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Driver's Ed

Italian drivers on mountain roads
make our commute seem a breeze

In southern Italy, it’s best to leave
the driving to the locals


 
(November 2018)
Read previous Don Ward columns!

Don Ward

POSITANO, Italy (November 2018) – Driving around Madison, Ind., and surrounding rural counties in Indiana and Kentucky is not a problem, except for the occasional delay behind a semi-truck or tractor or herd of motorcycles in summer months. While commuting to Louisville, Ky., on I-71, you may find it is a different story. That often involves merging and swerving in traffic around slow or distracted or just plain old bad drivers.
But it pales in comparison to driving in other countries. Take Italy, for example, a country I visited for a week in mid-October. I stayed with friends in a villa on the Amalfi Coast of Italy, where driving on a cliff-ridden, sliver of pavement along seaside mountains is normal. And that is, with no street lights!
Even “Stop” signs are ignored here. They seem to stand as simply a mere suggestion as drivers whizz by trying to beat other drivers across the narrow intersections and around parked cars, delivery trucks and other obstacles.

Photo by Don Ward

Traffic moves quickly along the Amalfi Coast in Italy despite the death-defying view below.

Mopeds and motorcycles scream by without notice, splitting the narrow gap between oncoming vehicles and tour buses. Pedestrians, meanwhile, travel at their own risk and must be cautious to stay as far to the sides of the road as possible or risk being run over.
“It’s all in the eyes,” explained one of our private drivers, Gaspare, a native of Sorrento, Italy. “Here, you just look into their eyes and you know who is going to go first.”
Back in the States, I don’t recall seeing any questions on the driver’s test about looking into the other drivers’ eyes, but it seems to work to “Perfecto” here on the beautiful Italian coast. Besides, it is best to leave the driving to the locals so tourists can concentrate on enjoying the spectacular view of the Mediterranean Sea below.
What’s even more amazing is how effortless these drivers negotiate the tiny trails they call roads while narrating and gesturing with one hand, as most Italians seem to do, with the other hand on the wheel. Many even take cell phone calls or – yes, text! - while racing around the rocky cliffs.
In some cases, they do pause to allow a giant megabus full of tourists to slowly slip past, barely avoiding taking off the side view mirrors of our van.
While we never saw a traffic accident during our weeklong stay, we did notice the large number of cars with damaged, missing or dangling side view mirrors. And several buildings along the roadway had chips of concrete missing where vehicles did not quite make the turn without a bump.

Photo by Don Ward

This taxicab ride up the mountain on the Isle of Capri is part of the experience of visiting the town.

“Relax, everything will be OK,” said Nicoli, another one of our drivers that week. “My English may be bad, but my driving is good. No problem.”
He was right. Nicoli, Gaspare, Vincenzo, Gaetano and Luigi successfully drove us all around the coast without a hitch – up and down mountain roads, through small villages, to the top of Mt. Vesuvius, across the Italian countryside to a mountaintop winery and back. While we enjoyed visiting historic sites, such as Pompeii, and quaint Italian towns, such as Amalfi and Ravello and Positano and Capri, I would have to say that getting there was just as much of the adventure.
The thrill of the ride was even more intense when jumping into a local taxicab.
For instance, when we arrived by boat to Capri, we hailed an open air cab to the top of the island for the incredible view. Again, this meant squeezing up a narrow snake path of a road by dozens of other cabs, buses, small delivery trucks and mopeds to reach our destination. At one point our driver had to stop for several minutes while the whole bunch of us had to inch our way back and forth to get an inexperienced truck driver past our small cab.

Photo by Don Ward

Mary Jo Bean of our group poses with one of the Italian drivers, Gaspare, during a brief stop on the Amalfi Coast.

“He’s young. He will learn,” our cab driver said, laughing.
While we here in the States often experience or witness various levels of “road rage” when confronted with driving delays or bad drivers, we saw no signs of it in southern Italy.
The Italians seem to take all this in stride. Rather than curse or scream at other drivers, they often take the time to call out instructions to help other drivers in peril maneuver through it.
After all, when you live on the side of a mountain with stellar views that attract millions of tourists each year from around the world, you learn to get around with ease. And driving these narrow, curvy roads is part of the experience for their customers.
So when you visit southern Italy, just relax. Sit back and enjoy the ride and leave the driving to the locals.
They have this thing down.

• Don Ward is the editor, publisher and owner of RoundAbout. Call him at (812) 273-2259 or email him at: info@RoundAbout.bz.

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