Keep your passenger in the gutter
I HAVE never been fazed at the thought of driving on the other side of the road in Europe, despite what my sons may tell you. I have propelled Citroens along autoroutes and Fiats up and down autostradas and tootled about southern Spain, and all has been fine as long as I have remembered the well-worn mantra of continental driving. That is: Keep your passenger in the gutter.
If sans companion to remind you of this rule, then pay attention to that empty front seat or navigator dog.
There is simply nothing to it. It is parking where one comes unstuck.
If ever you thought road rules in Mediterranean countries were a bit, shall we say, random, then let me say it gets much trickier when you stop in a carefree city such as Rome.
Hopefully you will be in a teeny two-door car with a nickname such as Bambino because at least you’ll be able to manoeuvre sideways into tight spots, although it does help to have a sunroof for seamless exit and entry.
Side mirrors must always be flattened, too, while progressing along narrow alleys and when parking or, quite frankly, you will be in for a smashing time.
Everyone in Italy seems to drive as if practising for Formula One team selection.
Bill Bryson advises that the only way to safely walk across a busy street in Rome is to find a passing nun and stick to her like a sweaty T-shirt as the traffic stops only for sisters. A guide in Naples once told me there are so few zebra crossings because, actually, there are no pedestrians in Italy, only people trying to find where they have parked their cars.
When on the road in Italy, it’s hard to believe this is the country that gave the world the Cittaslow (slow city) movement, which has its headquarters in the splendidly named town of Bra in the north and celebrates environmental excellence, regional cuisine and values and renewable energy, and gives a firm thumbs down to anything approaching fast (communication, food and transport).
But slow traffic? Really? I have never encountered an Italian driver staying on, or below, the speed limit, not even aboard a Vespa (without helmet — the interference with one’s hair!) or propelling one of those little three-wheeler Ape trucks that buzz about like the agitated bees for which they are named.
I’ve been watching Monty Don’s French Gardens, a splendid telly three-parter, and this British man of the soil has been driving through the provinces in a Citroen 2CV, so toylike you could imagine a wind-up key in its roof.
The show has reminded me of the joys of the back roads of rural Europe, breezing along in search of wine and cheese and olives, with one’s mind fixed on a contented gut rather than a well-formed gutter.