Is this the most boring postcard in the world? Solo Interrail part 3.

Travelling on Interrail south through Germany from Belgium (read about Belgium here), the trains never ceased to amaze me.  German trains are a marvel of engineering precision, and comparing them to English trains would be like comparing a BMW to a pony trap.  Yes, the pony trap is an important part of our heritage, and it will (usually) get you to where you’re going eventually, but the BMW is the more comfortable ride and, let’s face it, more appropriate for cross-country travel.  The BMW doesn’t have to throw everyone onto a bus at Sheffield so it can go to sleep for the night.

Let me tell you about German trains.

The internal doors are made of sliding glass panels; there are small compartments containing conference rooms for business executives; the dining car has seats and tables so you don’t have to walk the length of the train with your food; the seats are reasonably sized and oh so very comfortable; but none of this is the best bit.  The suspension likes to fool you into believing you must be travelling very slowly, to feel so few bumps and corners, but then you look out the window and realize you’re going at over eighty.  But that’s not the best part either.  The best part is, in front of you, wherever you sit, there is a piece of printed paper with the heading “reiseplan.”

And that piece of paper tells you when you will arrive at each of the stations between where you are and the train’s terminus.  Not only that, but it tells you what trains are departing from those stations in the next hour or so after your arrival.  On a longer journey, the stewards will bring more than one Reiseplan to you so that you know exactly what is going on at all times.

Frankfurt1a
Is this the most boring postcard in the world??  But pretty representative of my experience of Frankfurt.
Frankfurt2a
A more interesting postcard of Frankfurt, I saw none of the things in this postcard.

The train passed through several stations, I had a short stopover in Frankfurt (where I ate a Frankenfurter – aka hot dog) and I made a couple of changes onto other, equally well-endowed German trains, and thanks to the Reiseplans on the German trains, I was able to very efficiently plan a route all the way down to Zurich in Switzerland.  I’d expected (when I awoke that morning in Brussels) that I might get as far as Stuttgart by the end of the day.  Arriving at Zurich was a total coup and a sign that the trip was improving.  Now, again, I had a shot at getting to Venice.

The scenery across Germany could be described as cloudy on top with fields underneath, punctuated with the occasional town or city.  As we got closer to Switzerland, the clouds seemed to press together, accumulating, a crowd of clouds awaiting entry to some great event, perhaps a thunderstorm concert, on the other side of the Alps.  This was a place which held onto the clouds with the first of the Alpine mountains, keeping them safe so the Mediterranean could enjoy sunshine.

I looked up accommodation in Zurich using the directory of hotels that I’d acquired in Paris, and I phoned them on the final leg of the train journey, making a reservation for a room in the Zurich Etap.  I conducted the entire conversation in French, and from the train I took a taxi to the hotel, then went to the desk that had a picture of a French flag and started checking in.  Out of the corner of my ear, I heard a conversation in English then realized the hotel also had an English-speaking check in desk.  D’oh.

Being stubborn, I decided to finish check-in in French, handed over my passport so they could take a copy, then got my key and went to the room.  It wasn’t fantastic, but there was an ashtray and a couple of beds, as well as a tiny plastic en-suite bathroom which had probably looked cutting edge in 1998.  I had a shower, a smoke and a snack then went to bed.  There was nothing to do in the hotel and I wanted to be up early because Zurich was just a hitching post on my journey into Italy.

The next morning, I intended to go straight to the central station.  Somehow, this didn’t happen.  That’s a story for next time.

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Weekly Photo Challenge: Life Imitates Art

This week’s weekly photo challenge is the topic “Life Imitates Art” (challenge found here). Here’s my interpretation:

Castle Hohenschwanstein, Schwangau, Germany, August 2014.
Castle Hohenschwanstein, Schwanau, Germany, Taken August 2014.

UPDATE: I have now written a full post about Schwangau and Ludwig II’s castles.  Click here to read it.

Sindelfingen’s Unexpected Medieval Centre

We were looking for the museum and rathaus (same building), standing on a street surrounded by concrete brutalist architecture of the square boxes variety. The city centre was very “modern” in the sense that it looked to all be built after the 1940s. Concrete – with bits of pebble stuck to it – seemed to be the last word in architecture. What did we expect from the town whose only claim to fame is that, being quite close to Stuttgart, it’s within driving distance of the Porsche Museum? I’d seen a list on some trip advising website (I forget the name) of “5 things to do in Sindelfingen.” By comparison, there were over 300 things to do in York, where I live, and I regularly can’t find anything to do here.

The concrete architecture.
The concrete architecture.

Why were we even here? After the hectic drive to Salzburg and the overstimulation from everything that amazing place had to offer, and a complete repeat of hectic drive and overstim combo courtesy of Rome, we had decided to find a town that had absolutely nothing of interest – but still had a hotel with a swimming pool. We’d both felt that, on our honeymoon, we hadn’t spent enough time in our swimwear. The next three days was supposed to fix that.

Sindelfingen had been our destination because we were looking for somewhere with no big tourism distractions. Somewhere where we didn’t feel bad for staying in. Where we didn’t feel compelled to get out and look around and take photos.

I think I have more photos of Sindelfingen than I do of Salzburg. It was awesome; a complete hidden find.

So, the morning after our first night in the delightful Hotel Berlin, another nod to “modern” (1950s) architecture, with genuine 1950s decor such as a wall to wall mirror with teak fitted nightstands, we had gone out in search of some of the things to do in Sindelfingen, mostly because it was ironic, in the unique sense of the word that brings humour to an otherwise dull situation.

