O highway I travel, do you say to me Do
not leave me?
Do you say Venture not — if you leave me you are
Do you say I am already prepared, I am well-beaten and undenied,
adhere to me?
O public road, I say back I am
not afraid to leave you, yet I love you
express me better than I can express myself.
Song of the Open Road
You should familiarize yourself with and try to adhere to the rules of the road of each country, but don't
sacrifice the proper state of mind in the process.
Ironically, I think the best way to nurture the right attitude is to tone down your
dependence on memory, to let the environmental stimuli flow into you unimpeded
by too many worries, to
react naturally and to trust your reactions, to make mistakes
to not dwell on them, to throw off the great weight of fastidiousness,
to exercise the
old adage: When in Rome, do as the Romans do. In other words, go with the flow;
be cool; blend in with traffic; and revel in the fact that you're truly participating in
a different culture, that you've effectively become, for a short time at least, a
citizen of Europe. When in Paris do as the Parisians and park on the sidewalk. When
in Scandinavia, if you notice everybody else driving with their lights on — even in
bright sun — you'd better too. It's easy.
OK, but now you're on the road in, say, France, and you think you may be
on the wrong road. You're getting nervous because you want to stay off the toll
roads. Blue signs
marked with the letter "A"
indicate Autoroute péage (toll) roads; while green signs with
the letter "N" indicate non-toll
Route National highways. No problem: just follow
the signs in green, the signs that indicate the non-toll highways. At times, you'll
note, the signals seem ambiguous because one sign bears both blue and green
sections listing A and N roads respectively.
"How can I be on both an A and an
N road at the same time?" you'll ask yourself.
Such signage means only that you're on your way to both types of road, that the road
you're on is not a toll road; eventually you'll have the option to enter either
the toll road or a non-toll road. Sometimes after following a green-only or a
blue/green sign, a blue-only sign will appear unaccompanied by possible turnoffs.
Don't worry: eventually another green sign will direct you to a non-toll road before
you have to pay. This all sounds simple, and it is.
Just keep following the last sign you saw. Keep following the last sign you
saw. Keep following the last sign you saw . . .
Sorry, but I feel the redundancy is
justified. It's easy to get flustered and
worry that you missed an important turn. But the keen state of mind that you'll be in,
coupled with the excellent nature of the roads and signage, will render quite small the
chances of actually missing such a turnoff. Be astute, but trust yourself and the road
design and signage. In a word, relax; usually it
all comes together in the end. The wisdom of this simple approach has been apparent
to me time after time throughout my travels. I've slowly learned not to get
flustered when there isn't a meaningful sign
placed every one kilometer. This is more than a prudent approach to driving; it's an
attitude, an attitude that will greatly increase the pleasure you draw from your trip.
You are, after all, on the road; you should be singing songs and talking like Kerouac.
And, as I first described in the Why Drive? chapter, history has assured that
navigating to the cities and towns and sights is much more of a song than you might
expect. First, most of the European languages you'll encounter are cognate with
English; so it tends to be quite easy to read
signs which give directions. What's more, each city and town grew from an old
town center. In this center, of course, lie most
of a town's attractive sites and accommodations. Everything falls into place if
you follow the ubiquitous signs to the town center or simply head toward the
tallest church spire. Most of the signs denoting town centers bear variations of the
word center, such as
"Zentrum"; in many parts of Germany
the word is "Stadtmitte." Furthermore, on
the way to the center of town you'll see tourist information boards or signs indicating
the direction to the tourist office. Most such signs read
"i" for information; in France, however, they read
"Office du Tourisme" or "Syndicat
d'Initiative"; in the Netherlands they read
"VVV"; sometimes they bear a lone
Another way to get your bearings when entering a town is to follow the signs
that point to the train station. Both the signs
and the stations they point to are ubiquitous in Europe. Look for signs reading
"Estacion," or some variation of the
word station. Many guidebooks use the train station as the origin for their directions
to sights and accommodations. Furthermore, the famous and (here we go again)
ubiquitous Hostelling International sign (see it above) tends to be nearby, pointing the way to the
nearest hostel. In most cases hostel proprietors have placed these signs in a series and
with a frequency designed to lead all but the most clueless along the best route to
the hostel door. Often, a tourist office operates out of the local train station. At the
very least you'll find city maps dispensed inside or a single city map displayed on a
large public board just outside. Perhaps what's more important, many of your fellow
travelers at the station will be more than happy to give you the scoop on the best places
to stay, the best sights, and the best places to hang out. Moreover, the parking lot will
be at your disposal — often free of charge: you can just leave your vehicle in the lot
and continue on foot or by metro, bus, or taxi. Since governments tend to build train
stations near places of interest and since business people who cater to travelers tend
to locate their establishments around either train stations or places of interest,
you probably won't feel compelled to stray too far from the station.
