I knew it would be necessary to hire a car at Ciampino airport, in order for us to attend the funeral of my sister-in-law, in Rome itself. For the first time, I signed various papers in almost total ignorance of what both the large and small print said. The car hire attendant did assure me (in much better English than my attempts at Italian) that the insurance was comprehensive...except for.... 'damage caused by trees and bushes passing'. So I made a mental note to watch out for those!
On the day of Angela's funeral, it was arranged for us to fall in behind the cortege and follow it to the church. We would be driving slowly, lights on, and the journey would take about an hour. As soon as the hearse appeared round the corner, about ten cars (mine was third) moved out from the car park and slid into line behind the hearse, with the assistance of a gentleman whom I took to be a car park attendant (?) who stopped the traffic for us.
I didn't know which direction we were taking or what the route was, my job was to keep the car in front, in sight. It worked pretty well on the way to the church, I managed to avoid all trees, bushes and pedestrians, including the one with the death wish; and the Roman traffic, realising this was a funeral cortege, kept out of the way. 'Driving slowly' turned out to mean keeping within the speed limits, rather than keeping the needle at 20 or 25 miles an hour!
The return journey was the real test.
My sister, armed with a satnav, volunteered to lead us back to the hotel in Ciampino.
It would have been sensible to have taken the same route back, as the the one we arrived by, since we had skirted round the edges of the city, mostly on a road that I thought must be a bypass. But now we were in the hands of the satnav, and it decided, mercilessly, to take us through the centre of the city.
Again, the only option, (if we wished to be reunited with our hotel by bedtime), was to hang on to the tail of the car in front.
Driving priorities in Rome are somewhat different to those in the UK. It isn't so much that you are on the right hand side of the road, not the left (as in the UK), or that roundabouts operate anti-clockwise instead of clockwise. It's much more about who has priority to drive in the space immediately ahead. In practice, it seemed to be whoever gets there first. For example, in the UK, generally, you would wait for a space in the traffic then join it, but, in Rome, you move straight out into the road and expect the oncoming vehicles to take evasive action. Which they do. And he who hesitates is lost (or at the very least will be quickly parted from the car in front with the satnav).
Then there are the motorbikes which seem to have a free pass anywhere.....and drive through the smallest of gaps.
For most of the journey, the city passed by in something of a haze, as we dodged our way through the main thoroughfares and sidestreets, always keeping close together.
We approached a major junction, vaguely aware of St. Peter's over on the right. We were to take the left turn and I was in the correct lane, indicating left. My sister's car had sailed through, then the traffic lights changed, leaving me at the junction with an escort of motorbikes, swerving frighteningly close on the left and the right, as they jostled for position. As I rounded the corner of the junction I realised there were two options for turning left, but had no idea which was the one my sister had taken! With more bikes cutting in left, right and centre, I decided to follow the main flow of traffic, and hope for the best; luckily, a moment later, I saw my sister's car ahead, and off we went again.
More sidestreets, main roads, junctions, double and triple parking, pedestrians, and both the light and my concentration were beginning to fade...
By the time we arrived back at the hotel, we felt in need of a stiff drink, but settled for some good, strong Italian coffee, mightily relieved that the 'white knuckle' drive was over!