Driving on the French Autoroutes

Yellow car

Traveling on the French Autoroutes is similar to driving on other freeways in Europe.  The roads are not as nice as the Autobahn in Germany, but better than the Autostradas in Italy. They have lots of tollbooths and the toll charges add up to a lot of baguettes. They also appear to have speed cameras, although I never noticed any on the roads.

Mini in Paris
NO! Not a Mini again!

I only know this now because I keep getting “administrative charges” showing up on my credit card account from Sixt, the car rental company I used on my France trip. Sixt charges me 18 euros every time they get notified that I did something wrong while renting their car. I’ve received four of these in the past month.

I’m slowly getting these tickets in the mail from the French road authorities. They want 45 euros for each ticket from me at first, escalating to 180 euros each over time. One of the tickets cited me for going 138 km/hr in a 130 km/hr zone. The 130 km/hr speed is the standard speed limit on the Autoroute.  My excessive speed of 8 km/hr over the speed limit is approximately 5 mph.

Give me a break!  This is on the freeway! Almost everyone was driving faster than me. If they send tickets to all of those drivers, think of the administrative machine and revenue generating/wealth redistribution system they have designed.  Those French socialists!

I think I’ll refuse to pay these tickets, just like that ticket described in my Italian driving misadventures. Unless they can get to my credit card like those *#@$%&$ Austrians.

Yellow car
This car will keep me within the speed limit.

I’m still struggling with my European GPS (go here for a tale of my inadvertent Swiss mountain climbing expedition in a Mini). One time my GPS sent me through the back roads of the French countryside to my next destination, instead of via the Autoroute.  It was nice for a while, until I got to a road closed due to construction.  I was in the middle of the back of beyond, in terms of the Loire Valley.

To recover from the closed road, the GPS sent me down one lane roads, gravel roads, and farmer’s lanes until eventually (OK, it was actually a couple of hours) I ended up back at a main road.  When I looked at the map later, I could have done the whole trip on freeways. I am going to take a sledge hammer to that GPS someday.

(If you want to leave the driving to someone else, such as to and from an airport in Europe, try Blacklane Limousines).

On my way towards Normandy I stopped at a gas station to get something to drink. When I came back out to my car I saw this:

bad park job
My rented BMW M1 is on the left.

Thanks, dude. You’ve blocked me in. What were you thinking? I can’t even get my car door open!

I was getting steamed. Who parks like that? What an idiot!

I had to wait for the truck driver to come back to his (or her) vehicle.  I decided to stand in the way and confront him, silently, because if he knew I was American he would probably let loose a slew of French vulgarities at me.

French road sign.
Typical French road sign.

After ten minutes I saw a young guy in overalls come out of the store. He had a cup of coffee and a candy bar. I planted my feet and took up as much of the sidewalk as I could in front of my car, so as to partially block the path to the truck. He was looking down at his coffee as he walked, until he got a few feet from me.  He noticed that I was in the way and looked up, into my eyes.

I gave him my Angry Eyes, pointedly looked at his park job, then stared back at him.  I didn’t say a word.

He slightly grinned, smirked, and ducked around me without speaking. He hopped into his truck. I gave him the French single finger salute as he drove away. It made me feel better.

Back on the road.  Let’s go to Mont Saint-Michel.

The Austrian Bathroom Stop

Ausfahrt sign

We were barreling down the Autobahn in southern Austria at 170 km/hr (106 mph). I was pushing the little Mini as fast as it would go in order to not be devoured by the bigger Audis and the BMWs. We had left Bolzano, Italy (in search of Oetzi the Iceman) that morning and were heading back to Munich. After surviving the Swiss mountain pass (see Trouble in Switzerland), we had enjoyed several wonderful days in Nice (View of Vieux Ville in Nice), and endured painful road construction on the Italian Autostrada near Milan and Genoa. We were now in the Austrian Alps south of Innsbruck and the views were fabulous.

Bolzano Alps view
The Alps near Bolzano, Italy.

“I have to go to the bathroom,” said my daughter, who was crammed into the miniature back seat of the Mini.
“So do I,” said my wife.
“OK, I’ll take the next exit to make a bathroom stop,” I replied.

