Much debated in the automotive world are the most engaging and enjoyable roads on which to drive and, from what I've heard, Italy frequents the shortlist. I expect, then, that many others would also regard it, considering its rich automotive pedigree as well, to be somewhat of a holy grail for driving through. Here's the story of my little taste of their tarmac.
This year, I found myself booked on a trip to Naples with my wife to tick Pompeii and Mount Vesuvius off her bucket list, and happily we decided to do this independently with a rental car. Now, I had heard that driving in Naples itself is tricky and maximum insurance is strongly advised so, noting these, I decided the car would be reserved strictly for use outside the city.
We collected the car on Monday afternoon. A brand-new Skoda Citigo. Naturally I was a little disappointed that I hadn't gone for something gutsier, but at least it was a manual. So, on the road we got, and straight into a world of mayhem.
It was only a few kilometres from the rental joint to our hotel but the roads were at times confusing and poorly marked, and all the while fellow motorists weren't very fellow-like at all. There's such impatience at the inconvenience of junctions and traffic lights, and I found no consistency in how they negotiate roundabouts. Elsewhere, mopeds and the like will overtake on any side they see the slightest of gaps however quickly it might be closing, and rather than taking a moment to appreciate actually getting through they'd speed on to give the next driver a mini heart attack. I learned quickly that the Neapolitan motorists have zero empathy and that the law of the road was "if you can, you do".
Being a driver in London I'm used to some degree of aggressive motoring: we’ve got our share of pushy rush-hour commuters; white vans filling the rear-view, and the plague of Priuses with all their self-righteousness. But I suddenly felt ill-prepared for these roads.
Potholes avoided and a few sly turns missed we eventually made it to the hotel with a higher heart rate than usual. Fortunately, it was a secure car park and, according to the car rental assistant, the Citigo is an unlikely theft target. But that didn't stop us checking on it every morning and night.
Tuesday was an inner-Naples day, so no car required. You'd be mistaken for thinking we had an easy time though: on foot is almost just as hazardous. In the narrowest streets – which still act as significant arteries of the road network – we occasionally found ourselves being shepherded by a car until we could pop into a crevice to clear its path, and where there was a pavement, mopeds would fail to distinguish between it and the road. Walking in Naples, then, required nearly as much attentiveness as driving in it! Testament to the stories I'd heard about driving here was the fact that virtually every car wore marks of an accident – from scratches and dents to entire body parts missing, it was as though it's a rite of passage; the norm to personalise your vehicle with a battle scar.
Wednesday's plan was to go up the volcano and then on to Pompeii which, for me, meant finally driving on some prime Italian country roads. Opting to avoid the tolls we headed away from Naples, but the surfaces remained just as poor. If a road wasn't cobbled it was only paved with larger cobble slabs, both of which had their peaks and troughs to manoeuvre around. But if by chance it was asphalt-laid, it was really only a succession of dips, lumps, cracks and miniature gorges.
On this drive I started feeling grateful for the Citigo's modest dimensions – a sentiment that would only grow stronger. Passing slowly through towns the car did well to iron things out but I didn't have the heart to push it too much on one of its first expeditions. Subsequently I was vulnerable to overtakes from anyone with no sympathy for their car, which was everyone. In my defence we lacked a spare wheel and I wasn't keen on wasting time gluing a puncture.
Off the line, though, the Citigo was a spritely little thing, which is key for the urban driving that this car was made for. Seats were comfortable too, though granted we hardly grand toured in it. I couldn't help but feel that the gearstick was too low, however, as the odd gears felt a slight stretch away. Speaking of which, a little icon on the dashboard would beg for an upshift at 2,000RPM, sometimes even sooner, but to get moving with any urgency you have to ignore it. Another foible was that acceleration in any gear other than the first two was virtually non-existent – another characteristic of a city car I guess.
Eventually the car began climbing up Vesuvius but its 1.0 litre engine and 2-wheel drive became apparent, so I gave it more beans, obviously. With only the front wheels to drag itself against uphill it was willing enough for the 60BHP it could muster. The bends and hairpins were fun, it must be said, and the views improved as we gained altitude. Eventually it got us as high as the Polizia would allow – requiring me to park it on the sloping road – at which point our legs had to carry us the rest of the way.
The descent was delayed thanks to a coach blocking the road as it attempted to come up the narrow pass alongside parked cars, and inevitably the strings of cars waiting on either side grew longer. After some exuberant Italian arm waving the coach was wriggled out of the way and we began to snake our way down. Knowing the stock brakes on the Citigo probably weren't the toothiest I kept a sensible distance from the car in front and barely used the throttle. It puzzled me why cyclists were also using this steep route, but more than this they were just an unwelcome hindrance!
