Travel: The Petrolicious Guide to Driving Tastefully in Italy

The Petrolicious Guide to Driving Tastefully in Italy

April 7, 2015

Photography by Afshin Behnia

Recently our friends at Jalopnik, specifically the talented Michael Ballaban wrote an insightful piece on the seeming insanity of driving in Italy. Ballaban’s experience as an American driving for the first time in Italy are spot on, but it did compel me to share a different perspective on Italian driving.

First, a bit of background and disclaimer about me. I am an Italophile. I love just about everything about the country and the culture except, of course, its ridiculous government and hopeless politicians. I still have fond memories of when we would travel to Italy for vacation and sometimes for my dad’s work when I was only four or five years old. When I went back for the first time as an adult at the age of 20, I knew that Italy would play a significant part in my life. I immediately learned Italian and took every opportunity to go back whenever possible. Today, I’m lucky to have been able to spend 3-4 months a year in Italy for that past few years.

Of course, as an enthusiast road trips are integral to my experiences in Italy. Some of the best towns and countrysides are best reached by car and very inconvenient or impossible to get to by train. So with that, I share with you some simple rules for getting the most enjoyment out of driving in Italy.

1. Choose The Right Car

You’re going to be driving in some of the most spectacular roads in the world and going through beautiful historic towns. Italy offers you a tremendous variety of roads, from coastal cliffs, to rolling hills, to mountain switchbacks. Are you going to rent a generic modern front-wheel-drive econobox for your adventures? Absolutely not. That would be the automotive equivalent of going to Italy and eating at McDonalds everyday. No, you have to get something stylish and fun-to-drive. Your choice of car must pair with the locations you will be visiting the way a Ligurian Vermentino pairs with trofie al pesto.

You don’t necessarily need a Lamborghini Miura to drive the Alps while reliving (redying?) the opening scene of the Italian Job. There are many great choices for all budgets. A Fiat 124 Spider, a Lancia Fulvia, or for the big spender, a Maserati 3500 GT, all make for great long distance touring.

I happened to choose a 1968 Alfa Romeo GTV in ocra yellow. The GTV with the 1750cc twin-cam engine provides the best balance of performance, handling, comfort, and fuel economy for touring Italy. And it’s damn stylish. So what that there’s no A/C and your back will be dripping with sweat when you get out of the car? It’s much more fun driving through sunflower fields and winding Tuscan country roads with the windows open and the summer air rushing in.

There are a few places you can rent classics in Italy, but you may also want to consider buying a classic and shipping it home after your travels. There is one catch, however: unlike in the US, only Italian residents can register or insure a car in Italy. This brings us to rule number 2.

2. Marry An Italian

There are many reasons and benefits to marrying an Italian, and your priorities will determine how high this ranks on your list. Your Italian spouse can register and insure your classic car in his or her name, even if (as is the case with my wife) she can’t drive nor has a driver’s license. This frees you to buy the classic you’ve always wanted to drive in Italy. Or you may opt for some forbidden fruit, such as the Lancia Delta HF Integrale.

3. Meet Some Fellow Enthusiasts

Your enjoyment of driving in Italy can be greatly enhanced by the people you meet. In fact, this applies to your enjoyment of Italy in general.

In Milan, go to the automotive Mecca that is Libreria dell’Automobile and browse the plethora of excellent automotive books, including some rare out-of-print titles. The co-owner Sergio Nada is extremely welcoming and loves to talk cars, travel, and life in general. If you’re lucky like me, you’ll meet a generous fellow enthusiast and collector like Donato Maniscalco who will become your close friend and will invite you to his home to meet his gracious family—and be treated to his wife’s incredible cooking.

If you’re not in Milan, pick up an issue of Ruoteclassiche at your local newsstand and browse the many ads and announcements for various car gatherings. Every weekend, especially from beginning of spring to the end of autumn, there is at least a handful of classic car events happening in various parts of Italy. Attend one. Attend several. You’ll meet wonderful people who will invite you to events, drives, or simply to see their secret collection of cars or other automobilia.


4. Participate In A Rally

Italians love TSD rallies, or gare di regolarità as they’re called in Italian. Almost every weekend throughout the year there is at least one TSD rally taking place in Italy. They range vastly in terms of duration, style, cost, strictness, and competitiveness. At one extreme there are rallies like the world-famous Mille Miglia whose cost and strict acceptance criteria for the cars restrict it to the elite. I recommend attending any of the numerous more down-to-earth, local events.

Last year, my wife and I were guests of our friend Donato to drive in the Trofeo Ludovico Scarfiotti which winds through the beautiful Sibillini Mountains in the province of the Marche. This rally was equal parts competitiveness, fun, camaraderie, culture, and dining, with stops at excellent restaurants and wine tasting pit stops at local vineyards.

