10 Things You Should Know About Driving in Italy
Many of which apply to, well, just about any foreign country.
I've wanted to drive across Italy in a cool car for a long time. Seeing epic road trips on TV painted an idyllic picture of just such a road trip: breathtaking bits of tarmac draped like spaghetti over sun-kissed hills, supercar-friendly locals, and picturesque views everywhere you went. However, I quickly learned driving in Italy isn't as glamorous as movies and television would have you believe.
I'd previously spent a little time driving in Italy in a diesel SUV, but I was in a more appropriate car for a more recent and deeper exploration of the country: a Porsche Panamera Turbo S E-Hybrid Sport Turismo—"turismo" being Italian for "touring," of course. Ignoring its ridiculously long name, as road-trip cars go, Porsche's powerful and fast wagon was perfect. Its 4.0-liter twin-turbo V-8 is teamed with an electric motor to produce a combined 680 horsepower and 567 lb-ft of torque, and it can haul itself from zero to 60 mph in just 2.9 seconds and on to a governed limit of 192 mph. Quite adequate, methinks.
I first arrived in Milan, from which I would go to Lake Como for the Villa d'Este Concours, then to Genoa to take the overnight ferry to Sardinia, where I would spend the most time driving. Along for the ride were two colleagues, each of us with luggage for two weeks—a load the Sport turismo swallowed with aplomb.
In 10 days, I covered 1250 miles and burned through four tanks of fuel—which means I learned plenty about driving in Italy. Without further ado, here's what you should know:
When the roads get narrow, they get very narrow. For a country synonymous with low-slung, wide, exotic cars, I couldn't believe how tight and narrow the roads were in pretty much every urban area I went to. With the exception of Monza and Modena, which had normal-size roads, pretty much everywhere in Sardinia, Lake Como, and Milan required traversing tiny lanes that would barely fit one car but somehow were supposed to fit two. Be careful in the small towns and villages, too, where the roads get even narrower; this is made even more problematic in touristy areas with plenty of buses.
Things are exacerbated by a lack of lane markings. "Is this road one lane, two lanes, or three lanes?" was a constant question in the Porsche. Given the paucity of actual tarmac, it seems Italian drivers often attempt to maximize what little space they have. It was all too common to see cars two or three abreast in stretches. Even when there were actual lane markings—say, on the motorway—people would drive as if the lane markings were invisible, and on smaller roads, be careful on blind corners for drivers coming across the center. (We almost had an, um, incident with an elderly driver in a Fiat Punto.) Also, it seems few people use their signals before changing lanes; they simply do it and expect other motorists to anticipate what they're doing. In many ways it's like driving in Los Angeles. However, they do use their indicator while tailgating people to let them know they want to pass. Funny that.
That said, lane discipline is much better than elsewhere. While Italians sometimes can't make up their mind on which lane they want to be in, they do at least generally move over for those wanting to pass. They understand the passing lane is for passing and getting stuck behind a slower driver there doesn't last long. Compared to Japan (where I live), where buses and trucks are allowed to use the passing lane, traffic flows much better.
The road surfaces are inconsistent. The roads can turn from silky smooth one second and then, suddenly, there're so cratered they'd be suitable for NASA study. It's not just in the countryside and towns either; even the motorway was pocked with potholes. Given the amount of construction we saw on the roads, Italy seems to be aware of this problem—then again, almost none of the projects had workers at them, so maybe not. This means that any attempts to drive with haste need to be undertaken very carefully lest you puncture a tire or bend a wheel.
The police don't seem to care that much. In fact, they go out of their way to stop and look at cool cars. For a time we joined a small group of Pagani owners on a pre-Villa d'Este drive while we were there, and a simple refuel of the stunning supercars plus the support Mercedes G500 4x42 was anything but quick. They literally took over an entire station in a small town in Sardinia, and after a while a police car showed up with two officers inside. Everyone thought they intended to kick the Paganis out for causing a ruckus, but they just wanted to get some photos of the cars.
Really, speed isn't an issue. This is certainly not a complaint, merely an observation. The speed limits are more like suggestions, or in the case of Sardinia, minimums. A good rule of thumb for driving in a foreign country is to drive the speed everyone else is going—just don't be the fastest one on the road, as some countries aren't so lax toward their speed laws. But most of our time in Italy everyone sped both inside and outside towns until a speed camera came into view. Then drivers would ease down to something approaching a legal velocity.
Maybe avoid the ferries. On this trip, the worst road was actually the overnight ferry from Genoa to Sardinia. I'd recommend just flying over and renting a different car for the duration of your stay, as getting on and off the ferry was easy—but insane. There's no order to it. You just get on and get off any time you want. Often, people scramble to be first off but random cars would still be parked in the middle of the ferry because their owners weren't nearby. Ultimately, the ferry took 12 hours each way. We rented a cabin just to have a place to sleep and shower, but the space might as well have been a closet and the food on the ferry was overpriced and underwhelming. Would not recommend.
That said, if you absolutely have to take the ferry to get to Sardinia, do it. The scenery is spectacular—all those Italian postcards aren't lying. Sapphire blue waters, soft warm sand, and, in the other direction, hills as far as the eye can see. Wherever we went, there was always a breathtaking view.
Great scenery often makes for great driving roads. As mentioned, I spent most of my time with the Panamera driving in Sardinia, and its scenery translated into a wonderful mix of inland countryside, mountain, and coastal roads, with each one better than the last. We also took a short ferry over to the island of La Maddalena, which was an even prettier version of Sardinia with even better roads. Just be sure not to get too distracted by the views. Narrow roads, remember?
Yes, Italians do truly love cars. Not only did we encounter some cool cars on the road—including a Radical on a trailer—but when we were with the full, larger Pagani rally later, all the locals were absolutely in love and awe-struck by the cars. There were cheers, dropped jaws, and enthusiasm wherever we went, and plenty of encouragement for owners to give a bit of a show as they drove past.
Driving in Italy is certainly hectic, but somehow it works. With everyone driving like a maniac, traffic settles into a chaos that has its own sense of order; as long as you can at least partially go with that flow, you'll be fine. Your best defenses in Italy are the throttle and the horn. But maybe avoid southern Italy until you have your bearings; I've heard it's much, much worse.
Additional photography by Aaron Chung (Instagram: aaronchungphoto)