Navigating Italy by GPS

Chicago Tribune Reporter

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 due to high speed, tight squeezes and plain old Italian urgency. With those complications, navigational mistakes become horribly 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 take 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 allow 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 pre-date the thoroughfare.

Rather than renting a device, though, I wanted one that I could keep for use in the U.S. 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. The price was right, at $284 on the Internet.

Warm-up tests in the U.S. 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.

Another warm-up in Norway was flawless, but then, I don’t believe Norway’s road system was designed for chariots, so the Garmin got off easy.

Then after Norway came Italy. By this time 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. Maybe she just wanted to run me around the south side of Rome, then north. I don’t know, but 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 and wrongly selected Via Porto Catena. That street was downtown and had nothing to do with the street I wanted, so I made an unnecessary trip into the city, where 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. I know this, because we had a relative leading us through Florence once, and just as I, in frustration, had vowed never to return to that city, we accidentally found our destination, no thanks to the relative, who was on the phone with another relative whose apartment we were hunting.

The next test was to find our rental house in Tuscany in 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 the evening rush.

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. This was a revelation not only for travel in Italy but for driving in places where all the other distractions can be quite intense -- and dangerous.

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.

Not that there weren’t small problems. Three times she simply lied to me:

• Garmeen wanted me to turn smack into the front of a building once, saying it was a street. It wasn’t.

• She told me to take a street that no longer existed, though it obviously had been blocked off.

• And she told me to go the wrong way on a one-way street. I can imagine that two of the three problems might not have been her fault, but the building looked a lot older than Garmeen or me.

One user complaint I had read on the Internet was that this particular model took several minutes to locate its guiding satellites in Italy. Mine took longer in Wisconsin than it did in Italy. What’s more, when going through tunnel after tunnel in mountainous areas of Italy, it re-established satellite contact within seconds after emerging into the open.

Some travelers might argue that it’s easier to see Italy from a train or bus. I disagree for a couple of reasons. Financially, it’s never been a better deal for me to take a train or bus, unless traveling solo. And, spiritually, a car offers the freedom to truly explore once you become acclimated to driving in Italy. But if driving through Chicago’s Loop at rush hour scares you, don’t even consider driving in Italy -- seriously.

In smaller towns and even some larger ones, roads are meant for two-way traffic but sometimes are barely one car wide. And, initially, everyone will be driving faster -- a lot faster -- than you are. That jacks up the intensity.

But if you do drive, consider the GPS. One of the best features of Garmeen was listings for local shopping, transportation, accommodations and attractions. This came in very handy when passing through areas we didn’t know at all. Once again, it was better than having a relative there.

But then, Garmeen didn’t give us free wine and cheese. So we’ll keep the relatives, too.

Picking a GPS

Consumer Reports was my prime resource for choosing the cheapest, best GPS system for my purposes. At the time, the Garmin Nuvi 260W (wide) was one of its most highly rated yet not too expensive. The only kink was that I wanted a device for use in Europe in addition to the United States. The 260 would have required a $150 expense for a map download with Europe; plus I wanted a smaller unit that would fit in my pocket for pedestrian use.

A little Internet research led me to the Nuvi 270, which is the same machine as the standard 260 (not wide and thus pocket-friendly) but already loaded with Europe. The only thing I’d be sacrificing was audio pronunciation of street names on turn-by-turn instructions. That would have come in handy but not enough to add the $150 download expense. As it was, I got the 270 online for $284; CR lists it for $400 and the 260, wide or standard, at $320 and $300, respectively.

Garmin dominates the top of the CR ratings, above TomTom and Magellan. But all in all, it’s GPS in general that proved so valuable on the trip. My wife agrees that it changed our vacation in a great way. Whether navigating in Italy or any other unfamiliar, fast-paced traffic situation, it’s a godsend.