To Collect or not to Collect the Toll …
Germany is a country that still offers drivers free for all usage of its road systems, plus no speed limit on various motorways. So far, so good. However, a clearly discernible lack of money has seen many stretches of this once magnificent collection of highways and roads fall into disrepair and become a national embarrassment. Overloaded, these same motorways are frequently the scenario of nerve-racking traffic congestions.
On our way to the South of France on a Friday in June, we experienced the road and driving conditions in four countries: Germany, Switzerland, Itally and finally France. While we were fortunate as regards Germany – traffic running smoothly the whole way, we encountered quite a number of traffic congestions in France, namely seemingly endless bottlenecks towards the pay stations. And whilst politically speaking chaos reigns in Italy, this is not the case when it comes to Italian pay stations. Things ran pretty smoothly. When it comes to toll systems, Switzerland is most efficient. The Alpine country, which in many respects is inimical towards car drivers, has the best solution imposing the least bureaucratic nuisance to drivers and road maintenance: the “Vignette”. This windscreen
sticker for cars, allowing the respective car to use Swiss motorways, was introduced back in 1985. It is valid for one year. You buy it once for at present roughly 28 pounds, and have no more hassle for 14 months. The passage through Switzerland was quiet and easy, except of course that one is painfully limited to a maximum speed of tediously slow 75 miles per hour. In spite of this ridiculously slow speed there are not fewer accidents than in Germany. Makes one wonder as to the meaningfulness of this regulation.
After the Gotthard Tunnel it already feels very much like Italy. Driving starts to be more fun , because the Italians themselves do not interpret speed limits too closely. It is therefore advisable to follow a sportive local driver, despite the carabinieri increasingly trying to enforce the law. Once you are caught speeding, you might incur a hefty fine. Whether it helps to start negotiating or possibly flirting with the caribinieri, we cannot say, as we twice managed to pass Italy unscathed.
In Switzerland they really make you bleed. One kilometer in one of their countless tunnels cost us 30 Swiss francs. Fines rise exponentially per kilometer exceeding the speed limit.
Leaving Itally and entering France, the impression one gets from the landscape is different yet again. Fortunately, the European Union has so far failed to equalise the architecture and appearance of cities in the respective member states. Italy to me has always been a country with a lot of charm, liveliness and indeed prowess considering its chaotic political situation. So it was with a little sadness that we left Italy and its impressive coastline – having stayed in Savona overnight and doing a bit of sightseeing the following day.
Péage, péage, péage – Please wait…
Patience is a virtue, virtue is a grace… Yes, we do know the nursery rhyme. Nevertheless, especially in France we sometimes wondered why on earth a driver has to pay the fee. If a country instals toll collect, the procedure should at least run smoothly. Instead, we found ourselves faced with traffic congestions on a highway for the use of which one has to pay. In spite of always having our credit card at hand in the worst case we lost half an hour due to the tedious paying procedure. The only lanes running smoothly were the telepass lanes. However, for this drive-through service for the use of which you put a sticker on your windscreen as non-resident one has to pay a lump sum based on the estimated amount of money needed for the use of motorways. And that usually means that you overpay, unless you want to find yourself stopped by barriers refusing to open and being a nuisance to the drivers queuing up behind you. Added is a handling and postage fee. In other words: Toll collect really is big business, but a further hindrance to the driver. Undoubtedly, this should be an issue to be debated by the European Union. Motto: Where to draw the line for collecting the toll. Similar to planes and trains being late. After all, the infrastructure is here to serve the car driver.
After this frustrating experience we eventually decided to drive the last hundred miles along the coast. Free of charge, slower, but a beautiful foretaste of what to expect from our destination: Absolutely blue sky vying with the shades of dark blue of the sea.
Destination Sainte Maxime
“Les Tourelles”, our final destination for a holiday, is where the French filming industry had its beginnings. One can clearly see why. The castle, also called “Château Gaumont” after Léon Gaumont,
one of the founders of the French filming industry, is very scenic, uniquely placed, overlooking Ste Maxime and offering a gorgeous view right across the sea to St Tropez. The little port harbours sailing boats and boats for fishermen and is a pleasantly unpretentious contrast to famous St Tropez. Be it by boat or car, St Tropez is just around the corner. So is charming medieval Ramatuelle. Cannes, Nice, (Cap d’) Antibes, all are just a stonethrow away. One cannot help being imbued with the savoir vivre of the South of France.
Apart from the typical Harley Davidson sound so frequently heard around here and evoking the times of Brigitte Bardot, Porsche, Ferrari, Maserati, Aston Martin, Bentley and Mercedes-Benz models are a more or less common sight – white still the seemingly preferred colour for cars. After all, white cars blend in nicely with the corresponding yachts.
A vendre – For Sale
All that glitters is not gold – not even in the South of France. Economic reality has caught up with one of the most desirable spots on earth. Apart from the usual “à vendre” in front of houses and apartments, there was quirte a number of empty shop windows, shops for sale and cars for sale.
As in the case of a Porsche Boxster parked negligently in one of the little streets of Ste Maxime. Tempting, but as it was not the latest Boxster model, the only one I like, it was easy for me to resist.
Although it was before the great onslaught of holiday makers during July and August, it was nervertheless discernible and somewhat disconcerting that restaurants are finding it increasingly difficult to attract enough clients. And even the 81 bungalows that belong to the privately owned “Les Tourelles” estate, built in ecologically advanced Bauhaus style and blending in with the hinterland were not completely booked up in June.
Summertime, and the livin’s easy
Whatever else may happen with France and the World Economy, one thing is certain: The weather along the Côte d’Azur is almost always beautiful. Perfect for a holiday in terms of sun, fun, diversion and sheer happiness. We certainly have decided to return with friends and a sporty car that will definitely not be white. The thing to do is to immerse oneself fully in a more relaxed way of life, in the joys of a nice bottle of red wine, some exquisite cheese and baguette or some seafood dish with a chilled bottle of white wine. Not to forget cassis, pastis and the inevitable game of pétanque. But beware of “les méduses”, a nice looking but stinging type of jellyfish that every now and again decides to swamp the beach and manages to deter but the courageous from taking a swim.
Life on the Côte d’Azur, as is well known, can be decadent to the extreme. We tried to keep an even keel – well, sort of. So after having moved into our summer abode we felt like a little spree aboard our yacht once in a while. You know, it can get so frightfully overcrowded with impertinent tourists...
PS: A rather different view: St Tropez without yachts. Little sailing boats adding to a picturesque overall impression of one of the world’s most famous places. When we arrived an international regatta was just getting ready to leave for another competition. This was a fortnight before the onslaught of the holiday months July and August. At the height of the holiday season tourists and crowds of nouveaux-riches make a most unpleasant concoction.