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Global Positioning Systems (GPS) for Slow Travelers

Andrew Siegel

The automobile is a tangible representation of freedom, the most fundamental American characteristic. "Auto" the Greek word for "self", and "mobils" the Latin word for "moving" perfectly describe the concept. The choice to go where we want, when we want, at our pace, in a style we select, in the company of our choosing is so appealing; we employ it whenever we travel.

Trying to determine your location and how best to arrive at your destination is certainly one of the oldest recurring mysteries. In that quest, Global Positioning System technology is the natural descendant of the sky, the telescope, the sextant, and the compass.

GPS is a worldwide radio-navigation system formed from a constellation of 24 satellites and ground stations. GPS uses these "man-made stars" as reference points to calculate positions accurate to a matter of meters. In a sense, it's like giving every square meter on the planet a unique address. Improbable as it may seem, the whole idea behind GPS is to use satellites in space as reference for points for locations here on earth.

Here's how GPS works in five logical steps:

  • The basis of GPS is "trilateration" from satellites.
  • To "trilaterate," a GPS receiver measures distance using the travel time of radio signals from a minimum of three different satellites. Mathematically it needs four satellite ranges to determine an exact position.
  • To measure travel time, the GPS achieves very accurate timing between the receiver and the satellites.
  • Along with distance, you need to know exactly where the satellites are in space. High orbits and careful monitoring are the secret.
  • Finally you must correct for any delays the signal experiences as it travels through the atmosphere.

Are we having fun yet?? I realize the jargon may be making your eyes glaze over, but bear with me. If you are going to use a GPS, it's helpful to understand the basics.

By combining the GPS system with maps, the ultimate onboard navigation system is possible. The system is capable of all kinds of time/distance calculations, directional information, identification of landmarks, and even finding addresses. Oh, and by the way, it talks to you.

Follow our journey in Italy, from Venice to Florence, through Tuscany, and down to Rome using the Garmin GPS supplied by AutoEurope as part of a car rental package. GPS technology is available for virtually anyplace so don't worry if your trip is to another destination.

Getting Started

Naturally the first question is, "How much does it cost"? The folks at AutoEurope can determine that for you with a simple phone call to (888) 223-5555. The unit was shipped to my home (Oct/2003) along with a prepaid mailer to return the unit for $35.00. In my case, a two-week trip to Italy, the rental for the GPS was $212.00. Total cost $247.00.

That included having the unit delivered one week prior to my departure. The GPS is expensive to buy, perhaps $1200 or so including the maps. As a matter of fact, AutoEurope is going to put a block on one of your credit cards for the value of the unit until you return it. I didn't want it damaged or lost so I always had it in my possession. You lose it, you buy it.

The unit supplied was the Garmin Streetpilot III. It includes the GPS receiver with a built in antenna, a power cord that plugs into the cigarette lighter, a speaker mounted into the power chord, a remote antenna for special reception problems, a weighted beanbag base that allows you to place the unit on the dashboard, and a carrying bag to store the equipment. The remote antenna is simply an antenna with a long wire that can be mounted using its magnetic base on the exterior of the auto to allow positions other than the dashboard. The GPS is capable of operating on alkaline batteries but they drain quickly. While the folks at AutoEurope did supply some basic instructions with the unit, they did not supply a complete manual. I simply went to the Garmin website, (http://www.garmin.com/support/userManual.jsp) and downloaded the complete manual. It is a PDF file and a must read to ease your understanding of operating the GPS.

It's important to spend a week with the GPS prior to your trip to insure you understand how to operate it, and to preprogram it with information relevant to your trip. You don't want to spend valuable vacation time programming the GPS. When you place your order, you will declare the areas you intend to drive so the appropriate maps can be loaded into the unit. The GPS has a "base map" for the USA in its resident memory, and a slot for a memory card. The memory card is where maps are inserted for your trip location. It is possible to have any number of memory cards if all the maps you require wont fit on one memory card.

Upon arrival, the first thing I did was check the unit for damage and operation. I don't want to be responsible for something I didn't do. Sure enough, the lower left hand corner of the GPS receiver had what looked like a burn mark. Also, the screw that held the speaker to the plug was missing, making it difficult to insert and remove the power chord. I emailed AutoEurope with these findings and they confirmed that I would not be responsible for these issues. Next I went to my little workshop and found a screw to fix the speaker. I think it was the $1200 block on the credit card that motivated me to check.

