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Paris – a tour of cars?

18 Nov

Paris must be full of wealthy people.  I guess rich people from all over the world do choose to live in Paris, so maybe this isn’t so surprising, but I have never seen such a concentration of exotic cars out on the road in my life.  I’ve never been to Monaco, maybe there it is even more extreme.  Anyway, in our short two day visit we saw several Ferrari’s, including this Mondial that was for sale on a street corner.

We saw two Lamborghini’s, including one that you could rent for 20 minutes for “only” 85 euros.

There were more 911’s than you could shake a stick at, this over the top AMG Mercedes,

and these TWO Bentley’s parked next to each other.

Right next to our hotel was the Telsa dealership.  This fully electric car can go from 0-62mph in 3.2 seconds!  Only 95k euros.

For the commoners, if you walked the Champs-Élysées, you could visit the “local” Renault, Citroen, and Peugot dealerships with their exotic and not so exotic offerings.

We preferred to stick with the bikes.  Paris has a very sophisticated bike rental program where you can pick up and drop off the bikes at different locations all over the city, and the first 30 minutes is free.

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Granada (and parking practice)

29 Jan

We were fortunate to spend a short time in Granada a few years ago with friends, but it was fantastic to be able to go back.  What a city!   With the Alhambra perched on the side of the hill and countless small, narrow roads weaving up and down, it’s impossible not to want to get lost in Granada (although after driving around for an hour looking for the hotel and cursing the GPS, our gusto for losing ourselves might have diminished just a bit).

When we finally found our hotel, we were relieved and quite pleased with the location – very close to the Alhambra and Turkish Baths, and located along one of Granada’s old, narrow cobble roads.  In fact, the address referred to a mini-plaza that was interior and technically only accessible by walking.  I asked the owner if there was a place to park our car, and he smiled, telling me, “¡Claro!” (of course!)…which led to exciting adventure #2 of the trip (#1 being getting stuck in a snowbound traffic jam which we should never have been in).

The garage that we were to park the car in was, in a word, small – and our car, while miniature by American standards, was a fair bit larger than the garage’s designer had probably intended.  This did not stop the hotel owners from telling us it would be no problem for us to park the car in the garage, nor did it stop another hotel guest from calling out helpful words of encouragement, nor did it stop Justin from sensing a challenge.  After remembering that we were covered by insurance from the rental company, I relaxed a bit and figured we were committed to getting the car in the garage.  The dogs watched with interest from the backseat as more and more people surrounded the car – me, the hotel owners, hotel guests, pedestrians trying to get by…all gesturing and talking.  Justin sat calmly and executed what he was told to do after assessing that the majority of people were in agreement for each maneuver.  He was pretty much flawless, in both his handling and  calmness, demonstrating that he apparently was a race-car driver in a previous life.

How to go from blocking all the pedestrians in the street to happily nestled in the garage?

In case you thought that there was plenty of room to maneuver...think again.

With a bit of pushing, instructions in English and Spanish, and calm driving, Justin put the car in the garage. Afterwards, his back was jacked from pushing the clutch in 865 times.

After a huge accomplishment like that , with only a single, minor clearcoat scratch, we took the dogs out to explore Granada. We stopped to get a bite to eat at a neighborhood bar, where we were reminded that tapas ALWAYS come with your drink in Andalucía, which could make for a cheap night out if you can drink and eat in lopsided proportions.  However for us, after two or three drinks on empty stomachs with only three (incredibly delicious) tapas, we would probably be passed out on the floor.  We spent a few hours wandering near our hotel, up and down the hillside on the quaint, narrow streets.  Near the Alhambra, the paths become really beautiful.

Walking near the grounds of the Alhambra.

Our day in Granada was capped with an incredible dinner at a nearby restaurant, inspired by a chance meeting with another American who was actually training with the chef at the restaurant.  Granada is one of our favorite places in Spain, hands down.

(And, in case you wondered, we got out of the garage without a scratch!)

La nieve…una nevada

27 Jan

After a full day of snowboarding, our next day was spent popping ibuprofen and watching a front move across the mountains that brought snow.  I supposed that the rapidly deteriorating visibility was sufficient justification to have a lazy day of wandering walks with the dogs, interspersed with reading and watching the Discovery channel (dubbed in Spanish, of course).  Actually, the television shows were pretty incredible – we watched one on border control in Australia, where an Indian man was trying to bring in lychee nuts for his pregnant daughter and was a bit heartbroken by the required confiscation (as you probably know, transport of animals and plants across countries and continents can introduce exotic species to areas where they may cause many problems)…and even more spectacular, we watched a program that may have been called, “Everything Blown Up!” or something to that effect, where, yes, everything was blown up.  Helicopters crashing, motorcycles crashing, even a bike that was catapulted from a bungee to jump a bunch of cars did a spectacular crash (only resulting in a broken ankle, in case you were as concerned as we were).  This is why we do not have a television, by the way.

