape in wonder at the only western city that can claim the Ancient, the Medieval, the Renaissance and the Modern.

If you are arriving in Rome from its airport, you can only get this *** view by car. If you come into Rome from the airport by bus or the new intercity train, these will lead you through some of the less picturesque parts of Rome and you will have to dodge the gypsies at the Termini.

Truth be told, one can get a cab from the airport and get the same effect. But be sure to get a firm price ahead of time. (I never really understood why foreigners slip into their native tongue and scream a blue streak at uncomprehending people, until I was cheated by a Roman taxi driver. It is true; there are some things that can only be expressed by the language of the heart.) If you choose a taxi, be sure he comes from the west on the Via Aurelia then the Via Aurelia Antica past the Villa Doria Pamphili to get to the Piazza Garibaldi. For those driving in from the north, a similar explosion of sight could be garnered by snaking down Monte Mario on the Via Trionfale off the Via Cassia (SS2). This ithe classic 'Ecco Roma!' (Behold Rome!) view given to those on the Grand Tour of the 17th-19th century. A taxi from the airport taking this route would obviously travel farther and this would cost more.

I realize you may consider getting a car an expensive 'American' way of dealing with tourism, but driving in Italy can be done, but you need be willing:

  1. to put up with a little adventure
  2. to spend some time looking at maps
    (Note: Global Positioning Satellite (GPS) navigation is found for a price on many rental cars,
    and route planners off the web can reduce the amount of time with foldable maps.)
  3. not to get too upset about getting a bit lost
  4. to learn a little different way of looking at traffic

Getting a Rental Car

There are agencies at every international airport, but it is best to arrange the rental with your travel agent at home or through In Italy Online. Some of the Italian rental agencies are affiliated with American agencies that you may be familiar with like Hertz, Budget, Thrifty, etc... The prices are similar to rentals in big cities in America. Make sure that the price quoted is 'turnkey'. That Value Added Tax may come as a big surprise. Also, the Collision Damage Waiver (CDW), that is optional in America where you have insurance, is not be optional in Italy. For those who intend to begin and end in different cities, there are drop-off charges. Typically, there are no drop-off charges if you drop off your car at different offices in the same city, for example picking the car up at the airport and dropping it off in the center of the city. This is useful if you intend to end your trip with a few days in Rome. Finally, Europeans usually drive cars with manual transmissions, and you will pay a premium price for the few automatics they keep for Americans.

The cost difference between car and train narrows as you decrease the size of the car, and increase the number of days driven and the number of people in the car. The cross-over point where the car can be cheaper than Italrail and Eurorail is approximately a manual subcompact, with two people for two weeks. A larger car, only one person for just a few days can be pricey.

I can hear you saying, 'Gasolio is so expensive over there.' There are two problems and one comment to go along with this statement:

  1. The most severe problem with this statement is that 'gasolio' is what we refer to as diesel fuel. You will have a large problem if you pick the wrong fuel. You should use 'benzina'.
  2. You need to think of the cost between sites and the availability of sites without a car. Good price check would for gasoline between Rome and Florence along the Via Cassia: $7.00/gal (approx. 1.30 €/liter at 1.42 €/$) with a car that can go 30 mi./gal for 250 miles cost about $58.
  3. Also, if you intend on travelling on the Autostrade, you will have to pay toll. You can find the entrance and exit points as well as the cost from the Autostrade home page by clicking here. The cost of going from the Rome airport in Fiumicino to Firenze Sud (the first exit for Florence from Rome) is about 14.20 €. One other good feature is the real-time traffic reports provided on that same page.

Leaving after your morning cappuccino and pastry, you can arrive in Florence in time for dinner while leisurely enjoying any of the three of the following attractions. None of these is more than 10 minutes off of the Via Cassia (SS2), a respectable two-lane highway.

