Driving in Italy part 11 — Parking

by Mario 08-Mar 2010

Now that you’ve endured our crash course (no pun intended) on safe motoring in Italy (see the previous posts on Driving in Italy), you must be eager to get behind the wheel of that spiffy Italian number. I’ll wager that navigating from highways to cities, towns and countryside, you’ll have gassed up, followed signs, avoided speed traps, snacked all along the route and gotten lost merely once. It’s time to consider parking that tiger, stretching your legs and enjoying some of the sights on foot. 

Parking spaces in Italy are color coded. White spaces are free, blue are paid, yellow spaces are reserved for handicapped permits, taxis or official vehicles and pink spaces are the domain of expectant moms or moms traveling with infants. 

White Spaces — While free, white spaces may come with restrictions. If there are restrictions, such as days or times, these should be posted and fairly obvious. However, one of these restrictions can be a bit baffling at first.

When a street sign shows the above icon it means disco parking. No, you are not required to perform a sidewalk Macarena, although locals may find it amusing and even earn you a coin or two. Disco parking refers to a thumbwheel timer disc that all Italian cars have. It is either pasted on your windshield or somewhere in the glove compartment.

If the street sign says dalle 8.00 alle 12.30 it means you may disco park here from 8:00 am to 12:30 pm. Set the thumbwheel to the current time, leave it on the dash, if not already permanently affixed to the windshield, and be back by 12:30. Disco parking operates on the honor system and works remarkably well. 

Blue Spaces — Paid public parking comes in two flavors of blue. There’s the attendant that asks how long you intend to stay, charges you and places a stub on your dash. You always take your keys.

The most common form nowadays are area parking meters. Park between the blue stripes and seek out a machine usually within 50 yards or less. Use coins or in some cases credit cards, select the time you wish to stay and pay. Return to your car and place the stub on your dashboard before locking up and going along your merry way. Remember that the time stamped on your stub is the last possible minute to get back to your car without risking a fine, or ending up like Cinderella to find a pumpkin in place of your chariot. 

Be careful not to confuse vending machines. The one you use should have a large, blue-colored letter P. Street vending machines are quite common in Italy and we have had clients who mistakenly went to the machine selling Preservativi and ended up being bewildered by placing a package of condoms on their dashboard. P.S. For those whose diets require food prepared without preservatives, say: senza conservanti, since preservativi as mentioned above means something entirely different. 

Pink Spaces — These spaces are free and reserved for expectant mothers and moms with infants. While there is no law that fines anyone for abusing this courtesy, nor is any proof or certificate required, it is expected that everyone respect pink spaces for drivers with the most important job in the world. 

Yellow Spaces — Unlike the seemingly clever scofflaws above who will soon be towed and fined, nothing you will be driving allows parking in yellow spots, so simply forget about them. 

Garage Parking — You will often find these by following blue P signs around an area. Depending on whether the garage is public, semi-private or private expect rates to be anywhere from moderately overpriced to exorbitant. Large parking garages require that you go to a cashier with your ticket before returning to your car. In many cases the cashiers are automated and do accept credit cards. Small garages lack automation and may require leaving your keys with an attendant and possibly prepaying as well. Always check and double check closure times, especially in small garages, as larger ones tend to be open 24/7, others may not. Visit this Italian parking location guide for most major cities, airports, train stations and ports. 

Final word on parking — Would you leave your camera, pocketbook, suitcases, GPS and other valuables exposed in a car on a New York, Boston or Philadelphia street? I didn’t think so. Italy is a safe country but never tempt fate by leaving goodies or tell tale signs of being a traveler such as maps and guide books laying about. If you intend to stash items in your trunk, pull over and do so well before reaching your parking destination. Otherwise, all you have done is some inadvertent advertising. 

Driving in Italy part 10 — Italian Road Signs

by Mario 03-Mar 2010

While Italian kids learn to drive early, they must wait until they are 18 years old to be licensed to drive a car.

