If you’re ready to dip your feet back into European travel, Italy may be high on your list of destinations. After a brutal year-plus of pandemic lockdowns and restrictions, the country is cautiously open to foreign tourists. Reduced crowds — for now, at least — and businesses eager to welcome back customers make this a surprisingly splendid time to visit.
But if your plans for an Italian vacation involve a rental car, you may want to rethink that strategy. Record rental car prices and a lack of available cars, especially on short notice, mean that 2021 and 2022 aren’t the best years for the Great Italian Road Trip.
Fortunately, Italy provides options. Travelers with a little affinity for planning and an appetite for slow travel can find smaller cities and towns reachable by public transportation that can serve as bases for exploring the surrounding areas by foot, bike or motorized methods that don’t involve signing a rental car contract.
Fewer, costlier rental cars
The rental car shortage, well-documented in the United States, is no less dire in Europe. The causes behind it are much the same: companies sold off their fleets during the pandemic, factories suspended production of new cars and semiconductors are scarce. Giuseppe Benincasa, general director of ANIASA, Italy’s rental car trade association, explained that the Suez Canal blockage in March created a “pazzesca” (“crazy”) chain reaction, as massive containers full of materials were delayed for a month or more.
On top of the same perfect storm of problems afflicting North America, Italy’s rental car industry has additional challenges. Getting rental cars to islands such as Sicily and Sardinia is next to impossible, says Benincasa, because even if cars were available, “there’s no space on the ferries,” as Italians flock to these summer destinations with their own cars.
And when inventories do start to return to pre-pandemic levels, prices are still going to be high as Europe gradually converts to a greener fleet. There’s an industry-wide commitment on the continent to move to hybrid and electric cars; Benincasa says rental car suppliers buy an average of 40 percent of all hybrids and electrics built in Europe. Not only can manufacturers not meet the demand for eco-friendly cars, but these cars also cost more. And until their technology and production become the industry norm, those costs will get passed on to renters.
The case for no car
Madeline Jhawar, who runs the aptly named trip-planning service Italy Beyond the Obvious, urges travelers to look at the absence of a rental car as a bonus. “Curious travelers can discover Italy’s magic in so many different ways,” Jhawar says. “Going without a rental car is not just ‘making do,’ since you can have an amazing trip, discover the sights and scenery, connect with locals and have an authentic experience, all without a rental car.”
Besides, as anyone who has ever tried to maneuver through the narrow streets of a centro or find a legal parking spot in a historic town knows, having a car in Italy can be a real hassle. Park in a residents-only lot in Florence, and you’ll risk being towed. Wander unwittingly into a ZTL (a limited traffic zone), and you’ll be greeted with a hefty traffic ticket as a post-vacation homecoming gift. Other places, such as the notorious Amalfi Coast drive, with its steep drop-offs and hairpin turns, or the vertigo-inducing roads around the lakes of Northern Italy, are nerve-racking enough to suck the joy right out of the scenery.
“Don’t think that you can’t get into the Italian countryside without a car,” Jhawar says. With trains, ferries, water buses, taxis, drivers, mountain cable cars and funiculars, bikes, e-bikes and hiking paths, “you can really explore the corners of Italy for quite a ways before you need a car.”
Jhawar says visitors are often surprised that many hotels — especially those just outside of smaller towns with train stations — offer free shuttle service for station pickup and drop-off. Some countryside restaurants even offer the service, so you’re not limited to eating just at places within walking distance of your lodging.
By boat, bike or ski gondola
We asked Italian travel experts for their ideas on where to go and how to get there and around — all without a car. Here are some of their favorite destinations.