The Hotel Berlin in Sindelfingen
The Hotel Berlin in Sindelfingen.  That’s my car camper!!!

The things to do in Sindelfingen had included: The “friendship fountain,” made with articulated creatures; the rathaus, the Porsche Museum, the Mercedes Factory (both of which are in Stuttgart), Breuningerland, the shopping centre, the museum, and a zebra crossing (zebrastreifen). We found the Friendship Fountain pretty much straight away.

This is the "Friendship Fountain" in Sindelfingen
This is the “Friendship Fountain” in Sindelfingen

The fountain was awesome and had these tiny little articulated (jointed) models around it:

A wolf, one of the articulated models that were part of the Friendship Fountain.
A wolf, one of the articulated models that were part of the Friendship Fountain.
A two headed dragon
A two headed dragon

Next, we looked for the Rathaus. It turned out to be tourist information, but we went in anyway and talked to the lady behind the counter, I asked “Wahre ist der Altes Rathaus, bitte?” and she gave me a very lengthy answer, and I don’t know if she even realised I didn’t actually speak German, we had a good long conversation, albeit a little one-sided. I did know what she roughly said – this was the rathaus, the internet kept getting it confused with the museum, the museum was in the old town and then something about opening hours. We thanked her and left. I would have liked to get a photo of one of the things in the gift shop – Monopoly: Sindelfingen Edition, but I didn’t want to offend the information lady and didn’t know how to ask in German.  The third thing to do was to see the museum. We wandered off in search of it, the picture on the internet had been spectacular and I wanted to see the building – timber framed, late medieval, couldn’t wait.

We got a bit lost at this point. Basically I saw a timber framed building and thought “that must be the museum!” and walked towards it. Then we saw this:

timber framed Sindelfingen haus

Mind. Blown.

So it turns out that Sindelfingen has this huge old town full of timber framed houses and they’re all really really pretty and you can walk around them and imagine you live there.

We wasted about an hour doing this. Not one singe mention of this on the internet on the trip advice website we’d looked at when we were in Rome deciding where to go next. Apparently Sindelfingeners think the town’s zebra crossing is of more interest.  We didn’t find the zebrastreifen though so who knows maybe it’s really special.

sindelfingen timber framed houses

As we were about to give up on the museum, we rounded a corner and saw a building with a bell tower. Guess what it was? The Old Rathaus – A.K.A the museum. So it used to be the rathaus and now it wasn’t so everyone in Sindelfingen and all the signposts kept pointing us away from it towards the current Rathaus.

The museum from the direction we approached in.
The museum from the direction we approached in.

It was closed. I couldn’t actually make sense of the opening hours because there were three different sets posted on the door (in German – nobody in Sindelfingen spoke English except our hotel receptionists) so I decided that since the lights were off and the door was locked, we were out of luck. That was fine, I had really wanted to see the building itself, not the stuff inside it, that would have just been icing on the cake.

The statue outside the Sindelfingen museum near Stuttgart Germany
The statue outside the Sindelfingen museum near Stuttgart Germany
An interesting doorway around the side of the museum.
An interesting doorway around the side of the museum.

We continued to wander around Sindelfingen to take in more of the timber framed houses, stopping off at the shopping centre for some more Balea silver shampoo for me to bring home (and lunch – schnitzels and chips), then we went back to our hotel, happy that we had found the very best and unexpected thing to do in Sindelfingen, that hadn’t been mentioned anywhere, and that the museum had been pretty spectacular from the outside.

The museum from another direction, looking even more spectacular.
The museum from another direction, looking even more spectacular.

Invoke Delight and Inspire

Sindelfingen, Germany: Looking for the museum

We were looking for the museum, surrounded by concrete brutalist architecture of the square boxes variety. The city centre was very “modern” in the sense that it looked to all be built after the 1940s. Concrete – with bits of pebble stuck to it – seemed to be the last word in architecture. What did we expect from the town whose only claim to fame is that, being quite close to Stuttgart, it’s within driving distance of the Porsche Museum? I’d seen a list on some trip advising website (I forget the name) of “5 things to do in Sindelfingen.” By comparison, there were over 300 things to do in York, where I live, and I regularly can’t find anything to do here.

The concrete architecture. The concrete architecture.

Why were we even here? After the hectic drive to Salzburg and the overstimulation from everything that amazing…

View original post 840 more words

How To Drive In Europe: The Basics

Ever wondered whether driving in Europe is different to driving at home? Are you planning a trip that will involve you driving in Europe? This article is an explanation of everything you need to know to drive safely in Europe (including the UK), broken down into key aspects so you can drive safely and confidently on your next European Road Trip.  This is very comprehensive but I’ve written it as concisely as possible from both my own experiences and research I’ve done to check current driving laws around Europe; I have this article saved to my computer to print out to take with me whenever I drive in Europe.  Feel free to do the same.

Contents:
Side of the Road,
Roundabouts,
Multi-Lane Roads,
Indicators and Overtaking,
Smoking in Vehicles,
Things You Need In Your Car,
Tolls and taxes,
Speed Limits,
Carrying Hazardous/Dangerous Items in Your Vehicle,
Further Reading.

 

Side of the road:

1. In Malta, Cyprus Ireland and the UK (excluding Gibraltar), you drive on the left.

2. Everywhere else you drive on the right.

Roundabouts:

Roundabouts are often used instead of traffic lights where roads intersect each other.