Ausfahrt sign
Excuse me, but I have to ausfahrt!

At the next exit I got off the Autobahn to find a rest stop, gas station, or restaurant where we might find the proper facilities. Instead I found more road construction.

I followed the detour signs and wound the Mini through multiple hairpin turns down a narrow road until we arrived at what looked like a truck stop. At least it used to be a truck stop. Currently all of the buildings were closed and the parking lot was empty except for a couple of trucks.

Alps drive.
A drive through the Alps.

“You two are going to have to hold it. Everything looks closed. Maybe it’s because of the road construction. Let’s get out of here.”

I drove around the area looking for a way out and back to the Autobahn. We couldn’t go out the way we came in because it was a one way temporary road. After several minutes of searching I determined the only way out of the area was through a gate. I pulled up to the gate and checked the control box. Everything was in German. It looked like I needed to insert a special card into the machine in order for the gate to go up and let us out. This I did not have. I am not a trucker on the Milan to Munich route.

I backed out of the gate lane about 50 meters and turned the car off. We had three choices. Drive the wrong way up the narrow one way road with the hairpin turns and gamble that we wouldn’t run into a semi, wait for one of the sleeping truckers to wake up and need his espresso, or ram the gate with the Mini.

Door #1 sounded too risky to me. I had no confidence in the Mini’s ability to withstand a head-on collision with a semi. Option C also seemed like a bad idea, especially since it was a rental car and I would have to pay for the damages. It would have to be Plan B. We would have to wait it out.

Alps view near Bolzano.
The clear mountain air of the Alps.

Luckily, it wasn’t long before one of the trucks lumbered toward the gate. As the truck reached the gate, I snuck in behind it. As the barrier went up, I followed the truck through the gate to freedom.

The road took a convoluted route up, down, and around but eventually sent us back onto the Autobahn. I waited to get off the Autobahn until I found an official rest stop. The ladies did their business and on we went to Munich.

Several months later I saw a charge from Sixt, the German car rental company, on my credit card statement. It was a mystery to me, since it had been a long time since I rented the Mini. After some communications with Sixt, I learned that the Austrian and Italian roadway bureaucracies had collectively determined that I had defrauded them of a toll fee. According to the Italians, I had gotten on the Italian Autostrada through a toll booth and never exited. I had vanished from the Autostrada without paying the toll.

The Italians told the Austrians, who in true Teutonic efficiency then tracked the Mini to Sixt. I was billed for the missing toll fee, an extra fee for losing the toll slip, a fine for driving on the road without paying the toll, and administrative fees for the various agencies to handle all of this business. It totaled $184.

I didn’t even think about disputing these charges. I would lose any effort to battle the European bureaucracy (for example, see the Swiss Train Chief). It was an expensive bathroom stop, and the bladders stayed full throughout.

Trouble in Switzerland

Switzerland mountains

“The flight is canceled.” I said. “It’s so typical of the French to go on strike and screw things up for everybody.”

We were supposed to fly to Nice in the south of France to meet up with our former foreign exchange student named Natacha (yes, I know that sounds Russian and not French; she even has a brother named Boris!). The French air traffic controllers had called a three day strike, and Air France had already changed our flight to avoid it. We headed to the airport hoping for the best. The flight was scheduled to leave at 3 pm. It was now 4:30 pm.

“We have two choices.” I said to my wife and daughter. “We can wait until 9pm for the next flight, but that is likely to get canceled too. Or we can go home and come back tomorrow and hope that the Frenchies have found something better to do than continue the strike, like drink wine and eat cheese.” Neither of these sounded good, since we were supposed to meet Natacha at 7pm.

As we were waiting to get our checked bags back from luggage purgatory, I had another idea.

“What about a road trip?” I said. “We can rent a car and drive there. We should be able to get there by midnight.” Munich to Nice by car is 800 kilometers (~500 miles) – about eight hours of driving. “We can call Natacha and tell her we’ll be late.”

“Road trip!” they chanted in reply.

I hiked over to the Sixt counter while the ladies waited for the bags. Since it was peak tourist season and I didn’t have a reservation, there were very few cars available, and all were at outrageous walk-up prices. I ended up getting a brand new Mini Cooper. Cool! I’ve never driven a Mini before. This will be fun!

mini cooper
It looks good!

