Driving in Spain

Read This if You Plan on Driving an RV or Car in Spain (or if you are getting an International Drivers License)

I have to give you the full story of our last two days. Yesterday we set Tom our navigator to go into Spain. We were just leaving the last town in France on the sea and heading inland to go to Pamplona where they do the running of the bulls. It is only about two hours, then we were going to cut across through the Rioja wine area and come down again to the sea at San Sebastian. We decided not to take the toll road because Rick Steves said that the national roads are good though full of trucks.

Anyway from looking at the map I thought Tom was putting us on that national road once out of town. Instead he first put us on a shortcut—over a pass in the Pyrenees on a 1 ½ lane road that had just been repaved so that if you left the pavement, you would turn over and then quite simply fall off a cliff. No guardrails of course. We were doing okay—it was straight up, winding, but not much traffic and absolutely no place to turn around, as there wasn’t room for a driveway on the mountainside, when around the bend came a tractor trailer. He, of course, took up the entire lane. We got over as far a possible and he only hit (and cracked) our side mirror. When we reached the top where there was a restaurant he had been delivering to, we debated whether to go back the way we came or keep going. By this time we knew we were only 4 miles from the big road. Luckily the road on this side was actually two lane—the worst hairpin turns we have been on, including Norway, but at least two lanes.

Breathing a sigh of relief we threaded through the town of Bera—very narrow, parking all over the street, jaywalking pedestrians, bicyclists, crazy drivers—we are in Spain after all. The two lane national road continued over the Pyrenees—this are second only to the Alps in Europe. A good road but wall to wall truckers who were very unhappy having to wait for the passing lanes to get around us. After about 45 minutes we had cleared the last of 6 tunnels when ahead are two Politza pulling over nearly every truck, including us to be weighed. After weighing us, they asked us to park the van and get out our papers.

Mark produced his driver’s license, registration, insurance card and his International Driving Permit. After examining it all they motioned for Mark to come back to the kiosk with them where they pointed out that our International Driving License was only good for vehicles up to 3,500 kg and ours weighed 4360. The fine for driving without a proper license was $750. Mark came to get me out of the truck and we proceeded to try to talk to the other policeman who spoke some English. And I quote “ I am going to talk very slowly. You must find another driver with the proper license to drive your camper back to France and you must pay this fine now.” We tried to explain that Mark’s Montana license allowed him to drive this camper but he said no. We asked if he could take a credit card—no, they had no machine, must pay in cash, but he would let us turn around drive the car back to France without another driver if we promised to do so at the next exit.

He also said we were actually guilty of two offenses (we were never too clear about that) so he could charge us with the lesser of the two which would be only $460 cash. We had about $250 between us. After much hemming and hawing, they decided to let us go after writing down the details. He said if we were caught again in Spain with the wrong license we would have to pay a new fine and this old one and have a driver for the vehicle. Needless to say we got off at the next exit and vamoosed for France.

Arriving at the McDonald’s in France to do some serious Internet research, we also decided to carefully read the International Driver’s License. What we noticed was that we are allowed to drive a vehicle with up to 8 passenger seats or a goods vehicle not above 3,500 kg. So at that point we felt that the officer had misinterpreted the license. Only how would we ever explain that to anyone who stopped us again? What we learned in further research was that only two countries in Europe require an International Driving License—Spain and Portugal, and that the International License tends to look at weight where US licenses are more concerned with commercial vs non commercial use. I am sure we could explain that to the police over here! In addition, we noticed that our International License expires Dec. 30. I had not been concerned because our two guidebooks say the license is only recommended—but the US Embassy and the Spanish police both agree that it is required.

Great. So more research to see if we can get another from an auto club in France. Can’t find an auto club in France closer than Paris. Keep searching. Find out that License can only be issued in the country of your driver’s license. Only two auto clubs in US can issue. AAA says can be issued by mail but allow 6-8 weeks. Terrific. Frantically email Rachel and Rebecca to see if they can do this for us at AAA if we email them paperwork. No. Only by mail or in person.

More research at Montana Driver’s License site. Mark’s D license allows him to drive any RV of any weight for non commercial use. Decide to have Google translate this into Spanish to be able to show police. Wonder if that will work. Police officer was adamant that what counted was the International License which wasn’t stamped for category C which he insisted we had to have. (In Europe, drivers of RVs do have to pass a special test—I will give him that.)

We decide to go into the first large town in Spain on the coast—San Sebastian and try to talk to Spanish police there and also figure out how to get an International License with a C category stamp. Spend early afternoon at Internet Café. The other US auto club has an expedited delivery with international courier for an extra $75 but we have to send application, passport photos etc. to California. Notice that on the form we can ask for a category C license. Check the box. Talk to Tourist Information about where a UPS or Fed EX or DHL might be—they insist we use the post office. Back to Internet—no UPS or Fed EX listings for San Sebastian. Find DHL, back to TI to find out that we can take the bus there. Catch bus and are dropped off in industrial district. Find wonderful DHL man who can speak English and helps us fill out paperwork. Try to figure out where we might be in 10 days so we can get license back. Fill it out, send it off, and realize tonight that we wanted it sent to Segovia not Salamanca. Hope we can contact auto club by email and get it changed—once we get an address for DHL office in Segovia. Put that on tomorrow’s list along with a visit to police station.

In the meantime, all friends and family are to pray to whatever gods they have that the auto club will be willing to check category C for us! Amen, hallelujah, where’s the Tylenol?!!!!!