Saturday, February 20, 2016

Across the Pyrenees – Erich

To see Portugal and Spain, and to do so in a convenient and cost-effective way, we rented a car. It is difficult to make trains and buses always work on schedule and for four people, that can get rather pricey. (Though, the number of toll roads in Portugal adds up the price too.)

We rented the car in Seville, Spain. And car rental in Spain is very reasonable. Even if you plan to return it in another city. With one big caveat. That city has to be in Spain.

If you return the car in a city in another country, there is an addition of $1000 or more to the price. That was a problem. We needed to get, by a certain date, to Cahors, France.

So we solved our problem like this: After we left Burgos, Spain, (having already spent time in Portugal) we drove to San Sebastian, Spain. We didn't get to much sightseeing in San Sebastian, but what we did see was lovely. There is a river flowing into the Atlantic Ocean here. Across the river are highly decorated bridges. Plus, this is in the foothills of the Pyrenees Mountains, so there is a lot of up and down coming into and throughout San Sebastian.

Alrica dropped the kids and me off at the Estacion de Autobuses and she drove the car to where it had to be returned. Then she took a taxi back. Meanwhile, I bought bus tickets to Biarritz, France. This way we were returning the car still in a city in Spain.

We rode the bus over the border, through the mountains. Sometimes you could see the Atlantic, other times you could not.

When we arrived in Biarritz, we rented another car there. We also spent the night in a studio apartment there. It was very nice. It was on the fifth floor which in America we would call the sixth floor. In Europe, and much of the rest of the world, the ground level floor is called the ground floor or the zeroth floor. Then the first floor is the one above that. And so on.

So the studio was on the fifth floor and the building's elevator, which was tiny, only went to the fourth floor. So if you wanted to ride the elevator, you could, but then you still went up one more set of stairs.

The apartment was a model of efficiency, able to have a kitchen, bathroom, and main room where one could sleep four in a minimal area.

Biarritz itself is an adorable town. Sadly, the weather was in a foul mood, with cold spitting rain falling on us most of our time there. Biarritz is right on the Atlantic Ocean, and the seas were foamy and violent while we were there. You could see a huge pile of sand that had been built to protect some of the businesses right along the beach from the ocean, which must have been higher than usual at high tide. We saw it at a lower tide, and the buildings were safe. But the ocean was sure pounding the beach.

The streets are narrow and bend in strange ways. There are very few straight streets of any sort. But I'm sure they were built long before the invention of the car. As such, one-way streets are common. Some are wide enough to allow street parking, but seeing cars taking up much of the sidewalk was not uncommon.

The next day, we drove from Biarritz to Cahors. This was a beautiful drive through the countryside. Of course, near the border, we were still going through mountains. In both Spain and France, there are a lot of tunnels you traverse. Some are short, less than 200 meters. Others are long, nearly 5 km. Along the tops of most of them are smoothly carved and cemented arches. But along a couple, the smooth arch is only near the entrance and the exit, and the remainder of the ceiling above looks like it was a natural cave with the random bends and dips of rock above.

France does not like to waste a single Euro on unnecessary speed limit signs. You only see a speed limit sign when a) it is necessary because you are entering a dangerous curve or something like that and they want to limit your speed or b) you are about to enter a speed trap where they have a radar gun aimed at the car and take a picture of the license plate if you are speeding. Apparently the law says that they can't have one of these speed traps without having a sign up telling you there is a speed trap and what the proper speed limit is. Thus, even in France, where spending on speed limit signs is anathema, they do it anyway.

When you enter a zone where there is a posted speed limit, you see a circular white sign with a number in black, maybe 70. (Remember, this is in kilometers per hour, not miles per hour.) And when you leave that zone, you see a circular white sign with that same number in black, but now there is a slash through it. So even when you leave a speed zone, they don't tell you what the new speed is. They just tell you that it is no longer the old speed.

So how do you know how fast you are allowed to go in France? Well, apparently you just have to know these rules: On the motorways (these are the controlled access toll roads) you can go 110 kph. On the other highways you can go 90 kph as long as you are outside of a village or town or city. If you are in a village, town, or city, you can only go 50 kph.

So you are driving along a highway and then you see a white rectangular sign with rounded corners that says the name of a village. This means you have entered the village and you must slow down to 50 kph. You see a few buildings, a place where very few people live. And still you might see a church building that is 1000 years old or older. There are so many medieval structures still standing in provincial France. It's amazing.

A kilometer or two later you see another white rectangular sign with rounded corners that again says the name of the village you were just in, but this time with a slash through it. This means you have left the village and you can again travel at 90 kph.

So, after a long journey, we made it to Cahors, France. Here we returned the car we had rented in Biarritz, France (again in the same country we got it from so as to avoid the exorbitant charge.)

I don't know how many of you will ever be driving in the French provinces. If you do, there is so much to see and it is gorgeous and impressive. But consider yourself warned!


  1. Very nice post. As you know we love France. Some roads in France actually go up to 130kph. Also in the southern part of France you may see some Roman ruins as well. I think the closest large city to you is Toulouse, which is very nice and when there you must try Cassoulet, and also Foie Gras, they kids may not like it, but I think you will. I think I noted this before, but it is very important that you make it to Carcassone which is about an hour from Toulouse (some of this also dates from Roman times). Backtracking, also there is a great space museum around Toulouse. Toulouse is where EADS is headquartered, they are the parent to Airbus and the French space industry. Cahors looks very nice too, nestled in a river bend.

    1. Thanks Bryan. Those are definitely places we will try to hit. We are also excited about some of the early human cave paintings around here.

  2. Use the cars GPS; I know the cars I rent in Europe always have them; on the screen there usually is a speed limit indicator so you will know the speed of every segment; be careful, I literally got several tickets for going 52 in a 50 so speed traps are all around; got to pay for that European Socialism some way ��

  3. Oh if it's not on your list Saint Michele north of Paris is an amazing city