Time to hit the road, Jacques

Toll-booth terror, wrong turns, hairpin bends and high-speed motorways: it's all in a day's driving in Europe but, for Michael Gebicki, there's no better way to see the continent.

THE scene: the ramp from the parking station at Paris's Charles de Gaulle Airport. An idiot driver is weaving across the lanes in a hire car trying to find the right exit, windscreen wipers flailing as he fumbles for the indicator and grinding the gears. See him? That's moi. Yet despite the occasional terror, despite the fact that I must begin driving on the wrong side of the road in a jetlagged state in a strange city and find my way using signs I can barely understand, despite moments when I have to squeeze through narrow alleys to find a park in une petite village on market day, when I'm travelling in Europe it's got to be a car every time.

Although Europe has a brilliant rail network, it's not for me. Your train will not halt to allow you to taste the wines at the vineyard that produced them, deliver you to a field of poppies or stop off for a cream tea in the village of Nether Wallop in Hampshire.

As a driver, on the other hand, I can go whenever and wherever I like and it's a life-affirming experience. When you're driving along an avenue of plane trees on a sunny morning in rural France or tacking through the hairpins on a Swiss alpine road, life is very beautiful.

There is also the Top Gear factor. Driving in Europe sends a powerful cocktail of endorphins through the body second only to skydiving and naked bear-wrestling. Cars were invented for the roads of Europe.

However, taking the wheel in your hands in Europe is not for faint hearts. French motorways, for example, are scary places. I don't mean the pace - the drivers who zoom up behind you when you're doing 140km/h in the fast lane and sit on your bumper until you finally make it past the truck with the Lichtenstein plates. Real terror lurks at the toll booth.

On a French motorway, where the toll booths are almost universally automated, you can never be sure whether the toll machine will require cash or credit card. And which card? Sometimes it will be Amex but not Visa, at the next booth it might be MasterCard instead.

As you approach each toll station, you need to choose your lane, locate your ticket, work your way through the gears and fumble in your wallet. You now discover that no matter how close the kerb is, unless you have arms like a chimpanzee, the ticket slot is just out of reach, forcing you to unbuckle, lean out the door and shove in tickets, cards and/or cash.

Not only are they intensely annoying, the toll booths on French motorways are also frequent. It's not uncommon to pass through a toll booth every 30 kilometres.


Contrast this with Italy, where I drive from Ventimiglia, on the French border, to Bolzano 550 kilometres away entirely on toll roads without the need to unshackle my wallet until I reach the very end of my journey.

The reason for the proliferation of toll booths on French motorways is to indulge the competitive instinct at the core of every French driver. When you depart the toll booth, you will typically find drivers from 10 adjacent booths funnelling into two or three lanes, which creates a situation at least as exciting as a formula one race start.

As a matter of honour, you must not let any vehicle that exits a booth after you gain a lead. Similarly, it is your objective to pass any other vehicle that might have left the toll booths ahead of you. The competition in this grand prix-style start is intense and infectious. Only by ferocious use of clutch and gearbox will you succeed and, when you get beaten by a mud-splattered Renault 4, the humiliation will hang over you like a dark cloud until the next toll booth.

I've negotiated enough booths on French motorways to feel a sense of savoir faire but when I abandon the E80 at Carcassonne and poke my ticket into the machine, it flashes back a message with the words "pas valide". I try again; the same thing happens. This is not looking good so I press the help button. "Dit-moi le problem (what's the problem)?" says a slightly mechanical female voice over a crackly speaker.

"Il n'accepte-pas le ticket," I say.

This is followed by a long, complicated inquiry. In stressful moments I do not perform well and my French language skills suddenly evaporate. "Vous parlez anglais?" I say hopefully. "Oui," she says. "Where are you coming from?" How quaint, I think. "From Australia." Silence at the other end.

No doubt she is recalling the brave sacrifice made by our doughty Diggers at Fromelles, thus saving the French Republic from yet another pasting at the hands of the beastly Hun. The pause continues but any moment now the barrier will swing up and she'll send me on my way with a hearty, "Bon voyage".

"Non. I don't care where you live. WHERE DID YOU JOIN ZE MOTORWAY?" Having realised that she is dealing with a total dolt, she's shouting now but I can't remember. My mind is a blank.

"Chateauneuf," I say. Wherever you are in France, there is always a Chateauneuf somewhere not too far away, but by this stage I don't care if the nearest Chateauneuf is 200 kilometres, I'll pay anything to be on my way. A truck that has pulled in behind me backs out, the bleep of its reversing signal beating out a reprimand.

There's a longish pause at the other end and finally: "Two euros 40," she says. I shove in a banknote, the barrier whips up like a contemptuous finger and I'm away. Is it any wonder that when I pull in at the parking lot in Carcassonne, my hands are shaking?

Wherever they are to be found in Europe, motorways seldom offer scenic diversion. They plod through the dullest, flattest terrain where even a light industrial zone provides welcome relief. However, for the sociologically inclined, motorways offer a commentary both on driving styles and on car models.

Italians like to drive fast. Germans will sometimes cruise close to 200km/h. Yet in terms of a national addiction to speed, all others pale beside drivers from Andorra.

