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Written by Wasatch on 17 Aug, 2007
From the number of American tourists traveling around Europe on bus tours and by train, it seems that a lot of Americans, the most car crazy culture on Earth, are reluctant to drive in Europe. This was brought home to me on one of our…Read More
From the number of American tourists traveling around Europe on bus tours and by train, it seems that a lot of Americans, the most car crazy culture on Earth, are reluctant to drive in Europe. This was brought home to me on one of our trips to Rothenburg o.d.T. Having driven into the old town before, we knew better than to do it again, so we joined a flock of tour busses parked just outside the old city gate. Walking down the main drag, I fell into a conversation with another American visitor, who, not recognizing us from his tour bus group, asked, “What tour are you on?” When I said, “None. We’re driving.”, he launched into a bunch of questions about what it was like, driving in Europe. It was clear that he would rather be driving than in a bus, but the unknowns were too much. So, here are the basics on driving yourself in Europe.There are only five things that are essential to know for a successful driving trip in Europe: 1) Learn the highway signs. This turns out to be pretty easy because Europe uses the international road sign system that is language free. Road signs are all symbolic, and very logically laid out. AAA has a three-page brochure that covers it all.2) European drivers follow much closer than Americans are used to. They are not tailgating. This is how they drive because it is necessary to start close to pass on Europe’s roads, where opportunities to pass are limited.3) Avoid driving in big cities. If you want to “do” Paris, London, Rome, Munich, Vienna, Venice, Amsterdam, etc., take the train. Car travel is for the countryside and the smaller places. Years ago, we sent out one Sunday morning to drive across London. Being Sunday, streets were deserted. It took seven hours. That’s when I became convinced that it is crazy to drive in the big cities. Today it is worse. There is so much more traffic that London now charges $24 a day to drive into town to try to ration traffic.4) On expressways, keep right except to pass. If you don’t, you will die, especially in Germany.5) Do not drink and drive. Not even a little bit. Since there is a bar within one block of wherever you are everywhere in Europe, this is no problem.That’s it. You are now ready to drive all over Europe, but there are also some things that are useful, but not essential to know:A good map really helps. Get a map with a scale of 1:750,000 or 1:500,000. The detailed Michelin maps are the best. Bartholomew also makes a superb tourist map, which is included in Baedeker Guides. The Michelin Red Guide includes a lot of town maps.The car rental company will tell you to use premium gas. Forget it. Use regular (benzine).Car rental prices vary a lot from airport to airport, in part due to tax differences. Luxemburg is the cheapest. Paris and Switzerland are really expensive. Frankfurt isn’t too bad.Toll roads are fast and very expensive. We prefer the non-expressway roads because that’s where you find the things to see. Some countries, Switzerland and Austria come to mind, do not have toll booths on their toll roads. Instead, you have to buy a special sticker for you windshield to pay the toll. These are good for one year and are very expensive. Check with the tourist info office or the tourist website before you go to see if there is a limited period permit for tourists. Distances and speed are given in kilometers. Kilometers easily translate into miles by multiplying kilometers by 0.6. If you can’t do that in your head, shame on you. That’s what comes from sleeping through math class.When it comes to guide books for a European road trip, Michelin Green Guides are close to indispensable. Unfortunately, more and more towns are replacing the Blue Disk with parking meters, but there are still some who use the Blue Disk. A parking zone sign with a central blue circle (see a guide to International Road Signs) indicates Blue Disk parking. It works like this. You have a blue clock face that rotates on a piece of cardboard. When you park, set the clock to the time you park. The street sign will tell you how long you get to park for free. If a cop comes by, he checks your disk time and compares the time that has passed since you parked to what is allowed. If you go over the limit, you get a ticket. Don’t cheat. There is a big fine if the cop sees that you set a time that hasn’t arrived yet. If your rental car does not come with a Blue Disk, go to a bank or tobacco shop or newsstand and ask for one. Usually they are free.Two of the international Road signs are “Priority Road” and “Non-priority Road.” A priority road always has the right of way at an intersection. The non-priority road may not have a stop sign, but stop you must, even if the “non-priority road” sign was 10 miles back. Once signed as such, a priority road or a non-priority road remains as such until the opposite sign cancels it. Rent the smallest car possible. Roads are narrow with lots of curves and parking spaces are minuscule. I don’t mean to brag, but I got a spontaneous round of applause from the entire crowd having lunch at a lakeside sidewalk café in Switzerland for the parking job I executed between three motorcycles and truck. My point is that I have had a lot of experience driving in Europe, I we never rent