Dumb and driver: Navigating the streets of Old Europe by car test gringo patience

Jul 25, 2019 | 2 comments

I was told that one of the first big SUVs to arrive in Barcelona many years ago got stuck trying to turn a sharp corner in the old medieval town center. Having attempted similar maneuvers in a “Renault Espace” minivan, the possibility of becoming wedged seemed very real.

It’s a dumb idea to drive anything larger than a Smart car through Europe or Latin America’s ancient town centers whose one way cobblestone labyrinths are barely wide enough for a Minotaur.

But how did his retreat go?

That’s why the Lords and Counts and Dukes, Marquises, Barons, Princes and Earls that once controlled these centers of commerce usually put fully automatic parking structures on the outskirts. Even if you never visit the central attractions, these ancient parking structures are an inexplicable marvel of medieval engineering, fully deserving of UNESCO World Heritage status.

In a minor travel fail, I forgot this simple strategy when trying to navigate old Marseille. Instead of setting Google Maps to direct me to a parking structure, I dropped a pin on the old town and got distracted by the amusingly awful Americanized pronunciations of the French street names. (“François 1ère” becomes “Fran-soyse-one-er.” Seriously Google, I know you are smarter than this. And while you are at it, why are your maps always upside down?)

The streets of old Europe are pretty but pretty tight too.

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If I had started the morning with any more espresso, my head might have exploded from the ensuing stress. I quickly turned into the ugliest of American tourists, cursing all that is ancient and beautiful, beseeching Thor for immediate bolts of lightning to widen the street. If there had been any room to open the car doors, my wife and mother-in-law would have bolted. I was neither an ambassador for my country nor my family name.

Terrified pedestrians jumped into doorways when they saw me coming. Shopkeepers lowered their awnings.

In spite of a near nervous break down, I managed to navigate my borrowed Kia Sportage without incident, but only because Kia skimped on body paint thickness. Judging from the scarred corners, other drivers weren’t so lucky.

Keep your eye on the road.

Modern city planners would be within their rights to funnel dumb drivers like me into the unforgiving stone jaws of their gothic barrios. Once stuck, we could be arrested and publicity tried for recklessness, or better, burn us alive on Facebook for witchcraft. Costs could be offset by allowing junk dealers to dismantle our trapped cars and sell the scrap.

As the earlier story came and went, the outsized SUV in Barcelona that got bent around a stone-walled corner was supposedly removed by helicopter. This would make for a fun movie scene but suggests that the original story was a cautionary tale. One I should have heeded.

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