I just spent three weeks driving 800 miles around Sicily. And let me tell you, that’s no easy task. While touring Sicily by car is a smart, efficient approach for travelers, the timid and the uninitiated may find it challenging. Hold on, is “challenging” the right word? Hmmm. No, wait. I’ve got it: “Terrifying.”
The trick to driving in Sicily is keeping in mind that you are driving in Sicily. It took me a few days to dispense with my preconceptions about things like obeying traffic signs, or why it’s a bad idea to triple-park in the middle of the street, or the importance of cars staying in their lanes (or, really, the very concept of “lanes”). Drivers who refuse to accept Sicily on Sicily’s terms will need to end each journey by popping a Xanax and prying their raw, white-knuckled, death-grip claws from the steering wheel. But, like with other things in Sicily, if you just sort of go numb and roll with it…you’ll be just fine. (Oh, and while you’re at it, spring for the zero-deductible insurance. Not joking.)
Entering a big city like Palermo or Catania, forget about right of way and obeying signs — just go with the flow of local traffic. I was taught to drive defensively, which works in Sicily…to a point. But don’t be too stubborn about it. Assuming you actually want to get where you’re going, occasionally you need to drive like a Sicilian. Just today, in the very heart of Palermo, I obediently pulled to a stop at a red light, instantly generating a chorus of furious honks from the column of cars behind me. I shrugged, checked both ways three times, and ran the red light…followed, without a moment’s hesitation, by everyone else.
Meanwhile, there are the motor scooters — the true love of most Sicilians. Knock-off Vespas weave between cars stalled in traffic, brushing past your side-view mirrors, bushwhacking their own path through an urban jungle. Pausing at a red light, my car was instantly enveloped by motor scooters squeezing around me on both sides. They gathered in front of me, cramming into the tiny no-man’s-land between my hood and the intersecting traffic, forming a scrum of eager beavers at my front bumper. When the light turned green, a half-dozen little engines buzzed to life, like a swarm of bees taking flight, and off they zipped…leaving me in a cloud of dust and exhaust.
While urban driving is challenging, driving in the Sicilian countryside is, for the most part, a delight. The roads are empty — it’s easy to make great time. But be prepared for the dramatic variation in Sicilian cruising speeds. On a road with a limit of, say, 100 kilometers per hour, virtually nobody actually goes 100 kilometers per hour…except me. Approximately half of all Sicilian drivers go far, far below the speed limit. The co-author of our upcoming Rick Steves Sicily guidebook, Sarah Murdoch, quite rightly pointed out that Sicilian roads are clogged with dinky, boxy Fiat Pandas from the early 1980s, which appear to have a maximum speed of about 70 kmh. Sure enough, I spent enough long journeys stuck behind Pandas to become something of an aficionado. (The lines on the 1982 Panda 45 Super were nothing short of breathtaking.)
Meanwhile, the other half of Sicilian drivers go far, far above the speed limit. And if you’re going even a smidge below their preferred speed — even for a fleeting moment, even if there’s a stop sign a hundred yards in front of you — they’ll ride your bumper so close, it feels like you’re giving them a tow. Passing on blind curves is a high-risk national pastime in Sicily (like bullfighting in Spain), and drivers take insane chances. On a busy parkway into the city of Siracusa, a motorcycle screamed past me at around 120 kilometers per hour. As he faded into the horizon, I caught a fleeting glimpse of the daredevil driver riding sidesaddle, his bike leaning at a precipitous angle.
Navigation is tricky. Sicily’s roads are potholed and inconsistently signed. And when there are signs, they can be more confusing than no signs at all. Highways can be unexpectedly closed — or exist only on maps despite never having been completed (I spotted quite a few on-ramps to nowhere).
I am a fanatical devotee of using Google Maps on my phone for navigation, and — with only a few memorable missteps — it has been my reliable copilot through dozens of European road trips. But it was patchy at best in Sicily. Late one night, returning to my agriturismo in the hills near Agrigento, I was counting on Google Maps to get me home. It treated me to a fun little detour, 10 minutes high above the seashore, before dead-ending me at a three-way intersection with two rutted, overgrown trails suitable only for tractors and herds of goats. (About 20 minutes of backtracking later, I finally found my way home.) I can get away with blindly trusting my GPS in most of Europe and the USA…but not in Sicily.
A word about roundabouts: I deeply believe that they are humankind’s greatest invention, a notch above penicillin and smartphones. We should have roundabouts at every intersection in the United States. I’ve driven miles and miles through the British countryside, zipping around the outskirts of major cities and through the historic cores of quaint villages, without ever coming to a full stop. When properly utilized, roundabouts make traffic flow like poetry.
But Sicily is a long way from Britain. And it’s the only place I’ve been where a roundabout is treated like a lawless intersection: Everybody just aggressively plows through, willfully defiant of silly concepts like “right of way.” Yield to vehicles already in the roundabout, and those entering from the left?! Per favore! What a ridiculous concept. You just go, and let God sort it out.
All of this sounds like madness…chaos. But if you manage to approach Sicilian driving with the right attitude, it becomes clear that it’s a controlled chaos. The thing is, it works. It works not because it’s “every driver for himself,” as it might seem at first glance…but because there’s an unspoken understanding that we’re all in this together. Other drivers are watching you. They see how fast you’re going, how big your car is, and where you’re headed next. They probably know more about your driving skills than you do. And they adapt — constantly, intuitively, and effectively. If you get stubborn and use roundabouts the way they were intended to be used, dammit! — you’ll get everyone angry (at best) or cause a fender-bender (at worst). Put another way: If you’re the only one using the roundabout “the right way,” then you’re the one using it the wrong way.
A cadre of road engineers in Britain and the Netherlands are pioneering a new way of handling complicated intersections: You simply remove all of the signage. There are idyllic little English and Dutch towns where, upon reaching the village green, suddenly there are no traffic lights, no roundabouts, no bike lanes, no crosswalks, no signs of any sort. You just have to pay attention. You have to. And so, everyone does: Drivers, cyclists, and pedestrians all make eye contact with each other, ensuring that everyone’s on the same page regarding what’s about to happen. It sounds counter-intuitive, but removing all signage from intersections not only drastically reduces accidents — it actually makes traffic flow more smoothly, reducing congestion. (This is just fascinating. Check it out.)
On about my third day driving in Sicily, I was cursing my fellow drivers who refused to abide by the universally accepted rules of using a roundabout, when it suddenly dawned on me: Sicilians long ago intuitively figured out what all those Northern European eggheads have spent their careers researching. The road is a shared venture — a communal enterprise. And as long as we all look out for each other, we’ll get through it in one piece. And if you can do that, and just dive in…well, then, you might just come to enjoy it.
Bruised and battle-hardened, but wiser, I leave Sicily thinking it’s a fine place to drive. A car gives you maximum flexibility for linking up the remote and rural highlights of Sicily, even on a short trip. And distances are short, making fuel prices reasonable — I circled the entire island on just three tanks of gas. So don’t be afraid to tackle the Sicilian roads. Remember: Just go numb. Go with the flow. And keep in mind that, like all things Sicilian, everyone’s in this together.