Saturday, April 28, 2012

On Route 66

In the heart of Madrid, in the square called Puerta del Sol, there are usually tourists outside the Casa de Correos having their pictures taken. The clock on the Casa de Correos is the one used for the New Year chimes in Spain but it's not the building the tourists want as a backdrop to their holiday snap. No, they want to be shown standing at “Kilometre Zero”, the point from which all distances to and from Madrid are measured.

Roads in Spain are designated on a sort of sliding scale. Those that cross lots of regions and provinces or those with a major significance are looked after by the state. Normally the numbers of such roads are prefixed with a letter N, standing for Nacional or National or, if they are motorways with the letter A for autopistas or autovias. Usually autopistas are toll roads so they get an additional letter, a P standing for peaje or toll. It's quite common for a motorway to have toll and non toll sections so that the A6 and AP6 are the same road but money has to change hands to travel on some of it.

The next class of roads are those that stay within a region but cross provinces, then there are those that stay within a province and finally those that are looked after by the town halls. So the MU321 would be in Murcia, the CV83 in the Comunidad Valenciana and the A204 in Alicante. Town hall roads don't usually get letters unless they are posh roads heading for big important places.

Six major roads radiate out of Madrid.. They used to be identified by the letter N for Nacional and Roman numerals-the NI, NII etc up to the NVI; they divided the country into six slices. So just as the A1 strikes out from London for Edinburgh and the A5 heads for Holyhead the NI headed for Irun and the French border, the NII for Girona and France and the NIII came our way and in to Valencia. And so on. By 2004 those old N roads had been replaced by new shiny motorways so the names were changed to A1, A2, A6 etc and branches from those main motorways took a subsidiary number. Hence the motorway headed for Murcia that comes off the A3 is the A30 and the one for Alicante the A31.

Back to Kilometre Zero. From there imaginary concentric lines were drawn around Madrid spreading out like the waves from a pebble thrown into a pond. National road numbers were based on where the road started and where it was in relation the the six main roads. So something to the left of the A5 but before the A6 was the N5 something. If it started within a hundred kilometres of Madrid it was the N51 something, If it started 300 kilometres from Madrid the N53 something. Finally, and again in relation to Madrid, if an extension of the road would take you towards the Capital then the final number would be odd but if it wouldn't then it would be even.

So the N342 is on the left hand, going anticlockwise, side of the A3, it starts btween 399 and 499 kilometres from Madrid and it is transversal rather than radial. Phew, it's like that thing with the Greek bloke and his hypotenuse.

As with any system there are lots of exceptions. I probably wouldn't have mentioned them but, given that the A7 passes more or less by our door I had no choice. They simply used the A7 designation to show that it was an important road and because it doesn't go anywhere near Madrid. It was the same with the A8 along the North coast up in Cantabria and for some reason the Radial motorways in the region of Madrid are designated R something or other.

Nonetheless, the next time you're out with visitors from outside Spain you can amaze them with your knowledge of something as banal as the road numbering system!

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