In Defense of the Local Road

11/11/2010 05:59 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

On my recent trip to France and Switzerland, I did a great deal of driving, easily more than 1,500 miles stretching from Zurich to Lyon to Champagne to Alsace to Jura. As my wife and I plotted out how to find each destination, not always easy with a GPS prone to sending us off through vineyards or up foggy mountain roads, I found myself gravitating away from highways and onto the local routes whenever possible. Why? I wanted to see the character of where I was rather than endless highways and assorted rest stops.

Driving in Europe is a decidedly different experience than driving in the U.S. and each country has its own peculiarities, from road signs to toll systems. Places like Ireland and Poland have very little in the way of modern highways, forcing you to experience the countryside, but in much of the rest of Europe, modern expressways allow you to skip the small towns in favor of a quick ride between major population centers. For seasoned travelers, that kind of driving is a lost opportunity to see a country.


There's undoubtedly something to driving through open countryside past rolling pastures and vineyards, only to hit the brakes in time to crawl through a medieval village. Some places are so small, you barely have time to slow down before you see the next sign with the town's name slashed through, allowing you to hit the gas and watch the cows become a blur. Other towns meander, the roads getting progressively narrower as you pass a square or the village church. Eventually you reach a place where the path -- yes, it's a former path now paved -- barely allows one vehicle to squeeze between buildings. I both relished and feared these challenges, all the while silently hoping no one would approach until the road widened again. Of course, the appearance of a truck changes things. The first rule of driving is if something is bigger than you, move over. And sometimes in a town, there may be nowhere to go but reverse.

Country roads offer their own challenges, sometimes narrowing to a single lane, suddenly turning to gravel or becoming clogged with herds of animals. Years ago, before I gathered the courage to drive in England, I was driven through Wales by some friends. On either side of the road, itself wide enough for only one and a half cars, were high stone walls. Somehow when a car appeared around a bend, there was always a small pull-off where we could slip past each other. On my trip, there were no stone walls but sometimes steep drop-offs leading to a valley far below. I'd be sailing along a winding road only to hit the brakes and downshift as a car rounded the bend coming the other way. In those instances, I chose not to look down.

My most exhilarating experience came on a one lane "National Road" in the middle of Champagne. The sky was ominous, though no rain had yet fallen, and a line of cars built up behind a group of three trucks. One, the slowest, carried a large assortment of stacked water bottles and I could easily imagine a scene out of a bad Hollywood movie with plastic bottles bouncing off every surface as cars careened out of the way. That day I wasn't feeling aggressive and marveled as several cars behind me began to poke out into the oncoming lane, feeling out the distance and whether they could overtake the truck ahead of me before an oncoming vehicle approached. Then they began to move, almost like prizefighters, bobbing and weaving with fluidity, first past me, then in between the trucks ahead. Finally, my adrenaline starting to surge, I bounced out of line too and hit the gas. Quickly I was past the first truck. Then the highway section began and I zipped past the remaining trucks, now occupying the slow lane. Sometimes you need a little highway after all.

But in the countryside you can only drive fast in short bursts and highways often narrow back to one lane roads. Then you crawl along looking at 17th century stone houses or admire the herd of imposing cows being shuttled across the road. Those are the charms of rural Europe and something I wouldn't care to miss whenever I drive on the Continent.