Tag Archives: Motoring

Travels in Spain – Driving Issues in Carmona

We set off and it soon became clear why we needed both precision and good fortune because if we had thought that the previous street had been narrow this one made it look like a six lane highway!

First of all it was necessary to negotiate a dog leg gate that was barely wider than the car and we all had to collectively breathe in so that we could squeeze through and after that the street narrowed down still further and I needed delicate keyhole surgery skills to manoeuvre through 90º bends and past carelessly parked cars and iron bollards strategically placed to impede progress at every turn.

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Travelling – Car Hire Advice – Be Prepared to Complain

Black Forest Winter Tyres

“Car hire firms abroad have more catches than a corset” – Martin Lewis, MoneySavingExpert.com

It took only fifty-five minutes to fly the short distance and land at Kahlrsrue-Baden Airpark at nine-thirty in the evening and after quickly clearing immigration and customs we were soon at the Sixt Car Hire desk to pick up our hire car.

There was a pleasant young man on duty called Herr Schmidberger and he examined my hire details and then sighed and furrowed his brow and adopted a concerned demeanour, “You have a booking for a vehicle without the winter tyres” he said, “are you sure you want a car without the winter tyres?”  I had no idea what he was talking about (we don’t have Winter tyres in UK, except for Northern Scotland)  and must have given him my best ever blank expression because with that he rolled his eyes so far back into their sockets that if he had laser vision he would have surely fried his brains.

The winter tyres were an extra €55 and I was beginning to detect a well rehearsed scam so we took a while to consult with each other on the proposal of paying the extra and with a queue starting to form behind us this started to seriously test his patience.

I enquired why I might consider going to the unnecessary additional expense and although this was his opportunity to inform me that since May 2006 German motorists have been required by law to use the most appropriate tyres for the weather conditions and that driving on snow covered roads is permitted only if a car is equipped with winter tyres, he just became even more theatrical and began shouting “Look at the snow, you can see the snow, in just two minutes you can see the snow!”  

Black Forest, Badische Schwarzwaldbahn

Obviously I could see the snow but I still failed to understand why he was so insistent (unless it was a scam and I was becoming more and more sure of that).  He could have told me that in Germany motorists are obliged to make sure they have correct tyres to suit the winter weather conditions and if a vehicle becomes stuck because the tyres are unsuitable drivers are liable to an on the spot police fine, and furthermore if the vehicle causes an obstruction or aggravation to other traffic, the fine may be doubled.

Instead he went into his impression of a man in an electric chair and gave a look that suggested that I was the craziest customer that he had ever dealt with and that driving without winter tyres in snow was madder than wrestling with alligators, swimming in shark infested waters or sky-diving without a parachute.

Triburg Germany Black Forest

I enquired about the weather forecast and whether he thought it might be snowing in the Black Forest (which at over a thousand metres was an absolute certainty and a really dumb question) and then his eyes started to swivel from side to side like the symbols on a gaming machine and he was clearly losing his patience with me now.

He might have explained that winter tyres use a tread rubber compound that is softer and a tread block pattern with more sipes (small slits which are specifically designed to retain flexibility in low temperatures and give good braking and traction performance on snow and ice covered roads) but instead he just keep shrieking “Look at the snow, you can see the snow, in just two minutes you can see the snow!”  

Snow Driving Black Forest Germany

By now I was beginning to understand that he thought snow tyres were a very good idea so finally agreed to the additional charge and he immediately calmed down and set about allocating us an appropriate vehicle for the conditions.

After that he went through the booking and paying procedures, explained where we would find the car in the car park and then clearly lacking any sort of confidence in my snow driving abilities and not expecting to see the car again in one piece bade us farewell with the words “please be sure to drive carefully in the snow, it is very dangerous…”

We quickly found the bright blue Nissan Micra hidden under a blanket of snow, cleaned it down, examined the tyres which, at this time not understanding about the special rubber compound, looked quite normal to me and fairly soon after setting off I was certain we had been scammed.

And we had been of course because at €13.45 a day I calculate that if they are on the car for a third of the year that is an extra €1,600 or €400 a tyre and I could not believe that they can be that much more expensive than a regular tyre.  And of course they are not because I have checked and they can be bought for as little as €40 each.

Black Forest Winter Tyres

Double scammed as it happened because I am certain that we had already been allocated this car anyway – complete with winter tyres.  If I had refused to pay they were hardly likely to jack it up and take them off!

Upon return home I raised the issue of what I considered to be an excessive winter tyre charge in this journal and the reaction has left me speechless with admiration for Sixt Car Hire.

I have experienced the best customer service that I have ever had with a response from Gary Coughlan,  the Customer Services Manager in the United Kingdom who provided me with a clear explanation of the law relating to winter tyres and the company policy in respect to additional charges.  He also promised to raise the matter with the Company’s Commercial Director but I doubt that he ever did.  Gary has a job for life just fobbing off customer complaints!