Andorrans live in a landlocked principality about the size of a shoebox hoisted into the Pyrenees between France and Spain. Within Andorra's borders, the roads twist and turn as if someone has flung spaghetti on the map. A straight road causes them tremendous excitement, which forces their foot to the floor. Thanks to the fact that they pay no income tax and only nominal property tax and GST, Andorrans are also incredibly wealthy, which allows them to treat speeding fines with disdain.

Another small but revealing national difference is that tunnels on Italian motorways are far better illuminated than on French ones. This is so you don't have to remove your sunglasses, which might mess up your hair. In fact, hair products form a not-insignificant part of the items for sale in the stops along Italian motorways. The refreshment stop is one of the small joys of driving on Italy's autostrade, the national freeways.

These can be found at frequent intervals, serving marvellous rolls with cheese and ham and rocket-fuel espresso. In curious contrast, food at the French motorway stops is almost always disappointing.

Are you a frustrated highway patrol officer? This is the driver who likes to sit in the fast lane at just a smidge below the legal limit, in the belief that he or she is within their rights to prevent any other driver from proceeding at a livelier pace. If that's you, then driving on European motorways will change your mind. The fast lane is for fast drivers and those who ignore this will not be forgiven. Unless you want an S-series AMG Mercedes sitting a couple of metres from your tail and dazzling you with the kind of lighting system that is usually found at high-security prisons, stick to the lane suited to your speed.

For the first time in Europe I'm driving with a GPS and it's a game-changer, delivering me unerringly to tiny two-star hotels in obscure locations. I'm using one from Sygic downloaded to my iPad and it works like a charm. The Western Europe version costs me just €24.99 ($31), which is a steal since even the cheapest GPS with Europe maps costs about €100. The big screen is a bonus and for the cost of an in-car iPad charger, I can also listen to my iTunes music and call home at inconvenient hours whenever I become bored.

I've selected British lad Simon from the menu of voices. I could have had Aussie-accented Diane - or even Leyla except that I don't speak Azerbaijani - but Simon sounded authoritative. Since he has a rather plummy voice, I've renamed him Monty. Monty likes to play little games with me.

Sometimes he goes quiet, which makes me think he's nodded off. But all I have to do is accelerate a little above the speed limit and he comes to life with a metallic ping to let me know that he might have been quiet but he's watching.

If I take a wrong turn, Monty is inclined to humour me with a recalculated route but sometimes he takes revenge. In rural Spain, he takes me along a narrow road that becomes a muddy farm track with no possibility of a turnaround until I finally reach a farm where goats stare at me wonderingly.

On the other hand, Monty has deprived me of one of the real joys of travel, the state of being lost.

Lost is an underrated condition for a traveller: you make room for the unexpected. It can be one of the happiest places and so from time to time, I flick Monty's kill switch and let chance and whim set my course.

Thus at an hour when train travellers are brushing their teeth, I am lost in the Chianti region and stumble on a trattoria run by a Sri Lankan where I dine extravagantly on pasta with hare and mushrooms.

The writer flew to Europe courtesy of Singapore Airlines.

Trip notes

Getting there

Singapore Airlines has return flights from Sydney to Paris starting from $1948. 13 10 11, singaporeair.com.

Touring there

Sixt Rent a Car has an extensive network of offices throughout Europe and they offer competitive prices. sixt.com.

Drivers in Europe on an Australian licence require an International Driving Permit (IDP). This is basically a photo ID with a translation of your Australian licence in nine languages. The NRMA charges $39 for this service. Chances are you will never need to show it. In several decades of driving in Europe, no car hire operator has ever asked me to produce an international licence. Nor has a police officer but then I've never been involved in an accident or pulled up for a traffic offence.

Diesel or petrol

I'm aboard a diesel-powered vehicle and I'm doing most of my driving in Spain, France and Italy, where the price of diesel fuel is about 10¢ a litre less than unleaded petrol. Since fuel consumption is also less in a diesel-engine vehicle, this is a win-win situation for the driver.

After several years of shunting diesel-powered vehicles around Europe, I am convinced that there is no real downside. Engine noise is marginally greater than with a petrol-engine vehicle but Europe now has had many years of experience in building small cars with diesel engines and they're smooth, responsive and easy to drive. For the driver who plans to rack up big distances, diesel is the way to go.

Insurance options for hire car calamities

All hire cars in Europe come with a collision damage waiver. If you have an accident and damage the vehicle, your liability will be limited to the first €200 ($250) to €2000, depending on the country and the rental company.

You can choose to reduce this "excess" when you hire the car. The company will try to push you in this direction as it's a great money-spinner for them.

Chances are, it will also try to sell you insurance to cover the cost of damage to tyres and the windscreen. But you can also opt to buy insurance from a third party, such as Insurance4carhire (insurance4carhire.com), which is usually more affordable.

Insurance4carhire's Europe 31 plan covers the "excess" up to £4000 ($5950) on damage to a hired vehicle, theft, damage to the windows, roof, undercarriage and tyres for up to 31 days at a cost of £49.