Friday, August 27, 2010



A decent guide-book will tell you all this, but I’m here now, so I’ll throw in my two cents worth.

Yes, the driving in France can be interesting. Not too scary for anyone who’s experienced driving in Montreal, but the roads are narrower and twistier and the other drivers tend to know where they are going so they drive much quicker than we might. Fortunately, the cars are made for the roads and one soon adapts. The most annoying habit we’ve encountered so far is Tail-gating. One has to learn to let them do it. We’re on vacation and not in a rush so we try to ignore them. If it becomes too bad, we pull over briefly and let them go by (it doesn’t take long for them to figure out what to do).

On the whole, the drivers are surprisingly disciplined. And no horns! Of course, we seem to be the only car with a fire-engine-red license plate, so maybe that tips them off that we’re tourists and they cut us some slack.

On our 17th day here, I can honestly say that we’ve met only polite, helpful, friendly people. Probably helps that we speak French (after a fashion), but locals will often switch to English when they hear my accent.

If you need AC-power adaptors for your rechargers, bring ‘em. They’re hard to find here.

Don’t even consider driving around without good maps AND a GPS. The latter will help you get anywhere, but first you need to know where there is to get to. The GPS in our hire-purchase Renault knows where all the radar traps are on the highways and warns you. It even knows when the speed limit changes (within yards of the signs!) and changes its display accordingly. It also warns you when you are exceeding the limit by first flashing, then changing to red and finally beeping. I wish they all did that!

In Europe, the speed limits are the same everywhere; 50 Kph in towns (unless otherwise posted), 70Kph on two-lane roads, 90 or 110 on highways and 130 on freeways (110 in the rain). This is useful because you almost always have a feel for what speed you should be doing. Unless everyone else is slowing down! Then, you should be on the Qui-Vive.

Almost all four-lane highways are toll roads so you can easily pay $15-$20 per day unless you’d prefer to adventure onto the side roads. There is a monthly card/pass system that you can buy, but we haven’t figured it out yet.

When they don’t want you to drive somewhere in towns, they don’t just put up a sign, they put up steel or concrete bollards, spaced so that you can’t drive between them. Occasionally they’re closer to the corner than you’d like. I watched a tourist in a beautiful Alfa Romero crunch his passenger-side door on one when he tried to manoeuvre out of one alley-sized street into another. Some of these bollards are at the ends of streets and residents have a key which raises or lowers the bollard to let them pass, thus keeping out the riff-raff.

Traffic is heavy near cities, so just because where you want to go is only 100 Km away, don’t assume you can get there in an hour.

The food really is fantastic. It’s always fresh and tasty. Each region seems to have 1000 varieties of local cheese. Wine ranges from table wine at about 1.60E to exquisite at 15E per bottle and is available nearly everywhere. Not much in the way of vending machines; if you want a coke, be prepared to sit in a restaurant and fork over 3.50E. One Euro less for a glass of wine with your meal.

Parking in cities is tough. Best choice, bite the bullet and pay to park in an underground lot if you can get in. They’re tight and cramped, but relatively safe and usually near where you want to go anyway. They’re also automated so remember to pay at the machines when you come back before getting in your car, or you won’t be able to exit the parking and some of those ramps are real hard to back up out of!

Love all the Roman ruins, castles, etc., but what’s really fascinating is the juxtaposition of all the modern conveniences on the ancient relics. WiFi across the street from the twelfth-century church for example. And no two toilets have been the same. Everything from the hole in the floor to the radar-guided self-flusher with supersonic hand drier. The local McDonalds have free Wi Fi and a Barrista to whip you up your morning espresso. Endlessly fascinating!

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