Way back, I saw a movie (on TV) called The Italian Job (1969), starring Michael Caine. Touted as a British caper, the storyline went something like this – a guy (Caine) just released from prison, finds himself embroiled in yet another illegal escapade: this time outwitting the Mafia to steal a large amount of gold in the Italian city of Turin. Funny, fast paced and completely entertaining, the wild car pursuit scene at the end was fabulous. You remember…the furious car chase between the police and three Minis through streets, on rooftops, in churches and ending in the grand escape through the sewer system (which was not actually filmed in Turin, but in the UK). Backwards and forwards, over sidewalks, through a wedding, shifting gears on the fly, pedestrians be damned. No wonder the Mini drivers wore helmets – they were driving in Italy!
And the fact of the matter is – it’s kind of true! Except for the rooftop thing.
Here, travelling by car is an adventure in itself! Get where you want, when you want, by whatever means required. My first night in Italy we stayed in Napoli. Narrow streets, unexpected roundabouts, short merge lanes and Italian signage did not make for a quick trip to the hotel. Even our GPS lady, in her mechanical British accent, seemed frustrated. But with a little trial and error and a few quietly muttered epithets, we managed to find the hotel. A well deserved pizza and a cool glass of vino rosso awaited us.
The next morning, we nosed the Audi out onto the little narrow street, down to the left and it was “O-M-G!” I had never seen so many compact hatchback’s in my entire life. And so many Fiats! 500’s. Panda’s. Punta’s. Bravo’s. Vintages ranging from 1960’s to straight off the sales lot. Then Alpha Romeo, Volvo, Mercedes, Audi, with the odd Ford, Volkswagen, Honda and Mini thrown in. Scooters and motorbikes wedged themselves between cars in the traffic parade.
There wasn’t a pick-up truck in sight.
In our attempt to navigate to the autostrada, we circled the same spot three times, drove the wrong way up little streets only meant for one vehicle, backed up to a doorway/alcove to let an oncoming car pass. Bicycles weaved in and out of the traffic. Cars parked in any and every available teeny, weeny space. Double parking – try triple. Children, dogs and parents pushing carriages meandered about like it was a walk in the park. Our addled GPS said “Drive 40 meters and turn left’ (onto a dead end road); “Turn right at the next intersection” (wrong way on a one way street). She was quickly silenced. If we were travelling too slow (still faster than the posted speed limit) the drivers behind would swerve out around, barely making it between us and the oncoming cars – they probably high-fived one another while passing. Once we finally hit the autostrada, there were only two speeds – pedal to the floor and hit the brakes. Diesel fumes, smoky oil and burning rubber filled the air. Merge lanes were for stopping and emergency stopping areas were for cell phone chats, while the car door remained opened out into the traffic. Directional lights – optional. Brakes – don’t use them or hit them hard. Speed limits – keep up or move over. Three passengers to a Vespa. Five to Fiat 500. Drive slow in the fast lane, fast in the slow lane and if neither of those work for you, shimmy through between the two.
I was a total wreck by the time we’d left the heavy traffic behind on the autostrada. Painfully extracting my embedded fingers from the door handle, I checked to see if my right foot had left a dent in the passenger side floor from the imaginary brake I’d been using. My ankle ached. My teeth slowly unclenched. We were still alive.
A week later we ventured to Sorrento – just across the harbour from Naples. The traffic, in full swing, propelled itself along bumper to bumper, yet fast and furious. In places, the narrow, winding road hugged the cliff side, with only a concrete barrier between us and long drop to the deep blue sea. Hairpin curves carried us ever higher, winding the way to Sorrento, then slowly descended the same way. Tunnels carved the way through craggy outcroppings. The closer we got to the city, more and more scooters and motorcycles joined our queue, seemingly appearing out of nowhere. It was immediately apparent that the drivers of these vehicles did not adhere to normal road rules. Helmets – not required and if they were worn, chin straps flapped in the wind. Passing was fine on either side, even following the centre line while oncoming cars whizzed by. Operating a motorbike and talking on a cell phone at the same time, having the phone wedged between ones shoulder and neck – acceptable. Danger aside, the skill required to perform these manoeuvers was impressive. But the Award For Most Awe Inspiring must go to guy cruising along on his Vespa with a fully clothed, smiling monkey straddling the seat in front of him and gripping the handlebars too. The monkey wore a crash helmet – the driver did not.
In Basilicata, driving is good – though not at all like Canada. Unexpectedly, the road can dip and lead leading to an even bigger bump, momentarily airlifting us like extreme rally car drivers or Bo and Luke from the Dukes Of Hazard. Some of the old towns and villages have ridiculously narrow streets that could easily wedge an Audi 2 – no matter what the misinformed GPS lady says – so we have to be prepared to reverse out or climb out a window. For the most part roads wind along the mountainside, hairpin curves immediately changing our directions from east to west or north to south as we make our way further up the mountains or down into the valley towns, my ears popping and squealing. Everywhere, the scenery is breathtaking – its splendour unmatched.. Hazy blue skies and vast forests displaying twenty shades of green. Towns circled around hilltops, small gardens and vast olive groves. The unending mountain range rising in the distance, wispy clouds hugging their peaks. We drive along, our eyes trying to take in everything that lies before us.
There is no such thing as a traffic jam here – your main road hazards have four legs, two horns and a penchant for scratching their bodies on the concrete walls. So we wait until the road is free.
As to the parking…let the pictures speak for themselves.