Driving in Italy can be scary—a video game for keeps, and you only get one quarter. Italian drivers can be aggressive. They drive fast and tailgate as if it were required. They pass where Americans are taught not to—on blind corners and just before tunnels. Roads have narrow shoulders or none at all. Driving in the countryside is less stressful than driving through urban areas or on busy highways, but stay alert. On one-lane roads, larger vehicles have the right-of-way. If you’re on a truckers’ route, stifle your Good Samaritan impulse when you see provocatively dressed women standing by camper-vans at the side of the road; they’re not having car trouble.
Stay out of restricted traffic zones or you’ll risk huge fines. Car traffic is restricted in many city centers. Don’t drive or park in any area that has a sign reading Zona Traffico Limitato (ZTL, often shown above a red circle – see image). If you do, your license plate will likely be photographed and a hefty (€80-plus) ticket mailed to your home without your ever having met a cop. Bumbling in and out of these zones can net you multiple fines. If your hotel is within a restricted area, it’s best to ask your hotelier to direct you to parking outside the zone. (Although your hotelier can register your car as an authorized vehicle permitted to enter the zone, this usually isn’t worth the hassle.) If you get a ticket, it could take months to show up (for more about traffic tickets in Italy, see www.bella-toscana.com/traffic_violations_italy.htm).
Be aware of typical European road rules; for example, many countries require headlights to be turned on at all times, and nearly all forbid talking on a mobile phone without a hands-free headset. Seatbelts are mandatory, and children under age 12 must ride in child-safety or booster seats. In Europe, you’re not allowed to turn right on a red light, unless there is a sign or signal specifically authorizing it, and on expressways it’s illegal to pass drivers on the right. Ask your car-rental company about these rules, or check the US State Department website (www.travel.state.gov, search for your country in the “Learn about your destination” box, then click “Travel and Transportation”).
Drive carefully: Italians are aggressive drivers. Even worse, motor scooters are very popular, and scooter drivers often see themselves as exempt from rules that apply to automobiles.
Italy’s freeway system, the autostrada, is as good as our interstate system, but you’ll pay a toll (for costs, use the trip-planning tool at www.autostrade.it or search “European Tolls” on www.theaa.com). When approaching a tollbooth, skip lanes marked Telepass; for an attended booth, choose a lane with a sign that shows a hand.
While I favor the freeways because I feel they’re safer and less nerve-racking than smaller roads, savvy local drivers know which toll-free superstradas are actually faster and more direct than the autostrada (e.g., Florence to Pisa). In some cases, if you have some time to spare, scenic smaller roads can be worth the extra hassle—for example, the super-scenic S-222, which runs through the heart of the Chianti region (connecting Florence and Siena); or the SR2-south from Siena into the heart of Tuscany (en route to Montepulciano, Orvieto, and Rome).
Fuel is expensive—often about $7 per gallon. Diesel cars are more common in Europe than back home, so be sure you know what type of fuel your car takes before you fill up. Diesel costs less, about $6 per gallon. Gas pumps are color-coded: green for unleaded (senza piombo), black for diesel (gasolio). Autostrada rest stops are self-service stations open daily without a siesta break. Many 24-hour stations are entirely automated. Small-town stations are usually cheaper and offer full service but shorter hours.
Maps and Signage
A big, detailed regional road map (buy one at a newsstand, gas station, or bookstore) and a semiskilled navigator are essential. Learn the universal road signs (see illustration). Although roads are numbered on maps, actual road signs give just a city name (for example, if you were heading west out of Venice, the map would be marked “route S-11”—but you’d follow signs to Padua, the next town along this road). The signs are inconsistent: They may direct you to the nearest big city or simply the next town along the route.
Cars are routinely vandalized and stolen. Thieves easily recognize rental cars and assume they are filled with a tourist’s gear. Be sure all of your valuables are out of sight and locked in the trunk, or even better, with you or in your room.
White lines generally mean parking is free. Yellow lines mean that parking is reserved for residents only (who have permits). Blue lines mean you’ll have to pay—usually around €1.50 per hour (use machine, leave time-stamped receipt on dashboard). Study the signs. Often the free zones have a 30- or 60-minute time limit. Signs showing a street cleaner and a day of the week indicate which day the street is cleaned; there’s a €100 tow-fee incentive to learn the days of the week in Italian.
Zona disco has nothing to do with dancing. Italian cars come equipped with a time disc (a cardboard clock), which you can use in a zona disco—set the clock to your arrival time and leave it on the dashboard. (If your rental car doesn’t come with a disco, pick one up at a tobacco shop or just write your arrival time on a piece of paper and place it on the dashboard.) Garages are safe, save time, and help you avoid the stress of parking tickets. Take the parking voucher with you to pay the cashier before you leave.