●Ponza, the largest of the Pontine Islands, is still less than four square miles in area. “Ponza is an island that is sure of itself,” says Rome-based blogger Gillian Longworth McGuire, who runs the Instagram account for Visit Ponza. Visitors to the island, which is connected by daily ferries from Anzio, Terracina and Formia (all on the Rome-Naples train line), don’t miss what’s missing here — namely the superyachts, high-end shopping and luxury hotels of tonier places such as Capri or Sardinia’s Costa Smeralda. Ponza, she says, “has a wild, rugged charm complete with electric-blue water, fiery sunsets and rocky paths that lead to secret coves. The food scene ranges from panini on the beach to fine dining on fresh fish.” Here, Longworth McGuire says, “the best parking spots in the port are for the local fishing boats and not the visiting yachts.” And there’s no place on the island that can’t be reached by foot, scooter, public minibuses, or self-driven or piloted boat or Zodiac raft. That said, it’s a summer-only destination, with most hotels, rentals and restaurants open only from May through September.
●With their toothy peaks, high mountain valleys and sheer vastness — more than 350,000 acres — the Dolomites don’t look easy to get to. But the dramatic mountain landscapes of Italy’s second-largest UNESCO World Heritage Site (just behind the Cilento and Vallo di Diano National Park in Southern Italy) are remarkably accessible, thanks to a system of major and secondary rail lines, buses, ski lifts and funicular railways. From Trento, Katia Vinco of Trentino Marketing recommends taking the local train toward Mezzana to reach the mountains. “You’ll pass through two of Trentino’s most enchanted valleys, Val di Non, with its orchards and castles, and Val di Sole, the realm of the Stelvio National Park, mountain biking and rafting,” Vinco says. Jhawar is a fan of Bolzano, with its pretty, walkable medieval center; excellent archaeological museum dedicated to Ötzi the Iceman; and connecting trains to Bressanone/Brixen and Merano. “There’s no need for a car in those towns,” she says, “and ski lifts connect to well-marked hiking trails of every level of difficulty.” In high summer season, hikers can take one lift up, hike for hours in one direction, then take a different lift back to lower elevation and catch a bus to their point of origin.
●If you’re set on exploring the smaller towns of Italy’s green, rolling heartland, don’t despair about a lack of wheels. Several of Umbria’s hill towns are on the main or secondary rail lines. At Orvieto and Spoleto, for example, trains arrive at the lower towns, and visitors reach the upper towns via funiculars, elevators or escalators cut into the “rocca,” or “rock,” on which the ancient settlements were built. Although the countryside around them is not always easily accessible without a car, the towns offer a slower pace, small museums, important churches and cathedrals, and plenty of opportunities to taste local food and wine. Orvieto (bias alert: this author lives nearby) was a major Etruscan city, and extant sites include a necropolis, remains of a temple, and an extensive cave network carved into the volcanic tufa plateau underneath. Its duomo, or main cathedral, has a soaring, mosaic-covered Gothic facade and is among the most famous in Italy. Spoleto also predates the Romans, but its oldest sites, including a theater, an amphitheater, a restored house and traces of an ancient road, all date to Imperial Rome. A massive 14th-century fortress looms over the upper town, which contains a dozen or so churches that date to the high and late medieval era.
●Not only do you not need a car to visit Lake Como, but you also really shouldn’t have one, says Samy Ghachem, managing director of Il Sereno, a lakefront hotel in Torno. “The real magic of Lake Como is best seen from the water, as all along the shores are charming little villages,” he says, noting that the road around the lake is at a much higher elevation than the waterfront. “When these lake towns were first built, they were connected by boat, not by roads,” Ghachem says, “and boats are still the best way to get around.” A network of ferries, including hydrofoils and historic steamers, has been in place since the 1800s and makes it easy to hop from town to town, either on day trips or in a multiday tour of the lake. Frequent direct trains from Milan reach the towns of Como and Lecco, at the southern end of each of the lake’s two forks. From there, several boats a day ply the lake, calling at small towns along the way — although we doubt actor and director George Clooney uses public transportation to reach his lakefront villa — and offering one stunning vista after another. On the northern Italian lakes of Maggiore and Garda, Jhawar likes the towns of Stresa and Salò, respectively, as car-free bases for exploring those waters. Direct trains from Milan serve Stresa, while Salò is reachable by bus from Brescia.
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