O Means NO. Whenever you come across a red circle while driving in Italy do not enter. If a symbol is inside the red circle, such as a bugle it means no honking the horn. A bike symbol means no bicycles allowed and a number such as 40 means don’t go over that speed. Simply visualize an N in front of any O sign and it’s just plain NO. Occasionally, you will see a red circle with a fractional number, ignore it. It does not mean that the speed limit is two and a third kilometers per hour. What it means is that vehicles of a certain height or width are not allowed. Nothing you will be driving is affected. 

A solid red circle with a horizontal white bar means you are about to enter a one way street from the wrong direction. 

Look for a friendly solid blue circle to point the right way to proceed. If a blue circle has a white number on it such as 30, it means that 30 kilometers per hour is the minimum speed.  

A red circle with a red slash on a blue background means no parking. A red circle with a red X on a blue background means no parking, no stopping, no nothing, just keep moving. Ultimately, round signs will either forbid an action if trimmed in red, or permit an action when all blue and white.

Triangular signs are warning signs. A symbol inside a red triangle such as children, trains, bikes or a curve advise you what to watch for. 

Square and rectangular signs generally provide information. As shown above, they can point to parking, hospitals, police, train stations, city centers and a host of other destinations. Traffic lights operate the same as they do here. Occasionally traffic lights will display arrows in red or green enabling traffic in specific directions. This Road Sign link leads to an Italian Web site, but by clicking on each of the four icons along the bottom of the page you can familiarize yourself with signs and their meanings. 

You can even expect to find some signs on Strade Bianche (white roads). These are unpaved roads that lead to private homes, country B&Bs, farming estates and some of Italy’s most spectacular vistas. As you can see by the image above, unpaved roads are either gravel or dirt and typically not hard to navigate. They may get bumpy, especially after a good rain fall, but just take it easy and enjoy the view. Unpaved roads may display signs denoting distances to properties, villages or intersections with a numbered route and cautions for animal crossings. They may also be equipped with reflectors to aid in night time driving and a strategically placed mirror now and then, useful for peeking around a curve at any oncoming cars. When approaching a tight curve it is advisable to give a very short honk of the horn to alert anyone coming from the opposite way. 

Driving in Italy part 9 – Basic Italian Road Signs — Stop & Yield

by Mario 03-Mar 2010

Before stepping on an Italian gas pedal it may be useful to know when to stop and yield. In addition to the universal stop sign — also used in Italy— is a simple, solid white line cutting across your lane. 

This white stripe indicates that you must stop and yield. Often the word STOP is painted on the pavement, but the white line alone is enough to signal a mandatory stop. The lack of one signals that you have the right of way. 

The upside down triangle is the official YIELD sign of Italy. You can also expect to see inverted triangles painted on the pavement in front of you. In the case of the photo above this individual is being informed by the sign that it will be required to yield in approximately 150 meters.

While I’ve got your eyes glued to the pavement, remember to never cross solid lines running parallel to your car. Italian driving school students are taught to envision solid lines as impenetrable walls. The reason is that many two way roads and streets lack center barriers. The barrier is the solid white line. So when driving on a two lane country road expect to find solid lines where no one is allowed to pass. Intermittent lines, dashes if you will, do allow you to cross over into the oncoming lane to pass a slower vehicle. The dashes must appear on your side of the solid line in order to pass, provided all is clear ahead. Yellow lines indicate a lane is reserved for public transit and taxis. One last word about pavements, occasionally, exit names will also be painted on the pavement, this is more common on highways than on regular streets.

Now we know the secret of why Italians are such formidable drivers. A number of driving parks for children dot the land. The one above is in the Cilento National Park south of Salerno. Another Parco Scuola is in Rome. Look for one near your location when bringing the kids to Italy, they are sure to get a kick out of it.

