The summer of 2013 presented me with the opportunity to tick off one of the items on my Ultimate Bucket List. Unlike a regular Bucket List, which is simply a compilation of things you want to do before you kick the proverbial pail, to qualify for the Ultimate Bucket List must meet a second criterion: an increased risk that the kicking might happen during your attempt rather than before or after it.
Because I am a bit of a wuss, driving in Italy was risky enough to qualify.
My first experience of stereotypical Italian driving occurred when I was working in Campania during the summer of 2005 and a local guy who was, ironically, a member of the Protezione Civile offered to drive us to a nearby town for a party. After an hour long white-knuckle ride where Mr Civil Protection zigzagged along the motorway at double the speed limit, taking both hands off the wheel every couple of minutes while he called his friend for directions (the friend had no idea either) before overtaking on the hard shoulder and finally parking on the hatched triangle between the main road and the sliproad while he worked out where to go, we emerged pale-faced from the car looking terrified enough to convince someone else to offer to drive us back. This was followed by a year in Milan, where I never sat behind the wheel myself but was a fairly regular passenger and was impressed enough by what I saw to write this post. Which was why doing my fair share of the driving on our journey from the Valle d'Aosta to the Ligurian coast via Milan grew in my head to be something of an adventure, and worthy of the U.B.L.
When we popped out of the Mont Blanc tunnel and on to the autostrada, I realised that I wasn't very sure what the speed limit was. Italian roads, like French ones, often don't have times to tell you the actual number of kilometres per hour if it conforms to the national speed limit for that kind of road. In France, as long as there are other cars on the road, this isn't a problem, as the vast majority of people will be driving at precisely the limit plus 2 or 3 km/h . If you let your speed drop to even just 2 km/h below the limit, the person behind you will probably very kindly remind you to speed up by tailgating you and flashing their lights.
In Italy, we had no idea.
Unsurprisingly, people seemed to be doing more or less whatever speed they wanted.
Surprisingly, that speed, more often than not, seemed to be well under the limit, often by up to 20 or 30 km/h.
(In fact, the limits are exactly the same as in France: 130/110/90/70/50 depending on the type of road. The main difference is that the Italians seem to enjoy using a wider range of numbers for more dangerous sections of roads, such as 100 and 80 as well as 90 and 70.)
Our second surprise was that we never heard anybody honking their horn in the whole time we were there. Not when people parked in the middle of the narrow Ligurian high streets and nobody could get past. Not when we had to queue for twenty minutes to pay the tolls on the Turin bypass. Not even when we had to a poor old man hadn't understood how to pay for his ticket to get out of a car park and kept everyone waiting behind him, meaning that the time limit on everybody else's tickets ran out and we all got stuck inside.
All in all, driving in Italy was a relatively stress-free experience, apart from when we got stuck behind someone driving slowly on the motorway or couldn't honk the horn when we were desperate to get out of the car park.
Just in case anyone is disappointed, as I was, a little, that driving in Italy isn't guaranteed to provide the adrenaline buzz I expected, I can confirm that people rarely use their indicators and you can still experience that sense of tension as the car in the lane in front of you repeatedly veers to the left as if it is going to pull out in front of you. I guess most drivers are still too busy gesticulating and using their mobile phones to keep their hands on the steering wheel.