France is too large

Driving across France, as I did yesterday, tells me that France is too large. Yes, I know, it’s my own fault.

But bumbling along and going from one town/centre bit to another (yes, motorways, I mean in that mental map of OK, so, Bayonne to Bordeaux, Bourdeaux to Angouleme, Limoges etc) they’re just too far apart. If you glance at a map, or at least if I do, I’ve got a mental image of how far apart places are going to be. OK, the error is in my mental maps but still. One centre to the next is 50 km if the places are that far apart, 100 if that and so on. So, mental driving is to link up the towns along the route and potter along that mental map.

This worked in Germany. So, I knew I was going Freiburg to Freiberg. Fburg to Karlsruhe, to Heilbronn, to Nuremberg and so on. And a good mental idea that this one was 50 km, the next link 100 and so on.

In France, that same mental map was badly out. It’s not 50 or 100 km to the next centre, it’s 150 or 250.


Thus France is too large. Should be cut down to size. Thus I recommend that the country be cut down to a proper size. Aquitane to be returned to England. That will make my next drive across France shorter.

40 thoughts on “France is too large”

  1. it’s true of villages in France too.
    Way back when, my geography teacher told me that this was one reason why the wealth generation of the 18th century was faster in England than France.

  2. A friend and i met a couple of girls in a cafe in a rural French town. Sometime after midnight (when the cafe was still not closed) One said there was a party back in her village did we want to come? We said yes and jumped in the back of their Golf and AN HOUR and a HALF of driving at 120 kph later we got to her village. Apparently we were still in the same region, just more extremely in the middle of nowhere. (and when they said village they meant it was essentially a fete on the green complete with grannies selling the entry tickets at 2.00am).

  3. Indeed, the size of France caught me by surprise too. In late June I drove from Folkestone to Exeter in pretty much an afternoon (wedged in traffic on the abominably shite A303), which isn’t far short of East to West along the bottom. It takes 6 hours to drive from Paris to Annecy (a steady 130kph on the superb Autoroutes), and you’ve not covered half the country.

    The other difference is if you drive for 6 hours in the UK you hit a major population centre every half an hour or so. Between Paris and Annecy you pass Auxerre and…that’s about it until Geneva, unless you count Dijon which you skirt around by about 20 miles. And these places are hardly major cities.

  4. Yes, that’s exactly what I was meaning. The one that really got me was Chalon sur Saone to Mulhouse yesterday. The glance at the map (without, obviously, looking at the scale) made me think 50 km tops. 236 in fact as I recall.

    I was hopping across the centre of France, Bourdeaux to Freiburg. And looking at each population centre as I would in the UK. So, Reading’s 20 m outside London, Swindon’t 50 m along etc, etc. In France they’re 150 to 200 km apart.

  5. The other thing is – tangentally mentioned by Tim – is that popular maps are often sized to fit the page rather than to be consistantly scaled. So you get a mental map of France as being the same size as England because yer typical atlas puts them both on the same size page, but at different scales.

    Additionally, it doesn’t help that the French equivalent of Landranger maps are 1:100,000 instead of 1:50,000 so without realising it everything is twice as far as you think.

  6. Comparing trains and roads confuses things too. Your mental map says London to Cardiff is about two hours by fast train, three by car. Paris to Lyon is two hours by train, but it’s well over four hours’ drive.

    The reverse applies too. French assume Britain is big, and are always surprised when they realise how close everything is. Then they discover that every town looks broadly the same, and vow never to leave London again.

  7. The other difference is if you drive for 6 hours in the UK you hit a major population centre every half an hour or so.

    I was on the TGV from Paris to Barcelona recently. The first stop is Valence (350 miles south of Paris) – a couple of hours after leaving the suburbs of Paris, you get a glimpse of Lyon (and Le Crayon) in the distance on the RHS, but apart from that you don’t see another town, or indeed any community larger than about 20 houses. Which is why very high-speed trains are a great idea in France and a barmy one in the UK.

  8. For the third time this year, couple weeks ago did the usual first stage of just over the Belgian border to Burgos in northern Spain in the one pass. That leaves a leisurely drive down to Andalucia for the following afternoon.
    I just recalibrate. 30km in France or Spain’s worth about 3 miles in England. Less if you’re anywhere near the M25.

  9. Do you guys really want those obstreperous Breton and Norman farmers burning animals and tyres along roads and rail tracks whenever they feel affronted? In my view, it is best not to lay claim to them?

  10. Bloke in North Dorset

    When I went to teach in Zimbabwe as part of the briefing it was explained that Zimbabwe was the six of France with the population of Scotland. During the Christmas break we drove for 2 days from Bullawayo to Victoria Falls, the only habitation we saw was when we overnight end at Wankie Game Reserve.

    That brought home to me just how big Africa is and how distorting our world maps are with the Mercator Projection.

