I always prefer to spend my time in the centro storico of Italian towns versus the newer parts that grew over time outside of the historic center. But those older parts of town usually present a host of challenges—narrow, twisty roads; pedestrian only zones; one way streets; and a whole host of parking challenges.

In Gubbio, after I’d been driving in Italy for only two days, the hotel directed us to a parking garage just on the edge of the historic center, and I easily drove down the ramp and parked the car on the lower level. But when I needed to pull out of the garage, I needed to make a very sharp turn on a very steep ramp up, and I couldn’t get the hang of the manual gears. I revved the engine so hard while trying to put it into first gear that the entire garage filled with nasty smoke, and I nearly burned up the clutch. David just shook his head.

“What?” I asked, hurt that he seemed disappointed in my ability to handle the car the way maybe he would. I wanted him to be more understanding, to know I was doing the best I could. I was frustrated with him, but in reality I was more frustrated with myself. I wanted to be able to master our little Fiat 500 like an Italian.

I was more prepared two days later in Siena. Years ago I had stayed in a Tuscan farmhouse with friends, and we had come to Siena for lunch. I’d had the parking garage information loaded onto my phone, but as we reached the destination, there was no sign of a parking garage. It took an hour to figure out that we were on the hill directly above the parking garage, and that we needed to drive around and down to the entrance to the garage. It was a lesson to sometimes put down the phone and just survey my surroundings to figure out the next move.

This time I drove right to the parking garage, easily pulled the car into a spot, and took the ticket before we walked into the town, feeling quite proud of myself. But after lunch, David and I spent thirty minutes walking around the garage, unable to figure out where to pay so we could exit the garage. I finally saw a man working outside and asked him, “Dove posso pagare?” He explained that the pay stations weren’t actually in the garage, but rather in the basement of the building that was attached to the garage—not obvious at all, but we finally paid and drove out of town.

In Palermo, our hotel in the centro storico had warned us in advance that parking in Palermo’s center was very difficult and limited. They had recommended a public parking area—not a garage, just some street parking—a couple blocks away from the hotel. But when we got there, I saw that we were directly in front of a school, and I was pretty sure the sign said no parking overnight.
“Mi scusa,” I asked a woman who seemed on her way to the school to collect her kids. “Posso parcchegiare qui?” She shrugged, and said she thought it was okay, but didn’t know if they would ticket or tow me if I stayed overnight. Then she pointed to the street on the left of the school where cars were parked, telling me that was probably a better spot.

I drove to the side street, where cars were parked haphazardly in both directions, some on the left, some on the right, some halfway on the sidewalk, and even some tiny smart cars parked sideways. There was only one small spot left, so I asked David to get out and guide me. With just a couple of maneuvers, I successfully parallel parked our little Fiat. Before we walked to the hotel, I snapped a photo. My parking job was by far the best on the street, neatly on the sidewalk, not hanging off like some of the others, perfectly spaced between the two cars in front and back. I felt very Italian.

The small historic centers of most of the towns in Italy have areas that are reserved for pedestrians. Some are marked by traditional road signs, while some are controlled by neon ZTL signs, indicating the hours of the Zona a Traffico Limitato. Some areas are open to cars of residents only, not just any car. If you don’t pay attention, you can pay a hefty fine, but trying to understand the signs while navigating the small streets through crowds had always been a challenge for me. On a prior trip to Calabria I had gotten so turned around in the centro of Tropea that I had been forced to drive across a pedestrian only piazza filled with Italians eating lunch outside to reach the road on the other side. The traffic ticket for my error arrived in Denver a month later.

In Bologna, we knew in advance that our hotel was in an area reserved for only pedestrians, so we followed the hotel’s directions, hoping to find the small parking area they had arranged for us right on the edge of the pedestrian only centro storico. We ended up circling the area three times, inching our way through the crowds of college kids hanging out on the small streets that I was certain were not meant for cars, until we noticed that we were thinking we needed to turn left when we should have been turning right. I happily turned over the keys to the attendant, wondering just how many tickets I had accrued in the span of 15 minutes.

Outside of Roma, we tried to visit Villa d’Este in Tivoli, a 16th-century villa famous for its Italian Renaissance gardens that’s listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. I had plugged in Villa d’Este into the Google map before leaving Tuscany, and we were following the map right into Tivoli, but when we got to the spot the map said was the entrance, we saw nothing. I was driving on a narrow, one-way street so had no choice but to continue forward, which took me right through a pedestrian only street and piazza, right in front of two policemen chatting with two women with babies in strollers. Nobody moved even an inch to the side to let me through, so I very slowly drove past them hoping not to clip someone on the way and hoping the polizia wasn’t capturing my license plate before exiting to a road on the other side.

We had spent the prior ten days driving from Bari north to Gubbio, through Siena, Bologna, and parts of Tuscany. After driving nearly 2000 km, I was tired and ready to get home to Rionero. “This isn’t worth it,” I said to David. “Let’s just go home and skip the gardens which we can see another time when we come to Rome.”

He agreed, so I turned the car around and began driving down the hill. On the way up we had gone under an ancient arch, barely wide enough for our tiny Fiat 500 to pass through. On the way down, I was going slowly, trying to navigate the arch when out of nowhere a motorcycle came flying up the hill that we were driving down. Instead of waiting for me to pass through the arch, he wedged himself through, hitting our car on the back panel at about forty miles an hour. I was certain he had been injured, but he never stopped or looked back.

