Driving in Rome: A Compendium for Non-Italians
— by Christine B.
Let’s see, ummm where do I begin? Have you ever driven in the Indie 500? Ok, that’s a stretch, but as I mentioned in my blog “No Rules Apply: My Personal Account of Moving to Italy” driving and parking in Rome can be a feat. So get ready for some excitement. Don’t fear it, just think of it as an adventure and make sure your hands are on 10 and 2 at all times.
I measure my ability to drive by centimeters and seconds. And what I mean by that is: there is an understanding here amongst drivers that squeezing together in a symphony of sorts is the norm. Whoever is the most aggressive gets to go first. Like a herd of buffalo, the weak get left in the dust, hesitation is a sure-fire way to cause an accident.
You may think, “Great, I have my car now let’s drive down to Piazza Navona”. But there is something you have to be aware of circling around the very center of Rome, my nemisis, the Varco Attivo. These are the sometimes active, limited traffic zones (ZTL) in the very center of Rome. I have made the mistake of driving right through, and it was only until I looked to my right and left when realized there were only taxis around me that I had entered the restricted area. I immediately turned around and escaped, but a few weeks later I received the ticket because there are cameras watching those cars entering. If you have a rental car the ticket will go directly to them and you will be charged. On my updated GPS it shows where these entrances are, and there are signs before entering which either read: Varco Attivo (active gate), or Varco Non-Attivo (non-active gate).
You only can enter when the gate is not active. For more information including restricted hours, and to see the map of the ZTL zones check out the Roma Mobilita website in English (https://romamobilita.it/en/services/limited-traffic-zones).
While driving around the city, it is very important to take heed if you see white pedestrian lines on the road. If there is no pedestrian signal light then they ALWAYS have the right-of-way. You will often find this off the major roads, but with vehicles coming from all directions you MUST be aware and keep a look-out for pedestrians. The last thing you want is a mishap to ruin a great vacation.
As you can clearly see while driving through Rome there are many parking areas, the ironic part is that they are usually all taken. There are a few different ‘categories’ of parking white lined, blue lined, parking garage, and other.
White lined parking is the Cadillac of parking spaces because it is free. When I see one of these, whether driving or not, my mouth starts to salivate with desire. It is not uncommon for my American friend Karina (who by the way drives a minivan) and I to walk in the center and point out the great parking spots we see. It’s like a bird watcher who has suddenly spotted one of the rarest specimens of her life. Funny story, one time I walked by an amazing spot, it had it all; location, size, and white lines. I was watching it with such great intensity and longing that I failed to notice the truck driving by. The men in the truck actually thought I was looking at them and they whistled to me. I was so embarrassed I put my head down and walked fast. How do you explain that one? Sorry, it’s not you, I was just fantasizing about the rockstar parking spot in front of your truck…..ummmm.
Next, is blue lined parking which you need to pay for in a few simple steps. First, squeeze your vehicle into the spot. Second, lock your car and walk up and down the block to find a parking meter which dispenses parking passes. As you add coins to the machine the screen will show the time at which your pass will expire. The prices can vary depending on what part of Rome you are in. Press the large green button and it will spit out your paper ticket. Third, return to your car and place it in the front dash so that the time can clearly be seen from outside the vehicle.
Parking garages are an easier way of dropping off your vehicle (if they have availability). Just pull up to the entrance and the man at the front will ask you generally how long you want to park for (so he knows how far back to park your car) and then gives you a ticket which you will need to pick up the car. They usually charge by the hour and rates differ depending on the size of your vehicle.
The ‘other’ parking option is something that I get a kick out of watching on a daily basis as I would NEVER do such things….often. ‘Other’ means that you park your car wherever it can fit (or kind of fit). I have categorized the levels of just how illegal the parking is depending on where the car ends up. The most common I see is double or triple parking your vehicle (usually for a quick stop). Next, is parking on the curb or sidewalk, sometimes parking in the opposite direction of the traffic. Then comes blocking a crosswalk or parking in a bus stop. Finally, the worst, taking a Handicap spot. This one is usually respected and I rarely see it abused. All of these are a no, no here and you can get serious fines, but it seems as though it is so common that it is difficult for the police to keep up with all of the offenders. To make it clear I do not endorse these ‘other’ parking options if you are a visitor because you might face a ticket or towing.
A bus driver and Vigile Urbano having an argument in Rome in the middle of the street by the Colosseum
In America, the horn is used in an emergency or out of pure annoyance. Here you will find that the horn is used as a language. Don’t get me wrong, it is also used in an emergency and out of pure annoyance, but if you listen carefully the horn is an important tool in driving. Back in the States, I was frugal with my horn simply out of fear of the possibility that the other driver might get out of his car and shoot me (and believe me it happens). Road rage is a serious issue where I come from, but here it is not as much rage as it is passion. A simple ‘toot, toot’ might signal ‘hurry it up’ or ‘get off my way’ or just to get someone’s attention. I frequently hear cars from the window of my apartment blaring their horns to signal a friend that they have arrived to pick him up and it’s time to come downstairs. If a truck is temporarily blocking the way (for a delivery or drop off) it’s acceptable to hold down the horn for a LOOONG duration to signal that they best be getting back to their truck quick. You may see hand gestures and shouting back and forth, this is common, but I have yet to see it come to blows. Passion and expression are one thing, but violence would not be accepted here. With the pure number of vehicles in the city, it is a necessity to have an audible way to communicate and it seems that the horn does the job.
There are many car rental companies in Rome to choose from. Similar to anywhere in the world, renting from the airport will be more expensive than closer to the city. Also, check with your travel insurance policy or your credit cards to see what is covered when renting a car abroad. I suggest renting the smallest car that fits your needs. As you can see, parking is one of the tough obstacles here, and the smaller the better as far as I’m concerned.
In order to drive here, you need to get an International Drivers Permit which is easily obtained at many AAA locations in the States. The best part is, you do not have to be an AAA member to get one. Just bring 2 passport photos, the application, and current driving license, twenty bucks, and bingo they give you an International Drivers Permit which is good for one year. It can also be done through the mail just check their website for locations and more info (http://www.aaa.com/vacation/idp.html ). While driving abroad you must keep both your US license and International Drivers Permit together in order for it to be valid.
All in all, driving in Rome is a once in a lifetime experience. By having a car you can easily access the beach areas, mountains, lakes, and other spectacular sights like Ostia Antica, Tivoli or Castel Gandolfo. But, if your entire vacation is to be spent in the center of Rome, I suggest taxis or public transportation. Walking the center of Rome and the Vatican is something not to be missed. This way you can take in all the sights, smells, and sounds that can only be experienced in Rome.
Enjoy your visit and DRIVE SAFE!