Where you drive on the left (in the UK etc):

Go around the roundabout in a clockwise manner. Always give way to oncoming traffic from the right hand side and ignore traffic on the left (unless it’s cutting you up in which case peep your horn at them to warn them of your presence). You can imagine most roundabouts as a complicated type of crossroads, and some of them have traffic lights on them as well. You indicate as you approach the roundabout to inform people that you are either not getting off the roundabout yet (indicate right, for right turns or straight ahead) or you indicate to inform people that you are getting off the roundabout at the very next exit (indicate left, for the very next left turn). If it’s busy and you are in the wrong lane, people will cut you up as you try to get off the roundabout so always check mirrors and blind spot before changing direction unexpectedly and position your car so other road users know you’re changing roundabout lanes before you pull out.

Where you drive on the right (in France etc):

Go around the roundabout in an anti-clockwise manner. Always give way to oncoming traffic from the left hand side and ignore traffic on the right (unless they’re cutting you up in which case slow down). To indicate, do so whilst you are on the roundabout (or two or three cars away from joining it) and indicate left (staying on the roundabout) or right (getting off the roundabout), EXCEPT in Slovenia where you only indicate to show when you’re leaving the roundabout. If it’s busy and you are in the wrong lane be aware people will cut you up as you try to get off the roundabout, so check your mirrors and blind spot before changing lane unexpectedly, and position your car so other road users know you’re changing roundabout lanes before you pull out.

Multi-Lane Roads:

Where you drive on the left (UK, Ireland etc):

Stay in the left hand lane until you need to overtake someone. If you are on a motorway (3 lanes or more) you may see big blue signs showing that the road is going to split into two new roads. When this is happening, pick the lane that follows the correct blue sign to where you are going. If in doubt, keeping right at a fork is usually to stay on the road you’re currently on. As soon as you are on the new road or as soon as you have passed the fork or new road split, return to the left hand lane if it’s safe to do so.

When overtaking, it’s good practice to pull back over to the left after you’ve overtaken, however, because other people don’t always do this, and because people don’t leave a sensible amount of space between themselves and the cars in front, it can sometimes be more efficient to stay in the right hand lane if you know you need to overtake again soon, because it can be very difficult to rejoin overtaking traffic once you’ve had to slow down. If you see a police car, pull into the left hand lane because it is now illegal to just drive in an overtaking lane (which is every lane apart from the left lane), although nothing’s changed in terms of how people drive because UK police don’t appear to be enforcing this OR the new law against tailgating.
In Ireland, there are a lot of elderly drivers but people seem to be more mellow and courteous on the road, so I always pull back to the left after overtaking although not everyone does. Ireland doesn’t seem to have the same horrific traffic congestion as the UK does, probably because people drive with courtesy and are more tolerant of mistakes (such as being in the wrong lane).

Where you drive on the right (France, Germany etc):

Stay in the right hand lane until you need to overtake someone. If you are on an Autoroute or Autobahn or Autostrada (freeway, motorway), the left hand lane is the overtaking lane. If you need to overtake someone, check your mirrors (especially in Germany where there’s no upper speed limits on some routes) and only pull out where there’s no-one approaching at speed – if someone’s passing you at 150 miles an hour and you’re pulling out at 60, it’s not going to end well for anyone. When you are done overtaking, pull back in, and remember to overtake EACH VEHICLE INDIVIDUALLY. In the UK people have a tendency to stay in the overtaking lane when they shouldn’t, because they can see another car ahead that they will want to overtake in a couple of minutes – in Europe, this can get you pulled over by the police, but not before a VW Kamper has tailgated you for a couple of miles flashing his lights at you to draw your attention to the fact that you’re in the wrong lane. Once you’re done overtaking, get out of the overtaking lane.

Near some European cities such as Florence (and Glasgow), there are now moments when you will either get corralled through the city on a motorway that avoids all the junctions, or you will be moved onto a motorway that HAS all the junctions. It is critically important here that you are aware a) how long you will be on a no-junction motorway and b) whether you will miss your exit. We didn’t understand the signs because the with-junctions motorway was signposted with suburbs of Florence (which should have been closer than our exit), and the without-junctions motorway was signposted with Milan, which was a VERY long way away compared to where our exit was. We were trying to get to Verona. We chose the Milan motorway, thinking the other was a ring road type system around Florence. Big mistake. We were shuttled 50km north of our starting point, all the time in slow moving traffic in 40 degree (Celsius) heat, with no air conditioning and a thick fog of petrol fumes surrounding us; we had realized as we passed the exit to the other motorway that we were on the wrong road. We then spent three hours in bumper-to-bumper traffic crawling until we FINALLY reached the first exit off this road which was far, far beyond the exit we had needed. For the first forty minutes on the shuttle road, our road was directly alongside the road we should have taken, and there was no way to get to it. We had to turn around at the first exit 50km later, and then we had to sit through another two hours of traffic to get back to the place where we could turn around again to choose the correct road because it wasn’t reachable from the other side of the road. Many road signs in Italy make no sense and I would highly recommend you get a sat nav as well as a paper road map if you intend to drive in Italy (and don’t rely on the Google sat nav on your phone because a) you’ll wear your battery down by charging it and using it at the same time and b) it’s dependent on you getting a phone signal as well as a GPS one). The moral of the story here is to be aware of these shuttle roads (I don’t know if they have a fancy name) if you plan to drive anywhere in Europe.

Indicators and Overtaking:

In every European country, you must not overtake a school bus while it is stopped to let passengers on or off. In the former Eastern Bloc countries (such as Serbia) you may not overtake any buses that are stopped. Use your common sense – if the rest of the traffic has overtaken the bus, or if the bus is clearly stopped for a lunch break, it’s probably safe to overtake if you take care and do so slowly, so you don’t hit any pedestrians crossing in front of the bus.

