Driving and navigating in Europe – for the first time.
The car was collected at Le Puy, in the Auvergne. We were taking 10 days to drive to Sarlat, in the Dordogne. My co-driver is an anxious driver, but a brilliant navigator. He also could speak and read French. I, on the other hand am a hopeless navigator and do not speak French. I am a good driver. My letters to my mother describe the experience.
27/4/1995. Le Puy to La Chaise Dieu: Today we picked up the car. I discovered very quickly that turning left was a real hazard. My first attempt had me making a brilliant left turn, only to turn into the left lane. Navigator remains calm and I quickly move to the right as a car coming in the opposite direction comes into view.
The second hazard was the instinct to drive too close to the right. After hitting the kerb several times, wiping out several road markers, and having the navigator yelling hysterically that we were about to go over the edge of a cliff, I stopped and re-adjusted the side mirror to show just the side of the road.
The third hazard was the roundabout. Approaching, chanting the mantra “keep right, keep right, keep right” I managed to enter the roundabout on the right. All downhill from there, as I exited into a left lane. I stopped. Wrote a huge L on my left hand and a huge R on my right hand. Thereafter, I only needed to glance at my hands on the steering wheel when the navigator reminded me where I should be on the road. The hazards kept coming.
Did so well for about 50km. I was killing this driving on the right. Well I was, until being confronted with medieval one way roads carrying 2 way traffic, with houses built to the edge of the road, and very few places accommodating 2 way traffic.
28/4/1995. La Chaise Dieu to Saint-Flour. Hairy sort of a drive to Saint-Flour. Remember that dreadful drive we did from the Gold Coast area to the New England highway. Narrow metal road, timber trucks, hairpin bends and beautiful scenery. Well a good part of today was like that. Doing that sort of drive on the right hand side of the road was AWFUL. Navigating sins committed by me were such that it was decided that driving was a better occupation for me than navigating. Not sure what is worse, driving on the right or reading a French map with a nervous co-driver who needed to know precisely where we were almost every five minutes.
Stopped at Brioude. This was after winding in a traffic jam through cobbled 1 way streets, and having a huge truck tailgating, honking furiously when I tried to park the damn car the wrong way. Decided not to show my aggravation – he may well have driven right over the top of us.
Then the scary part started. Luckily there is hardly any traffic on these 1 lane roads – enough to scare the pants off you, but not enough to turn you into a quivering wreck. Still have 8 days driving, so there is time for the quivering wreck bit. Maybe I should have purchased rosary beads in Rome.
29/4/1995. St Flour to Murat. Rained. Just to add to the fun of driving on the right hand side of the road – actually, tracks – marked as roads, but tracks nevertheless. Navigating. Co driver asks what was the crossroad we just drove through. Don’t know, but we have km’s to go before we turn off. Co driver, rather testily “I always like to know where I am”. Me “oh well you might be at xxxx” Co Driver “where” Me, spelling it out. Co driver “you did not pronounce that correctly”. So busy trying to identify every little crossroad, so missed the main turn off.
1/5/1995. Murat to St Cere. I nearly knocked a cyclist off his bike. You should have heard the howls of rage. No doubt abuse. In my defence, just as I was about to overtake the cyclist he swerved out. As we were on a very narrow road my choice was to nearly knock him off his bike or go over the edge of a cliff.
Forgot to mention that I also hit a pedestrian with the outside right mirror. The road was blocked by lots of pedestrians, walking on the road. They would not move to allow a vehicle to get through. I edged forward slowly. Still they would not move. The navigator and I decided that I should continue to slowly edge forward. Doubtless they would move. They didn’t, and I nudged one of them with the side mirror – lack of judgment on my part. The mirror only just touched him, but it sprung back with a loud bang. They all moved over, glaring. I was mortified to find I had nudged the chief mourner in a funeral procession.
3/5/1995. St Cere to Rocamadour. There was a market day at St Cere today. Add that to 1 lane medieval streets, and you have a pretty character building drive. Old men on bikes, and very old men and women standing in the middle of the road chatting added to the chaos.
Today was quivering wreck day. We took from around 9.30am to 3pm to do 30kms on the ghastly laneways. Winding one lane tracks up the side of a gorge, and around hairpin bends with no vision at all requires full concentration. Difficult when the navigator is spotting birds and wildflowers and imparting that knowledge very excitedly in a manner which had me thinking something disastrous was about to happen.
I thought about Dad a lot today. Remember how he never wanted to stop at all on long car journeys, even for food. He would have been beside himself on this drive. Every 5 minutes it seemed that the navigator wished to stop and look at something. This desire was imparted with an urgency that required brakes to be slammed on, and finding somewhere to stop which would not be hazardous. After stopping for about the tenth time to inspect a magnificent wildflower specimen, or strain the eyes to see a pile of stones in the distance, which may, or may not have been a ruined castle, I had no luck in finding places to pull off the road in time.
I considered I really deserved a reward when we got to Rocamadour. I think the navigator considered he too deserved a reward for missing so many sights due to my inability to pull over and stop. We rewarded ourselves with a large gin and tonic on the terrace of the hotel, watching the buildings clinging to the side of the cliff being lit up by floodlights as dusk deepened into dark.
5/5/1995. Rocamadour to Sarlat. With only a couple of navigational crimes committed on my part, and not too many winding one lane roads, I felt as if I had mastered this keeping to the right and was quite sad to part with the car in Sarlat.”