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