Adam and I have had the good fortune of not only having a house in France to enjoy but also a car to tool around in. The closest stores to us are in the town of Jarnac – home to Courvoisier cognac and also the birthplace of former French president François Mitterrand (serving from 1981 to 1995) – which is about five miles NE from Bassac where we live. Beyond weekly trips to the Intermarché (one of France’s most popular supermarket chains) and regular jaunts to neighboring villages, we’ve been on two road trips – the first to Toulouse via French Basque Country and most recently through the Loire Valley, to Mont Saint Michel in Normandy, to Paris and home via Dijon in the Burgundy region and the regions of Massif Central and Limousin.
Driving in France has turned out to be quite easy, and a great way to see the vast countryside. For a country of modest proportion, it is enviably diverse in landscape & cuisine and like Russian nesting dolls, every corner of each distinct region contains a delight within a delight. Bassac is a sleepy, stone village with a 11th century abbey, a creek and a mill, surrounded for miles by vines of Pinou and Cognac grapes and the serpentine river Charente. A few hours south of Bassac is the largest sand dune in Europe (Dune de Pilat) with a view of the Atlantic coastline – and south of that is French Basque Country at the foothills of the Pyrenees with it’s red shutters, local meat, cheese, chocolate and piment chili. East of Bassac in heavily forested Massif Central, you can find volcanic hot springs, cattle farming and two national parks – and north of there is The Loire Valley, a flat region sprinkled with extravagant castles and fortresses. Continue East into Burgundy famed for it’s wine, mustard, beef bourguignon and its rolling hills and Medieval villages. Southeast from Burgundy you reach the French Alps with colossal snow capped peaks and alpine lakes – and northeast from there you’ll find the German influenced Alsace where you can order foie gras and sauerkraut off of the same menu while taking in views of hilltop castles out of a storybook. With no mention of France’s vibrant cities or beautiful beaches, I’ve barely scratch the surface – but it’s all in a days drive.
Can you tell we’re becoming fast and furious France fans (as well as users of bold alliteration)? Geographically, France reminds us of California – in a short drive, you can go from beaches (both tame and wild) to forests to mountains to vineyards to farmland and open countryside and if you head south you are greeted in Spanish. But rather than bordering three states, France shares a border with six countries (Spain, Italy, Switzerland, Germany, Luxembourg, Belgium) and although France fiercely maintains a cohesive national identity and a strong strong central government, its border regions benefit from a delightful infusion of neighboring food, languages, cultures and history. But I digress – here are a few tips for driving in France.
In France they drive on the right (and by that I mean correct) side of the road and aside from a few small differences, the traffic rules are more or less the same as they are in the US. There’s a great deal of signage which we’ve found to be incredibly helpful. Even the most miniscule villages provide signage identifying itself to passers by. Upon exiting the town, you’ll see the same sign with a strike through it. It’s common to hardly notice you’ve entered a town until you’ve been notified you’re no longer in it.
As a fluid replacement for four-way stops, there are roundabouts everywhere. The cars entering the roundabout yield to the cars already maneuvering through it.
This one I don’t quite understand – I’ve taken it to mean “reduce your speed for old timey mustaches.”
We’ve heard speed limits are strictly enforced, so to play it safe we’ve made a habit of driving just under the speed limit at all times. On an unrelated note, French drivers are huge tailgaters.
This sign is really common, especially in smaller towns with narrower roads. It indicates that the vehicle represented by the smaller, red arrow yields to the vehicle represented by the white arrow.
It seemed to us that driver’s are much more likely to be nabbed for speeding by a camera than an actual police officer (who we’ve rarely see on the roads), but at least there are signs letting you know that a speed radar is approaching so you can ease on those brakes. ** A few days after posting this blog we received something in the mail from the French Republic – a speeding ticket in fact – for 45 euros. Apparently a speed sensor determined that I was driving faster than the posted 90 kpm somewhere in the city of Angoulême – so much for easing on those brakes.
When it comes to roads and highways, the general letter/numbering system works something like this:
-“A” roads, such as A71, are motorways, or Autoroutes (be prepared to stop regularly for tolls)
-“N” roads are strategic trunk routes – the National network
-“D” roads are roads whose upkeep is paid for by the local Department, or county
According to a popular online resource, when driving in France, the best way to avoid confusion is to follow destinations rather than road numbers, as road numbers can be misleading and change from one department to another. Adam and I couldn’t agree more. Instead of concentrating too hard on highways and roads, we figure out which towns lead us toward our final destination and follow signs towards those towns, one at a time.