When I received the GPS, I put it in my car, turned it on, and drove around. The first thing the GPS does when you switch it on is to "acquire" satellites. If you didn't fall asleep while reading the "how GPS works" section, you know that a connection to the satellites is required before the unit can perform its magic. That connection must be maintained or many functions are disabled. The GPS requires "line of sight" to the satellites for proper operation.. That means, for instance, that a connection was not possible if my car was in the garage because the GPS couldn't "see" the satellites. Likewise, while driving around, if you take the unit off the dashboard and put it on your lap, it isn't able to "see" the satellites either. The maps and other information are displayed on a screen with excellent clarity. Imagine a small color TV on your dashboard.

GPS unit

You can scroll around the maps using the keypad, zoom in and out to see various levels of detail, and access trip data by changing to different screens. The manual details these functions and with a little practice it isn't hard to master. On the other hand, if I hadn't leisurely played with it for a few days prior to leaving, I would have wasted a lot of time while on vacation.

A valuable technique is to preprogram the GPS with "waypoints". Waypoints are an important concept to understand. A waypoint is simply a place you know, or think, you will pass through. By placing these locations in memory, it becomes easy to instruct the GPS to route to them from your current location.

My initial drive would begin at Piazzale Roma in Venice. My destination was the Hotel Savoy in Florence. The level of detail for the maps is quite extensive for urban areas. The Hotel Savoy was already in the database and while sitting in my driveway in Maryland; I established the Hotel Savoy in Florence as a "waypoint". Likewise I entered waypoints for every destination planned for my trip. These could be cities, addresses, points of interest, hotels, or simply a spot on the map. The entry process probably took about an hour. Once complete, I stored the unit in its travel bag and packed it in my carry-on luggage.

Like many other travelers, I always take my Navigator. She also happens to be my wife. In the past, we have experienced some unpleasant driving in foreign lands due to bad maps, bad signs or no signs, darkness, and operator error. Furthermore, she is typically hunkered down over maps pondering the next turn instead of enjoying the scenery. At those unfortunate crossroads, where a decision has to be made, if I choose left and she chooses right, an incorrect choice can lead to a destination best left off the itinerary. Sound familiar? I thought so.

On the Road to Florence

We picked up the Alfa Romeo 156 in Venice at 12:30 at the EuropCar office. After loading the bags, we drove about three hundred yards, parked, and retrieved the GPS unit. I hoisted the GPS onto the dashboard, connected the power to the cigarette lighter, and pressed the power button. Just as it had in my driveway, the GPS screen displayed the crucial words, "Acquiring Satellites". In perhaps a minute, the welcome result, "Ready to Navigate" appeared. I pressed the "Find" button; next the "Waypoint" button, scrolled down to the "Hotel Savoy", and pressed, "Enter". Next, highlight the "Route To It" button and press "Enter". The lower left hand portion of the screen said, "Calculating Route". Perhaps a minute later a soothing female voice generated by the GPS said, "Drive 300 yards and bear right" At the same time, the map showed a triangular symbol, indicating my car, located in the Piazzale Roma in Venice, with a telltale pink line overlaid on the route we were to follow. It works.

It was at this point that the Navigator declared a convention that would apply for the rest of the trip.

"I think we have to give this thing a name," she said. "An Italian name."

Puzzled, I responded, "Why is that?"

"Because she will work better if we do! Sophia, I like Sophia," she said with calm certainty.

I pressed the zoom button to zero in on our location and muttered,

"Buon pomeriggio Sophia."

She didn't respond but her screen was bright and lustrous.

We headed off in the direction of the pink line and the map moved as we moved. The triangle pointed in the direction we were headed. At each turn or change in direction, Sophia would typically announce the next move about a mile away.

"Enter the roundabout in one mile and take the second exit" she purred.

Simultaneously, the screen would shift to a map of the roundabout in question with arrows clearly showing the way to go. When we got closer to the roundabout, Sophia returned and said,

"In 300 yards enter the roundabout and take the second exit."

Once again, the map of the roundabout appeared to enhance my understanding. As I traveled through the roundabout the triangle indicating our car followed the pink line confirming I was making the right moves.

As we zoomed onto the A4, it was clear to me that Sophia was a hottie.