You may want to visit the pentagonal Villa Farnese in the small town of Caprarola. In Viterbo, among other sites, is the Park of Monsters where fanciful creatures are sculpted out of the living rock. In Montefiascone, famed for the wine Est, Est, Est, you eat lunch in a park overlooking the Lago di Bolsena. You can reveal to yourself that the Renaissance had more great painters than Raphael, Leonardo and Michelangelo by strolling among the frescos of Sodoma in the cloister of the Abbey of Monte Oliveto Major. What about a stop at the quintessential Renaissance piazza in Pienza. Perhaps you can see yourself eating panforte with a glass of vernaccia in the shadows of the towers of San Gimignano.

With a car you can try THREE of these, at YOUR pace. Only Viterbo is convenient by rail. If you went by bus you could expect to see only one, possibly two of these on someone else's schedule. This is only ONE example of ONE road between major cities. Don't get me talking about what you could see going through Umbria and the Abruzzi!

The longer you are in Italy, the more likely you will want to spend some time outside of The Triad (Rome, Florence, Venice) and the more economical driving will be. A treasure can be found by looking on the side of the road. Take yourself there and enjoy.

Rules of the Road

Yes, there are some. People who say Italians do not know how to drive are measuring them by the wrong yardstick. They have a very controlled abandon to their driving. I will comment on eight statements that are common among those Americans who think Italians are crazy drivers.

  1. 'I wish they would not get so close.'
  2. 'They keep cutting me off.'
  3. 'They almost ran me over.'
  4. They ignore stop signs and traffic lights.'
  5. 'They have itty bitty cars.'
  6. 'There is no place to park.'
  7. 'They do the strangest things on the highway.'
  8. 'I would just get lost.'

1) 'I wish they would not get so close.' Italians drivers are much more comfortable driving much closer than is typical in America. 'An inch is as good as a mile' is easily translated into 'A centimeter is as good as a kilometer,' and they think nothing of getting that close. If you know to expect this and do not panic, you will be fine.

2) 'They keep cutting me off.' When driving in Italy, your responsibility is to those in front of you and those to your side. They rarely use their rear-view mirror. If there is an opening in front of you, it is your obligation to fill it, or someone will fill it for you. (See rule 1 for how little distance in front of you is necessary for this to happen.) You learned in driver's ed. that you should have one car length for every 10 m.p.h.. This will never happen in Italy except on the most deserted roads.

3) 'They almost ran me over.' To which the Italian might respond, "I didn't, did I?" When you, as a driver, encounter pedestrians, they are to walk as straight as possible and you are to avoid them (see rule 1). I call this 'the pigeon in the piazza' effect. Try walking or even running through a flock of pigeons. The pigeons are everywhere and they are close, but they never hit you unless you stop quickly. This is exactly opposite of, for example, New York cabbies, who drive absolutely straight and the pedestrian has the responsibility to avoid the cab. Corollary 1: Driving into an animal crowd. If you find yourself cohabitating a road with a flock of sheep or herd of cows, slowly drive to the crowd. At some point they will either cross the road and out of the way, or some will move from in front of you to your side or behind you. If they move from in front of you, inch up. Repeat as opportune. Eventually, you will slowly flow through the crowd of animals and you can continue. This technique is also useful in a herd of cars at an uncontrolled intersection.

4) 'They ignore stop signs and traffic lights.' This is a slowly fading myth. As less and less traffic is allowed in the center of the cities (don't even think of driving in Florence: you cannot get closer than a mile from anything historic by car), the Italians are obeying traffic signals more. It is clear why; streets are wider outside of the center, traffic is increased, and only major intersections have lights. No one would zip through an intersection that has a lot of traffic going through it. You may see traffic violations more often than in America, but the last time I was there, I did not see anyone driving in the bus lanes or driving through a red light through traffic. However, it is foolhardy to go through an uncontrolled, blind intersection quickly without at least a look or a small toot on the horn.

5) 'They have itty bitty cars.' Everything old is new again. It used to be that the 'typical Italian car' was a 500 cc Fiat -- the Cinquecento. After years of increasing car size, you barely saw any of the Cinquecento. With the success of the Mini Cooper, Fiat has decided to reintroduce the 500, and some agencies do rent them. It is the same size as the old 500, so it is good for city parking, but it does not have the small 500 cc engine so it should be able to handle the highway. I have not driven the new 500, but it should have more umph than the 750 cc Fiat Panda that I drove which could make it up to 85 m.p.h. on a straight flat road with three people and luggage. The Panda had trouble up mountains, and it had a bit of sway in the curves, but it was quite serviceable.

