It’s past midnight, and I’ve just about managed to find a fuel station off the Autobahn. I’ve spent the last 90 minutes driving on diversions that took me off the main highway through lonely B-roads and near-desolate villages, a spooky prospect in the dark. Once I rejoin the highway I scan for fuel stations, turning into the first one I see, the yellow-lit board gleaming like a beacon. Having only once before fuelled a car by myself, I’m nervous. In the dead of night, I manage to pull the nozzle out of the machine, plop it into the tank, yank the lever and pin it there. After the tank is full, I go into the store to pay and walk out like I’ve done this every single day of my life. Inside the car, I’m grinning wide, as I pull out onto the highway, to complete the nearly 700-kilometre drive between Berlin and Hockenheim, feeling accomplished.
Europe’s self-service fuel stations were a revelation to me. Fuelling was only one part of the challenge. Figuring out how to pay was the other. Unlike in Germany, where I’ve lived for three years and where there’s always a teller inside the fuel station store, other parts of the old continent can be more challenging.
On a midnight drive between Le Mans and Paris, I discovered French fuel stations don’t always have tellers. Instead one needs to swipe the bank card in the machine to pay for fuel. As luck would have it, my credit card was rejected, multiple times. Fortunately my travel companion had one on hand to bail us out of the situation.
Driving around in a rental Ford in Mallorca, Spain I discovered that one needed to go into the store and pay before the fuel pump outside would dispense fuel. If I’d known beforehand, I’d have spent less time wondering why the pump wasn’t working.
In March 2016, my husband and I had been driving non-stop, covering the 2,000 kilometres between Arvidsjaur in North Sweden and Berlin, Germany. I felt and certainly smelled like roadkill. As we crossed over into Germany, I decided I could no longer survive without some ablutions. That’s when I discovered that any rest stop with a Sanifair is the weary traveller’s best friend. Scattered across fuel stations in several countries—Germany, Poland, Spain, Italy, Turkey, The Netherlands, Austria and the Czech Republic, Sanifair offers clean toilets, contact-free taps, and clean showers. The cost for using the facilities is 70 cents/Rs39, but users get a little ticket worth 50 cents/Rs55 in return, that can be redeemed later at another fuel station. The showers are more expensive though, between €2-5/Rs158-394. An unsuspecting traveller might be shocked by the concept of communal showers. Germany, in large parts, still champions Frei Korper Kultur (free body culture) or FKK. But chances are no one else will be using the facilities at the same time as you, and if they are, they’re unlikely to look in your direction.
In August 2016, my husband was quite done with me planning our trips. So when I said that I wanted to visit Rügen Island, nestled in the Baltic Sea to the north of Germany, he insisted on taking the lead. This involved us piling into our massive van (fitted with a double bed in the back), driving there, and paying to stay in a camping ground. The facility allowed us a plot of land on which to park our Crafter, a power source that we could hook a multitude of devices to, and enough space around the van upon which to pitch tents. The overall cost for our campsite was possibly a little more than a cheap hotel. It’s a good way of seeing the countryside, moving from one site to another when you’re bored.
In Sweden, it is cold even with the heater on full blast. The speed limits on the icy roads in the north are low, for obvious reasons. But we’ve come to a complete stop because our car has just been surrounded by a herd of reindeer. I had often seen little sticks with plastic bags tied to them on the side of roads, an indicator of a potential reindeer crossing. But this was the first time that I see so many reindeer at a crossing. The reindeer in North Europe are herded by the Sami people, and the loss of a single reindeer is a huge financial blow to a farmer. Which is why one must always heed those plastic bags. A few years ago, if one hit and killed a reindeer, one was expected to cut the ear off (which usually bears a brand indicating who it belongs to) and drive to the nearest police station with it. Now, a cellphone photo of the ear will suffice. But, to ensure that you’re able to brake in time and prevent hitting animals crossing the road, it is imperative that one has winter tyres on one’s vehicle. In most of Europe the fine for driving without winter tyres is around €40/Rs3,162 plus points on one’s licence, but can go up to €80/Rs6,324 in the case of an accident or a disruption in traffic. But tyres aside, winter is often a time of broken down cars. Travelling with a space heater, a multi-plug and several battery packs is recommended. After all, you might need your cell phone to take photos of a reindeer ear unless you prefer wielding a knife.
