How To Board A Car Ferry

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At Vaxholm (in Sweden), we spent an hour picnicking and watching cars embark and disembark from the ferry boats that connect the islands in the Archipelago.  We listened to the waves in the Baltic Sea and watched the process.  This is what we first saw.  The ferry pulls up and docks.  You can see that the gates are just opening and all of the 4 lane lights are red.

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Cars line up on the street (which is a dead-end into the sea) well ahead of the departure time.  We didn’t see a ferry schedule and I’m not sure whether they allow reservations, but there are only so many ferries and only so much space on each ferry.  I would hate to not show up early enough to get a spot.  Plus, you wouldn’t want to miss it.

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They didn’t buy the tickets while waiting in line.  I’m not sure how they sell tickets, whether they are available online ahead of time or someone comes around during the ride to sell them during the ride.  Once the gates are open, the light for lane 4 comes on and cars drive one by one onto the ferry.

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Once the first row is full, they start loading up another row.  In the photo above, you can see a full row.  You can also see the green light has come on for row B to begin loading that row.
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The loading process was very efficient and went quickly.  Once the cars were on, they closed the gate and lowered the bar.  Immediately after, the boat disembarked.

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Not long after that, another boat arrived.

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When boats disembarked, we were sometimes surprised by what came off.  Speeding off the ferry on bicycles looked like fun.  The vehicles exited in an orderly manner.  In the lower photo on the left, you can see they have a sign with a signal that tells which row can exit.

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Can you imagine taking a bus on a Ferry.  They disembarked so quickly that I think the passengers must have traveled inside the bus.  Plus, it didn’t look as though the boat had a passenger cabin.

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I Have Spent More On Highway Tolls Than Shopping In France

Yes.  That title, although said, is true.  Let me explain.

While some highways and bridges in the US need of repair, our highway system is pretty extensive.  For the most part, it’s cheap or free.  Switzerland got a late start building their highway system.  They haven’t even finished it yet.  In typical Swiss fashion, it is extraordinarily engineered and well maintained.  Their infrastructure is impressive; our visitors are always amazed by the tunnels.  Some of it is also rigged to blow.    Foreigners who drive through Switzerland complain about having to pay for vignettes, stickers that allow the vehicle to travel on Swiss highways.  You purchase them at the border (or at the post office) for 40 CHF and they are good all year.

Not surprisingly, they do things a bit differently in France.  Here are some of the main differences:

Highways in France require paying tolls.  Lots of them.  I can’t remember exactly how much we spent in tolls heading from Geneva to the south of France and back, but it was well over 100 Euro and probably more like 200 Euro.  It was too painful to tabulate and made Switzerland’s 40 CHF vignette look like a bargain.

Highways in France are privatized.  Therefore, if your car happened to break down on one,  your auto service cannot come get you.  Only certain specified highway-approved tow trucks are allowed to come get your car.  I learned this little tidbit of information the hard way.  In case you were wondering, you must always pay the toll when exiting the highway… even when your car exits on the back of a truck.

Rest areas in France are a little different than in North Carolina.  They serve real food… and wine.  I was busy worrying about my car and chatting with the police, the tow truck driver, etc., so I didn’t partake (not that I had to worry about driving in the near future).  It looked pretty tasty.

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Description unavailable (Photo credit: Alain Bachellier)

On some highways in France, they have wildlife overpasses (also known as wildlife crossings) for animals to cross the highway.  A practice in habitat conservation, it connects habitats, countering fragmentation.  They also help prevent animals from entering onto the highway, avoiding the resulting accidents.   Below is a photo of one of them.  Sorry I couldn’t take one, but I was busy driving.  It’s handy to avoid the scene above…or worse.

Français : Autoroute A19 – Ouvrage dédié au pa...

Français : Autoroute A19 – Ouvrage dédié au passage de la faune (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Why We Miss Driving In The US

We are lucky to have a car and be able to drive here.  Nevertheless, it is a lot more stressful than driving in the US. The rules, the road signs, the cars, the roads and the other customs are all different.  Because they aren’t yet second nature and we learned in a different environment, driving takes a lot more effort.  We don’t think of Sunday drives here as relaxing.  Here’s why we miss driving in the US.

The signs are different.