I took a few days break from driving after that trip until we went to Pietrapertosa to hike. When we got close to the town, I stopped to look at the Google map on my phone, zooming out until I could see the whole route that lie ahead, a mind-blowing number of back-to-back hairpins on what I was certain was a steep road going up. I took a deep breath, put the car in gear, and began. I was zigging and zagging, passing herds of sheep and cows, trying to dodge the shepherds with their dogs, and trying not to look over the steep side of the mountain. Not my favorite kind of driving at all.

I was relieved when we reached Pietrapertosa at the top, and I turned right onto the main street to drive through town to where the Google Lady was directing me to park. But the further I drove, the narrower the road became until I could see that the Google Lady was instructing me to make a hairpin turn to the left, through an opening too narrow for our car, and down a set of stone steps. While she was right that there was a parking area at the bottom, this was definitely not the way to get there in a car.

As I sat staring at the map on the phone, an Italian man in front of me waved his finger at me as if to say no, you can’t drive through here. I waved to acknowledge him and put the car in reverse, but I was wedged in so tightly that every time I started reversing, despite David trying to direct me from outside the car, I had the angle slightly wrong and risked scraping the wall.

The Italian man had been watching my pitiful attempts to back up and eventually approached my window. “Posso?” he asked. Absolutely you can help, I thought. I quickly unbelted, handed him the key, and got out of the car, thrilled I didn’t need to embarrass myself further in front of him. In just five seconds, he backed the car up, swung it into a side alley, then whipped the car around so we were pointing forward on the road.

“Grazie mille. Sei molto gentile,” I said, thanking him for his kindness, then I got back in the car and started driving back on the main road. At this point I wasn’t willing to trust the Google Lady to park, so I took the first spot I found open where I could easily parallel park and know that when it was time to leave, I’d be pointing in the right direction to exit the town down the main road.

During our last couple of weeks in Basilicata, we drove to the neighboring hill town of Ripacandida. After visiting the church on the main road of the town, we decided to drive to the next church, not because it was that far, but because it was a steep uphill climb, and I wasn’t wearing my good sneakers. Chiesa di Santa Maria del Sepolcro sits spectacularly up on the very tip of the hill—this was the steeple we had seen weeks before when we had hiked down through the olive groves outside of Rionero—and classically, as we drove, the hairpin turns of the town narrowed significantly. When we came around the final tight turn, I saw we would need to drive straight through a crowd of people that seemed to be waiting for something to begin.

As I inched the car slowly through the crowd, David figured out they were waiting for a funeral. I maneuvered the car successfully through them and around the corner to the church, but then saw that the church we were trying to visit was the same one where the funeral was to be held. I didn’t know what to do—there was no way to turn around here even if the street wasn’t full of people going to a funeral—so I kept driving, thinking we would just go out the other side of town. But as we drove, like so many other tiny villages, the walls began closing in on us. We both tucked in the side view mirrors thinking we could pass through and just as we did a man stopped us. “No,” he said, wagging a finger at me. “Non è possibile di guidare qui.”

I was having flashbacks to Pietrapertosa when the man had to back my car out of its wedged position, but this time I was able to back up on my own without his help. He told us we could park in front of his house close to the wall, and as we got out of the car, he asked if we were going to the funeral. Now I understood. He was offering us a parking place because he thought we were mourners. I felt terrible that we were invading this private moment for people who had lost a loved one. I told him we weren’t going to the funeral, that we just wanted to peek at the church from the outside and hadn’t known there was a funeral today.

As if nothing could be worse, we walked from his house back to the church just in time for the hearse to arrive as everyone was heading up the stairs and into the church. It was so rude and intrusive, that we quickly returned to our car. The car was still pointed up the hill and I needed to turn around and go back down the hill to leave Ripacandida. Luckily, my two months of driving through tiny Italian hill towns had taught me some new skills, and I successfully did a quick three-point turn—with the help of a local man yelling, “Vai! Vai! Vai!” because, evidently, he didn’t think I was doing it fast enough or backing up far enough. He asked me if the funeral was for a relative of mine and I explained we had only come to see the church having no idea there was a funeral going on. “Mi dispiace,” I apologized before driving away, embarrassed at my own insensitivity.

By the end of our nine weeks in Italy, I had driven into and out of more small towns and villages than I could have ever envisioned when I was planning our trip, including the nine villages set within the region around Monte Vulture. As I drove into and out of these towns, I easily navigated the narrow, steep streets leading to each centro, I carefully read the ZTL signs, and I parked—without any help from a local Italian man—in each little town.

For the two months we had lived in Rionero I had struggled with getting out of the center where our apartment was located to the main road above the town. I would circle all the way around the parking area near the park, too timid to cut through it, then turn up the steep tiny alley on the other side of the piazza. I always had trouble with shifting and maintaining my speed up the hill, grinding my gears all the way, often braking when I didn’t need to, never managing to get out of first gear. There wasn’t a stop sign or light where the alley met the main crossroad, and I never had the courage to pull out into traffic. Instead, I waited and waited and waited until it was clear in both directions before tentatively easing forward.

But on our last day, after saying all our farewells in town, we loaded our luggage into the car. David mounted the phone with the Google map directions to the airport, although after driving all these back roads for weeks I no longer needed the Google Lady. I backed the car up and then quickly swung it through two open parking spots in the center so I could take the shortcut straight to the alley. I drove up the alley in second gear without once braking or stalling. When I reached the intersection, I glanced right and left, making eye contact with the oncoming drivers, and pulled out right into the traffic, finally understanding the other drivers would slow to let me in if I acted with confidence. I was smiling when we left Rionero behind and I zipped easily into the traffic on the autostrada, knowing I had successfully mastered driving in Italy.