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Driving, Italian Style

Yet another thing we could learn from the Italians.

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I had two driving experiences during a recent trip to Italy that bear describing. The purpose is not to brag on myself, though I was mighty proud at one point, but rather to describe two universal aspects of automotive transportation: the importance of good directions and the importance of winging it.

One day, we were visiting an Italian friend while on our way to Florence. Just as we were leaving, I recalled Mom saying our hotel was right in the middle of Florence, an easy walk from everything you'd want to see. All well and good -- but I had to drive there!

Country driving I could handle: You keep going through roundabouts until you see something that's at least in the direction of what you're after. Handling traffic, like in the roundabouts, I mastered as soon as I realized the Golden Rule of Italian Driving: "If you can get there, you may." In other words, it is 100 percent about positioning, angles, and speed. Determining who has the right of way is as simple as seeing who got there first.

But driving in one of these big, crowded, medieval cities? You have to drive as if you're on foot, sneaking between people and putting your nose into small places. Otherwise, you'll never move. It is entirely common to be driving down a one-lane street, with a sidewalk on your right filled with people, a line of parked scooters on your left, and a bike between you and them. You have to make a right turn through a little piazza with people in all four crosswalks, with not a light anywhere.

And that's if you know where you're going! So, contrary to my genetic makeup, I asked our friend Silvio for directions. He called the hotel, talked a million miles an hour, wrote two pages of notes, then sat me down, and said, "This would be confusing even for an Italian."

After a smile and a wink, he continued: "So do this: Get on the highway to Florence and keep going no matter what, straight into town, past five or six lights. You'll pass a big road with some pine trees, and then you'll turn right, and then you'll see Piazza di Michelangelo on the left, and you'll go down a hill and cross the Arno River, then go up a hill, then see the English Cemetery on the left, then wrap around that, turn right at the first light, and then start following these written directions."

Now, you might be reading that and thinking that it wouldn't work, but let me tell you, that was pure gold. I am skilled at being lost in foreign cities, and Silvio is skilled at directions, so we worked it out. He had written the directions to the hotel starting at the English Cemetery, and we followed them into ever-smaller streets, past ever-tighter turns, and finally into the back parking lot of the hotel. It was mighty fine.

In terms of sheer driving pleasure, however, it was nothing like the day I drove us back from south of Siena to our hotel there. It matters that we were south of town because we had only approached the hotel from the north, and we had only left town going south. That's because, to leave Siena, we would always go the same way, following signs that said toute le direzione, or "all directions," and then picking the towns we needed from a roundabout. No way in hell could I tell you what roads we were taking or show it to you on a map, but I did it every day without trouble -- and even started to recognize the turns. Now, because we were coming in from the south, I had to do it backwards.

No worries, says I. You follow signs for Piazza il Campo, because that is close to the hotel, and when you get close to it and realize that you're on the wrong side of it, you turn around and try something else. Driving across the medieval part of Siena, or any other of these cities, is somewhere between terrifying and impossible. So you back out, go back to the highway, and head north. And along the way you see signs for the stadium, which sounds familiar because you see those signs coming into town from the north. So you act like you're driving to the stadium, and then follow signs for a gate of some sort, because you know you drive past a gate to get to the hotel, then you see the old fort walls and remember driving around those, so you drive around them until a road looks familiar, then you take that, and you see some tents that you recall seeing the day before in a piazza near the hotel, and you go straight for them, and before you know it you're in front of the hotel, Dad is singing your praises, and Mom is waking up from a nap in the back seat saying, "Oh, we're here!"

portlandpaul@mac.com

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