Best and worst places to drive

I have never been tempted to write to a magazine before, but the topic Best & Worst Places to Drive immediately drove me to my computer! (Excuse the pun.)

In May ’04 my husband and I rented a car to travel throughout Italy. One of our destinations was Florence.

Driving in Florence, Italy, is the closest my husband and I ever came to divorce. We had very good directions to the train station where, being smart travelers, we were going to park and then walk to our hotel and map out the best route to their parking garage.

Well, after completely missing the train station, we found ourselves on a huge boulevard with all the traffic (mainly Vespas) whizzing around us while I tried to read a map of the city and tried to find the, often, obscure street signs, with my husband getting more and more stressed trying to navigate the seemingly endless corridors of Old Florence.

After stopping and consulting several policepersons, our broken Italian finally got us going in the right direction to our hotel; we had given up on the train station by this time. However, when we found the correct street, it was closed due to construction! We tried to go around the block and up side streets and do whatever else we could think of to get us there.

Finally, I jumped out of the car and walked to the hotel while my husband drove around some more trying to avoid all those little motorbikes and irate Italians who were shouting something about “tourists.” The hotel manager, fortunately, saved our 40-year marriage by coming with me, jumping in our car and directing us to the hotel’s parking garage.

I teach “Explore Italy. . . On Your Own” classes for our local Adult and Community Education program, and at the end of the series I hand out “Top Ten Tips for Stress-free Travel.” The number-one tip is this: “Don’t drive in big cities. Instead, park at the outlying airport and take public transportation.”

Sarasota, FL

On a trip in March ’04, a theft in Rome had caused us to decide to return early to the U.S. rather than pick up a car in Naples and drive south to Sicily. We did take the train to Naples, however, and watched with horror the traffic scene at the Piazza Garibaldi outside the station. We’ve seen, and occasionally driven in, tough traffic in Italy and Europe, but nothing prepared us for the level of anarchy in the hearts of Naples’ drivers.

No rules. Nothing made sense. Absolute madness. We were so grateful that our loss in Rome saved us from renting a car and trying to drive out of Naples, and we warn all travelers south of Rome that when the guidebooks say that traffic in Naples is dangerous (it says that about all Italian cities), you’d better believe it!

Albuquerque, NM

I’m an American who is married to an Argentine lady. We have been in 17 of the 23 provinces of Argentina and have driven in all 17. (This coming December we will have been in 19 provinces.)

Driving through Argentina is safe and easy. There are few expressways in Argentina, and most roads are 2-lane. Make sure you look at maps and ask people about your upcoming routes because you don’t want to get stuck on a dirt road (terrible).

Other minor irritations include being stopped by the police as you enter and/or leave each province (in fact, sometimes there are intraprovince stops). This would be similar to being stopped in the United States as you went from one state to the next. There seems to be no reason for these stops other than the old political patronage system of creating jobs to get votes.

Now some good news — you can use your AAA card in Argentina at YPF gas stations that have an ACA sign out front (ACA is the equivalent of AAA), and they give you a 5% discount. In December ’04-January ’05 we found that this discount is now computerized and easy.

Fort Lauderdale, FL

Best place to drive: Chile. In 1999 I drove a rented car from Arica, Chile’s northernmost city, southward through the Atacama Desert to Antofagasta, stopping at Pisagua, Iquique and Tocopilla. Vehicular pickup and dropoff was easy. The signs were not bad, compared to those in the rest of Latin America.

Best of all was that the north-south highway, traversing generally flat desert several hundred feet above sea level a few miles inland from the coast, is well paved and straight, with great visibility, and quite underutilized. I would drive for miles without seeing another vehicle and cover long stretches of desert, with an occasional several-mile dip to traverse usually dry riverbeds. Once in a while there was a police checkpoint. . . always manned by well-behaved guards.

And practically nobody was visiting Chile’s compelling tourist attractions: the former prison for political dissidents in Pisagua, the “Giant of the Atacama” (oldest paleolithic representation of the human form in the Americas), Humberstone (a copper mining ghost town) or the fishing village of Mejillones (where one can eat sea urchins and other marine delicacies). It was all simply perfect — my best vacation ever.

