They say you shouldn’t hire a car in Italy, but if you absolutely have to, you definitely shouldn’t hire a car in Sicily. If you absolutely have to hire a car in Sicily, you definitely shouldn’t hire a car in Palermo.
So naturally we pick up our van rental in Palermo.
At this point in our travels, we have grown into group of 6 people including one requiring a baby seat. (Note this wasn’t for Keelie, our friends had a one year old in tow). A regular car was not going to meet our needs, which left us with the choice of a people mover or driving in convoy. After much discussion we decided that travelling altogether would be more fun, and it almost certainly was a fun way to travel. Without the van we would need have known the beauty of five people singing ‘sit on you’ as a round (you can watch it here, you’re welcome).
Of course the downside (or possibly the upside, depending upon your perspective) is that it isn’t necessarily easy for the driver to hear any helpful information coming from the far back seat. This leaves the middle seat passengers as the interpreters/message translators – a fun role if ever one existed.
The adventure started when we tried to find the car rental location. The reservation confirmation only said Palermo Railway station which we naturally assumed meant Palermo Central Station. Eventually one of us got online and worked out it meant Notarbartolo Station. Rather than get a train we figured it would be quicker to get a taxi. It probably wasn’t, and this being Palermo the taxi driver had a scam meter and ripped us off on the fare. You feel a bit nervous about making too much of a fuss, as he probably has Mafia connections (along with the police and the judges).
When we finally see the size of the van (more a small bus really) everybody else decides there is no way they can drive that thing. This leaves Myles as the designated driver, despite not having driven anything in weeks, and never having driven either a van or a left hand drive manual transmission. However once we start singing ‘Hail to the Bus Driver‘ to him, he perks up considerably about the whole thing.
Our first stop is Monreale in the hills above Palermo, getting there is a little difficult given all the road work going on. Myles is convinced that our GPS took us along some tiny back roads with granite walls either side on purpose, for the lols. When other cars approach we have to move right over, with the distance between the right wing mirror and the wall measured in angstroms. It’s hardly what one would call a gentle introduction to driving the van-bus.
There is no respite when you get to your destination, with parking even more challenging than driving. Our airbnb in Agrigento had a temperamental automatic gate with virtually no clearance on either side. Our airbnb host held open the gate and played with various screws until we finally managed to get it through. The next night, in Catania, the van needed to be parked right up against the wall to allow traffic to pass. This required approximately 50 small reverse and forward motions to avoid hitting a classic motorbike in front, and two gas bottles behind (try as we might the old lady guarding the gas bottles was not going to let us move them temporarily to make it an easier job).
When we returned from getting a drink our last night in Catania, we see a car about 3mms behind our van and a car about 2mms in front of it. With an early flight the next morning, we hoped like hell they wouldn’t still be there, otherwise there was no way in hell we were getting out. Fortunately when we got up bleary eyed at 6am (having slept through our alarm) all the other cars are gone and our van was there all by itself. Driving through the narrow streets was a lot easier that time of the morning.
We’re pretty sure that rental car companies make most of their money from damage charges. They rarely seem to bother fixing this damage, so any money they charge you must be pure profit. Also how else can you explain why rental car spaces are so small and that the drives to get through the rental car facilities are all so tight?
The car rental return in Catania is no different. Even figuring out the location of the rental car return is rather difficult, after we take a wrong turn we find our way blocked by a boomgate. As we try to reverse out we scrape the running board on the gutter. Despite 4 days of driving around Sicily we managed to not get a scratch on it until literally the very last minute before we return it.
Once we escape the boomgate blockade, we make it to the europcar return with its parking spaces designed for small European cars. We’re running rather late for our flight at this stage, but manage to eventually park our van-bus in the tiny car space, although not particularly well. Luckily were in for some more European inefficiency at the airport, which allows us to make it onto the flight to Malta. Our nerves are somewhat frayed at this stage, so when someone attempts to push in in the check in queue they get both barrels.