Tips on driving in France

Oct 24th, 2009, 11:14 AM
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Tips on driving in France

I've collected some tips on driving in France from some of my past Fodor's trip reports, and posted them, with some illustrative photos, on my web page. I discuss some signage conventions, ronds-points (roundabouts/traffic circles), horodateurs (paying for parking), and other issues that might be of interest to a tourist (particularly an American) driving in France. You can see the page at:

These issues were brought to mind by our most recent trip, reported on (in rather excessive detail, but with some photos) at:

Most of my other past Fodor's Trip Reports are linked to from:

- Larry
justretired is offline  
Oct 24th, 2009, 11:17 AM
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ttt 4 later
annhig is offline  
Oct 24th, 2009, 12:30 PM
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I wish I had this info a month ago! Especially the point about the signs and the arrows.

This is coming from someone who has driven in France many, many times. But driving in the cities, especially in the south of France, can be crazy, crazy with the arrows pointing in a zillion directions and instinctively you know when you're heading in the wrong direction.

Bringing a portable Tom Tom (GPS) was invaluable just because of those nutty signs -- and in places like Nice, where a map isn't going to tell you that the whole city consists of one-way streets (all going the wrong way!).

So. . . thank you!
Surfergirl is offline  
Oct 24th, 2009, 12:53 PM
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GoAway is offline  
Oct 24th, 2009, 01:06 PM
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An important point about the name boards for towns is that it also indicates you are entering a 50km zone. The board with a line through it means you are leaving the 50km zone.
This is true in very many European countries.
White lozenges with a yellow lozenge inside it is also an important sign to know as it means you have priority - a line through it and it is prioté a droit - cars coming from the right have priority. Again this is true in many European countries.
In the Netherlands cyclists also have priority at these crossing if coming from the right, but don't expect them to give you priority if you are coming from their right.
hetismij is offline  
Oct 24th, 2009, 01:11 PM
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Thanks Larry. I've saved this post and know it'll prove helpful for our trip next fall.
historytraveler is offline  
Oct 24th, 2009, 02:07 PM
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Nicely done, Larry. Thanks.

AnselmAdorne is offline  
Oct 24th, 2009, 06:13 PM
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Bookmarking - great information. Thanks!
blh is offline  
Oct 24th, 2009, 06:35 PM
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Larry, I don't plan to drive in France but I have been to Provence and so enjoyed following your personal journey. I will save Kristin word-a-day site.

Thanks for sharing...and greetings from Boston (Lynnfield)
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Oct 24th, 2009, 07:08 PM
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Thanks, everyone, for the kind words, and I'm glad to see that I don't seem to have said anything terribly wrong.

I've added a bit to the site: a disclaimer, since I'm not really an expert, and two items suggested by "hetismij" (thanks, hetismij). These are a mention of the 50 Km/hr default speed limit in towns (which I didn't know about), and a mention of the diagonal yellow square "Priority route" sign. I had puzzled over the latter while in France, but didn't figure out what it meant until I returned, and then I forgot to mention it on the page.

One thing I can't figure out is why they like to use the diagonal yellow square "Priority route" sign, instead of the triangular version also shown on my page, whose meaning is much more obvious.

Surfergirl, you reminded me that I've also used a Garmin GPS in Europe twice, once in Italy, and once in France. I've commented on that usage in my trip reports, and I really ought to gather those remarks up and add them to this page. Used carefully, I found the GPS to be of tremendous value, but you have to know when to ignore them. It would be interesting to compare notes on the TomTom vs. the Garmin units. I get the impression that the TomTom is a bit better in Europe, and the Garmin a bit better in the US. I do know that with the TomTom, you can get driving instructions in English, while having the street names properly read in the local language (e.g. French or Italian). The Garmin, oddly, can't do that - it does everything in only one language at a time (at least, my 2-year old Garmin Nüvi 650 does - maybe they've improved it since).

