Spanish roads have improved considerably in recent years and Spain’s best roads are now among the finest in Europe, especially the motorways. Unfortunately, these are also among the world’s most expensive roads and consequently main trunk roads ( carreteras) are jammed by drivers who are reluctant (or cannot afford) to pay the high motorway tolls.
In contrast to the excellent new motorways and trunk roads, many secondary roads in rural areas and small towns are full of potholes and in a dreadful or even dangerous condition. Some main roads are also in poor condition with surprising undulations and dips, and they aren’t often up to the standards of roads in northern Europe. Heavy rain in winter can expose major defects in many roads, including relatively new roads (e.g. the A-7 dual carriageway in Guadiaro, Estepona, one side of which collapsed four months after completion!), and some can become treacherous due to inadequate drainage. Heavy rainfall also causes widespread floods, rock falls, landslides and subsidence.
The Spanish Road Association (Asociación Española de la Carretera/AEC) published a report on Spanish roads in July 2006, which found that around a third of them were in poor condition and concluded that €4bn was needed to bring them up to standard. According to the report, Asturias, Castille y León, Catalonia and Murcia have the worst state-maintained roads and Extremadura, La Rioja, Madrid and Murcia the worst regionally maintained.
In major cities, it’s usually wise to park your car (if you can find a parking space) and use public transport. Driving in Madrid is the motoring equivalent of hell and should be avoided at all costs. You should be wary of entering small towns and villages, where streets are narrow and often come to a dead end (so that you must reverse out). It’s better to park on the edge of town.
Types of Road
In 2004, road denominations were changed in order to make them more consistent and easier to understand. Changing all signs (including the kilometre markers on main roads) and maps is still in progress and you can expect to see roads signposted by their new name, old name or both – not to mention plenty of confused motorists! The old and new prefixes are shown in the table below. (Note also that the numbering of main roads has been changed from Roman to Arabic numerals; e.g. the old N-II is now the A-2.) Comprehensive information on the new road denominations can be found at the Ministry of Public Works website, where an interactive map shows the old and new denominations ( http://www.fomento.es – go to Carreteras, Nueva denominación and then click on a region).
A two-letter prefix indicates the province, e.g. MA for Malaga. Access roads to main cities are prefixed by the city or province code (e.g. B for Barcelona, M for Madrid and SE for Seville) followed by one or two digits, e.g. M-23 and B-21, shown on a blue background. Some minor roads are unnumbered.
The main trunk roads radiate from Madrid to the coast or the Spanish border, i.e. the A-1 (old N-I) to San Sebastian, the A-2 (old N-II) to Barcelona, the A-3 (old N-III) to Valencia, the A-4 (old N-IV) to Cadiz, the A-5 (old N-V) to Badajoz and the A-6 (old N-VI) to A Coruña.
All main roads have kilometre stones or markers located on the right hand side. Distances on the national roads listed above are calculated from the Puerta del Sol in Madrid and shown on red and white kilometre stones or markers at the side of the road.
Spanish motorways are indicated by blue or green signs and often have an international motorway symbol on them. Most are toll roads ( autopistas de peajes) and are the most expensive in Europe (Spain has the third-largest network of toll motorways in Europe after France and Italy). Tolls vary, as each motorway has its own fee structure, and are generally more expensive in the summer. Not surprisingly, toll roads are avoided by most motorists and are consequently quiet. Partly for this reason, motorways are Spain’s safest roads – a relative term!
A ticket is issued automatically at a motorway entrance (or shortly afterwards); when you reach another toll-booth or leave the motorway, you hand your ticket to an attendant (the toll due is usually shown on a display). Tolls may also be levied at intermediate points. On some stretches, e.g. around cities, tickets aren’t issued and a fixed toll is charged. On these roads, there may be unmanned toll-booths for those with the correct change, shown by the sign Automático – importe exacto. Throw the correct amount into the ‘basket’ and wait for the red light to change to green and the barrier to rise. You can pay tolls with a credit card or in major foreign currencies.
Regular commuters can buy a season card ( tarjeta de la autopista) offering savings of 10 to 25 per cent. You insert your card in a machine or, on many motorways, simply drive through the toll gate marked ViaT while a machine reads your number plate, which has been previously registered.
