Heading for the highway, looking for adventure ... (Driving on our own in Normandy)
Visiting a country is, in itself, an adventure made even more so when you decide to do something you’ve never done before...like drive. Most of our previous international trips have been on cruises where ship excursions or other travel arrangements made a car unnecessary.
While we have spent time in both England and Italy on non-cruise trips, we never felt the need to rent a car. And there was NO way I was going to drive in England. Maybe I could have gotten the hang of driving on the opposite side of the road, but I would never have been able to negotiate those all-too frequent roundabouts.
On our latest trip we again spent time in England and used the outstanding public transportation system both in London and on a return visit to Oxford. It was also our first ride on the Eurostar train through the Chunnel to Paris. Going through the 31.5 mille long tunnel (23.5 of which directly under the English Channel) 246 feet under the water did make me think of things that could go wrong, but the train made it through uneventfully and then returned to cruising speed of 241 KMH or 149 MPH.
My wife and I had been in Normandy last August as part of a cruise and wanted to visit again, this time on our own schedule...and by car. So we took the plunge and rented a car at Charles de Gaulle Airport outside Paris and, led by a very talkative GPS, set out for Normandy.
Since the French drive on the same side as we do in the U.S., it was just like driving at home...kinda. Some observations about car travel in France:
The cars are definitely smaller than I’m used to. Tiny would be an apt description. Our rental was an Opel Mokka, similar to a small SUV here. All of the latest technology in it took a bit getting used to, like when the wipers automatically started when it rained. I do like the backup camera, a definite addition to our next car.
Speed limits are suggestions, and often ignored, as tiny cars can go really, really fast. The basic speed limits are 30, 50, 70, 90, 110 and 130 kilometers per hour. That translates to 18, 31, 43, 55, 68 and 80 miles per hour, respectively. The slower speeds are posted in the beautiful small villages through which we passed. On what would be France’s interstate system, 130 felt appropriate, at least for those of us willing to stick to the limit. For others, 130 was a blur of cars in their rear view mirror.
Speeders notwithstanding, the French drivers were, for the most part, polite. They always used their turn signals, even the tailgaters. Several times a tailgater was riding my bumper and when he decided it was time to pass, he turned on his turn signal, passed and then used his signal again...when he cut in front of me causing me to brake. Quel sport. (What a sport!)
What they didn’t know how to do, however, was stay in their lane. You would think cars that small would have no problem remaining in a designated traffic lane. No. On the narrow roads once used only by farm carts, you understand why they may not rigidly hold to the lanes. But on the interstate? Riding half in one lane and half in the other just seemed to be the way to drive. I chose not to.
France seems to be a nation of campers and RVers. The roads were full of cars pulling campers ranging in size from a small trailer popup to a bit larger towed camper. The “RVs” we saw were even small, not much bigger than our camper vans. With very tight turns in many areas, the smaller campers are the only way to go.
The condition of the highways seemed excellent, even in the tiniest villages. The interstates were smooth, with no obvious issues like ours. I’m not familiar enough with France’s weather or geography to know whether those factor into the quality, but it was nice not to have your car rattle mile after mile.
Part of the trip was on roads that required tolls, lots and lots of tolls. It seemed we regularly had to stop and pay tolls, ranging from about $4 to $9, depending on the trip’s length. The cost wasn’t exorbitant, but the frequent stops broke up the drive. At our first toll stop, we pulled up, waited for the ticket to come out...and nothing happened. It took us a couple of minutes to figure out you paid to get on, not get off. And the only traffic backups we encountered were at the toll plazas where, it seemed, everyone was jockeying to get ahead of the long, long lines of travelers.
Rest areas of various sizes on the larger roads were frequent and well designed. One nice extra was in addition to the rest areas with gas, food, toilets, etc., picnic areas were interspersed with the larger ones. We didn’t stop at any, but many were full of what looked like families enjoying a break from traveling.
The French countryside is beautiful and looks similar to many parts of the U.S. to which we’ve traveled. But the castles, or large chateaus, on hills along the roads ensure you know you’re not in the U.S.
We were surprised at the large number of wind turbines throughout the countryside. Multiple turbines were spread across the horizon in what might be considered remote areas. France ranks eighth in the world in wind-generated electricity.
Signage is also unique. In the U.S., when you enter and leave a city or town, there are often signs letting you know the municipality’s boundaries. France has a similar system, with one interesting change. On leaving a village or town, the sign letting you know is the name of the town with a red diagonal through the name. Guess it helps keep the signs small.
The same goes for when the speed limits change. That sign is the speed with a black diagonal slash. The problem is there isn’t a sign showing the new speed limit. That made setting a speed a guess...and hoping no police were nearby to tell you that your guess was wrong.
My favorite sign was the electronic speed reader posted in many of the small villages. Instead of giving a digital readout of the speed, it gave you an emoji ranging from happy to sad. As the accompanying picture shows, it even advises “Prudence” or caution.
So, after driving 1,075 kilometers, or about 668 miles, will I ever drive in another country again? Yes...as long as it’s on the right side of the road.