The road to Pompeii was much the same as the leg to Vesuvius, but the return to Naples heralded the use of a raised dual-carriageway. "Maybe this stretch would help Italy redeem itself", I thought.
I thought wrong. It was mostly single-lane and the surface was often patchy. I also found the speed limit lower than it ought to have been – though, admittedly, we say this about most roads. Of the rare pristine strips of road there would occasionally be shrubbery spilling into it over its edges. Still, at least I was getting good mileage.
A couple of days later we headed south again, this time to the Amalfi area. Nothing really new here until the climb over the mountain to get to the coastline, and here things got interesting. On the ascent, the route on the satnav looked like a wild ECG – the bendy mountainous roads finally lay before me! By this point I'd become more confident with the car and better aware of its footprint, so I grew more adventurous with every hairpin. I began to really enjoy grabbing the car by its flat-bottomed wheel and chucking it into the turns with the knowledge that the short wheelbase meant that the far-side front wheel was basically where my wife's right foot was.
Still, as confident as I was in myself, more care was due on the descent over the other side of the hill: the brakes I already mentioned, but also because a local in his Panda was tailing so close that I couldn't even see his headlights. This would be a nuisance on normal roads, but on this steep decline with no straights it was really quite unnerving. On the approach to one particular slow bend, as I was following a modern Fiat 500, the driver behind must've had a little snooze as I heard his tyres squeal under braking and the image of his face got so large in my rear view that it looked as though he was a passenger of mine! In that moment I was almost certain we were about to become the Skoda filling, sandwiched between two slices of Fiat. Gratefully the Panda dug in to the road and kept to itself.
The views – when I did manage to peel my eyes away from the road, oncoming traffic and the edge of the tarmac – were stunning. From both sides of the hill too. However, given that these tight, bendy roads were flanked closely by either well-planted solid objects or a drop, the 60KPH limit awarded to some seemed ludicrous! Still, getting as close as I dared to that speed, the car proved its agility darting between the many obstacles.
A third day of driving saw us go west of Naples. As it was generally flatter that way and things got more rural there was more room to breathe on the roads, and mercifully the surfaces were no worse. Without it fighting gravity I managed to stretch the little car’s legs, but this made me very aware that the speedometer was far too large (and generously numbered) while the rev counter sat too small.
On the return we inadvertently – and almost inevitably, despite my best efforts all week – ventured into the city. We found ourselves routed through the main coastline road of Naples, and this was a big worry for it was chaotic at best. Factoring in the disruption from all the construction and road works it became properly arse-clenching. Road markings were faded, but basically ignored regardless. A lane would just disappear while elsewhere another would merge, bringing a swarm of yet more heavily-entitled motorists. Disused tramlines were thrown into the mix. The locals, though, were utterly unfazed, tottering around talking down their phones whether on two wheels or four.
Between this trip and an earlier visit to Rome – where I didn't have the [dis]pleasure of driving – I still have much of Italy's road network to explore. All I've seen so far is that it's in disarray: their surfaces are seldom flat and smooth, markings look historical, and often only the instruction from an officer can bring about some order. All things considered, I couldn't help feeling that this place would be the finest venue for the hazard perception test!
I'm left dumbfounded, wondering where this developed country, with its massive global brands from the automotive to the fashion industries, spends its money, if not on the road infrastructure of two of its major cities. It amazed me that cars are bought brand new, only to be scuffed fifty metres down the road from the forecourt!
But that's fine, I'm sure there are explanations for those. What I'm more astounded by is the contrast between the road network and the cars built by the people who use it: I found it very difficult to place an Italian exotic car on any of the roads I travelled. It’s hard to believe that such a country latticed with capillary-like roads has grown to become the great beating heart of the performance car world. I constantly found myself wondering how these surfaces and mainstream driving styles have ultimately bore the fruit that are the Ferraris, Lamborghinis and Paganis that we see today, to name a few. That this nation – whose runabouts look unashamedly like vehicular equivalents of millennials' mobile phones – gets to work and creates some of the most detailed, fragile and artful of cars is a marvel. It's almost nonsensical, like if the world's best 4x4s came from Holland.
The relief I sighed at the end of the trip when finally depositing the car unscathed was immense. It had drunk only half a tank too: surprising given the contours and occasional vigour it was subjected to, though aided by its start-stop feature. The Citigo had served its purpose and, in the end, it was probably a very apt tool for the job. A car any larger would’ve been less nimble; any more desirable could’ve been a target, and any faster might’ve got me in some real bother. Saying this, I plan on returning to Italy someday to sweep through motor valley – this time for my bucket list – trusting that those roads will be more graceful.