There is a rally for everyone. You want pure driving and competitiveness? You prefer cruising and enjoying the sights? Want to drive at night in the snow? They have it all. Drive one—you’ll love it. 

5. Ditch the Navigation System

Well, not exactly. A nav is absolutely essential when driving within any Italian city. Road signs are not very clear and are usually hidden. I remember on one occasion before GPS, I had to park the car, get out, and walk to the side of the street to read the name of the road I was on.

Once you are out of the city, however, it’s a different story. If you enter a destination into your nav system, you’ll arrive in the most efficient way possible—but you will miss out on so many possibilities. Get an old-school map to plan your road trips. As you map out your routes, your curiosity will be piqued by interesting sounding places and symbols along the way. Take those detours instead of trying to stick to a strict Griswoldian schedule. You’re after adventure, after all.

6. Pose With Some Monuments

Most of where you will be driving to are living museums. Extraordinary works of art are commonly embedded into a city’s architecture. You will be at the scenes of historic battles, or sites where significant scientific and artistic developments took place. If you followed the advice of Rule Number 1, you should have a car that also has some significance in automotive history, and more importantly, it looks great against the backdrop of a medieval or renaissance architecture. Drive up, get out, and snap some photos.

7. Don’t Drive In Rome. Or Milan. Or Florence. Or Any City.

Ballaban couldn’t be more right about not driving in Rome. In addition to the madness that he points out, there is another practical reason to avoid driving in Rome, or any other metropolitan center for that matter.

Almost all Italian cities now have areas in the center that are off limits unless you have a special permit. The aim is to reduce congestion and smog in the city centers. These zones are camera controlled and strictly enforced. Worse, they’re very easy for tourists to overlook and face steep fines. And believe me: as inefficient as the Italian government is at most things, it ranks supreme at collecting fines.

Anyway, why would you want to drive in these beautiful cities? They are to be enjoyed at the pace of walking, getting lost in side streets, and unexpectedly happening on your new favorite bar or vintage bookstore…

Driving and living tastefully mean different things to different people, but in my opinion, cars are often more than just about driving. Our vehicles—even on vacation—fit into a larger context and can ultimately influence how you enjoy your trip, who you meet, where you drive, and what memories you’ll form. There’s no better place to experience this than in Italy.

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Bruno Kriegel
Bruno Kriegel(@bruno_kriegel)
4 years ago

I can´t believe that I only read this now, I´ve just came back from Italy. Rented an old Alfa Spider to cruise the Amalfi Coast. The car was in Tuscany so I drove from there all the way to the coast and back. It was an incredible trip. At first it seems a little overwhelming, those narrow roads, those impatient drivers, those huge buses, but by the end of the trip you are driving your car in spaces you would say a motorcycle wouldn´t fit, and you will be the one honking at the guy in front of you to go faster). My hood didn´t pop open, but the shifter had the tendency to pop to neutral when I was in 2nd gear, and I also lost 5th gear on the way back to Tuscany. Here are some pictures.

James Foster
James Foster(@james_foster)
4 years ago

Wonderful article Afshin. Alas I have only had three trips to Italy, the first time I didn’t drive, the second we had a minibus which unfortunately I drove through Florence and three months later back in Melbourne a fine arrived! On my last trip in 2015 I hired a new Alfa Romeo Giulietta, not a QV like my one at home, but a manual Alfa all the same and I made the pilgrimage to the Alfa Romeo museum from Chianti.
I’d love to hire a classic Alfa Romeo next time I go, for my 50th next year. I can see me enjoying the most beautiful place on earth in a classic, although I’d like it to be a GTV6.
Keep up the wonderful articles, especially anything to do with Alfa Romeo, Lancia and Italy!

Mercurio Muzzupappa
Mercurio Muzzupappa(@1969giuliati)
5 years ago

Afshin, I really enjoyed your post about the rules for a trip in Italy. Living in Milano, but being born in Calabria, I have to agree with your point of view! I laughed a lot when you said something about the italian government! It’s sadly true. And you can imagine what Italy could be with a good government! You know Italy very well, and in fact it’s seems you’re italian! Well done you, my friend.

Pietro  Lo Fria
Pietro Lo Fria(@heisman)
6 years ago

There’s one thing he mentions that needs to be reiterated. Rule #13

[b]Don’t Hang Out In The Left Lane
I don’t care if you’ve burned every Tutor System camera in the entire country, someone will always be going faster than you. Use the left lane to pass, and for nothing else.