Two days later I received a refund and a promise that the Board of Sixt would consider the policy at their next scheduled meeting.  I doubt that they ever did of course but I was glad of the refund.

Triberg Germany

Age of Innocence, 1959 – The M1 Motorway

In 1959 there were two important news items that celebrated significant events in British motoring.  First of all the southern section of the M1 motorway which started in St Albans in Hertfordshire and finished just a few miles away from Rugby at the village of Crick was opened in 1959.

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My Personal A to Z of Spain, D is for Driving

PB300499

The first task after arrival at Seville airport was to pick up the hire car and although I said previously that I wouldn’t, for convenience I did choose Hertz again.

The helpful lady at the desk took me step by step through the formalities and then showed me a diagram that identified all of the previous damage that the car had suffered.  This turned out to be practically every single panel, front back and sides and when we collected it from the car park it was in a real mess and looking quite sorry for itself and my first reaction was to be a bit annoyed that we had been allocated such a tatty vehicle.

I was soon to discover however that this was quite normal for cars in this part of Spain!  The interior was clean but there was an overpowering smell of industrial strength air freshener that was so unpleasant that we had to drive with the windows down and we began to worry about what sort of previous smell the deodoriser was covering up.

Instead of staying in the city of Seville, where the hotels seemed to be a little expensive, we had chosen instead to book a cheaper alternative in the nearby town of Carmona that was about thirty kilometres away.  The first part of the journey along the Autovia du Sur was pleasant and without incident and then we left at the junction for the town and things started to unraval.  We didn’t have a proper town map, only something from the multimap website and this didn’t prove to be especially helpful.

We became confused and did a couple of circuits of the town looking for street names that we could identify but these proved to be illusive and of little assistance because they didn’t seem to correspond to the map.  Eventually, on third time around the main town square I found a bar that was still open and asked for help.  The man was as equally confused by multimap as we were and it took him some time to interpret it for himself before he could even begin to draw the route that we needed through what looked like a tangled web of streets with a baffling one way system.  Finally he provided comprehensive instructions but in rapid fire Spanish that made it difficult to follow but it was helpful just to discover that we were in the new part of the town and what we really needed was the centro historico, which was a few hundred metres away.

Confident now of directions we set off again and this time took the correct turning through an imposing medieval fortress gate and into a labyrinth of confusing narrow streets.  At a fork in the road we were presented with two options.  We were staying at a hotel in San Fernando Square and there was a sign that seemed to suggest that we should turn left but I overruled Micky who pointed this out and foolishly decided to ignore the sensible thing to do and took the right fork instead.

This was a big mistake because the road climbed up a narrow cobbled street barely wide enough for the car to pass and then seemed to abruptly stop at what looked like a pedestrian alleyway.  There was an elderly Spanish couple out strolling so we asked for help and after they had studied the map seemed to suggest to us that we should carry on down this narrow path.  We were not convinced and asked for clarification and the man, who spoke no English and was not terribly useful, was determined not to let his wife, who could speak a little English and was a lot more helpful, have her turn with the map.

Maps and men must be the same everywhere, let me explain, it’s a macho sort of thing that drives us to take control and this is based on years of experience of being sent in the wrong direction as soon as you get a woman involved with directions.  Women generally are as hopeless with maps and town plans as men are with knitting patterns.  Anyway, while we were debating the situation another car pulled up behind and seemed to be heading in the direction of the alleyway so this was a clue that that was indeed the correct way to go.  As we pulled away the woman looked into the car and in a genuinely caring sort of way said ‘Be careful, good luck’ and this parting comment filled my cup of confidence full to the brim.

We set off and it soon became clear why we needed both precision and good fortune because if we had thought that the previous street had been narrow this one made it look like a six lane highway!  First of all it was necessary to negotiate a dog leg gate that was barely wider than the car and we all had to collectively breathe in so that we could squeeze through and after that the street narrowed down still further and I needed delicate keyhole surgery skills to manoeuvre through 90º bends and past carelessly parked cars and iron bollards strategically placed to impede progress at every turn.  It was like threading a needle and we now understood why the car was covered in dents and scratches and probably why the air freshener was so strong; the previous hirer had possibly driven down the same street and had an unfortunate bowel incident in the process!

Going forward was tricky and we were making slow progress but what really concerned me was the possibility of reaching a dead end and having to reverse all the way back because that would have been impossible.  Finally however we came out into a square (that was actually a circle) and by luck we had found our hotel.  After three circuits of the square it was obvious that there was nowhere to park however so we had to settle for a side street and a two hundred metre walk back to the Hotel Posada San Fernando where a lady on reception was waiting to check us in.

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D is for Driving but it could well have been:

Douro

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My Personal Greek A to Ω – Π (Pi) is for Πειραιάς or Piraeus

On arrival at Athens airport we avoided the Metro and the Taxis and took the only alternative form of transport available, the X96 express bus to Piraeus.  The man in the ticket booth was rather terse and didn’t have his ‘welcome to Athens, nice to see you’ head on this lunch time but I suppose anyone would be grumpy if it is their job to sit in a stuffy wooden box all day answering the same dumb question over and again (‘which bus do I need’, what time does it leave?’, how much is a ticket?’) for a dreary job on a minimum wage that was likely going to be cut by 20% sometime soon because of the economic crisis.