The drive from Venice to Bologna is boring. The scenery is early Elizabeth, NJ but it gave me an opportunity to play with Sophia. Unable to perform these tricks in the US, because you can't get to Florence, Italy from Maryland by car, I began to see what else Sophia could tell me. By pressing the "Page" button, I could switch from the Map Page, to the Next Turn Page, to the Current Route Page, to the Trip Information Page. These screens will tell you among many other things, your elapsed time, time remaining to your destination, speed, distance and time to your next turn, and on and on and on. The manual describes all the features clearly.

Sophia guided us effortlessly around Padua, onto the A13, and we headed for Bologna. The Navigator had a ream of static maps from Mapblast.com I had brought just in case. By static maps, I mean a simple map not driving directions. She tossed them in the back seat, smiled and gazed out the window. I smiled at the dashboard and whispered,

"Ti amo Sophia."

As we approached the Bologna ring road, Sophia advised me of each upcoming turn, once at a distance and again within 500 feet of the turn. One of the options available is to pan the map anywhere you want and check it out. I panned ahead to see what kind of upcoming route Sophia had planned for us. As we headed onto the A1 towards Florence it was clear the upcoming drive was going to be fun. Mountains and tunnels and beautiful vistas all the way.

The navigator had been studying. She turned to me and said,

"I want to go to Fiesole."

To be honest, I'm pretty sure I could have made it this far without any help from Sophia or the Navigator. The signs had been clear and the route easy to follow. The request to detour to Fiesole however, presented a few problems. First of all, I had not entered Fiesole in as a waypoint. Secondly, I didn't know exactly where it was on the map. So, I pushed some buttons. First, "Find", then "Cities", then scrolled to the ""F's". Lo and behold, Fiesole was listed. Next I highlighted "Fiesole", and pushed the button "Route To It". Sophia began to calculate and within thirty seconds announced the route with a new yellow brick road. She also told us how long it would take to get there and how many miles it was. This was a true test for Sophia because these were the back roads, badly marked with the totem pole style of road signs. Sophia took us off the A1 at Barberino and guided us perfectly through the shortest route to Fiesole. Not a single map was opened. All we did was look out the window and smile.

We arrived in Fiesole within one minute of Sophia's ETA, and parked the car. An ETA is constantly recalculated based on speed and distance. When Sophia loses power from the car battery she will run on the alkaline batteries or just shut down. Before we left to walk up to the Church, I removed Sophia from the dashboard so the bad guys wouldn't be tempted. I just placed her on the floor of the car where she was out of sight. After some great views from the Church, we took a short drive and headed over to the Villa San Michele for a drink. Its a beautiful Hotel and restaurant, converted from an ancient abbey, buried in a cliff overlooking Florence. Refreshed from the stop, it was time to drive to the Savoy, located in the heart of Florence on the Piazza della Repubblica.

The horror stories from the Slow Traveler's message board about driving in Florence faded in my memory. I had total faith in Sophia. So far she was beautiful. On the stone drive of the Villa, I switched on the car and put Sophia on her dashboard throne. The familiar "Acquiring Satellites" message came up. One of the interesting screens Sophia offered displays a map of the available satellites and shows them being acquired. They are designated by a number and a signal strength. I waited. I waited some more. Sophia couldn't find her beacons. I figured the towering cliff walls to my left were blocking her line of sight so I drove down the hill to an area that was open to the sky and sure enough we acquired. During the stretch from Bologna to Florence, we had lost the satellites while going through the tunnels cut under the mountains. Each time that happened, Sophia reacquired her beams as soon as we emerged. Sophia cooed at me, "Ready to Navigate". Then I pushed "Find", "Waypoints", scrolled to the "Savoy Hotel", which I had entered in the system while still at home, and waited for her to do the math.

Like the gorgeous lil computer she is, she plotted a route and told me where to go. Delighted, we followed her like Hansel and Gretel.

It was somewhere around the Piazza della Libert, just north of the historic center, that Sophia lost her satellites again and this time I really needed her. I made a wrong turn, and she reacquired her beams.

"Off course recalculating", She announced calmly.

You see, if I made a wrong turn, Sophia would tell me so. She also begins to calculate a new course from your errant turn. But while I was waiting for her to recalculate, she lost her beams again! In a nutshell, the narrow streets and four story buildings were blinding her. She was useless. Constantly repeating, "Off course recalculating".

I had to put her out of her misery. I shut her down and we made it with the static maps. Let's just say the sages on the Slow Travel message board were right. Do not try to drive in the historic center of Florence. It's a major nightmare. It took us perhaps 30 minutes to get to our destination and we made it only because I finally drove about six blocks the wrong way up a one way street.

