Navigating in Italy: He'd be lost without his GPS

Newly purchased Garmin saved vacationing driver's sanity on high-speed highways and hair-raising village roads

August 31, 2008|By Ross Werland | Ross Werland,Chicago Tribune

Past vacations that involved driving in Italy had required a peace pact between my wife, Kathy, and me, because being on the road there is so intense because of high speed, tight squeezes and plain old Italian urgency. With those complications, navigational mistakes become magnified, and the driver starts blaming the navigator and vice versa. It gets ugly.

Amid cars whose drivers ignore lane markers, instructional signs and numerous traffic laws - assuming there are traffic laws - one missed turn easily can lead to half an hour of recovery time to get back on the right road even with a map, considering that parts of the nation's roadway system truly do resemble bowls of spaghetti.

For example, on a GPS screen, Rome's beltway forms a bowl, and the hopeless tangle of internal streets forms a blob of spaghetti that can seem impossible to navigate. Street names may or may not appear on the sides of buildings, and the names can change from block to block.

But on our latest trip we had a device guided by the Global Positioning System of satellites that allows you to know precisely where you are on the planet, with a constantly moving map display and verbal turn-by-turn instructions.

I had never used a GPS unit outside the United States before this trip, and if it could work, it would solve the only great frustration I have ever had in visiting stunningly beautiful Italy, a place where ancient buildings sometimes rest right in the middle of the road, because they predate the thoroughfare.

Rather than renting a device, though, I wanted one that I could keep for use in the United States and in other countries. I settled on a Garmin Nuvi 270 because it came loaded with maps not only for much of North America but also Western Europe and much of Eastern Europe. At $284, the price was right.

Warm-up tests in the United States were encouraging. Even with purposeful attempts at getting lost, the GPS unit would provide an alternative route within seconds, leading me into some wonderful places I had never seen before.

By the time we got to Italy, I had lovingly christened the GPS device Garmeen because the female voice had won me over with her unruffled calm.

Landing near Rome, in west-central Italy, we had to get to the northeast corner of the country and cross into Austria for a couple days, making one stop along the way for wine and, oh, sleep in Ferrara.

So the first test was getting out of the Fiumicino airport parking garage and onto the Italian interstate system, which usually flows marvelously because it seems that most Italians know how to drive well, with constructive aggression that keeps traffic moving briskly, to say the least. (My speed reached about 110 mph - miles, not kilometers - at one point, and that's not unusual.)

We got to the Rome beltway, and for some reason Garmeen wanted me to head south toward Naples instead of north toward Bologna. I hadn't studied the map, but I knew I wanted to go north. I disobeyed, and Garmeen immediately changed to my way of thinking and took me flawlessly to Ferrara, 273 miles away.

Once in Ferrara, however, there was a wrinkle. When a general location name, such as a village, is entered into the GPS unit, Garmeen offers address options if the operator requests no specific one. I needed to get to a hotel outside town, but all I had were directions, not an address. So when an option popped up that looked like it was on the same street, I chose it. Well, I was wrong. I needed Via Catena, and I had hurriedly selected Via Porto Catena. That street was downtown and had nothing to do with the street I wanted, so I pulled over and plugged in the right street name.

One lesson learned.

The next day's trip to Velden, Austria, was perfect. Garmeen even had the hotel listed among accommodations for the city, so she led me to the front door.

Another test came a day later, on a day trip to Udine, Italy. I had a specific address, but even that can be trouble in Italy. Nevertheless, Garmeen led through an amazing mass of spaghetti and to a curb about 100 feet from the apartment building.

We couldn't have done better even if we had had one of my wife's Italian relatives in the shotgun seat.

The next test was to find our rental house in Tuscany on the drive from Velden. Once again, I had no specific address, but I did have a street name. The guidance was flawless. The GPS even displayed every bend in the mountain road to the house.

But the biggest test of the trip came in our old nemesis, Florence. We wanted to see the ancient Etruscan ruins at Fiesole, overlooking Florence, and we managed to time this trip right at rush hour.

We zigged and zagged through neighborhood after neighborhood, just as in our first trip there, but the difference was that Garmeen was dead on. I was able to stay as calm as she was.

On the return trip, she led us down walled streets so narrow that the side mirrors cleared by only a couple inches on each side.

Bottom line: Garmeen and I are now a couple; the GPS goes with me from now on.

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