Driving in Italy part 8 — Fines: Avoiding long distance pen-pals in fancy uniforms

by Mario 03-Feb 2010

Tutor: This common English word is perfect doublespeak for these Orwellian times. When the sign says you are entering a Tutor zone, slow down. What Tutor does is calculate your average speed from the warning point to an end point. Should you reach the end point earlier than the speed limit would have allowed, guess what? You just got tagged. 

AutoVelox: This warning announces hidden cameras along the next few miles. You may be tempted to follow some local driver speeding and crawling at inexplicable intervals, assuming they know where the clocking cameras are. He doesn't. Camera positions are changed often and the car you are following just has engine trouble. Keep it safe. If you don't exceed the speed limit by more than 10 kms per hour the camera should let you slide by. These cameras are well disguised to look like birdhouses, utility boxes, a bunch of bolts, signs and street lights. Concentrate on the speedometer and don't even try to guess their whereabouts.

ZTL: This is the worst and most common infraction committed by foreigners. ZTL means limited traffic zone. Replace the word limited with restricted and you begin to get the picture. ZTLs are present in most historical city centers throughout Italy. Unlike the highways where everything is clearly marked, you have to look for ZTL signs. The sign is a red letter O on a white background, much like a do not enter sign. They are usually small and placed at intersections above or near traffic lights where you may turn in another direction to avoid crossing that ZTL checkpoint.

Once have you crossed it, even for a second, it’s too late. Your picture was automatically taken. Your license plate was crosschecked against a database of sanctioned vehicles and you will be fined. ZTL cameras are only aimed at those entering restricted zones. At this point you might as well fully enjoy your crime and cruise around the restricted zone for the rest of your vacation. Just be careful not to unintentionally go back out and in again. 

ZTL signs in some cities also display the days and hours when restrictions apply. For instance, you may be able to drive within ZTL areas at night or during certain hours on Sundays. The purpose of the ZTL was to cut down on congestion and pollution so ancient city centers could breathe a bit of fresh air in the hope of surviving a few more centuries. Today, cars allowed within a ZTL include residents, businesses, businesses doing business with businesses, public transit, taxis, municipal employees, utility companies, politicians, diplomats and people with pull. Gee, that seems like everybody. No wonder you got tagged. You thought you were just following a long traffic jam. Could someone please pass the David an oxygen mask?

If your hotel happens to be in a ZTL you may be in luck. Provided you inform the hotel ahead of time. If they are in a ZTL they may issue you a permit for your temporary stay. This allows you to go in and out of the ZTL at leisure. Contact the hotel well ahead of your stay. Some hotels have only a limited amount of passes. Each city has its own rules on how hotels may apply for their guests. So be sure check ahead.

For the rest of us who are not sleeping by the Trevi Fountain and do not have a cousin in the mayor's office, don’t despair. This nifty ZTL site gives some information on restricted areas in most Italian cities. Again, the site is in Italian. City names are on the right hand side and in the case of Rome, Perugia and a few others it does display an actual google map with the various checkpoints. Finally, municipalities are not completely insane. You can reach most areas of any city in Italy such as stadiums, train stations, designated parking areas and major thoroughfares without danger. The next episodes of Fines will continue with Parking & Avoiding Parking Tickets in Italy...

Driving in Italy part 7 — Fines: Pay or Avoid

by Mario 03-Feb 2010

Pay: Unlike the US where far too often law enforcement skulk in wait like jungle cats trapping unsuspecting wildebeest, traffic enforcement in Italy is built on deterrence. Italy actually warns you ahead of time. Ignore the warnings and the fines are stiff. Nowadays, most Italian roadway fines are generated electronically. You break the rule, your photo is taken, the locality traces the plate to the car rental company who then passes on the information both ways. How dare they? By renting a car with any company worldwide, you agree to their spilling the beans on you. For selling you out the car rental company automatically charges your credit card an administrative handling fee — yes, you agreed to this too. The administrative handling fee can be as high as 60 Euro, plus tax. The best part comes much later, sometimes six months to a year later, when you get notified by the authorities of the actual fine. The letter typically says the fine is doubled if paid 60 days beyond the due date. Wait, that was a year ago. The letter is usually back dated too. What to do?

