rules of the road
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All that is history, and today Spain has perhaps the best domestic transport infrastructure of any country in Europe... and thanks to Europe. Since Spain joined the European Union, it has benefited from major development funds to help transform its isolated and impoverished regions into part of the modern Europe.
Spain today is a country where beautifully built and surfaced roads criss-cross the land, reaching into some of its deepest corners. And the greatest joy is that very often, other than in the densely populated areas round Madrid and on the coast, there is little or no traffic on them.
Furthermore it is possible to drive "off the beaten track" even between cities. Over the last half century, many main Spanish roads have been upgraded not just once, but twice or three times. And unlike in more populated countries, where upgrading means improving the existing road, the Spanish solution has often just been to build a new road near the old one. Consequently, on some routes, there are actually three parallel roads, the historic route, the post-Franco new road, and the more recent "autovia" divided highway. Where - as in most cases - the autovia is free, that leaves the old main road as empty as the most minor of minor cross country roads. Just occasionally, old main roads have been downgraded and /or equipped, as in France, with speed bumps and other devices - notably at the entrance to small towns; but generally speaking this is not the case.
On cross-country routes, those that are not part of the national highway network designated as "N" roads, traffic in most parts of Spain is very light. The majority of minor roads, those linking villages and small towns, are very well built and modernised, even when they serve no more than a few hundred vehicles a day. And signposting on Spanish roads is generally excellent.
Generally speaking - though there are exceptions - Spain's toll motorways - known officially as Autopistas - are designated by the letters AP, as in AP8. Spain's free motorways, usually known as Autovias, are generally designated by the letter A, as in A66.
Around Madrid, the system is different, and complex. Madrid is a maze of motorways, with in addition to the A motorways M motorways (for Madrid) and R motorways (for Radial). Motorways M30, M40, M45 and M50 are the main orbital routes round Madrid. M50, the outermost, runs 80% of the way round Madrid, and connects all the main national A motorways, from A1 to A6. The missing section is the northwest, from the A1 to the A6 - for which the A40 should be used. Orbital M motorways are free, the radial R motorways are toll roads.
For an overview of Spain's motorways, see Spanish motorway map
Click here for a no-tolls route from Bayonne (France) to the South of Spain. Travelling via Bayonne (sw France) rather than by Perpignan and Barcelona is actually shorter for most destinations south of Valencia.
Most but not all Autovias have numbers starting with A, for instance the A3 which runs from Madrid to Valencia. But some, those built by the regions, not by the Spanish national highways agency, are numbered differently. Catalonia's C25, for instance (photo top of page) , linking Girona and Lleida, is as good a motorway as any, even if many maps do not mark it as such.
Where toll autopistas and non-toll autovias offer alternative routes between two points, trucks usually take the free autovia leaving the autopista for those in a hurry and those happy to pay the tolls. But for itineraries where there is no autopista, HGV (truck) traffic uses the autovias when available. However, it's worth noting that on most autovias, except those on the Mediterranean coast and close to Madrid, truck traffic is light to very light, compared to motorways in the UK, Germany or the Netherlands.
Autovias tend not to have many dedicated service areas. Instead, they have plenty of exits with off-highway garages or service stations, restaurants and sometimes hotels or hostals. These are clearly announced in advance of the exit.
Motorway tolls in Spain:In Spain as a whole, tolls must be paid on about 20% of the motorway network; the rest is free. However, there are big variations by region, and in Catalonia over half the state motorway network is composed of toll routes.
Spanish toll motorways are relatively expensive: for instance, tolls on the Mediterranean motorway between the French border at Le Perthus and Valencia - a distance of 500 km. mostly on the AP7 - cost almost 45 €uros for a car.
On the other hand, traffic moving southwest from the French border on the Atlantic coast at Irun (near Biarritz) can both avoid most of the tolls and take a shorter route between San Sebastian and Vitoria, by using the N1 and A1 autovia, rather than the AP8 and AP1 autopistas.
The same goes for traffic heading for Saragossa and Madrid, from Barcelona. Leave the AP7 (which is free round Barcelona) at exit 26, and follow the free A2 as far as Fraga, after Lleida.
The best advice is to use a satnav or a good post 2010 map - which should remain fairly up-to-date until at least 2020, since on the one hand Spain's strategic motorway-building plan is now largely complete, and on the other hand the economic crisis has put paid to any more projects for the time being.
On sections of intercity toll motorway, the normal system is to take a ticket when you enter the toll section, and pay when you leave. On shorter sections of toll motorway, toll booths come at strategic points on the motorway, and there is a small fixed toll for using the section. Payment can be made in cash in €uros, or by credit card. Credit card lanes at toll points are shown by a credit card logo, and sometimes the word "tarjetas".
- Motorways (autovias and autopistas) : 120 km/h
- Main roads : 80 km/h, 90 km/h or 100 km/h as indicated
- Built-up areas : 50 km/h or 70 km/h as indicated