Driving in Italy

For a November ’04 trip in Italy (July ’05, pg. 55), we short-leased (this is different from a rental) a brand-new Peugeot 407 from Auto France (Wood-Ridge, NJ; 800/572-9655 or www.autofrance.net) for a total cost of $1,329 for 18 days, and that cost was comparable to a straight rental. The cost would have been $310 less had we picked up the car in France, but it included all insurance and all the warranties that we would have gotten with a rental.

It was delivered to us at Milan’s Malpensa Airport when we arrived, and we returned it to the airport the day we departed. We had leased a Peugeot from Auto France twice before, but this was the first time the owner’s manual was in French only, not bilingual, and that caused periodic frustration during the entire trip. The car, being a new model, had many sophisticated controls and gauges that were not obvious without a little help. We still recommend Auto France, however.

We stayed away from the large cities, Rome, Milan, etc., and visited six smaller northern cities: Bergamo, Mantua, Ravenna, Spello, Poppi, Lucca and Camogli.

A word to the wise — no matter how well you read your city map and no matter how well your hotel has given you driving instructions in English, you will suffer some stress in finding your hotels. Just plan on it and accept it. One-way streets prevail and also change names from block to block, and you’ll run into pedestrian-only areas (frequently on Saturday afternoons) and construction. All of this is compounded by a delivery truck right behind you so you don’t dare stop and figure out where you are. Accept it.

If your hotel is in or near the center of town, follow the “Centro” signs (a bull’s-eye) until you come upon a landmark, such as a church or museum. All hotels in the cities have directional signs as you approach. You’ll see a row of them, so look for your hotel’s sign and follow the arrows.

A note on driving the autostrada — you pay either at your starting point if it’s a fixed rate or when you leave if it is not. In the latter case, you take a ticket from a dispenser at the toll gate as you enter the freeway and pay when you leave.

Use the “blue border” lanes if you use a credit card; it’s amazing how quickly you get through. You stick in the ticket, your charge is computed, you stick in your credit card (M/C, Visa, AmEx, etc.) and in two seconds it pops back out and the gate opens with an “Arrivederci.”

Driving through Italy is a pleasurable way to see the country. There’s little that’s more fun or challenging than stopping for lunch in a small town, where tourists are never seen and English never spoken, and ordering and conversing using your tourist Italian, if you’re lucky enough to have taken a few courses.

Berkeley, CA