Having done all my driving in tiny New Zealand on the left hand side of the road, it’s a major learning curve coming to terms with driving in Europe.
Here in Spain it is possible to go from the sublime – multi-lane autopistas (freeways) with a 120km speed limit to the ridiculous – tiny, narrow one lane alleys in pueblo blancos where a Mazda 2 can get stuck on a corner (I kid you not!) within the space of a day, each requiring completely different sets of skills. All of which occurs on the opposite side of the road to which we are used to driving in New Zealand.
On our first trip over here we hired a Mazda 2 – yes the one we got stuck on a corner in Vejer de la Frontera. Tiny and all as it was the only real drawback was that it had a gearbox. Getting into a vehicle and reaching for the gearstick and getting the doorhandle is a bit disconcerting the first time you do it. After 30 odd years of driving so much becomes second nature; you jump in the car, take off and don’t really think too hard about the process until you reach your destination (hopefully safely!) At home I often use driving time as thinking time – alas not here! Having to consciously think about the road conditions, vehicles around you, speed limits, signage, and eventual destination, let alone finding the gearstick can only be described as a head trip – or a testament to the powers of the human brain.
Luckily this time around we’re driving an older Audi A3 which is reassuringly solid and also automatic – not having to think about gears is a great relief and I can concentrate on driving conditions.
Spain has an enviable network of autopistas funded mainly out of EU millions. These multi-lane superhighways are “peaje” or toll roads. There will be a P in the designation e.g. we usually travel on the A-7 along the southern coast – locally referred to as the “carretera” or highway. The AP-7 is the toll road paralleling the A-7 but slightly higher up and further inland. Tolls vary between 1-2 Euros per section in winter to 15 or more at the peak of summer. If you’re new to Spain I’d recommend the toll roads if you’re travelling any distance as the speed limit is 120km /h and there are no roundabouts, less traffic and far fewer slip lanes than on the toll free roads. It’s worth paying the relatively small price to reach your destination quicker and with far less stress. GPS navigation systems are all very well but not always up to date and I’m convinced they count the exits at roundabouts differently to me.
Entries and exits to motorways are far more abrupt than at home and the lanes often don’t merge at smaller on ramps. Th is means that if there are no gaps in traffic you’re often completely stopped before joining the motorway. A car that can boot it to make use of any gaps in traffic is a definite plus. The bonus is that the slow lane really is the sloooow lane and Spanish drivers are cognizant of this. So if you’re having a nervous day its possible to potter along in the right hand lane and no one’s going to be bothered. Phew!
Next up – parking, scooters and the joys of roundabouts..