To leave a city either follow the signs that indicate the road or the city you
want to travel on or to or follow the signs that
bear words meaning "all directions" or
You'll note when checking the expressways on your map that they often have two different numbers designating them. One is the national designation and the other — with the "E" prefix — is the Europe-wide designation, which simply provides for continuous numbering between countries.
European police don't seem to enforce speed limits with the same gusto
as do North American police. The fast lane is usually just that — fast. The countries
hungriest for speed are Germany and Great Britain, where fast-lane speeds of 120
mph (200 km/h) and 85 mph (142 km/h), respectively, are common. As I'm sure
you've heard, no speed limit exists on many sections of the famous German
Autobahnen. In contrast to Germany and Britain, traffic
in Norway seems to crawl along. Generally, traffic flows about 10 mph (17 km/h)
faster than traffic in North America. The roads are good enough to handle the high
speeds, but if you don't fancy yourself a Euro Speed Racer or if your vehicle simply
can't keep up, you won't be alone: plenty of Europeans drive 55 mph in the slow
lanes or amicably signal or pull onto the shoulder so speedier drivers can pass. Many
countries define speed limits in terms of
"built-up" areas. A built-up area is indicated by
a sign, placed along the road at the community boundary, that bears the name of
the community. The end of a built-up area is indicated by a black slash across a twin
of this sign. If when outside a built-up area the police nail you for speeding, they
won't pull you over immediately; instead, they'll radio one of their colleagues who'll
pull you over at a convenient spot down the road.
You need to familiarize yourself with the ways drivers may signal to you.
If someone driving in the opposite direction blinks their vehicle's headlights, it
means that police are lying in wait ahead. On the open roads someone who wants to pass
may come up behind you with their vehicle's left blinker (right blinker where driving
driving is on the left) and/or headlights flashing (if on the continent); if you're on a single-lane highway,
signal with your vehicle's right directional (left directional where driving is on the
left) when you think it's safe for them to pass. European truckers use the same
blinker signal to let you know it's safe to pass them. If the truck driver sees danger
ahead he'll engage his truck's left blinker (right blinker where driving is on the left).
Two quick beeps on the horn means "Thank you."
Although I cannot recommend you interpret such signals as I describe above,
you may soon come to trust them. In any case, if you act on these signals
and my description of them, you do so at your own risk.
Indeed, in Germany the flashing of headlights to indicate a desire or determination to pass is forbidden
and may even lead to prosecution.
Similarly in the British Isles it a good idea to flash your headlights to indicate you want to
pass, as this is likely to offend the driver ahead of you; better just
express a sense of urgency by using your indicator and hovering significantly near
behind the vehicle and somewhat toward the center of the road — but without
Throughout Europe you're expected to sound your horn before taking a blind curve on a
narrow rural or mountain road. Otherwise, use the horn as a last resort.
Motorcyclists often signal their Hello's to other bikers and Thank you's
to other motorists (earned for instance by a car that moves over
to give more room for the cycle to pass) by slowly pressing out their right leg.
You'll encounter tunnels in mountainous areas. Be sure to turn on
your vehicle's headlights before entering a tunnel; police tend to lie in wait on the
other end, nailing driver's who haven't lit up. Norway's tunnels are so long they're
unnerving; you'll feel like Starbuck being shot out of the Battlestar Galactica,
and you'll think to yourself, "Gee, even
Superman woulda had a hard time digging these tunnels."
By the way, driving with headlights on decreases by 30 percent your chances
of being in a collision with another vehicle — that's why it's required at all times
in Scandinavia. And police are bound to go easier on drivers thoughtful enough to
Tolls are typically charged for using the larger tunnels in Europe.