Sophia was severely punished. I placed her in her storage bag and took her up to our room. She was useless in urban settings. The good news is, the next drives were all in the heart of the country.

On the Road to Tuscany

A few days later it was time to venture out to the famed Tuscan hills. Ah, Italy. But wait. Methinks the Navigator wants to go to the Prada Outlet. We fired up the Alfa at 8:30 one morning in Florence, reinstalled Sophia, and had her plot a course to Levanella. Once outside the center of Florence she performed flawlessly, taking me down the A1 to the Valdarno Exit. I had some written directions from the message board but, when Sophia wanted to take me another way I just did it. Turns out I think her way is faster but it really doesn't matter. We were standing at the door to handbag heaven at 9:25.

After loading up on leather it was time to hit the Chianti hills. Once again, Sophia guided us North through Montevarchi, then west to Cavriglia, then south and west to Radda. From there it was on to Castellina in Chianti, Panzano, and Greve in Chianti. Each of these locales had been entered into the database before the trip and all I had to do was pick the Tuscan spot press "Find", "Waypoints", scroll to the location of my choice, and select the "Route To It" option. It's terrific to know how far away it is to the next stop, the route you are going to take to get there, and how much time it will take. The sun was shining and we enjoyed the winding beautiful roads without looking at a single map for directions. Sophia must be a country girl, si?

To insure against a catastrophe, I had the Touring Club Italiano "Toscana" map, scale = 1:200 000. It's a beautiful map but guess what? It is not very forthcoming with the SS numbers, the state road numbers. Sophia's maps were much more complete with the state road numbers and names. However, Sophia did not show as many roads in the country as the TCI map. In general, the GPS maps are less detailed than the road maps. My recommendation is to take both.

Here's another little trick Sophia has under her cover. Late in the afternoon, we were sitting in the piazza in the center of Greve when I remembered a recommendation to drive up to a place called Lamole. Now, Lamole and the road to it are clearly shown on the TCI map. Sophia showed just a blank space. I headed south on the 222 until I saw a sign that clearly marked Lamole. I made a left (east), followed some signs, and began a long ascent up the mountain. Sophia had nothing but blank space on her screen except for some dots that indicated the trail of my route. In other words, when you drive a route Sophia doesn't have on her maps, she still knows where you are. She just doesn't have a map to overlay your trail on. So she plots an electronic trail on the screen so you can see your own movements. This is handy for locating yourself in relation to the maps she does have, or for retracing your steps to the point of origin. By the way, the view from Lamole is worth the narrow harrowing road you have to drive to get there.

Dinner was scheduled in an out of the way farmhouse restaurant called La Cantinetta di Rignana. Dinner was to be at 19:30. That is early but we had to drive, at night, back to Florence. Although the general location was shown on the TCI map, and not on Sophia's map, the TCI map did not say what the road name or the SS number was. After some trial and error north of the center of town, we found a sign that marked the correct road and had no problems getting there. Sophia did indicate our route on the roads comforting us that we were headed in the right direction. After dinner, Sophia switched to night mode, a change in the screen colors to make the map more visible at night, and led us back to Florence without any problems. However, sitting on top of the dash, she reflected an annoying glare on the inside of the windshield and I had to shift her location to reduce the annoyance several times. Driving at night in the countryside would have been extremely difficult without Sophia.

Next day was our drive to the hill towns. By now, Sophia and I were pretty much in love. I knew her every move and we breezed to Monteriggioni. From there it was a stunning drive to Volterra, through Colle di Val d'Elsa, where, without Sophia I surely would have gotten lost. After Volterra, we backtracked to San Gimignano where we had planned dinner at Dorando. Although much of the drive that day could have been done without Sophia, the critical turns and routes through congested areas are where she makes you smile. More importantly, the lack of stress enhances the entire experience and, as predicted, promoted a happy cockpit for the crew. This is the real benefit of GPS.

After dinner in San Gimignano, another nighttime ride with Sophia was uneventful except for operator error which led to taking a longer route home than we needed to. Perhaps it was the wine.

