Signs, Signs

Sign, sign, everywhere a sign
Blockin’ out the scenery, breakin’ my mind

I found the French autoroute system to be remarkable. The road ways were pristine, even with manicured medians and ditches. The system is every bit the equal of the United States Interstate system, complete with 120km/h (approximately 75mph) speed limits and dedicated rest stops comparable to the overhead oasis rest stops we from the Midwest would find enroute to Chicago on I-90/I-94. Our travels took us nearly exclusively from the South of France, through the Loire Valley, Normandy, and Champagne on the autoroute system. I can say that it was a treat to drive on such nicely maintained and convenient roads. Despite the wonderful driving experience, there was something missing. There was not a commercial billboard or advertisement sign to be found along the autoroute, not even a “McDonald’s ahead” sign.

Courtesy Web Photo

We inquired of one of our hosts if the French were just big fans of the 1970 classic Five Man Electrical Band song Signs or if there was something else at work. 🙂 As it was explained to us, commercial billboards and/or commercial signage are forbidden along the autoroutes. Commercial signage is found along the French roadside, but usually at the city or village boundary lines. There appears to be considerable debate within France about signage and billboards in general “blockin’ out the scenery.” The Five Man Electrical Band may have figurative with the concern for signs blocking the scenery, many in France are literal with their debate. Signs block nature, the people in France want to see nature and assume that tourists also want to see nature and not signs.

Don’t let me description of the autoroutes mislead you. There were standard road signs along the way displaying the same things that one sees on US Interstates. Speed limits, exits, distances to upcoming destinations, auto stops ahead, and of course my favorite “peage” (yes, the tolls ahead). The only other type of sign were the striking tourist attraction signs intermittently spread along the way. It should not be surprising that in a country known for art, even roadside information signs appeared to be a work of art on their own. Each sign highlighted an attraction in the region.

(Photos courtesy Google Images)

My thoughts wandered about how nice it would be for a tourism driven state like Minnesota to place signs such as these along Interstate 94 to highlight the Lake Wobegon Trail, Original Mainstreet, or a sportsman’s paradise near Alexandria. Very cool.

 “Thanks to the Interstate Highway System, it is now possible to travel across the country from coast to coast without seeing anything.” – Charles Kuralt,

Maybe Charles Kuralt was on to why we in the United States do not seem to mind that signs are blocking out our scenery. There isn’t much to see along our Interstate routes. Maybe it is the signs that keep us sane on long road trips across barren land. Who could imagine driving for four or five hours on an Interstate anywhere in the country and not see signage for a McDonald’s ahead? Families pass the time on road trips playing travel bingo, alphabet game or “I Spy” using every piece of signage available. Signs, commercial or otherwise are something we simply don’t think that much about. They are just there.

A visit to the Black Hills in South Dakota show how signs actually become part of the experience. It all begins with the “Welcome to South Dakota” sign as you enter on I-90. Then the kitschy and fun Wall Drug signs start to grab your attention. Where in the heck is Wall Drug? Do they really offer free ice water? 5-cent coffee must be really bad. Then there is this quirky Corn Palace. The signs pointed the way to the Corn Palace ahead as well. Once you make it past Mitchell, Wall and the Badlands, the end destination comes into focus, Mount Rushmore. Signs pointing where the Alfred Hitchcock classic “North by Northwest” was filmed escort you to the monument, then the climatic final sign welcoming you to the monument.

With two quick vibrating blasts from my mobile phone, we were there. We crossed the border into Belgium. We were driving from Northern France North en route to Brussels. I wasn’t expecting a large “Free Ice Water in Belgium” sign, but may be a sign at the border with a simple “Welcome to Belgium,” “Bienvenue en Belgique,” or “Welkom in België.” As it turns out, only good old Verizon welcomed us to Belgium…and that was merely a kind reminder that International roaming data rates are obscenely expensive. How anti-climatic.


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