Moreover, France, Italy, Portugal and Spain have extensive toll road systems on their expressways;
Belgium, Germany, Denmark and the Netherlands, on the other hand, do not. For details on all the various road toll systems and instances
in Europe, please see
To use toll roads, you must, upon entering the system, pay at a booth or
else get a ticket by pushing a red button on a driver's-side ticketing machine.
Sometimes the ticketing machine controls a
barrier; other times there's no barrier. If you go through an unbarred control point
without getting a ticket, you'll be charged the
maximum toll at the next exit. So they can further prosecute violators, many toll
stations use automatic cameras to photograph any vehicle that passes through a pay
booth without paying.
If you travel through mountain tunnels or over passes which charge a
toll, note that many offer discounted return fares for travelers who'll return within
a certain period, usually 72 hours.
Where two roads of equal priority intersect, you must give way to
traffic coming from your right. In France this
rule once applied to all roads, thus supplanting any notion of a priority road;
fortunately this is no longer the case. These days
long stretches of European roadway are clearly marked as priority roads, and/or the
approaches to and intersections with priority roads are clearly marked with
warning signs and with Yield and
STOP signs or signals. Since they don't really
intersect with other roads, all expressways (variously
called autoroutes, autobahns, motorways,
etc.) have priority. In towns a priority road often branches and makes complicated turns. In such cases a sign often identifies the priority road with a fat line opposed to thin lines which indicate lesser roads. Only on occasion will two roads of equal (unmarked) priority
intersect and oblige you to exercise your knowledge of what in France
is called "priorité à
droite" or "priority on the right". Sometimes this runs rather counter to intuition. Take the case of an uncontrolled "T" intersection of two equal roads. You might think traffic on the through street of the "T" would have priority. But, no, traffic on the right must be yielded to. (Left-turning vehicles, however, should always yield in this situation.)
"Hey, look kids. There's Big Ben, and there's Parliament," exclaims driver
Chevy Chase — starring as Clark Griswald, the well-meaning but bumbling patriarch
of the pathetic Griswald clan — in a scene from the 1985 movie
European Vacation. The scene unfolds early one day in
the family's rented car as Clark attempts to navigate a London roundabout. "Kids.
Big Ben, Parliament, (again)," he repeats the second time around. "Kids." "We
know," they retort in unison. ". . . Big Ben,
Parliament." Dusk finds the Griswald's little
car circling on the same roundabout, all passengers but Clark fast asleep. "It's
amazing," Clark says to himself in hysterical disbelief. "I cannot get left."
Roundabouts: those circular intersections where stop signs are nonexistent,
and everyone's at everyone else's mercy, and you have to join the flow if you
want to go — and you could, in theory, go around forever. The word
roundabout is actually of American origin. American
Logan Pearsall Smith, one of the members in the 1920s of the BBC Advisory Committee
on Spoken English originated it. Before he suggested the change, traffic circles
in Britain were called gyratory circuses. (Smith also wanted to call traffic
lights stop-and-goes.) To many of us North Americans, though, roundabouts
epitomize European motoring. The popular American imagination elevates few elements
of civil engineering to the level of enigma, but it has done so with roundabouts. In
fact many non Europeans assume that if roundabouts are such a puzzle, so must
be the rest of European motoring. You know by now that this assumption is
unsound. But what is the deal with
roundabouts anyway? Although in most cases you
don't need to stop when entering a roundabout, you must yield to traffic that's already
on it. A sign bearing a circle of three counterclockwise arrows indicates such a roundabout. Though increasingly
rare, some roundabouts aren't graced by such a sign and thus make it
incumbent for you to exercise the aforementioned
priorité à droite rule; in other words,
traffic on these roundabouts must yield to traffic entering. Regardless of signage,
it should be immediately obvious if the traffic on or entering the roundabout is or is
not waiting for you to enter. Once on the circle, you can go around indefinitely until
you figure out which exit you want to take. You'll get the impression that you're
skating around that old roller rink you used to go to as a kid. Indeed, you'll become a
bit giddy. You'll quickly come to like these little rinks: they allow you to make
unhurried decisions as your vehicle is moving, and they reduce the number of stops
you must make. If two lanes enter a roundabout, you should stay in the inside
lane, engaging your vehicle's inside blinker until you identify the exit you wish to take
and until you pass the exit immediately before that one. Once you reach this point
you should engage your vehicle's outside blinker, move into the outside lane,
and exit the roundabout. England and France employ the most roundabouts.
