Monday, August 29, 2011

The Poetry and Insanity of French Roads

Frankly I have found myself more and more at peace with the idea that I will most likely never drive in France.  I have seen too many shenanigans in French city driving and on highways to ever wish to risk it.  I'm sorry, but when you actually have to consider whether or not to buy a car because it may be too big to get down the street, that's when it's a problem.  Most cities in France predate any kind of city planning so sometimes roads will only be wide enough for one car to pass, or your car may just be too wide for the road.  We're not even talking like a hummer though.  There are cars the size of an Impala that can't navigate some roads.

Also, most cities have roads named for World War II.  In Rennes, there's a section of town where all the streets are named after allied countries.  Ploërmel actually has a side street named for the day the city was bombed during the Occupation.  I think every city has a road named after Charles De Gaulle and usually General LeClerc.

One thing you can be sure of though is that if you miss a road that connects with another, you will need to turn around and catch the road coming back the other way.  There is no simple way to reach a road once you've missed it.  As all the roads predate actual planning it's just a mass of twisting paths that come together however people decided they should be laid out.  Sometimes, you'll just be driving on roads and they will spontaneously change names.

Like in the US, there are a bunch of divisions for roads in France.  Most of what I've discussed so far is for communal roads.  Those are the roads that connect the cities of a commune.  A commune in France is a collection of cities and villages that work together. The roads are usually denoted with a number preceded by a C in a black rectangle.  It's kind of like what we could call township roads.  The next step up is the departmental roads.  These are denoted with a D before the road number in a yellow rectangle.  They're something like a county highway.  After that we have Rue Nationale, which are more similar to American State and National Routes, commonly denoted with RN before the number in a red rectangle.  The largest grouping by far though is the Autoroute system, which is comparable to the Interstate System.

The strange thing is, most of the signs are blue on the Autoroute, while they are white or green on all other roads.  There is the exception of point of interest signs being in brown, and they're usually a lot nicer than what you'd see for the point of interest markers in the US.  However, the markers between departments are really basic.  They just have the departmental seal and the name of the new department.  Regional markers that I've seen usually aren't much more impressive. It is neat that on the Bretange sign, they actually put the Breton phrase for welcome on the sign (Degemer Mat.)

They do have a system as well that takes you around cities, but it's not like in the US where you have a 2 or a 4 before the number.  They have what are called Rocades.  It just translates out to beltway.  The main issue is that it's not one continuous road.  Basically there are 4 rocades that intersect at certain points.  So you have the north, south, east, and west rocades.  The connections are just exit ramps, so you really have to know the road you want to take. (Hence the problems coming out of IKEA.)

They also don't just list the largest city like from what I remember with 270 around Columbus.  You head North, and you're headed towards Cleveland, South/East is towards Wheeling, and West was towards Cincinnati.  Around Rennes the Rocade will take you towards Caen, Le Mans, Lorient, Vannes, Brest, St. Brieuc, St. Malo, Nantes, and Angers as possible destinations.  It doesn't really explain things well, so you can get lost pretty quick.  All of these routes are accessed through Portes.  There are 22 Portes that take you to different places, and not all of them take you to different cities.  Porte d'Alma just takes you to Alma Shopping Center.  It's a quick way in from the South though, and if you take the opposite direction, you can get to Angers.  All of this is saying nothing of actually learning to drive in France. 

Almost all cars here are manual transmission, and to actually drive an automatic, you have to get a special permit that allows you to do so.  Most French people also consider automatics for old women who don't want to be bothered with shifting gears.  Another obstacle is the shear cost.  My partner said he probably paid about $2000 to get his license.  He had to take first aid courses, and before he could get in the car, he had to pass what's called the code.  I have never seen anyone speak positively of the code.  It's an essay test first off, so it really makes our multiple choice test for a permit look pretty ridiculous.  After you pass the code, you can start driving with an instructor or your parents.  After you feel confident enough to take the test, you have to take it in a car that's provided by the examiner's station.  It's a nightmare because every manual transmission has a different clutch.  Finally after all this, should you pass, you have to have a sticker on the back of the car that denotes you as still learning to drive for 2 years.  That's what the red A is on the back of French cars.  They're not adulterers.

So I'm more than happy to take a bus or a subway and be nice and safe.  It's a great system and I'm more than happy to oblige.  If you are from the US and decide to brave it, you can get a 6 month driving permit.  After that, you'll need to get a full license, but I'm not sure how that process works.  I'll write more when the inspiration strikes. 


  1. Yeah, sounds like public transit is the way to go...wowsers :)

  2. Yeah, the TER, regional trains, and TGV, intercity express trains, are the way to go. In the city, there's always a great bus system.

  3. That, I think, is a case we're you have to be "born there" to understand!!! Maybe they make it hard exactly so people would take the public transit system! ;)

  4. I think you're absolutely right. People take public transport because of how much less of a hassle it is.