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

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 accommodations as a graduation present. I love you, Mom and Dad!

The Italian highway numbering system is historic and like many historic things has accumulated an excessive level of complexity, but there are several broad classifications:

  • Autostrade (signed "A" in white on green), not unlike the USA Interstate freeway system, but the majority are tolled;
  • strade statali (signed "SS" in white on blue), the state highway network, which (as in the USA) may or may not be limited-access freeways;
  • strade provinciale (signed "SP" in white on blue), the provincial highway network, something sort of like the county routes in American states;
  • and strade comunali (signed "SC" in black on white), the municipal roads of comuni, analogous to the city routes found in some countries.

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. These main groups are subdivided into various exception types, such as

  • Tunnel routes (underground sections specifically designated as such, usually part of a larger SS routing);
  • Bretelle, Diramazione and Raccordo routes, typically derived from A routes and designated link roads analogously to Interstate 3-digit routes (many are marked using bis, dir and racc suffixes and sometimes combinations like "A14 dir" and "A29 racc bis", but an older convention uses white on blue signage such as "RA 6" [raccordo autostradale 6]);
  • and regional SR routes (strade regionali), 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 (again bis, dir, r(acc) but also ter, quater, letter suffixes, also in combinations). 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 and SC routes are maintained and operated by the local province or municipality 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 as you would expect 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 (again, much like Interstate 3-digit routes) with spur-like properties placed into the Autostrada system rather than as a separate highway type: 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.

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 (i.e., a named highway only) or their own numbers, and the old alignment tends to keep its old designation, sometimes indefinitely. Provinces may number their routes any way they like, and some of the oddly high numbered SS routes are merely old SP routes where the number stayed the same. 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. Photographed October 2003.


All roads lead to Rome, or in this case run around it, namely the famous Grande Raccordo Anulare (lit., "Grand Ring Connector" or freely translated, "Great Beltway").
This is probably the prototype Autostrada other than the mighty A1, but the GRA also has several unique characteristics. It feeds a large portion of Rome and spiders out to the various secondary connectors, some of which run the length of the country (yes, even in the 21st century, all roads really do still lead to Rome). It is dual-carriageway with controlled access and grade-separated interchanges in the standard configuration of all Autostrade. 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.

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 is one of the relative few Autostrade that is not presently tolled.

Note the style of advance signage, sometimes a large number of kilometres before an actual interchange. The signs here 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.

Another selection of emperors' historic routes on the GRA. Note the use of uscita (exit) numbers, uncommon even on Italian limited-access alignments.
The signage includes 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. The via Aurelia is exit 1, as befits its numbering as SS 1, and exit numbers proceed clockwise.

Around Roma

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.
Beautiful fountain in St Peter's Square, Vatican City.
The Pieta by Michelangelo (c. 1498-99), approximately 6' tall, in St Peter's Basilica, Vatican City.
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).
Driving Through Italy

This is fairly typical "fingerboard" 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.
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. The guy's eyes got very wide, but he signed off on it.
Unusual English stop sign, outside Capaccio, and non-standard directional signage in the background (including a regular octagon for the A3).
More typical smaller Autostrade signage on A1 outside of Naples (old A2), at the West Pompeii exit. Note the smaller gantry style, which is more common than the larger ones on the GRA.
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.
SP 75 (in Grosseto), between Capalbio and Pescia Fiorentina. Also note signage for the via Aurelia and the inverted colours.
The Italians just don't do trailblazers. While looking for our hotel (the beautiful Az. Agricola Ghiaccio Bosco near Capalbio in Grosseto [Toscana]) I had to refer to a very confusing map to sort out which route was which.
Advance signage for a local Tangenziale, the Tangenziale Ovest di Siena.
Siena was a coldly 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). This particular route serves Acqua Calda and acts as a western bypass of the city. As is the case for many tangenziali, the route is 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 SS 2 via Cassia 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 tangenziali are local routes, administratively speaking; the ones in Milan seem to be part of the Autostrada system and have numbers in the A50 range.

SS 16 (E45) to Ravenna, a significant artery that runs along nearly all of the the Adriatic coast. Note the older typeface used here.
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.
Milemarker along the via Flaminia (SS 3).
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.
Border signage for San Marino, another self-contained republic within Italy, near the Italian city of Rimini.
Although this signage was on SS 72, the main route through San Marino itself does not seem to be numbered or signed as a government maintained route, so there. Its population as of 2018 numbers a mere estimated 33,344. 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 variously considered to be the world's smallest republic and asserts itself to be the oldest existing state in Europe. It nevertheless splits its diminutive 61 square kilometres 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.

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.

The Piazza di San Marco, the famous "centre" of Venice.
The Piazza 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.
Flood level markers (a backwards way of stating the elevation).
Flooding in Venice generally 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).

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.

How could I forget the gondolas?
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 on a continent that seems to specialize in rotten little cars in general. C'mon, guys, where's an SUV when you need one?
All images, photographs and multimedia, unless otherwise stated, are copyright © 2004-2024 Cameron Kaiser. All rights reserved. All writeups are copyright © 2004-2024 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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