The French have a different take on road travel from the Germans and most of the rest of Europe for that matter. For one they have speed limits no matter where you are the max being 130 kph (or 78 mph)—not intolerable even if you are in a hurry but not the daredevil approach of the Germans either. The dominance of Mercedes and BMW is replaced by Peugeot and Renault so my little red Peugeot 208 stood a good chance in the “speed” lanes with the rest of France. Road etiquette remains somewhat the same when it comes to passing—in general no one passes in the right lane and the slower cars and trucks always occupy the right. So far so good. There are, however two very big differences in traveling the roads of France versus Germany. One, is the “invisible lane” and, two, is the “tolls-from-hell” that exist in much of France—make sure you bring a lot of cash and don’t assume that American Express (or Visa or Mastercard) will suffice.
The Invisible Lane—you don’t even know about the invisible lane until you get near or into a major city like Paris. These lanes are not for your use and, if in fact, you attempt to enter them at the wrong time you may be severely penalized instantaneously(!). These lanes belong to the “motos”, the tens of thousands of motorcycles and hybrd-motor scooters that abound in France and flit about Paris and other major cities with their own rules and regulations. The invisible lanes are the spaces that exist (or almost exist) between the cars and trucks trying to use the roads in a safe and normally sane manner. Not so the motos. They race at unbelievable speeds darting through and between traffic whether it is at a stand still or moving along in great excess of the 130 kph limits on the freeways (did I say 130 kph was the maximum in France?—that only applies to cars, not the motos). On occasion the motos will warn you of their presence (or near presence) as they approach using loud blasts of their horns. These are also used when they take umbrage at your doing something they consider “illegal” such as trying to change lanes in normal traffic. If they are really upset you may lose a rearview, exterior mirror or get a nice scratch in your new (almost new) car. Luckily, I am a trained private pilot so I am used to looking in all directions (up, down, sideways, front, back) for potential incoming traffic. That skill is particularly useful in Paris.
These motos are most dangerous when traffic is at a complete standstill which it often is in the narrow streets of Paris or other medieval-based cities of France. There they insist on beating everyone by using their privileged “invisible” lanes weaving in and out and across the traffic as the rest of us in cars simply wait for the traffic jam to clear or move forward. You know you are in a particularly bad jam when you notice the motos returning back against the traffic—they realize that even they can’t get through.
On the plus side from a social tolerance perspective the drivers of the motos are not limited to just males. While the majority of the drivers appear to be male, females have also found the freedom they can gain from using the motos in lieu of driving cars. While it is sometimes difficult to determine sex from the leather outfits and large, visored safety helmets, on occasion the moto drivers give away their orientation by wearing high heels (!).
The Tolls from Hell—France has a great system of national roads and traffic infrastructure that can whisk you from one end of France to the other in general comfort and safety, easily rivaling the best interstates and autobahns of the US or Germany. However, they will never get the Ron Paul Libertarian award for small government as they have determined to pay for their roads almost exclusively with road tolls that would make LBJ blush. In almost three weeks of travel around France, covering approximately 4,000 kilometers I only managed to drive one day on a national road without paying a toll—I figure it must have been an oversight of the national road planers or I was just extremely lucky. On average I paid between $50 and $75 dollars a day over average distances of between 300 to 400 kms (180 to 240 miles)—about $2 to $3 every 10 miles!
Almost as maddening as the actual costs of tolls is the inconsistent and varied manner in which payment for the tolls is extracted from the unhappy motorists (I never saw a smiling Frenchman or American for that matter paying the tolls). Along one stretch of national roads you may be expected to stop and pick up a ticket at the tollbooth and then pay the appropriate amount when you reached your exit or the end of the toll. These amounts can be for only a few Euros and with many stops for more tickets or one single stop with a heart stopping toll of $40 or more. Other times it is cash or credit cards (more on those in a minute), sometimes with only coins (not paper) being the proper means of payment. Most of the booths are unmanned—you have a machine to deal with if you get in the wrong lane that take only credit cards or only coins or whatever which you may stupidly forget to anticipate as you leave to travel that morning. You could have $200 Euros in cash in your pocket but it is totally worthless if you need three Euros in coins to activate the gate. With luck the honking horns of the upset drivers behind you will attract enough attention so one of the few wandering attendants will come to your aid and give you the appropriate change.
Credit cards are another matter. Sometimes they work. And sometimes they don’t. In my case they generally didn’t. I carry two major credit cards and two debit cards requiring passwords. The first time I entered France and came to a toll station I used my Visa card and it worked—voila, no problem! That was the last time it worked in a toll station. The same with the American Express card. It worked once, maybe twice but not more. The other cards never worked. Someone explained to me that in Europe the credit cards all had “chips” imbedded in the cards and required the passwords in lieu of signing any receipts. The US, “chipless” cards generally worked in restaurants and gas stations but needed to be signed. These were the ones that apparently would not work in the tolls. In the end I finally began to carry bags of coins in the car with enough 5, 10 and 20 Euro notes in my pocket just to be able to cover as many of the toll “bets” as I could. My heart still races at the thought of having to face yet another toll in France (my journey has since taken me to Spain where the roads are not as good and the tolls not as high or even existent…but that is a story for another time).
Parking—I would be remiss if I were to talk about car travel in France without talking about parking. Many of us who live in cities where we think it a bit strange not to have vacant parking spots wherever we might wish to park (the movie theater, grocery store, doctors office, etc) let alone pay for the privilege would be horrified at trying to park in France. Even in little villages with their quaint country stores, little café shops and wine “caves” all have metered parking whether you see a meter or not. Many simply paint the word “payant” (to pay) on the road and expect you to understand that you need to buy a parking ticket at the little payment box on the corner and put a timed ticket in your windshield. I understand that El Paso is considering such a system in the future—good luck with that!
Finding a parking spot is another matter altogether different. Parking, especially in big cities is prime real estate for everyone and finding a spot requires diligence, luck and often great imagination. I have seen cars parked on the road, on the sidewalk, and on both the side-walk and the road. I have seen them occupy spaces intended only for loading (they leave their emergency lights blinking so everyone knows they are nearby) or in front of clearly or not so clearly marked driveways to hidden garages or office entryways. A really small car also helps which is why the Smart cars are so popular (check out the photo).
In Paris a city with such narrow streets you wonder how the cars are able to drive down them let alone find a place to park and still allow for traffic to move is particularly challenging. When I first arrived in Paris my handy GPS Navigation Lady took me straight to my reserved apartment on the narrow lane of Rue Saint-Sebastian (yes, my French is good enough to know that “Rue” means street but lane is all I could call this passageway). Twenty minutes later and after two circuits around the block I still was unable to find an empty spot anywhere near where I thought the apartment was located. Taking a cue from the locals I parked in the only available space—a loading zone spot, at an intersection with a threatening curve used by big delivery trucks that I figured might leave my car unscratched and unticketed for at least a short time while I found my new abode.
As it turned out I was lucky. The spot was in front of a vacant store, so it was unlikely that anyone would be needing the spot for loading or unloading. Secondly, while France has many rules, many of which apply to parking, they don’t spend a lot of time or effort in trying to enforce them. I was able to park on Rue Saint-Sebastian for several days (I moved it to a premo spot right across from my apartment the next day), discovered the ticketing machine for parking was broken and managed to save a few Euros with no long lasting negative effects to me or the car. The money I saved here helped pay for at least ten or twenty miles of travel on the national toll roads!—Paul Maxwell
Paul Maxwell is on extended sabbatical and periodically reports on his observations across various borders.