Or, If You’re Planning to Drive in Italy, Be More Prepared Than I Was

The first thing you should know is that Italian time is stretchy.

When the attendant says the train will take an hour, it will actually be there in 90 minutes. When when a driver say he will get you there by lunch, expect to arrive mid-afternoon.

Your connecting bus, however, will leave on time or possibly before. In my case, there was not another bus to my destination before Monday, when the festival I’d come halfway across the world for would be over.

This is how I came to hire a car, and to drive, in Italy.

I suppose there are worse places to traverse unfamiliar and potholed roads but amid Italy’s famously poor drivers, my driving skills, patience, perseverence and nerve were tested in equal measure.

Weaving through erratic traffic in the Sicilian capital of Palermo, the hire-car saleswoman takes not one but three mobile phone calls. I watch in horror as one lane of traffic turns into three then back into one as we approach a narrow bridge. As if to acknowledge this practice, civil engineers don’t even bother painting lane markings outside the city centre.

I ask the saleswoman to explain the road rules. She smiles enigmatically and says: “You will soon see.”

All I have to do is take the main highway, or autostrada, out of Palermo towards the east coast, then the major inland highway south, later climbing into the mountains to my destination: The ancient city of Caltagirone. Easy.

May the Saints Watch Over You

I came to Sicily for the annual La Scala Infiorata, the Flower Festival of Caltagirone, when the hill city famed for its ceramics is lit with candles and stunning floral arrangements. The centerpiece is a 142-step staircase leading to a ludicrously beautiful church, where each step has a hand-painted story from the town’s rich history. It is one of those bucket list things and I had already traveled two days to get here. I was not about to give up just because I missed one bus.

In the cities, Italians use their horns instead of indicators. A honk could mean “I’m here, don’t run into me,” “You cut me off,” or “Hello, local fishmonger, I hope you’re well.” Yet, despite the 7.9 road deaths per 100,000 population, there are surprisingly few roadside memorials and no billboards telling drivers to slow down, buckle up or drive responsibly. In fact, the autostrada has a speed limit of 80mph, and even this is widely ignored.

By the time I get out of the capital, it is nearly dark. The prospect of driving unfamiliar mountain roads does not fill me with joy. The thought of wasting a prepaid $55-a-night hotel (about $85) haunts me more.

Surprisingly, Sicily’s main highway is in pretty good shape and the sheer speed of the traffic dictates that drivers must follow at least some of the road rules. Indicating your intentions is now a widespread practice (though still optional, it would seem.) Parts of the road are patchy, particularly in the mountains, and there are some scary tunnels in which the road leans inwards, and where you don’t want to be sharing the road with a truck. Overall, it’s a pretty smooth ride on the A19.

Around 10pm, I’m still driving, and I’m beginning to realise why people in Palermo looked at me strangely when I said I was going to Caltagirone. At 11pm, thanks to excellent directions from the attendant at a gas station that also had a stand-up bar for drivers, I arrive in the city. However, I have just the address for my hotel and no phone number. Yes, I am that disorganised. Well, I reckoned, it’s a town of 40,000 people. How hard could it be to find?

Saved By the Good Samaritan

Caltagirone is 4000 years old. In the centre, there is the old town and the new town, though new town is a misnomer, given that much of it was built in the years after an earthquake in 1693.

It is called the terracotta city for its famous Arab-influenced ceramics and almost everything in the mountain town is made of ceramic, including the roads which are steep, narrow and slippery. And by narrow, I mean under 5ft. Thank goodness I hired the tiny Smart Car.

These lanes wind through the city, lined haphazardly by buildings. You think you’re headed west but a moment later, the road turns 180-degrees and spills down a hillside. Now you are lost in both latitude and elevation.

Sometime after midnight, I give up. I’m hopelessy lost, tired and weary.
I park in some poor guy’s driveway with a view to having a cry and possibly a wholesale breakdown. I had just begun to get up the ugly cry when two houses down, I see a light and an open doorway. I get out and peer inside.

There, in the lamplight, like an angel fresco from one of the hundred churches in town, is my saviour Johan, working late at his desk. I sniffle, hand him my hotel address on a crumpled Post-It Note and ask him in broken Italian for directions.

He says “five minutes.”

I say: “Oh, it’s five minutes away? Good, which way?”

He shakes his head. “You wait, five minutes. For me.”

I watch with guilt as this generous stranger shuts his laptop, locks up his dog, puts his dinner back in the fridge, then gets into his car and leads me and my tiny car, Italian Job-style, through an awe-inspiringly complicated network of narrow cobblestone lanes to my hotel, where I have no memory of checking in, showering or crawling into bed.

The next morning, I buy the biggest bunch of flowers he would ever see and ask the florist to deliver them that afternoon.

But it’s Italy, so he’ll get them next week.

This article originally appeared in The Courier-Mail in 2010. Image of the Caltagirone steps by Alessandro Bonvini, Creative Commons.