Living in Rural Italy Without a Car


Since moving to Italy seven years ago, I’ve participated in various Facebook groups aimed at people desiring to move to Italy. In those groups, people who have lived here for some time share their experiences with newcomers and others who are baffled by the bureaucratic procedures at every turn. We are as well. And, as it turns out, so are Italians.

Some of the Frequently Asked Questions have to do with owning and driving a vehicle. Americans who have visited Italy on holiday often know they can rent a car using their current license, supplemented by a AAA international driving permit. It’s fairly easy to do, although rental rates at airports are increasingly costly.

What most people do not know about is the complex, confounding, and changing set of regulations about driving once one moves to Italy. Particularly people from North America are taken aback since they have likely been driving for decades and have no clue what hurdles lie ahead here. Countries that have national driving licenses have entered into reciprocal agreements with Italy in which new residents can exchange their old license for a new Italian one. Not so for Americans because each state has its own licensing laws.

Italian officials are not about to sit down with 50 states and negotiate treaties with each one. So, the Italian government treats American newcomers as if they are 16 all over again. You have to take driving lessons and pass a difficult exam. It’s not available in English.

You must learn the Italian roadway laws, including obscure terminology for parts of cars, trucks, and emergency vehicles. The exam is 30 questions; you can only miss three in a 20-minute testing period. The pool of questions, from which any given exam is randomly drawn, is in the many thousands.

We have had a car in Italy for almost six years. Due to a series of unfortunate circumstances, we have had no access to it since earlier this year. That’s no one’s fault but our own, involving equal parts procrastination, willful ignorance, and plain old obstinacy. For years, we were able to get away without a license … until we weren’t. At least there was no humiliating court appearance nor jail time. Mercifully, the vehicle was not confiscated — which is technically possible.

A policeman we know in a nearby town issued a ticket along with a very stern lecture. He instructed us to go home and keep the vehicle parked until a license was in hand. Properly admonished, we sheepishly returned home. Despite its reputation for crazy drivers, Italy takes its traffic code seriously.

So, for the past four months we now know the answer to a common FAQ: Can you live in the Italian countryside without a car? The answer is yes, but oh my, with what limits. No beach time for us, despite the ideal weather now. No jaunts into the mountains to see spectacular lakes and snow-capped peaks. No impromptu trips to a restaurant, an event, or an antiques market. We are essentially home-bound in our village of 1,200 people, perched on a hilltop, surrounded by farmland for as far as you can see.

Nine years ago, when we began to search in earnest for a place to live, we had a list of criteria. One near the top was having goods and services available within walking distance from home. We knew that, inevitably, with aging and infirmities, this would be a necessity. (This was also an important factor during the lockdown periods of the pandemic.) After several visits to Italy looking at towns, we noticed sharp contrasts. Some towns were inundated with seasonal tsunamis of tourists, such as Cortona with its Tuscan Sun fame. Over time and with popularity, they had higher costs of living and of housing.

Three of the many businesses and services in the center of the village of Santa Vittoria in Matenano (Photo: Hinshaw).

At the other end of the spectrum, some towns had been drained of their former populations due to decreased family sizes, deaths of elderly residents, younger people departing for jobs elsewhere, or devastating earthquakes. Some places are almost ghost towns, with only a bar and a handful of shops. But eventually we found a town that met all our criteria, Santa Vittoria in Matenano, in the Marche region of east-central Italy.

Within a short walk are three food markets, four hair salons, three coffee bars, three restaurants, a hardware store, a pharmacy, a clothing store, a dry cleaner, a bakery, butcher, florist, and a shop that sells office and art supplies. In other words, virtually everything we need for daily living. I still marvel how this locally robust economy works. This village is barely the size of Seattle’s Pioneer Square district, where we lived before, but has less than a third of the population. Perhaps it’s because every shop has its loyal local clientele who use it almost every day.  As we do.  