Let's hope that all your stops are pleasant, but you should note the countries
where they're less likely to be so. In this important respect see
Table Driving.2 for International Road Federation statistics for year 2009.
Most countries empower their police to collect fines on the spot from
violators. If the police require that you pay
them, make sure you get a receipt; and if
possible, make sure the nature of the offense and
the amount of the fine as described on the receipt match the actual offense and
the amount you paid. Police in France, Germany and Italy use roadblocks to conduct
random checks of vehicles and drivers. Blood alcohol limits in Europe are given in
milligrams (mg), so that's how I list them for each country. Note that a blood
alcohol limit of, say, 80 mg is equal to a limit
of 0.08 percent or 0.8 grams per liter. Radar-triggered cameras are increasingly
used to enforce speed limits by photographing the license plate of an offending
vehicle. The ticket is posted within a few days to the name and address on
the registration. If it's a rental or tourist-lease, the company will get the
ticket and charge you. If it's a foreign-registered vehicle, well, just wait
and see. The photo used to accompany, but in several cases love affairs
exposed; so now you'll have to visit the police station to garner the
evidence. Whereas the key first threshold for police officers who might write a
ticket on the spot is reported to be a speed 10 percent over the limit, it's said that along
cameras are only triggered by vehicles going more than 20 km/h over.
Furthermore, it's rumored only half the photos are
unambiguous enough to result in a ticket. If you trigger one of these cameras
you'll probably see the flash. Signs usually warn drivers
if such an apparatus is permanently mounted along or above the road.
But often they're mounted in unmarked police cars parked on the roadside
or median, and in such case of course no signs attend.
on the other side
The main trouble that most North Americans face when driving in the British
Isles is that they must drive on the left side of
the road. Not only is the traffic flip-flopped, but the steering wheel is on the other side
of the vehicle — and the gear shift is at your left hand instead of your right.
(Although the shifting pattern is the same; and
the accelerator is still at the right foot, with
the brake pedal off to its left.) It's virtually impossible for a North American to
practice driving this way before arriving in a country where left-side driving is the
norm; the best we North Americans can do is use mental imagery to shed the
right-side-of-the-road mindset. Yet the adaptability
of the human brain is remarkable. In a matter of days a North American or
continental European driving in the British Isles
(or, for that matter, a Brit or Aussie or Kiwi driving on the continent) can supplant
the mindset he or she assumed over a whole lifetime. It reminds me of an experiment
in which scientists asked a man to wear a contraption that inverted his vision.
He agreed. At first, the upside down world confused the man so that he
stumbled around and could hardly feed himself. Within a week, however, he was
functioning normally. When the scientists finally took the contraption off the man's
head, the rightsideup world seemed upside down to him. Again he stumbled around
and could hardly feed himself. This went on for years — no, just kidding; in a couple
of days the man readjusted to the conventional world. If the human mind can
adapt so quickly to the inversion of the whole world, surely you'll adapt to sitting on
the right side of a vehicle, shifting with your left hand, and driving on the left side of
Not only will you quickly adapt, but the benefits of driving will counteract
the anxiety you'll experience in the transition period. In the meantime, the right
attitude can minimize both this anxiety and the
real danger that fuels it. Be cool. Take your time. Most Brits and Irish, experienced
in motoring on the continent, empathize with and are thus tolerant of disoriented
foreign drivers. When someone does honk at you, open your smile like a jackknife and
wave at the irritated bloke like a bloody fool. Who cares? Remember, all will be OK
as long as you don't hit anything. Soon you'll be zipping around like Jackie Stewart.
The whole experience will make for good stories when you get home, and the you'll
feel a genuine and justified pride in your accomplishment.
I must reiterate that it is legal to
drive left-hand-drive vehicles (steering wheel on the left, gear shift on your right) in
the British Isles and right-hand-drive vehicles on the continent, but it makes it
virtually impossible to safely pass other vehicles unless you have an astute and trusted
navigator in the passenger seat or unless the driver's seat is high enough to let you
see over the majority of vehicles. The headlight beams should be adjusted before
you make the switch. Naturally you can buy a headlight conversion kit in Europe.