Latedaytraveler, we're in Wayland, MA. Come to the next Boston-area get-together - you just missed one:

justretired is offline  
Oct 24th, 2009, 10:13 PM
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I'm in the midst of a driving trip in France, Germany and Austria and for the first time I'm using a Garmin Nuvi 680 in Europe. Generally I'm very pleased with it, but I'm finding that the horrendous mispronunciations of place and street names are useless to the point of being laughable. I'm tempted to switch to the German language setting, but am afraid I might miss a key direction. I have something of the same problem at home where a number of streets have French names and the Garmin mangles their pronunciation.

The only real problem I've encountered here with the Garmin is that it repeatedly tried to send me down a pedestrian only street in Mittenwald. I think the problem was that the street is only closed to cars from 10:00 to 17:00.

Other than that, it's a great improvement over the past when we needed one person to drive and the other to navigate.
laverendrye is offline  
Oct 24th, 2009, 11:45 PM
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The English translation for the TomTom was great, and I used a female English accent, since on our Prius, it has a female American accent (she is called "Jeannie" after "I Dream of Jeannie" -- spirit in a bottle, so to speak). You do have to periodically turned the damned thing off or ignore certain things, but we downloaded France before taking it over. It was cool.

One thing that drove us nuts (and I speak French, so it was particularly embarrassing to me) is that we couldn't figure out what the word "rappel" meant under a speed limit. I kept thinking "remember", but it didn't seem right. Finally figured out it loosely translates to "reminder" to remind the motorist that the speed limit is, say 30. Just thought I'd mention this in case someone was wondering too.
Surfergirl is offline  
Oct 25th, 2009, 02:36 AM
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hetismij's point about the speed limit changing at the town sign ... it's a really good piece of information. I have twice driven through police radar traps shortly after passing a village sign. In both cases I had slowed down to about 55 kph, but it is pretty easy to breeze past one at 90, especially when the sign is way out in an unpopulated area.

If you add it to your web page, I think you could explain that the speed limit drops to 50 kph at the town sign "unless otherwise indicated". I add that condition simply because there are sometimes long approach roads to villages, in which case you can see a stepped down reduction: 90 to 70 at the town sign, and later a drop to 50 when it starts to get built up. But my understanding is that if there is no other speed posted, it's 50 kph at the sign.

One other unique situation to be explained: driving in a city and seeing a sign that says "Toutes directions". My first encounter was in Avignon years ago. I was trying to drive from the old downtown railway station towards Apt. The car rental agent had told me to look for green signs saying Apt, but we first encountered a green "Toutes directions" sign, which we finally figured out means "go this way to get to a point where you can choose from several destinations". Sure enough, it led to the Avignon ring road, where we had a choice of green signs for Nîmes, Orange, Apt, Cavaillon, and Marseille.

Just as an aside, one of the things I like about driving in France is the visibility, uniformity, and consistency of signage. Drive there enough and you find the signs exactly where you expect them to be and saying exactly what you expect them to.

Oh, and one other experience: when I get back to Nova Scotia I am always surprised at how wide our roads are here. I also look for the little traffic lights at eye level, but we don't do that here.

AnselmAdorne is offline  
Oct 25th, 2009, 02:36 AM
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'rappel' = reminder of a restriction (such as speed limit or no passing/overtaking) that already is in force, i.e. not at the start of the restriction.
Alec is online now  
Oct 25th, 2009, 03:03 AM
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One thing I can't figure out is why they like to use the diagonal yellow square "Priority route" sign, instead of the triangular version also shown on my page, whose meaning is much more obvious.

The diagonal yellow says that you are driving on a priority road:
The road is no longer a priority road when you pass this sign:
This sign also gives you priority but ONLY at the very next intersection:
The triangular red means that you do not have the priority and must yield:

The good thing about learning sign language is that you can use it in most countries on this planet. Even in China, but even you can read them, it may sometimes be hard to follow them:
Cowboy1968 is offline  
Oct 25th, 2009, 03:21 AM
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Larry, your invaluable advice about the totally eccentric French direction signs brought back memories of my first ever trip to France 30 years ago, long before GPS. Not long off the channel ferry and heading south through the Normandy countryside, we were confronted by one of the direction signas at a cross-roads. Convinced it meant turn right, we did so and found ourselves heading down a busy but narrow country road without many places to turn back. Our misfortune did however lead us to a wonderful small cafe where we enjoyed a delicious rustic lunch of soup, crudites and fresh bread.
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Oct 25th, 2009, 03:37 AM
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Gordon_R wrote: "... the totally eccentric French direction signs ..."