Sierra Madre, CA

Using “The ITN Official List of Nations,” I have driven in 73 nations. I’ve also driven on the islands of New Caledonia, Sumatra, Bali, Lombok, Mykonos, Thasos, Paros, Naxos, Santorini, Corfu, Crete, Corsica, Sardinia, Sicily and a couple of others, like the Isle of Skye and Hawaii as well as on the Peloponnese Peninsula.

For sheer driving madness, frustration and inconvenience, my worst driving experience goes, unchallenged, to a maverick state of little Moldova named Transdniestria (1998). Police state harassment takes on a new meaning there.

For only poor roads, it’s Albania. Specifically, the road from Vlorë to Sarandë (in 1997). For many miles it was dirt, one lane, poorly maintained (if at all) and in mountains several thousand feet high with no guardrails. A car traveling downhill had to stop and back up until it found a place for an uphill-moving car to pass. My wife cried the entire ride.

When it comes to the “best place to drive,” it is harder for me to select one country over several others. Tiny places have a real advantage. Liechtenstein, for example, or Monaco would be in the running, but there is so little they have to pave to be a competitor that it doesn’t seem fair to include them.

For large countries, probably the U.S. is my choice, certainly not India, Russia or China. In Scandinavia, roads are good and the drivers, in my opinion, are the most courteous in the world. Spain’s main roads are excellent, but the tolls are expensive.

For a real test of patience, try driving in Gibraltar on a holiday.

Coronado, CA

The best place to drive? Spain. Roads are well signed and marked, even in big cities. Roads also are well maintained.

Best of all, on the highways, drivers follow the rules of the road — no hogging that left lane! It’s wonderful driving somewhere where drivers are courteous and road-rule savvy.

Baltimore, MD

Driving into Frankfurt, Germany, in October ’04 was the worst such experience that I have had anyplace in Europe or the United States. Heading into the city during a rainstorm in the early evening, I was trying to go downtown to a hotel and it was bumper-to-bumper traffic, stoplight after stoplight — a massive snarl of traffic. I couldn’t even find a place to turn off. During the day, though, travel was better, although I found it impossible to find any parking.

In talking to some German friends as well as some American students who have lived in Frankfurt, I learned that most people recommend not driving into Frankfurt.

The second-worst place that I have found to drive would be Vienna, Austria, with its one-way streets in and around the so-called downtown Ring.

The third-worst place is Brugge, Belgium, where it is almost impossible to drive downtown without hitting all types of narrow, one-way streets.

For those who may desire reaching accommodations in the central area of Brugge, I would suggest they find the public parking spots designated by large signs with initials like JBKL. These signs are placed on the ring road circling the city, and once you are familiar with this system, if you follow the signs with those so-called initials for the parking places, they will guide you to areas in the central city where, hopefully, you will find parking.

Lastly, if you are trying to find car return in Paris’ Charles de Gaulle International Airport, it is a harrowing experience because when you approach the airport the terminal signs seem to disappear. Once you locate one of the two terminals, there are really no English or French signs that direct you to the car rental return place.

I suggest that if you reach the terminal and are driving on the main level for discharging passengers, head your vehicle toward the lowest level or ground level below the departure level and you will probably find where the car return agencies are located. It is my understanding that many Americans become so frustrated on returning cars that they simply abandon them anyplace they can at the airport.

While I have not used them, a friend of mine has used the satellite-controlled directional systems (GPS) and they apparently work quite well.

My last comment is to be careful on collision damage waiver (CDW) on car rental insurance. Such coverage is now sold with high deductibles. I found out from Avis that they do offer a super CDW policy that insures drivers for additional collision damage in Europe.

Wadsworth, OH

Driving in France is wonderful, except in the large cities — just like anywhere in the world. The roads are excellent, although it can be a challenge finding one’s way through a city or village. We have driven in France many times, in 1982, 1984, 1998, 2001, 2003, 2004 and again in May ’05.

