The subject of driving licenses just came up in the household. We are preparing for our “Grand Tour of North America” in the fall (we’re seeing family and friends, but we’ll be in Canada as well as the US and it sounds like we’re a rock band that way) and it has led to a little bit of a dance with timing. Sparing you some gruesome yet boring administrivia, Lisa has successfully transferred her license to Portugal while John has not. Because of the upcoming trip he has been loath to try again just now, in case he is caught in a bureaucratic no man’s land having surrendered his US license (a requirement) but not receiving his Portuguese license in time. And so we wait. But this got us traipsing down memory lane, for there have been a number of adventures and near-misses on the highways and byways of Europe over the last decade or so. And since we are in a lull between trips to tell you about, well, come along down the lane with us!
Vignette Um: Cover me!
Like many people, we rely on the insurance provided by our credit card when we rent cars; rental agencies typically have downright brutal rates for coverage, while it’s included in your card. (Always check first, don’t assume you have it!) As we prepared for our honeymoon back in 2012, however, there was a consistent piece of advice we were seeing in various travel forums – get the comprehensive coverage. We were nonplussed, but there was a consistent narrative that the rental agencies in Ireland (Northern or the Republic, it’s not a regional thing) will terrorize you with charges and fees, defining the mildest dings as full replacements and the like. It seemed… well, borderline racist, but even the Irish commenters would say “yes, get the coverage.” And so, we paid a few hundred extra euros for comprehensive accident/collision/meteor strike coverage of our car.
Well. Our honeymoon consisted of a deosil circuit around the edge of the country, scooting south from Dublin and poking around in numerous villages; a new one every day (not something we’d do again, but hey, live and learn). We drove a lot. And when we did it was almost exclusively on the charming back roads. In case you aren’t familiar, “charming back roads” means that two-way traffic proceeds on 1.9 lanes worth of pavement, often with thick stone walls abutting the lane under the deceptive cover of a thick carpet of greenery. Not only that, but some of the most interesting things we wanted to see were on even lesser roads, sometimes of the dirt variety. In short, we were provided ample opportunity to bang up the car and to be frank we took advantage more than once. Most notably were the scratches in the paint from all the vines and such we brushed up against; We never hit a wall but we skimmed along them plenty. Then there was the very deep pot hole that was disguised as a puddle; there’s no way that didn’t bang up something on the underneath. When we pulled into the rental return lot at the Dublin airport you could practically hear the Scrooge McDuck coin-clinking sound going off in the attendant’s mind. We produced our insurance documentation and he noticeably deflated before wishing us a bon voyage.
Get the coverage in Ireland.
Vignette Dois: Google Day-drinks
Let’s get the obligatory disclaimer out of the way: of course the internet has transformed the travel experience, usually for the better. The general reliability of services like Google Maps means, however, that its shortcomings our more noticeable. Less-populated locations, or regions with poor data connectivity, are ripe for difficulties. These troubles happen often enough on our travels that we’ve taken a “ya gotta laugh or you’ll cry” attitude, and so we simply decided that Google often drinks during the work day, perhaps on its lunch break. We have been told to walk down a canal in Venice (blub blub!). We were once sent down an increasingly narrow lane on Naxos (the Greek island) late at night, which eventually ended as the driveway to a home. This necessitated backing up, in the dark with no street lights, for about a kilometer before we could get the car turned around.
Most infamously for us, in the Italian hill town of Orvietto we were sent on a circuitous route to get to what ought to have been a straight-forward destination. We long ago gave up second-guessing the google directions because the times we’ve done it have invariably gone wrong; we were being directed away from a route we knew well because of a traffic snarl we couldn’t see. “Ha, this isn’t the way!” we would say, and then stew in traffic for an hour. No, our faith in these directions is just that – faith. We have no empirical proof that the directions are good, but it often turns out ok. Anyway, we listened to google as the little cobblestone lane got narrower … and narrower.. until finally we reached the last, left, turn that would put us on a proper avenue. However, the aperture for the turn was between two buildings that were, it turns out, 10 or so centimeters tighter than the width of our car. It was only with the jiggling of a 40-point turn and the guidance of some very friendly and helpful locals that we extricated ourselves with only modest damage to the paint of that car. Ouzo, grappa, moonshine… when google drinks, google goes hard.
Vignette Tres: I knew I should’ve taken that left turn in Albuquerque.
Once again, we’re in Italy. This is 2017, and the whole digital apparatus of our lives is far loosey-goosier. (good luck, spell check!) And so we find ourselves navigating through the city of Siena with a cached map that is meant to guide us to some of the veeeeery limited parking in the city. Ah, Siena! A beautiful, ancient city, most famous for the horse race that goes on annually, a contest between the various neighborhoods within the city. Each district has its own livery and symbols, and it is an intense point of pride to claim the prize each year. The race takes place on the piazza del campo, an expansive brick plaza for pedestrians to enjoy; it is a tradition to gather each day in fair weather to watch the light change against the buildings as the sun goes down. People sit in cafes as well as upon the campo itself.
So, we proceeded into beautiful Siena. If you’ve never been into one of these old cities, they are often warrens of twisty-turny avenues; the European aesthetic is often to prefer the retention of old buildings rather than knocking them down to allow for modern roadways. And so we are twisting and turning our way, trying to follow some tricky directions (remember, google drinks!). Fortunately the name of our parking destination begins to appear on directional signs, so we are close! Another couple of turns and it feels like we are almost there. There is an emphatic sign about the left turn we are about to take but… welp, it’s in Italian. So left we go, down a tight little lane but we can see it widens just ahead. Yep, it does.
Onto the campo.
“Oh poop” we both say (more or less). Panicked, we look around. There is absolutely no way we are going to drive across the campo, regardless of the exits that beckon from the far side. It is unlikely that la polizia will accommodate us in any case. Lisa looks to our hard-left and sees a small lane; we make a break for it. Windows down, we are waving people out of the way so we can scoot off this UNESCO World Heritage Site pronto. Y’all… this lane was so narrow and so in use it was crazy. There were cafes that had outdoor seating, and hand-to-gods with our windows down we could pick olives off of the tables. A waiter saw us, shrugged in classic Italian fashion and scooted a chair a few inches out of the way.We were like a whale swimming with dolphins, where the dolphins were the pedestrians who were supposed to be there. We honestly should have turned the engine off and kicked ourselves along like a scooter. We look back and laugh, but we were naturally mortified in the moment.
Believe it or not, despite all of this (and this really is just a sample) we still enjoy the freedom of driving through the back roads of Europe. We did it earlier this year in Scotland with pleasure, and will continue on in the future.