It always amazes me when I see Internet writing types who’ve used bold text to spout loudly the unequivocal law of the Italian countryside, “you definitely need a car to see Italy right!” If you research, you’ll likely find that these are people who have bought a house in an agricultural wilderness and turned it into a Bed and Breakfast that train-riders can’t visit because the tracks don’t go anywhere close to there. It’s a vested interest thing.
There’s also a romantic side. Every Italian tourist’s noggin has been graced with a portion of memory devoted to an endless loop revealing a red car gloriously shredding the asphalt between idyllic Tuscan villages over and over again. The top is down, the exhaust note is throaty, and friendly folks wave encouragingly as you zip along with Italian verve. It’s a virus caused by overindulging in Italian Romantic Comedies and taking to heart the hyperbole found in tourist brochures. Really.
These days (sung sadly to a tune by the Duke), you “don’t zip along much anymore.” Not legally that is. Millions of Euros worth of autovelox cameras make sure that zipping is kept to something you do when your trusty steed, parked discreetly, is approached by the constabulary just as you’ve finished getting amorous with your sweet honey. “Nothing to see here, officer…”
Presumably the fees extracted from the jauntier drivers pay for the machines. It doesn’t often work out like that, but these days folks are increasingly willing to go into debt to keep everyone else in line. “God,” they will explain, “wants them to.” And so you will likely find yourself and your rental vehicle in frequent lines, except in Italy the line of cars you wait in is called a coda or a “tail”—except you don’t want a piece of this one…
There is another problem with driving these days. The price of fuel has skyrocketed. Taxes, you see, have been added to rebuild the towns that bad weather has crunched. And, remember, the prices have skyrocketed from stratospherically high prices we now think of as reasonable. We are a flexible people.
I’m not trying to scare you from renting a car and driving your butt off. It’s just that it might be time to consider the train. It’s (relatively) cheap. It lets you off near the center of cities—bypassing the industrial crap that rings them—and you don’t have to pay attention to anything you don’t want to pay attention to.
I mean, look at what’s on a single rail line: Torino to Trieste. It’s like a box of assorted chocolates, these sweet and compelling cities and towns: Torino, Vercelli (known for risotto with frogs!) Milano, Brescia, Verona, Padova, Venice. And you pay just a few Euros to travel between any two of them. You can spend weeks along this one rail line without thinking you’re missing the “real Italy.”
And in Italy you’ll find passes that integrate the public transportation experience, from boats to metro to buses and trains. In little-visited Lazio, for example, you’ll find the BIRG Pass that will save you money and make getting places darned easy. Check with the local tourist office wherever you land.
And don’t think the train stations themselves are seedy little stink-holes like some in the US. Both Venice and Florence stations have been named in one of those ubiquitous Top Ten lists of train stations in Europe.
So, no, you don’t need a car to visit Italy. You can get to some mighty sweet places on the train.