The French have excellent road signs and they have been around for years:
However, many people think that they are odd or quite dreadful. I hope that the following may make them a little clearer.
The first thing to perhaps agree on is that the signposting in England is no great shakes. I can remember riding, day after day, up the old A5, wondering why, on leaving London, the first place signposted was Hinkley. No mention of Towcester, Northampton, Daventry or even Birmingham.
Our Irish friends are just as odd:
and let’s not forget about our US cousins:
First a bit of history.
French road signs, their style, location and upkeep used to be the sole preserve of those excellent people at Michelin, whose French maps you should all now rush out and buy. This little bit of fact explains two things:
(1) Lacking metal poles and indeed lightweight metal to make signs, the good rubber men painted the early signs on the side of houses. This habit of often putting the signs on a convenient wall has continued in many French towns. This explains why the signs are often on the junction itself, not before the junction, as they are in the UK. Crack past the junction at a fair old lick and you will miss the sign.
(2) As Michelin held the sign writing franchise and monopoly, they could adopt colours and codes that suited them best and match them into their maps. A habit that continues to this day and one that serves a useful purpose, as we will see.
Here is an example that shows both of these points:
In the picture you can see the old sign on the wall, pointing the driver right down the major N12 (National, red) road and the more modern metal sign, taking the driver, again right, along the lesser D (Departmental, yellow) road.
The signs in the picture also carry a lot of other information but more of that as we go along.
First a little bit about French roads themselves. The French have four road classifications, very similar to the UK’s.
Autoroute (A+number) - designate the "autoroutes", or motorways. Usually single or double digit. The 3 digit Autoroutes are usually connecting two Autoroutes or are bypasses or urban motorways. These are the equivalent of the UK’s M1, M5 etc. Many now carry the European E coding as well, as the hand of Bruxelles reaches out.
Routes Nationales (N+number) - Those are government maintained highways. Today, they are being transformed into Routes Departementales, especially the ones that are doubled by a motorway. This is again a question of maintenance cost. These are the equivalent of the UK’s A roads, like the A1, A6 etc.
Routes Departementales (D+number) - Those highways that depend on the departements, an administrative division of France (Region->Departement). Their condition depends on how rich the departement is. These are the equivalent of the UK’s B roads, I guess you get the picture.
Routes Communales/Vicinales (C+number, V+number) - Those are the lowest category of roads, depending on the municipalities. Their numbers are not usually posted. They are local roads. These are the equivalent of our unclassified roads and may be unsealed; think of anything from a small country lane, a factory access road, to a farm track.
Now those that have been paying attention will recall that there is an historic link between the roads themselves, the signs and Mr Bibendum, aka The Michelin man. This is shown in the Michelin map’s colours for roads, with one exception.....the motorways.
Why the motorways? I hear you ask. It’s because when Monsieur Michelin started making signs and maps there were no motorways. The colour blue for motorways had already been used for rivers and the sea. So, rather than repaint God’s handiwork, they settled on red / yellow / red for toll motorways and red / white / red for untolled superslab. All the rest of the roads had been around for years, so they were fine. So:
Routes Nationales (N+number) are red roads on the map and red on the road sign numbers.
Routes Departementales (D+number) are yellow roads on the maps and yellow on the road sign numbers. OK, I’ll put my hand up to admit that the French are reclassifying some of their red N roads as D roads and leaving them red on the maps but you’ll have to live with that.
Routes Departementales (D+number) and Routes Communales/Vicinales (C+number, V+number) are white roads on the map and white on the road sign numbers.
Now one last thing, before we move on and it’s the dreaded motorways again, I’m afraid. The French motorway signs are blue, just like here at home. However, by default, normal French road signs are on white backgrounds, with just the colour of the road number to tell you if it’s an N or D road, along with the letter prefix. The French motorway direction signs, on the motorway itself, are only blue, if the motorway itself is staying as a motorway or dividing onto another motorway. If the spur road is not to another motorway, the signs are white. The motorway's own road number prefixes are always red (like the N roads) as, obviously, it is only a vamped up A road.
Here is an example:
In this picture you can see:
(a) The motorway continuing to Pont Audemer and Caen, so it’s a blue sign, with its obligatory red Autoroute number, coupled to the green, Eurostandard E designation.
(b) The junction in 1200 metres , taking us off to Caen and LeMans on non-motorway roads, so the sign is white.
(c) The same white sign also tells us something else. Caen, Allencon and Le Mans are coloured green.
This means that, when looking at the Michelin map, those three towns will have a green box around their name. This little fact is useful when plotting routes from a map, as it might well give you a clue as to which towns will definitely be signposted from some distance away. The lesser town of Bourgtheroulde is simply black on the usual white background, probably indicating it’s quite small.
(d) To the far right of the picture is the sign telling motorists the payage (tolled section) starts in about a mile. Up until then the motorway had been free, meaning that it would be free if you left at the next junction and continued to Caen on the other road.
Again, you could learn this from the map, as the motorway would change colour, with a black line across it, marking the position of the toll booths.
Now, most of us keen motorcyclists are only too keen to leave the motorways behind and head onto the twisties. Now the fun really starts. The chances are you will find yourself on the N and D roads, looking for (or at) signs like this:
Do not panic. You are at a T-junction.
