Part umpteen of an occasional, hysterical series on DRIVING IN SICILY
Car rental in Sicily is quite a surprising experience for most people the first time around.
Firstly, it is blood-curdlingly expensive. The insurance will be exorbitant but heaven help you if you opt out of that!
If you book online, or even if you pre-pay, you will find that when you arrive you have to pay a lot more, “for extras”. These “extras” will be different every time. The rep at the sales desk will not take you to the car to inspect it for any existing damage. You will just be given the key and the number plate and sent off to search round the car park full of five hundred silver Fiat Puntos.
When you do finally discover your own Fiat Punto, you will find that it has a fairly impressive selection of dents and scratches. These are not regarded as “damage” in Sicily and will not, therefore, be marked on the rental contract. A dent is regarded as ‘normal wear and tear’ unless it exceeds a depth of three inches or has actually breached the body of the vehicle and reveals what lies beneath.
Sicilians drive three types of cars. The first type of car is an “old car“. If you have an old car, it is a white Fiat Uno. The second type of car is a “new car“. People with a new car have a silver Fiat Punto. The third type of car is the “girlie car“. This will be a white Fiat Cinquecento. Sicilians don’t bother with other types of car because they cannot get the parts.
There are few foreign car factories in Sicily, and few authorised dealers, so you have to order the parts from Rome or some other far flung place and possibly wait weeks. And pay a fortune. Sicilians don’t have a fortune (unless they have “earned” it in creative ways, but we won’t talk about that just now.)
Outside the category of “car” is the commercial vehicle, the Ape, which means “bee”. This is a microscopic van-type vehicle, consisting of a Vespa type Scooter (Vespa, for those of you who don’t know, means “Wasp”) with a miniscule cab encasing the front wheel and handlebars for steering, and an outsized baked bean can wrapped round the back wheel, wherein to store one’s wares such as artichokes, oranges, fish, bread, or anything else one might be able to sell at the roadside. These vehicles exist exclusively in the colour light blue. I believe other hues are illegal.
The bee and wasp names are, I presume, inspired by the fact that these vehicles are powered by something like suped-up lawnmower engines which make the same loud, persistent buzzing noise as an oversized stinging insect. If you find yourself stuck behind one in your rental car, you may discover you have developed tinnitus after they eventually disappear down a side road, in exactly the same way as you hear deafening static after emerging from an overly loud nightclub.
Sicilians spend a great deal of money on their cars. Firstly, to insure any car for a year you have to pay about twice what you paid to buy the car in the first place, and that’s only for third party cover. I have never met anyone in Italy who had anything more than third party cover for a vehicle. This is why your car rental will cost you less than half the price you pay for car insurance on your car rental.
Then there’s petrol. A litre of petrol in Sicily costs more than a litre of champagne (OK, I’m not talking about Moet Chandon here). Then you have road tax. Then you have speeding fines. These can be hundreds of Euros and often include confiscation of the driving license for a month or more. They are particularly costly as they are graded depending on the margin by which you exceeded the speed limit.
In Sicily, a favourite of the Italian traffic police, the Vigili Urbani, is to denote a section of motorway or a major state road as having a speed limit of thirty kilometres an hour. This is less than twenty miles per hour. It’s about the speed at which your granny can tow her tartan shopping trolley on wheels.
The Polizia, another police force, participate in this money-spinning activity too. They put up lots of notices saying the speed limit is seventy kph just before the go-slow section, then lie in wait with their radars, ticketing every vehicle that comes past. The Polizia are particularly good at camouflaging themselves inside luxuriantly leafy shrubbery. So stamp on the brakes every time you go past some oleanders in full bloom or a squat, spreading palm tree!
As a foreign driver of a rental car, you will be expected to fully understand all the road rules. Your headlights must be on at all times while driving on a motorway, even if it is high noon and the sun is blazing down at 40 degrees centigrade, you need two pairs of polariod sunglasses to be able to squint out of the windscreen without crying, and the car’s plastic handles are so hot they’re melting. The reason for this law is that the accident rate in Sweden fell by nearly 20% when they introduced this rule. The Italian governemnt wants to reduce the car crash rate, naturally, but failed to take note of the fact that Sweden only has two hours of daylight in the winter whereas Sicily is not so very far away from the tropics.
Another important signal you’ll need to understand is the headlight flashing. If you are waiting to turn left and a bus slows down and flashes its headlights at you, in England and the rest of northern Europe, this means “you can go, I’ll wait for you”. In Sicily it means “DO NOT GO! I AM ACCELERATING AND WILL MOW DOWN ANYTHING IN MY PATH!”
Motorbikes are also something you must know how to handle. Sicilians are generally in love with their motorbikes. With the kind of traffic one encounters in rush hour, the vast majority of men travel to and from work by motorbike every day, taking their wife on the back and leaving her at her place of work first. Unlike mainland Italians, it is unusual to see a Sicilian man on a Vespa, a scooter, or a farty little motorbike. These are for the teenage boys, who cannot afford anything else (including a crash helmet), and for the girls – that is, the ones who haven’t got boyfriends or husbands to give them a lift.
Sicilian men travel on serious motorbikes with large, fast engines, Honda or BMW being regarded as the elite. Be careful not to kill them! They are very prone to speeding and will overtake you to the left or the right, or even by driving over the roof of your car and down the bonnet.
Maybe that was an exaggeration. But they would love to buy a motorbike to do that with, if one existed. If you still believe that Concorde was the fastest motorised means of transport created by man, you clearly have never witnessed Sicilian men on their motorbikes trying to get home before a thunder storm begins.
I should explain that, when it rains in Sicily, it buckets down like a tropical monsoon. The sky is capable of depositing so much water in so little time that, not only do the poor motorcyclists get drenched through their waterproof jackets and trousers and even get their hair wet inside their helmet, but also the sewers cannot cope and half the roads in the city get flooded to a depth of up to three feet.
This means that the man on the motorcycle cannot get home to eat his pasta. He may have to travel four times his normal commuting distance to find usable roads.
Therefore, when the sky turns black and you start to get blinded by flashes of lightning and hear thunder which makes the car windows vibrate, think of the poor Sicilian men on their Honda bikes desperate to get home, drop all their sopping wet clothes into the shower tray, blow-dry their chest hair and finally eat their plate of spaghetti. Slow down, keep to the kerb, and give them room to pass. You won’t actually see them, as they will be about as fast as the speed of light, but believe me, they are there.
Finally, don’t fret about all the dents, scratches and components of the car missing when you take it back to the Car Rental office. They won’t charge you for that type of normal wear and tear.
So chill out, relax, and enjoy driving in Sicily!
I AM ON HOLIDAY IN ENGLAND TILL THE END OF AUGUST, BUT LOOKING FORWARD TO READING ALL YOUR COMMENTS AS SOON AS I CAN GET ONLINE!