Everyone loves Italy. I do, too. I’ve traveled there every year for over 40 years. I’ve lived there, I got married there once, I’ve worked there, and I have two daughters who are half Italian. What’s more, I’m a global travel expert with decades in the industry and I’ve been instrumental in arranging vacations in Italy for close-on half a million Americans. So how is it, with all this experience, that I didn’t avoid having my Range Rover stolen during our family trip to the south of Italy this year?
Driving throughout the Italian peninsular is relatively easy. I just did a Google search, and “driving in Italy” throws up 170,000,000 results, so there’s a ton of guidance out there on the technicalities. A few more clicks and you’ll find out all you need to know about avoiding unfair rental add-ons and other pitfalls. All you need to do is jump in the car and off you go. Once on the road, Signora Satnav will politely guide you through every turn and your guide book or travel app will fill you in on the culture (as will posts like this one).
However, like with everything in Italy, life is not always as it seems. If you’re venturing to the south—and you should absolutely do so—you’ll need to know that things are a little different and, like me, be prepared to keep learning. Here’s my personal list of insights and experiences, all wrapped around the story of my Range Rover’s demise:
1. Italy is not the home of Ferrari for nothing
As far as European countries go, Italy is one of the longest, north to south. If you’re driving from London to Puglia in southern Italy, you should know that by the time you reach Milan you’ll still be only halfway to Lecce. The distance is not far by American standards, but it’s still a total journey of some 1,500 miles.
Italy’s high-speed network of autostrade, or interstates, is pretty good, though. Many of the roads follow routes originally devised by the Romans—although we must acknowledge Mussolini, too. He gave the world its first freeway, the Milano-to-Varese autostrada, which was completed in 1926. On these major highways, you can travel consistently at speeds around the maximum 80mph. Italians, meanwhile, will travel at 90mph (so long as no one is looking and average-speed cameras aren’t present). Don’t be intimidated when your rearview mirror shows the car behind traveling about six feet away while flashing its headlights lights furiously. Let the person go. Italian drivers—invariably men drivers, that is—believe that tailgating is a way of life. And if it leads to a collision, they’ll simply act like long lost brothers and share a cigarette or pack of gum while waiting for the tow truck.
2. Go with the flow
When you leave the major arteries and head towards smaller towns and villages, the traffic slows to a crawl and traffic lights seem forever red. At every turn in the road, the line of traffic will be held up by a crusty old Fiat Panda, ponderous delivery truck or hiccuping tractor, all of them trundling along at under 20mph. Expect the unexpected, too. In the south of Italy, they consider traffic signals to be colorful distractions, like Christmas decorations, and ignore them—so watch out. Best to hang loose and not rush; just accept it will take a while to get where you’re going. At least you’ll have time to practice your meditation.
It can be frustrating for kids, though. On our family trip, my adult daughter in the front seat battled to no avail to distract the younger ones with off-the-cuff quizzes and drawing competitions. Their initial chant of “When will we get there?” was soon replaced by “Daddy, will we ever get there?” I began to believe the backseat-trolls were reading my mind.
3. Accidents can happen
In the last couple of decades, the Italian government has put in place a raft of legislation and controls regarding speed limits, seatbelts and DUI—but these sometimes get ignored. I think it must be either the summer heat or the southern fiery temperament, or a cauldron mix of both, that leads to some fairly rash driving decisions on the part of the few local speedsters. If you happen to be pacing it, too, then you had better be prepared for some Mario Kart-style evasive action.
It’s quite likely, at some point in the road, that you’ll meet young Davide and Riccardo traveling parallel in two small cars in the opposite direction. They’ll be showcasing their rally driving prowess and Formula One credentials to their girlfriends Giorgia, Sara, Emma, Aurora, and Chiara. Be ready to yank your wheel hard and head for the gravel at the side of the road. We did, and blew our Range Rover tire in the process. We were miles from anywhere. Yikes.
4. Make sure your spare is fit for purpose
While replacing the shredded tire with our rather dodgy spare, I managed to snap the security locking nut by over-tightening it. At least we were able to drive it. We found a friendly auto repair shop the next day to replace the damaged tire for 300 Euros all up. Simple. Then it all went pear-shaped. Despite the valiant efforts of their mechanics, they couldn’t get the old wheel off the vehicle without the tiny, but now shattered, masterpiece of Land Rover security technology. It cannot be done. If the security lock is broken you have no choice but to go to a main dealer and have it replaced. The only Land Rover main dealer in Puglia is in Bari. Fortunately, we were heading that way next day…
5. Be careful who fixes your car
We got to the dealer in Bari okay, and after much delay and complication with passports and the checking of car security documents and license paperwork, we were finally issued a new locking nut. Hoorah. With great generosity, they got under the car, fiddled around with this and that, and switched our tire free of charge. Off we went north.
After about four hours or so we found a lovely beachside hotel in Montesilvano, near Pescara. The stay was great…but next morning, when we checked out at 8:30am, the car was gone. Cue tears from the kids. Sure enough, the hotel’s CCTV picked our car up, driving out of the hotel parking lot at 4:30am. Now, call me Sherlock Holmes, but my brain started working overtime. We still had both keys, and the car had been locked. We saw it, on video, driving away with nothing damaged. Something fishy seemed afoot. No one had known we were going to stay here, so unless someone actually happened to be sitting in the hotel parking lot with a digital receiver and full set of key-cloning equipment when we arrived, then something else had to be in play…hmm.
And then: Wait a minute…we were only four hours north of the main dealer in Bari…and they had all our security details…and they sell spare keys…and know about tracking devices…damn.
To cut a long story short, the hotel was great; very helpful and gracious, in fact. The Carabinieri (Italy’s elite militarized police force) were similarly sympathetic. The commander of their heavily fortified HQ told me, “Signore, ormai la tua auto è quasi certamente in pezzi e venduta per pezzi di ricambio” (“Sir, by now your car is almost certainly in pieces and sold for spare parts”). Oh great.
At that point, out comes the credit card. We get a lift to Pescara airport, where there are no flights. We book one online to fly from Rome. We jump in the rental car. We drive like Davide and Riccardo non-stop to Rome. We plead with the security to jump the line and board our flight. We make it with four minutes to spare. Holy moly.
Did all this spoil our vacation in Puglia? Not for a moment. What a fantastic destination. Would I recommend driving in southern Italy? Yes, by all means, but consider buying an old-fashioned, clip-on steering-wheel lock—and most definitely stay clear of car dealers in Bari.