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Italian Highways and Other Things (Environs and Cities of Roma, Amalfi, Napoli, Siena, Ravenna, Venezia)

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Okay, I admit it -- this isn't so much roadgeeky as it is just plain touristy (and I didn't photograph half as many signs as I did in, say, Australia). Nevertheless, for what it's worth, here are some of the signs and sights from my Italy trip, during which we covered nearly the entire country, in October 2003. Many thanks owed to my wonderful folks, who picked up my plane ticket and accomodations as a graduation present. I love you, Mom and Dad!

Marcel Monterie makes an excellent explanation of the complex Italian highway numbering system, but here is a basic summary. Italy has several classes of highway, broadly divided into

These main groups are subdivided into various exception types, such as "T"unnel routes (underground sections specifically designated as such, usually part of a larger SS routing); "D"iramazione routes and "R"accordo routes (typically derived from A routes that are designated link roads; some of these may still be signed in the old style a la things like US 99W or I-15E using bis and dir suffixes [e.g., "A14dir", now D14]), which act somewhat like Interstate 3-digit loop and spur routes in the USA; and regional "SR" routes, which are unique to the Valle d'Aosta administrative region as it has only a single province (itself), and were derived from former SS routes. Some SS and SP routes may carry their own suffixes indicating alternative alignments (bis, dir, var, r(acc), ter, quater, letter suffixes, or even combinations such as SS7bisvar). Superimposed on this complex signage structure is the European grid route system (designated by "E") and usually co-routed over an existing Italian route number. Note the misnomer of SS routes being called "state" highways, as they are truly national in scope and are therefore administrated on a national level. Only the SR routes are specific to, and administrated by, a single region (Aosta). However, SP routes are maintained and operated by the local province that administers them, as counties would maintain their own county routes in the United States.

Unlike the American federal and Interstate numbering systems (and, for that matter, the European highway numbering system), Italian highways are typically numbered sequentially instead of based on a proposed grid. Lower numbers in general have higher importance, or at least a longer history. A1, for example, is the major route going from Naples to Milan passing through Rome (a combination of A1 and the old A2, both of these terminating in Rome originally). Similarly, SS 1 (co-numbered A92 in certain portions of Rome) is the modern form of the famous via Aurelia Aurelian Way; quite a few of the emperors' named routes still survive in the state highway system, and carry low numbers (such as SS 7 being the via Appia Appian Way). There have been some recent A numbers in the 50s and 90s, but these seem to be class subdivisions (much like Interstate 3-digit routes) with spur-like properties placed into the Autostrada system rather than a separate class (like Metroads in Sydney); A5x routes seem specific to Milan and are the city's "Tangenziale" routes (see below for an example of a tangenziale in Siena), and the A9x routes appear limited to Rome as of this writing. Provinces may number their routes any way they like, and some of the oddly high numbered SS routes may have been old SP routes where the number wasn't changed. Numbering and alignments are much more sacred in the Italian system. Unlike the United States, where new alignments take numbers away from old ones, upgraded motorways and freeways nearby older SS alignments often either get no numbers (named only), or their own numbers, and the old alignment tends to keep its old designation, sometimes indefinitely. As a result, very few of the route numbers have changed since their inception somewhere in the 1930s.

Since I'm also a photogeek, I'll also show off a few of my vacation photos. You may need to put a chain around your ankle to the chair to sit through this, in typical sitcom form. Again, please ask FIRST! before using the photographs, as photographs of famous art pieces tend to get unfairly ripped off. Also, Mark Furqueron has his own Italian highways page, which has some more treats on the Italian highway system.

Photographed October 2003.


A good example of an Autostrada is this one in Rome, the famous Grande Raccordo Anulare (lit., "Grand Ring Connector" or freely translated, "Great Beltway"), which has several typical and yet unique characteristics. The GRA feeds a large portion of Rome and spiders out to the various secondary connectors, some of which run the length of the country (even in the 21st century, all roads really do still lead to Rome). It is dual-carriageway, which is the prototypical configuration for all Autostrade, with controlled access and grade-separated interchanges. Typical reflective signage style is seen; California-style lighted signage is quite rare. The gantry style varies from highway to highway, although this variety is typical of more modern freeways.

Note the style of advance signage, sometimes a large number of kilometres before an actual interchange. The signs read E35/A1 to Firenze (Florence), SS 1 via Aurelia (this is likely part of A92), Citta' del Vaticano (Vatican City), E45/A1 to Napoli (this E number is different because this was old A2, a rare case of a number being destroyed), E80/A24 to L'Aquila, and E80/A12 to Civitavecchia and Fregene. The mutated octagon of the Autostrada shield is well demonstrated here.

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The GRA has some unique characteristics relative to other Autostrade. Although officially numbered as A90, the GRA is rarely numbered in the field. (There are several Autostrade that have no number at all, and are referenced on a named basis.) It also has exit "uscita" numbers, which are an uncommon occurrence on Italian freeways.