During this period of no driving, we are grateful to friends, both Italians and English-speaking, who have offered to take us to appointments. We have managed to make it work. Despite this kindness, we are hesitant to ask for too many favors. In any case, we expect to unravel the bureaucratic snarls shortly and, with that, restore our personal automobility.  

We have had some unexpected experiences during this sequestered period. It has been necessary to find entertainment locally. One can only watch so many Netflix offerings. Many towns within the region sponsor lectures, concerts, and theatrical performances. However, most of these are in larger towns, impossible to reach by bus at convenient times. Our village occasionally hosts performances in its diminutive, 200-seat, classically configured teatro.

I recently attended a performance there. It was advertised in the “old school” method — colorful posters pasted to walls. It was a performance alright, but not the type I had expected. It was a blend of amusement and bemusement.

For almost two hours, a single actor presented a mashup involving a sermon, an impassioned poem in free verse, and a vaudeville act. Sporting a razor-sharp crewcut and a flowery dress, this androgynous character was a cross between Puck and the Devil. Sometimes softly whimsical, sometimes ranting at fortissimo volume, he sauntered about a stage set of randomly placed logs, a sculpture resembling a dead tree, a lectern, and a huge pile of freshly cut pine boughs.

The character read his lines from sheets of paper he plucked from various objects on stage, then upon completing each part of the script, crumpled the sheets and tossed them on the stage. Midway through, we were treated to an interpretive dance sequence set to Native American tribal music. Or perhaps African tribal. Or maybe Celtic. Hard to tell. By then my sensory receptors were pretty much confused and overloaded.

The theme of the non-stop, existential monologue, which lasted 90 minutes — itself an endurance test — was the futility of life. No matter your life choices, they will likely end up with nothing good or enduring. “Niente!” was the repeated refrain. It was the first solo, schizophrenic postmodern opera I’ve ever seen. A one-man version of Peter Weiss’s Marat/Sade. I’m happy I saw it. Also happy I won’t be seeing it again.

Once I’m back on the strada, we’ll once again be steering further afield for our theatrical enjoyment.

Mark Hinshaw
Mark Hinshaw
Mark Hinshaw is a retired architect and city planner who lived in Seattle for more than 40 years. For 12 years he had a regular column on architecture for The Seattle Times and later was a frequent contributor to Crosscut. He now lives in a small hill town in Italy.


  1. A ‘character-building experience’ is what I can think of to write. That and my amazement that you remember as much of that ‘postmodern opera’ as you apparently do, that is, unless you made it all up. How are the rest of us to know?

    • P.S. Mr. Hinshaw sent me a photo of the mini-sermon presented by the performer, a photo which included the stage set as well. My thanks to him!

  2. The Royal Shakespeare production of Marat/Sade, with Patrick Magee, Glenda Jackson et al. could be the best thing I’ve ever seen on the screen, so I’m not sure the comparison made much sense for me.

    In Portugal, we get to trade in our licenses, by virtue of US membership in the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development. The process involves some considerable documentation, partly from your originating state licensing office, but the state licenses are all treated the same just as they are in the US. The Italians can do what they want, but they don’t have to be like that.

    We probably use the car once every couple weeks, but I expect that will go up if we ever get plugged in better. It’s a little more urban situation here, though not big city. Ironically, I think the last time I drove was last week to go down to our regional capital to renew my provisional driver’s permit while I’m waiting for the card that inexplicably hasn’t been issued.

  3. I live in Taiwan but spend about 4 months of the year in France. There a Citroën Ami available that anyone over 14 can drive without a license as it is basically a fancy quad cycle. Is it available in Italy with the same restrictions. Only can go about 25km/hr but is street legal.

    • Don’t know for sure about Italy, but in Portugal it’s just a lighter-duty “AM” license. From what I can make out, I bet it’s a similar situation in Italy. Fiat Topolino is essentially the same thing. Electric, possibly equipped for home charging only.


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