Driving in Italy: a guide for Yanks.

Highways, roads, streets, alleys:

There are toll booths at the entrance/exit point of almost every highway; don't lose the ticket that they give you at the entrance, or they'll make you pay as if you entered from the farthest toll booth on the whole highway network.

Some highways are free (Sicily comes to mind). This means that one moment you are driving on the highway, and the next you are on a normal road with a far lower speed limit. Guess where they hide the speed traps.

Driving from Bolzano to Cosenza (that's to say, crossing most of Italy) costs about 45 euro.

If you plan to drive a lot on Italian highways, it's better to buy a gadget called Telepass, that will send your data to the toll booth through a radio link, bypassing the infernal queues that sometimes form at the booths.

Most Italian cities weren't built from scratch two centuries ago, so they had to adapt to a street planning that dates back to the Middle Ages, if you are lucky, and to ancient Rome if you are not.

If the city has an interesting historical centre with old buildings, it will be closed to traffic unless you actually live there, or you have a special permit.


The sequence is Green, Green+Yellow, Red, Green+Honk of the Car Behind You.

I strongly suspect that the honks of some cars are actually connected to the stoplight, possibly using some Bluetooth technology - the reaction times are too short.

If you drive in some big city in southern Italy, the lights have the following meaning:

  • Red = Pass.
  • Yellow = Pass.
  • Green = Pass carefully. Remember that the crossing road has a red light.

It's quite common for beggars, gipsies and illegal immigrants to try to sell you something when you stop at a traffic light. Some of them will wipe your windshield for a few euro. Others, mostly Pakistani, will sell you roses. They are usually kind, smiling and take no offense if you don't buy their stuff.

(I've noticed that, when I'm driving with a nice girl, I seem to find only wipers. The opposite happens whenever my windshield is something that will drive an entomologist to tears.)


A brief summary: three pedals, stick shift, no cruise control, excellent fuel economy.

We drive small cars to manage the narrow alleys and to find parking space. This means that whole generations of teenagers have mastered the fine art of having sex with the handbrake stuck in their butt.

Some of the cars are downright ugly. The Fiat Multipla looks like a normal car that has been parked for too long in Chernobyl. It's the kind of car that looks like a outhouse, and in fact I wonder if you can flush the driver's seat.

On the other hand, we have the Fiat Cinquecento and the occasional Ferrari.

Driving in general:

We, uhm, do own the road. I'm sure that I've tucked the ownership papers somewhere, just like the rest of my countrymen.

Don't drive in downtown Palermo. All the drivers there are professional stuntmen. As a rule of thumb, the farther south you drive, the more you'll have to pay to your cardiologist.

Balding, short men portrayed everywhere on huge signs during election time:

That's our PM. Ignore him, he'll go away.

Speed limits:

Treat them like a real Italian: they aren't the law, they are simple guidelines. (You can find the occasional policeman who begs to differ, as I've found out on January when I had to pay a 130 euro fine for doing 70 on a 50 Km/h road.)

Some speed limits are downright ridiculous. Limits of 10 Km/h are not uncommon. I can walk faster than that!


We call it "benzina" (ben ZEE nah) and we treat it with due respect, since it's more expensive than champagne ("A glass of unleaded, please, with a paper umbrella in it").

During the war in Bosnia, a litre of black-market gas was still cheaper than in Italy. I'm not making this up.

A note to the Yanks: if we hear you complain about the high price of gas in the States, we'll hit you with a big stick. Repeatedly.


The traffic flows counterclockwise, and in a normal roundabout you have to stop at every intersection. In the last five years they've put stop signs at the entry points of every roundabout that I've seen. This way it's harder to enter the rotary, but once you're inside you can make as many turns as you want, or until you start to feel sick.

We call those merry-go-round "French roundabouts". (No-one thought of calling them "Freedom roundabouts" during the Iraq fracas. We have some sense of humour.)