Vive la Difference

Stolen from
Written by Mark Ellott
August, 1997

Two wheels on the Continent

For those of us used to riding in Britain, the first trip across the channel can come as a culture shock. For me, it was a feeling of subtle familiarity. On the one hand everything was much the same, yet slightly different. As you cross borders this becomes more apparent - from changes in language to differences in currency.

They all have one thing in common though, unlike us, they drive on the right. I have no problem with this. A motorcycle adapts easily to using the other side of the road - it's drivers in gert Volvos towing caravans that have difficulty seeing what's going on. Then, perhaps not so different.

Another thing is measurement - those kilometres don't 'alf go by quick. A kilometre is approximately five eighths of a mile for those who don't have them marked on the speedometer. Again, I don't have a problem - it's something you become used to with time. Eventually you will probably find that you think in kilometres. You may even wonder why we don't use them in Britain. Come to that, why don't we drive on the right? We could start with bikes and if it works okay, the rest can follow.



Despite my distaste for the principles behind insurance: Get as much in premiums as possible, and generate as many excuses as possible to avoid meeting claims; I have to advise against travelling uninsured.

A green card, or International Motor Insurance Certificate, is not essential, but it increases your cover from the basic third party only to comprehensive. Should you be unfortunate enough to become involved in an accident - the difference will be worthwhile. If you fail to tell your insurer that you are travelling abroad, your insurance will automatically be reduced to third party. If you travel unawares, you could be in for a nasty shock. Cost varies from insurer to insurer. I use the BMF scheme and pay around £15 for a Green Card. Using different insurers over the years has seen the cost vary, but not greatly.

Since I first wrote this article you may have noticed a change in your insurer's system. Mine (still the BMF product), now no longer issues a green card - basically my annual premium covers me and that's it. Perhaps I should start retracting my opening comment. Nah, perhaps not.

In addition, you will need travel insurance. You can buy this fairly easily from a number of outlets. I use the RAC, mainly because I have been a member of the RAC for most of my riding career and it's a free phone call away (0800 55 00 55). Although I've never needed to claim on the medical insurance, I have claimed for losses. In each event, they paid promptly, minimising the inconvenience. I couldn't ask for more than that. Well, I could, but I wouldn't get it.

Vehicle Registration Document

Take this with you. If you are stopped by the police they will ask you to produce it. Policemen world-wide are lacking in humour when dealing with riders who forget to carry important documents. If you don't have it because it is being renewed for some reason, you can obtain a V379 - which is a certificate of registration. It's free and it's internationally recognised in place of the registration document. If the bike isn't yours then you need written authority from the owner. If you're travelling in Portugal then you need a special form of authority. You can obtain these from organisations such as the RAC and AA.

If you were to be unfortunate enough to lose any of these documents, inform the police immediately. If you are careless enough to lose the bike, you could find yourself being asked to pay duty on it. This is because foreign customs will take the line that you haven't exported it back to the UK - therefore, you must have imported it. Stands to reason. So, not only have you lost your pride and joy - you now have a bill for import duty. It's at times like this you are thankful that you took out insurance; let them pay it.

The Bike

Service the bike before you go. I know this sounds obvious but people frequently don't. Modern Japanese machinery is reliable and efficient - but if it's going to go wrong, it'll choose some remote road in the middle of the Spanish plain to do it. Top up the oil. Oil on the continent is horrendously expensive - especially if you only want a small amount. Repairs cost about the same as in the UK. The difference is the convenience factor, or the lack of it. Even in France, which has a healthy motorcycle population, you will find that the nearest dealer for your machine is likely to be miles away. If you have a dealer guide, take it with you. Also, I take spare cables - clutch, speedo, throttle. So far, I haven't needed to use them - my odd logic says that this is because I take them, the day I don't....

Some countries require you to carry spare bulbs - common sense suggests that you carry them anyway (and fuses - I could tell you about the time my TR1 blew a fuse outside Langon, but I won't. Far too many swear words).

Warning Triangle

This is no longer required in all continental countries as it was just a few years ago. The change was brought about by the advent of hazard warning lights. If your bike has them, then strictly speaking, you don't need a triangle. If you don't have hazard lights on your bike, then you do. Make sure that the triangle you buy is EU approved. If you are in any doubt about whether you need one, take it just in case.

First Aid Kit

This is compulsory in some countries on the Continent. You could argue that carrying one of these is common sense. You could, but I suspect that it's not all that common. You can buy an acceptable kit from organisations such as the RAC and AA. They come in a small green box with a white cross on them and have all the bits you need to make you legal.


Take a phrase book. Speaking loudly in English to the locals is not only insulting, it makes you look ignorant. It takes little effort to learn please and thank-you in the local language and they go a long way to ease your way. Make the effort to speak their language and people will respond more readily. You will also find that you are less likely encounter any odd surprises on the menu if you translate them first.

Road signs

These generally follow the standard international pattern with one or two local exceptions. Ireland has several of these but they are so obvious you'll grasp them immediately. There are, however, some that we don't normally see in the UK, so here are some - I'll add to them as and when I can get hold of copies to scan:

Priority SignPriority Route: This indicates that the road you are on has priority over joining roads.


End of Priority RouteEnd of priority route: This indicates that you are coming to the end of the priority route and must be prepared to give way to another road. In France this may mean the dreaded priorité a droite applies so watch it.

Direction of Priority RoadDirection of priority road: This is merely information that you are following a major road that detours at the next junction. Useful in France as there are a lot of them at some very confusing junctions - why have a simple junction if a real bugger will do?

Phoning Home

European countries use an access code followed by a country code to dial between countries. In each of the individual guides I include the full dialling code from the country of origin to the UK.
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