The kits contain specially shaped adhesive black plastic which sticks to the glass and
alters the direction of the beam.
As I enthusiastically related in the Why Drive? chapter, you should be able to find
free-of-charge parking all over Europe. Some neighborhoods, however, reserve free
parking — or all parking — for residents. In such
areas the residents' vehicles bear an official sticker. Check the other vehicles
around yours to see if they all bear the same sort
of sticker in the same place on one of the windows. No parking zones along streets (for instance, near bus stops) are often indicated by a zig-zag white line painted on the street.
Parking meters and "pay-and-display" schemes are common. A
pay-and-display scheme requires you to pay at a
central machine (some machines ask you to punch in your vehicle's license plate number
too), press a button (usually the green one, the others are for local residents
whose vehicle's bear special permits), receive a ticket that lists a time-of-day limit
commensurate with the amount you paid, and display the ticket in readily visible spot on the dashboard (on the side closest to the curb if on the street). Most of these machines account for
periods of the day when parking is free, so you can pay at night for the first hour or
two after 8:00 or 9:00 a.m. the next day. In event of a defective machine you should use the parking disc I desribe next. You may then park for the maximum duration normally permitted at that location.
A pay-and-display machine in Germany. Literal translation: "Parkticketmachine:
Here parkticket take."
A parking disc placed
on a dashboard.
Many cities in Austria, Belgium, Denmark, France, Italy, Luxembourg, the
Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland enforce
Blue Zones or short-term parking areas which limit parking to an indicated duration, usually two hours. The marking of these zones
varies from country to country. Before parking in a
Blue Zone you must obtain special tickets or a disc from a tourist office, police
station, or tobacconist. Sometimes you must buy the tickets or disc, but usually
they're given free of charge. In fact most rental companies include a disc or "blue card"
in their vehicles. When using a ticket, you write on it the date and time of your
arrival (Europeans write the day number before the month number and use the
military convention for noting times) and then display it on the side of your vehicle's
dashboard closest to the curb. Discs, on the other hand,
either bear a clock face and a
set of unmechanized clock hands which you can set to show the time of
your arrival (Figure Driving.2 above) or they actually function mechanically as clocks (see www.dotoni.ch).
You may round-up to the next half-hour. If, for example, you arrive at 9:40, you can indicate 10:00. In lieu of these items a simple note left on
your dashboard may suffice. It's worth noting that during my first extended motor tour
of Europe I was unaware of such zones; I never bought tickets or obtained a disc,
and I never suffered a penalty — and I parked in many cities and towns which
supposedly enforce Blue Zones. Maybe I was lucky.
If you're unsure about whether you should obtain a ticket or disc, check the
dashboards of the other vehicles in the area to determine if other drivers feel it's
If you do get a parking ticket and you do feel compelled to pay it, most
countries offer a rather ingenious way to do so.
Take the ticket to a tobacconist, purchase a tax stamp (called a
"timbre fiscal" in France) in the proper amount, affix the larger of
the tax stamp's two sections to the ticket, and, using a regular stamp, mail the
tax-stamped ticket to the address indicated on the
ticket. Note that wheel clamps are coming into wider use.
Most parking garages and lots employ one rather clever pay-for-parking
scheme. Upon entering, you receive a time-stamped ticket. Just before you leave, you take the ticket to
a central processing machine and place it in a slot. The machine then prompts you
to insert the appropriate amount of cash.
(Many of these machines accept coins only; so it's a good idea to check this upon
leaving your vehicle behind.)
Insert the cash and the machine returns
any change along with the ticket, which now bears the time and a certification of
payment. Finally, you must present the ticket to the attendant or insert it in a machine to leave.
For the safety of their female customers, it's quite common in Europe
for parking garages to reserve the most well lit and frequented area of
the garage for women who are not accompanied by a male. This area usually
corresponds to the first level of the garage. Look for signs reading,
for example, "Nur Frau" (German for "Only Woman").