6) 'There is no place to park.' This is not a myth. However, it is not as bad as you would think. There are usually large parking areas outside of the center of cities. And within cities, what makes for an acceptable parking place may be called a sidewalk in America. I have been told that the typical evolution of a parking space in Italy goes as follows.

  1. "People are walking in the middle of the street because cars are parked directly next to buildings.
  2. A sidewalk is made.
  3. The cars park on the sidewalk.
  4. A government employee is paid to collect a parking fee from those on the sidewalk.
  5. Go to point #1. "

Still, because of parking and driving restrictions in the Triad, if time does not permit you to visit the smaller cities, towns and the countryside, I would suggest you forgo a car and stick to the train.

7) 'They do the strangest things on the highway.' What we consider strange is a consequence of the wider variety of vehicle powers, and what constitutes courtesy while passing. Some smaller vehicles that would never be allowed on American Interstates are found on the Autostrade at restricted speeds (80 or even 60 km/h; approx. 50 and 38 m.p.h., respectively). For most cars on most of the Autostrade, the speed limit is 100 km/h (61 m.p.h.). This is as widely ignored as our speed limits are. Above what we would consider 'reasonable speeding', Mercedes, BMW's and Alfa Romeo's go as fast as their engines will allow. To deal with this there is a four-step protocol for passing and being passed.

8) 'I would just get lost.' You are right, but this should not overly upset you. You should not keep so tight a schedule that getting lost will harm you too much. Violent crime in Italy is very low, so, as opposed to America, being lost in a city is not a threat to life or limb. Besides, being lost can be scheduled in. A good estimate is that getting lost the first time will cost you about 20 minutes and any more after that will cost about 15 minutes. The more important time is, the more 'losts' you schedule in. Hotel reservations should have a 'three lost' cushion (50 minutes). Getting to a museum when it first opens needs only a 'one lost' cushion (20 minutes). So what if you get there early? Find a gelateria and have a two scoop lemon ice cream, or take a chair and have a Campari and soda or just sit in the piazza and watch children chase pigeons.

Maps, GPS and Route Planners are your best defense against getting lost. Though I am not getting compensated for this, I must say that the maps sold on this site are the best driving maps I have encountered . I am especially fond of their 'tourist area' and provincial maps. You have to realize that I am one who gets dewy-eyed and nostalgic just looking at maps, and none tug at my heart more than their "Map of Sorrento Peninsula and Amalfi Coast" and the provincial map of Siena. Call me an 'old softy'. However, GPS navigation (available on cars rented through In Italy Online) and Route Planners on the web (mapquest.com, googlemap.com, michelin.com, theaa.com, rac.co.uk, etc...) excel in the treacherous medium scale between major highways and the historic center of towns or cities. I am embarrassed to say how often I got lost within 10 miles of my hotel (how did you think I developed the idea above of "getting lost can be scheduled in"). Finally, once you get there, an information station is your best bet for a map of a town, particularly if the town is relatively small and/or you need to get lodging.

It is best if one person has responsibility for the safety of the car and the other for getting it places. One driver and one navigator at a time, please. Any brief foray into the other's responsibility should be as a suggestion, not a command nor a criticism. If you get lost, or if the map of Assisi clearly designated a staircase as a street, try your best to deal with it gracefully (as opposed to your Humble Servant). Couples, if your relationship cannot handle this type of pressure, take a train or bus.

There are things you can do to get un-lost. If in a small town, try going in one direction or downhill. Eventually you will come to the city wall or a dead-end. If at the wall, go one direction until you come to a gate. Gates are always on maps. If instead you come to a dead end, go back to where you started and try to retrace your steps. For example, my wife and I found ourselves in a small piazza with a church in a quadrant of Siena. Even now with maps, I have never unambiguously identified it. We vainly tried to retrace our steps, and by chance at one point we saw the city wall. By the time we got to the wall, we saw the Roman Gate. From there we decided to go around the city, rather than through the city, to get to the parking lot near the Fortezza Belvedere and Saint Catherine's house.