The road left and right is the D115. It’s a Departement road, coloured yellow on your map. To the left is the road to the centre of Arles and three other places, Amelie les Bains, Ceret and Perpignan. To the right, Le Tech, Prats de Mollo (always a chance to laugh at funny foreign names, no matter how lost you are. My how those French laugh at our Pratts Bottom, in Kent) and St Laurent de C.
The signs tell us one more thing, too. The towns of Ceret / Perpignan and St Laurent are separated. It’s a very good and easy rule of thumb that, whilst they are definitely left and right, their roads will branch off. You can therefore expect another junction somewhere on the road to Arles / Amelie and Le Tech / Prats de Molo.
So far so good.
Now a bit more about D roads.
As you now know, the local departments own the small local roads. This ownership is jealously guarded, “My bat, my ball, my wicket” if they played cricket. This jealous guardianship extends to the roads' numbers, too.
Somewhat inconveniently the road can often leave one Departement and continue into another. Rather like England, the road surface might well change, right on the county line. Now here’s the tricky bit....so might the number!
So jealous are the Departements of ‘their’ number, that they will avoid using their neighbour’s. This is where the innocent Brit tourist, with his large scale map starts to go wrong and shouts, ranting at the heavens, about being lost on ridiculous French roads. He’s looking at the map, it’s the D1, but these Frog fools have suddenly turned it into the D5 without telling him.
The answers are simple:
Get a smaller scale map and look at it properly.
Look at the place names, if you are still heading to Prats de Mollo, don’t worry that it’s the D115 and not the D1, you will still get there.
Now, this conveniently brings us onto planning a route and the oft heard complaint that France doesn’t signpost anything. This latter protestation is so far from the truth it’s ridiculous.
The French love signposts and they love their Michelin. Their signposts spring up all over the place, pointing us to roads so small a snail would be embarrassed. What the French sometimes do not do is signpost where you might expect them too. This is not helped by not having a small scale map.
I have explained that the French are very jealous of their departments. This jealousy extends beyond the simple renumbering of minor roads. It continues into the apparent complete denial that some major towns even exist. The reason? Quite simple as usual. You might consider town ‘X’ to be a big place and worth signposting, from miles away. Indeed you may be right, except it’s in another Departement, so it means little or nothing to those that order and place the signs. Nobody wants to go there...why should anyone possibly want to leave this nice Departement and go there, of all places? It’s all very French but a part of the charm.
Get yourself a smaller scale map and look for small places on your route, they will all be there and well signed, I promise. Remember also that Michelin (the people who make the maps and used to make the signs) show on their maps the towns that will definiely be signposted. They have a green box around them. You can do it, as they say.
Eventually, even despite being bedevilled with changing road numbers and non-existent towns, you will come to a large place. Here, honest Brits are tempted to give up and hide forever in a ditch. The signs? They have all gone, I’m lost in France, as the dreadful song goes. Again, do not worry, people do leave....eventually.
Here is a typical French town sign, or it could just as well be in the country:
You can escape.
Let’s say that you do not want to go to Nimes, Arles or Aix en Provence, jolly nice as they are. These are green places and what do we know about places that are green? They are on the Michelin map with green squares around them.
Nor do you fancy the lesser road to Bagnols on the river Ceze, the Central Hospital or a visit to the Whores of Gabarit (I have no idea what Hors Gabarit is but, like Prats de Mallot, it sounds fun).
You want to go somewhere else. The French know this and conveniently put up a sign, Autres Directions...sometimes Toutes Directions....
In short, that simple sign is your Saviour, hallelujah.
It means, ‘Other directions / other places’ and ‘All directions’ – a pound to a penny says, the place you want will be signposted off the Autres Directions road. However, as you are probably coming out of a town, you may need the name of the first couple of smaller places between your ultimate destination and where you are now. You do need that smaller scale map don’t you.....
Now I hope we are really getting somewhere.
We’ve done the roads, the colours, the maps, the signs and their varied meanings, why places may not be where we expect them to be (or even exist) and what to head for when the wheels come off in a hot city with the sun baking down, on a Monday, when all the shops are shut.
Just the easiest sign of them all. The Bis sign, your passport to easy rural travel from city to city.
Those nice people at Michelin want you to get out and ride your bike; it wears out the rubber, you see. They know that it’s quick but soporifically dull, driving down a motorway. So they created ‘Tourist routes’.
These are all shown on the excellent Michelin 726 map. They fit somewhere between motorways and small D road meandering. They have a special sign, all of their own and they are excellent. Here it is, down at the bottom of the tree, taking the lucky souls to Dijon. Absolute mustard.
That simple sign, along with its brothers and sisters, will take you across France, top to bottom. Use it with confidence.
Some tips, particularly if you have a gaggle of mates, all following you and you are lost.
1. They will be lost, too. So do not worry.
2. If you see a sign to a place that is on (or near enough on your route) take it. It doesn’t matter that you wanted the D54, the N27 will do. Do not be proud. You can always say, “Bloody French signs, who needs ‘em?”
3. Trust your map, the Earth doesn’t change that much.
4. Don’t worry about the inevitable Deviation or Route barree signs...They will take you down roads that you would have missed.
5. It’s better than being at work.
PS Of course from time to time they get it wrong, too....