Driving Miss Margarita

As a wannabe intrepid Aussie traveler who not long ago spent a month driving all over Spain I rather consider myself a bit of an expert on all things Spanish road-related. So I offer a few observations to consider if you are about to jump behind the wheel in Iberian climes.

Firstly, the speed limits in Spain are closely observed by all drivers. That is, the main object seems to be to see by how much the limit can be exceeded. This makes for many moments of rally-like intensity and inspires self accusations of "I feel like a hat wearer" in those of us who trend-buckingly stick to the limits.

Yet speed is something all drivers need to embrace when on the excellent Spanish motorways where the limit is 120 km/hr. These roads are kept in superb nick and are a terrific way to rapidly get from one place to another. Say, for example, you were having a delightfully relaxing time in Andalucia on what you believe to be Saturday, when it is in fact Sunday and you have a 10am appointment on Monday in Galicia, some 1200 kilometres away. This would be the time to hotfoot it to the nearest motorway. And, well, yes, this exact scenario may have actually happened to someone…erm…I know quite well.

Once on the motorway the fun really commences. One thing that is particularly notable to a visitor from the Antipodes is the massive number of trucks on the road. At times it feels like there are actually more trucks than cars. The trucks usually travel at a considerably slower speed than the cars so it is necessary to get out of the right hand lane (oh yes – driving on the right!) and into the left in order to overtake. This should be a straightforward and non-blood-pressure-raising manoeuvre. What invariably happens though goes like this:

Oh – truck ahead, better overtake. Check the rear vision – nothing behind me for miles. Better just check the blind spot – all good. OK. Let’s drop down to fourth, indicate, and get around this slow camión. (See, you are so at home by now on the roads you are even thinking in Spanish even though your vocabulary runs to about six disparate nouns and a minor phrase or two.) Ah good driving. Here I am next to the truck and accelerating nicely. But hang on! What’s that? In the rear vision mirror? Where the fuck did that car come from??

Seriously, in pre-overtake mode there is not even a speck on the distant horizon to indicate that there might be a car somewhere behind you, yet within seconds of pulling out to overtake, there'll be drivers so far up your arse they'll be able to tell when you last had a Brazilian. Despite the aggressive nature of the driving there appears to be no road-rage-like animosity from the rear-hugging drivers – rather this seems to just be routine driving behaviour if you have a car with enough grunt.

Now, contrast this open road motor action with driving in cities. Driving on the motorways is a mere stroll in the park compared to what must be faced when tackling the roads of any medium to large town. Rule number one – try to avoid arriving at or leaving from any place at the beginning or end of siesta. At any time the roads are often quite confusing with a jumble of one-way streets, flashing lights, roundabouts and a plethora of signs with bewildering (well not to the locals I'll grant you) symbols on them, so driving in towns for the visitor is a challenge. But pre- and post-siesta the whole degree of difficulty increases about 10-fold. All of a sudden there are thousands of vehicles flooding onto the roads and heading in all directions and heaven help you if you miss the all-important turn to the ring road that will get you out of town because once you are in the thick of the crowd and in the centre of town you are almost obliged to drive wherever the irresistible organic flow that is the traffic takes you. You soon learn that the only thing a car should be used for during siesta is as a comfy temporary dining room in which to enjoy a bocadillo and a cheeky vino or two.

This is not to say that the experience of traffic in cities is all negative. One of my favorite moments in Madrid was watching the traffic police in action. These guys give their all in pursuit of earning the daily. The vigour (and rigour) of their moves, the extravagance of their hand signals, the exuberant use of their whistles all combined to suggest aerobics instructors at a rave. Marvellous stuff.

A large part of Spain is still delightfully undeveloped and rural and it is truly rewarding to take advantage of having a car to get to some more out of the way places. And there is a reason they are out of the way, because the roads into some of the mountainous village regions are ideally suited for travel by donkey, or perhaps a hardy goat, but constitute a challenge for even the most modest of compact cars. I confess to being a terrible (read distrusting, nervous) passenger when on the right-hand side of the car but this character flaw really came to the fore on these roads. There is nothing quite so sphincter-tightening as looking out your window to a sheer drop of hundreds of metres without so much as a piece of string let alone a crash barrier between you and what feels like imminent certain death while your car's wheels – by necessity – skim frighteningly along the outermost dirt edge of the road.

Now I'm keen that this is not seen as a massive criticism of Spanish drivers They’re not really foolhardy – more spirited. And aggressive? I prefer assertive. A little bit crazy? Probably – but that’s always an endearing quality in my book. And truly we saw mostly courteous and happy driving for all of the 5000 km we traversed.

On that note I will leave you with this. When preparing yourself for driving in Spain get in the mood by contemplating these questions. The answer to them all is a resounding "yes".

  • I drive a 60 seat bus. Shall I park it in a roundabout?
  • I am driving along a busy street. I see my buddy driving towards me. Shall we stop, wind down our windows and have a leisurely chat?
  • I have a car horn. Shall I use it more than 20 times this morning?
  • Shall I park my car on the T-intersection at the end of this extremely narrow, one-way alley?
  • All the double parking options appear to be taken. Shall I triple park?
  • There appears to be half a car’s length between me and oncoming traffic. Shall I overtake?

Thank you driver!

There'll be drivers so far up your arse they'll be able to tell when you last had a Brazilian.