Living on a remote track in an olive grove with a stunning view necessitates a life style transition from walking to car. Accustomed as I was, whatever the weather, to dropping la Principessa into our beloved Silver Cross and setting off with H. and P. running or scooting alongside me (anything, so long as it was ‘at pace’), this new car reality takes some getting used to.
Fresh out of school at 18, a group of friends and I drove to France (yes, I’m a crazy chick, no shenanigans in Ibiza for me). I didn’t think twice then about driving on the right in unfamiliar territory – and this was in the dark ages, before mobile phones and SatNavs – how did we manage it? In my 20s, I hired a car and drove round Syria and Lebanon becoming accustomed to much gesticulation and horn hooting from irate locals to whom rules of traffic lights, road systems and giving way don’t apply.
So really, driving in Italy should be a breeze, but Italian drivers are something else – this becomes clear as you cross the border from France. Do they don an imaginary crash helmet to embark on a personal Formula One track each time they get into the car? If you come to visit us in Italy, these are my top motor related tips.
- The left and right hand side of the road bear little relation to the positioning of oncoming vehicles; indeed any number of facts can affect road positioning: wanting to drive in the shade; wanting to avoid a particularly hazardous road surface; wanting to take the racing line on a bend/round about/junction.
- There’s a need to be in the lead: it’s boring being behind another vehicle, so overtake when possible. Hair pin bends, the peaks of hills or when the car in front of you signals to turn left – these are all perfectly bonafide positions from which to overtake. In fact, the narrower the gap before said hazard, the better – it’s all about the F1 track you’re on, after all.
- Modification to the above ‘when the car in front of you signals’ – by this I mean, when I signal to turn left – ours seems to be the only car in this area which uses its indicators, or at least, uses them before the event. Italians make their turn, and then occasionally flick the indicators on as if to acknowledge the preceding manoeuvre.
- Pedestrian crossings may be for pedestrians, but take them at your peril: there is no guarantee oncoming vehicles will slow down on seeing someone step out onto the stripped road.
- Roundabouts are round, but there ends the comparison to such junctions in the UK; do not assume merely because you are on the roundabout that cars joining it will give way – see above on both the need for speed and the enjoyment of keeping distances between vehicles and hazards as close as possible.
- Drive at speed at all costs: the only cars likely to hold me back on the road are the clapped out ‘tuc-tuc’ trucks required for accessing the uppermost roads on hill top towns.
We are acclimatizing, though, while still retaining our far more British habits. I’m attempting a single-handed reformation of Italian drivers, hooting fiercely when someone overtakes me dangerously, this is invariably followed closely by the children chanting, ‘Crazy Italian driver!”.
We recently went to meet a friend holidaying nearby: according to SatNav it was to take 75 minutes. I set off with the children, heading over the mountain to the other side. We were seemingly in the middle of a fairly barren plain, but only 30 minutes away from our destination. As we neared our turning off the strada principale, we saw a small barrier across the road we wanted; the sign post was covered with netting, the closure fairly categorical. But there the Italians left us – no diversion signs, no indications of alternative routes. We carried blithely on our way – I assumed another road heading in the same direction would appear shortly. But as we continued further up the strada principale, Mrs SatNav became more and more insistent: ‘Turn around where possible. Turn Around Where Possible. TURN AROUND WHERE POSSIBLE’. It would appear that, not all roads lead to Rome, or Montepulciano, in this case. We turned around where possible and headed back, double checking that the road we wanted really was closed. Yes, definitively closed and definitively no indication of alternative routes.
Mrs SatNav was thoroughly confused by the road closure, insisting on this route, so I resorted to a good, old fashioned, paper map, both relieved that I’d remembered to put it in the car and vowing that I would teach H. to read maps. Thus we continued on our now fairly circuitous way; there were very few cars in sight, even fewer when we turned off the main road onto a gravel track. I was slightly dubious, but there was a road sign to Montepulciano and I reasoned that we did at least have the right car for off-roading. After 15 solitary minutes on this road, I started to mull over what would happen in the event of a breakdown. How would I even begin to explain where we were in my still nascent Italian, particularly when I didn’t even know precisely where we were myself? Fortunately, this eventuality did not present itself and our cross country route spat us out on another main road, a short distant from Montepulciano. Driving up to the popular medieval hill top town on a one way system skirting the edge and finding a parking space big enough for our beast of a car was altogether another story, however…