  • Speed limit signs are round with a number indicating the speed limit (in k.p.h.).  Unfortunately, we haven’t seen many of them.  More often, we see circular signs with a slash through them.  They indicate that the listed speed limit has just ended.  We would find it much more helpful if the new speed were posted.  These signs mean that the limit reverts to the standard speed limit posted at the borders.

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  • We find this especially difficult because we live mere miles from the French border.  The limits differ in France.  I get the default speeds confused.
  • Due to Europe’s multi-linguality, many road signs have symbols instead of words.  Modifiers (such as, only farm vehicle are permitted) are always given in the local language, which we probably won’t understand.
  • Traffic lights are rarely above the road.  Instead, they are mounted on posts on either side of the road.  I have found myself in the left lane watching the stoplight on the right side (I missed the light for my left turn).  The lights change from red to yellow (before becoming green), giving everyone a change to get a great start off the line.
  • Street names frequently change, at irregular intervals and without warning.  It is even more problematic because there aren’t signposts at intersections.  Street signs are posted on the corner of buildings, just above the ground floor.  This makes them harder to see from the car.  Sometimes they are missing.  Other times, they are in a different language than what is listed in the guidebook.

The rules of the road differ from the US.

  • There is no right turn on red.  Given the may complex intersections, it is understandable (but still slightly frustrating when you are sitting in traffic).
  • The speed limit drops when the road is wet.  What qualifies as wet?  A drop? A rainstorm?
  • Here, yellow diamonds indicate priority.  In the US, priority is generally standard given your location.  Roads here tend to intersect at bizarre angles and turn randomly.  As such, they need a different way to show priority.  They use yellow diamonds (intersecting roads have yield markings).  In the absence of signs, it isn’t the first vehicle on the spot, but the vehicle coming from the right that has the right of way.  Approaching intersections, I constantly worry about whether I have missed a sign…

Customs are different here.

 

  • Standard transmissions are standard.  Although it doesn’t bother us (unless we are stuck in traffic) a lot of our friends miss having an automatic transmission, particularly on hills.

 

  • Radar detectors are epidemic. Rather than seeing a police car roadside or lurking in a median, inconspicuous radar/camera/strobe lights cameras are everywhere.   We live in constant fear of receiving a giant ticket in the mail.  Why a giant one?  Look below at the section on speed limit signs.

 

  • We were astounded the other week when on our trip through the south of France, people didn’t immediately pull over for an ambulance.  Apparently this is common here.   Even so, it was foreign to us.  In the US, drivers are required by law to pull to the right and stop for all emergency vehicles with siren and lights.  By the way, emergency vehicles here sound just like they do in the Bourne Identity movies.

The roads aren’t the broad, straight avenues that we grew up on in the US.

  • Shoulders?  What are those?
  • Good luck finding a straight road.  The roads are narrow, winding and often steep.
  • The German Autobahn doesn’t always have speed limits.  Fun, but not exactly relaxing.  We didn’t get to take full advantage of it because we spent most of our time on the world’s narrowest lanes in construction.
  • Parking spaces are Texas tight.
  • Car-free pedestrian zones all over.  Usually, there is usually a barrier preventing you from driving  in these areas, not that you would want to.  They usually have crazy streets.  You can’t get into them, but getting around them can take a while.

Oh well, at least the scenery is good.  No Entry

  • More problematic is when there is merely no entry sign with words underneath.  These are easy to miss.  Often, they have words underneath describing which cars are permitted to enter…in another language.  They may allow certain vehicles, like taxis or local residents and business owners, to enter.
  • One way streets.  It isn’t just that you have to make sure that you are going the correct way.  The problem is also that if you miss your turn, you can’t change your route easily.  It can take an extra 20 minutes to get back.
  • Roundabouts (aka traffic circles).  Worse with driving in the UK and you have to go them the other way around.

Car-Free Towns

Many “old towns” are (almost completely) car free.  Many towns, use a system of passes and barriers to ensure that the streets remain traffic free while allowing residents parking, taxis access and permitting deliveries.

Many streets in city centers are reserved for local business people, residents, city buses, or pedestrians. To enforce this the entry to the street is always marked as such, in the local language and with standard signs, and is often blocked by a couple of 8″ diameter steel posts rising up from the road. Those with permits have a swipe card which lowers the posts momentarily so they can drive through. If you try to sneak through right after someone goes in you might hear a sort of crunching sound as the posts come up under your car. This will be embarrassing and expensive.

