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Speeding along the open road in France

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If you are confident behind the wheel of a car and like to drive fast, France is the place for you. The country is crisscrossed by major, long-distance superhighways, known as Autoroutes, designated by and A or an E (for European Routes) followed by a number. Traveling along them can be rather dull but, if you are in a hurry, they are the best way to cover long distances by car.


And they are very fast. The speed limit on the autoroutes is 80mph (130km/h) in normal conditions (slower in bad weather) but you will quickly discover that the French and other Europeans who use them pay no attention to speed limits. There is also a minimum speed limit of 50mph (80km/h), so if you don't think you can keep up while trying to read the signs in French, plan to use different roads. Signs for the autoroutes have white lettering on a blue background.

Most autoroutes are toll roads and the cost for using them can mount up quickly based on the distance you travel. Both the toll road and the toll plaza where fees are collected are indicated by signs with the word "Péage". Besides cash, you can use major international credit cards to pay your tolls. But don't use the lanes marked "Télépéage" as those are reserved for permit holders.

Petrol stations and rest stops with cafés on the autoroutes are called "Aires". They're often positioned in particularly scenic spots, have nice picnic areas and public sculpture. On one particularly hot summer drive, we stopped at an Aire on the Autoroute du Soleil, the A7 between Lyon and Marseille, and cooled ourselves in the mist from a sculptural fountain placed in the picnic areas just for that purpose.

If the high speeds of the autoroutes put you off, don't worry. The Routes Nationales or N routes are major trunk roads that cross wide areas of France but are more picturesque and less frenetic. They are not limited access highways and often travel through the centers of towns and villages. They are two or four-lane roads, well-paved and maintained, but designed for somewhat more leisurely driving than the autoroutes. They're also more interesting if you are touring. Signs for these routes have white lettering on a red background.

Lastly, D roads are local roads managed by local and regional authorities. They range from town center roads through country lanes to precipitous, single lane mountain roads. There is no system to the way they are numbered, as each local authority numbers its own D roads, so you may find completely different roads with the same designation (D11 for example) in different parts of France. D roads are indicated by small yellow signs with black lettering, usually mounted on top of white, arrow shaped signs with the name of the next town or village in black lettering. As ever a good quality map - and SATNAV - are essential for touring France by car.