Driving in Europe

Volume 14, Issue 20; 31 May 2011

A few thoughts on getting from here to there.

I've driven in England, France, and Spain. I'd be a fool to imagine that my limited experience generalizes to all of Europe. And so you would you, title of this essay not withstanding. I will regail you with generalizations nevertheless.

First, do you really need to? Drive, I mean. I've also traveled lots of places in Europe without driving. As far as I can tell, trains and busses work well in Europe, for the most part. Given the choice between driving or not, I'd rather not. But, in fairness, that's true here too, except that “not” is rarely a viable option in the States.

For our trip to Spain, we wanted to visit some smaller towns enroute to other towns. While we could have gone everywhere by train, it would have taken at least a couple of extra days. For this itinerary, driving seemed like the right answer.

Learn to drive a stick

I'm prepared to believe that advances in computer technology and automative control systems have removed all vestiges of improved handling, performance, and economy that used to be attained by driving a manual transmission. It may not be true, but I'm prepared to believe it. Much as I prefer to drive a stick, I appreciate that there's probably no reason to beyond a certain perversity of personality.

Except in Europe. You can rent cars with automatic transmissions in Europe but they're much more expensive and car rental companies aren't known for their stellar performance in delivering what was reserved.

Driving with a manual transmission isn't hard, really, it just takes a little practice. That said, you absolutely do not want to try to learn how on the first few days of your vacation in a foreign country when you have other things you'd rather be doing. (On the other hand, learning on a rental would have the advantage of wrecking someone else's clutch.)

Except in England. I have driven a stick in England, but I find the combination of shifting with the wrong hand (the stick is on your left in England), clutching, and driving on the wrong side of the road an almost insurmountable challenge to my cognitive and motor skills. I rent an automatic in England if I can. Actually, in England, I just take the train.

If you drive an automatic at home and a stick in Europe, when you return to driving at home, you will feel a strong urge to depress the clutch as you approach the first few stop signs and lights. Your brain will try to tell your foot to mash the pedal that's to the left of the accelerator all the way to the floor in one quick, smooth motion. Do not let your foot listen.

Get a GPS

The historical record suggests that it is, or at least was at one time, possible to drive in thousand year old European cities without a GPS. Two things: first, I'm suspicious of the veracity of such anecdotal claims, and second, they must have had way better maps.

I started with maps. A good Spanish road map, several pages of detailed printouts from the web, and detailed driving directions. (We don't have European maps for our personal GPS and renting one in Spain didn't occur to us until quite late in the planning.)

Utterly useless. Well, the road map was fine for getting from city to city, but the fractal maze of city streets, all twisty, most one way and only one lane wide, meant I was “off the map” within minutes, perhaps seconds, of entering any metropolis.

The GPS came through like a champ. There were a few places where its maps were out of date (intersections that had become roundabouts or roundabouts with new layouts) but it was never hard to interpret what was needed. A good thing too, because I initially had it configured for “shortest distance”. That meant instead of taking the ring road around smaller towns, we went slap bang through the middle of them on tiny, unlabelled streets for which I had no intuitive grasp of navigation whatsoever.

Navigation fail

Ah, Córdoba. The road to our hotel was blocked by construction. That's ok though, because the GPS had a “route around a roadblock” feature. The alternate route involved crossing the river and coming back in on the other side of the roadblock. This would have worked fine, I think, except that the second bridge the GPS wanted me to drive over was pedestrain only. I don't know if this was a case of cartographic error or a recent change in designation for the bridge.

Two roadblocks was an inescapable local minimum for the poor GPS's navigation software. I tried to drive up, through, and around the construction in the city, relying entirely on instinct and luck to get through its congested little streets, but failed. The GPS dutifully brought me back to the roadblock.

I happened to glance at its display at just the right moment and saw (on that funky little pseudo-3D representation of the streets) that we were a few blocks and one U-turn from the hotel so we just parked and walked. I parallel parked into the smallest, tightest spot of my life because (a) Deb insisted it could be done despite my protestations otherwise and (b) we really had no other choice.

Parking. One more reason not to drive.


Another tip: when driving in Germany, please resist your urge to drive at Ludicrous Speed. It's not a good idea in the first place, but if you have no driving experience on the Autobahn, it's borderline insane.

—Posted by Martin on 31 May 2011 @ 01:00 UTC #

Not perverse at all. Stick shifts are the command line interfaces of cars.

—Posted by Bob DuCharme on 31 May 2011 @ 02:09 UTC #

I've done two driving tours of Europe; one through Germany, Switzerland, Italy (as far south as Florence) and Austria and one through France, southern Germany, a tiny bit of Switzerland and Liechtenstein. I'll be embarking on my third this fall, zigzagging from Berlin through a bit of Poland and the Czech Republic as we make our way to Munich in time for Oktoberfest.

I've done one train-based trip as well. Trains are great because you can completely relax while you're making your way from point to point. It can be a bit frustrating, though, making your way to the proper track. I recall a time in Milan when an announcement came over the loudspeaker, and the only way my daughter and I knew what was happening was that everyone left the boarding platform and went to another. Apparently the arrival track had changed.

The advantage to car travel is that you can stay wherever you want. We love to take advantage of the frei Zimmern in Germany and Pensions where you can save a bundle on your hotel bill and get to know some locals to boot.

I don't speak German, but my partner does. As we were leaving a home on the German countryside, I asked my partner to ask the owner how old her house was. She launched into an amazing story of how she and her sister had to help her father gather stones to build it after World War II. They had no money but needed a place to live, so that's what they had to do. That's a memory to last a lifetime.

This upcoming trip we'll be hitting some larger cities; Dresden, Prague, Nuermberg, etc. This may be the trip that was better designed for train travel...we'll have to see.

—Posted by Tim on 02 Jun 2011 @ 12:02 UTC #