Trying to find my way out of downtown Naples in an unfamiliar left-hand drive hire car after 3 hours sleep I found the experience….well, let’s just say challenging.
I kept thinking of the ‘built by robots…driven by Italians’ film from Not The Nine O’clock News.
I felt like I’d driven onto the set of Mad Max V. A motley collection of cars, lorries, busses, push bikes and vans were speeding along bumpy, pot-holed streets at break neck speeds as what felt like hundreds of scooters swarmed around us. Meanwhile we tried to dodge parked cars, slow moving pedestrians and mobility scooters; and all this without the aid of any road markings, signs or traffic lights and surrounded by people who seemed to have little concern for their own personal safety.
We did escape Naples eventually and found the lovely little property we had rented down a ridiculously narrow lane on the side of a mountain in Colli di Fontanelle. We had a warm welcome from the owners Nina and Umberto and there were fresh eggs, tomatoes and coffee waiting for us. There was a small shop in the village but we were soon in need of a supermarket. We’d been assured that there were lots along the SS145 that ran through our nearest town – Piano di Sorrento. But whenever we went in search of one the pace and intensity of the different road users meant we failed to either spot one or work out where on earth you were supposed to park.
Eventually we worked out that turning left at this junction took us to the wonders of not only a supermarket but also the beach, the railway station and the market.
Now it looks innocuous enough in this shot I’ll admit. But traffic converged here from 5 directions; was always bumper to bumper; usually had parked cars and lorries along most of the curbs you can see here; and would often have a mobility scooter or stray dog casually meandering through the middle. As we approached the point where we need to cut across all of this we would always have scooters behind and on either side of us, eager to get past.
But what was amazing was that it was actually quite easy. Every road user seemed to be very aware of each other. There was lots of eye contact. Lots of bibbing of horns to let others know they had a scooter on their inside. People were generous…they gave way to others…used their instincts and intuition. People didn’t seem to forget that they were people just because they were sat in a Fiat or on a Vespa. I quickly came to enjoy making this turning. It was almost balletic the way 10, 15 maybe 20 different people watched and responded to each other to make a complex junction work safely and smoothly – without the need for complex roundabouts, box junctions or traffic lights.
There were speed limits in Italy.
There was the very occasional roundabout.
I remember seeing a set of traffic lights.
But overwhelmingly traffic management seemed to be left to people using their common sense, having consideration for others and knowing that it made sense to get along with their fellow road users.
We had to navigate a lot of very steep, narrow and winding roads during our stay. Yes it was necessary to stay very alert when driving and it could be quite tiring but it was not an unpleasant experience at all. I’ve come away with a completely different view of Italian drivers from the one largely informed by that scratchy old NTNON film back in the 80s.
The warmth and openness of most Italians and their bustling vibrant communities where people still take the time to stop and talk to each other, welcome strangers and focus on what’s important….and do it all with a healthy disrespect for rules and authority…..well they don’t leave this behind when they get in their cars.