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Navigating Portugal via GPS

April 2009

We haven’t driven in Europe for quite a while, or at least in an area with which we’re not familiar; i.e., excluding the Riviera. So when we planned to drive around Portugal for a week, we were glad to see that reasonably-priced compact GPS units that include detailed maps of most of Europe as well as the United States and Canada were now available. After considerable research we bought the Garmin nüvi 770 and practiced around home for a month or so before the trip. We also purchased an alternate mount to the suction cup that attaches to the windshield. We’d read that thieves target cars with the telltale mark left when the mount was removed. The alternate mount includes a sort of sandbag with a very grippy rubbery base.

It stayed put wherever it was placed, even on a slippery sloping dashboard subject to extreme maneuvers (not that I tried any), and left no evidence behind when it was removed. The GPS snaps into a connector that powers it through a cable plugged into the cigarette lighter – or rather power outlet, in these more enlightened times. When the unit is unsnapped from the connector, it automatically saves the location as “last position” as an aid to return to the car – as long as you remember to do the unsnapping before turning it off.

As you may imagine, both it and the two cars we have with factory-installed GPS all have different, “easy to use” instructions, and it took a while to discover the quirks of this one. For example, its compact size – about 3” x 5” x 3/4” and weighing 6 ounces – makes it easy to take along to navigate while on foot. However, while trying out Pedestrian mode one day, we noticed that it was sending us by a circuitous route. It turned out that it didn’t automatically select the most direct route if one had previously selected the more likely choice of Faster Time instead of Shorter Distance when in Automobile mode. I guess it assumes that, similar to a car, legs would propel one faster and with fewer stops along major roads.

A useful feature not present in either factory-installed unit was that you could set it for a long-range display and it would automatically zoom to a close-up view as you approached a turn and return to the long-range view afterwards. Unfortunately, another desirable feature, FM traffic receiver service, wasn't available in Portugal, although I think it is available in France, Germany and the UK.

Of course, the Automobile/Pedestrian choice (there is also a Bicycle mode) is accessed from a menu

 Tools-->Settings-->Navigation-->Route Preference: Automobile/Bicycle/Pedestrian,

that is different from the Faster Time/Shorter Distance choice (there is also an Off Road – straight line – mode which is useful for locating your car in a parking lot – although not when out of GPS range in a parking garage):

 Tools-->Settings-->System-->Usage Mode: Faster Time/Shorter Distance/Off Road

During our Seabourn crossing, I would bring the GPS on deck occasionally to minimize the time it would take for it eventually to locate the satellites at our destination. It was a source of some amusement to view a little car bravely steaming eastward in the middle of the ocean. To plot a route to our stop in Madeira required selecting Off Road mode, otherwise it took a long time trying to find a road before giving up – evidently sea lanes aren't yet in the database.

For the several days we were in Lisbon it was useful in guiding us while walking to restaurants, and when held near the window of a tram, bus, or train, indicating our progress towards the desired museum or other site, or back to our hotel. And, in a taxi, keeping the driver honest. In fact, the London taxi taking us to Heathrow had an identical unit.

The day finally came for us to use it as intended to drive to Cascais. Our Lisbon hotel, the Tivoli Jardim, from where we were also able to conveniently pick up our car, was to the north of downtown, and the beginning of the route also was to the north, so there wasn’t the tangle of city streets to negotiate. We drove around a complex traffic circle and headed towards the west – and directly into a long tunnel! Fortunately, when we emerged, it was onto an autoestrada, which gave sufficient time for the GPS to regain its bearings before we struck out towards the coast.

We were directed to our hotel, the Pestana Cascais, with only a slight glitch – a street had been closed – but we were successfully rerouted around it when we made a right turn. In fact, directions to all our hotels, each of which was in Garmin's database, were always precise – important in many of the old towns that were constructed before the days of automobiles, with their narrow, one-way streets and pedestrian zones. For example, Evora still has remains of a Roman temple and aqueduct, and you can get an idea from the map, the way we navigated in the past, that if we made one wrong turn it could take quite a while to find our way back. ("A" marks our hotel, the Albergaria Solar de Monfalim.)

However, there was one wrinkle that we hadn’t experienced in our practice runs – the traffic circle, aka, roundabout. Although there are a few examples in DC, they are plentiful in much of Europe. Outside of downtown areas, you frequently find them instead of traffic control devices, and as it happened, Cascais had several between our hotel and the autoestrada.

