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.

5 Tips for Parking in Cinque Terre – Driving in Italy, Episode 3

Monterosso by the sea

Cinque Terre. Five Lands.  A magical destination on the Mediterranean coast of Italy of five villages on five bays below terraced mountainsides interlinked by hiking paths and a railroad line, but no roads.  We drove effortlessly across the Tuscan hills to the outskirts of Florence, then veered west to the coast and north to Shangri-La.  There are actually some roads that go into a couple of the towns.  We took one road from the Autostrada which connected to a road into Monterosso al Mare.

Monterosso by the sea
Anchovies, anyone?

As we came down the steep hill towards the town, we noticed there were many cars parked along the road for hundreds of meters.  Oblivious to this fact, we kept going, only to discover that at the town entrance there was a gate blocking our path.  Only residents can drive into the town.  Many Italian cities and towns have zones where only residents can drive.  The zones are enforced by automatic cameras that record the license plates of cars being driven in the zone.  I had heard stories of tourists receiving tickets in the mail many months after their vacations because they (sometimes inadvertently and sometimes multiple times) had driven in one of these zones.

OK, we can deal with that.  We reversed course back up the hill, and came across a small parking lot.  Defying the odds, I somehow knew there was a spot for us in this parking lot, even on this glorious and spectacular summer day.  I knew that we could park on the road up the hill about a mile or two away and walk down, but I was not looking forward to the walk back up the hill to the car later in the day.  Didn’t we deserve a spot in the miniscule town parking lot?  I mean we came all the way from America to see this picture perfect little town by the Mediterranean Sea.

Yes!  There is somebody leaving!  Lucky day!  We patiently waited for a couple to load their stroller, their child, and their dog into their Fiat so we can greedily claim their spot.  As we pulled in, I shouted “I proudly claim this parking spot in the interests of our Italian tour and aching feet!”

Of course, we couldn’t park there for free.  So I went to do battle with the automatic parking lot fee machine.  The first thing I noticed is that it would not take a credit card, only cash.  On top of that, it would only take coins.  What kind of country is this where the parking lot machines don’t take credit?  I rummaged through my pockets for one and two euro coins.  I found a couple, but not enough for the entire afternoon.  I went back to the car and checked with Lisa.

“Uhmm, we need more coins.  Do you have any?” I politely asked my dear wife.

“I don’t know.  I think so. Let me look in my purse,” she replied.

I call Lisa’s purse “the magic sack” because you never know what you might find in there, it is large and holds many things, but it doesn’t seem to exhibit the weight it should, based on its contents. Thus, it is like a sack used in a fantasy adventure computer game.  You can put many things into it, but the weights don’t count against your limit of what you can carry.

“I’m sorry, I don’t think I have any euro coins right now.  I think I spent mine on a macchiato this morning.  Would any of these small coins work?”

“I don’t think you understand the gravity of our situation.  We want to walk on the beach and the boardwalk in this beautiful seaside town.  But if we don’t have one more one euro coin, we are going to have to choose from one of two choices.  Behind door number one is the choice of vacating this preordained ultimate parking spot and driving two miles up the hillside and parallel parking on a steep, narrow road driving a manual transmission car in the midst of crazy traffic.  Then we have to walk back up the hill later this afternoon.  Behind door number two is the choice of leaving the car here and trusting the parking lot gods to not come and check our windshield for a parking pass.  Because if they do come, they will tow our car with our luggage in it back to some faraway place where tourist rental cars go to die.  We’ll have to take a very expensive taxi ride to wherever that place is, then pay some ridiculous fine, plus exorbitant storage fees.”

“Let’s search the car!”

We checked the glove box.  We checked the floors, and under the floor mats.  We checked the trunk.  We searched our luggage, our backpacks, and camera case.  Finally, nearing exhaustion and utter defeat, I spied a shiny object tucked in the crack of the back seat.  It was not a chewing gum wrapper.  It was not a bottle cap.  It was a one euro coin!

“Hallelujah!  We can rightfully and legally claim our God-given parking spot!” I cheered.

I raced back to the machine to input the coin and receive my cherished parking day pass.  The coin was in, and my itchy fingers were waiting to pounce on that pass as soon as it emerged, newborn baby-like from the parking lot machine womb.  And then, nothing happened.  I waited, with a perplexed and worried look on my face. Nothing.  Na da.  The machine sat there doing nothing, like a stone face on an ancient totem pole, mocking me.  I shook the machine a little bit, in the naïve belief that it would move things along. Then I started to get angry.  Really angry.  Un-vacation-like mad.  I shook the machine harder and harder. It did nothing.

Maybe some time limit had expired on entering coins in a single transaction.  I didn’t know.  I didn’t care.  I resolved to keep that ultimate parking space, whatever the cost.

“Let’s go.  We’ve wasted enough time in this parking lot.  I want to see Monterosso.” I said as we sauntered away.

It was truly a glorious afternoon on the Mediterranean coast.  We walked along the boardwalk, had a nice lunch in a café overlooking the beach, and had our daily gelato fix.  By 5pm I knew it was time to go.  We were pushing our luck with the parking lot gods.

Sometimes when I know I am parking in an unauthorized location, as I walk towards the parking lot I get an uneasy feeling, deep in my stomach.  Is it there?  Or is it gone?  Has it been towed to the creepy impound lot under the freeway where the guy running the impound lot looks like Charles Manson?  The closer I get, the more anxious I turn.  It’s just around the next bend, I can almost see it, is it there?

Yes! My lucky day again!  The car is still where we left it. But, remember one must inspect the windshield.  Alright!  There is no ticket under the wipers!  I have run the gauntlet and emerged supreme.  Parking in the ultimate parking spot for free, saving our aching feet from walking two miles up hill, and getting away with it.  The euphoria was extreme.  I had never felt so alive.

We drove high on the ridge above the sea, curving around the beautiful bays.  The late afternoon sun was shining on the sea, highlighting the sailboats coming in from a time of leisure.  In time, we turned inland, back to the Autostrada and the road to Florence.

Cinque Terre view
A splendid late summer day at Monterosso
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