On the Road to Rome

A few days later it was time to drive to Rome for the final leg of our trip. We had decided to go by way of Siena so we could spend some time there. We packed up, waved goodbye to Florence and headed to Siena. Having read on Slow Travel how difficult parking could be in Siena, I searched the boards and found a recommendation to park at a lot called Il Campo. While sitting in my driveway with Sophia, I located the lot on Sophia's maps, and set it as a waypoint. Now, parked just over the Arno outside Florence, so Sophia could acquire her beacons, I pressed the familiar "Find", "Waypoints", scrolled to the Il Campo location, and selected the "Route To It" option. In less than a minute, Sophia's soothing voice led me straight to Siena. Once closer to Siena, it became clear once again how valuable Sophia can be. She led me through a series of turns that I don't think I would have figured out from the maps and not a minute was wasted. As we pulled into the lot at Il Campo, the Navigator beamed at me.

A few hours later, it was off to Rome. A couple of interesting things happened on the way to Rome. Once outside the parking structure of Il Campo, I pulled over so Sophia could get her radio wave fix. Once again, she led me to a main intersection to get to Rome. This time however, there was a conflict between the map that Sophia had in her database and the actual road. In other words, the intersection had been redesigned since the map had been injected into Sophia. She kept telling me to go a way you could no longer go. Fortunately, the onboard computer in my head still works and I figured it out. The point is, that when using Sophia, I still needed to understand my basic location with some static maps and be patient. There were signs to read, Sophia's maps, and that little triangle that showed where I was. Just because Sophia said, "Off course recalculating", was no need for panic.

Safely on the way to Rome now, I needed to reestablish the destination as the Hotel Eden in Rome. I did the usual "Waypoint" routine but Sophia kept giving me the message "route calculation error". This is not a good sign. For some reason, Sophia was not taking me down the A1 to Rome. I zoomed out the map as far as I could and realized what the problem was.

When the folks at AutoEurope stored the driving maps on Sophia's memory card, they had included all of Italy and actually parts of France. However, the entire map consisted of a series of regional maps patched together. Perhaps twenty five individual maps comprised all of Italy.

Now, when my duties as Captain called for me to fiddle with Sophia in my driveway I noticed that you could turn the individual maps on or off. You could find the map of Sicily, for instance, and turn it off so Sophia didn't know it was there. The benefit of this is when Sophia searches, lets say, for a city or a point of interest, she doesn't have to search irrelevant locations. Furthermore, when she redraws the map, she doesn't have to draw maps that are out of the travel area.

In other words, the database could be limited only to the areas I would be traveling in. So, while sitting in the driveway, I had turned off all the maps I thought were meaningless to me. Problem was, I had turned off a map I shouldn't have and Sophia needed that map to set the right course. When I zoomed out the map, I saw the gaping blank rectangle where the A1 to Rome should have been. The Navigator chastised me for my meddling while I restored the map and Sophia immediately set the right course.

The drive to Rome was easy until we got close to the city. Once again, most of the route was made simple by excellent road signage but the critical turns would have been difficult to negotiate without Sophia. Her constant ability to calculate the distance to the next turn and a map of the next turn is what makes the difference. More importantly, if you make a wrong turn, she calculates a new route to get you where you want to go. We arrived at the Eden in Rome right on schedule and ended the auto portion of our trip.

I kissed Sophia on her shiny little forehead, and placed her in the protective pouch.

"Grazie Sophia", I whispered.


Driving with a computer on the dashboard can be dangerous for obvious reasons. Be careful and use common sense.

I have absolutely no interest in either AutoEurope or Garmin. Slow Travel has an affiliation with AutoEurope, but my auto reservation and decision to use a GPS were made prior to discovering the Slow Travel site.

Note that some windshields preclude the mounting of the GPS on the dashboard for technical reasons. Consult the experts at Garmin or AutoEurope to avoid this problem. The worst case is the mounting of the remote antenna outside the vehicle, which would require the window to remain somewhat open.

Garmin regularly updates the maps used for GPS so try to obtain a GPS with the latest map version. Furthermore, Garmin has three different map sets for Europe: City Navigator, MetroGuide, and Roads & Recreation. Check to see what maps are included in your rental.

Many other handheld GPS devices are available suitable for walking and biking.

Make sure you give your GPS a name. It worked for us.

Thanks to the residents of Slow Travel who enhanced every step of our vacation with their knowledge and experience. This account is provided in gratitude for their selfless interest in the travels of total strangers.

Thanks to my trusty Navigator who always steers me in the right direction.

Drew writes in his spare time for his own amusement.

© Andrew Siegel, 2003

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