In the afternoon, we decided to wander to town and get a bite to eat.  Because the plows seemed to be keeping up with the snow accumulation, we chose to drive instead of walk the 3 or so miles downhill – it was a bit blustery and cold, and at least one of us had incredibly aching quads from doing too much heelside to crawl down steep sections from the day before.

We had a late lunch and emerged from the cafe in a bit of wonder – the snow had transitioned to falling a bit faster and more furious, and we estimated there was about 5 or so inches of white stuff, with lots more coming down.  We watched as another car in our parking area started slip-sliding, and it was apparent that we needed to get back to our hotel as soon as we could before it snowed too much more.

***2 hours later***

After sitting in a line of parked cars for nearly two hours, a man rapped on our window to say that we needed chains (las cadenas para nieve).  So, we pulled out of line, trudged to the mini-grocery store that seemed to be selling more chains than beer and asked how much a set would be for the Audi A3 we had rented, only to hear the unpleasant news of, “60€”.  I told him, “No, gracias” and started walking out, but he told me he had some for 40€ (¡claro!).  Walking back to the car, a British guy heard us speaking English and asked if we knew how to put the chains on (after he complained that the 60€ he paid for the chains were a rip-off and that he had slid his BMW into a bus – ouch!).  Getting back to the car, we struggled through getting the chains on, but got them set finally.  Since our line of cars still was not going anywhere, Justin started making friends by helping other people put on chains.

Justin helping some people get their chains set up properly.

***45 minutes later***

The traffic standstill had everything to do with the snow, sliding cars, buses that simply could not move, an influx of people coming from Granada to the mountains for the weekend and the fact that the road into the town was a one-way with no alternate routes.  When we finally started moving again, we had no issues at all with traction and happily made our way back to our hotel at the top of the mountain.

This is a fantastic car in the snow, not to mention one of the best we have rented in Europe.

And now, we have a set of lovely chains that will fit all 225/45-17 tires.

It’s about the car, dang it.

2 Dec

This week was a bit momentous.  With the tremendous help of our good friend Bill, in Austin, our trusty Subaru has been sold.  We are officially car-less.  For me, it’s been 24 years since I last didn’t own a car.  I counted, and I’m ashamed to say that I’ve owned 17 cars in those 24 years.  Ouch.  Not exactly a strong investment plan.  Anyway, being car-less brings up some interesting, albeit somewhat random thoughts.

For starters, it is great not owning a car.  No maintenance, no insurance, no registration, no wondering where to park, or worrying about security.  The car doesn’t get older and we don’t have to clean it.  We use public transportation, ride or bikes, or walk.  We walk A LOT.  It feels good not owning a car.

Being car-less doesn’t mean we haven’t been driving though.  In fact, we‘ve driven an astonishing amount here in Europe.  A roundtrip drive from Madrid to Dusseldorf, a trip to near Barcelona, a trip to Alicante, and trip to Lisbon put something like 4000 miles on the rentals.  A few fun facts about the rental cars.  We’ve rented a car 12 times.  Only two of those cars can be purchased in the States, a VW Golf and a Mini.  Each time we get a car I try to get something we haven’t driven before and we’ve only ended up with the same car one time, a VW Touran, which we really liked, so that was fine.  We’ve also rented a Seat, an Opal, a Peugeot, a Mercedes, an Audi, a Skoda, a VW Polo, and a Fuganeta (moving van).  I didn’t think much of the Peugeot, but otherwise they all had some redeeming features.  Oddly, all of the cars besides the Peugeot are actually German cars.  Seat (Say-ot) & Skoda are both owned by VW.

Cars in Europe are generally much smaller than in the US.  50% or more, depending on the country are diesel.  All of our long-trip cars have been diesel and got around 45 mpg.  4-door hatchbacks are by far the most common type of car.  Most cars are black, white, or silver.  There are basically no privately owned trucks, and very, very few SUV’s.  Cars in Spain are on average smaller than cars in France and Germany.  There really are a lot of Audi’s, BMW’s, and Mercedes in Germany, but I would say Audi’s are the most common “luxury” car in general.  Renault is a funny company.  There seem to be at least 5 totally different Renault models called the Megane.  They are not even vaguely similar.  One is like a mini-van, one is a small SUV type, one is a small hatchback, one is a sporty station wagon, and there are more.  All named Megane.  They also seem to have a few cars with different names that look basically the same.  A Twingo and a Clio, for example.  Roundabouts make the world go round (better).  Freeways in Spain, Portugal, France, Germany, Luxembourg, Switzerland, Denmark, England, Wales, and Sweden are almost without exception immaculate and smooth.  We have rarely ever driven on a “bad” road, even in remote areas.  I like driving in Europe, it all just make sense with just one exception.  It is apparently perfectly acceptable to use the other cars as bumpers when parallel parking.  Owning a “nice” car doesn’t seem to make much sense at all.  Oh, and diesel is the cheapest in Spain, of all the countries we’ve visited.  It is only $6.80 a gallon right now!  In Germany it is over $8 a gallon and unleaded is even more expensive.

