16 October 2015

Navigating France

When we last came to France, navigating - getting to our destination - was easy and fairly stress-free. We used trains and buses exclusively, and they always had a drop in or near the center of town.

This time, we rented a car and drove almost everywhere. We had two devices with GPS capabilities, and had downloaded offline maps for the places we expected to visit. We were set! THEN! Disaster struck - both devices were in my purse when it was stolen :-(  Aside from the loss, now we had to rethink our navigation method. We went old school...

Our first stop was a gas station for maps (yes, the PAPER kind, that fold crazily). Unfortunately, the only available maps here are regional (large scale, no detail), and specific to the nearest town. So we still had no detailed map of the town we were heading to.

Fortunately, we did still have internet, and devices to connect! We first tried Google maps and directions - this worked well when combined with the regional maps, but failed miserably navigating in a town. We scribbled the turn notes, and kept in mind which towns were next on the route. Round-points are used extensively in France, and the exit to take is most often marked with the town coming up. Google maps usually gave the street name (e.g. take the 2nd exit to Blvd Jean Jaures), which is NOT marked on the exit, and is almost never confirmable by a later street sign.

Even non-driving directions weren't always helpful - we took the train to Marseille, then switched to the metro, and then had a short walk to our destination. Sounds easy, right? It probably would have been, except we had our Google directions... It doesn't handle the metro ins and outs well at all! We came off the train expecting to exit the station and walk (outside) to the metro station; luckily, we saw and followed the metro signs (inside the train station!). Then leaving the metro, we came off the escalator onto a plaza that was listed as the second turn in our directions. At this point we need to walk, but which way? We picked one, finally decided it was the wrong one, and stopped at a pharmacy for help. Oh, what magic and delight the pharmacist brings! She walked us out to the street, pointed our direction (the way we had come), pointed out the plaza (the one we came from), and said to turn right onto the street we needed (and we would know it by the little café on the corner :-)

Our next big drive was into Montpellier - a 20 minute (each way) drive that turned into a 2 hour nightmare. Round-points were disguised as offramps, street signs were non-existent, and traffic was horrendous! We nearly ended up in the city center (full of pedestrian only streets, narrow and one way streets, and no-way-to-know-where-the-heck-you-are situations), but we turned around just in time. We got back to the edge of town, and tried again. We finally just followed exit signs for the neighborhood we knew we needed. When those ran out, we saw the lighted green cross of our miracle-worker - the pharmacist! Different town, but the same helpfulness! He pulled out a well-worn cardboard map of the area, and pointed out the round-points and exits we needed - and we made it! We took a slightly longer, but much clearer way home...

We learned our lesson. We tried a few other websites for directions. fr.mappy.com was nearly as bad as Google maps - it also gave street names for the round-point exits. autoroutes.fr usually only gave directions between cities, but was great for using the autoroutes - it indicated where the tolls were, and how much! But ultimately, we just had to use what directions and maps we could, and trust to luck and our mounting experience. A very large part of that experience was gained by circling round-points multiple times...

Next, we took screen shots of areas we thought might be tricky. This helped some, but the biggest problem was that we still couldn't tell where exactly we were. So we often guessed at whether we were at the 3rd round-point or the 4th one. And the mess to get back on the A9 from Quéribus was crazy! Even now, I can't describe all the round-point to round-point to circling exits we took!

One thing that we had planned on worked fairly well for us. We knew we didn't want to drive in the city centers that we wanted to visit. So we aimed for a tram or shuttle stop at the edge of town, parked, and took the system in. Once there, we stopped at the tourist office and got maps and advice about bus/metro lines to take to see any outlying sites. I had a lot of anxiety about how to find these convenient parking places, but between the local tourist office, hints from guidebooks, and our accumulated experience, we did just that for almost all of our city trips!

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