I also had to rent a GPS unit. I have one of my own, by I had purposefully left it at home since I thought I was going to be flying on a plane, riding in a taxi, and taking the bus on this trip. I had no desire to drive in central Nice.

Suitably outfitted with Mini and GPS, I picked up the girls at the curb outside of the departure door, and quickly discovered my first mistake. The car.

The Mini might be considered a fine automobile if you are by yourself, are taking it across the city to pick up a book at the library, prefer a rock hard suspension, and if you have never driven a real BMW. It is not the right vehicle for a cross-country trip with three people (two of them women), three suitcases, a backpack, a carry-on, a large tourist camera, two purses, snacks, three cell phones, three water bottles, and an iPad. Especially if it is a two-door model.

“Why did you get a two-door?” asked my wife.

“Uhh, it’s what they gave me. It was the only thing available.” I replied. I didn’t admit to forgetting to ask the Sixt woman about this feature.

This Mini didn’t have a trunk. It had a small cubbyhole behind the rear seat. I managed to stuff my backpack and the carry-on into the space and slammed the back door shut. I piled the suitcases into the back seat by wedging them through the space between the front passenger seat and the rear quarter panel. The Mini had about four inches of space on the floor behind the front seats where my daughter, sitting in the back seat, could put her feet. If I sat back there, my knees would cover my ears. She squeezed into the little available space in back while my wife and I claimed the front seats.

I put the clutch in gear and took off into the Munich rush hour traffic. Every time I looked to the left I banged my head on a handle attached to the Mini’s ceiling. I had to crane my neck down to see out of the windshield. If I straightened up my vision included the inside roof of the car. The seat was hard and my legs were cramped after five minutes. Only eight hours to go.

I relied on the GPS to tell me where to go. This would prove to be my second mistake. I managed to set it to speak English instead of German. Das gut!

Switzerland mountains
The Swiss Alps

We left Germany behind and crossed the skinny part of Austria, then raced across Switzerland. The view of the Alps was spectacular while we climbed higher and higher. A few hours later we were getting close to Italy. The sky was darkening. It happens every night.

“Look! There is a tiny mountain village named Splügen!” I called out as I read the road sign. “What do they do in Splügen? Hello, I am from Splügen. Excuse me, I think I just Splügened.” After five hours in the car I found this to be the funniest thing in the world. My wife rolled her eyes. My daughter groaned.

And then we came upon road construction signs indicating the road ahead was closed. We got off the main road and followed a semi in front of us, while peaking at the detour signs as they flashed by. We drove a few hundred meters on a parallel one lane road and then came to an impromptu tee in the road. The semi turned left, but our rental GPS told us to turn right. So I turned right.

Swiss hiking signs
Which way to Italy?

The road wandered down a short valley and then took a hairpin turn to the left and up a slight incline. In a daze I slowed to first gear to take the turn. I cranked the wheel of the go-cart I was driving and scampered around the hairpin. After a hundred meters I was doing it again in the other direction. In my head I was thinking “can this be the right way to go?” I trusted the GPS, it must be right. I was tired, cramped, and cranky. I should have been relaxing in a hotel room on the French Riviera after a stupendous dinner and a bottle of wine. Instead I was manhandling this Mini up a couple of Swiss hairpin curves in the dark.

After three more hairpin turns my decaffeinated brain finally overcame its stupor and kicked into gear. This can’t be the right road. How would the semis handle this? These turns are so tight there isn’t enough room for a truck to make the turn. I had to turn around.

I stopped the car. It was pitch dark outside. I got out to have a look around. From the Mini’s headlights I could barely make out that to my left was a sheer drop off. Depth unknown. There was no guard rail. To my right was a sheer cliff. Height unknown. Then I comprehended that the road was only one lane wide. About 15 feet. There was no way to turn around. There was also no way I was going to back down the road through those hairpin turns. I had to go forward.

I resigned myself to this fate. The safety of my family was at stake. I had horrible visions of TV shows and movies where the car plunges over the side of the mountain road and bursts into flames as it rolls down and down into oblivion. Why do I always run into trouble in Switzerland? (See my other Swiss misadventure here). I vowed never to return, but this time it’s just passing through. Does that count?

hairpin turns in Switzerland
A portion of the road (from Google Earth).

