Road Trip: Sicily in a Fiat 500L

“Hey, all the cars in this town are scraped and dented!” my wife cheerily notes, not appreciating the profound anxiety attack I’m sliding into in slow motion. It’s not my fault and there’s nothing I can do about it, but the Fiat 500L I rented earlier this week is about to be squished like Harry Potter’s Knight Bus.

See, I had taken a tip from another non-resident of Sicily – one who’s been here before, though – regarding driving in Palermo, this impossibly beautiful island’s biggest city: “Don’t!”

Driving here, as intimated above, is only one of the experiences you won’t soon forget.

But let’s back up and talk a bit about the 2015 Fiat 500L before it becomes a sideways Siciliana pizza. It’s very similar to the one you can buy in Canada, although interestingly is a diesel, something we don’t have yet. This 500L’s 1.3L Multijet 1.3 diesel engine, adapted from (albeit fairly far from) the Alfo Romeo 156 1.9 M-JET 16V, is the line’s smallest and rattles like a rotating bingo drum full of pebbles. But that little engine has start–stop technology, something that was new enough to be news just under two years ago when we reported about it during EcoRun. Now it’s ubiquitous – and so are tiny diesels throughout Europe because of the highly taxed price of fuel. According to autotraveler.ru, today the average diesel price in Italy is €1.52/L, which today is CAD $2.11. (So stop whining.) Why so many small diesels? Diesels go farther on a tank and small cars burn less because they weigh less.

Moreover, beyond the fuel prices, the narrowness of the roads here makes a larger vehicle even less attractive.

Not that the 500L is small. Last year when I reviewed it for this publication, I deemed it pandering to expansive North American tastes. So you can imagine my surprise when I continually saw scores of them throughout our stay here. And to be fair, while there was some lag when it was aggressively launched at lights the 500L’s grace and, now welcome, extra space proved more than adequate for our family vacation, zipping about the hills of Sicily.

Sicily? Okay, now let’s talk a bit about this lovely dream destination. Driving here, as intimated above, is only one of the experiences you won’t soon forget.

“Sicily is like Italy on steroids.”

I wish I’d made that quotation up but an expat Brit I met said it. And she was only paraphrasing the same observation first made over a century ago by an Italian philosopher whose name eludes me (but one of the gotcha-guys on Autos.ca’s forum will probably post it later): what is best and worst about the Italian way of life, the most endearing and most frustrating, are found here.

Take the food: It’s sensational. You simply cannot find a bad restaurant. Then consider trying to get something practical done, like paying your phone bill. The bureaucracy and lineups can be awful – that is when Sicilians actually bother to form a line, rather than just crowding around a closed kiosk – but, if you come at this time of year to the region where we stayed in the northwest, the place is empty. We had ancient, excavated Greek temples and towns, beaches, hiking trails and medieval castles all to ourselves.

Yes, the traffic can be hell but for pure driving enthusiasts, the narrow mountain roads, when not clogged – and ours almost never were – are pure heaven.

In July 2013, when first I reviewed the 2014 500L, I disliked its dimensions.

That has not changed from an aesthetic perspective. I humbly quote myself: “With its flattened roof, the 500’s iconic drumlin shape morphed into Masada.” But with four of us in the nuclear family, even though we all packed light, the regular 500 simply would not have made it out of the airport rental lot. The 500L was perfect for us and despite my bleating, even last year I admitted that it still drives like a Fiat.

But back to loading and getting it on the road. Though it was a 2015 with under 2,000 km on the dial, it was already well loved, with scrapes on three corners. This story’s opening paragraphs hint at why.

Inside, the L’s dimensions are designed more for the dolce vita types in the south who have a touch of junk in the trunk and not some stick thin Milanese supermodel. It replaces the 500’s signature flat metal dash with a more practical one offering plenty of storage space. And the rest of the L takes its cues from there. The luggage volume is 605 L versus the 500’s Barbie™-doll sized 269. It has a false floor providing an extra few inches, which we availed ourselves of, soaking up every last cubic millimetre like some mountain Tetris game.