Apparently people don’t remember this fun fact anymore in the good ol’ US>

Samir Shirazi
Samir Shirazi(@samirshirazi)
6 years ago

If you ever disobey rule #7… come visit me in Firenze 🙂

Pete McLachlan
Pete McLachlan(@pyropete)
6 years ago

Yes Afshin! The video put a big smile on my face, thank you. I will be book-marking this for future reference as I have a promise to keep, with my sons when they graduate, of a road trip in Europe. We might do a reverse formula and repatriate a European car by shipping it over ahead of ourselves.
This site just gets better with time. Like all tasteful things.

Russ Hoffman
Russ Hoffman(@russhoffman1)
6 years ago

Wife (not Italian) and I touring Italy last year. I will be back there in two weeks. A modern Lancia may not be as glamorous as a vintage Alfa, but it was a great trip, with LOTS of detours!

Ludovico Marchisio
Ludovico Marchisio(@ludovicomarchisi)
6 years ago

that moment..

Ludovico Marchisio
Ludovico Marchisio(@ludovicomarchisi)
6 years ago

Beautiful video and alfa. I suggest everybody to have a nice drive on the italian alps, especially on “colle del piccolo San Bernardo”. Here’s a photo of that moment…

Michael Morena
Michael Morena(@67spider1600)
6 years ago

This is one of my dreams on my bucket list. My family has a house in Italy, and I have an Alfa spider in Canada… I need to combine the two! Other than buying a car in Italy (a possibility one day but not in the near future) where would I be able to rent a classic Alfa? I might be going next year and would love to drive a classic rather than a boring econobox for commuting.

Jan Breemans
Jan Breemans(@fb_100006195610543)
6 years ago
Reply to  Michael Morena

One of mine as wel. I’m thinking about renting an Alfa Romeo Spider (boat tail) this summer and drive around the Amalfi and Cilento coast. I found a company who rents them. Not cheap although. But I think it will be worth it.

Peter Davis
Peter Davis(@magari)
6 years ago

Love the pic of Alfa in front of the Ovieto Cathedral.

Peter Davis
Peter Davis(@magari)
6 years ago

Ten years in Italy, and I would agree totally!!

Rob Dixon
Rob Dixon(@robd)
6 years ago

Superb article Ashfin, really enjoyed reading it…
I haven’t been to Italy for a couple of years and until I read your piece I didn’t appreciate how much I missed it. You’ve inspired me to make sure I don’t leave it another year until I go back.

Afshin Behnia
Afshin Behnia(@afshinb)
6 years ago
Reply to  Rob Dixon

Thanks Rob! Indeed, don’t let another year go by. Another great thing about Italy is its diversity. It’s really like 20 very different cultures in one country.

Viktor Koot
Viktor Koot(@kotomoto)
6 years ago

Allmost got it right I guess… Married an Italian woman (Sicilian in fact), been there almost every summer and learned the ways to drive there.
This year we make a roadtrip thru the alps, along the coast to the south to celebrate the birthday of my father-in-law and stay in Sicily a few weeks. Then following the other coast back to te north. Vist some italian car city’s and factories, car museum in Turin and finally thru the alps back. The kids navigate us by map. Only I use a 17 yr old Merc E, 280 V6, so no italian car this time.

Afshin Behnia
Afshin Behnia(@afshinb)
6 years ago

You can also read about our first road trips in the GTV in this short series we published early in Petrolicious life:

Frank Anigbo
Frank Anigbo(@fanigbo)
6 years ago

Funny — my ocra GTV used to do that hood pop thing. Annoying.

Redvers Arnold
Redvers Arnold(@redalfa)
6 years ago

Loved the video and the shots down bonnet. here is a similar picture from mine but in France (if I can get it to attach)

Emanuel Costa
Emanuel Costa(@genovevo)
6 years ago

Very nice advices and the video is really funy. How many times did the hood pop out Afshin? loool

Afshin Behnia
Afshin Behnia(@afshinb)
6 years ago
Reply to  Emanuel Costa

The hood issue turned out to be the tip of the iceberg! For the full story on this GTV, check out this article I wrote a couple years back:

Anders Holmberg
Anders Holmberg(@abarthista)
6 years ago

Utterly fabulous reading, thanks for sharing Afshin.

Afshin Behnia
Afshin Behnia(@afshinb)
6 years ago

Thanks Anders! Glad you enjoyed it.

6 years ago

When I went it was the height of summer (second week of August), and the roads were empty in Tuscany. I was told the locals were on their own holidays on the coast. We didn’t bother with maps. Get lost.

6 years ago

Well I’m afraid that when I lived in Italy in the early 90s I did it all wrong.