Here are some other emperors' routes, including the via Tiburtina (SS 5), the via Casilina (SS 6), and the via Prenestina, which oddly is just "numbered" SP with no actual numerals at all. We also see E80 demonstrated as divided into A25 to Pescara and A24 to L'Aquila.

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The Roman Colosseum, started by Vespasian, inaugurated by Titus in AD 80 and completed by Domitian. The first permanent ampitheatre in Rome, it was designed to seat a remarkable 50,000 visitors, with a facade nearly 158' tall, and its elliptical dimensions approximately 615' x 510'. The ruins of the Colosseum sit on ruins themselves; in this case, Nero's Golden House.

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Beautiful fountain in St Peter's Square, Vatican City.

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The Pieta by Michelangelo (c. 1498-99), approximately 6' tall, in St Peter's Basilica, Vatican City.

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The Sistine Chapel ceiling, or one part of it. Yes, that's my face, since I pretty much had the camera in my bag pointed up at the ceiling walking around shooting. The famous Creation of Adam appears at bottom left. The ceiling was also executed by Michelangelo, from 1508 to 1512 under commission to Pope Julius II, and the later Last Judgment section over the altar from 1535 to 1541 under commission to Pope Paul III Farnese. The chapel itself was built from 1473 to 1484 under Pope Sixtus IV, with its first Mass celebrated 9 August 1483 (yes, before its official completion).

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Back to the roads. This is fairly typical signage on most local routes (in this case SS 373 running between Ravello and SS 163, which runs along the Amalfi coast). On many newer signs, a Gill Sans-like font is used. Note the directional arrow style, which noted Italian animator Bruno Bozzetto spoofed in his amusing Europe and Italy short Flash animation. In some ways, it is similar to the "fingerboard" sign configuration in Australia.

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The Amalfi roads are gnarly-narrow. I was nearly run off the road by a tour bus, sending our rented Ford Mondeo into a ditch and wrecking the front right tire, which we spent changing with scenes such as this one of the beautiful coast around us. With scenery like that, how can one be irritated at the inconvenience? One stretch of the road we travelled, and are now overlooking, can faintly be seen (SS 163).

The other lesson learned, besides pray when tourbuses approach, is to always buy the LDW. When we got to Venice, we just dropped it off, dents, flat in the back, and all, no questions asked. Wunderbar.

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Unusual English stop sign, outside Capaccio, and non-standard directional signage in the background (including a regular octagon for the A3).

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This is more typical of smaller Autostrade signage. This is A1 outside of Naples (old A2), at the West Pompeii exit. Note the smaller gantry style, which is more common than the larger ones we saw on the GRA.

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The Terme del Foro (baths) in Pompeii. I chose to photograph it in natural light rather than fill-in with flash (the walls are actually coloured). Note the interesting statue motif.

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Looking for our hotel (the beautiful Az. Agricola Ghiaccio Bosco near Capalbio in Grosseto [Toscana]). This is some more typical signage, in this case on Grosseto province SP 75 between Capalbio and Pescia Fiorentina. This also connects with the Aurelian Way. The concept of trailblazer signage seems alien in the Italian system; I had to refer to a very confusing map to sort out which route was which.

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Siena, a beautiful city which caused me much high blood pressure trying to navigate its dense one way streets littered with pedestrians within the city walls. Its outside roads are much nicer (and wider). Here is an example of advance signage for a local Tangenziale route. The Tangenziale Ovest di Siena (the particular route referenced by the sign here), which serves Acqua Calda and acts as a western bypass of the city, is typically -- as in most cities -- signed as the "tangenziale" with no number or even route name to indicate what it is. The TOdS is apparently administered as an SP route, which makes sense given its local scope; it connects to R00 (Superstrada Firenze-Siena) at the north, and R22 (Raccordo Siena-Bettolle) at south. The Cassian Way SS 2 to Florence is also indicated (as well as SS 2 to Rome), and, faintly, the A1 to Florence and SS 222 to Castellina.

Not all Tangenziales are local routes, administratively speaking; the Tangenziales in Milan seem to be part of the Autostrada system and have numbers in the A50 range.

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SS 16 to Ravenna, a significant artery that runs along nearly all of the the Adriatic coast. Note the older typeface used here.

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The famous apse mosaic in the Basilica of San Vitale in Ravenna; the construction of the basilica was initiated by Archbishop Ecclesius (521-534) and completed in 547, but this and other mosaics within it were completed under the authority of Justinian, who took control of the city in 540 after its conquest by his general Belisarius. This iconic mosaic depicts Christ as "cosmocrator" at the centre, surrounded by St Vitalis and Archbishop Ecclesius themselves, whom Christ is depicted welcoming into paradise. A mosaic depiction of the court of Justinian appears nearby.

