Fun, fun, fun on the autobahn
Germany’s roadways offer the ultimate high-speed driving experience From Fawlty Towers to ‘Allo, ‘Allo!, we have a rich history of making fun of the Germans. If 1970s and 80s sitcoms are to be believed, they’re earnest, serious, ever-so-slightly humourless. Most of all, they like making rules and following them.
The autobahn cuts right through the stereotypes. Limitless speed. Unbridled acceleration. As a symbol of Germanness it’s refreshingly at odds with the qualities listed above. Us Brits can call the Germans uptight all we like – they’re unlikely to hear us over the sound of their exhaust as they disappear over the horizon at 150mph.
It was this prospect of no-holds-barred driving that inspired me to organise a road trip through Germany, traversing some of the country’s 7,982 miles of motorway, travelling from city to city – and five star hotel to five star hotel – in a proper German super-car. I plumped for a Porsche 911 Carrera, which I picked up in the most German city of all: Munich.
It’s a place known for luring stag dos with the promise of larger-thannormal receptacles for drinking beer and buxom women in traditional Dirndl dresses. I couldn’t leave the city without sampling the former so I sought out a traditional beer hall where I ordered an obscenely large glass of pilsner and a plate of pork knuckle with potato dumplings. German food has the colour scheme of a leather shop and probably a similar nutritional value. It will never rank among the world’s finest cuisines, but I was grateful for some stodge to soak up the beer; I didn’t fancy facing my first autobahn with a hangover.
I was nervous. It all seemed so romantic back in England, but suddenly the prospect of careening down a foreign motorway at 130mph, hemmed in by a sleep-deprived trucker on the last leg of a 32-hour shipment of metal brackets from Magnitogorsk to Dortmund, seemed terrifying. This nervousness amounted to some relatively timid driving when I eventually set off. It’s not just supercars that hurtle down the autobahn at breakneck speed. Lorries, campervans, estates, even hatchbacks with old ladies at the helm; everyone’s at it. You don’t know true emasculation until you’ve been overtaken in a Porsche by an Opel people carrier with a 12-yearold in the back sticking his middle finger up at you.
I soon acclimatised, though, and after about 45 minutes I got the dial up to 130mph. Exhilarating stuff. Porsche and the autobahn. Two of German engineering’s greatest achievements working together in noisy harmony. And I mean noisy. A mere caress of the accelerator sent the car growling through Bavaria. The further from Munich I drove, the emptier the road became until I was virtually alone. I had infinite acceleration primed beneath my foot, but I lost my nerve at around 150mph, the deafening roar of the engine proving beyond doubt that, although travelling faster than I’d ever been before, I hadn’t quite penetrated the sound barrier.
Sounds fast, right? But after a while it stops feeling it. When you’re speeding along in a straight line and other cars around you are doing the same, you soon lose a sense of the velocity. Speed, in and of itself, doesn’t exhilarate for very long. The thrill is sustained by a magic ingredient: danger. And the autobahn isn’t very dangerous; far less so than its American or French equivalents (although not as safe as our UK roads). And pondering this as I drove along the seemingly endless expanse of concrete, I realised that the autobahn isn’t about exhilaration at all, nor some American ideal of the open road. For a fairly big country with many different centres, maximally fast automotive travel is actually very sensible. The freewheeling autobahn isn’t an anomaly in an otherwise rulebound, bureaucratic culture – it’s the very means by which this culture speedily goes about its business. In other words, fast isn’t thrilling, it’s efficient.
Frankfurt – the biggest financial centre on mainland Europe – is where money happens in Germany. Accordingly, Rocco Forte’s Villa Kennedy is the most luxurious hotel I’ve ever set foot in. The food at the restaurant is Michelin-star quality, the rooms are palatial and service is impeccable, bordering on obsequious. When I called reception and asked for a plug adaptor to be brought to my room, a butler brought it up on a silver platter. If you’ve never seen a perfunctory white good like a European-English plug adaptor on a silver platter then you’ll have to take my word for it: it’s an amusing sight.
After a deep sleep filled with dreams of receding streetlights, I embarked on the final leg of my journey. According to the man from Elite Rent-A-Car – who, along with Rocco Forte Hotels, had facilitated my road trip – the countryside between Frankfurt and Berlin is Grimm country. After lots of monotonous driving through samey countryside I was looking forward to zipping the Porsche around the fairytale world of Hansel, Gretel and Rumpelstiltskin. However the sat-nav kept us stuck to the autobahn. I could be wrong but I don’t remember anyone leaving a trail of bread crumbs down a long, straight stretch of tarmac.
Eventually I switched the damn thing off, taking the Porsche off-piste to test it on some country bends. The maze fields on the outskirts of Magdeburg provided the best driving of the trip. You don’t need to break the land-speed record to get the best out of a Porsche. Its low centre of gravity and ultra-responsive steering mean it’s most fun when swinging round rural roads at 60mph. In some ways, the elegance of a car like the 911 is wasted on the uncompromising industrialism of the autobahn. I stuck to the back roads all the way to Potsdam before moving on to Berlin.
It was still light, so after checking in at the Hotel de Rome (right in the centre of town and overlooking the Berlin State Opera) I headed down to Görlitzer Strasse for a Turkish meze and pilsners in the park. Berlin’s blend of high culture and hedonism feels a thousand miles from Germany’s car-loving industrial heartlands. For a city so steeped in history it is miraculously unconstrained by tradition. Perhaps because it’s been destroyed so many times, Berlin – more than anywhere else in Europe – feels like a city that belongs to the young.
It’s hard to gauge what kind of future this new generation of Germans has in store for their country’s famous road system. In the 70s the motorists’ lobby group Allgemeiner Deutscher Automobil-Club (ADAC), came up with a slogan that has more or less stuck: “Freie Fahrt für freie Bürger”, roughly translating to “free driving for free citizens”. For a nation all too familiar with authoritarian government, freedom of movement and freedom on the roads has always meant more than simply permission to drive fast. But the green movement is gathering momentum. Germans are facing up to the fundamental incompatibility of two of their great loves: driving very fast in a straight line and the environment. The SDP, the opposition to Angela Merkel’s ruling Christian Democratic Union, plans to eventually phase out the limitless speed zones.
Even if the long term future looks bleak for speedlimitless driving, it’s unlikely to be scrapped while the vast majority of Germans support it so vehemently. Last year Angela Merkel’s transport minister Peter Ramsauer made a promise: “There won’t be a general speed limit on Germany’s highways under my rule”. For now at least, the autobahn as we know it is going nowhere. Fast.
The tour, in partnership with Elite Rent-a-Car is available all year round and includes overnight accommodation at all three Rocco Forte Hotels. To book or for more information, contact Elite Rent-A-Car on T: +41 (0) 22 909 87 87 or visit eliterent.com Prices are available on request.