On autoroutes/autobahns (motorways, freeways) some nationalities continue to indicate even after they’ve maneuvered, until they have pulled back into the right hand (non-overtaking) lane. This might seem strange to people who have driven in the UK where many high end cars (BMWs, Audis, Mercedes etc) don’t actually appear to be fitted with indicators since their drivers just pull out without warning. It is not compulsory to indicate with the expressive gusto of drivers from Luxembourg, but it is compulsory to use the correct indicators to inform other traffic that you are changing lane or turning.

On roundabouts in Slovenia, you do not indicate when entering a roundabout, you only indicate to show that you are leaving the roundabout.

Smoking in Vehicles:

It is now illegal to smoke in any vehicle where children are passengers in the UK.  It might be illegal to NOT smoke in any vehicle in Montenegro (joking; the UK one is true though).

Things you need in your car (by law):

Some things are needed everywhere in Europe, other things are needed only in one country. In general, the Eastern European countries require you to take more stuff than Western Europe. As far as enforcement goes, unless you get stopped by the police and your vehicle checked for some reason, you shouldn’t really have any problems, so if you’re a flexible good driver (as opposed to one who inflexibly follows every letter of the highway code regardless of situation) you will probably never need to prove these items are in your car.

The UK:

A spare wheel.

Most countries in Europe, including France, Germany, Austria, Spain and Scandinavia:

Warning triangle (always 2 in Spain, 2 in some other countries IF you’re towing a caravan)

Hi-Viz vest

First aid kit

Spare bulbs

A spare wheel

A bumper sticker showing which country you have driven from (eg. GB sticker) unless your registration plate states a country code on it.

Countries where it gets very cold and snowy, including Austria, Scandinavia and most of the former Eastern Bloc:

Your vehicle MUST be fitted with winter tyres, usually between October and March. Check each country’s requirement on the AA website before taking your vehicle.

Countries where it is very hot:

In Spain, most window tinting is illegal.

In most hot countries you are not allowed to carry spare petrol, but you are generally allowed to carry diesel.

Former Soviet-Bloc countries (Czech, Slovakia, Slovenia, Ukraine, Bulgaria, Romania, Former Yugoslavia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Estonia, Albania, Moldova, Montenegro, but not Greece):

These are the countries which will often check at the border whether your car has all the correct items, so if you’re travelling to or through any of the former USSR countries, you need to tick all the boxes because they still have a culture of bureaucracy at border checkpoints.

Spare bulbs,

Spare wheel (this must be the same size as the wheels fitted to the vehicle),

First Aid Kit,

Reflective Jacket,

Tow rope and tow bar (or loop e.g. on the Citroen Xsara Picasso),

Warning triangle (two if towing something),

Winter Tyres between November and April (with a minimum tread of 4mm, or 6mm in Ukraine),

Additionally, in all of the former Soviet Bloc countries, you must get the border control officer to certify in writing any damage to your car (dents and scrapes etc) before you enter the country, otherwise you may have serious problems when you try to leave. This is to prevent people from having accidents in these countries then fleeing without prosecution.

It is NOT compulsory to adjust your headlights from a left hand drive to right hand drive country (or vice versa) the laws all state that you must not DAZZLE oncoming traffic. Often this means a headlight adjustment but the law is clear it’s the dazzling that’s the problem, so dip your headlights enough and you will actually probably do a better job at not dazzling traffic than those people who incorrectly use the headlight adjustment stickers.

Tolls and Taxes:

Tolls:

Most freeway type roads (autostrada, autoroute etc) charge a toll.  The exceptions are Germany’s autobahns, which are currently free, and the countries which require you to pay road tax or a vignette.  Tolls in Italy are generally fairly reasonable (usually under E5 every 50-100 miles-ish) and tolls in France are utterly arbitrary (we paid E16 to drive 25 miles at one point and E3 to drive another 40 miles).  This is where buying a roadmap comes in handy – the one I had detailed which roads were toll and which were not, along with the location of the toll booths, so we knew which roads to avoid in France after getting robbed by a toll booth.  The map doesn’t tell you how much the tolls are, but most toll motorways have a non-toll smaller road running next to it which will take you longer, but won’t cost as much in tolls (whether this increases your fuel consumption is another matter).

On trying to enter Eastern European countries, I’ve heard of some drivers being charged a car washing fine for an official to throw a bucket of water over their car because it was too dirty to continue.  This was apparently in Slovenia, although it is definitely illegal to drive an unwashed car in Romania so budget for a car wash every so often.  Then you won’t get charged a E150 fee to enter any of these countries.

Car Tax or Vignettes:

The countries which charge longer term for you to use their roads are:

Austria (the road from Italy to Innsbruck still costs E9 on top of the vignette) which requires a relatively cheap vignette (pronounced vin-yet) which you can buy at petrol stations approaching the Austrian border (say: “eine vignette fur Osterreich bitte” to the clerk then how long you want it for.  “Funfzig tage” is fifteen days and “dreizig tage” gets you thirty days, sorry about my spelling for any native speakers).

Switzerland requires a vignette that in 2016 costs 40CHF (one Swiss Franc is usually worth roughly the same as the Canadian dollar on the exchange rate) and runs from 1st January to 31st December.  If you are travelling during January or December you might get ripped off.  They don’t do smaller units of tax in Switzerland.  According to the Swiss government website, non-EU citizens can buy Swiss road tax online here although I’d get it when approaching the Swiss border to be sure it arrives (and because that exchange rate on that website is very badly messed up).

The UK has a very complicated vehicle taxation and roadworthiness system that I’m not going to go into, because if you’re only there for less than 28 days you can ignore it completely and if you’re there for longer you can consult the British DVLA.

