We took a family trip to Europe in 2014. We didn’t want to do a group tour, and we were hesitant to have to conform to the train schedules. At some point, the kids (15, 13 and 11 at the time) would need a day off or to sleep late. So what’s an American family to do? Rent a car, of course!
Travel by car may not be the first idea people have to see Western Europe, but it sure is convenient. And actually, as we researched the topic, it was quite a bit cheaper than rail passes for the five of us for the 14 days or so we had planned. And that’s after considering the price of fuel, too! Cheaper, check. More convenient, check. More flexible, check. A little more private than two weeks on a train, check.
You would have to deal with the traffic, but I enjoy driving, generally. I was willing to put up with potential aggravation to be able to say I had driven in Europe, something I had wanted to do since way before I was old enough to even have a license. As it turned out, traffic and driving wasn’t that bad. Different, but not bad. I’ll try to touch on the traffic observations as we “travel” our route!
Before I left, I had a lot of logistical concerns before I took my family of five over there. Calls were placed to the health insurer and auto insurer to verify we would be covered. I researched the driver license issue, and found that an International Driving Permit, or IDP, was required in Italy and Germany, two of the countries we were entering. It is highly recommended even when not required.
An IDP is issued internationally, by your home country. I don’t know about other countries, but in the U.S., this is typically done at your local AAA office. There may be other ways to obtain one, but AAA was quick and easy. You produce your valid U.S. license, fill out some forms, and get a passport style photo made for the IDP. I was already a AAA member, so it was quick, easy and inexpensive.
So, we looked into the rental options. We went with Hertz, as it was a known name to us. I liked that I could pick up the phone and call Hertz in the USA before, during or after the trip if I had problems. There are so many companies operating in Europe though, that I had never heard of. Sixt was a big one, and now they are coming here as well. I might shop around more next time.
We had flown in to Rome, but did not pick up the car at the train station until we were leaving Rome a few days later. While in Rome, we stayed at a convent near the Vatican. We relied on foot mostly, and made it to the Coliseum, the “Wedding Cake”, the Vatican, the Roman Ruins, and Trevi Fountain.
We had a wonderful van and driver for one whole day, for a guided tour of the tourist highlights we didn’t reach on foot including the Appian Way.
When we were ready to leave Rome, we took a taxi to the Rome train station, where the Hertz counter was located. It was pure chaos! Short staffed, crowded, and everyone yelling in Italian. The staff was very nice when it came our turn at the counter, though.
At home, we had booked a “large” car. We knew it would still be a smaller car, the usage of the term being relative to the country.
The lady at the Hertz counter informed us we had a Fiat 500 waiting for us, in her broken English. We were mildly panicked; did that even have five seatbelts? Once the paperwork came off the printer, I saw that it was really a 500L. I don’t think I had seen a 500L in person up to that point, but hopefully it would work.
We were directed to leave the train station, walk down the street a couple of blocks to a hotel. Enter the hotel, and take the elevator down to their parking deck. This would be where the Hertz vehicles were waiting.
Well, this is what the nice lady was attempting to tell us, anyway. We didn’t quite get this, and walked all around the neighborhood, examining every hotel but the correct one, pulling our carry-ons behind us. I finally left the family at a gelato shop, and sprinted back to Hertz for a map or better instructions. With a map sketched out by the Hertz lady, we found our target right away.
I did not take a picture of the Hertz garage where we picked up the 500L, but fortunately someone else did. It defies words. And courtesy of Google, this is it. This really is the garage in question, and no, this is not the storage area! This is how the cars are packed in like sardines, and you are expected to navigate yourself out.
Like the lead picture, it was fire engine red with a white roof. It was cute, and what’s more Italian than a red Fiat! We could not open the doors without pulling the 500L out, though. It was also backed into a wall, so we couldn’t open the hatch. Once the attendant saw we were situated and buckled, he then proceeded to walk ahead of us, starting and moving any cars in the way. Occasionally, we would meet other renters trying to leave, and the Hertz workers would decide how we would pass, who would go first, etc.
Once we were out, I found Rome traffic to be what I expected: fast paced, no painted lines to be seen anywhere, and only partial adherence to traffic lights by anyone. But it moved, there were no jams on our path.
The 500L was a pleasant surprise. The five carry-ons fit in the hatch under the cargo cover perfectly. We anticipated having little cargo room, but we had more than we needed. We managed just carry-ons for 14 days, because we planned laundry days along the way.