Some of the car-free towns we have visited include:

To encourage walking, biking and the use of public transport, many European cities make it hard (and/or costly) to park.

  • limit the amount of parking spaces
  • implement or increase parking fees
  • Fees paid for parking are sometimes used to encourage non-car transportation.

Eliminating parking spaces in Copenhagen has made room for high-quality pedestrian districts and bike paths, while street space once used by cars has likewise been repurposed in Paris for bike sharing and tramways.

Kicking Up Some Sand Dune Bashing In The Desert

I couldn’t visit Dubai without making a quick trip to see the desert.  On the way out, we passed a camel racing track.  Camel racing is huge in Dubai.  The season runs from late October to early April so we weren’t able to catch any races.

Dubai received bad publicity for the abduction/enslavement of boys for use as jockeys in camel races (the lawsuit was dismissed). To avoid using child jockeys, at least in part because of the inherent danger of the jockeying, Dubai now uses robot jockeys.  They look pretty sweet.

A visit to the desert isn’t as peaceful as you’d think. The desolate Sahara this is not.  We dove out the busy highway connecting Dubai to Abu Dhabi.  It is also a dangerous road; driver’s have to watch out for high-end sports car’s flying down the road.  I heard that you have to constantly be on the lookout for them coming up behind you and they expecting you to get over.  You also have to be on the lookout for camels.  As all camels in the United Arab Emirates are privately owned, hitting one, even if by accident, exposes the driver to massive fines, restitution and jail time!

In the distance you can see a bedouin village. They now pitch their tents and sit on rugs inside air-conditioned buildings.

What I did out there, dune bashing, wasn’t exactly peaceful.  It was exhilarating and tons of fun.

We followed a caravan of Toyota Land Cruisers out to the Arabian Desert.  Our guide told us these were the best vehicles for desert driving, although they continue to test new ones every year.  You might catch a glimpse of the test vehicle in some of the photos.  Once we were sufficiently far out and had deflated our tires for the desert driving, our guide pressed play in the CD player and gunned it.  I loved being thrown around the sand with the music blaring.

The sand differs in each Emirate. The redder sand blew in from another Emirate.

It was great fun and I was even able to sneak a glimpse at the sun setting over the stunning sand dunes…when sand wasn’t splashing on the windows.

After a couple of stops to take in the beautiful scenery, aka photo ops, we piled back into the Land Cruiser and headed toward our “Arabian campsite” for a sunset dinner.

Tunnels

I had been all set to post about Switzerland’s tunnels this winter.  A day or two before I was going to publish the post, Switzerland experienced its second worst road accident.  On March 13, 2012, a bus carrying Belgian schoolchildren and teachers on the way home from a ski trip crashed into a tunnel wall in Sierre.  According to Wikipedia, “(o)f the 52 people on board, 28 were killed in the crash, including both drivers, all four teachers, and 22 of the 46 children. The other 24 pupils, all aged between 10 and 12, were injured, including three who were hospitalised with severe brain and chest injuries.”  Belgium declared a day of morning and there were many memorial celebrations here in Switzerland.

I collect ideas for my post and look for opportunities to take accompanying photograph (and vice versa).  When we drove to Wilder to see the Tschäggättä, I photographed tunnels to use in the post.  One of the tunnels, was the one in Sierre where the accident occurred.

While the cause of the accident is still under investigation, a local paper put forth a theory that the driver believed that he was heading into the right lane instead of an emergency pull-off space.  While it does explain why the bus crashed into the wall at full speed, at this point, it is just a theory.

We are constantly amazed by Switzerland’s engineering feats.  The Swiss didn’t start building their highway system until 1955 and progressed very slowly.  As a result, they were able to see what worked (and didn’t work) elsewhere.  The Swiss approached building their system in their typically reasoned, intent, deliberative, considerate way.

There are highway tunnels throughout Switzerland.  Notable tunnels include:

We Took The High Road – La Grande Corniche

Three roads link Nice to Monaco.  They are called “Les Trois Corniches” which translates to the three cliffs or cliff roads.  The word comes from the word “cornice,” the decorative frieze that runs on top of buildings.   They are some of the world’s great drives.  When the rain and cruise ship passengers chased us out of Villefranche, we decided to drive the Grand Corniche.  What better time to take a drive on dangerous, cliff side road than in the rain?

