Italian Language Blog

All roads lead to Rome – part2 Posted by on Jun 27, 2009 in Culture

In part 1 of this blog I took a brief look at the origins of the expression ‘tutte le strade portano a Roma’ (‘all roads lead to Rome’), and at some of the famous Vie (roads, or literally ‘ways’) that were the backbone of the Roman empire. In this second part I’m going to leap forward a couple of millennium into the 20th century and examine the modern day equivalent of the ancient imperial roads, le autostrade italiane (the Italian motorways or highways). 

The designers of the modern day autostrade obviously had a lot to live up to when they began work in the 1920s. A fair percentage of Italy’s 300,000 or so kilometers of roads still follows ancient Roman routes such as the Via Aurelia, Via Flaminia, and Via Appia. However, as we all know, the Romans liked straight lines, preferably across plains, and the Italian peninsula, being a very mountainous region obviously presented them with severe limitations. The modern Italian engineers however were less daunted by these problems, having at their disposal new techniques, materials, and machines.

Let’s take as an example the Aurelia. Initiated in 241 B.C. by Aurelius Cotta the Via Aurelia originally ran north from Rome to Livorno which is on the coast near Pisa. The modern day road, which still follows the original Roman route, is designated on maps as the SS1 (Strada Statale 1 = State Road 1), although it is still more commonly known as L’Aurelia. From Rome to Livorno the Aurelia or SS1 is a reasonably quiet dual carriageway running along the coastal plain. A bit further north however the landscape becomes mountainous with sheer cliffs dropping down to the Mediterranean sea. This area is called Liguria, and to traverse it towards Genova and eventually into France would take a lifetime if it wasn’t for the modern day equivalent of the Via Aurelia: the A12 Autostrada also known as the Autostrada Azzurra (Blue motorway). The A12 really is a wonder of modern engineering, endless kilometers of highway which alternates between breathtaking viaducts and gallerie (tunnels). It is also one of my least favorite motorways to drive on, the combination of tunnels, curves, and long windy bridges making it not exactly the most relaxing of drives. However, when I’m not gripping the wheel or gesticulating at the usual mad motorists who insist on driving ‘Formula One’ style, I occasionally have the opportunity to marvel at the achievement of those who designed and constructed this incredible highway. Every now and then when one emerges from the gloom of yet another tunnel into the glare of the sun (sunglasses on, sunglasses off etc. etc.) you catch a stunning scorcio (glimpse) of green and azure, the macchia mediterranea (Mediterranean Vegetation) set against a shimmering backdrop of sea, but don’t get too carried away because here’s another tunnel with a nasty curve in it, watch out!, what’s this idiot doing now ‘ma vaxxxxxxx!’ (unprintable swearword that comes in very useful when driving in Italy!).

All this excitement and entertainment doesn’t come free however. To get onto the autostrada you have to pass through the casello (toll booth) where you take un biglietto (a ticket). When you leave the autostrada you pass through another casello where you either present your biglietto to the cassiere (cashier) who will tell you how much the pedaggio (toll) is, or put it into a machine which also tells you the cost in a very nice female recorded voice and collects your money in a slot. In fact my husband is so taken by the voice of our local ticket machine that he has even threatened to go there one evening to chat it up! ‘It’s the way she said arrivederci’ he said, ‘I think she really meant it’.

For those who are too busy, or lazy to do the ticket bit there is also the telepass option which involves having a battery powered OBU, or ‘on board unit’ mounted on your cars windshield. The OBU communicates with an electronic device at the casello and automatically debits your account for the correct amount. There is no discount for telepass users, it simply saves you stopping at the casello and getting your hand cold in the winter when you have to open the window to take a ticket.

The autostrade are generally well maintained, fast (perhaps too fast) and have frequent rest and service areas. Unfortunately they are also pretty expensive. To visit my parents in Lucca for example, a distance of about 100 km (62 miles) costs us 16 euros return in tolls alone, then there’s the benzina (petrol) on top of that. However the alternative is a two and a half hour drive each way along windy roads and through endless little towns at about 50 km per hour (30 mph), forget it!



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  1. Marie Hodge:

    I love and save all your Blogs because I have a friend who speaks both languages but has no computer, and I know she will LOVE reading all of them. I am trying to learn to speak conversational Italian so she and I can enjoy both our parents’ native tongue.

    Thank you, Serena, for the wonderful pleasure I have reading each one of your blogs.

    Question: Why can’t I c I save them in both scripts. copy it in text anymore?

  2. Serena:

    Salve Marie,

    Thanks for the compliments, it really helps me to know that my blogs are useful or enjoyable to readers such as yourself. I didn’t understand your question however: “Why can’t I c I save them in both scripts. copy it in text anymore?” Could you clarify please.


  3. Marie Hodge:

    (I wish I could correspond in l’taliano, but “some-a-day” I will at least speak it.

    Scusi, Serena. My email was not meant to take up time from your busy schedule. Please forgive me.

    Thank you for all the wonderful stories I read in your blogs. I am saving them for a dear friend who doesn’t have a computer. She speaks Italian fluently and I know she will enjoy everyone of your blogs. At least 10 or 12 await her.
    Buona saulute

  4. Bill Rohwer:

    Gentile Serena,

    you absolutely nailed it about the A12. We spend about 6 months a year in Lido di Camaiore, and take the A 12 often on the way north or on the way to Liguria Ponente. It is a marvel of engineering (as are the soaring auto strade of the north, in the Dolomiti), but also treacherous. Le gallerie sono le sfide, sorry, the tunnels are the challenges, but less so than the first several tunnels of the connecting autostrada toward Milano, the A7. Have you tried the A 15 from La Spezia to Parma? Gorgeous, but always under construction.

    Thanks yet again for your ralazione favolose.

    Un saluto,


  5. Serena:

    Salve Bill,

    The A15 is our ‘local’ autostrada so we use it a lot, but mainly the bit between La Spezia and Pontremoli which is pretty good except when everyone is heading down to the coast or coming back again mainly in the summer. Normally however it’s relatively quiet, it’s the stretch from Pontremoli to Parma that we don’t like, especially going downhill through tunnels and around sharp bends. It’s also a very narrow autostrada in places which doesn’t help. We often take a cross country route on the old strada statale over the Passo della Cisa to Berceto. It’s quite a curvy road and perhaps a bit slower, but you meet maybe 5 or 6 cars on a normal day so not at all stressful! By the way, if you’ve never been there, Berceto is a really interesting and attractive little town once you’ve penetrated the ugly modern bit.

  6. Bill Rohwer:

    Ciao Serena,

    Your reference to Berceto in deviating from the autostrade reminds me that we’ve done so several times, but usually in the other direction. We exit the autostrada at Fornovo and head toward Calestano. Near there is an osteria, si chiama Locanda Mariella, that serves the simplest possibile fresh local food (including eggs with white truffles in autunno), at the lowest of prices, and that has a wine list that is extraordinarily extensive. On any of your jaunts, have you stopped off there?

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