And driving? The 500 has a grip outdone only by Mini’s mini-er products. Though 147 mm wider and a whopping 702 mm longer than the 500, the L still handled magnificently on the roads. Its 10.7 m turning circle was an issue on the hairpin turns, which are as common as cell phones and smokers here, but I quickly adjusted and simply did a five-point turn each night to avoid adding to the already-made scratches when parking each evening at our rented mountain chalet. Which was where?

Scopello is almost a cliché of itself, a sleepy and picturesque Sicilian village.

It’s the sort of place you’d expect to find Michael Corleone herding sheep, on the lam. Our chalet was in the hills above town, a 5 km drive. Much of that was ascending switchbacks though. The day before we’d arrived there was a gargantuan rainstorm, which had taken massive divots out of several places on our road, narrowing it from merely impassable to nearly impossible. Otherwise it was quite well engineered and maintained – if you’re a thrill-seeking street luger.

A seaside village, Scopello sits on Sicily’s northwestern-most peninsula, contiguous to Lo Zingaro, a nature preserve of indescribable beauty. (So I won’t bother trying to describe it.) It faces part of the Palermo harbor about 50 km away. Our first drive was from that harbor, where Palermo’s airport runways rest between jutting 150 m rock faces and sea. Pray for a windless landing.

After carefully packing the car, we drove fast on 40 km of superb four-lane highway before turning off for another, less superb 10 km and that final nerve-wracking climb to 800 m above a view of azure Tyrrhenian Sea.

It was angsty at first and no lies. The switchbacks are mostly blind and cars appear seemingly out of nowhere, barreling on at twice the posted speed limits. More interestingly, you never know when you’ll be chased by a territorial yet stupid farm dog or meet a flock of sheep crossing a pass (both happened to us regularly enough to become uninteresting).

Yes, after that first uncomfortable drive up, the climb became easier every time and was actually fun by three days in, when we began searching ancient Trojan and Greek settlements like Segesta and Selinunte and the sky-high medieval Arab town of Erice, a place more reminiscent of Game of Thrones’ Aerie than any real world municipality.

It was after five of such successful days that we decided to venture closer to Palermo – now that we were acclimatized and all. Fools.

Back to becoming a “Fizza”.

Remember that tip I’d been following regarding avoiding Palermo traffic? It’s good advice. Palermo teems with busy, impatient life. People will tell you that it’s chaos driving here, but they’re wrong. You simply have to be used to how the traffic works. And to do that, you really ought to have been born here and possess testicles of steel.

So, yes, it was good advice – but for the overly clever spin we put on it. You see, when we left the above scenario, pre-squeeze, we were on our way to Monreale. A mountainous outpost off the southernmost end of Palermo, Monreale features one of Italy’s finest Byzantine Cathedrals and we’d decided to get there through the back door, rather than swimming against the tidal waves and whirlpools of Palermo traffic. So we took a secondary road through the mountain range blocking Palermo from its southern neighbour towns, one of which is Poppio.

Trouble is, a lot of other drivers decided to do the same, including a German bus and an extended Parmalat truck. The route we took snakes back and forth upwards over a pass, before plunging down through Poppio, then onto the outskirts of Monreale. (The distance isn’t that far in a straight line but think of the difference between a folded sheet in your drawer and one completely lain out on your king-size bed, for an idea of the actual mileage we were covering on switchbacks.)

Search “Poppio” and your browser will show pleasant vistas of a charming Sicilian village with smiley locals bartering over vegetables. What you won’t see is any four-lane highway or major boulevard – not even a thoroughfare wide enough for two lanes of traffic with street parking. The “main road” bends with the side of the mountain, so you don’t realize that it shrinks by suddenly by 60 percent until you turn that third bend and are caught like a fly in a cobweb.