As I mentioned in the Why Drive? chapter, Barcelona harbors amazing car
parks. When you drive in, an attendant directs you to continue into a chamber. Once
you properly align the vehicle in the chamber, you exit both the vehicle and the
chamber. Finally, the attendant closes the
chamber, and the vehicle is hydraulically moved to some secret, subterranean vault. Be sure
to remove your luggage when you remove yourself from the chamber: I once
didn't and had to recall my car, drive it out, and pay before being able to re-park it.
theft and safety
Most theft in Europe is of the petty variety, rarely involving assault: the thief does
not want a confrontation. Thus, by using your head you can prevent almost every
For example, don't let people listen in or somehow note your phone card or
credit card number. Watch your credit card after giving it to a clerk: you don't want the
clerk to make extra imprints. Review all charge slips before you sign them. And be
careful with your charge card receipts: they have the card number on them too. In fact,
you should destroy old carbons, billing statements, and other records that bear
your account number.
Don't flaunt your money or act too much like a tourist. You know how
foreigners stand out as targets for crime. Don't compromise your trip, but don't
unnecessarily make yourself a bigger target. Be discreet when doing your thing in banks,
at ATM machines, or at exchange booths. Take note of the people around you. Try
to blend in and look confident. If you have a shoulder bag, wear the strap across
the shoulder opposite the side on which the bag hangs. Be careful in crowded
places such as those around street performers and on metros and buses: pickpockets
love crowds — especially crowds ripe with tourists. Beware at beaches. If two
people approach you, one speaking to you and the other hovering around, go on red alert:
the speaker may be trying to distract you while the other person nabs an item. And
never fall asleep with a valuable next to you. Move in groups when it's convenient.
In no way is the danger great enough that you should modify your itinerary; just be
smart, that's all.
The further south you go the more you need to be aware of your possessions
and personal space. Beware of young vagrant children and their adult cohorts who
hover around and pickpocket travelers. Such thieves may walk into you with an
open newspaper or large flat box held extended from their waste, wave a newspaper
in your face, or throw a baby doll into your arms to distract you while their
accomplices rifle through your pockets. Other thieves may approach you with flowers
or some other triviality to sell; simply brush them off — and don't feel bad about it.
I've even heard of tourists being glopped with mustard then "assisted" by ostensibly
helpful bystanders who in fact did the glopping and who point to the sky and claim the
stuff is bird doo while they wipe it off and swipe what they can. No matter, if you're
aware of their presence and have taken simple security precautions, thieves will leave
Thefts from vehicles occur with alarming frequency in Spain and Southern
Italy. Regardless of where you are, leave nothing of value in the vehicle. Leave the
glove compartment open and emptied. If a rear seat pulls down to offer access to the
trunk, pull it down — and leave the trunk empty. If you must leave something of value in
the trunk, however, lock that seat so it can't be pulled down. If possible, lock the
trunk from the driver's side lock so it can't be popped open without the key. If your
vehicle has a hatchback, remove the shield that conceals the empty trunk.
Consider leaving the front passenger door open
to allow thieves easy access: otherwise, they'll break a lock or window. Essentially,
make the scene look as if some other thief has been there already. If you drive into
the larger cities, consider parking in front of embassies and banks where security
may be better, or in an area where traffic police are working. Throughout Europe,
parking ramps offer safer haven than the streets; but they may not be worth the cost.
The rate of theft of vehicles themselves is high in the city of Prague and
in Poland. Consider parking in small towns outlying the larger cities. You can take
the extremely cheap trains into the metro area. Thieves concentrate where the tourists
are, and the tourists usually aren't in the small towns. Turning your wheels all the way
to the curb may also help.
Some thieves are more aggressive than those I've mentioned so far. Keep
your vehicle's doors locked when driving, and keep the vehicle in gear at a stop. If
someone points to your tires as if indicating that the tires are flat, don't get out to look.
If someone bumps you — especially if they bump you repeatedly — think twice
before unlocking the doors and getting out of the vehicle. Rather, turn on your vehicle's
hazard lights to signal that you're not fleeing, and drive slowly to a well-populated
and well-lit place. Beware if you pick up a rental car at Madrid's airport. The
rental companies there park their vehicles in unprotected and unsupervised areas. As
a result, thieves have learned to puncture the tires, wait outside, follow exiting
vehicles, and rob them when the unsuspecting
driver pulls over with a flat. Always be wary of
an offer of roadside help extended by anyone other than a uniformed police officer
or civil guard. If a person stops to help, ask them to call the police. Conversely,
don't you stop to help a stranded motorist: in
the more marginal parts of Europe, roadside brigands are known to feign car
trouble then steal your vehicle and/or rob you when you stop to help.