Speed Limits:

Speed limits are signposted very clearly everywhere in Europe, it’s really easy to follow the speed limit and we found there was a way to change the mileometer on the Picasso so it showed the speed in kph.  Germany has very clear speed limits except on the Autobahn, where there is no upper speed limit, only a suggested speed limit in adverse weather conditions.  This teaches you to look at the state of the road, the congestion, the road surface (e.g. is it icy, wet or dry) and use your own judgement.  If you lack this judgement, or if you’re a new driver, stick to 70-80 miles per hour and you’ll generally not be out of place amongst the traffic.  Remember, it’s illegal to take a slow moving vehicle on a motorway or freeway in most European countries so you MUST make an effort to keep up with the slowest moving flow of traffic on the road.

Carrying hazardous/dangerous items such as weapons in your vehicle:

Check the individual country’s requirement as it ranges from 100% legal to hold it whilst driving (swords in Poland) to 99.9% illegal to have it in the car (guns in Britain).  Each country has it’s own definition of what is hazardous or dangerous, just to complicate matters even more.

Further Reading

You may also want to check out these other articles I’ve written to help you drive in Europe and beyond:
Buying petrol in Europe
International Window Tinting Laws Around the World
Travel Money Guide a helpful article explaining how to access your money and what sort of money to take when travelling in Europe, including answering questions about working in Europe, using credit cards and ATM machines. Essential reading if you’re planning a European road trip or driving in Europe.

Coming soon:  Driving with your pets in Europe, and pet-transport laws.

How to Choose Better Sheet Maps (Maps Part 2)

Something nobody ever talks about is buying a map. For city-hoppers, who fly from Phnom Penh to Beijing via Ho Chi Min and Tokyo, there’s probably little need for the various types of maps I’m going to talk about. If you’re driving from A to B, however, you need a map so you don’t end up at the wrong sea.

The two types of maps you need:
1. A big road atlas.
2. Smaller destination maps – this might be an A-Z city map book or a few Ordnance Survey sheets for the wilderness.

This article is going to talk about how to choose a smaller destination maps. In case you missed it, I discussed how to choose the big road atlas last Travel Tuesday.

The humble sheet map is more often overlooked except by people who want to do some walking out of their car. In the UK, we have Harvey’s and Ordnance Survey maps, and (with the exception of OS’s 2007-onwards touring maps) they’re so good, that you would be forgiven for expecting them to cover the whole world. It’s a bit of a shock to the system to discover that our gleaming institution of the OS map is actually only a thing in the UK. Beyond, you’re at the mercy of whatever lame-ass cartographic monstrosity they’ve scribbled on a napkin to sell to tourists.

So what do you do? Where can you go to for excellent, accurate mapping information that comes in a variety of scales with familiar symbols? While Google Maps is clearly the Gold Standard in worldwide mapping, since it uses the actual satellite images to map features that are really where they say they are, the big drawback is you need an internet connection and some sort of charge to use them (unless you want to spend hours printing them out at a multitude of scales).

What’s this scale nonsense, anyway?
Basically, it’s a ratio of how much a geographical area has been scaled down to fit on a page. For example, 1:1 would mean the map would be exactly the same size as the area it covered. 1:4 would mean it was a quarter of the size of the area it covered. The best scale you can get on Ordnance Survey maps is 1:25,000 (you can see every individual house on the map at this scale) but their 1:50,000 is usually good enough for most things unless you’re really bad at reading a map. Road maps are usually between 1:200,000 and 1:500,000. Anything above 1:800,000 is not very useful in areas of dense population, e.g. western Europe, but would probably be fine in places like Kazakhstan, Russia or Sudan where there’s not a lot of stuff to fit on a page. Anything above 1:3,000,000 is useless even for Russia. At bigger scales, the width of the road is not done to scale because otherwise it would be a tiny thin line that you wouldn’t be able to see, so they make the roads wider than they should be. This confuses a lot of people but if they didn’t do it, most maps would be unreadable.

Why does scale matter?
Surely if you buy the biggest scale available, you’ll be able to cover more countries on less paper? Yes, but the problem is, as cartographers increase the scale, they reduce the amount of visible detail. First thing you’ll notice is some minor roads not appearing where they should. Then some villages will vanish. Then eventually there will just be the main roads and big cities… you get the picture. Likewise, if the scale is too small, you will quickly fill your car with paper maps, cost yourself a fortune and spend hours looking for the right page or sheet. That’s clearly no good either. Where does the balance lie between these two extremes? Only you can answer that.

Here’s a list of brands and countries that produce printed paper maps, along with the individual scales by continent and country, for those places that are hard to find maps for (and some that aren’t) If you use the “find on page function” from your internet browser menu (top right in Chrome), you can find all of the maps for any given country in this list:

Carte De Randonnees (Institut Geographique National): Sheet maps for France (choice of scales: 1:25,000 or 1:50,000) including places of interest etc. Not quite the same level of detail as OS maps and I didn’t see any contours but I might have been looking at a sheet map that covered a flat area. They retail for between £8 and £13 and you can get them in the UK in Go Outdoors, although they are 100% in French so they might be of no use to you if you’re no good at grasping foreign languages (I’m extremely lucky that I have the ability to learn many languages but I know that a lot of people struggle with this, and I can see those people having major issues with these maps).

maps2

Cartographia: Africa: Libya (scale 1:2,000,000), Egypt (1:1,000,000),
Europe: Moscow (in Russia) (1:50,000),

Comfort! Map: Europe: Ukraine (scale 1:1,350,000),

Editorial Alpina Mapa Guia Excursionista Map & Hiking Guide: Sheet maps of Spain and Andorra (scale 1:25,000). I couldn’t open them at Go Outdoors (these maps are wrapped in cellophane) to see whether they were in English but there was a Union Flag on the front next to the Spanish and Andorran flags, which strongly implies there were English words inside.

spanish maps3

Freytag and Berndt: Africa: Egypt (scale 1:800,000),
Europe: Romania and Moldova (scale 1:500,000), Ukraine and Moldova (scale 1:1,000,000 so get the Romania one if you’re specifically going to Moldova), Russia (scale 1:8,000,000 and 1:2,000,000 on same map)

Gizi Map: Asis: Kazakhstan, Kyrgystan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan all in one map (scale 1: 3,000,000).

