German Adventure
By James Salazar
Houston Chapter BMW CC A
(Article first appeared in the December 1997 issue)

Parked outside our hotel in Heidelberg, our 520i was a nice car but definitely underpowered for the autobahn (and Houston).
It was May of this year and we were somewhere over the Atlantic returning from a short vacation in England when I ran across an ad for a cruise through the Greek Isles. Of course, I started thinking about our next vacation. The Greek Isles were tempting but I wasn't sure if I could put up with being on a ship for a week (even with stops in various ports). After some consideration, a week of driving through Germany sounded much more interesting to me.

Our flight via Lufthansa took us from Houston to Dallas and then straight to Frankfurt, arriving around noon. At first, we had planned on doing some sightseeing in Frankfurt but everyone we talked to (especially our German friends) suggested we spend our time elsewhere. So, as soon as we arrived in Frankfurt, we picked up our rental car, a BMW 520i, and headed for Heidelberg.

Being October, we encountered some rain throughout most of our vacation. We were lucky in that it seemed to rain hard only when we were making our way on the autobahn, while the light sprinkles were reserved for when we were walking. Our first encounter with rain was on our run from Frankfurt to Heidelberg. While the car felt safe in the rain, it did feel pretty light at high speeds. Granted, the big car/small engine combination did not allow for too high of speed – at speeds over 180kph, the little engine felt like it was working hard (as it approached the redline).

I had never seen a Z1 in person until I stepped out of my hotel in Heidelberg and spotted this one. 
I suppose anyone who has been stuck behind a slow driver in the fast lane can appreciate why I looked forward to driving on the autobahn: slower cars stayed out of the fast lanes as much as they could and the faster cars limited their passing to the left lane AND they even signaled before changing lanes! (I know there are a lot of BMW drivers who rarely signal but I've always wondered whether turn signals come only as an option on Lexus.) I did see a faster car pass on the right but you can tell that this guy really struggled with his conscience in making the pass. But as much as I enjoyed driving the autobahn, I still prefer Italy's autostrada. I know that may come as a surprise to many of you but, I found that I could drive and maintain higher speeds in Italy. On the autobahn, you could find yourself cruising at 200kph in the fast lane (passing, of course) when you suddenly have to hit the brakes because a slower car just pulled into your lane to pass an even slower car. (Yes, you guessed it, they generally had more lanes in Italy.)

I had hoped to take a drive on the Nürburgring but I was unable because the track was being used for an endurance race. We stayed and watched the race and timed a few of the cars: imagine doing laps that take over 12 minutes to run on a track that has a straight about as long as our Texas World Speedway! I considered returning the next day to drive but I was there was going to be another race, this one was going to be on foot.

Driving in the rain at high speed really wasn't that big of a deal; the roads are so well kept that you very rarely had standing water to deal with and the drivers also rarely surprised you. If there is one thing that made me grip the steering wheel it would have to be strong cross-winds across bridges. Like landing an airplane in a strong cross-wind, if you're not paying attention, you may find yourself being blown across the road (or runway). Making things a little more challenging for me was having to deal with cross-winds when it was raining: I was coming up on a bridge and saw by the wind sock (yes, they actually have wind socks) that the cross-wind was strong and gusting. Even though I dropped my speed considerably before going across the bridge and was ready with the steering wheel, I still felt and noticed the car getting pushed a few feet across the wet bridge before I felt I had enough wind correction to keep the car going straight.

Of course not all of our driving was done on the autobahn - you miss out on a lot if you only travel via the autobahn. We took several smaller roads that led us through some of the best scenery I've seen. In fact, I got so tied up enjoying the road and the view that on our way to the Nürburgring, we missed our turn-off point and ended up making a big circle through the area. We did drive part of the time on the Romantic Road but found it too busy with traffic to be really enjoyable (and this is in October!). For our trip, my favorite drive would have to be the drive between Füssen to Garmisch. If you decide to see some of the castles just south of Munich, like Schloß Linderhof near Garmisch and Schloß Neuschwanstein near Füssen, the easiest route between the two castles will be the one that takes you south through Austria – you'll enjoy some twisty roads and great views of the Alps. And don't worry about border crossings on this route - some are not even attended and so, we did as every else and stopped at the line, checked to see if anyone came out and if not, we drove on.

In the interest of seeing as much as possible in the time we had, our driving was limited to Frankfurt-Heidelberg, Heidelberg-Nürburgring-Rothenburg, Rothenburg-Füssen-Garmisch-Munich and finally, touring the Linderhof and Neuschwanstein before dropping the car off at the train station in Munich. From Munich we took a night train to Berlin. I know that may not sound comfortable, but it actually was very comfortable. We purchased first class tickets which gave us a private compartment with bunk beds and our own private bath with shower. In the morning, you get a wake up call and are given the option of having breakfast served in your compartment or joining your fellow first class passengers in the breakfast car. The service is great and the trains are on time but if you get your ticket from your travel agent in the US be prepared: the Conductor and his crew had never seen a US ticket and were confused by it, first thinking we needed to buy a ticket and then confusing the date, thinking we were a day early boarding the train.

About 70 miles from Munich, Schloß Neuschwanstein is a must see. But, be prepared to hike and be sure to wear the proper shoes.
If there was one thing I could have done to make this trip more enjoyable it would have been learning the language. Actually, I looked into taking a German class (or even hanging out at Texas-German Autohaus to pick some German from Hans, Adolf and their German customers) but I'm always told that there are too many dialects to try to learn. That's not to say that we had trouble communicating, we actually got by quite nicely. But, there were times when knowing German would have been handy, like when we went to the Winter Garten.

