Thursday 6 March 2008

Driving in Italy

Picture, if you will, exiting Pisa airport in your newly rented Renault Twingo; it is your first time driving in Italy... You have negotiated the rental queues and decided, perhaps against your better judgment, to proceed straight to the car instead of knocking back the double coffee that you probably needed after your 4am wake up and bleary-eyed drive to Stansted. At once confident yet somehow dreading the drive ahead, your left hand hits your door as you reach for a gear stick that is not there. After making a vain attempt to disguise this glaring mistake from your fellow passengers, and this time using your right hand, you urge the car into 3rd as you get onto the slip road for the superstrada. You look in your wing mirror and spot a lone car, probably an Alfa, approaching at great speed in the inside lane. Assuming that the Alfa will pull into the fast lane to facilitate your entry onto the motorway, you confidently accelerate, only to discover that the Alfa has no intention of pulling over and that, in fact, you must screech to a grinding halt and wait your turn. Welcome to the wonderful world of Italian driving, where few rules apply and the usual habits of road safety are curiously absent.

This is not to say that the Italians are bad drivers of course, rather that there is a controlled abandon to their driving that the uninitiated, at first experience, may find somewhat humbling. So, your Twingo has made its way shakily onto the superstrada, heading for Florence, and you are quietly availing yourself of the car’s abilities and, probably, its incapacity to accelerate faster than your sit-on lawnmower. Stopping en route for a coffee break at one of the many petrol stations along the way, you note the Alfa that caused your initial fright at the beginning of the journey. The driver, late twenties with dark hair and darker shades, is filling up with petrol whilst simultaneously puffing on a cigarette and shouting into his mobile at someone whom he obviously considers to be some sort of idiot. Brushing aside your anxieties you hit the road once more, this time careful to avoid the assumption that someone will actually let you onto the motorway in front of them. Whilst overtaking your hundredth lorry, creeping past on a bend with a few inches to spare on either side, you glance at the rearview mirror and, behold, Alfa-man is back. There appears to be no outward sign of his slowing down as he careers towards the backside of your trembling Twingo, halogen headlights flashing, and then suddenly the lights are gone. Can he have disappeared, somehow found a third lane to undertake you in? No, he is so close to your back bumper that you cannot see his headlights anymore. Urging your poor lawnmower on to an almost impossible shriek, you attempt to overtake faster; after all, you can’t pull over into the truck can you, even though that appears to be what Alfa-man wishes you to do. A gap appears up ahead and you, your lawnmower and its now sweating passengers breathe a collective sigh of relief as Alfa-man whisks past in a flurry of petrol and tobacco fumes. Do not worry, a few miles up ahead you will find him parked behind a Carabinieri car with lights flashing; a hefty fine and a few points on the license, lovely.

Back when Charlie and I lived in San Gimignano and worked as travel reps, we used to advise our clients on day trips to see the nearby towns and cities. When Florence came up, the advice was always the same; park at Piazzale Michelangelo and walk down into town, thus avoiding the hazards of the “ten-lanes-no-lines” fiasco that one finds in and around the centre. Even my father, a seasoned driver who knows every conceivable route to anywhere in mainland Britain, was reduced to a wreck in the passenger seat of my car as we blithely slalomed across traffic, negotiating Florence’s insane and ever changing one-way system. However, once you have mastered the combined arts of acceleration over braking, courageous use of lateral movement and never allowing too much space to develop between you and the car in front, then driving in Florence or any other major Italian city can actually be quite fulfilling. Even the country roads are not devoid of excitement. Take the omnipresent white Fiat Panda with its octogenarian driver, mix it with Alfa-man, a couple of Porsches and a few tractors for good measure, shake them all up together, add the cigarettes, mobile phones and an unwillingness to use indicators properly and you have a recipe for countless pleasant journeys. Just don’t forget: give an Italian an inch and he’ll park in it.

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