Hema: New Zealand North Island (scale unknown but it’s good) and New Zealand South Island (again, scale unknown but it’s got great detail and both have city plans).

International Travel Maps: Europe: Ukraine (scale 1:1,000,000), Russia (scale 1:6,000,000), The Russian Kamchatka Peninsula (scale 1:800,000 and 1:1,200,000 on same map), St Petersburg (in Russia) (1:14,000), Kazakhstan (scale 1:2,300,000), Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan on same map (scale 1:3,000,000 and 1: 1,580,000),

Michelin: Africa. Relatively few options exist for Africa, even Morocco, so the Michelin maps aren’t the best scale or detail, but they’re cheapest option weighing in at £5.99 on Amazon. The Michelin maps cover: Morocco (scale 1:1,000,000), Tunisia (scale 1:800,000)
Asia: Turkey (scale 1:1,000,000), Thailand (1:1,370,000)
Europe: Romania (scale 1:750,000),
North America: Eastern US and Eastern Canada (one map) (1:2,400,000),

Nelles Maps: Africa: Tunisia (scale 1:750,000), Egypt (scale 1:750,000 and 1:2,500,000 – both stated on same map),

Marco Polo: Often a better scale than Michelin, particularly for larger countries. Africa: Tunisia (scale 1:800,000), Morocco (scale 1:800,000), Egypt (1:1,000,000),
Asia: Turkey (1: 800,000),
Europe: Romania (1: 800,000), Russia-Ukraine-Belarus (3 in 1) (1:2,000,000 and 1:10,000,000 – both on same map), St Petersburg (in Russia) (1:15,000),
Asia: China (1:4,000,000), Thailand, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia (all in one) (1:2,000,000),
Oceania: New Zealand (1:2,000,000),

National Geographic Adventure Map: Morocco/Western Sahara, Egypt, Turkey (scale unknown),

Rand McNally; Road Map of US, Canada and Mexico (one map book) (scale undisclosed but according to Amazon reviewers it’s small).

Reise: Africa: Jordan (1,400,000),
Europe: Russia (Lake Baikal to Vladivostock – the far east third of Russia) (1:2,000,000),
Asia: Kazakhstan (1:2,000,000)

WorldMap: Egypt (1:1,000,000),

Insight Flexi Map: Egypt (1:930,000), Moscow (in Russia) (1:130,000),
Asia: Thailand (1, 1,400,000),
N. America: Canada (1:4,000,000),
Oceania: New Zealand (1:800,000)

Problem countries:
Morocco: For no good reason, nobody seems to produce a map worth a damn for Morocco. For the size of the country, the scales on offer are ridiculous.

Russia: It’s a really big country. Huge, in fact. So it won’t all fit on one sheet or in one map book. There are sections for sale from Reise but if you’re crossing all of Russia you’ll need quite a few sheets. Maps of St Petersburg and Moscow seem plentiful and scales look good for these, however.

Conclusion:
As you can see, once you get past France and Spain, it appears that there’s nothing that comes close to good old Ordnance Survey or Harvey, which makes me realise how lucky we are in the UK to have two fantastic printed mapping resources as well as Google Maps. It’s very unfortunate that GPS has taken off so well that cartographers don’t produce as many printed maps any more, so if you lose your way in an area that doesn’t get a GPS signal, like Siberia, then you’re going to struggle to get un-lost. My personal recommendation? Get a decent GPS device with world maps pre-loaded at a good scale, and always have paper maps as a back up, because none of these maps will help you while you’re crossing the Carpathian Alps or the Atlas Mountains, or kayaking the River Vltva. Being on a serious budget myself, I will probably not take my own advice any time soon, and am going with the best scale available for both Morocco and Romania when I overland there.

Do you know of any good sheet maps for other countries that I could add to this article? Let me know in the comments! I’ll reply/approve (if needed) when I get back from the Highlands of Scotland on Friday/Saturday.

How to Buy a Better European Road Atlas

Choose the right map 1: The big road atlas

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Something nobody ever talks about is buying a map. For city-hoppers, who fly from Phnom Penh to Beijing via Ho Chi Min and Tokyo, there’s probably little need for the various types of maps I’m going to talk about here. If you’re driving from A to B, however, you need a good map (even if you have an awesome sat nav) so you don’t end up at the wrong sea.

The two types of maps you need:
1. A big road atlas.
2. Smaller destination maps – this might be an A-Z city map book or a few Ordnance Survey sheets for the wilderness.

This article is going to talk about how to choose a road atlas. Stay tuned for next Travel Tuesday when I’ll talk about how to choose smaller destination maps.