Note that France also displays European route numbers where appropriate; these are marked with a white number on a green background, and are in addition to the French road number. For example the A 6 motorway from Paris to Lyon is also marked as E15 – E15 being a European route running from Inverness to Algeciras.
In this motorway sign, the A43 autoroute is also indicated as being the E70; the main towns it leads towards are indicated in normal lettering; other destinations, such as airports, are indicated in italics. The word “Péage” at the bottom indicates that this is a toll motorway.
The tollbooths (péage) on the autoroutes have provided us with ongoing excitement on the autoroutes. It took us a few failed attempts to figure out which lane had an operator and/or would accept cash. All lanes accept the French “fast pass” and most lanes accept French credit cards but we had neither, so we had to look carefully for the lanes marked with the coin icon. Thrice we had to reverse quickly to back out of an unsuccessful lane, and once had to press a “help” button and wait for assistance (in the form of the single toll booth employee on duty having to leave her post with a long line of cars to assist two frazzled Americans in a Nissan Note miming the details of their dilemma) while cars were piling up behind us. But by the end of our trip, we were navigating the autroutes with ease.
Before we headed out in the car, Pam provided us with two really great pieces of advice based on things that can perplex Americans driving in France:
1) It’s common in France to have to yield to the car on your right (priorité à droite)- that is, the driver entering from the right does not have to stop; rather, other drivers are required to slow down and yield the joining vehicle. So even if you’re driving 50 mph down a major road, be aware that cars joining you from smaller countryside roads may have the right-of-way. This is not however, always the case (especially in roundabouts) so pay close attention to these signs for guidance.
2) This one’s a little harder to explain without a visual but I’ll do my best. If you are turning left as the car facing you is also turning left, instead of turning in front of them as you would do in the US, you pass them on your left and then make your turn. This situation, although not extremely common, could result in an accident if you’re not aware of this rule.
On that note, it’s recommended that you obtain an international driving permit before hitting the road which you can get for $15 through AAA, as well as have your passport with you at all times while driving in a foreign country.
Lastly, three unexpected things that we’ve learned to love about the French driving experience:
1) French cars: The cars and trucks here are delightfully compact (so unlike California, when you are being tailgated at least it’s not by a monster truck) and tend to have really funny, unimposing names like the Renault Jumpy, Trafic, Kangoo, Twingo and the Peugeot Partner.
2) Roadside eats: When driving the autoroute (much like the New Jersey turnpike), your roadside dining options are limited to what’s available at rest stops and gas stations. A detail that I find so endearing about the French version of this experience is that in addition to your typical selection of chips, candy, bottled water and soda, a driver in France can expect to be able to sit down to a real meal in some of the bigger, nicer gas stations. We visited one recently that not only had a crêperie, but also a cafeteria where people could order a variety of hot meals, espresso drinks and small, beautiful french desserts. One man decided to take a break from his drive with the plat du jour: baked salmon in béchamel sauce paired with a carafe of local white wine.
Although all rest stops seem to have at least one espresso vending machine that dispenses your drink of choice in a paper cup, drinking coffee on the go is not a French custom. Instead most people sit or stand in the gas station sipping small drinks out of white porcelain cups, resting on a saucer and accompanied by a chocolate covered almond.
A side note: never count of being able to get fast food or drip coffee off of the autoroute, but you can typically find fresh sandwiches in the gas stations and enough espresso to keep you awake for days. If you venture into a McDonalds in one of the towns you pass, don’t fret about language barriers as you’ll be able to order your food at an automated kiosk in four different languages. And if you start feeling guilty for eating at the world’s largest fast food chain in a country renown for its cuisine, you can French-up your meal with a package of macaroons.
3) French people: We have experienced nothing but helpful, patient and accommodating French people during the course of our attempts and failures on the road. Folks in tollbooths, gas stations and auto shops have kindly come to our aid despite a significant lack of French language skills on our part. Most recently, we found that our car battery had died overnight in a parking lot in Dijon. After an awkward and one-sided game of charades in the parking garage with passers by, we sought out a nearby car repair place. The manager spoke English very proficiently (he studied it in school and recently attended a conference in Barstow on renewable energy) and although incredibly busy with cars lined up out of his shop, he drove us to our car, jumped it, ran diagnostics on the battery and wouldn’t let us pay him a cent.