We’d thought it would be a good idea to hire a car in Italy. To land in Naples and drive down the picturesque coast to our little B&B in Sorrento. To stop in at the quaint little villages calved into the cliff faces teetering above the sea and explore along the way. I’d fallen in love with the Powerpoint of the beautiful Amalfi Coast set to peaceful music which had inspired me through the past 6 months of red dust and high vis. So when my German cousins had described driving in Italy as “Katastrophe,” I had paid little attention. Sure Italy might be “Presto! Presto! Pizza! Ristorante! Spaghetti! Presto! Presto!” but it was hardly third world . . . or was it?
Taking one look at the state of the vehicles flying through the airport pick up area, I hastily agreed to pay an extra €20 per day to waiver the insurance excess (even though this was probably covered by travel insurance), and spent the next 20 minutes arguing with the woman in the office over why my invoice still showed €850 excess. Finally receiving an minus excess, I decided not to push my luck asking for directions. Surely we could work it out from the tear off tourist map we picked up from the airport terminal . . .
With luggage loaded into our tiny four-door Smart, we poured over the substandard tourist map, finally deciding it might be easier to get out of the airport first and find a landmark to navigate from. Considering myself a more aggressive driver than Colby, I lobbed myself into the drivers seat, did a couple of laps of the car park to get used to driving on the ‘other side’ of the road and headed for the exit . . . on the wrong side of the road. We giggled as I stopped, reversed and did a 100 point turn in front of a group of business men. And then – the laughter stopped.
From what little we’d gathered from our shitty map, we should have been turning left onto the main road, but there was no way I was turning left across 4 lanes of beaten up traffic, and so I took a deep breath and swung right into the mayhem. It was like something out of an oversold Demolition Derby and there was nothing to hint at the direction we should be taking. Even if there had been, there was little opportunity to take my eyes off the pandemonium surrounding me. I could do nothing but follow the car in front and allow myself to be swept through the streets as if I was being flushed down a white water rapid. Colby sat frozen in the passenger seat, clinging to the handle above his head, and leaning across the centre console car as if it was the only thing stopping these crazy Italians from side swiping us.
“Beep Beep! Beep Beep!” was all I could hear as I came to a stop at a red light. Cars crammed between me and the car in the next ‘lane’. Then between me and the footpath, then scooters between us again. Five abreast on the line. “Beep Beep!” Cars shot through the red in the opposite direction as our light turned green and my heart thumped harder. I panicked and turned right, then right again. But eventually there was no more right. I shut my eyes and floored it! Beep Beep! “Your Way!” yelled Colby. There was barely room between myself, the parked cars/walls/people/any other stupid thing in the slum that was the city of Naples. “Lights!” Colby screamed, as we continued being flushed through the traffic. “Bike on your Right! . . . And left!” He was hyperventilating beside me, waving the tattered map frantically and uttering no sound except the occasional “Bike!” or “Your way!”. Cars were parked 3 abreast down the streets and scooters wove in and out of them. People stepped out into the road without warning. If I had wanted to stop there would have been nowhere. If I had of stopped I probably would’ve been knifed to death. “Beep! Beep! Beep!” For a split second I wished I was back with my eccentric family in Germany. In the smoke filled attic I had just escaped . . . or even hell itself!
Finally we found ourselves on a narrow road winding up into the hills. Some bloke in bright yellow pants was loading his young son into the car and figuring he was not likely to knife us to death in front of his kid, we stopped to ask for directions. “No Capito,” he shook his head feverishly but as I pointed to Sorrento on the map he nodded and drifted into some sort of babble as if I understood every word. Eventually I picked up something I took to mean “follow me,” and hurried back to the driver’s seat as he launched out into the road again. He disappeared into the sea of traffic at the first intersection.
I spot an Autostrade sign on the opposite side of the road.“Beep Beep!” My own horn works thank God. I scream a U Turn in the main street, head for the freeway. Surely, there’s less chance of being knifed to death at 130 km/hr.
Colby finally let go of the handle above his head, let out the breath he’d been holding, and lifted a shaking finger to Mount Vesuvius looming in the distance. “Ok, so we keep that on our left, and we’re heading in the right direction.” I was overcome by an image of us doing 300km bog laps around the volcano until night fall and quickly suggested he back his navigational suggestions up with something concrete . . . like a map, or a sign.
My heart was still racing as we sped up to a toll gate. I would have been more comfortable driving up to Checkpoint Charlie on a moped! Scrambling for cash, Colby filled my hands with €12 of coins and I wondered how much this could possibly cost!? A packet of tissues appeared in my window, a dodgy looking Finosoft representative towering over them and with the distinct possibility of being knifed still playing on my mind, I thrust €6 of my toll allowance at him before nudging forward.
We took a punt at the freeway exit, followed the signs along the narrow walled streets, hit the coast and established we were heading in the right general direction. The sun was low in the sky and I suddenly I realised I didn’t even have an address for our B&B. Oh holy God! I prayed for a Christmas star to guide me there. I had envisaged cute little sleepy towns with wide streets and car parks where I could get my bearings but nothing could be further from the claustrophobic mayhem we had found ourselves in. We just kept getting swept down narrow walled stream and tossed about in the eddies!
By some stroke of miracle we found a tourist information office . . . where the woman has no idea where the B&B is but kindly phones and asks for directions. It is off the map she says “Up, up, up, always up, near the cemetery.” How appropriate!
The alleyway up to the B&B was only JUST wide enough to accommodate or little Smart without folding in the wing mirrors. Our host was waiting, and much to my dismay, watched as I struggled to get the tiny car to make the 90 degree turn into her gate. Finally I managed to park it. I wanted nothing more than to sit and cry. I never wanted to drive again, unless I was being chauffeured around . . . in an armed personnel carrier.