They are not totally eccentric. They are universal in France, and are consistent. We don't travel in order to experience elsewhere what we can experience at home.
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Oct 25th, 2009, 04:06 AM
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Oh c'mon, lighten up Padraig. In my dictionary, "eccentric" means something that is unusual or peculiar. You can't deny that the convention adopted in France for direction signs is unusual to those from other parts of the world and a peculiarity of France motoring.
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Oct 25th, 2009, 07:07 AM
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I wrote earlier about the horrendous pronunciations of street names on Garmin with the English voices ("Jill" and "Emily") . When we were driving today, I switched the voice to German ("Steffi"). Much better!
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Oct 25th, 2009, 08:26 AM
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I'm delighted by all the responses on this thread, and I'm learning a lot of things which I'll use to improve my web page.

laverendrye, on our most recent trip, the GPS drove us into a dead end in Arles. But I think it was the problem you describe - a street that's open some of the time, but blocked at other times. In Arles, steel posts that must be about 25 cm in diameter rise up from the pavement (or cobblestones) at certain hours to make some of the streets off-limits. I assume someone comes by and activates a control. I don't think they just come up on a timer, because there would be a risk that a car might be passing over at the wrong moment.

I did once see a car drive up to one of these posts, and the driver pulled out something that looked like a garage door opener control. He aimed it at a receiver mounted alongside the road, and clicked a button. The post withdrew into the ground, the driver drove over it, and the post re-emerged. I imagine he was a local resident entering a restricted area.

Surfergirl and Alec, THANK YOU, THANK YOU for finally explaining the mysterious "rappel". I've been traveling to France from time to time over a fifty-year period, and never until now understood what that meant. For a while, I interpreted it somehow to mean "slow down", but that really didn't make any sense. I don't know where I got that idea (I speak French too), but I really didn't know what to make of it. I'll eventually get this onto my web page.

AnselmAdorne, thanks for the suggestions. I've already got something like the "unless otherwise indicated" wording on the page. The "Toutes directions" signs might be worth mentioning - they just tell you how to get out of town, prior to actually choosing where you're going. I always found their meaning to be pretty clear, but in a way, they are sort of amusing - a sign saying "Everywhere". I may have to go back to France to get some photos to add to my page.

Cowboy1968, thanks for clarifying the difference between the two "Priority route" signs. I'll add that to the page soon. Your links to sample signs is also great - I had trouble finding some of these on English and French web pages, but I didn't think of trying German sites. On the other hand, the example you gave of the "End of priority route" sign is a bit different from the one normally seen in France, in that it has three diagonal lines across the yellow diamond. In France, there's usually only one line.

Gordon_R and Padraig, I'm sure we don't want to start a flame-fest here on whether or not to use "eccentric" to characterize the French signage. Of course, we always do better if we "lighten up", but I agree with Padraig that the French signs are extremely consistent. They only seem odd to people used to different conventions.

Actually, I don't think they're just French. I think they are a European Union convention, coming from the "Vienna Convention on Road Signs and Signals". See:

As such, they're consistent throughout Europe.

I think a similar stadardization is occurring in the US, under the auspices of the Federal Highway Administration:

This is bringing much-welcomed order to the patchwork of laws, signs, and signals of the fifty different states, which probably caused a lot of fatal accidents in the past.

For instance, when I first moved to Massachusetts, a left-pointing green arrow on a traffic light meant "You may turn left". To the total astonishment of many out-of-state drivers, it did NOT mean "Any conflicting traffic has been stopped". Rather, it was just the "permission for a left turn" portion of a green light - YOU STILL HAD TO YIELD TO ONCOMING TRAFFIC. Drivers from out-of-state would assume they had priority, make a left turn, and be struck by oncoming traffic.

That has now been changed to bring Massachusetts into line with the Federal standards: if you have a left-arrow, the oncoming traffic has a red light.

laverendrye and Surfergirl, more on GPS usage and the reading of street names later - I've got to get going now.

- Larry
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