Driving in Portugal can be quite the adventure…
Full disclosure…I really don’t drive unless I absolutely have to and even then, I only drive very short distances and only to places I have been many, many times. The reason? Driving here can be somewhat intimidating and since we only have one car it’s a lot easier to just let Won take the wheel. He’s not a perfect driver, but given his experience as a Los Angeles Police Officer, I figure the training he received for that job must make him a better choice. That makes him very happy…most of the time.
I say, “most of the time” because when we are together I freely offer my opinion and suggestions while he’s driving. When that happens he ‘graciously’ offers to let me drive, which I kindly decline every single time. This back and forth has become our norm.
Driving in Portugal has been a learning experience for both of us. There are times when I am actively sharing in much of the stress, like when I’m helping him navigate to or from a location, or other times when I am white-knuckling it as Won gingerly negotiates an impossibly tight space (remember that time we went to Pena Palace?). There are times when I clap, cheer and congratulate him after he successfully parks the car in a space so narrow we discuss exiting through the sunroof. Occasionally I feel the need to point out a stop sign he missed (it was so tall he didn’t see it). Happily, I get to completely disconnect when we are flying down the motorway or along the coastline on our way somewhere fun or new. Naturally, Won thinks driving is the hardest part, but I disagree. I believe being the passenger is the hardest (no control…even though I don’t want it). Regardless, after a year and a half, we have established our respective roles and I know when my commentary and suggestions are best kept to myself.
Here’s what we’ve learned about driving in Portugal:
This is an old country – like REALLY old. That means you will come across streets that are insanely narrow. These pathways, which is a far better descriptor, were established hundreds of years before the car was even invented and oftentimes come with equally insane turning radii. There was one time last year when we were in an old part of Lisbon that I was convinced we were going to need to have the car airlifted out. At times like that we understand why some cars here are tiny.
Please take note of the permanent barriers next to the car in the picture above. Do you know why they are there? To prevent people from parking on the sidewalk. People park on the sidewalk? Yup. This is a common occurrence. People will park their cars nearly anywhere they will fit. I believe most think parking space lines are just pavement decorations. Sometimes even natural barriers don’t make a difference. Check out the car in the image below with the tree directly behind the car.
Oh, and parking reminds me that people double park their cars everywhere. It’s maddening, but traffic simply flows around them. What drives me especially crazy is when I see an open parking space not too far away. Really?? Really?? You couldn’t just park and walk a few extra meters? I don’t know…maybe the person was old or unable to walk that far, but it happens ALL THE TIME. 🤨 (<– I finally figured out how to include emoticons. I promise not to overuse them.)
And, since it happens all the time, you would think the police would be out addressing these infractions, but I never see them. They do, however, pull people over randomly to check their paperwork. They want to ensure you have a valid driver’s license, car registration, and road tax certificate. They are also checking to see if you have an accident kit and a blank accident form in the car in the event you are involved in one. This form enables you to document the details immediately, assuming you are not so severely injured that it prevents you from doing so.
I have mentioned this before, but it bears repeating; if you are pulled over for a driving infraction, the police will fine you on the spot. There is no going to court first to challenge the ticket. You pay first and then you challenge. The police carry hand-held devices to charge your debit or credit card, and if you don’t have a debit or credit card on you, they will drive or follow you to the bank so you can make a withdrawal. There’s no getting around it.
Won was recently playing golf with friends, one of whom is a member of NATO, and the issue of being pulled over by the police to check paperwork came up. Won mentioned he had never had this happen to him. His golf buddy said it is likely because the police think he’s with NATO due to the fact that we still have our New Jersey license plates. Apparently employees of NATO can have their cars shipped to wherever they are stationed making them easily identifiable. Interesting theory…it’ll be fun to see if our luck holds or will evaporate after we receive our Portuguese plates.
By the way, I thought I’d give you a quick update on the status of our car registration and those elusive Portuguese license plates. I was asked by ACP (the Automobile Club of Portugal) the entity we hired to help us get through this process, to come in last week to sign a form that will request our registration be expedited (everything was submitted on January 6). While I was at ACP, I learned we have successfully cleared Customs, but we’re stuck in IMT (the Portuguese equivalent of the department of motor vehicles in the States). We’re coming up on seven months, folks. This entire process has been quite the experience. Homer has nothing on me…you should read my Odyssey (Part 1 and Part 2). Oy.
Back to the topic at hand. Have I mentioned roundabouts? Personally, I think they’re great! They keep traffic flowing, however, it seems a lot of people don’t really know how to use them properly. This is the right way:
The problem is that most people who are not immediately exiting (refer to the green and red cars in the above diagram), tend to stay in the outer lane rather than moving into the inner lane believing it is easier to exit once they get to their exit point, but it fouls up the flow. For anyone driving in Portugal, or anywhere in the world where there is a roundabout, please, for the sake of drivers everywhere, study the above diagram. Today’s public service announcement has now concluded.