While not overly roomy, the three kids fit in the back just fine. There were hard plastic hinge covers for the folding rear seats that hit the middle occupant in the butt and hip, unfortunately.
We headed out of Rome to our next stop, two nights in Florence at an apartment off AirBnB, with a washer and dryer. Once of out of Rome, the 1.3 liter turbodiesel 500L proved itself to be a pretty nice highway cruiser. RPM’s were a little high at 80mph even with a 5 speed manual, but the car was smooth, handled well, and really just seemed happy with a full load! Kind of like an old diesel Mercedes, the faster you went, the more pep it seemed to have. Like this picture, the guardrails were right along the travel lane, with no emergency lane. That took some getting used to, a perpetual work zone feeling if you will.
We even heard U.S. Armed Forces radio stations most of the way. The same feed was on multiple frequencies. When one faded out, there was another one to pick up. It was an odd sensation, hurtling down a highway in Italy, listening to what sounded like a typical U.S. rock station! And as it turns out, The Eagle indeed broadcasts around the globe from a studio in Riverside, California.
We exited the highway towards Florence, and the road went down to one lane. Of course, I assumed I had entered a stretch that was one-way. But no, traffic started coming towards us! Good grief, was I going the wrong way? Apparently not, as soon enough, we came upon slower cars moving in our same direction too. Just stay to the right and hope for the best! Dive into the grass if you have to.
Eventually, this emptied into a nice, U.S. style boulevard ringing Florence.
Our AirBnB was in central Florence, near the Duomo. One we got into old Florence proper, we were greeted with this. Only, picture cars parked along one side, and sometimes BOTH sides! Yes, we had to fold in the mirrors and inch through several very tight spots. I recall having to fold the mirrors of some of the parked cars, too. The 500L was a “large” car for sure!
The “parking garage” we had arranged in Florence was really a hollowed out old building. There were no spaces or lanes, the cars were just packed in like sardines. I am pretty sure this is the same garage we used, but it was completely full. When we arrived, they asked when we would need the car. We told them we wanted to drive to Pisa to see the Leaning Tower the next evening, so they said it would be ready.
The next afternoon, we walked down the street and as promised, the 500L was waiting on the curb for us. This is probably a good angle at which to observe how odd looking the 500L is. Tall, narrow, yet bulbous looking at the same time.
The rear is the best angle, and the front is just oddly bugeyed to me. Folding the mirrors in from the get-go, we navigated out of the old city center and to Pisa, about an hour away as I recall.
When we arrived at Pisa, it was dinner time and the streets were clearing out. We found a pretty close spot along the river, along the old city walls, and walked a few blocks to the Tower itself. We had a dinner at a little mom and pop type place across the street from the Tower.
After two nights in Florence, we loaded into the Fiat for the next stop, Venice. You may think, how would you drive in Venice?
Well, you don’t drive into Venice, of course! Unless you have an amphicar.
You drive to this large, modern style parking deck. Lots of action here, with residents, tourists, and cruise ships coming and going. You have to reserve a parking spot ahead of time here. Credit goes to my wife for planning all this down to the last detail! And sure enough, it was “full” when we arrived and you didn’t get in without a reservation. We finally found one space up on the roof.
The 500L had been great up to this time! It drove quite nicely, and while not a “large” car as we think of in the U.S., it was roomy enough. We were averaging 44 mpg fully loaded at highway speeds, which was appreciated since diesel was about US$8.00 a gallon.
In a prior two week trip lollygagging up the Pacific Coast Highway, we had a Chevrolet Traverse as a Hertz rental. It was fine, and had three rows. But the 500L really worked better for us overall, and seemed to had better space utilization. The Traverse, despite it’s exterior size, seemed cramped on that trip with five people and the same five carry-ons.
Second row buckets meant we had to use the third row, which left us challenged for cargo space. More room than you need, in all the wrong places. And it was a handful in heavy traffic (L.A., San Francisco), wide and with little visual clue of where the corners were.
So, this little 500L really challenged my thinking. We had spent enough time in it that complaints or problems would crop up. We were all pretty happy. I liked the way it drove, quite a bit. Dampened, but sporty, in a VW way. Would this be a good car for us at home? Too bad I can’t get the diesel in the U.S., I thought, or I might go home and just buy one.
After just two whirlwind days and nights in Venice, we were off in the 500L to the next stop, Lucerne!
No, not that one. TO BE CONTINUED!