One account I read (regarding their use in France) said they were originally installed as antidotes to accidents resulting from confusion about the “priority to the right” traffic law: if there are otherwise no traffic control devices at an intersection, you must yield to vehicles entering from the road on the right. We quickly learned the importance of caution at the many uncontrolled intersections even in our neighborhood when we moved to Germany.

International road signs indicate when you are entering a Priority Road, and when you are returning to a road where you have to be very alert to traffic entering from the right:

Although the meaning of many of the international road signs are rather intuitive1, this one certainly isn't.

The navigational difficulty posed by roundabouts was that the soothing British female voice we had chosen to guide us would say to “leave the roundabout at the second (or third, or fourth) exit, on (unintelligible Portuguese street name).” The street name clue was of little use, but it also wasn’t always easy to determine which little alley or driveway was to be counted, and we sometimes exited too early or too late.

However, our adviser remained calm, never kvetching about having to compensate for our obvious incompetence in following her directions, and she would eventually bring us back to her chosen route. Fortunately, we soon realized that almost always what was desired was simply to continue in the same direction, which could be verified by a quick glance at the display. So we soon were going boldly where, at least we, had not gone before: Obidos, Fatima, Nazaré, Coimbra, Evora, and back to Lisbon (where we again encountered the tunnel). However, there were still some unforeseen pitfalls to be encountered, although fortunately not as drastic as this:

As we left Nazaré, we were surprised that the recommended route was not the same as the way we had arrived. However, it was picturesque, and we eventually were heading towards the autoestrada, so we thought nothing of it – until I noticed that the estimated arrival time was 9:15 AM. Since it was already after 10, I wondered if the GPS had forgotten our time zone, so I reset it. We could see that the current time was correct, but the ETA was now 8:55 AM and rapidly decreasing. (Normally, once we were underway we saw little change in the arrival time; gradually decreasing when we were slightly exceeding the speed limit on an autoestrada, gradually increasing when we experienced congestion.)

Then we were directed onto a small side road and I suddenly realized that I had forgotten to change from Pedestrian to Automobile mode after our previous day’s strolls. We were being sent on pedestrian-possible routes, and although the arrival time, nearly 24 hours in the future, was based on some estimated walking pace, it was being continually recalculated as we traveled at a superhuman sprinter's speed.

It would be much more useful to see a summary of the chosen settings when the unit is turned on rather than the lawyers’ warning that you might be killed or dismembered if you actually used it for its intended purpose while driving, and also not to use it in the bathtub.

From then on, we consulted a pre-departure checklist.

At least now we were on the autoestrada heading towards Coimbra – until our tour adviser told us to keep left on the A8. Sure enough, we soon saw a road splitting off to the left, which we found, after we were irrevocably committed, was really the A17. The display gamely showed us still proceeding along A8 until the pretense became too great, when we were shown actually to be driving cross country, through fields and across streams. Somehow the construction of a complete autoestrada had been overlooked by the mapmakers.

As we passed over each road, our British guide recommended it as a way to return to the desired route, but the first chance we would have to get on one was 17 km later. We prepared to ask the tollbooth attendant for recommendations when we exited. At which time we found that this modern road also had the latest in tollbooths: it was automated – coins, bills, or credit card, but no advice. I guess it is pretty picky to expect that the GPS database would include every little autoestrada! 2

However, by then the device had run out of ways to deceive us, and the rest of our journey was uneventful. Of course, we can't tell if the best route was chosen in each case, but our guide always got us to our desired destination, and it was certainly more convenient than our previous method: compass and multiple road maps, supplemented by the Michelin Red Guide's city maps. Not to mention that it was also more convenient to take along than the detailed "Michelin Road Atlas of France" that we eventually bought for our many driving tours throughout France – at 350, 9" x 12" pages, it weighed nearly 4 pounds.

1 In the "intuitive-meaning international road sign" category, my favorite is one we saw in the picturesque fishing village of Kinsale, in Ireland.

Betty Lou wasn't amused when I suggested that it would really be ironic if after having seen this sign, it happened to us – I was driving pretty close to the edge of the pier at the time, and of course, this was opposite-side-of-the-road driving.

But it didn't.

2 In August, I checked the Garmin website for map coverage and found that the A17 was now included.

© Copyright 2009 Jack Ludwick - All Rights Reserved

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