A car park that makes ours look fresh

We may feel embarrassed about the average age of our vehicle fleet, around 13 years, thinking it's among the worst in the developed world, but despair not.

Having taken a few days downtime in Italy and viewed the streets of the main tourist traps there, I reckon we can hold our heads high.

Well, a bit higher perhaps.

For over there the car is treated more like a dodgem than something in which you can take pride. Most cars, the vast majority seemingly, are ratty old superminis, with plenty of evidence of crash and bash encounters. Next to nobody can be bothered to clean their vehicles.

Many cars seem to get very little use. Perhaps that's because the traffic jams at rush hour in the bigger cities are appalling, and there are good public transport alternatives.

The underground Metro system in Rome is well used, inexpensive, and often jam-packed. Moreover, the suburban and rural train systems seem to run reasonably well. Lots of people get around topside on scooters. So perhaps the fact that there are so many transport choices in Italy devalues the car ownership experience. And that suggests folk spend less on four wheels.

Much the same is true of motorbikes. There are plenty there, the vast majority scooters, and many of these are the large-wheel, big-engine types rather than the nifty thrifty fifties we see plying Auckland streets. Again, no-one seems to clean their rides. I saw only a handful of well maintained Ducatis. Most were old, dishevelled and filthy, with faded paint, opaque fairing blades. BMW Motorrad seems to fare well in Italy; most big bikes seem to be BMW twins, the majority seemingly well maintained. Make what you will of that.

The general vehicular tattiness almost seems to be a reflection of Italy itself; the wooden houses are often in need of a repaint, and the streets are generally as littered, if not more so, than ours which are often a disgrace. Smoking continues to be big in Europe, and most seem to flick their butts any old where, never bothering to even stub them out by foot.

Italians love their small dogs, and clearly there are laws in place to ensure owners clean up after them, but you need to be careful when you're out walking, to avoid soiling your shoes. Many back streets stink of urine too; people living rough and begging are all part of daily life in the big Italian cities.

Course, there are loads more people in Italy than in New Zealand, and many of those are tourists taking in the ancient sights of Rome, Florence, and Venice. But you also get the feeling that much of the dysfunction in Italy is the result of a string of incompetent and short-lived governments. We visited a coastal tourism destination, Cinque Terra, which consists of five colourful villages perched on ancient hillside rocks overlooking the Med and linked by a series of coastal walkways. Two of the five walks were closed because of landslides and had been out of service for some time. In New Zealand, they would have been reopened probably within a month, likely within a week of the event. We had a gander at one of the rock slides and it looked as if a few blokes could have at least established a diversion within a few days.

I asked an acquaintance who had recently returned from Italy what he thought of the place and he mentioned it looked in need of a spruce up. Course, Italian civilisation is somewhat longer in the tooth than ours, so maybe it's not surprising there's a down-at-heel look. The cars, though, they're the giveaway. They really are treated like disposable items. Glad we seem bothered to care a little more care.

Despite this, we had a great couple of weeks taking in the sights, the climate and weather were terrific, and it seemed a safe place for tourists. Food and drinks were affordable too. Next time, I'd try learning a smattering of Italian phrases beforehand, as many locals seem to speak very little English. Then I might learn exactly why they take such casual care of their cars.