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Driving Through Europe

A family journey through europe by car.

The train or a car?

That was my first dilemma when planning our family's European summer vacation.

My wife and I had traveled to the continent before. Our first visit was by train, the second an organized tour, and the third by car.

This time, with the size of our crew - two adults and four children - the car seemed the most economical.

Besides, while the rail system in Europe is outstanding, so are the roadways. And many of the most charming landscapes of France, Italy and Switzerland - the countries we planned to explore - are miles away from the main cities and far way from train stations. I also thought we would much prefer the freedom of the automobile versus the worries of train schedules.

Ten years go I drove through Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Liechtenstein and a small part of northeastern France without any problems. That gave me confidence to tackle new territory, especially with my wife, Grace, as my co-pilot again. A French major in college, her mastery of the language through a big portion of our trip would be a big help.

Renting the car was the toughest task I had to endure. Fearing unknown mountain driving and not having driven a manual transmission vehicle in many years, I insisted on renting an automatic.

Our capable travel agent found us the best deal, but I nearly fell off the chair when I heard the price tag of an automatic six-passenger van in France - $5,000 for three weeks. The first car I bought brand new didn't cost that much!

So, for half that price, we settled for the biggest car available - a full-size French Renault Safrane with power locks (that's a story in itself) and air conditioning (a real luxury in Europe). It was a very comfortable auto (easy for me to say, I was always in the front seat), with an incredible amount of trunk space (which seemed to shrink by the end of the trip). But the back seat, while roomy for three, was a bit tight for our four children, who range from 10 to 18.

Actually, it was illegal for us to have six people in the car in France, but no one ever questioned us, not even the French police at the borders.

Driving in France, Italy and Switzerland is essentially the same as in the U.S. All you need is a valid driver's license, although I obtained an international driver's license through the Chicago AAA Club. It's not necessary, but can smooth things over with officials in a sticky situation.

We found the roads in all three countries in excellent shape and all well marked. We hardly got off the main roads in Italy or Switzerland, but we drove many of the back roads in central France and found them to be in absolute A-1 condition. Our only really hairy drive was in the French Alps as we tried to take the shortest route to one of our destinations. It was real mountain driving, with sharp, steep curves and few guardrails. But the scenery was spectuclar (my wife and kids tell me).

One thing I hadn't expected that we encountered a lot in France were the traffic circles, or what the British call the roundabouts. There are few warnings for them and they can be a bit tricky, especially if you're not sure which sign is pointing toward your destination. But after a few times they became old hat and preferable to an unnecessary stop sign.

The expressways in France (marked with blue signs - A-autoroute) were generally surprisingly free of traffic we traveled in late July and early August. And many people ignored the posted speed limits of 130 kph (81 mph) and 110 kph (68 mph) on urban motorways. Not once in three weeks of travel did we see a police car patroling for speeders. And, fortunately, there were very few detours for roadwork.

Here are some other tidbits we found along the way:

* The price of gasoline is extremely high in Europe. It gets complicated to figure out the price to the penny with the exchange rate and the fact that gas comes in litres (one litre is .26 gallon). But when it cost me $75 to fill up my tank each time, I figured gas was about three times what it costs in the States. (The cost is so high because France has to import its oil. That's why 85 percent of the country's energy comes from its nuclear power plants.) Paying by credit card gives you the best price.

* There are many toll roads in France and they are very expensive. Many of those roadways are privately owned and the tolls (peage) are determined by the vehicle size. It cost us $37 (with our big car) just to go through the seven-mile Mont Blanc tunnel from France to Italy. The toll from Paris to Brittany, about 200 miles, was $25. But there were stretches that were a lot steeper in price. The good thing is that most of the toll booths take credit cards!

* Much of western Europe has good bathroom facilities. But along the roadways, even though some of the rest stops were newly constructed, many of them only had a hole in the ground and no toilet seats. Some urinals were simply a wall between the parking lot and the great outdoors. In some places, men and women used the same restrooms. It was a funny feeling to see a woman walk by the men standing at the urinal en route to their private facilities.

We found the drivers in Italy as they were advertised to be - a little crazy. It's true that you have to have nerves of steel to drive in that country. But we found the scooters, not the sports cars, to be the problem.

Once we got to our Mediterranean coastal village in Italy, we parked our car and utilized the train to go Florence and to the famed Cinque Terre.

I have to admit, that after several days of being behind the wheel, it was pleasant to take the train, and leave the worries behind. But overall, I highly recommend renting a car for a European vacation. If it's scenery and freedom you want, it's the best way to go.

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