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by Alain Hoffmann

Traveling in France

General info

Travelling by car in France is nothing to worry about. Except maybe if you come from one of those sheltered countries where drivers are NICE and POLITE to eachother.

No, it's not that bad in reality. With the exception of Paris maybe. Here the traffic is more chaotic and dense than anywhere else. You need a bit of daring and a certain amount of indifference against possible body damage or you will end completely stressed. Avoid at any price the motorway rings around Paris as they are more often than not blocked. Worst is between 5 and 7 PM on weekdays.

Motorways are mostly toll and quite expensive. Often you take a ticket in the first station and pay at the next or at the exit. The best way to pay is using a credit card. You just hand it over, they draw it through a reader and you can drive on. Normally there's also no way to cheat when giving change.

If you look at good maps the free motorways are clearly indicated. It pays to use them. Motorways in immediate neighbourhood of large towns are free for some distance.

Special road rules

Speeding is very expensive. The standard price to pay is 1000 FF, about 100 £. A bit steep for the holiday budget. This tarif applies also for running over a stop sign- even at 2 AM at night. French Gendarmerie is unpredictible. While police in other coutries stay in their offices when the weather is too bad french Gendarmes can always been found on the road. The speed limit is 50 KM/h in towns and is ticketed from 56 Km/h on. On Motorways you will often find a civil car parked at the roadside just a few kilometers before a toll station. The other Gendarmes will collect the fine just after the toll boot and before the gate opens. You can also get a ticket if your average speed between toll stations is higher than the 130 Km/h limit. When it rains (your wipers are running) you must reduce your speed on the Motorways to 110 and on normal roads to 70.

French drivers are used to drive in towns with just position lights. This is outright dangerous but allowed by law. Some opticians really affirmed that bright lights are dangerous for the eyes and so legislation allows driving with position lights alone if there's street lighting.

Parking in Paris is different from what you're used to. As there's not enough parking space the average driver parks in until he touches the car in front, maybe he even tries to push that one a bit so he can enter his place. Most drivers leave the gears out and the handbrake off to avoid smashed lights when a "pusher" tries too hard and slides off. Land Rovers have higher bumpers so a bit of care while parking is needed. Of course you may have a problem when you come back and find your parked parked shut by others- or you may not see a problem. Best advice I can give is to use the public transport if you want to visit this city. Below: This IS one of two roads leading out of a small village in southern France. And, yes, it's really as tight as it looks.

Maps

The best maps for road use are made by Michelin. That's it.

Sure, others make good maps too but for the most precise and up-to-date info go for Michelin. I recommend using the Atlas (left), a wire-bound collection of 1:200.000 pages in A3 size covering all of France. The only disadvantage I can see is that longitudes and latitudes aren't marked although they are indicated, making it useless for GPS navigation. But I hope this will change in the next issues.

And the paper isn't resistant enough if you drive topless.

Those maps are also available as single maps with a yellow cover (right). They are dirt cheap for their quality, about 2 £ each. Whole France is covered by 37 maps.

If you want more detailed maps for greenlaning you need the maps from IGN, the Institut Géopgraphique National. Several different scales are available and cost 29 FF each, around 3£. Green covers are 1:100.000. Blue covers are 1:25.000 and the most detailed you need.

IGN maps:

Left is a sample of the 1:100.000 map, right a 1:25.000

Greenlaning

Off roading as driving where no tracks are is strictly forbidden. For the rest it's not that easy. Generally using an existing public lane is allowed. Interdictions are always clearly posted. A sign "Propriété privée" means private property and you should keep out even if no additional interdictions are posted. The same applies for a "Foret Domaniale", an forest owned by the state and run by the forest service. Not all interdictions are legal but as a visitor you should obey them. Fines are high and you risk even prison in extreme cases. We have already seen real hunts by the Gendarmerie for 4x4's.

Generally sensible environments are off limits like swamps, dunes, coast line and national parks. For the rest you can drive all tracks IF YOU DON'T DAMAGE THEM. This can mean even just driving over a wet track.

An advice I can give is to keep out of forests as much as possible. Nobody cares if you drive over a way between meadows but forests often are either privately owned or hunting reserves. Almost all problems we ever got occured when driving forest tracks.

Keep out of running waters if you aren't absolutely sure you can legally do so. Most water crossings aren't official.

Don't forget to clean lights, windows, mirrors and number plates immediately. If you're unlucky there will be a police control in the next village.

Drive slowly and in small groups. Keep all your litter in your car, especially empty bottles. In dry regions of southern France in no case trow your cigarettes out of the window. A fire can start very easily and if you are found guilty you will never again smoke a cigarette. Or at least not for a very long time.