When Judy and I go to Europe, our preferred mode of transportation when we get there is the train. They’re fast, usually efficient and on-time, and you get to watch the fantastic scenery from your comfy first-class seat. But our meandering trip to many smaller towns in Italy required us to rent a car.
The last time we came to Italy, the man at the Hertz counter was astonished that we had booked a small Fiat 500 (Cinquecento in Italian), stating, “But you are American!” He felt better when we showed him our small bags. We booked the same this time, but the friendly folks at Hertz were quite pleased to show us to our upgraded SUV (status has its privileges, even overseas!). I eyed the Maserati, but alas … with gasoline that worked out to about $9 per gallon, that might not have been the best choice.
Let me be clear from the start that driving in Italy is not for the faint-of-heart. All Italian drivers are assertive and you must be, too. Roundabouts are more common than four way stops … in fact, I don’t remember a single four way stop! While you must yield when entering a roundabout, the smallest of holes must be taken. Two-lane roads in the country become three lanes simply by the car being passed moving to the right while ongoing traffic does the same, often with one side of the car on a bit of the shoulder. It’s weird the first time it happens, but you get used to it!
It’s also important to recognize that most rental cars in Italy (and most of Europe) have manual transmissions. Automatics are available, but at a hefty price. You should know how to drive a stick, anyway, so learn! Part of the fun of driving in a foreign country is acting local; driving a manual car is one of those ways.
We had heard lots of folks say that driving the Amalfi coast was treacherous, so when the opportunity to take an 8-person tour with a hired car, we jumped at the chance. Turns out the roads weren’t so bad, but only hired cars can get down deep into the city centers like Positano and Amalfi. If we had taken our own car, we would have had to park at the top of the hill (if we could have found a spot) and walked down. Not something either one of us wanted to do.
When we started our journey from Rome’s Leonardo da Vinci Airport, we relied on our pre-printed directions of map to find our way around, but quickly decided to use the GPS instead. Its settings were a bit odd, so sometimes it took us on some weird routings, but that was part of the fun.
By the end of our two weeks in Italy, I was driving with Italian in my soul, joyfully mixing it up with the locals. We had collected our fair share of bugs and dirt along the way, but we didn’t care. Our little Citroen got us where we needed to be and treated us well.
There’s a whole world out there waiting to be explored. Sometimes the best way to see it is out the windscreen and windows of your own ride. Grab some keys at the rental counter and go!