All motorways have service areas with a petrol station, cafeteria or coffee shop, toilets, telephones, and possibly a restaurant and shops. Some have repair workshops, bureau de change facilities, information offices and motels.
Motorway exits ( salidas) are marked on maps, as are service and rest stops ( apartaderos). Motorway maps and toll information are available from ASETA, C/Estébanez Calderón, 3, 28020 Madrid ( http://www.aseta.es). Most motorway operators provide free maps.
For many Spaniards, driving on motorways is too expensive, so the traffic density is usually low. The same cannot be said of main roads ( carreteras) running parallel to motorways, which are jammed by drivers (including truckers) who are reluctant to pay the high motorway tolls. (Even an offer of half price for trucks attracts few takers.) If you must get from A to B in the shortest possible time, there’s no alternative to the motorway, apart from taking a plane or train. However, if you aren’t in too much of a hurry, want to save money and wish to see more of Spain, you should avoid them. The money saved on tolls can pay for a good meal or a hotel room.
Many dual-carriageways ( autovías), such as the A-4 south of Madrid, have the appearance of motorways and the same maximum speed limit (120kph/75mph). However, they also have left turns and crossings in some places, so take care. The sign cambio de sentido (change direction) on a dual-carriageway is an opportunity to reverse your direction by way of an under or overpass, e.g. when you’ve missed your exit. On national highways there are ‘crawler’ lanes on gradients for trucks and other slow-moving vehicles. On single-lane highways you shouldn’t expect to cover more than around 70 to 80km per hour.
Travelling on secondary roads (particularly mountain roads) invariably takes two or three times longer than travelling on national routes. Mountain passes in Spain are usually open all year, although some are closed intermittently. Most are narrow with hairpin bends, no road markings and unprotected roadsides with sheer drops, and aren’t recommended for timid or nervous drivers, particularly in winter.
Signposts & Traffic Signs
In general, signposting in Spain is inadequate, especially in most rural areas, although main routes are usually well signposted. Most road signs are international, although Spain still has many Spanish and local idiosyncrasies. In some areas, direction signs disappear (or everywhere is signposted except where you want to go!) and signs out of towns are often non-existent. It’s advisable to have a good map, particularly when you aren’t travelling on main roads, or to ask someone to give you detailed instructions.
In and around Madrid and other main cities, signs can be extremely confusing, due to the sheer number of roads and destinations signposted. Look out for the road number, as well as the name of your destination. Often only road numbers or towns are listed, and not both. When travelling north to south on the E5/A-4 you should follow the signs for Algeciras and Ocaña. Travelling south to north on the same road, follow the signs for the E5 and the A-1 to Burgos.
Traffic signs, most of which are the same as in other European countries, are generally adequate, although the AEC survey (see above) found that 325,000 needed replacing! Painted lines marking carriageways and the sides of the road are often faint (the same survey claimed that 44,700km/28,000mi of lines needed repainting). Andalusia, the Canaries and Madrid are considered to have the best maintained traffic signs.
Emergency telephones, mounted on orange posts, are sited around every 5km (3mi) on motorways and other main roads. Each telephone is individually numbered and directly connected to the local police station, which will send out a breakdown van or tow truck ( grúa) with first-aid equipment.
Many car insurance policies include breakdown insurance. There are fixed (and reasonable) charges for emergency repairs and towing. If you’ve broken down and call from an ordinary telephone, you should ask the operator for the ‘rescue service’ ( auxilio en carretera). The guardia civil also provides roadside assistance on main roads throughout Spain, as do motoring organisations.
If you break down anywhere, you must park your car at the roadside or on the hard shoulder and place emergency triangles 10m behind and in front of your vehicle, visible at a distance of 100m. You must also put on a reflective waistcoat. Never remain in your car when it’s parked beside the road or on the hard shoulder, as it’s extremely dangerous. Note that you’re only permitted to stop on the hard shoulder in an emergency (e.g. not for a ‘call of nature’).
Road information can be obtained by phone (900-123 505 for general information) or the internet (http://www.dgt.es). Note that at holiday times and weekends, phone lines and the website are overloaded and it can be impossible to get through.
This article is an extract from Living and Working in Spain.
Click here to get a copy now.