Driving in France, like anywhere, is both a blessing and a curse. And, yet. If I had to choose a country I find the most enjoyable to drive in, it would have to be France. Even, Paris.
It’s all about Quantity
I have driven in cities as well as the countryside of France. Of course, there are differences between city and non-urban driving. But there is one similarity here – a distinct lack of cars, especially as compared to many other countries.
France has very little population for its size so one expects the countryside to be a little empty of people, and consequently vehicles. And this really aids in the enjoyment of driving. But also, the French don’t drive everywhere, so this adds to less vehicles on the road. And this is even or one could say particularly true of cities as they have excellent public transport that makes it much easier, not to mention cheaper, to use than a car. So all around, less cars on the roads no matter the environment.
Long Distance Driving in France
For a long trip, I would take the Peage, or toll road. It saves time, though has it’s own expense. And honestly, it is a dream. There are so few cars on it that you can put your car into cruise control and just coast along. Occasionally you come across the odd lorry/truck and have to change lanes. But there is zero stress, or hand gestures. Worth every penny.
And their rest areas are numerous and well maintained. Some have full facilities, like petrol/gas, food and more. Others are simply picnic areas, though still with toilets. (And these days you have the choice of squat or sit down toilets, a change from the past.)
Driving in Paris
As for cities, such as Paris? I have driven in a few large cities, New York, Boston, London, Manchester, Barcelona and Amsterdam to name a few. All of them have ended up with clenching the wheel, going the wrong way (a few times), and shouting, I mean debating, with my passenger on the best way to get where ever we are trying to get to.
Except for Paris. It has to be my favourite city to drive in. Generally I would choose to take the train over a car to arrive, as the train service is even less stress than driving. And of course there is metro/underground once within the city. But, if I have to drive into and in a city, I would choose Paris every time.
Certainly on arriving in Paris by car, one runs into a bit of traffic as 3 lanes (here that Los Angeles, 3 lanes!) merge into 2 in entering the city. Even once in the city there is still space and the ability to simply drive. Yes, there can be some confusion, but on the whole the traffic moves slowly, so you have time to think about where you wish to go. (Of course it does help if you are not in a hurry.)
Directions to places are well signposted so there is little panic. One encounters traffic lights to slow the journey, but that simply gives the opportunity to look at and admire the lovely buildings of the city. Add in wide streets, with wide vistas, and there isn’t a feeling of claustrophobia, even if there is the odd traffic jam.
Like any city, it does depend on the ‘when’. Enter in the early mornings, during commuting time and yes you will be competing with many more cars. Ditto on the exit strategy. But if you can time it to enter and exit outside of commuting times, it really is a wonderful city to drive in.
Living in a Village
We actually rarely get to Paris. And these days, we always go by train as we have a TGV (high speed train) stop near us. We are in the centre of Paris in an hour and a bit, compared to a 3 hour plus drive. And someone else has done the driving. (And maybe another reason why there are so few cars on the roads.)
Living in a village affords a different perspective on driving. That is, we rarely do. We chose our village because it had all the basic amenities: bank, post office, bars, restaurants, shops, boulangerie (where we buy our bread), library, and more. And we can walk to it all from our front door step. No need to drive. And of course we are not the only ones.
Telling Time by car noise
Our house is on the main street through town, with my office overlooking it. I can hear the traffic passing as I type this. And in consequence, I can tell what time of day it is almost a clearly as if I had looked at a clock.
People drive when they have to here. Work is the most common reason. Traffic picks up in sound from 6 to 8am. And then the streets quieten down to almost nothing. I time my outside time to coincide with the higher noise levels, and work for me begins in the office from 8 or 9am.
I know if is mid-day when the traffic once again picks up as people head home for lunch. Ditto their return to work between 2 and 3pm. Quiet descends again, until evening, with only the odd passing car or lorry until 6 – 7pm. Come 8pm and the streets are almost deserted.
If I have to drive anywhere outside the village, you can bet I time my driving outside of the busy times. And in consequence, there is almost no one on the roads.
I may see the odd car when I get to my destination, particularly if it is a supermarket. Except at lunch time when there is almost no car there as they are all at home for lunch. The most perfect time to go, unless of course the shop is closed for lunch.
Rules of the Road
I am not going to go into great detail here about the rules of the road. Rather, if you are going to drive in France you should read About France’s comprehensive and kept up to date Driving Rules for France – Everything you need to know before driving in France.
I will take the opportunity to mention a couple of things. One I have come to love, though it took some getting used to, is the concept of distance in time rather than measurement. I’ll try to explain. You are driving through a village and you see a sign for a supermarket, petrol station, hey even a McDonald’s if you are so inclined. (But honestly why would you when you can eat real French food?). You will see the sign say something like ‘5 min’ and possibly an arrow.
If there is an arrow it indicates direction. Arrow turns left, then at the next (major) junction turn left to find whatever was indicated on the sign. Straight up, means straight ahead. As for the 5 min, or minutes (yes it is the same word in French or English), that indicates by time how far away the place is. I have discovered this much easier to consider than distance as it is easier to measure, unless you prefer looking at the odometer on your dashboard constantly. It gives you a much better sense of how far something is.
And the other I am really really not fond of. It is the ‘Priorité à droite’ – priority to the right. This is that a car approaching from the right always has right of way. The only time this isn’t true is when they have a stop sign – also indicated by a solid line on the road. It took me a while to learn this trick. But as a stop sign is generally facing away from you, it is easier to see the solid line.
So if you see a car approaching from the right, quickly look down at the end of their road, where it merges on to yours. If there is a solid line, they will have to stop. A dotted line or no line and you best slow down and give way. Even if you are on the main road and theirs is a side road. (Priorité à droite is further detailed also in the link provided above.) Yes, it is confusing, and chaotic, and if not careful can certainly lead to accidents. So worth a mention to non-French drivers.
Is there a Downside to Driving in France?
Besides the weird Priorité à droite rule, of course nothing is perfect. The downside to driving in France is the drivers themselves. No real surprises there. There is a very real habit here of getting super close to the rear of your car. No matter what speed you are doing.
The road could be empty for miles/kilometers either way. Then suddenly there is a car behind you, trying to read any stickers you might have stuck to your car. Drivers here do like to use other drivers to manage their speed and concentration. It is easier to drive behind someone then it is to maintain a consistent speed with no one filling your windscreen.
To counteract though, at the first safe opportunity you can shift the car slightly closer to the edge of the road, indicate that way, and thus you are telling the driver behind you he could (should) go ahead and pass you.
Then you can get back to the serious aspect of taking in the scenery on your drive (whilst still maintaining an eye on the road.)
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