Monday, October 1, 2007

If you have half a mind to drive in Europe

that's enough, as the saying goes.

With a few decades of North American driving experience behind me, recent Australian experience with roundabouts and international signage, an International Driver’s Certificate, and a clutch of maps in hand, I figured I was all set for driving in Europe. Wrong! So here’s a handy guide to driving in Europe to help all those who, like me, figure they’ve got it all sorted out.

The first thing you need to know is that directions to the next major city are rarely posted until you are within a few kilometres of them. Instead the signs direct you through a steady stream of small towns and villages, three or four at a time. To put that in a local context, if, for example, you were trying to drive from Ottawa to Toronto, the sign posts, carefully hidden on the outskirts of Ottawa, would direct you to Bells Corners, Kanata, Stittsville, and Carleton Place. As you left Carleton Place you would head towards Innisville, Perth and Maberly. Toronto wouldn’t even show up until you were at least at Peterborough or maybe even Whitby, if you made it that far.

I suppose this is all rooted in medieval times when no one ever took their ox cart any further than the nearest village for market days and no one really cared what was over the next hill. But while people now drive long distances, route markers are still based on 12th century requirements. Bottom line: expect to zigzag your way across Europe, taking twice as long as you would expect.

Have a good map, but only one. Having more than one will simply confuse you. Besides you can only use about two square inches of it at a time (depending on scale) as you pinball your way across the country to your final destination. And don’t put too much faith in highway numbers as highway numbering appears to be a black art that is never totally explained. Major highways will frequently have multiple designators such as A8 and E42. At some point one or both will be dropped, to be replaced by something like D169 or N15. You will only become aware of the change when you hit a roundabout that attaches the new highway designator to the name of the next village on your route (you hope). Don’t panic. Even though you will not find D169 or N15 on any map (or even on any more road signs), keep going and if you guess right at the next three or four roundabouts, soon enough A8 or E42 will reappear and you’ll breathe a sigh of relief that you don’t have to do yet another 20-kilometer backtrack to find where you missed a turnoff.

Keep in mind that there are many languages spoken in Europe, and not all of them are English. This is particularly challenging when travelling across country borders as city names can be quite different in different languages. For example, when you are trying to get from somewhere in France to Kortrijk, which is just on the Belgian side of the Belgium-France border, you need to follow the signs to Courtrai (apparently Courtrai is French for Kortrijk) until you hit the border – and then try to not become confused when all of a sudden you seem to be heading somewhere else entirely. This doesn’t always work though and sometimes you will actually be heading somewhere else entirely, but you’ll figure it out eventually and get back on track. In the meantime you will have seen even more of the pleasant French countryside.

Finally you will arrive at your destination, which is when the real interesting driving begins.

Straight line stuff is pretty easy, so we’ll focus on intersections. There are generally three types of intersection – roundabouts, controlled intersections with traffic lights, and uncontrolled intersections.

Roundabouts are actually the easiest to navigate once you remember to count the number of the desired exit from the entry point based on the signage going into the roundabout. Once in the roundabout, signage may be non-existent, or equally likely, point to a different street name than the one you were expecting, necessitating another loop around or worse, an incorrect exit, a frustrating 20-minute recovery drive, and a couple more years off the likely duration of what was, until now, a pretty good marriage to your navigator.

Controlled intersections are somewhat of a misnomer as “control” seems to be marginal at best. Of course it must work else there’d be far many more bodies strewn about than one normally sees. For maximum challenge, visit Amsterdam where major intersections have separate traffic lights for cars, trams, pedestrians, and bicycles. As in North America, many bicyclists and pedestrians simply choose to ignore the lights, but unlike here, pedestrians and bicycles are king in Amsterdam and apparently always have the right-of-way whether they do or not. Oh, and one other thing, some motor scooters and small “cars” are allowed to use the bicycle paths, so it’s not unusual to have a couple of those zipping across under the bicycle light as well. And buses can drive on the tram lines, but cars cannot. It’s all very confusing so just take a clue from the driver beside you and you’ll only be wrong 10% of the time because even the locals can’t always figure it out.

But saving the best for last, there are the uncontrolled intersections. While we in North America are stop-sign happy, sticking those gas- and time-wasting signs on every street, lane and driveway, Europeans are much more casual about such things. Secondary road intersections in town will only rarely be graced with a yield sign, never mind a stop sign. This leads to a kind of interactive ballet between cars, bicycles, and people where it’s do-si-do and allaman left (oops, that’s square dancing, not ballet) and everyone gets through with nary a scratch nor a broken bone. It’s actually quite entertaining to watch, especially when a tourist enters the fray and the whole choreography goes up in smoke and the sounds of crunching metal. In the face of such apparent confusion, one will be tempted to just “go for it”, but personal experience says that just bulling one’s way through isn’t recommended either, having cut off a Belgian cop and received a good finger-wagging for my trouble.

So those are the main pointers I would offer, and if you still insist on getting behind the wheel, be prepared to be frustrated, lost and confused, even before you get out of the airport. After that it settles down and is actually not too bad. Remember Europe is a pretty small place, and it’s almost impossible to get really lost. Travel 50 kilometres in any direction and you’ll either be in the North Sea or a new country, at which point you can stop, check your maps, find out how far off track you really are, and find a good pub/cafe to have pint of Belgian Trappist beer to calm your nerves.

Have a good trip!


uk said...


You should do what i did, take a portable satnav with you! We were touring the back roads of england to all sorts of remote little towns and villages. Just type in the address and hey presto, turn left here, take the third exit at the roundabout etc...a lot less stressful than trying to navigate, and deal with european truck drivers!

Canajun said...

Don't get me started on the trucks!
We encountered a few fellow travellers who had satnav systems and swore by them. But hey, we saw more of the countryside than they did.