No matter where we are traveling, we feel like the best way to experience new places is from ground level. The most up close and personal mode of transportation to pull this off is driving, but the thought of driving through foreign lands can be daunting.
We must admit, we were certainly apprehensive the first time we took off across Europe in a rented vehicle. So we decided to offer a few GypsyNester tips that might quell some of the anxiety.
Many of the trans-European rules were covered in our recent post about driving in the Czech Republic, but today we want to focus on some of the quirks that are particular to Italy.
Italy is a fairly large country so the best way to cover the longer distances between one region and another is on the superhighways known as the Autostrada. These are fantastic, fast, well maintained toll expressways that connect all of the major cities. When it comes to high speed highways, the Italians know what they’re doing. They should, they invented them.
Way back in 1924, when most everybody else was still driving on dirt, Italy began constructing a system with over 4,000 kilometers of multi-lane motorways throughout the country. These were originally run by private companies that made a profit from the tolls. The tolls have remained, and are fairly steep, but well worth it for the perfect condition of the highways. The nice lady voice coming out of the new automated toll booths gives you a pleasant “arrivederci” after you pay and that alone is worth the price.
Rumor has it that the United States government came up with the idea for our interstate highway system after officials visited Italy in the 1930s. Our first super highways, the Pennsylvania Turnpike and the Merritt Parkway in Connecticut, opened in 1941 but the system that President Eisenhower envisioned wasn’t completed until 1992.
Most anything needed along the Autostrada, including a really good meal, can be found at many of the service areas, or area servizio. All of these stops have gas, groceries, souvenirs and a bar, that’s right, a full bar… with snacks. Many have repair service and a full restaurant. Just look for the AutoGrill or Ciao (we have no idea if the Italians get the pun of this name for a place to chow down) signs.
The food is served cafeteria style but is always fresh and very good, this is Italy after all. They take their food very seriously. “To Go” food is almost nonexistent and we never saw anyone eating in their car. Italians will even pull off the road to consume a little picnic lunch or snack packed from home.
When a quick jolt of Joe was needed at a rest stop, we were in luck, Italy has some of the best coffee in the world.
After a time or two of babbling at the servers, we learned the proper process. Go to the cashier first to order and pay for the desired beverage, then take the receipt to the bar, tell the tender, and proceed to knock back an espresso. Grazie! Ready for another couple hundred miles.
Once we have covered the longer distances on the AutoStrada, we like to move in for a closer look on the little two lane secondary roads. In our humble opinion there’s no better way to get a feel for a place. One word of caution, tight spots are a frequent companion within the confines of an old Italian small town. Often a building will butt right up to the edge of the road and the lanes barely fit even a small car. Good thing the side view mirrors give way and collapse on impact.
Speaking of those mirrors, it’s a good idea to fold them in when parking on the street.
Another helpful hint we’ve learned, in the smaller towns many gas stations have automatic pumps that accept Euro notes 24 hours a day. Just feed a bill into the slot and pump away, night or day.
A rental car with foreign plates will get a lot of attention in a smaller Italian town. Partly because they don’t see many tourists off the beaten path, but we’ve also noticed that Italians just like to watch stuff. Perhaps it’s just a coincidence, but the Italian words for driving and watching have only one letter different. Guidare – to drive, and guardare – to watch.
In any piazza and on almost every corner there are a few old gentlemen just watching… oh, and discussing whatever it is that they are watching. Strangers in town seem to be a real favorite. These guys come in handy sometimes, because they are always available to ask directions. We’ve found that it’s never hard to find someone willing to offer assistance, however, a word of caution, we have also learned that an Italian man will never, ever, ever, tell you that they don’t know where something is.
We always leave time for a “lost hour” when entering an unfamiliar town. We have participated in many a wild goose chase, stopping to ask directions half a dozen times or more, in search of a hotel. Everybody we ask seems perfectly confident that they know exactly where the place in question is. Funny thing, the last guy we ask is always the one with the correct information. Leaving time for the lost hour keeps our good humor intact.
Of course, being Italians, directions always include voluminous hand gesticulations. We have developed a theory on the expressive extremity motions that seem to accompany all Italian speech. There are only about one third as many words in Italian as English, so we figure they use gestures to convey their more subtle sentiments. No telling if we are correct about this, but hey, we’ll keep watching.
Oddly enough, we have noticed that the waving hands and mimed messages continue even when talking on the phone, which kind of blows our theory out of the water. Maybe they just can’t help it.
Oh, and a heads up, Italians love their cell phones. Keep that in mind while driving in Italy. Nobody has enough hands for this to work out well.
David & Veronica, GypsyNester.com