Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Wrapping It Up 1 - Cars and Driving

Driving Miss Clio

The Renault Clio is a fine little car, similar in size and amenities to the Toyota Yaris, a little larger than the VW Polo. It suited our needs well. There was plenty of room for our luggage when traveling between hotels, and lots of back-seat space for coats, hats, umbrellas and other stuff we carried every day.

We drove Clio a total of 4300 kilometers (2670 miles) in five weeks, mostly two-lane and smaller roads. We checked the mileage on only one tank of diesel but for that tank, she got 4.8L per 100K. That figures out to a bit over 45mpg.

Our trip would have been nearly impossible with the Garmin (the portable GPS that we borrowed from Bill). This is a sample 10-mile square from our Michelin road map:

How to get from here to there is not readily apparent, to say the least. To make matters worse, road signs seldom included distances. A sign would mark the direction to Rochefort-en-Terre, for example, but not that it was 20 km away. By the time the navigator (Marian) found Rochefort-en-Terre on the map and discovered that we didn't want to go that way, we were halfway there. Driving in towns was even more confusing. No town or city that we encountered (except Paris) had anything that even vaguely resembled a grid system ‐ no cow paths had been replaced or straightened before they were paved. And most of the streets were one-way (a good thing, considering their width). But Penelope, our Garmin, always got us to our intended destination, although a good part of her conversation was, "Recalculating."

The roads we used (because Penelope seemed to prefer them) were often tiny, lacking a center line, just wide enough for two cars. You need to know where your right wheels are, so when there's an oncoming car you can safely get that reassuring tickerty-tickerty noise of the tall grass hitting the side mirror. Even so, there's always that moment of panic when you think maybe this time the two driver's-side mirrors are going to slap together with a spray of glass and plastic. But no, it never happened.

We didn't put a scratch on Clio, and there were only a couple of scares, and we only got honked at once. Some of the credit for that record goes to David's (usually) alert and conservative driving. But a lot of credit has to be given to the French drivers, who are universally alert, polite, and generous. Only a few times did we see aggressive driving and that was almost always by somebody in a german-made car. Go figure.

Especially in cities and towns, the French use lots and lots of roundabouts. We love roundabouts! Why? Because they eliminate left turns! With a roundabout, you never have to stop and wait and make a left in front of oncoming cars. You just slide into the roundabout, go around until your exit comes up, and exit. Nothing but right turns, ever. So easy; so safe.

The only driving-related problem was parking: where to put the car safely and legally in order to take a picture, get a snack, or for the night, was often a stressful issue. It got so our routine joke was, on seeing any parking lot with spaces, "Quick, let's park!"

Along the Breton coast we saw a lot of rental camping vehicles and these beasts are every bit as large as the rental RVs on American roads. But in France the roads are a lot smaller and the parking a lot scarcer. We would never, ever take a camping vehicle into France. Much better to have a small car and use hotels or hostels.


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