“Come over to our house for dinner” said Tom, our new-found English friend. “It’s easy from your hotel”. Thus began our first odyssey of driving on French roads. We were visiting my company facility in Toulouse to make a decision about moving there for two years. Needless to say, we got lost that night. Very lost. After realizing that I missed a turn off the rocade, a freeway-like road in the city, I simply took the next exit to turn around and go back, as I would do at home. To my surprise, the exit road ran off in some unknown direction, and there was no way to turn back! Later we did manage to find the rocade again, but the exit we needed wasn’t accessible from that direction. The overhead signs said we were heading toward Bordeaux. I didn’t know where I was, but a two hour drive to Bordeaux that night was not an option. We seized upon signs for “Centre Ville” which we knew meant downtown. After a long struggle to find a pay phone and figure out which coins were needed, we did manage to call Tom to pick us up. I’d like to say that was the last time we got lost on the roads of France, but that is hardly the case. Here are a few hard-learned tips to minimize wrong turns there, or anywhere in Europe:
It’s the Direction, Not the Street Name that Counts. In the U.S. one navigates by turning at certain streets. In France the streets often are not marked. There may be an old sign on the corner of a building, but there are few street signs as we know them. What one does see are signs with names of towns. These signs are remarkably accurate. If you want to go to a town that is marked, just follow the signs.
You won’t have to worry about missing a turn from D-11 to D-603, for example, the signs do all the work. If suddenly you see signs that do not indicate your destination, have no fear. Just go straight and your destination will be indicated farther on. A problem arises when your destination is not mentioned on the posted signs. It might be before or after the town that is indicated, so you need to know which direction to follow. You must find this out before departing, either by asking someone which town to go toward, or by getting internet directions (more on that later on).
Finding the Downtown and Train Station
In any French city or town, it is remarkably easy to find the train station (la gare, in French). One simply follows signs to “Centre Ville”, and sooner or later you’ll see signs indicating “gare SNCF”. (SNCF is the nationalized company that runs the trains in France.) If you need to go anywhere in the downtown area, following the “Centre Ville” signs will get you nearby.
Beware of Wrong Turns on Autoroutes
Autoroutes are the French equivalent of Interstate highways in the U.S., or the motorway in Britain. If you miss a turn here you’ve just lost time and money. Almost all the French autoroutes are toll roads, and the tolls are pricey. Since all access is through toll booths which are expensive to build and operate, there are not that many exits and entrances.
So if you miss a turn, the next exit could easily be another 20 miles down the road. You’ll have to pay the toll there, then backtrack the 20 miles you just needlessly drove. Of course your next toll will also reflect the extra miles. Make sure you have solid directions before venturing off on French autoroutes. When several of these intersect, watch the signs carefully and get in the proper lanes, and you will stay on the right road.
Internet Driving Directions
An excellent internet map service is www.mappy.com. This site is in 7 languages and provides directions anywhere in Europe. In addition to maps and directions from towns or specific addresses, trip time and distance, Mappy gives more information. You will be told how much tolls, if any, will cost, and you’ll also find out how much fuel will be used and how much that will cost. The driving directions include the unique feature of showing what the autoroute signs will look like, so it is easy to stay on the right road.
Getting lost while driving in a foreign country is probably to be expected. If you follow the tips mentioned above, however, you will avoid unnecessary aggravation and lost time and money. But if you do wander off in the wrong direction, be sure to have along that French phrase book you bought before leaving home!