Before coming to Spain, I was warned that driving might be difficult. Not only do they drive on the wrong side of the road (which is to say, on the right side), but the Spanish are notoriously indifferent to speed limits or road rules, or so I’d been told. After having been here for a week now, I can honestly say that driving in Andalucía has been nothing but a pleasure.
I’ll admit that the first hour after being let loose from the car rental parking lot was the most stressful 60 minutes of my life. It’s definitely not easy to suddenly find yourself sitting on the wrong side of the car, with the gearbox and mirror on the wrong side, and cars zooming by on what should be the slow side of the road. Not to mention going round roundabouts anti-clockwise. In retrospect, hiring an automatic car would probably have been a much better, and safer, option and is something I will keep in mind for future European trips. As the week progressed however, I have slowly gotten used to driving on the left, although years of habit is hard to break and I still need to be constantly aware of where the curb is or how far away the car in the lane to my right is. And don’t get me started on parking!
All the towns in Andalucía are connected by a series of highways, called autovia and autopista, in most towns running right through the city centre with off ramps at regular intervals. I’m not sure what the difference between the two are yet, although I think the one might indicate that it’s a toll road. These roads are outstanding and have an average speed limit of 120km/h. I haven’t been paying too much attention to the road signs, because we hired a GPS and I tend to follow its guidance religiously as far as possible. Spain is a country under construction however, especially in the cities, and the GPS maps aren’t always completely up to date. I wouldn’t recommend driving without one though, especially in the bigger cities, such as Seville and Malaga, where the traffic can be quite hectic.
Parking is a problem in most cities. I was warned beforehand to be careful where I park, since lines on the road indicate that parking in a certain spot is allowed at a certain time of day only. As a rule, we have always looked for parking lots instead of parking next to the road. This might not be the most economical thing to do (parking fees are usually in the region of €2.50 per hour), but it certainly is the easiest and safest. Just be sure to remember where you left your car – we spent about an hour in Cadiz traipsing in the pouring rain trying to find our car park after returning to the town centre by bus rather than walking back.
Although driving in congested city centres can be a bit of a nightmare, driving on the highways is a breeze. I have found Spanish drivers to be very considerate and law-abiding. Cars stay on the right side of the road, except when overtaking, after which they immediately return to the right side again. If you’re coming up behind someone in the left-hand lane, they will quickly move to the right to make way for you. Of course, they expect you to keep to this common courtesy as well, and will not hesitate to hoot or flash lights if you are in their way. A hint for other South African drivers – overtaking someone from the slow lane is frowned upon, and you will get some angry looks or worse if you try it too often. Most drivers keep to the speed limit, although many of them do speed up a bit more than technically allowed on the highways.
To make the most out of driving in Andalucía, my advice is to invest in a GPS and not to feel pressured into driving too fast at first. Follow the example of the cars around you, relax and take in the scenery, and you will soon forget the awkwardness of being on the wrong side of the road. It might still be a little nerve-wracking and tiring, but it is definitely the most convenient and quickest way of reaching your destination.
For more posts in the Spain 2010 series, click here.