1 – I didn’t have the right car. I didn’t even have an Italian car, let alone a classic. Instead, I made do with a Mk2 Golf GTI. I guess it could have been worse, but I was disappointed that it didn’t seem to be capable of maintaining the same cruising speeds on the autostrada as Italian commercial travellers driving Fiat Croma diesels.

2- I drove in Rome, every day. My excuse is that I lived there. It clearly had an awful effect on me as to this day I firmly believe that Romans are the best drivers in the world. They invented roads right? And all roads lead there. So that means they must be the best. Naples and Palermo were fun too, although as you go South the degree of creativity shown by the local drivers tends to increase and you have to be alert to this.

3-The only navigation system I really relied on was my sense of direction. Sat nav wasn’t invented and although maps were sometimes useful in a general way, they never told you accurately which streets were one way, or even which ones you could drive down at all. And of course the road signs were largely a practical joke. All this made life less predictable and therefore more interesting.

4-My biggest mistake of course, being a non EU citizen, was not marrying an Italian. If I’d done that I’d still be able to live there.

In spite of all these mistakes I didn’t die – in fact I never had an accident in 4 years. Instead, I learnt to drive properly for the first time in my until then sheltered life and had an absolute ball.

I also discovered ‘Ruoteclassiche’ which I still subscribe to – it’s the only really serious classic car magazine, as only the Italians really take cars seriously. Everyone else either thinks they’re just transport or just a toy. The Italians know different.

My only word of caution to newbies is to take it easy at first and don’t try to have fun at the wheel until you’ve worked out what the rules are – not the written rules (which nobody pays any attention to, thank God) but the unwritten ones, of which the most important is that your safety is your responsibility, not anybody else’s.

Buon divertimento e guida sicura (not necessarily in that order).

Afshin Behnia
Afshin Behnia(@afshinb)
6 years ago
Reply to  Jono51

It sounds like you did most things right! I agree with Romans being great drivers. It’s survival of the fittest, after all, right? And what environment puts drivers to the test the most? Rome, of course. (or Naples for that matter).

Michael Bolli
Michael Bolli(@fb_1269379447)
6 years ago

My last roadtrip in Italy went from Switzerland to Bonassola, Florence, Rome, Naples, Amalfi Coast, Alberobello, Vieste, Rocca Calascio, Rimini and back to Switzerland. To be repeated! Here’s the album with more, car-unrelated pictures:

Peter Fabian
Peter Fabian(@fb_666902086)
6 years ago
Reply to  Michael Bolli

Oh, and in a classic Saab no less!

The only way it could be better would be if it were a convertible.

Afshin Behnia
Afshin Behnia(@afshinb)
6 years ago
Reply to  Michael Bolli

Lovely! Going from the Amalfi Coast to Switzerland is like going from one planet to another.

6 years ago

I really liked Michael’s post on Jalopnik, below is a version of what I posted there. I will disagree with you mildly on the city driving. It’s all about the timing, and knowing how to interpret the signs – both literal and metaphorical.

Italy has wonderful roads, and many of the secondary routes are simply amazing both for their beauty and driver-fun quotient. It’s an ideal country for exploring by automobile (or motorcycle, I would imagine), since there are so many amazing out-of-the-way places to visit that you just can’t reach by public transport.

Get off those Autostradas with their exorbitant tolls and tailgating Multiplas, whose drivers all think they’re at Monza. The backroads will take a while longer, but you’ll see more, and meet more interesting people.

DON’T drive drunk. Italy’s BAC threshold is .05, which is only about one and half glasses of that delicious Barolo you’re pounding during your late pranzo. Not to mention the Grappa and Limoncello. DUI is one of the few traffic laws the caribinieri actually care to enforce regularly. If you linger over lunch, linger some more in that charming little village before hitting the road again. Lingering is gooood.

Don’t be irrationally terrified of driving in Rome. If you can handle say, San Francisco, or downtown Boston on a busy day, you can deal with Rome. There are some major arteries in the city that are pretty simple to navigate if you plan ahead. And driving in Rome on an early Sunday morning is easy peasy – it’s all about the timing. My advice if you’re visiting Rome with your car? Find a central parking garage near a main road with long-term parking, leave your Alfa there and walk everywhere like the Romans do. Paris and London are worse, IMHO.

Yes on the physical maps – it’ll cost you $15 or $16 for a good one, but having that backup to the phone is priceless, especially in rural areas. Plus, they’re fun and a cool memento of your trip.

Lastly, while Italian driving conventions seem chaotic and noisy and intrusive, they’re still conventions. Watch Italian drivers carefully and you’ll learn the rules of the road pretty quickly. Just remember that if you get yelled at, it’s not personal. It’s, uh, just how they communicate. And honking is a language all its own – don’t fear the horn, it’s not always angry like it is in the US.

Buon Viaggio, tutti!