Small cars are best for navigating through the narrow streets of most French villages — cobblestone streets built long before there was any thought of automobiles. Rent the smallest car you can to fit the number in your party and which hides your luggage from view. We usually choose a class B or C car with manual transmission for economy of size and expense. Air-conditioning is needed only in summer months; otherwise, we rent without it.

If you wish to drive in more than one country for a few days, it is prudent to drop the car and re-rent in the other country. Cars with foreign license plates or with maps and tourist brochures in plain view are dead giveaways to thieves. In 1993 we dropped our car in Bayonne, France, and took the train 50 miles to San Sebastian in northern Spain where we rented a Spanish car.

The freeways in France are excellent but expensive. They are most useful when you need to travel a long distance; otherwise, get off the freeway, enjoy the countryside, stop for farmers’ markets or interesting buildings and get the feel of villages and cities.

The divided highways are great. They are as good or better than ours in the U.S. There are toll roads (such as A-1) and also some “N” (National) roads, which are divided highways and toll free. Otherwise, there are many “N” and “D” designated highways, which are mostly excellent although only two lanes. The divided highways do not pass through cities or villages, while the other roads do go through the towns, which at times can be very confusing.

Frankly, traveling the secondary roads is what makes rural France fascinating and exciting. On your route, check in advance for the name of the nearest village and also the nearest larger town. This aids in route recognition, although usually the route number will also appear on direction signs.

In France, there are small towns every few miles. Look for signs indicating “Centre Ville” to find the center of a town. Town centers are close to most tourist attractions and are very intriguing.

As you approach a town or village on an N or D road, you will encounter roundabouts. Sometimes there is a sign shortly beforehand which pictures the roundabout and the exits and lists the highway or destinations off that exit.

Enter a roundabout carefully and drive around the circle until you see the exit sign (with arrow) that indicates the right highway number or destination you desire. You may miss seeing the correct arrow the first time around, in which case you can keep going around until you find the right one. Many times I have gone around two or three times.

If you do not find the right sign, go exactly halfway around and take that exit and continue to the next roundabout. Remember: the driver on the right has the right of way, as do the vehicles already inside the roundabout.

Sometimes you will see a sign that reads “Toutes Directions” (“All directions”). If you do not find a sign pointing to your correct highway, follow the Toutes Directions arrows until you come to the roundabout that has the correct highway designation for your destination.

Good maps are a must. Before you travel, purchase two Michelin road maps: the Road Atlas, which contains pages for each small section of France, and the Regional Map for the area you will travel; this one is necessary for overall orientation. If your local bookstore does not stock them, you can order them from www.

Also, browse in a large bookstore to get familiar with the various section maps and the Michelin system of mapping. Highlight your probable routes on both maps and keep them at hand to locate towns and villages on your route that might appear on one of the roundabout exit signs.

Bookstores in France stock other excellent road maps which sometimes have better detail and are easier to read and use. The Michelin Green and Red guides are also useful because they contain maps which show how to get through or around a town and also where to locate major tourist sites as well as restaurants and hotels.

The French can be very friendly, and they can be helpful when they see you are in distress. We drove up that steep hill in Beynac (the town setting of the movie “Chocolat”) along the Dordogne River. Halfway up the hill we came to what appeared to be a dead end and I couldn’t get our little car to get into gear without sliding back into a wall.

Suddenly, a lovely woman yelled down to us, came running, pulled me out of the car, drove it to the top of the hill and said, “Voila!” We replied, “Merci,” and drove down the other side.

There are two pocket-sized Berlitz dictionaries I suggest you take with you. The first is an English-French and French-English dictionary. The second is divided into “subject sections,” each dealing with an overall subject such as “driving,” “finding a hotel” or “menus.”

Conclusion — drive, if you enjoy independent travel. Keep your cool and stay alert and focused. Every wrong turn brings adventure and an unexpected wonderful experience, if you can laugh off getting lost or making a mistake. The best châteaux and wonderful landscapes we have found came because we took wrong turns.

Anyone with questions may send an e-mail to me c/o ITN.

Santa Maria, CA