The Netflix series Master of None has a comic sketch in Season 3, in which the lead character and his buddy attempt to drive in Italy. Despite having a tiny rental car, the two Americans manage to get stuck on an impossibly skinny street. I can relate. Our own street outside our house narrows to barely more than two meters (about seven feet) at one point. Similar amusing scenarios of getting stuck have occurred in other films and television shows about visiting Italy.
Even without narrow streets to deal with, driving in Italy can be hazardous to one’s mental health. I cannot purge from my memory the time my wife and I circled the immense Termini train station in Rome for two hours, looking for the garage of a rental car company. We were enmeshed in an insane mashup of honking taxis, trucks, buses, cars, and motorbikes as well as relentless waves of pedestrians. When we finally found the garage and arrived at the seventh-floor check-in point, my wife, who was driving, lost it and burst into tears. As she puts it, Rome made her cry. I’ve cried there at least once myself.
We have lived in the Marche region in east-central Italy going on six years years – hours from the cacophony of Rome – and have been visiting the area for longer than that. We are used to the relative simplicity, quietude, and charm of rural villages. One of the larger towns in the region, Ascoli Piceno, an hour south of us, has provided us many pleasant times, dining, attending events, and simply walking about its flat terrain.
Like most cities and towns built in the Middle Ages, Ascoli Piceno is a maze of streets, lanes, and narrow passageways. You’ll see modern major thoroughfares, for sure. But veer off one and you are immediately plunged back into the 11th century. For the first few years, we frequently found ourselves scurrying about in a rabbit warren of narrow, meandering lanes. However, after considerable trial and error, we finally grew familiar with the roads, piazzas, landmarks, and restaurants, as well as the best places to park. Our “dog paths” have become so ingrained we don’t fret about our visits anymore.
Nonetheless, we recently discovered it is possible to be a bumbling novice all over again.
Our plan for the day was to go to the expansive, open-air antiques market in Ascoli Piceno. From past trips, we know the exact location of parking lots and garages. We drove down a main street, headed for one of those spots as we have done many times before.
As we approached our intended destination, we realized that not only was the street market being held but several other big events were going on simultaneously. The town center was packed with people and vehicles. Cars careened. Trucks, motorcycles, and mopeds sped about. Bicycles weaved through the traffic. People on foot poured in every direction, crowds surging and ebbing every few minutes. Engulfed in pandemonium, we eventually found the usual parking area. It was full so we maneuvered back out into the street.
Then we made a fatal error: we turned the wrong direction. The street, although wide and normally open to through-traffic, was completely closed off at an unseen point around a corner, due to a large construction project. We halted in front of a barricade of fencing, the drivers behind us honking and yelling the Italian equivalent of four-letter words.
Under more relaxed conditions, we might have surveyed the scene and chosen to turn right and follow a street out of the surrounding craziness. But no. In a tizzy, we turned left, right into a pedestrian-only zone. The sign was there, we just failed to see it.
Seconds later, we were passing people eating lunch, tabletops only a few centimeters from the car windows. I could have snatched a morsel from someone’s plate, we were so close – intruders though we were.
Then we executed the colpo di grazia.
We emerged through an opening and found ourselves driving across the main piazza of the city. Shortly, we passed the entrance to the big cathedral. This is not a place where one drives. Ever. People scattered. Market sellers rushed out of the way of our oncoming vehicle. It was a scene right out of an old screwball comedy by Fellini or De Sica. Fortunately, we didn’t hit anything. Or anyone.
But I wanted to die.
Then it got worse.
Frantically trying to find a way out of the hubbub we had caused, we plunged down a narrow one-way street — going the wrong way. A line of cars was headed directly toward us, the drivers clearly dismayed that we were blocking their route. By now, passersby were loudly critiquing our decision-making skills. We made a sharp right turn that appeared to lead out of the crowds. For a microsecond we were elated. The exit was in sight.
Then, suddenly, a jostling bunch of people appeared in front of us. Someone in the crowd set off a massive, orange smoke bomb. Thick, acrid billows quickly obscured any view ahead. As Italians might say, “Che disastro!”
At this point my memory grows foggy. We managed to extract ourselves somehow, eventually finding a parking spot, free of chaos and confusion. All parties in the car let out an audible sigh of relief in unison.
We did end up also finding a good place to have lunch, though. So, the day was not a total loss.
Usually with these experiences, I try to find some useful life lesson. I’m at a loss.
So true. I’ve driven all over Europe, from twisty, terrifying roads along the hills above the Douro to the one-lane cart paths of Scotland. I’ve successfully navigated London and Paris. But not Firenze – the only place I’ve even given up and simply abandoned the rental car. Though not quite as terrifying as Mark’s experience, I was trapped in a maze/loop of one way streets, barricades and other obstacles. After the fourth or fifth attempt to break out of it I simply parked the car and gave up. Walked to the B&B and begged for help so I could find the rental return.
I thoroughly enjoyed the ride-along to your terror.
My limited international driving tribulations are mostly confined to Ireland where my copilot’s sole job was not navigation but to repeat, over and over, “go left, go left, go left” when approaching any traffic circle. Now there was the Tuk Tuk incident in Bangkok where two drivers having a dispute decided to play bumper cars as we wove in and out of traffic in Chinatown at top speed but I was not at the wheel, only being thrown around in the back yelling “stop.” Oddly, it’s a fond memory.
It is widely accepted that traffic laws in Italy are merely suggestions. There is one, however, that is almost universally observed: It as absolutely forbidden to allow another vehicle to drive in front of you.
I have felt the same, heart-stopping terror over 30 years ago when visiting medieval hill towns in southern France. One side trip to St. Paul de Vence, we found ourselves driving up a rapidly-narrowing street (which any American driver would call an alley) with buildings on both sides threatening to squeeze our tiny rented Renault into scrap metal, through which we could pass only if both side mirrors were flipped inwards.
In a neighboring town we encountered a Volvo high-centered on one of the steep switchbacks heading up from the valley to the town center. To make matters worse, they were blocking the road so no cars (or tow-trucks) could get through. Several people got out of their stopped cars and pushed/rocked the Volvo so its tires could get enough traction to reverse out of the bend in the road and re-try the ascent. Obviously, it worked, or I suppose we’d still be there.
I agree. In Italy, it is not only forbidden to allow any car to drive in front of you, it’s also not permitted for any obstacle to prevent you from driving in a straight line at an insanely high rate of speed without stopping ’till you arrive. However, Italians seem a forgiving, lovely bunch of souls….
I have been to only two hill towns in southern France, and we arrived on foot so may have missed the worst, but it seems to me when we got there, there were a couple horses tied up at the entrance piazza. Maybe an idea for next time at the rental agency?
Your story reminds me of driving in Ireland, except there we kept finding walls on both sides of skinny roads that just might rip off our rental car’s side mirror! Obviously you and your wife must love Italy, to put up with the driving hassles! My first trip there was fifty years ago, when my college group was shepherded by a mellow older professor named Bernard Hinshaw, who was really interested in Italian art, as I remember. Any relation?