Monday, 5 October 2015

Driving in Italy - crazy and interesting experiences

Italian drivers have a reputation for crazy behaviour and on the surface of it this would seem to be true but once you join their driving system you realise it is a system and it works!

I am writing this because we struggled to find blogs for Kiwi / Ozzie drivers who would be hiring a car and would be dealing with driving on the wrong side of the road plus learning Italian road rules. There is loads of content out there for US drivers or Brits who take their own cars - all of whom have different challenges to address than we do. 

First up. How to choose a rental car. 
After reading many many reviews and automobile club style advice we elected to hire from a global firm, Budget (operated by Avis) - and that did work well for us getting (virtually) what we ordered, limited waiting time and paying exactly what we expected to pay.

We also made a decision to hire an automatic. This cost us more but we (I) felt with the need to overcome other driving challenges constantly reaching for a gear stick somewhere in the car door might compound things - I note we drive a manual at home so it wasn't about driving a manual, just driving a manual on the wrong side of the car/road.
Then with 5 passengers on many occasions we elected for a larger car but not too large. Our Audi Q3 struggled to fit 5 bags in the boot. When we picked Libby up for instance we had backpacks in foot wells and groceries on laps with the boot loaded to the roof with our 5 bags. 

Size of car is important - see photo above for example of tiny roads. 
Luggage and passengers are just one dimension in this decision. Where you will be driving is the main thing to consider. There were many occasions Steve carefully manoeuvred our Audi through tight tight spaces and narrow streets. Our trip was in smaller towns, on Autostrada and medium sized cities. We didn't drive in Rome, Milan, Florence etc. We did however drive in tiny hamlets and castels where it surprised us every time we could fit through the gaps. Anything larger would have precluded those places. 

Next we needed to learn the Italian road rules and how to drive in Italy. 
Before you go do read up on the rules and signs - especially the signs, they differ greatly signs wise to either NZ or Oz.  Then expect things to contradict themselves - markings on the road contradicting the sign posts for instance, or two contradicting signs within metres of each other.

Also expect the weird and wonderful eg: the photo above is an intersection where 3 cars came together on mostly one-way streets. Freaked me out at the time - we could turn right as it turned out.
Road rules are logical, give way on roundabouts - just remember to look to your left as you enter for traffic on the roundabout already. Turning is just like our rules on the opposite side, if a pedestrian is on a crossing stop but risk being rear ended if you stop when they are waiting to cross.

Navigation - to Tom Tom or not to Tom Tom?????
We took our own Tom Tom, it cost the same to buy one new, load up the maps from home as it would to have hired one with no guarantees as to the quality of the device or recency of maps (we read reviews). Tom Tom was our saviour, friend and enemy all at the same time. Some kind of GPS is a must have, there were however times when I used both google maps on the phone and the Tom Tom to get a broader view of the journey augmenting the localised window. The distance to tolls and food and petrol bar is awesome on the Autostrada.

Tips to enhance your Tom Tom experience.
Check alternative routes, there may be times you want the fastest but a 10 minute longer journey might save you 25 euro in tolls, or there may be a more scenic option or one on better roads.
Right at the end of our trip we selected Bruce the Australian who was awesome, told to do U'ies if we went the "wrong" way, or to slap on the sunblock and grab a cold one when we parked after a long journey, made us laugh.
Thank you Tom Tom was a frequently used phrase in our car, the assertive reconfirmation of instructions ensure you don't take the wrong turn.

Finally, what to expect when you are driving.
Steve channeled his crazy Italian driver personality within 30 minutes of leaving the Avis carpark in Venice. He was straddling lanes, overtaking at serious speed, continuing that speed through long long tunnels and learning the gestures.

Your rental car will have it's lights on all the time which is great as Autostrada tend to go through tunnels often. The speed limit seems to be irrelevant so for a comfortable trip drive at the speed of the traffic or stay in the right lane and let them pass you.
Do not sit in the Left Hand Lane on the Autostrada or you will be subject to pissed off drivers - Kiwi drivers are notorious for sitting in the fast lane, do not do this in Europe.

Tooting is to tell you they are there, don't be offended it's just a notification system. Expect to be overtaken on 50km roads in towns when you are driving 50 or when you kindly stop for a bus to pull out - you will be overtaken. Don't stop for pedestrians (as said above) unless nobody is behind you, equally at lights be very careful if you stop before red you will impact the flow.

The roads in Tuscany vary dramatically in condition so our A3 was fabulous and comfortable. Some roads are concrete and the panels have moved leaving join bumps, in lovely tree lined towns the roots push the paving up making a very bumpy ride, equally regional roads can be messy and potted yet the traffic travels fast so you will be bouncing around.

The passenger will find it freaky at first road placement wise - and the driver may need to adjust to the car width. The roads in our experience did one of two things, dropped off with no verge down a hole or had an ancient stone wall at the side, there is no room for error really. This mountain pass below was unusual as it had a barrier at the side.

We were nervous about driving so pleased we prepared. Having one person drive and one navigate worked well especially in complicated walled towns and castels. We sure had fun!

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