We though we’d first review a bit about renting a car in Italy. You can of course visit the larger towns in Italy by train. (In fact a car is a hindrance there). However to get to smaller towns and villages by public transportation, you have to take a bus. This does gives a different, equally interesting experience- but does not afford you the opportunity of taking back roads and unplanned stops through the countryside. For this vacation- mostly in rural Italy- the car was perfect for us.
At the urging of some friends, we rented through a car rental broker, despite reading reviews that brokers were sometimes unreliable. Both of us had a positive experience with the broker Auto Europe- we ended up with the car company “Europcar”, and our friends ended up with “Sicily by Car” – both rented at the Milan airport. The total cost for two weeks was $540 for a compact car- which is the third size from the bottom, equivalent to the size of a Ford Focus. We ended up with a Fiat 500L which was very roomy but small enough for European parking. (The Fiat was a hatchback, but had a privacy shield for suitcases). Theft and collision damage waiver are included and required for a rental in Italy. You have to pay this even though many credit cards offer this coverage free as part of their service. Also you save tremendously by renting a manual transmission as we did- but make sure you are experienced at driving a stick shift, or you will be no match for Italian drivers. (You will be no match for them anyway).
A few other car related notes.
Parking- as I remember it there were three levels of parking in northern Italy: blue, paid parking; yellow, specialty parking- bus stops and taxis (so ignore); and white, free parking. Also there were some blue spaces in towns that were marked for residents only. We generally did not have trouble finding both free and reasonable paid parking everywhere we went- on the street or in lots. This link explains all about parking it Italy. http://www.slowtrav.com/italy/driving/parking.htm.
Highways- the main long distance roads in Italy, the Autostrade, preceded by the letter “A”- i.e. A1 etc.- are well maintained and easy to drive on. There are gas/food/rest-stops along the Autostrade, very like in the United States- kind of what we wanted to get away from-but they are convenient when you are traveling long distances and just need to pull off for gas- with much better food than you would find at similar ones in the USA, and real cappuccino.
Driving- We drove on the largest highways and the smallest back roads, winding up hills with curves that are not for the faint-hearted. More than once we came around a curve on a winding hill to be met with someone coming from the other direction at high-speed. In rural areas you can see the frustration of native drivers having to navigate around tourists who are driving very slow and tentatively. In general, Italian drivers tailgate and drive very fast. That being said- they are very skilled drivers. During the 1500 or so miles we drove, we only saw one minor fender-bender accident.
Toll roads- the Autostrade is a toll road. Be aware that there are lanes called “telepass” lanes similar to the “easypass” lanes in the northeastern US, for which you are preregistered and charged monthly. Unfortunately if you go through one of these lanes by accident- make sure you pull over, walk over to the toll booth, pay, and most importantly- get a letter stating that you have paid. You will need this letter when your rental car company, and apparently the Italian government, charge you fines for going through the wrong lane. (Note: we will let you know how that turns out).