Lock away your baggage overnight, and lock the door to your room as
well. When staying in a hostel, take a hint from nature and sleep with your valuables
between your legs. Out of sight is out of mind; don't unnecessarily tempt thieves.
Passports are a valuable commodity on the black market — keep yours secure. If
you travel in a couchette on an overnight
train, tie the door shut: thieves payoff conductors, put sleeping gas into
compartments, and proceed to pilfer the unconscious
occupants' possessions; if you're not careful, you'll wake up minus one suitcase or
backpack but plus one big head ache. Italian trains have become infamous for such
robberies. If something of yours does get stolen from your person, vehicle, or room
and if you have some form of insurance to cover the theft of the item, make sure
you get a police report at the next convenient opportunity, if you know what I mean.
And don't give up items for lost if they are stolen. Often thieves are only after
cash and will dump wallets and other articles. Many are nice enough to throw the
wallet — including credit cards — in a mailbox. The post will check your identification
and deliver the wallet and contents either directly to your embassy or to the police
who will forward it to your embassy. And police stations in Europe are often rife
with stolen articles waiting to be claimed. If you've written your address on your
articles, they may conveniently show up at your embassy like your wallet.
In hot weather check the radiator's water level frequently. If the water level is
low but not below the bottom of the header tank, you can immediately add water.
If, however, the water is below this level, you should allow the engine to cool
before adding water: otherwise you may damage the cylinder block. If the radiator is
overheating, let it cool before very carefully and slowly opening the radiator cap. If
you aren't careful, a rush of steam from the radiator may severely burn you. High
engine temperatures resulting from some combination of a high ambient
temperature, an ineffective cooling system, and extreme strain on the engine from, say,
a steep ascent, can vaporize fuel in the lines, the pump, or the carburetor, causing
the engine to stop. If such a stall occurs, let
the engine cool off before trying to restart it.
breakdowns & accidents
If you've rented or leased a vehicle, your contract should entitle you to some form
of roadside service. Regardless, chances are that the local motoring club will come
to your aid. As I detailed in the Documents chapter, most of the European clubs
belong to one of the two international touring organizations, either the
Fédération Internationale de
l'Automobile (FIA) or the Alliance Internationale de
Tourisme (AIT) and thus are obligated to
reciprocate their benefits to members of
likewise-affiliated clubs. If you don't belong to
an affiliated club, you can buy temporary membership in any number of
European clubs. Even if you aren't reciprocally or directly a member of these clubs,
they'll still come to your aid — for a charge. In the country-by-country descriptions, I
include the address and phone number of all automobile clubs, and I note if they're
affiliated with the FIA and/or AIT.
If you're battery is dead and it's in a manual transmission vehicle, you can
get the vehicle started again by "popping the clutch." To do this, push in the clutch
and hold it, put vehicle in second gear, have the vehicle pushed up to a speed that
matches the speed associated with the second gear, then let the clutch out and turn the key.
The energy of the turning axle is translated into the engine where the alternator
transforms it into enough electric power to start
Get a receipt for any service you must pay for: your automobile club, rental
or leasing company, or dealer may reimburse you if you
do. Always secure a cost estimate before submitting your vehicle
In many areas, emergency phones are in
place along major roads. Laws, unless I note otherwise in a country's description,
require you to call police to the scene of any accident that involves you and that
results in damage to a vehicle or person. However, sometimes — especially in the
South — the parties involved can settle such damages on the spot. Such settlements are
facilitated by the European Accident Statement.
This form — found in the glove compartment or in the pocket on the driver's side door
of most rental vehicles — provides a standard format on which to draw a diagram of
the accident, note the information about the vehicles and drivers involved, and
note other important facts about the accident. All drivers involved sign the form
and receive a carbon copy; they then send a copy of their copy to their rental or
leasing or insurance company. Of course you should carefully consider your
insurance coverage before settling accidents
without involving the police. Note that you should never sign a statement that you can't
read; insist on a translation.