  11. The have a neat system in NL where every few miles there’s a town called Centrum, which has shops and everything.

  12. “how distorting our world maps are with the Mercator Projection”: yeah, it’s a conspiracy of polar bears and penguins to big themselves up.

  13. So Tim, France has four times the area of the UK but they didn’t fill it up like we did.
    Does that indicate greater economic output or lesser?
    Starting at the beginning of economics the stress is on all output coming from the land.

  14. The Earl of Surrey, the one who led the English Northern Army at Flodden must have thought recruiting soldiers en route to Northumberland was a piece of cake compared to what the recruiting Sergeants of Napoleon had to do.

  15. “Aquitaine and Normandy”

    Normandy is enormous. Just absolutely ridiculously big. Driving from the Picardie border to the SW takes about 4-5 hours. You could drive from London to Scotland in that time.

  16. obviously I meant ‘be better’

    another thought though: also Catholicism, not known for small families?

  17. As an American, I laugh at the puny size of both France and the UK.

    One sister lives three hours away; the other down in Texas so I’d have to fly to see her.

    Texans would like to point out that they’re bigger than France, but I’d remind them of something I learned from my freshman roommate, who hailed from Alaska: Cut Alaska in two, and make Texas the third-biggest state.

  18. I’ve driven from Calais to Aix in a day, with a decent stop for lunch, but you do have to shift a bit.

    I discovered that they have number plate recognition cameras and put your reg up on the gantry display with “vous roulez trop vite” or something like that; rather fun.

  19. Definitely stay away from the Western US then.

    Major city centers tend to be 400+ km apart out here *in the denser parts (ie, on the West Coast).

    I live in ( a tiny ancillary community nearby) a small town (100,000 people) that’s roughly halfway between San Diego and Phoenix – 250 miles to the outer edges of either. 400 miles to Tucson.

  20. As someone who’s lived in Queensland, I sneer at puny Texas.

    When I lived in Russia and used to take the 9 hour domestic flight between Sakhalin and Moscow…

  21. Yup. You really don’t realise it until you drive it. It took myself and a friend two days to get from Nice to Versailles back in March. Sure, we weren’t pushing it, but we were still on the road for somewhere north of 12 hours over those two days.

  22. “As someone who’s lived in Queensland, I sneer at puny Texas.”

    As a gaseous resident of Jupiter, I laugh at your puny land of a queen.

  23. “As is Burgundy. About 3-4 hours of the 6 hour drive to Annecy is through Burgundy.”

    Yes, the TGV spends a long time speeding through Burgundy on the way to Marseille. Well over an hour, so 300km?

  24. Yes -in Australia you can take all; day to drive from nothing much to not very big.
    But there are an awful lot of kangaroos and politicians everywhere. So drive careful.

  25. Demetrius: Why just Aquitaine? Why not Normandy and Brittany as well? Restore The Plantagenets.

    Asking for Brittany might be a bit greedy since it was never a part of the Angevin empire but your demands are overly modest for all that. Throw in Maine and Poitou as well as Ponthieu and Calais. In fact let’s make belated upholding of and respect for the Treaty of Troyes a part of the UK’s Brexit negotiations.

    EDF can build their Hinkley Point project in Bourges and thence run a cable to English territory.

  26. Doing Vancouver to Edmonton drive the first time was an experience, pass kampoops and you don’t see more than a few houses for a very long time

  27. On the Canada size – driving from Medicine Hat to Calgary was a trip through the middle of nowhere (and I’m used to driving through Scotland – nothing between Perth or Glasgow and Inverness. Except Pitlochry and Aviemore, both of which are smaller than a normal supermarket.)

    The one advantage was you didn’t need to bother about the steering wheel (or changing in gear if the hire car hadn’t been an automatic.) 300km of bugger all.

  28. Bloke in North Dorset

    Driving down the M4 from Reading to Bristol feels like you’ve driven 300km of bugger all, except for the eyesore of Swindon.

  29. The Meissen Bison

    @john77 – I’m not sure that ‘should have’ quite cuts it but it might be best to have Brittany chum up with Cornwall.

  30. Surreptitious Evil: We consider the drive from Calgary to the Hat to be a short jaunt. You are right about the ease of driving. My European and English cousins are astonished that a 300 km drive here can be so calm and almost restful. They don’t believe me until they come. It’s very hard to understand scales different to our own familiar ones.

    One particularly ill informed lot of Germans once proposed to drive the 3400 km from Toronto to Calgary “for the afternoon”. They were looking at a small map.

    On the other hand, driving in the UK terrifies me now I am in my 60s. Things happen too damn fast with zillions of cars zooming around tiny narrow streets on the wrong side at insane speeds. And the streets run in every direction instead of North South and East West as God and his surveyors intended.

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