  1. You are not a EU citizen at the mercy of their laws.
  2. Italy has no means of matching up infractions with your entry into the country — the day will come when the customs officer stamping your passport will also take a credit card to settle your past violations before letting you in. It’s just a matter of installing some software.
  3. The car rental company could care less. Actually, every time there’s a late notice sent to them they get to charge the administrative fee all over again and for as long as you possess a valid driver’s license and credit card they will rent to you again and again.

What to do? Some people just throw the notices away. Others will attempt to pay by converting dollars to Euros and wiring the amounts to the necessary coordinates. Others will pay only if the dunning authority makes an effort to understand that they are dealing with foreigners, explains the matter in English and allows violators to pay fines online through a credit card. My advice is to pay the piper. Sooner or later he will catch up with you. Depending on how strapped and interlocked our global economy gets they may even reach across the pond someday to strike you retroactively in the comfort of your own home. The best advice is to avoid getting fined in the first place. 

Driving in Italy part 6 — Gassing Up

by Mario 03-Feb 2010

It is difficult to find a gas station in Italy that does not accept Visa, MasterCard or AmEx. For a better exchange rate try using your ATM card as a credit card provided it bears the Visa/MC logos. Leave your gasoline cards at home, even if the same companies operate in Italy, they won’t honor them. Also ditch your Discover card and Bob’s Big Men’s Store card as they are not accepted in Italy. I prefer to gas up where a live attendant is stationed. I stay away from Fai da Te (self service) and look for Servito (full service) as I’m often in a quandary as to how, where and when to insert money or cards. Having left anonymous donations for subsequent drivers I prefer to have a human being gas me up. Say the words: il pieno per piacere (fill’er up please). If the attendant is courteous enough to clean your windshields it is not uncommon to tip them 50¢ to 1 Euro.

Fuel in Italy is sold in liters. Four liters are just over one U.S. gallon. All fuel in Italy is quite expensive by U.S. standards, figure around $7.50 a gallon. Don’t fret over the cost. Italian cars are very fuel efficient and the cost overshadows the time wasted schlepping bags through crowds sneezing and shoving on less than clean public conveyances that all too often go on strike.

Gasoline powered rental cars will require unleaded gasoline (senza piombo) or verde which simply means green. Occasionally you will get a diesel powered car. Ask for diesel or gasolio. Avoid using high octane unleaded or eco-diesel to save some cash. You can also save by figuring out the automated self service pumps: Fai da Te. Your teenager will instinctively know how. Fuggedabout trying to reserve a less expensive, more efficient diesel car ahead of time. No company will guarantee or deliver on that guarantee. It's the luck of the draw at the time of pick up. However, when you arrive at the rental counter try to request one.

To view current fuel prices in Italy go to the top of the right hand column of the site to see the national average. It's on a black background. As you scroll down, the prices for each type of gas sold by each company operating in Italy are revealed. The site is in Italian but numbers and company logos are all you need.  

Chiuso means closed. Aperto means open. Aperto 24 Ore means it’s open 24 hours but most likely automated. But wait, there’s a person there with a cap on. Wow! He takes your money or card, runs the machine, fills you up, cleans your windshield and lo and behold he does not work there at all. Give him a Euro and wish him well. He or she is likely an immigrant with the dignity to provide a service rather than panhandling.  

Driving in Italy part 5 — Paying Autostrade Tolls

by Mario 03-Feb 2010

All of this convenience comes with a cost. As you approach the entrance to an Autostrada the toll booths await. Head towards the booths marked BIGLIETTO (ticket) STAY AWAY from the ones marked TELEPASS. Telepass are drive-though lanes for subscribers with a transponder in their car. Once you get a ticket from the automated BIGLIETTO booth you are on your way. Many Autostrade intersect other Autostrade and allow you to cross over without having to stop, pay and get a new ticket.

