Or: Traveling in Italy.
Personally, my favorite way of experiencing Italy is by bike. You can travel leisurely, purposefully and get a workout at the same time. And the distances are not too daunting: you can do the Milan to Rome race in just two weeks.
Ok, that was a nice joke, wasn’t it? Cars, let’s start with cars. Sincerely, you have to be quite an aggressive driver here in the States to like the traffic in Italy. Cars zip around ignoring speed limits, rushing boldly into each other at intersections. Soon you won’t wonder any more why so many cars are dented all over. My advice: stay away from the cities, but take a car whenever you need to visit the countryside. Car rental companies abound, and you’ll get decent prices if you book ahead of time. If you just show up at the airport counter, it is going to be a real pain for your bank account.
Personally, I had only one experience of renting, and it was half-good, half-bad. The car was supposed to be a mid-class sedan, and turned out to be a smallish Volkswagen Gold. Foolish choice (of the rental company), since that’s the car most Italians love to steal. And while it survived the parking lot in Pompeij and even the downtown spot in Naples (quite famous for theft), it was gone in Rome within a day. Parked on the street in front of the downtown hotel and gone before morning.
The formalities were quite unimpressive. I had to go to the carainieri, the police and file a report. Then I had to go to the rental company, where they made a big fuss, charged me for the extra day between the theft and the filing of the police report, charged me for the gas that had been stolen at rental car prices (all in all the gas bill alone was $150!) and left me with a clear impression that it was quite the wise choice to insist on theft protection. If you are caught without, your fault.
Much more leisurely and quite as fast is the train, if you are traveling anyway on the major train routes. As a matter of fact, everybody rides the train. It is very cheap, sufficiently reliable and gets you downtown in no time. Unlike those pesky airplanes, that save you a lot of travel time, but make up for it by forcing you to drive through the worst traffic to get anywhere you’d like to go.
I don’t have current details, but last I visited the speed train from Rome to Milan (stops only in Florence, and then you have to zip around to scramble in or out) was the best connection between the two cities. The ticket includes a meal, and the trip is a pleasant three hours.
Buses do the trick where the train can’t reach. The less densely populated South is criss-crossed with a network of buses that reminds me of a tiny version of the Greyhound system. Buses are not as high-tech and high-comfort as they are in the States, but they are functional and are used by a wide cross section of the people. You’ll do fine in them: Italians love company, and Americans (so they say) are good company. In any form of public transportation, you’ll make new friends if you just keep smiling at people.
Inner city transportation is the exclusive domain of public transport. If you are lucky, there is a decent subway system. Otherwise, you’ll have to cope with buses that are usually crowded. Tickets are to be bought beforehand and typically stamped at a small machine inside. Beware of pickpockets at all times; it is cramped, and in the blob of people, it is just too easy to sneak in a hand and make something disappear.
Let’s talk about walking a bit. Cities are smaller than in the States, and you can actually walk to the major attractions of any city except Rome in a reasonable amount of time. Just make sure you have good, sturdy shoes and a decent amount of patience. And let the traffic not fool you: crossing an intersection is somewhere between sport and art form, but after the first frustrating attempts, you’ll master it just like the people around you.
Last and least, flying. Airports are slick for the most part, and they have those wonderful duty free shops. But for travel inside of Italy, they are quite useless. Exception being travel to the islands, Sardinia and Sicily. As said, the airports are far from the cities and so any gain in speed is lost by having to crawl around. On the other hand, the main connection (Milan – Rome) is served with the regularity of a bus system, and planes leave at about 30 minute intervals during commuter hours.