Jon Faine’s guide to driving around Italy
1. Go to Rome. Enjoy the traffic chaos. Absorb fully the flagrant disregard for rules. Marvel at the paradox that the very descendants of those Romans who refined the concept of the rule of law now honour that contribution to the history of civilisation by ignoring it.
2. Rent a scooter. Check your travel insurance first. Pay extra for a Vespa instead of a Chinese copy, and insist on it being red. They go faster. Wobble into the traffic. Accept it is Darwinian. The meek shall not survive.
3. Giggle madly as you get the hang of it. Go as slowly as you can without being swamped, and avoid sudden turns. Remember the other cars, scooters, busses and trucks no more want to hit you than you want to be hit. Trust them. They have been avoiding tourists making fools of themselves for years.
4. Grab the cheesy photo opportunities at the Vatican, Trevor’s Fountain (as our Aussie bogan GPS called it) and the Colosseum. Draw the line at paying a centurion or a gladiator to pose with you … enough already.
5. Take the Freccio Rossa fast train to Naples. Enjoy their traffic chaos. Marvel that Neapolitans can show even less regard for traffic rules than Romans. Absorb that in Italy parking is a contact sport.
Understand it is compulsory to drive while holding a phone and in Italian style using your hands to talk … even if driving a scooter.
6. Go to Sicily, the ferry is best, then collect your pre-booked hire car in Palermo. Drum your fingers for the 45 minutes they need to complete the paperwork and the apparently seven different booking forms used. And Italy’s economy is in strife because of what exactly? Not enough forms being filled in?
7. Climb into your near new Alfa Romeo Guilietta diesel six speed that no one showed you through. Edge your way out of the car park, stalling three times. Eventually realise the car is not stalling. It has an automatic cut off when stationary to save fuel. Perspire with relief.
8. Reassure your anxious spouse that you are capable of driving in Sicily, even though you have nearly hit two signs, a three-wheel motorised vegetable cart and a fat Nonna crossing in front – all before leaving the car park.
9. Turn on your GPS. Try to find the expensive Europe maps you downloaded at home. Discover there is a mysterious ‘settings’ option on the gadget, and explore the wonders of the digital age without crashing on the Via Where-The-Hell-Are-We …
10. Ask the bogan inside the GPS to stop calling the streets ‘via’ (rhyming with choir) and ask politely to call them ‘via’ (rhymes with near), as in near miss again.
11. Decide the bogan inside the GPS is to be called Schapelle just so you can focus your frustration other than on your beloved. This will pay ample dividends later.
A view of Palermo. Photo: Shutterstock
12. Drive into the hills. This is so easy to say. So easy to write. So why did it take an hour of epic struggle to find our way out of mid-sized Palermo, and why did Schapelle send us up three backyards and a car wash on our way out of town?
13. Realise that Schapelle cannot tell the difference between a goat track on the map and the autostrada. And if she is defied and instinct relied upon instead, the car does not explode. This is a very empowering moment. Manhood restored.
14. Discover most of Sicily is under construction. Every road is either recovering from an earthquake, the last eruption of Mount Etna (another due any day) or maybe the war.
15. Relax as you crest a mountain pass and negotiate thirteen consecutive hairpin corners, then sideswipe a sign while swerving to avoid a head-on with a delivery truck on your side of the road around the next blind bend.
16. Gingerly negotiate the ever narrowing streets of Corleone, made famous by the Godfather film. Shout a badly-pronounced apology to the lady who is so close to your car that the mobile phone she is holding in her hand is hit by the door mirror as she stands innocently on the footpath. Fold the mirrors in to get through the tightest fit imaginable in streets designed for a donkey not a car.
17. Gaze adoringly and distractedly at the olive plantations, sweeping rows of grape vines and sheep and not notice a massive pothole. Puncture rear tyre.
18. Look for a safe place to unload all your luggage so you can get the tools and crappy space saver emergency tyre out from the boot. Scrape knuckles while cursing inadequate jack suited only for Italian midgets with double jointed thumbs.
19. Limp to nearest tyre shop. Call in your extensive repertoire of charades and mime to explain to very caring mechanic that it is a hire car. Give up. Call emergency number just to get someone who speaks English. Hire car representative tries to persuade you to return to depot two hours away. Insists on new tyre matching existing, starts talking about voiding hire contracts … Wild horses …
20. Attract attention of Carabinieri. Get escort out of town. Crack gags to beloved about Godfather 4.
21. Seek tyre shop with matching Pirelli Centuro tyre. Rocking-horse poo more readily available. Eventually succeed. Artisan tyre changer with Virgin Mary shrine in workshop instead of naked girl pin-ups on wall performs world record tyre swap. F1 pit crews should take notes …
Virgin Mary clearly helps.
22. Take autostrada to Trapani, delightful seaside historic town. Negotiate side streets. Park car in exhausted delirium. Ecstatic at arriving, take no notice of signs. Grateful to be alive, check in to hotel, collapse, eat, sleep.
23. Return to car to find parking ticket. Astonishingly, realise you have landed in Italy’s only law-abiding town. Express horror at enforcement regime to hotel reception. Express indignation that anyone in all of Italy takes parking regulations seriously. Seek advice.
25. Remind yourself that car hire company has your credit card details.
26. Find ‘Polizia Municipale’ in decrepit rundown office building across town. Smile at elegant well dressed cop at counter and shrug politely when spoken to rapidly in Italian.
27. Follow finger pointed towards door. Join queue outside closed unsigned door, as directed.
29. Wait more. Realise that charming and well dressed as they are – a queue jumper is still a queue jumper.
30. Challenge tall, grey-haired dignified man in expensive suit who is insisting on pushing in. Friendly English speaking man in overalls further back in queue offers to translate you’re indignant protests which fall on deaf ears in two languages.
31. Challenge queue jumper to a duel. Remember where you are. Produce coin and toss to see who goes first. Lose. Be gracious. Make everyone laugh at what a good sport you are. Curse quietly in English.
32. Get to front of queue. As with artisan tyre changer, admire small shrine paying tribute to the Virgin above artisan cashier, who is clearly blessed in task of collecting fines.
33. Pay money. €28. About $45.
34. Return next day to car. Find it blocked in by triple parked bumper to bumper mass of small cars jammed one against another facing all directions at once. Sunday. No parking police, no rules.
35. Place left hand on horn button. Stand nonchalantly and press hard and continuously until all owners arrive and cars move. Feel like a local.
Jon Faine broadcasts on 774 ABC Melbourne weekday mornings. He is the co-author with his son Jack Faine of ‘From Here To There’, the story of their overland drive from Melbourne to London