1. A big road atlas. This has largely been superseded by GPS navigation, aka Sat Navs, but it totally depends on where you want to go. If you are travelling somewhere with poor mobile phone/GPS coverage, or you don’t have the right countries in your sat nav (or even if you do) it’s well worth taking a paper map as a back up. At the very worst, you can use it to do big-picture route planning and see where you are compared to your overall travel goal. I bought a Philip’s European Road Atlas last year for driving from York UK to Rome, Italy via Salzburg, Austria and Stuttgart, Germany. I didn’t pay a huge amount of attention to which one I bought – I thought I’d spent plenty of time choosing one with the most countries covered and the best scale of detail. At 2am, somewhere in central Germany on our first travel day, lost in a hell of redirecting ring roads and traffic cones, with nothing on the (ample) signposts matching ANYTHING on our map, however, I wished I’d spent that little bit more time (and money) and selected my map a bit more wisely. The AA one looked a lot better when I flicked through it in a shop – so I’m going to get this one. I’m also considering a separate, broader scale atlas just for France and Germany.

Things to look for in a big road atlas:
1. Scale. Does it cover ALL of the countries listed at the scale advertised on the front? We bought the Philip’s European Road Atlas because we wanted to go to Romania, and it was one of very few that covered it. We did not end up going. When the Philips Road Atlas arrived, it transpired that it only did Eastern Europe in 1:4,000,000 scale (which would be fine if they didn’t have roads, junctions, towns, etc etc that weren’t remotely marked on the map) in the route planner pages at the front, and only did Western Europe in the advertised scale of 1:800,000, which wasn’t the best scale for the densely populated countries such as Germany and Belgium that we passed through on our journey, and it did struggle in Italy as well.

2. Coverage. Does it cover the countries between your starting point and your destination in enough detail to enable you to actually get there? For example, if we had gotten a map which only covered Western Europe but that covered it in a better scale, we could have saved about one full travel day not being lost (we lost on average 2 hours a day from accidentally taking the wrong road or not having any of the options on the signposts match up with anything on the map), which would have meant more time and energy for sightseeing. Because our original trip focus was Eastern Europe, I didn’t pay attention to how good the mapping of the Western European countries was, which ultimately made our trip less awesome than it could have been. Because there are more people per square kilometre in Western Europe, there is more infrastructure and there are also more settlements. This means you need a map with the same level of detail as you would need to drive around the south of England, not the north of Scotland.

3. Symbols. WTF do those symbols mean??!! If you don’t know, this might not be your best map. Usually there’s a symbol guide at the front (along with the scale, and approximate times and distances), but if you’re struggling or if it’s all in a funny font or all in a foreign language that you don’t speak, try a different one.

4. Font size. Some maps have a font size that is far too small for driving. I don’t recommend reading maps whilst the vehicle is in motion, but even when you’ve stopped, you need to find where you are as quickly as possible. If you can’t read the words because they’re too small, you WILL struggle, because remember they’ll all be unfamiliar words anyway. Make it as easy as possible for future you to get the job done.

5. Price. Most people buy the cheapest map they see. STOP! Don’t do it. I spent a couple of hours choosing my map, and it still wasn’t a good fit. Buying the cheapest one you see will cost you money in the long run in the form of all that petrol you’ll waste when you’re driving around and being lost.

Final advice on your road map:
1. Never see it as a “just in case” for if your sat nav breaks, even if that’s the intended use. Scrutinize that map so you know whether it will actually get you to where you need to go when it matters most. When you lose sat nav signal (I did once we left Dover, and never got it back all through Europe), you will be stressed, usually in a hurry to make a decision or not in a sensible place to stop, and you will need that map to work fast. My map was a back up, but it wasn’t good enough. There’s no shame in buying a second one after the first one arrives if you bought it online and its crap.

2. Change the page on your map every day of your journey, so you can just pick it up and find where you are when the sat-nav loses signal.

3. Familiarize yourself with what your route looks like on the map, so your brain can speed up your response using it’s pattern-recognition abilities. The human brain is an incredible tool if you use it right – I always do this when I’m road tripping so I can find where my car is on a page as fast as possible.

4. Draw with a marker pen where you’re going (if you’re cool with writing on your map). I wish I’d done this at every rest stop. Or at all.

5. If you have a passenger navigator, get them to follow the route with their finger or regularly update themselves on where you are in relation to the map in some other way. Pins, post it notes, or a pen would also work but a finger leaves no trace so the map is still readable.

Stay tuned for next Travel Tuesday when I will talk about smaller scale sheet maps, and feel free to ask me any of your questions about maps in the comments or via Twitter.

International Window Tinting Laws for Cars Driving Around the World

Tinted Windows In Europe and Around the World (updated Feb 2016)

So you’ve worked out how to get petrol when you’re abroad.  Next on your list of vehicle considerations is how to stop light getting into where you’re sleeping.  If you’re thinking of doing a longer term driving expedition, you need to know about the worldwide laws surrounding tinted windows. It’s probably occurred to you that it would be a Very Good Thing if you could sleep in your camper conversion without having passers-by staring into your lovely portable home while you sleep. Other people like the UV protection, and women drivers say they like being able to avoid unwanted attention of men in countries like UAE or Iran.  However, while the EU has passed a decisive law on the matter, individual EU member states have still made their own laws about it. One country has completely outlawed any tint. And then there’s the rest of the world; beyond the EU, in Morocco, Tunisia, Turkey and Ukraine, for example, it’s very difficult to find out what the legalities are for tinted windows. The other complication is that, for the most part, these laws only apply to citizens of the country which made the law, so if you’re passing through, you’ll probably (but not necessarily) be able to get away with it in a UK registered car. Once you’ve stayed in the same country for more than 180 days, it becomes a legal requirement to follow their car maintenance and tax laws, and remember that your car will still have to be fully road-legal for the UK before you drive onto that ferry home, as well.