While doing research for this post we learned that it is NOT permitted to make a right turn on red when stopped at a traffic light, which is generally allowed in the US. Oops…guess we won’t be doing that anymore (especially once we get our Portuguese plates). 🙄
I find that most pedestrians are oddly confident they won’t get run over. They will step into a crosswalk without looking either way and they tend to walk on the street as opposed to the sidewalk. In their defense, the sidewalk is often made of slippery cobblestones and, in some cases, can be really narrow, uneven, and/or sloped (to allow for water drainage), making it difficult to traverse. If the road is paved with asphalt (vs. cobblestones), I agree that it is easier to walk there, especially for older folks who could find walking on uneven cobblestones dangerous or challenging, but seriously, it’s not much safer when you have your back to traffic. I have heard anecdotally that if a pedestrian is hit by a car, they are considered to be in the wrong. (For all my Portuguese readers…is that true?)
Another reason folks may be walking in the street, and I HATE to say this, people here don’t always pick up after their dogs. This means you need to pay attention to where you’re putting your feet. Sometimes it’s just easier to walk in the street where there is less of that. You might be thinking there is dog excrement everywhere. That’s not the case, however, it’s prevalent enough to be a problem in certain areas. Won and I both think this might be a generational issue because we’ve seen more older adults who don’t bother to clean up after their dogs than younger people. On the plus side, local municipalities, like Estoril and Cascais, are trying to change this behavior by providing free doggie poop bags in convenient dispensers located all over town, especially in and near parks.
Another fascinating observation is that one way streets aren’t always obvious and there are a lot of them given the age of the cities and towns. Let me explain. Signage can be oddly confusing and in some cases, nonexistent (either that or we just aren’t seeing it). There are no “One Way” signs designating this important information. What you do see is the sign to the right, which means ‘no entry.’ Thankfully, we’ve learned this one.
However, in situations where we don’t see one of those signs, and to avoid inadvertently driving down a one way street, which (clearing my throat) we’ve done on a few occasions, we search for visual clues. One of those clues is to see if the cars are all parked in the same direction. Most of the time, this is a good indicator, but it’s not fool proof. Case in point:
There are loads of street signs we are learning. There were a few, however, that were particularly oblique in the beginning, but we have since figured out. Here are three. See if you can guess what they mean without looking at the explanation immediately below the images.
They are as follows (L-R): speed bump ahead, bumpy road, and dip in the road. How’d you do?
Let’s talk about speed limits. I think it’s great that there are recommended speed limits for each lane on the motorway. It means you can legally go as slow as 50 km/hr (31 m/hr) in the far right lane, as slow as 70 km/hr (43 m/hr) in the middle lane, and no faster than 120 km/hr (74.5 m/hr) in the far left lane. Does that mean everyone driving on the motorway is a happy camper? Not on your life. What it does mean is that tailgating is an issue. Coincidentally, someone posted the following question on the Expats Cascais FB group page this week:
“Does anyone know why it is that, in Portugal, it seems most of the people take their time doing nearly anything (serving at a restaurant, answering your call, etc.), but, when it comes to driving, all of a sudden, everyone is in a rush? Has anyone else noticed this paradox? Why do I feel people get crazy on highways and roundabouts, tailgating, speeding, and honking? Is it me or is it truly a parallel world we live in when we step into our vehicles?“
This topic garnered a lot of comments. Two of the 145 responses included the following exchange: “Yes tailgating here is a big issue; it happens all the time. It’s mega dangerous and I wish the police would reprimand the morons who do it.” To which, someone replied: “A police car was tailgating me this week.” So, there you have it.
I want you to know that it’s not a lawless society, but it is different for sure. The goal is to be a good, confident, defensive driver and it is imperative that you keep your ego and emotions in check, which I admit, isn’t always the easiest, but is the safest. Won’s really good at this (maybe it’s that police training he received), which is why it’s best to let him continue to do most of the driving.
We unexpectedly received the keys to our new place yesterday! Yippee! Now we’re trying to speed up all the furniture deliveries and see how quickly we can get the utilities turned on. Also, now that I’ve seen the place empty, I’m panic-stricken and second guessing the furniture purchases we’ve made. Will they all fit??!! I’m going to have some sleepless nights ahead. Oh well…nothing to do now, but wait and see. Stay tuned.
Until next week, please stay safe, stay healthy, and stay in touch.
From Portugal with love,