The Low Corniche running out to the peninsula to St. Jean-Cap-Ferat from Villefranche-Sur-Mer

The peninsula with the Low Corniche from above

The Low Corniche (La Base Corniche or Corniche Inferieure) runs along the water, 50 meters above the Mediterranean.  It runs through Villefranche, past the entrance to the Cape Ferrat (known as the peninsula of billionaires), into Beaulieu-sur-Mer (chic Belle Epoque resort town), into Eze-Sur-Mer (from which you can hike up the Nieztsche path to the medieval hill town of Eze) and Cap d’Ail before arriving in the Principality of Monaco.

View from the Moyenne Corniche

The Middle Corniche (La Moyenne Corniche) is higher, culminating at 472 meters above sea level.   It offers impressive views of the sea and the towns above.  We took it out of Eze, going over the viaduct.  The Viaduct of Eze is known as the Bridge of the Devil.

The Viaduct of Eze on the Moyenne Corniche

Built in the early 20th century, the Moyenne Corniche is the newest of the three roads.  Even then tourists were causing congestion on the Low Corniche.

The Moyenne and Low Corniches from the Grande Corniche

We took the Grande Corniche out and drove the Middle Corniche back.   It wasn’t easy to stop for pictures though as we had to cross a lane of traffic to pull off and then get back out.  I can’t believe I’m saying this, but luckily it rained (so there wasn’t too much traffic).  It would be difficult, if not impossible, to stop like that on a busy day.

The Tete de Chien outcrop from Eze

From Eze, you can see the Tete de Chien promontory which dominates Monte-Carlo.  Princess Grace of Monaco (Grace Kelly), was killed when her car went off a cliff on the Moyenne Corniche near there in 1983.

The High Corniche (La Grande Corniche) is the highest of the three with a height of 500 meters above the sea.  It has staggering views and a historical pedigree.  It is the site of the Via Aurelia, the road used by the Romans to conquer the territory to their west (aka France).  La Grand Corniche was built by Napoleon alongside of the old Roman road.

Several movies have been filmed on the Grande Corniche.    Alfred Hitchcock filmed parts of “To Catch a Thief” starring Cary Grant and Grace Kelly here.  In some scenes, you can see Eze in the background.  The James Bond film Goldeneye starts with a car chase on the Grande Corniche.  Pierce Brosnan as James Bond chases Russian female fighter pilot Xenia Onatopp‘s Ferrari, in his Aston Martin DB5.  It is also a popular spot to film car commercials (but so is Detroit).

Yep. That’s it way up there on top.

From the Grand Corniche, you can see some seriously expensive homes.  I’m pretty sure that this is Villa La Leopolda.  Built by King Leopold of Belgium (allegedly for his mistress), owned by the Agnelli family (of Fiat fame and money), Bill Gates and then by the Safra family, it was put up for sale by Edmund Safra’s widow, Lily.  Russian billionaire, Roman Abramovich, pulled out of a deal to pay $500 million dollars for it after legal troubles with the French government, losing his $36 million deposit.  Oops.

The medieval hill town of Eze and the viaduct on the Moyenne Corniche from the Grande Corniche

The Grande Corniche is so high and steep that it doesn’t go through many towns (only the hilltop village of Roquebrune).  There are hairpin turns and low guard rails (if there are guard rails).   It wasn’t a relaxing road to drive, but it was pretty freaking cool.

Cycling it…even cooler.

What You Can Learn From License Plates In Switzerland

In Switzerland, license plates are assigned based on experience, thus low number plates usually indicate someone who has been driving a long time (i.e., an old person). Larger cantons (GE, ZH, etc.) have more cars and so the numbers on the plates extend much higher.

Very low numbers (e.g., “GE 3”) usually are assigned to taxis. On government cars have a single letter (instead of the canton): “A” for administration, “M” for military. There are no personalized license plates.

Diplomatic plates are all over Geneva.  They have CD in a blue square on the left of the plate.

Each canton (like a state) has its own abbreviation.  When you are in the parking lot of a ski resort, you are easily able to tell where the other skiers live in Switzerland.  I find looking at them is helpful in learning the coat of arms for each canton.

The abbreviations for the cantons (listed in German, French Italian and English) are:

Often, you see EU (European Union) plates in Geneva.  It’s understandable given our proximity to France.  Sometimes, you even see foreign plates.

I once saw US plates while I was riding on the bus.  Sorry, I couldn’t get a photo.