Payment is due at the exit nearest to your destination. You have two payment options: credit cards or cash. If using a credit card head for the blue booths marked CARTE. Insert the ticket, wait for the amount to show and then insert a Visa, MC or AmEx card. Cash customers must go to the white booths with the international coin and cash symbol. If there is an attendant, give them the ticket, the amount owed will be displayed on a small screen.

At automated cash booths insert the ticket and then place the bills or coins the screen displays. Careful, I’ve had some malfunctioning machines spit change out with such vehemence that coins landed directly on the ground. Rather than risk an international incident with backed up drivers I just drove away and made a wish as if I was tossing coins in the Trevi fountain. I wished to meet the person that calibrated the machine’s firing mechanism.

If you want to see the exits on your route and even places where they lead to visit Autostrade. Click on the map locations and then click the white circles for the exit. A little window pops up that’s shows instances of other roads connecting from the exit. For calculating minds, digging around this site allows you to approximate the actual toll.

Driving In Italy part 4 — Autostrade Rest Areas

by Mario 03-Feb 2010

The Autogrill and Ciao chain of highway rest stops started in Italy in 1946 and has spread to 43 countries around the world from Singapore to the United States. They are now found in airports, train stations, museums and major city centers. This global enterprise is owned by Bennetton. Bennetton is also a major stakeholder in Italy’s privatized highway system.  

If you are hungry for a cooked meal follow signs bearing a knife and spoon symbol. The best time to dine at one is around 1 pm and 8 pm. You will know the best ones by the number of big rigs that stop there. Everything is served cafeteria style, making it easy to load up on just the items you like. You can pay at the register by credit card. If the cashier says: caffè and you agree, you will be charged for an espresso that you may retrieve at the bar area on your way out by simply showing your receipt.

The beauty of the Autogrill is that they stay open late 7-days a week (some are open 24 hours) and that there's always another Autogrill a few miles away on the Autostrada. There are a number of smaller chains along Italy’s Autostrade bearing different names. Quality and selection may vary but the concept is the same. A main function of these roadside oases for travelers is providing a clean rest room. Don’t be surprised to see an attendant sitting at a desk with a small gratuity plate as you enter the lavatory. Leave a few cents if you can, as it is this person’s responsibility to keep the bathrooms clean and stocked.

Look for coffee cup signs on the highway if you just need a jolt of espresso, a bathroom, fuel, beverages, snacks or sandwiches. To scout locations along your route visit this Autogrill site before you travel. Click on the map locations and then click on each yellow icon to learn more about each rest area along your projected route. Just remember that at the bar, you must pay the cashier first. Give the receipt to counterperson to retrieve your order. The little plate on the bar serves a similar purpose to the one in the lavatory, so leave a few cents here as well.

Driving in Italy part 3 — Autostrade: Modern, Efficient & Logical Toll Roads

by Mario 03-Feb 2010

Green is the color of the Autostrada. This color is displayed on all signs leading to major toll highways throughout the country. Autostrade names begin with the letter A — example: the A1 is the main north-south route from Milan to Naples. If you are in the market for maps and see a preponderance of Italian highways marked with an E such as E35 instead of A1, buy another map. The letter E is the European Union’s marking and is much less used in Italy. Actually, your best bet is to either rent a GPS or if you own one already, buy a Europe software chip from the manufacturer and slide it in before you travel. 

The first thing one notices upon entering Italy’s privatized network of toll highways is how smooth and even the surfaces are. The Autostrade are constantly maintained, and whenever work is in progress, drivers are warned and edged over gradually with signs marking how much distance is left before a lane closes. On the left hand side every kilometer is marked by a small sign. This is useful should you break down and need assistance. The left hand side also displays additional small signs at regular intervals informing you of how far it is to the nearest exit, rest areas and major destinations along the route.

Every bridge you traverse or tunnel you enter is named and the span or length is noted. Every overhead you pass under is numbered. For those traveling with children, these markings can be a fun distraction. When you see arrow signs bunched together in the distance, the road is informing you of a curve ahead and the need to slow down.

