Driving in France: some tips

Oct 8th, 2004, 01:13 PM
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Driving in France: some tips

Driving in France: some tips

One of the things that makes driving in France a challenge is the difference in road signage and conventions. It took me a while to figure these out, so I thought that perhaps a post on this subject could save some other people some trouble. Note that these suggestions are intended to be useful to other Americans, and probably also for Canadians, whose roads share American signage conventions. Europeans are probably more familiar with French signage. I also take no responsibility if you get lost.

These thoughts are in addition to notes on driving that I posted from the road in another thread, called "On the road in Lyon, Ecole des Trois Ponts, and Provence", at:


In that thread, see my posting on "Highway Signs", posted 09/22/2004, 01:27 pm. Executive summary: road signs don't point to the DIRECTION to take, but rather to the entrance of the STREET to take. Blue signs mean "highway".

In that same thread, see my posting of 09/24/2004, 12:04 pm, entitled "Driving in France, the Joys and Woes of the Rond-point." Executive summary: keep circling a rond-point (traffic circle) until you've deciphered the signs and are sure of your exit.

And finally, in that thread, the message of 09/24/2004, 04:06 pm, on the French equivalent of the parking meter, the "horodateur", and parking "payant". Executive summary: Look for signs, often painted on the roadway, saying "payant", and if so, feed coins into a nearby "horodateur", push the green button, and get a time-stamped ticket for your dashboard.

Now the new stuff:

Route signs:

In the US, Route numbers are very prominently displayed, and directions are given by compass direction (North, South, East, and West). This is such a strong convention that driving the "Northeast Corridor" from Washington, DC towards Maine, where you are really going Northeast, the roads are nevertheless designated as going "North".

One of the most bizarre cases of this bias is right here in the Boston area, in the signs on the almost circular circumferential highway designated Route 128. On the entire length of this road, the clockwise direction is called "North", and the counter-clockwise direction is called "South". Never mind that south of Boston, if you're driving on Route 128 "North", you're actually going southwest. Coming up the Interstate Route 95 from Providence, Rhode Island, when you hit Route 128, if you turn toward the west, you're on Route 95 North, and if you turn toward the east on the same road, you're on Route 93 North.

Anyway, you won't see compass directions in France. Rather, look for the names of the major cities and towns along your route. As an example, when I was heading east toward the small village of Mazan, but was too far from it to actually see signs for Mazan (which is off the main road), I needed to look along the road on my map for a larger town, farther down the main road, and found Sault. I then followed signs toward Sault until I got close enough to Mazan for the Mazan signs to appear.

Quite often in France, roads go straight through the center of town. This can even happen on four-lane roads - they suddenly get smaller, the speed limit drops, and you find yourself going straight through a town. Pay attention.

In other cases, a road may go through a town, but bypass the center. If you're actually going to the center of that town, you need to watch carefully for another type of sign: the sign telling you you've entered a village. This is a rectangular sign containing a slightly smaller red rectangular border with the name of the town inside it. For example, a sign with a red border containing the word "Grignan" means you are entering the town of Grignan.

Why is this important? Because if you have been going to the center of Grignan by following the arrow signs pointing to Grignan, you will no longer see any more of them. Why should you? You can't go TO Grignan any longer, because you are already IN Grignan (that is, within the city limits of Grignan. So once you pass the red bordered sign which means "entering Grignan", you need to start following a different sign: "Centre Ville" ("city center"). That's why it's so important to notice the "Entering Grignan" sign.

Finally, route numbers: these are useful, and they're on the map, but on the signs, they seem to be almost afterthoughts. They appear as very small rectangular signs attached to the larger signs giving destinations. They can be used to verify that you're on the right road, but don't count on spotting them quickly for making snap decisions at forks.

- Larry
justretired is offline  
Oct 8th, 2004, 01:21 PM
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And don't forget 'priority on the right,' where unless an intersection is marked traffic on the right (also in round-abouts or rond-points) has priority. this i've found is a problem in cities where seemingly small streets may have cars darting in front of you expecting you to give them priority. this is changing and few intersections are not marked with stop or yield signs but these are some. When i drive my French family's car they also tell me to remember "priority on the right"
PalQ is offline  
Oct 8th, 2004, 01:29 PM
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PalQ, thanks for that reminder.

I actually found myself confused by priority a number of times, when I found myself waiting for others who were clearly waiting for me. Often this was when I was yielding priority to the right, but the driver on the right clearly thought I had the priority, and was waiting for me. I probably missed the upward-pointing triangle indicating my priority (and telling me that the other driver had a downward pointing triangle, a "yield" sign (cédez le passage.

There were also some intersections which were sort of mini "ronds-points", and I was not sure if they really were "ronds-points" or not, which can change the priority.

I think there were other cues I was missing. I got lost twice coming out of Avignon, I think because at an unmarked fork, it was not at all obvious which branch was the main road. Not obvious to me, anyway. I suspect a French driver would have noticed something; a dotted line, an obscure arrow of some special color, I don't know what.

- Larry
justretired is offline  
Oct 8th, 2004, 01:29 PM
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Larry, these postings of yours (all of them) are very informative and beautifully written. It's obvious that you've put a lot of effort into this and I'd like you to know that I appreciate what you've done. Kudos!
TuckH is offline  
Oct 8th, 2004, 05:02 PM
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Thanks, TuckH! It's very nice to hear that my efforts are appreciated!

- Larry
justretired is offline  
Oct 8th, 2004, 05:16 PM
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One of the most important things is: Do noy drive TOO slow, the French fdrivers will ride your tail. Too slow is as bad as too fast, especially in the countryside when yopu are slowed down by all those weird looking farm vehicles that look like martians or giant bugs. Then you have the hay carriers and the caravans(trailers that campers use) so if you are timid and don't pass, you slow everyone up.
cigalechanta is offline  
Oct 8th, 2004, 05:23 PM
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You read my mind when you wrote this post! I just finished reading "From Here You Can't See Paris" wherein he mentions that road signs may refer to a town, a village, even a house, or to a place that was there 100 years ago but may not be any more. I may print this for my husband then run!
hopingtotravel is offline  
Oct 8th, 2004, 05:36 PM
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The route signs are not as important as as the sign that tells you where the nearest city is in the direction of the village you may want.
cigalechanta is offline  
Oct 9th, 2004, 06:47 AM
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Hi Larry,

Thanks for the very helpful information.
ira is online now  
Oct 9th, 2004, 08:31 AM
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I am trying to absorb as much as I can about driving in France, since that is what we will do for the first time, in just a few days. Thank you so much for your personal "learnings".
Travelnut is offline  
Oct 9th, 2004, 10:33 AM
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We recently returned from our annual driving trip. This time it was Paris to Reims, down into Burgundy and through the Loire to the Atlantic coast, south to the Spanish border [St Jean de Luz], across to Monpellier, TGV back to Paris.
Hotels and driving routes between them planned in advance.

Along with the big Michelin atlas we carry a little pocket-sized spiral-bound "Guide Routier" that I picked up at rest stop a while back. Driving directions from Mappy when needed.

The one big problem to adress in planning is finding the hotel once you get to a particular place. Sometimes it's a breeze, sometimes it takes a while, especially in a larger town. This can be frustrating after a longish drive.

Another thing we have learned is that when returning a car to an airport or a train station, find out where the agency is located and park close to it [sometimes in a no parking area], not in a parking lot a distance away.

I don't get why more people don't do these kind of trips in France. Good, well marked roads; marvelous countryside, villages, towns, sights; charming hotels, great local markets, pleasant picnics, good restaurants. Met some charming brits along the way again this time, but no americans.

RonZ is offline  

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