“We’re already on the fast highway!” my travel companion says to me, not sounding pleased at all. I don’t get the full import of this, until he explains that we were meant to purchase a vignette and stick it onto the front windscreen of the car, in order to use the fast highways in the Czech Republic. The vignette essentially indicates that one has paid a toll to drive on the major highways, and is a requirement in Austria, Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Hungary, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia and Switzerland. A vignette can cost as little as €3/Rs237 for a week in Romania, to €8/Rs632 for 10 days in Austria, with yearly vignettes going up to as much as €95/Rs7,510 in a country like Slovenia. If you’re caught without one, the fine is twice the amount of the cost of a yearly vignette.
My husband has a curious habit of suddenly covering his face with his palm while driving. He does this when he chances upon a speed camera and thinks he might get flashed. If his face is obscured, he believes it’s harder to send the fine to the right person. It is a perfectly useless technique to avoid a fine, and I urge you to not try it. Speeding fines will find you. If you’re in your own car, they’ll send it to your home address. If you’re in a rental car, it will be sent to the rental company, who will promptly forward it to you. One way or another, you’ll be paying that fine. In Germany, there is some amount of leeway, and going two kilometres over the speed limit is unlikely to get you fined. In France, however, you’re likely to get fined for going just one kilometre above the speed limit. I had rented the car that we were driving in France, and two weeks after my husband drove 71 kmph in a 70 kmph zone, I received a letter in the post with a fine for €90/Rs7,114. I looked over at my husband who said “How is this possible, I covered my face like this.” I could tell he was hiding a wicked smile behind his hand. Unless you want to pay a hefty fine, or you want to trick your loved ones into paying said fine, stick to the rules.
I’m at the most curious intersection I’ve ever seen. It is a roundabout where various flyovers have managed to converge. The rule at roundabouts is that the person in the roundabout has right of way. So I wait for a pause in the traffic. When there is one, I move forward. I’ve barely gone a foot before I hear tyres screeching, and see a beat up old Fiat 500 hurtling down towards me. I brake, and as the driver grins and waves at me, I feel glad that my little Ford came to a halt on time. The roundabouts in Spain, I’ve discovered are crazy. People will come flying out at you from nowhere. While not quite as crowded as Mumbai, it causes my heart to flutter in the same (slightly unpleasant) way. In Italy, people treat the rules of the road as guidelines that one has the option of following. A young Italian recently told me that it is because they have no choice. “See, we have all these powerful cars, and we have ridiculous speed limits. We have to use the roads we get and flaunt the speed limits to have a little fun,” he said.
I was also unprepared for the sheer number of signboards, and the frequency with which they occur, in Austria. It’s a sensory overload, and I do not care for it. I always look up road rules and road signs in the country I’m travelling to before I visit. It has prepared me for the Spaniard with a heavy right foot or the Italian with a penchant for sports cars.
By March 2017, my husband and I’d taken enough breaks along the way, and had more than enough rest stops on our annual drive back from Sweden to Germany. But I was sleepy. I wanted to get out of the car, go for a walk, and not have to think about driving for a bit. Since we were close to Gedser in Denmark, from where we could take the ferry to Rostock in Germany, I waited. Once we had paid for our car (it can cost between €20/Rs1,580 and €60/Rs4,742 depending on the size of your vehicle) and parked it in the loading area of the ferry, we headed to the deck. I was able to get in a good walk, take in a pleasant view of the Baltic Sea, and also have a lovely cup of coffee and strawberry shortcake in the restaurant on board as my husband snored in the seat next to me. Timing one’s ferry rides on a roadtrip can be crucial. Making sure it coincides with meal time or nap time can prove invaluable, as it ensures you’re rested and ready for the next round.
Vaishali Dinakaran is a writer and journalist based in Berlin. She and her husband have a habit of driving around Europe at the drop of a hat, sometimes for no apparent reason other than that there are roads.