Unmistakably large signs either overhead or on the right display upcoming exits and are repeated with additional information as to where those exits lead. For instance, if the exit leads to another Autostrada in the network, that sign is green with the name of the highway and major destination listed.

Black and white signs lead to city centers, stadiums and airports. 

Blue signs — Super Strade (SS) — denote numbered routes and their destination. SS roads have lower speed limits and often pass through other towns. A Tangenziale or a Raccordo are stretches of road that link major destinations. Some may charge a small toll. Just remember green is usually faster and blue is often slower. 

A perfect example of the difference between a blue numbered SS route and a green Raccordo or Tangenziale is the Firenze-Siena Raccordo and the blue SS222. Both roads link Florence to Siena. The green Fi-Si Raccordo takes less than 45 minutes to complete. The SS222 links the same two cities in two and a half hours. The SS222 is far more scenic and winds its way through dozens of small Chianti hill towns and valleys between Florence and Siena. Most blue roads were originally built by the ancient Romans to move commerce and their legions throughout their dominion.

Occasionally you will encounter overhead electronic signs on the Autostrada that display information on what lies ahead such as traffic conditions or inclement weather. The word CODE (see above image) means tails and signifies a backup ahead. Messages are both written and visual, so even if you can’t read it, you can still make out the symbols for snow or traffic. The above message states that there are backups on the A14 in the direction of the Modena Sud (south) exit. The red SOS sign in the lower right is equipped with an emergency phone line to report an accident or breakdown.

Every dozen or more miles there is a rest area on the Autostrada where you can buy gas, get a snack and use the restroom. Watch for signs showing an espresso cup. Full service rest areas, marked with a knife and spoon, have a restaurant, ATM and all manner of goods from groceries to maps, baseball caps, magazines and toothpaste. More about these comforting oases next. 

Driving in Italy part 2— You & the Autostrada (highway)

by Mario 03-Feb 2010

Italians drive on the same side of the road as Americans. How you will fare on Italy’s much tamer highways (see part 1) depends mostly on you. Italians are still the best drivers on earth and we are unfortunately among the worst. Even at slower speeds, Italians behind the wheel are always in a hurry to reach their destination so they can enjoy more life, pasta, wine and good company. Americans on vacation are lollygaggers just by the nature of all the beautiful scenery that surrounds them. They often cause accidents in their wake without ever realizing the mounting pileups of conscious (or now unconscious drivers) in their rearview mirror.

Italians are constantly monitoring every angle and gauge expecting others to do the same. If you are the type that normally jumps lanes without looking first, watch out. Don’t even think of hogging the left lane unless you are passing slower traffic. If the car behind you flashes their lights, move to the right. Hogging the passing lane impedes traffic and is punishable by fines.

Wear your seatbelt, it’s the law. Do not hold a cell phone while driving unless you have a hands free device. No texting. Keep your headlights on at all times. Most Italian cars have a headlight dimmer thumbwheel that you can use to lower their intensity in daylight. My advice is to just leave them on day and night. The speed limit on Italy’s highways is 130 kilometers per hour, that’s just a fraction over 80 mph. No one will bother you if you keep it under 140 km (87 mph. Occasionally the speed will be lowered to 110 km (68 mph) or down to 90 km (55 mph) in curvy areas or roadwork patches. You will also see fixed signs for 50 km (30 mph) and these are mostly warnings to reduce speed in case of heavy fog.

If you are uncomfortable at normal highway speeds stay to the right but stay alert. Trucks and campers are confined to right hand lanes. Most goods in Italy move by truck and truckers constantly pass each other at very slow speeds to stay awake. My advice is to always keep an eye on them and pass them quickly. Roads are relatively truck free on Sundays. 

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Welcome to our Access Italy blog, a mosaic of eclectic, but practical, information; fascinating cultural insights; and unique commentary on a wonderful way of life only the Italians could have designed.  more....


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