Photo by Jessica Colley Clarke
A European road trip isn’t all rainbows and blissfully open roads—but it can be, with a little planning.
At the end of a three-week road trip in Italy, I let out a deep, involuntary sigh. After maneuvering the lawless streets of Naples, the dusty country lanes of Puglia, the dizzying coastal stretches of Calabria, the rental car was now safely parked in an appropriately narrow space (one final challenge!) at Rome’s Ciampino airport, an inspector circling the exterior to confirm it was in good shape. Driving a loop of southern Italy in that sporty chariot taught me countless lessons about tackling the open road; here’s what you need to know.
1. Expect the Unexpected
Anyone who has tried to mail a letter in Italy knows that accomplishing simple tasks is never simple. Think about a Seinfeld episode or Murphy’s Law—anything that can go wrong, will go wrong—when picking up your rental. For me, the rental office was closed, then the second office across town was understaffed with a three-hour line, and the third office didn’t have many cars in stock—plus it was lunchtime, so: come back in 90 minutes, please? These obstacles may be avoided if you pick up a car during the week, during regular business hours. I picked up my car on a Saturday in June, when inventory for small cars was low—so I got a free upgrade. Not a bad result for a couple of chaotic hours.
2. Know Thyself
When it comes to travel, know where you fall on the scale for worrying. This should directly impact the type of car you rent. The temptation for the high-end, the convertible, the powerful, will be strong—especially if you want to go mano a mano with the Ferraris on the autostrada. But be reasonable: if you will spend your trip worrying about scratches or broken side mirrors in tiny alleyways, or whether it might get stolen, you’re better off with a clunker. It might not turn heads, but you won’t give a second thought to the car once you sit down for aperitivo. If you do go for the shiny option, be sure to snap photos (with a timestamp) of any previous marks or dents.
3. Leave Your Ego at Home
The old manual vs. automatic debate is bound to come up when renting a car in Italy. First, manual is often the default. Be sure to request automatic ahead of time if that’s what you need. Even if you do normally drive manual, you may crave an automatic when needing to back up, on a steep incline, on an ancient road about the width of a strand of pappardelle you probably shouldn’t have gone down in the first place. And while on the subject of ego—it’s OK to let someone else park for you. Locals are accustomed to the distinct dimensions of their parking spaces, and are often happy to show off their parking skills. When arriving at an inn in a hilltop village, we were already raising a glass of Prosecco while the receptionist effortlessly eased the car into the last teensy spot.
4. Follow the Lead of Locals
I, personally, am fond of the slow lane. It enables me to turn off the motorway in a flash, when I see a local car packed with beach gear take a random exit with no signs. What do they know, that I don’t know? Locals also know that they need not stop at a proper restaurant for snacks or lunch—roadside gas stations in Italy are known for their remarkable quality. An espresso machine, fresh slices of pizza, sandwiches stuffed with burrata and prosciutto—the options inside your average gas station never cease to amaze.
The Fine Print: Logistics to Know Before You Go
The navigator should have a translation app ready on their phone. That all-caps blinking neon sign is trying to tell you something you need to know.
Stock up on euro coins for tolls. Keep them somewhere easily accessible. Italian drivers won’t patiently wait for you to dig out change. Some toll machines will take credit cards, but they may require a chip (which many American cards don’t have)—and that’s if they’re functional to begin with.
Bring a cable to connect your phone to the car’s sound system. Foreign radio is only so entertaining on a long drive (and Bluetooth may be unreliable).
Don’t rely solely on map apps—you may be 20 miles beyond your exit before the GPS updates your current location.
Get over any fear of the roundabout—you will encounter countless traffic circles and hesitation is your enemy on Italian roads.
The Memories That Last
With a full tank of gas and a map, the options for an Italian road trip are endless. In Puglia, I pulled up to the gate of a farmhouse, Masseria Fumarola, and indulged in aperitivo by the pool at the heart of a working farm. In Basilicata, I slept in a luxe cave with a massive stone bathtub for two at Corte San Pietro in the ancient cave village of Matera. I cruised along the Sfalassà Viaduct, a stunning 830-feet above the Calabrian countryside. Over time I won’t remember any of the bumps in the road—the sometimes wild Italian drivers, the hilariously narrow parking spaces, the occasional swindler seeking payment for parking in a free, public zone—but splashing into the sea in Tropea on a June afternoon, then digging an icy bottle of beer down into the sand as I dried off in the sun, are memories that will remain crystal clear.
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