Driv­ers should be pre­pared for any­thing when ne­go­ti­at­ing the back­roads and high­ways of Italy, warns Lee Atkin­son

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - The Advanced Driving Test -

IAM stand­ing in the mid­dle of the road, hold­ing up dozens of im­pa­tient Si­cil­ians ea­ger to get home for their lunch and af­ter­noon snooze, all of whom are lean­ing on their horns, shak­ing their fists and, I sus­pect, not say­ing very nice things about me.

Mean­while, my part­ner, Bill, is try­ing for the fourth time this morn­ing to ex­e­cute a 10-point turn and ex­tract our small but sud­denly ex­traor­di­nar­ily wide car from the nar­row al­ley that the in-car satel­lite nav­i­ga­tion sys­tem has as­sured us is the main high­way through town.

We’ve spent the past 45 min­utes try­ing to nav­i­gate around this an­cient (but beau­ti­ful) Si­cil­ian hill­top town but it seems in this case all roads lead not to Rome, but to the same pi­azza in the mid­dle of Ran­dazzo at the cen­tre of the is­land.

Ear­lier in the day we were in pretty much the same sit­u­a­tion in the vil­lage just down the road, cre­at­ing havoc as Bill backed down yet an­other im­pos­si­bly nar­row street, side mir­rors tucked in so as not to scrape the walls of the 16th-cen­tury build­ings on ei­ther side, be­cause a car was parked at the top of the street and there was no way past.

Only four hours on the road and al­ready we have taken five wrong turns, found our­selves on a sus­pi­ciously traf­ficfree brand-new four-lane free­way that stops half­way across a ravine (we screech to a halt at the edge), have three nav­i­ga­tional ar­gu­ments and man­age to cover ex­actly 20km.

Driv­ing in Italy can be high-adrenalin ad­ven­ture. The lo­cals drive with skill, but can at times take risks. Traf­fic is thick and fast, es­pe­cially on mo­tor­ways, where the av­er­age speed in the fast lane is 160km/h, of­ten higher. Road rules are more like help­ful sug­ges­tions than laws that must be obeyed. Pedes­trian cross­ings are merely ways to brighten up the road sur­face.

No-park­ing zones are wish­ful think­ing — most Ital­ians will park any­where — and over­tak­ing on blind cor­ners is com­mon. Sign­post­ing is ter­ri­ble and find­ing the right road, even with a good map, can be chal­leng­ing. More of­ten than not, the junc­tion is sign­posted only at the ac­tual turn­ing, not in ad­vance, and mixed in with a cou­ple of dozen signs point­ing to ho­tels, restau­rants and other at­trac­tions, and it’s not un­usual to see two signs for the same town point­ing in op­po­site di­rec­tions.

But like ex­treme sports, the thrill is in the sur­vival, and once we get the hang of it there is no stop­ping us (bar­ring a few er­rant free­ways that end in the mid­dle of nowhere) and we spend three rea­son­ably happy weeks driv­ing around the Mez­zo­giorno in the south of Italy.

Pick­ing up our car in Rome, we are de­lighted by the com­pact, sporty lit­tle red Alfa Romeo Br­era. Three hours down the road we take the first of count­less wrong ex­its and un­ex­pect­edly find our­selves ne­go­ti­at­ing the tight turns of the breath­tak­ingly scenic Amalfi Coast. Now, as we are con­fronted by on­com­ing cars whose driv­ers see no rea­son why two cars and a bus can’t fit abreast the two-lane road that clings per­ilously close to the moun­tain’s edge, the lit­tle car feels wider than a Hum­mer.

At times the driv­ing is hard work and we are ex­hausted by the end of the day. And we are guilty of by­pass­ing won­der­ful places such as Palermo in Si­cily be­cause the idea of driv­ing in the chaotic city traf­fic makes us break into a sweat. But the ad­van­tages of hav­ing our own wheels far out­weigh the neg­a­tives.

In Puglia we spend days driv­ing through olive groves to tiny out-of-the­way col­lec­tions of con­i­cal-shaped trulli houses, look­ing more like hob­bit homes than proper Ital­ian farm­houses, and through baroque towns and white­washed vil­lages, avoid­ing the tourist crush of the big­ger towns.

In Basil­i­cata and Cal­abria, we wind our way high into the snow-cov­ered moun­tains of the few re­main­ing ar­eas of Ital­ian wilder­ness, stop­ping to buy cheese, bread, olives, salami and pro­sciutto at lo­cal mar­kets, to eat be­side the road. In Si­cily, we by­pass the pop­u­lar tourist sites and find our­selves ex­plor­ing Ro­man and Greek ru­ins with hardly any­one else in sight.

Best of all, hav­ing a car means we spend our nights at agri­t­ur­ismo, the Ital­ian equiv­a­lent of the farm-stay hol­i­day or rural B & B. Not only are th­ese great value at about j80-j100 ($126-$158) in­clud­ing a four-course din­ner for two a night, but they are in­vari­ably set in gor­geous sur­round­ings (think olive groves, orange or­chards and vine­yards) and fea­ture Ital­ian home cook­ing and, hap­pily, lots of park­ing space.

Now if we can just work out how to get to the other side of Ran­dazzo, we’ll be on our way.


Snow way: It is pos­si­ble to get away from the crush of traf­fic

Pic­tures: Lee Atkin­son

Take the nar­row road: Breath­tak­ing sights from the paved jour­ney through Italy in­clude, from left, the old town of Mat­era in Basil­i­cata; Ce­falu in Si­cily; the Tem­ple of Her­cules near Agri­gento in Si­cily

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