Portugal: Traffic drives on the right

A massive EU-funded construction programme has improved roads right across the country – particularly in previously remote areas like Trás-os-Montes and Beira Alta – and what often appears to be a minor route on a map can turn out to be a new, beautifully engineered highway. But there are still plenty of winding, poorly maintained roads, especially in rural areas – and you can expect to encounter highway repairs, farm vehicles, roaming animals and locals laden with wood or produce on almost any countryside journey.

Other than on city approaches and during rush hour, traffic is generally light, though as car ownership has increased dramatically in recent years so too has congestion. Petrol (gasolina) prices have also increased steadily and now almost match those in the UK (around e1.35 a litre); unleaded is sem chumbo, diesel gasóleo.

Most main roads are prefixed EN – Estrada Nacional – or just N, with the faster regional highways denoted as IP (Itinerário Principal) or IC (Itinerário Complementar).

On the whole, they are two-lane roads, with passing lanes on hills, though stretches near some towns and cities are dual-carriageway. The motorway (auto-estrada) network (prefixed with “A”) comprises a central spine of four- or six-lane toll roads (signposted “Portagem”) that links the Algarve with Lisbon, Porto, the main inland towns and the north. The tolls are considered expensive by the Portuguese, who tend to use the older routes where possible; driving up the A1 from Lisbon to Porto, for example, costs around e18 (though the east–west transAlgarve A22 is currently free). However, it’s always much quicker by motorway and, with some sections virtually deserted, they are a pleasure to drive. Incidentally, at the tollgates don’t drive through the lane marked “Via Verde” (an automatic debit-payment lane for locals), but use any lane with a green light above it – you pay in cash, or with Visa or Mastercard.

Traffic drives on the right: speed limits are 50kph in towns and villages (often enforced by tripped “Velocidade Controlade” traffic lights), 90kph on normal roads, and 120kph on motorways and inter-regional highways. Unless there’s a sign to the contrary at road junctions (and there rarely is), vehicles coming from the right have right of way – it can be horribly confusing, but most drivers use something approaching common sense to interpret whose turn it is. Other road signage is also poor, particularly at roundabouts, city exits and highway access roads, where the signs you’ve been following simply dry up for no reason; often, too, there’s little or no warning of turns at slip-roads and junctions; or destinations are often signposted in one direction and not the other. In addition, many roads keep their old designations when upgraded, so for example, the Vila Real–Chaves road, once the IP3, now a motorway, is also marked as the A24 and, just for good measure, as the E801 (a panEuropean route).

Driving licences from most countries are accepted, so there’s no need to get an international one before you leave. Many car insurance policies cover taking your car to Portugal; check with your insurer when planning your trip. However, you’re advised to take out extra cover for motoring assistance in case your car breaks down, and motoring organizations like the RAC (www.rac .co.uk) or the AA (www.theaa.co.uk) can help. Alternatively, you can get 24-hour assistance from the Automóvel Clube de Portugal (www.acp.pt), which has reciprocal arrangements with foreign automobile clubs.

If you’re stopped by the police in Portugal, they’ll want to see your personal ID or passport, driving licence, and papers for the car (including ownership papers if it’s your own car). By law, you should also have a red warning triangle and a fluorescent yellow jacket in the car (provided in rental cars). It pays to be patient and courteous since the police can – and do – levy on-the-spot fines for speeding, parking and other offences. Pleading ignorance won’t get you anywhere.