And this brings me to the point of this blog.  Each time we want to travel, or anytime we need to take the dogs somewhere we need a car.  No dogs are allowed on public transportation in Spain (unlike Germany) and Taxi’s aren’t too thrilled about it, although Chris did beg a ride from one once with the dogs.  Our vet in Madrid, who is from Oklahoma, thus we can have serious conversations without worrying about misunderstandings is 17km away, on the other side of the city.  I figure in the first 5 months we have spent almost $1000 on rentals.  I have no need for a car to get to work and wouldn’t drive, even if I had a car, as there is nowhere to park it.  Given that, do we buy a car, or not?  That is the question.

Left-handing the roundabouts

17 Sep

Despite warnings from coworkers in Madrid who said driving in England would be very dangerous, we did it anyway.  Gluttons for punishment and adrenaline junkies, I suppose.  It didn’t disappoint – it was the most difficult driving we’ve ever done.  Note that I use the pronoun, “we” – this is intentional.  For this trip to Great Britain, Justin was the designated driver, Daniel the GPS (he speaks in British English on our Garmin nuvi) was our mostly-adept navigator and then there was me.  My role was to alert Justin if we got too close to parked cars, moving cars or hedgerows – and I had the busiest job of the three of us.

Justin was somewhat relieved that the gas and brake pedals were still in the same place.

This is Daniel. Daniel sometimes goes off route. In this case, he was off-road.

A few highlights from the driving experience:

  • More than once I had to look twice because I thought a 7-year old kid was driving a car.
  • A few yelling matches in the car with the three of us.  Justin yells at Daniel, and I yell at Justin.  Daniel talks over the both of us.
  • Listening to the radio playing a “Classic Top 40”.  Casey Kasem did not host that program, in case you wondered.
  • Playing a game of chicken in a hedgerow with another car – we won.  Our opponent had to back up and let us by.
  • Realizing what emphatic people the English are by their road signs and traffic reports:
    • Queues Likely
    • Strictly No Parking
    • Traffic is slow because a truck with an abnormal load crashed.

Hedgerows - and there was always a blind corner!

After driving in Great Britain, it made me wonder a bit about right-hand drive cars.  Wikipedia claims that 34% of the world lives in countries driving on the left, but that historically more cars drove on the left…but there has been a transition to driving on the right-hand side.  Even the US apparently used to drive on the left.  So what spurred the change?

“In the late 18th century, the shift from left to right that took place in countries such as the United States was based on teamsters’ use of large freight wagons pulled by several pairs of horses. The wagons had no driver’s seat, so a postilion sat on the left rear horse and held his whip in his right hand. Seated on the left, the driver preferred that other wagons pass him on the left so that he could be sure to keep clear of the wheels of oncoming wagons. He did that by driving on the right side of the road.

So where were we driving in Great Britain?  To Wales – home of the Brecon Beacons National Park!

Wales - Brecon Beacons National Park.

Green hills criss-crossed with stone fences and spotted with sheep.

"Walking" on public lands (really) - these stiles provide an easy way to cross boundaries.

German drivers…

26 Jul

We’ve done quite a bit of walking in Düsseldorf, and our rental car has remained parked.  One of the things that has struck me is the number of driving schools in the nearby vicinity to our hotel – why are there so many?

After some checking around on the internet, I now know why: the German driver’s license (Führerschein) is a BIG deal here.  Pay 1500 euros ($2,155 with today’s exchange rate) and get yourself educated by going to one of these Fahrschüle for 25-45 hours of professional instruction.  Not only is practical driving technique covered, but first aid, mechanics and theory (12 hours of theory!) is also required!  Costs for the license itself are approximately 550 euros.  Driving is a privilege here!

The rewards, though, for German drivers to go through all of the training?  Plenty of fast, well-made cars to drive on the Autobahn.

I suddenly feel much better driving on the Autobahn knowing that most of the other drivers are well trained (and they are most definitely NOT on their cell phones).  The Autobahn refers to the system of roads in Germany, not a single road.  As the roads approach populated areas, there are speed limits, but as you leave those areas, there are no signs, and the GPS indicator for the speed limit in the area goes blank!  If you are in our car, Justin starts saying, “Whee!” and our fuel economy indicator that we’ve worked so hard to maximize, suddenly starts plummeting (it’s relative – our diesel VW Touran which got us to Germany at a mpg in the high 40’s might drop to about 40).  We’ll be able to confirm because we’ve decided to take a different route back to Madrid this weekend that allows us to see more of Germany…

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