The bus and truck were trying to maneuver between illegally double-parked cars on both sides of this road lane. An invincibly ignorant woman in an oncoming Audi had all but wedged herself between them while blissfully blathering on her cell phone. In the five seconds that it took to recognize this was not a solution forward, my rear escape access was ten cars deep.

No one had collided yet, although I soon heard the bus immediately ahead scraping the Audi. She put down her phone and stopped inching forward. Everybody stopped.

We were, snookered, about to become human toothpaste amid a narrowing tube of steel and glass if we proceeded, because of the illegally double-parked cars in this narrowing canyon of ancient three-story stone walls. They were so steep, it was dark as dusk here at 10 am.

It was just a few seconds earlier when my wife noticed that every single car parked on this town’s main road, including the double-parked ancient Fiat Punto ahead of me, was scarred – most likely from occurrences like this. My stomach lurched. This must’ve been how Sir Ernest Shackleton felt when the Endurance was frozen into an ice floe of traffic, gradually becoming crushed with no clear way out.

That was when people behind me started honking

And, no, that didn’t lighten the atmosphere much. Even if I wanted to I couldn’t proceed without scraping the Punto and the bus – they were no more than 5 cm from my flanks – and even if I managed to thread the needle through that gap at first, my mirrors would be removed before we got the whole way. So I remained still and cogitated, buried in blood pressure and the ricocheting cacophony of horns ringing off the stone walls and mountain rock overhead.

That was when the slightly post-pubescent police officer picked through this chaotic still-death painting and began motioning me to proceed cautiously through, towards him. I pointed questioningly at the mirrors. He smiled, thought about it for a moment, then shrugged and motioned me forward anyway. “He must see this sort of thing all the time,” I said. “But I’m sure there’s not the room.” He began motioning more vigourously, the encouraging smile on his face fast melting.  I gingerly eased my foot from the brake – on a scale of 1 to 10, it was depressed to somewhere near 14. At about 8, the start-stop tech kicked in and we felt ourselves begin to move.

Final points about the use of space in and drivability of the Fiat 500L.

Last year’s tester was an automatic. My criticism was that though they had widened the car, it still felt crowded on the dead pedal. If it were a standard, I argued, big feet could knock against each other.

I can take that criticism back because this rental was standard – at least it still was up to this point in our holiday. It shifted comfortably between five gears. (The R where sixth should’ve been did not turn out to be “racing’” but the transmission was very forgiving the one time I made the mistake of trying to take it there.) Clutching and braking, even with my size 12s was easy. Especially in this situation where I could feel myself bringing my legs closer together, willing the car itself to narrow.

We moved forward more.

I was maybe five seconds from a slow deep impact, envisioning a visit to some Palermo body shop with this junior policeman, having long since given up actually getting to see Monreale.

That was when the owner of the ancient Punto showed up, all unctuous apologies to the policeman for not noticing he had plugged an important artery nearly to the point of aneurism. Miraculously, within a minute, flow returned – to the road and my lungs. The bus proceeded. Within ten more minutes we were parking in one of over 100 available spots below the steps to Monreale. If this was the off season for tourism – and clearly it was – what must that road be like in July or August? It didn’t merit further thought. Instead, upon entering the church five minutes later, I offered my first prayer of gratitude since I was about 13.

Driving home, we decided to risk whatever Palermo had to offer – regardless of my friend’s tip – to find its ring road leading past the airport and back to our peninsula. It got a bit hairy twice but nothing close to what we’d faced. Quite hairy. Indeed, here’s my tip regarding driving in Palermo: if you’re worried about gaining weight during your visit to Sicily – and with all the wonderful pizza, pasta and minutes-out-of-the-sea fresh fish, you will gain weight – drive into Palermo from the south without a collision deductible.

“Hey, all the cars in this town are scraped and dented!” my wife cheerily notes, not appreciating the profound anxiety attack I’m sliding... 1/30/2015 11:28:29 AM