Simon Calder: The Man Who Pays His Way

A tour of the world's greatest parking lots

The planet has countless natural wonders, and quite a few man-made marvels, too. But car parks rarely figure among the traveller's list of "must-sees".

The planet has countless natural wonders, and quite a few man-made marvels, too. But car parks rarely figure among the traveller's list of "must-sees".

An exception to this rule is Canada, where one of the boasts about the leading tourist attraction in the province of Alberta - West Edmonton Mall - is that it has the world's biggest parking lot, with 20,000 spaces. But the average car park is never going to achieve the iconic status of the Taj Mahal or the Sydney Opera House. They are necessary (or, say some, unnecessary) evils that arise from our desire to travel.

Yet they can have aesthetic or historic appeal. Last week John Prescott and Gordon Brown spent some time in the back of one of the deputy prime minister's Jags in the car park outside the Loch Fyne Oyster Bar and Sea Food Shop in Argyll. The encounter, which lasted between a few minutes and two hours, depending who you believe, may or may not reshape the Labour Party. But the patch of Tarmac on the A83 north-west of Glasgow is sure to see more visitors this summer.

Some car parks - especially those in the south-western US - should be on every traveller's list. The top storey of the parking lot at McCarran airport in Las Vegas has superb views across the world's most absurd cityscape. Across two state frontiers in New Mexico, you will find it tricky to spot a downtown parking lot in the capital, Santa Fe. Planning rules insist that car parks are clad in adobe, to merge with the city's prevailing architectural style. And if ever you plan to motor west and get your kicks on Route 66, you will find that the "Mother Road" ends ignominiously in the Californian resort of Santa Monica at the Pier Deck Parking Lot ($8 a day, in case you wondered).

Europe's most attractive car park is a mile high in the French Pyrenees, at the northern end of the Puymorens tunnel. You could pause here to marvel at the towering peaks and dramatic valleys. But from bitter experience last weekend, I can confirm that few motorists take the free parking opportunity. Most swerve off to the west to stock up on cheap cigarettes at the Andorran ski resort-cum-duty-free shop of Pas de la Casa. The remainder barrel straight into the tunnel, declining to stop for hitch-hikers shivering in an unseasonal blizzard.

The converse of alluring car parks: towns and cities that were beautiful before they began to be disfigured by parked cars. Foix in south-west France was once a spectacular confusion of half-timbered and whole-stone dwellings huddled beneath a mystical castle. Today, the city is the scruffy venue for hundreds of badly parked cars.

Coventry has no such issues; it is a car park. After the city's wartime devastation, the planners decided to erase most of the remaining history. A graceless shopping and office centre rose from the ruins, with car parks on top. Many of these are linked by connecting roads.

At one stage in the Eighties, it was said that you could drive around the entire West Midlands city at roof level, an activity about as exciting as touring the world's largest car park in Edmonton, which could be described as Canada's answer to Coventry.

BRITAIN'S MOST EXPENSIVE CAR PARK?

The lanes car park in Brighton, close to Palace Pier, is owned and operated by the city council. The Thistle Hotel rents space in it, and has a separate entrance marked "Hotel Residents Only". Alastair McCormick, a cameraman, unwittingly used this entrance when he arrived in the city late one night; he was working for the BBC, and therefore staying somewhere cheaper than the Thistle. Non-residents face a parking charge of £50 for 24 hours. Once Mr McCormick had parked, he realised his mistake and raced to the hotel's reception desk. Could he be allowed out in order to approach the car park through the right gate, which would cut the cost of overnight parking to £15? Too late, he was told. So he left the vehicle, and set off to find his cheap digs, knowing the car's overnight stay was costing significantly more than his.

Martin Vincent, operations manager for the Thistle, says the hotel usually allows motorists who have inadvertently strayed into the wrong car park entrance to leave within 20 minutes without paying the charge, and has gracefully offered Mr McCormick a refund.

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