Another way to deal with being lost is to get directions from a native. This provides some problems as the more you need a car to get someplace, the less likely the natives will speak English. To help yourself, learn the words for:


  1. uno
  2. due
  3. tre
  4. quattro
  5. cinque
  6. sei
  7. sette
  8. otto
  9. nove
  10. dieci

I find a good number learning game to do while driving is to read in Italian the numbers off of license plates as you go along the road. You can do this at home before you go, and it gets you used to saying and listening to different numbers of different sizes.

The words translated, straight-ahead, "diritto" or "avanti" have little meaning in towns and cities, but are often used. In fact, I was told that I should go "diritto" at a place that turned out to be a Y in the road. Help those who are helping you. Have a map, a small pad of paper and a pencil at the ready. Remember: Picture = 1000 words.

Caveats and Helpful Suggestions

It is true that Italian roads are not as safe as American. To give some of you a scale to work from, Italian drivers are a little worse than Boston and Memphis drivers, but I do not think they would be particularly noticeable in those cities. But, just as in any road trip in America, accidents can happen and we can only hope if they do, that they are not too serious.

In good conscience, I must mention that much of this discussion is thrown out the window around Naples. By Italian standards, the Neapolitans are rude and reckless drivers. Two examples. When attempting to pass, not only will they not get out of the way (see rule 7, 1), they will try to block you from passing. Around Naples, there seem to be scams where tires are punctured. While some helpful native is helping you, his buddy is helping himself to your luggage. To get to some places, for example Pompeii, Naples cannot be avoided. Even saying this, you may consider the drive along the Amalfi coast, and a night in Positano or Ravello, to be worth the hassle of Naples.

The A.C.I. (Italian Auto Club) has a nationwide roadside assistance number with English speaking operators. Call 116 on any phone, twenty-four hours a day. For medical emergencies call 113. I have been fortunate enough to not need their assistance, so I can comment neither on the benefit or efficiency of the service.

Gasoline stations are often closed over lunch (12:30-3:00 P.M.). This may be an inconvenience on the road. Closed stations some times have self-serve pumps that you feed money into. Be sure to be correct about how much you need and how much it will cost. A miscalculation can leave a couple of dollars in their tank and not yours. Listen to the voice of experience.

The roads out of major cities to the beach and to the mountains, typically, are overloaded on the weekends in the summer and in all of August. These are the times that driving in major cities (those few places that it is allowed) probably is practical. Also, their holidays are not our holidays. They are 1 Jan, 6 Jan, Easter Monday, 25 Apr, 1 May, 15 Aug, 1 Nov, 8 Dec, 25 Dec and 26 Dec. Avoid driving in cities during holidays if you do not want to be caught on one side of a parade with your hotel on the other side (again, sorry personal experience).

What should you do?

Like so much in life, many things are out of our control this close to your vacation time. You need to ask yourself, seriously:

  1. How much time you have to spend? The longer you have, the more a car makes sense, especially if you want to go out of The Triad of Rome, Florence and Venice.
  2. Can you can drive a manual transmission? If you do not, you will pay a premium for an automatic.
  3. Are you alone, a couple, with children or with a group? The more people you have and the less comfortable they are on trains and busses, the more useful a car is.
  4. How much adventure can you handle? One person's hectic and lost is another person's fun and adventure.

Realize life's limitations. This does not mean you should add other peoples' limitations to your own.

The soil of Italy grew layers of civilization, and still grows marvelous foods and delectable wines. No doubt, some of the best of Italy resides in Rome, Florence and Venice. But the soil that allowed these beauties to arise has many other flowers there for the picking. You need only allow yourself to do it.

by Joseph F. Lomax . If you have any questions or comments, please mail me at: lomax@usna.edu

Search Car Rentals in Italy

"Orienteering: Venetian Style"