a car any bigger than the second to smallest category, which is generally more comfortable than the smallest.If you do not know how to drive straight shift, be sure you specify an automatic transmission when renting a car. Automatics bump the price up by quite a bit. If visiting the UK, where the driver sits on the left, a straight shift is a real challenge since you have to shift with your left hand. Although the important traffic control signs are the same everywhere in Europe, there are variations in directional signs, the signs that tell you were you going or where intersecting roads are going. Signs on German freeways are a model for the world. Take note of the first intersection you come to, because all the rest will be laid out just like it. On side roads, some countries denote the direction to a town by placing a little sign with the town’s name beside theroad where you are to go. Thus, if there is a rectangular sign to St Clos is on your right, either just before or just across the road intersecting from the right, it means, turn right. In other countries, the sign for St Clos might be on the opposite side of the road, with an arrow cut on the right hand end of the sign, which means turn right for St Clos, even though the sign is on the left. Pay attention to the position and shape of signs, and you will soon get the hang of it. Close
Written by Wasatch on 30 Jul, 2007
Forget all the nasty thing you have heard about French waiters. They are the best in the world, once you understand how a properly run French restaurant operates.French waiters are often and undeservedly maligned by Americans because Americans do not know how to eat in…Read More
Forget all the nasty thing you have heard about French waiters. They are the best in the world, once you understand how a properly run French restaurant operates.French waiters are often and undeservedly maligned by Americans because Americans do not know how to eat in France. It’s their country. It’s their ball game, and if you want to play the game, learn the rules. Once you get it, you will appreciate that French service is the best in the world. To start, consider some adventures we have had with French waiters.1) We went to a two-star Michelin restaurant (no reservation, no problem) having already decided to order the house specialty recommended in the Red Guide, a desert, "Le Coupe Alsacian." I ordered our two entrées and two Coupes. The waiter stopped writing, closed his order book, looked at us and "No." He continued, "Not two. It is too large. One is enough for two or three people. I shall put down one." It came. We ate. He was right. When was the last time a waiter in an American restaurant refused to let you spend $35?2) We stopped at a small hotel/restaurant in the south of France (no reservations, no problem). I left my menu translator book in the room when we went to diner. There was one item on the menu that stumped me. I asked the waiter to explain. He offered several explanations in French and in English, but still we were puzzled. "One moment," said he and he disappeared into the kitchen, returning with the chef in tow. More bilingual conversation, but still we were puzzled. "One moment", said the chef. He disappeared, returning with the dishwasher. "He is from Spain," said the chef, "Perhaps you speak Espangole?" My wife does a bit, so we had a conversation in French, Spanish, English, and a bit of Italian from somewhere, trying to translate the mysterious dish into something two Americans understood. No luck."One moment," I said. I went back to our room for the translator book, took it to the table, handed itto the waiter who studied the book. "Ah hah," said he, handed me the book, pointing to the mysterious words — Roast Guinea Fowl. After all that, I ordered it, and it was terrific.We spent more than a half hour deciphering three words. The customer wanted to know, and the staff were determined it would happen.3) We stayed one night at small hotel/restaurant in the middle of a vineyard in Provence (no reservations, no problem). We ordered the prix-fixe meal with that great ice cream concoction, the Coupe Denmark, for desert. At the end the waiter inquired, "Did Monsieur and Madame enjoy their meal?" I replied, "That was the best desert I ever ate."The waiter asked, "Would Monsieur like another?" Monsieur would. After three deserts, Monsieur was full, and called diner to a halt. No extra charge. Two free superb deserts, because Monsieur showed enthusiasm for the food.4) Most great French dishes include a sauce, some of which is invariably left on the plate when the food is gone. The French use a piece of bread to mop up and eat the remaining sauce. I finished a beautifully sauced dish, called the waiter, and asked for spoon, which was promptly deliver by an obviously puzzled waiter who lingered by the table to see what the American was going to do with a spoon when diner was over. I used the spoon to drink the sauce left over on the plate like soup. Said the waiter, "Monsieur, in France, we use a piece of bread for that." Said I, "I know. Too many calories." The waiter cracked up, shared it with the rest of the staff, and all bid us a cheerful farewellwhen we left.5) I don’t like to let my wine glass get completely empty. With some still in the glass, I picked up the $125 bottle to pour a refill. The sommelier almost ran over three waiters rushing to the table to pour it himself. He also noted where the level of the wine was in my glass, and never let it drop below that for the rest of the meal.