I hunched over the steering wheel, peering into the darkness and praying that no one would be coming down this road from the other side of the mountain. I stayed in first gear, lunging and lurching around each hairpin turn, up and up towards the mountain peak. I lost count of how many times I spun the wheel first one way and then back again.

After what seemed like an eternity I took the last turn and the road straightened out on top of the mountain. I had made it! I now knew the euphoric feeling that mountaineers get when they reach the summit.

San Bernardino Pass
The top of the pass in daylight.

I passed a deserted café and a tranquil lake. The road then started to descend. What goes up, must go down. I could barely detect the lights of a city in the distance, on the valley floor below. How many hairpin turns away is that place?

For another eternity I crept downward, staying in first gear or coasting in neutral. Down and around, endlessly down and around went the Mini. Until finally the road straightened out and joined a wider road stretching into civilization. We were finally in Italy and I was a nervous wreck. At least we were alive.

I found out later that I had inadvertently driven the San Bernardino Pass road in Graubünden, Switzerland, one of the highest paved roads in Europe. (I was going to say “accidentally” driven, but that sounds bad in this context.) This road was featured in a Top Gear episode where the three guys try to find the best driving road in the world.

I ended up on the mountain road because due to the road construction and the f$%#*$! GPS navigation system I missed the route through the San Bernardino Tunnel. Yes, there is a tunnel through the mountain, which is the easy way to get into Italy on this route.

The top of the pass (at 6,778 feet) is the dividing line between German speakers and Italian speakers and is where the Rhine River basin starts. It is only open in the summer, primarily for mountain hikers. Luckily it was early summer when I was there, so the snow was gone. The route was originally a mule track in the fifteenth century. A road for wheeled vehicles was opened in 1770, and improved in the 1820s.

The bypass tunnel was opened in 1967 to facilitate passage by big trucks and tourists who rent Minis. It is used by all, except for those weary travelers who blindly obey their GPS systems.

A Drive Down the Amalfi Coast

beach scene in Italy

The huge bus sped towards the hairpin turn.  The driver tooted his horn as he started to make the turn.  He spun the wheel around and around.  He suddenly slammed on the brakes.  A car was coming from the opposite way.  The tiny car screeched to a stop before a devastating impact with the bus.  It was another close call.

The driver was muttering various Italian obscenities while gesturing with certain fingers.  The guide said that it’s a good thing we don’t speak Italian or we might be offended.

driving in Italy
Watch out for the bus!

We couldn’t go forward until the tiny car backed up. The bus driver yelled out his window at the car and motioned with his hands.  By this time three more cars had caught up to the tiny car from behind.  The whole string had to back up about 20 yards so our bus could make the turn.

Positano, Italy
The famous view of Positano, Italy

Welcome to driving the Amalfi coast road in Italy on a Sunday afternoon in August!  It was the busiest time of year.  Many families were here for their annual vacation at the coastal resorts to beat the heat and swim in the cool Mediterranean Sea.  The traffic was horrendous and the very windy road was built into the side of the mountainous coast.  I said every five minutes that I was glad I wasn’t driving.  Our bus driver was doing a masterful job.  Every hairpin turn was handled with finesse.

A view of the Amalfi coast
Summer on the Amalfi coast

The scenery was beautiful.  It’s a cliché, I know, but in this case absolutely true.  At times I looked out the window straight down hundreds of feet to the sea.  The views of the yachts and pleasure boats out in the azure bays were entrancing.  Each sight of the small fishing villages, cliff side resorts, and the world famous town of Positano was worthy of a post card or a jigsaw puzzle.

Amalfi coast view
Let's go for a sail

In the town of Amalfi we walked around the port and the main shopping street.  Strolling the streets of an Italian coastal town while eating a gelato is a nice way to spend a sunny summer afternoon.  It was so hot that I wanted to be swimming in the sea.

