For as long as I can remember, I’ve had vivid dreams of driving through glorious European landscapes. I’ve pictured myself in a convertible—sunglasses over my eyes, the wind blowing through my hair, an attractive lady beside me, as I traverse winding roads, past mountains, lakes, and open fields—just like in the movies.
On a recent trip to Italy, with a few spare days on hand, my wife and I decided to visit Tuscany and go vineyard-hopping and exploring mysterious walled townships. On hearing our plans, Gianni, the owner of Podere il Pero, our lovely bed and breakfast on the unendingly green outskirts of Siena, asserted that driving was “the only way” to discover the Tuscan region. “You can drive and drive, and you will find so many interesting places,” he claimed. I hardly needed any more encouragement, especially since all the other requisites—the pretty lady, sunglasses, and the wind—were already present.
On our first morning, I set off to the nearest car rental, a couple of kilometres away. I went alone, assuring my wife it would be a boring process. That was a lie. I wanted to savour my first European drive alone. My hands tingled with childlike excitement all the way to the shop.
The prospect of manning a left-hand-drive car didn’t bother me. Neither did driving on the opposite side of the road. My father’s old quip—“If you can drive in Mumbai, you can drive anywhere in the world”—gave me the confidence that just my passion for driving would see me through. I was convinced that a couple of days cruising through the Tuscan countryside would be the perfect antidote to Mumbai’s chaos.
An overtly friendly receptionist took me through the rental fine print, smiling through her Italian-smattered English. Her smile broadened when she informed me that the cash deposit for the car would be a rather steep₹25,000. Money is no object when living one’s dreams, I told myself, and handed it over. I was led to a Fiat Panda hatchback, a compact city car that bore no resemblance to the convertible of my dreams. It even looked like it had been through a minor war. After a basic safety briefing, I was on my way.
One of my inspirations for driving abroad was the Bollywood movie Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara, where three friends effortlessly drive through narrow Spanish roads. However, within the first few minutes of driving through the Italian town of Siena, I knew that the moviemakers had deceived me. They’d edited out the initial moments when the Indian road-trippers try to figure out how European traffic rules work. Within the first five minutes, I had clipped a pedestrian, caused a minor traffic jam, broken a signal, and attracted the vitriol of at least 20 outraged Italians. Not quite the dream trip I had imagined, I thought, as a woman shook her fist at me, taking my precautionary honk as a personal slight.
Once I got to grips with the left-hand-drive car, I was faced with taking a left turn. Traffic signals in Italy are very different from the ones in India. There’s a solitary green light with no indication of directions. I learnt only later, after speaking to a taxi driver, that a left turn is made on a red light after scouting for oncoming traffic. However, blissfully unaware of this protocol, my first left turn on a green signal almost led to a head-on collision and my second, to yet another traffic jam. Nerves frayed, hands shaking, I decided to avoid left turns altogether. Instead I thought I’d take three right turns wherever necessary. I could almost hear the annoyance in the GPS lady’s voice as she furiously re-routed every few minutes. Forty minutes and fourteen kilometres later, my journey back to the B&B was complete.
After a strong dose of caffeine my heartbeat finally returned to an acceptable rate, and I was in a state to drive again. “We don’t need to go, you know,” my wife suggested with what seemed like hope in her voice. The idea sounded appealing enough, but male ego kicked in and I refused. We embarked on the most reluctant road trip of our lives.
Of the 100-odd kilometres that followed, I don’t remember any of the countryside. I don’t remember the landscape, or if there were green fields or pretty villages along the way. I don’t think I enjoyed even a minute of it. With the small fortune I had deposited for the car at stake, my eyes were only trained on the white lines of the road, feet timidly coaxing the accelerator, mind filled with the dread of missing the correct exit at the next roundabout. We’d planned to have the car for three days, but I dropped it off the same evening. Suddenly, my heart yearned for traffic, lawless rickshaw drivers, and the chaotic Mumbai traffic. We took the bus the next day, and every day for the rest of our trip. From my comfortable window seat, no passing countryside had ever appeared more beautiful.
1. Read the fine print. Local rentals may ask for cash deposits or block an amount on your credit card when booking a car. It’s impossible to have a no-strings-attached rental. An international driving license, and travel insuranceis a must.
2. If you haven’t operated a left-hand-drive car before, start by driving on an empty stretch of road. The right lane is the slow lane and overtaking is done from the left, after flashing your indicator. It’s polite to flash your hazard lights for a few seconds as a “thank you” if someone makes way for you to overtake.
3. Keep an eye out for limited-traffic zones, usually marked with white signboards with a large red circle and the words “zona traffico limitato”. Some boards come with timings during which tourist vehicles aren’t permitted. Entering the zone without a registered number plate triggers a camera trap which automatically fines your car (and you).
4. When driving on narrow roads, cars are obliged to make way for buses, so be prepared for a lot of reversing in busy areas, particularly the mountain roads of the Amalfi Coast, which are tricky during peak season (May-Sept).
5. I was grossly unprepared because I relied on online guides that assumed I was accustomed to driving in the West. No matter how good a driver you think you are, you need to get back to the basics when you switch to driving on the right side. The British Royal Automobile Club (RAC) has well-researched driving rules and guides for scores of countries (www.rac.co.uk/travel/driving-abroad). There’s an exhaustive guide for Italy (www.italy.army.mil/files/dt/drivers_guide.pdf), which properly details left turns in the country.
Appeared in the February 2015 issue as “Three Rights Make a Left”. This story has been updated in March 2016.