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The line between milemarkers and reassurance shields, as we think of them in the USA, is rather blurred in Italy; many times, one sign serves both purposes, so I refer to them as reassurance shields here. Autostrade and SS motorway/freeway reassurance shields appear at regular intervals and generally denote a kilometre number and the route (with appropriate colour scheme) on usually a brown background. The sign shown here is a fairly commonly encountered scheme for non-dual-carriageway SS and SP reassurance signage, with the route number (in this case SS 3, the Flaminian Way), the next destination and distance to it (here Sigillo in Perugia province, Umbria), and a total kilometre distance count (194km). However, as SP signage is more or less at the option of the local provincial council, it can vary widely from "full" signage such as this, all the way down to simple old-style stone markers with the route number occasionally even given in Roman numerals.

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San Marino, another self-contained republic within Italy, near the Italian city of Rimini. The main route through the republic does not seem to be numbered or signed as a government maintained route, so there. Its population as of 2004 numbers just 28,503. Established as an independent state (as the story goes) 3 September 301 by a stonecutter seeking refuge named Marino, and recognized officially as independent by the papacy over a millenium later in 1631, it is the world's smallest republic and asserts itself to be the oldest existing state in Europe. It is barely 61 km2, but nevertheless splits that small acreage up into nine administrative divisions called castelli (here Serravalle, at the northeastern corner of the country) that comprise it. The main route bisecting the country goes through impressively mountanous territory, which no doubt contributed to its independence in earlier times because of its geographic isolation.

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And now, roads of a different sort -- water. Yes, this is Venice and its famous canals, which remain preserved close to their origins as a nondescript, island-choked Adriatic lagoon colonized by refugees fleeing Attila the Hun in AD 452. This humble beginning would birth a republic that would engulf Dalmatia, significant portions of the northern Italian mainland and even territories as far removed as Cyprus, before a significant decline in fortune and territorial control would end in her defeat at the hands of Napoleon Bonaparte in 1797.

This view of the Grand Canal in Rialto district shows much of the integration of terrestial vehicular services with the ubiquitous city canal system. Besides the well-known water taxis, police and fire boats as well as delivery and transport boats run throughout the canals, much as their land-based cousins would do on highways and city streets.

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The Piazza di San Marco, the famous "centre" of Venice. It is frequently flooded (more about that in a moment), as its elevation is low, and it is always mobbed with pigeons. The Piazza is dominated by the Basilica, originally built in 828 as a temporary structure, replaced in 832, burned in 976, rebuilt in 978, and finally once more in 1063, which is what persists today. It is attached to the Doge's Palace, where the Venetian ruler once resided. The Square (Piazza) itself was a small area outside the Basilica originally but was widened to its present dimensions in 1177.

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Flooding in Venice is a constant problem. One morning we were awakened in our hotel room around 6am by a low, groaning klaxon sounding over and over in the early morning. A sleepy inquiry of the front desk yielded an explanation: flood stage. Sure enough, water had gotten high enough to dampen the stones outside our hotel near the Piazza, and the Piazza itself was submerged under several inches of water. When this happens, wooden temporary bridges are erected over the flooding, and pedestrian traffic squeezes onto this network to get where they're going (or puts on galoshes and splashes about). Signs such as this scattered around the city state the flood level -- really, a backwards way of stating the elevation -- of a particular area or square.

Flooding such as what we experienced is occurring with increasing frequency due to a combined effect of rising sea levels and sinking Venetian land. In fact, flood tides over 100cm -- which is more or less the flood level for the Piazza -- now occur an average of seven times a year, and levels high enough to flood the narthex of the Basilica (60cm or more) occur roughly two days out of every three. The solution, unfortunately, requires complicated reinforcement and restoration of multiple sections to facilitate drainage, resist further water and wave damage, and retard sinkage. This expensive and complex undertaking started in 2003 and is still in progress.

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How could I forget the gondolas?

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And finally, a grudging homage to the Smart Car, a ubiquitious and miserable insult to automobiles that infested the country and much of Europe as a whole, courtesy of DaimlerChrysler (a company that should know better), taking fuel efficiency to an all-new high and any sort of legroom to rock bottom. Smarts were everywhere, climbing mountains in San Marino -- slowly, dodging motorcycles in Rome (as photographed here) and skirting canals on the roads to Venice. Barely enough room for an engine, let alone passengers and cargo, these certain-death-in-an-accident glorified lawn mowers easily won my award for Most Rotten Little Car in a country that seems to specialize in rotten little cars in general. ;-P C'mon, guys, where's an SUV when you need one?

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All images, photographs and multimedia, unless otherwise stated, are copyright © 2004-2014 Cameron Kaiser. All rights reserved. All writeups are copyright © 2004-2014 Cameron Kaiser. All rights reserved. Unauthorized copying or duplication without express consent of the copyright holder is strictly prohibited. Please contact the sitemaster to request permission if you wish to use items from this page.

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