My gusto for driving had come gushing back on a hot summer’s day in Oxfordshire after– incredibly –five and a half years without practice in Britain. It was me, my aunt’s lent and neglected Ford Ka, a hoard of nostalgia-reeking metal CDs from my early adolescent years (still know ALL the words) and a half asleep/half stoned friend, versus the M40 and M1.
We kicked their asses, obviously.
I was in love with driving again. If anyone needed a lift, I’d be there in a jiffy. Any time, any place, you name it. I was your man. It even made me give up drinking… until I had to return the car a week later. It was an inevitably difficult moment, but to appease my pain I’d decided to book me and my missus a trip to Sicily, and with that, a hire car, with which we would boldly explore the island’s east and resplendent coast.
Neither of us had been before, and, like any sane person in this world, we both adore Italian food. Exciting times lay ahead. We counted down the weeks, the days and on the day itself all I could think about was getting behind that wheel and trundling off into the distance.
We arrive. We reclaim our bags. We go to the car-hire offices. I realise I need a credit card. I don’t have a credit card. We don’t have a car.
Should’ve seen that one coming; you need a credit card to hire a car in Spain, where I live, and pretty much anywhere else in Europe so I have come to gather. My tactless and wide-eyed demeanour had cost us dearly; we were facing a royally ballsed up holiday before even having left the airport.
But then: “You would like to pay with debit card sir?” I spun around and ran over to the architect of these wonderful words. “Yes! Yes I would like to pay with debit card sir! Oh thank-you. Thank-you, thank-you, thank-you” etc.
Yep. Turned out that I didn’t need a credit card after all, and the road trip was back on, even if we were now in a more expensive Fiat Punto, as opposed to the cheaper and better Ford Fiesta that I had reserved online. Didn’t matter; my driving holiday was back on track!
A friend of mine had warned me that Italy’s roads were occupied by the world’s most reckless drivers. I was dubious; I’d seen some pretty shocking displays of disregard in Thailand, and said friend, although most dear, is probably the least patient person I know.
However, it soon transpired that his forewarning had been entirely reasonable. Our first job following the averted disaster at the airport was to find our hostel in Catania, where the roads were MENTAL. Fleeting packs of scooter-ists zipped in front of or behind us, causing an incohesive string of profanities to part my lips on each occasion. Other drivers cut across with no warning. Pedestrians virtually leaped into the road from behind parked cars, whose doors would swing open wildly. It was relentless, each incident as bum-clenchingly terrifying as the last.
However, the most dreaded moment of any drive was, undoubtedly, coming to a roundabout. I may be British and used to driving on the left, but I’ve coped pretty well in France before and consider myself to be, at the very least, a veteran front-seat passenger with a discerning eye for a developing hazard. Sicilian roundabouts are jam-packed, chaotic spaces, where I suspect fatal heart conditions are triggered as often as they are concluded. Indication is rare, and sudden lane-crossing is the norm. Here, there are developing hazards everywhere. It’s fair to say that my discerning eye was having an off day.
Somehow, in spite of all the mindlessness, I managed not to crash nor be crashed into for the duration of our rental period (4 days), and the motorways, I must admit, are very well signposted and a joy to cruise along. Once we got the wind in our sails there was no stopping us. We just drove, with a very rough route in mind. Often we would call in at random towns and beaches that no bus would ever have taken us to. Thankfully the roads were quiet and idiot-less in these spots, such as Giardini-Naxos– just a few kms south of Taormina –and the quaint but ho hum settlement of Belpasso, where we stayed at Mount Etna B&B. There wasn’t much to do here, and if we hadn’t had a car we’d have been up the creek, but with the car we were situated perfectly for access to Mount Etna. Full post coming on that shortly…
Hiring a car for our trip along Sicily’s east coast was worth it– we wouldn’t have seen half as much if we hadn’t done so. Although if you do intend to follow suit, just make sure that you take plenty of happy place music with you for the ride; you’re gonna need it.