 

Geneva Auto Show

Many US cities have auto shows (Detroit, Chicago, Houston, Dallas, Cleveland, Columbus, Portland, Minnesota’s Minneapolis/Twin Cities, Orange County (OC), New York, Miami, South Florida, St. Louis, Richmond, Los Angeles (LA), Seattle, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Silicon Valley).  Click here for a 2012 auto show schedule and here for a list of Motor Trend shows.  He has even been to the Detroit show several times.  I’ve never been, so I was excited to see what it was all about.  The Geneva Motor Show is held at Palexpo every March.

Last Friday, we had date night.  I picked him up after work, but didn’t tell him where we were headed.  Tickets to the Geneva Auto Show (officially known as the 82nd International Motor Show and Accessories) are half price after 4:00 p.m., so it was cheaper to go to the car show than to go to a movie!  Although we know people who spent days there, a few hours was enough time for us to hit the highlights.  He was pretty excited when he realized where we were headed and we had a really good time.

“You got cars, they got rims.” There were countless booths filled with rims.

The show isn’t just cars, there is also a hall full of accessories booths.  From rims, to tools to garage doors, to car washes, it has just about everything auto-related you can imagine.  Walking through that hall, he said it reminded him of a trade show.

These doors are made to be opened by your driver.

Since this is Geneva, there were luxury cars galore.

Pardon me, do you have any Grey Poupon?

I loved the matte paint job.

BMW 6 Series Grand Coupe

Despite the hype about the new Bentley SUV, the only thing we liked about the car was its sweet rims. We predict you will see these on Cribs soon.

You can see their appointment to the queen in the top right corner. He liked the Aston Martins better.

The name is Bond, James Bond. Yeah, baby.

Car enthusiasts were jazzed about the new concept cars (also known as prototypes), cars made to showcase new styling or technology .  Many of them were electric.  While these are not yet on the market, they provide a glimpse into what what we’ll see in the future.

BMW i8 Concept Car

The American Car companies were there and they offered great value for the money, running much less than comparable European models.

Chinese automakers were also there.  I’ve seen several SsangYong‘s around Geneva.

Some booths offered entertainment like foosball or a simulated driving game.

He was expecting to see more models, but apparently they only hire models in evening gowns and cocktail dresses for the press days and special events. The cars were the real eye candy.  The sports cars were some of the biggest attractions; they just looked sweet.

Kids loved this car.

Many of the exhibitors restored or modified cars.  I have never seen as many flip-up doors.  It was like a giant episode of Pimp My Ride.

Some of the modifications were more useful.

You can buy cars at the auto show.  Each of us decided on the three we wanted.  His top three: Aston Martin (any of them), the Jeep Cherokee and the Tesla Sedan.

Being small, I love a small car.  I wanted a Mini and any Lotus.  Although I am sure this phrase has never been written, for my third, the Maybach edged out the Smart Car.  The champagne in the back helped sell me.

Sorry Smart, you lost by a nose. If it is any consolation, I am more likely to buy you in real life since I can’t afford a Maybach.

 

Fancy A Turbosieste? Powernap National Day in Switzerland

I have been remiss. I let a Swiss holiday pass without so much as a word.  My apologies. In my defense, until a few days ago, I wasn’t even aware that Turbosieste National Day existed.  For those of you who don’s speak French, it means “National Powernap Day”.   What a holiday!

How do you celebrate Turbosieste ( aka Turboschlaf in German and Turbosieste in Italian) National Day?  Powernapping in public places.

Powernapping in private is also a common and acceptable (and common) means of celebrating.  On March 14, 2012 from 2:00 – 2:15 p.m. everyone in Switzerland was asked to stop what they were doing for a 15 minute nap!

Driving can be dangerous and is even more so on the steep and windy roads that cut through Switzerland’s mountains.  Driver fatigue is the cause of 10-20% of the accidents here. To prevent driver fatigue and avoid accidents, the Swiss launched a public service campaign.  It encourages pulling off to the side of the road to nap when tired.

I’m not sure that people would feel safe sleeping roadside or at a rest area in the US.  Michael Jordan‘s father was famously murdered while napping at a rest area in the US.  However, Switzerland is quite safe and there isn’t much danger of being robbed or killed roadside.  It is the number one country for the powernap (yet another reason to come visit).

Click here  for a short video about the Turbosieste on YouTube.