A bus ride to Piraeus is a truly unique experience.  The roads were busy but the driver of the blue Solaris flexibus seemed totally oblivious to other vehicles as he charged along at high speed, switching lanes, clattering over tram lines and tossing the passengers about like the Saturday night lottery balls on hard unyielding plastic seats.  Luggage flew out of the overhead racks and passengers not gripping on tightly were thrown from their seats.  Suitcases were scattered along the floor and little children were thrown into the air.

It was like being in a car chase at the movies, anyone in the way had better watch out and at one stage I had to take a look to see if Sandra Bullock was driving.  Corners didn’t slow the bus down and the only respite from the madness was a few infrequent stops on the way to the port, which we reached after about fifty minutes and was greeted with a collective sigh of relief from those passengers who had the good fortune to remain conscious or who had not by this time been turned into a gibbering wreck.

In our experience dining options around the port are seriously limited and after we arrived in Piraeus there was about four hours before the ferry to Paros so we had made plans to visit a taverna/bar that we knew and to have a long lunch to fill the time.

This involved a walk along the busy harbour front and this was not as easy as it sounds because Piraeus simply has to be one of the most traffic crazy places in Europe that makes an Italian city look like Emmerdale on a late Sunday afternoon and there was a mad confusion of snarling traffic that almost defies description. In June 2007 Greece introduced a new highway code with strict new rules and penalties but visitors here may be forgiven for thinking that there are no driving rules at all.  Cars, buses and lorries were all growling aggressively through the streets with absolutely no regard for traffic lights, lanes, rights of way or pedestrians (especially pedestrians).

Swarms of yellow and black cabs drove around with complete disregard for anything else and for anyone foolish enough to irritate them it was like poking a stick into an angry wasps nest.  The madness was being ineffectively choreographed every now and again by traffic police blowing madly on whistles and waving arms in a totally manic way that quite frankly was completely unintelligible to absolutely everyone whether in a car or on the pavement and all in all didn’t seem to be making any sort of helpful contribution to relieve the mayhem.

We located the souvlaki place that we were looking for with its plastic tables and chairs on a grubby pavement and had a substantial chicken wrap and a first bottle of Mythos.  Despite a steady drop in the country’s fast-food business since 2009, when the debt crisis started to unfold, the number of souvlaki joints, known among locals as “souvlatzidika,” has actually grown.  Greeks reportedly consume an estimated three billion souvlakia and spend an estimated two and a half billion euros on gyros every year.  Between 1992 and 2008, the local fast-food industry grew at an average of fifteen percent each year as souvlaki, pizza and snack/sandwich shops proliferated and armies of food delivery bikes roamed city streets.

The meal came with tzatziki, salad, fries and an extra special topping of lead oxide because as we ate we watched the traffic chaos as a ferry arrived in port and disgorged its passengers onto the busy road right in front of where we were eating.  Piraeus is an interesting place, loud and busy and totally focused on the harbour and the ferries and is somewhere that is never ever going to be beautiful or is going to tempt any sane person to stay longer than necessary.  This is a place (in the words of Mike Gatting) where you wouldn’t even send your mother-in-law!

It is easy to imagine that Piraeus is simply a suburb of Athens but it is in fact a completely separate city, the third largest in Greece, with an interesting history all of its  own.  Most of this we fail to appreciate because we just hurry through on the way to somewhere else.  In 493 BC, taking advantage of the natural harbour and strategic geographical position, the Athenian politician and soldier Themistocles initiated the construction of fortification works in Piraeus to protect Athens, ten years later the Athenian fleet was transferred there and it was then permanently used as the naval base for the powerful fleet of the ancient city.

Themistocles fortified the three harbours of Piraeus with the Themistoclean Walls turning Piraeus into a great military and commercial harbour. The fortification was farther reinforced later by the construction of the Long Walls under Cimon and Pericles, with which Piraeus was safely connected to Athens.

Piraeus was rebuilt to the famous grid plan of the architect Hippodamus of Miletus to a pattern that has been replicated in many cities in the USA and in Milton Keynes in England.  The walls were destroyed after the defeat by Athens to the Spartans in the Peloponnesian war and the port of Rhodes assumed predominance in the Aegean.  Later the walls were rebuilt but destroyed again by both the Romans and the Goths and during the Byzantine period the port completely lost its premier trading status.

Today, Piraeus has regained its importance and is a mad world of taxis, trams, back-packers and local people all competing for the same piece of tarmac.  This should not be surprising because it is the largest passenger port in Europe and the third largest worldwide in terms of passenger transportation where nearly twenty million people pass through every year.

Leaving Piraeus