Back in the bus, the driver was refreshed and ready to tackle the rest of the coastal road.  Soon we came to a tight pathway between the mountain on one side and a building on the other side.  Coming the other way this time was an enormous municipal bus.  Behind the municipal bus was a large line of traffic.  Behind us was another line of cars. No backing up this time!

the beach in Amalfi, italy
The beach in Amalfi, Italy

The buses slowed to a crawl.  They were going to pass each other on the narrow road.  Inch by inch the vehicles moved forward.  The drivers looked at each other with a grin as they slid by.  They were so close they could have picked each other’s pockets.

At one point the giant buses were about six inches apart.  There was a slight bend in the road so the drivers needed to compensate for this fact or the buses were going to scrape each other for most of the length of each bus.

Each bus curved the exact amount needed to get by.  And on we went down the Amalfi coast road, until the next hairpin turn or tight spot, when the bus driver….

beach scene in Italy
Bird's eye view of an Amalfi beach

Wrong Way Eddie in Nanchang

Nanchang traffic

I forced myself to keep my eyes closed. If I looked, it would be too scary, kind of like riding in the front car of the roller coaster at Magic Mountain. Better to keep my eyes screwed shut, experience the ride with my other senses, and then open them only when I knew I was stationary again. However, I wasn’t at an amusement park. I was in the front seat, passenger side, of a taxi in Nanchang, China.

Nanchang traffic
Traffic in Nanchang, China

Most drivers in China are fairly new drivers. The car culture has taken off there only in the past ten years. Some new drivers buy taxis and go into business for themselves. I didn’t know how long this taxi driver had been driving, but he drove like it was a contact sport.

He would pass on the right. He would go between two lanes of traffic, squeezing his car in the slot, so close that I could stick my arm out the window and shake hands with the neighboring driver. He constantly tailgated the car in front of him, slamming his brakes as necessary. Traffic lights and signs were merely suggestions.

We were staying near the city center of Nanchang at the Galactic Peace International Hotel. It was the newest hotel in the city of 5 million people. But the reason I chose that hotel was because of the name. Galactic Peace! Yes, I am for it. I want peace in the galaxies. The Emperor hatching the crazy plot with the Trade Federation to wipe out the Naboo, the clone army, figuring out who is the Padwan learner to whom, I am just tired of it. Let’s all have Galactic Peace.

The Galactic Peace International Hotel was on north side of a divided three lane highway about two miles east of the main square of Nanchang. To go the main square to shop (we just had to see the giant new Walmart!), we’d catch a taxi at the hotel entrance and take a right. No problem. When we were done shopping, eating, and sight-seeing, we would catch another taxi and come back. We had a business card with the name of the hotel, address, and a map to the hotel. Because we didn’t speak Mandarin, we would give this to the driver so he would know where to take us.

I knew we were getting close to the hotel. We had been in the taxi a few minutes already. I sneaked a peak with one eye. I could see it up ahead, since it was the tallest building on the left side of the road.

At that moment the taxi suddenly lurched to the left in a tire skidding 90 degree turn. My body was flung to the door panel on my right. Immediately the driver spun the wheel the other way and we flipped 90 degrees to the right. My eyes were wide open now. We had crossed through a gap in the median of the highway and were now going the wrong way down the highway!

I could see the hotel entrance about 200 yards ahead on the left. I could also see a line of traffic coming straight at us about 300 yards ahead.

The driver punched the accelerator and veered from right to left as he crossed the three lanes going 60 mph. The oncoming traffic was rapidly approaching, with horns blaring from every car. Just as the lead oncoming car got within 30 yards of us, we reached the hotel entrance. The driver braked hard and cranked the wheel. We skidded left into the hotel parking lot as the traffic rushed past.

The driver was as calm as a cucumber. His face revealed nothing. I paid him and we got out of the taxi.

The hotel concierge happened to be standing outside having a smoke. He spoke a little English. I asked him if he had seen what had just happened. He smiled and explained that the legal and safe way to get to the hotel from the city center was to go past the hotel for several miles on the highway and make several turns in order to get back on the highway going the right direction in front of the hotel. That takes too long, so taxi drivers take the short cut.

We made that drive five times during our short stay in Nanchang. We had different taxi drivers every time. There wasn’t always approaching traffic. But every time I closed my eyes.

Smog and traffic in China
Scooters are the way to beat the traffic