Driving in Spain

October 2000

We've driven in many countries, but whenever we pick up a car for the first time, there's always an uncertainty about what this driving experience will be like. The range of opinions about Spain was pretty wide – people we knew who had recently been there said that driving was no problem, while a British travel guide recommended the purchase of a bail bond before setting out on the highways! I must admit that that advice crossed my mind during our encounter with El Policia.

After four days in Madrid, we picked up a car early on the morning of the National Holiday and headed out of town. This meant that there wasn't the usual rush-hour traffic, and specifically not the congestion and accidents that we'd seen on TV the previous rainy day, as people left early for the holiday.

After a week, having driven to Avila, Segovia, Salamanca, and Toledo (see Itinerary), I had become impressed with the Spanish road system and the manners of the drivers. I had heard that the government took the occasion of the Barcelona Olympics to upgrade the road system throughout Spain. Certainly the roads were well paved, well signed, and lightly trafficked. The drivers were amazingly considerate – when anyone even approached a crosswalk, cars would screech to a halt; someone preparing to pull out down the road would actually wait for you to pass and not zoom out ahead of you; and drivers obeyed the speed limit.

There was one quirk – being accustomed to assuming that the actual speed limit is about 10 mph more than posted, in the countryside I would usually pass several cars, eventually opening up some distance behind me. A kilometer or so before a minor road intersected the major one, the speed limit would decrease 20 kph, and so would I. Then the pack would catch up with me – evidently they didn't consider such decreases to be valid. Once we passed the intersection, sometimes there would be a notification of the return to normal speed, and I'd once again pull away from the pack.

But driving this way was so pleasurable I considered continuing this way when I returned to the US. Surely it would be much more relaxing.

Then we arrived in Grenada! From the map it didn't look like it should be that difficult to get to our hotel. It was in a limited access zone not far from the Alhambra, and the road seemed to be a straight shot in from the Autovía. Rick Steves advised, "Take exit #123, direction 'Centro Recogidas.' Calle Recogidas leads directly into the heart of town. There will probably be a police block at Puerta Real. Ask here for Plaza Nueva. Double-park at Plaza Nueva long enough to get directions to a parking garage near your hotel." (He also warned not to leave the car unattended, considering the risk of both police and thieves.) But we had specifically chosen our hotel, the Anacapri, not only because of its convenient location and reasonable price, but also because the Michelin Red Guide showed that it had a hotel garage.

The entry began inauspiciously – as we entered Calle Recogidas, a passing truck splashed through the only puddle in sight and coated our windshield with mud. The windshield washer and wipers did clear most of the field of view. We sped in with the rest of the traffic. Oops, that must have been the policeman Steves referred to blocking that street diagonally to the left. We were now past it, and our street was one-way. Well, it's time to look for a sign pointing to our hotel. And in a few blocks there was one, up a one-way street to the left – a very narrow one-way street with cars and trucks parked on both sides. We inched along and it finally merged into a wider, two-way, street with a lot more traffic, but no indication of what its name was. A few blocks further a sign to the right pointed to our hotel. This wouldn't be so bad after all!

The narrow alley was blocked at the next intersection by a parked car and nobody was in sight. So we backed out into the street and after another five blocks found another sign pointing to the Anacapri to the right. This time it was several blocks before we encountered a construction crew that was digging up the street. We turned right, then again down another alley, back to the major street we had been on, but which still had no identifying signs. Several cars ahead of us ignored the "No Left Turn" signs at the stop sign – of course that did lead to long waits until they could screech out between the opposing lines of traffic.

This time we proceeded further up the nameless street and were rewarded by another sign to the Anacapri. After a few more turnings, this alley eventually narrowed and ended. So we returned to the nameless street and this time joined the illegal left turners to head back the way we had come. Then Betty Lou caught sight of a cathedral off to the right – so we must be on the Grand Via de Colón! (In spite of the seemingly appropriate name for such a convoluted, congested street, it really was named after Columbus.)

Now that we knew where we were, we knew how to get to our hotel: just make an illegal left turn, a questionable U-turn (see El Policia) at Plaza Nueva, a right turn the wrong way up a one-way street (we had to make the U-turn instead of an earlier illegal left turn because there was a median in the way; perhaps if we had an SUV...) and there we were! Except for the direction of the car, our parking space was legal, for the twenty-minute loading, or unloading, time. When I asked where the parking garage was, the desk clerk said they actually didn't have one; we could use the public garage a few blocks up on the other side of the Grand Via de Colón!

At least now we knew how to drive with these Spaniards1, so that was no problem. In the process we found that, absent the parked car in the intersection, the first alley we tried would have gotten us to the hotel.

Two days later, we found the egress, requiring another route, to be equally exciting.

1 Maybe it was the Mediterranean temperament2 that animated these drivers, as compared to those from the areas more to the north. We later found similar characteristics in drivers in Sevilla. However, since we dropped off our car at the train station before entering the city center, we viewed those chaotic conditions from the relative safety of a taxi. Of course, it also might just have been the pressures of driving in a big city as compared with the smaller towns where we'd been until then. We hadn't needed to have tried driving, or parking, in Madrid.

2 Our first experience driving in Europe was in Italy in 1968. We rented a car in Florence, traveled to Siena, Pisa, Venice, Lake Garda, Munich, Heidelberg, Luxembourg – where I had been a foreign exchange student in high school – and back to Frankfurt for departure. A Time Magazine article had said "the only thing an Italian likes better than passing somebody on a curve is passing somebody who is passing somebody on a curve!" It didn't take me long to realize that, although drivers were passing on two-lane roads in the face of oncoming traffic, the cars were small enough, the roads wide enough, and the drivers considerate enough to move over a little, that it wasn't really unsafe. And I fit right in. Although I must admit that I never witnessed anyone passing somebody who was passing somebody on a curve.

Likewise we noticed the well-trained Germans on the Autobahns, keeping right except while passing; although a VW minibus that could go 2 kph faster than a logging truck could back up the left lane for quite a ways. Also, although the Fiat we rented had impressive acceleration and top speed, it commanded no respect from the Germans. Slower traffic in the left lane was in no hurry to move over at our approach – we had to draft a Mercedes or Porsche to really make time.

© Copyright 2004 Jack Ludwick - All Rights Reserved