Here’s a breakdown of the tint laws, ranked by percentage tint.

100% Black tint on all windows – not legal, anywhere. In Britain it was outlawed for front side windows in 2003. It reduces the distance of your visibility and has been shown to increase the chance of an accident (although this could be something to do with the fact that drug dealers etc tend to have tinted windows, and they don’t exactly drive carefully, so perhaps they should be cracking down on drug dealers, not tinted windows).

Rear Windows:

100% black tint on rear window and rear-side windows (after the B post) – UK, Germany (must have a manufacturing approval number at least once on each window, and you must carry a document explaining who did the tint and with the same approval number on it), Spain (same paperwork as for Germany), Belgium (but must be certified by the Glass Institute and if you’re putting any tint on rear window, you must have two wing mirrors), France (providing it doesn’t deform or reduce visibility, and has been certified), Czech Republic (but must be certified), Italy (must be certified), Russia, Spain (but film must be approved for use in Spain and certified), Poland (same as for Spain).  From people’s experience, lots of travellers found it impossible to get tinting film that was approved for either Spain or Poland, because they haven’t actually approved any that are reasonably available to buy at the time of writing.

80% tint or 20% VLT (visible light transmission) on rear window and rear-side windows (after the B-post) – Austria (and 20% tint (80% VLT) on front windows),

65% tint or 35% VLT – Australia (all windows)

60% tint or 40% VLT on rear window and rear-side windows (after the B-post) – Denmark.

30% tint or 70% VLT on rear window and rear-side windows (after the B-post) – Finland, Hungary.

Front Windows:

25% tint – 75% VLT – on front windows and front windscreen: UK, Denmark, Finland, Hungary, Russia,

30% tint – 70% VLT – on front windows and front windscreen: Belgium, Malta, United Arab Emirates,

No tint whatsoever on front windows or front side windows forward of B-pillar: Italy, France (you’re allowed a low tint on sides but nothing on front), Spain,

65% tint – 35% VLT – Australia (all windows).

Total Tint Ban:

0% Tint – all windows must be 100% transparent – Portugal, Belarus, Libya, Kuwait, Bolivia, Iraq, Kenya, Pakistan. Almost all of these are recent law changes and are due to violence and the ongoing threat of terrorism. Except Portugal. They’re just being silly for such a hot country. Egypt and Cyprus – unless it’s the actual glass rather than a tinted film. Tinted glass appears to be fine at any transparency in Cyprus and Egypt, but tinted film is totally banned.

Unusual Exceptions:

Greece – they state that all passengers and driver must be visible at all times, so some tint is probably OK but dark tints would not be. I would be a bit concerned about taking a tinted vehicle to Greece because they’re not very specific.

Tunisia – they say tints are allowed but should not be so heavily tinted that it is not possible to see into the car from outside, but they don’t specify a percentage.

Tajikistan – no tinting at all unless you buy a tinting “licence” to own tinted windows – at about $500 per vehicle.

India – total tint ban for film, but if it’s come from the manufacturer, it can be 30% tinted – so 70% VLT – in front and rear windows, and 50% tinted on the side windows.

America – state vs federal law in the USA, and a similar thing in Canada, appears to over-complicate the tinting requirements depending on which state you are in. This helpful article explains it all (near the bottom): http://www.ritrama.com/ritrama/userfiles/file/prodotti/Car_Window_Tinting_Laws.pdf

Turkmenistan – Window tints are totally illegal, but Turkmenistan deserved a separate entry because the following are also illegal: 2 door cars, engines over 3 litres, cars older than 5 years of age, black coloured cars are also banned and so are any kind of sports cars.  Source here (about halfway down the article): https://www.quora.com/What-are-some-strange-things-banned-in-countries

Notable lack of information:

There was no information despite hours of detailed searches for the following countries: Romania, Morocco, Mongolia, Iran, China – apparently some tints are illegal in China, but there’s no specifics (see the only reference I could find)

Tanzania – taxis and buses should not have tinted windows but there’s a distinct lack of information regarding the legality of private vehicles.

Got any inside info on countries I could add to this article?  Let me know in the comments!

References:

France: http://www.connexionfrance.com/Tinted-car-windows-ban-Pechenard-90kph-80kph-15171-view-article.html

Bolivia: http://www.carthrottle.com/post/the-10-most-awesome-cop-stories-youve-lived-through/

Kenya: http://allafrica.com/stories/201405161523.html

UAE: http://www.thenational.ae/news/uae-news/transport/drivers-face-fines-and-seeing-their-cars-impounded-but-they-still-want-tints

Egypt: http://www.med.navy.mil/sites/namru3/Staff/Documents/WELCOME%20ABOARD%20BROCHURE%20Update%20AUG%2012.pdf

Libya: http://www.tripolipost.com/articledetail.asp?c=1&i=7778

Tunisia: http://www.ediplomat.com/np/post_reports/pr_tn.htm

Sudan: http://catholicradionetwork.org/?q=node/7211

Tajikistan: http://www.eurasianet.org/node/63670

China: http://www.scmp.com/article/376926/tinted-window-law-not-tough-enough

India: http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/From-Friday-any-tinted-film-on-car-windows-will-be-illegal/articleshow/12956949.cms

Pakistan: http://centralasiaonline.com/en_GB/articles/caii/features/pakistan/main/2013/03/28/feature-01

Any other countries mentioned: http://www.ritrama.com/ritrama/userfiles/file/prodotti/Car_Window_Tinting_Laws.pdf