I'm told that before the Wall went down, soldiers would escort tourists to the Brandenburg Gate. Now the police is on guard to keep the vendors at bay.

 Places Visited/Where We Stayed

Heidelberg - definitely worth a visit. We enjoyed touring Heidelberg Castle (the ruins of, that is) and the view of the city from there but I think we both enjoyed walking through Heidelberg even more.

Where we stayed: Hotel Hollander Hof. We had not planned on having such a great location but there we were: just of the River Neckar and on the entrance to Alte Brücke ("old bridge"). Just look for the bridge's twin towers and off to the side you'll find the hotel. Parking is about a five minute walk which can turn into a 20 minute walk if you're carrying a camera (lots of photo opportunities!).

Rothenburg - a walled city that has been beautifully restored after being damaged during W.W.II. Very picturesque with its narrow cobblestone streets lined with many shops. Very touristy but you have to expect that from such a beautiful little town. Given the old town is enclosed by a wall, there are only a few ways to get in and out of the city. If you try to find an alternate way out, like I did, you'll find yourself making lots of three point U-turns.

Where we stayed: Reichs-Küchenmeister. Has its own garage and, of course, it is centrally located – the town is very small, after all. To be more specific, it is near St. Jacobskirche. We had dinner and breakfast (in that order) at our hotel's restaurant and can say that it was very nice. (I've heard that their Weiner schnitzel is one of the best in Rothenburg.) 

Munich - worth the visit and not just because it's home to BMW. If you want to buy stuff, this is the place, especially for BMW stuff and beer steins.

Where we stayed: Platzl Hotel. Hotel and service was great and garage is convenient–under the hotel. Centrally located in "Munich's historic old town": close to Marienplatz, an easy stagger from Hofbräuhaus (about a block), Planet Hollywood (where there's always a 15 minute wait even when the place is half-empty) and just about everything else. Subway is also close.

One of my favorite attractions in Munich, the Glockenspiel. Be there at 11, 12 or 5pm to see the figures move - the whole thing will last about 10 minutes and is not over until the birdie sings. If you get a chance, be sure to dine at the Ratskellar (in the building's basement). You should dress appropiately for the Ratskellar but don't worry if you only brought your Hawiian shirt, go shopping at Wormland, a men's clothing that's close by (I picked up a Hugo Boss wool coat and top coat for 500 and something dollars - try getting that for less than $1000 at Saks! By the way, as long as we're talking about Hugo Boss, visit the Hugo Boss store in the Frankfurt airport for some more good deals.
Where we ate:
Hofbräuhaus: I am not really a beer drinker - actually, I am not beer drinker at all, but I had to at least taste it. Good food, live music and atmosphere. If you're a beer drinker, I'm sure you'll enjoy it.

Paulaner Metropolitan (in Marienplatz, across from the Glockenspiel): we had dinner here on our second night in Munich. Food and service was good, atmosphere was also very nice especially with the live music (light jazz versus traditional beer drinking music of the Hofbräuhaus).

Ratskeller (basement of the Glockenspiel): One of several great restaurants recommended by Bob Murphy. Try it and you'll love it. I enjoyed the food but I was more impressed by the restaurant itself and its size.

Places visited in and around Munich:
BMW Museum: I think what I enjoyed the most about the museum was the store although I wish it had more 2002 stuff. I liked the cars they had on display but I ended up disconnecting my headset at many of the videos. The interactive stuff is paced to go too slow and I ended walking away for lack of patience. I hadn't planned on touring the factory until I saw a sign showing were to start but then I was disappointed to find they were not doing tours.

Schloß Linderhof: About 60 miles south of Munich, this castle, for me anyway, is more impressive from the outside than from the inside. I thought it was pretty small - nice, but small.

Schloß Neuschwanstein, about 70 miles south of Munich (near Füssen): Now here is a castle - Disney even modeled his castle after it! Definitely worth visiting but be prepared for the hike up to the castle. (If you don't think you're up to it, you can always take a carriage ride.) For another view of the castle, follow the path from the castle to Marienbrücke (Mary's Bridge). 

Berlin - of all the places visited in Germany, Berlin would have to fall at the bottom of my list as a favorite. Don't get me wrong, I enjoyed Berlin and I was impressed to see how a city that was practically destroyed and divided by W.W.II has come back. If you want to go shopping, there's also plenty of that (if you're a shopper, be sure to stop in at Ka De We) and there are also plenty of historic buildings and sites to visit. What I didn't care for are all the ugly buildings that have been erected or are being erected, the graffiti and all the construction sites that cause you to make big detours. For me, it's kind of like Milan: I'm glad I went, but I'm not sure I'd make an effort to go back.

Hotel: The Savoy Hotel. Excellent service and location, walking distance to just about everything.

Winter Garten for dinner and a show. Food was ok. I had expected the show to be more like the Moulin Rouge in Paris where anyone can enjoy it (unless the site of a few topless women bothers you) regardless of language but I only managed to enjoy about half of the show. The other half was definitely good, judging by the laughs, but you really needed to speak German to enjoy it.

At one time the most famous border crossing in the world, the remains of Checkpoint Charlie are all but gone. Now, the name "Checkpoint Charlie" is being used by developers in selling office building and housing. If you find yourself in the area, visit the Museum Haus am Checkpoint Charlie. The museum chronicles the history of the Wall and the extreme people would go to escape.
Thanks to Bob Murphy and Hans Richter (of Texas-German Autohaus) who helped us prepare for our trip by giving us some great advice. And, by the way, if you're considering traveling to Germany, call Hans' sister-in-law, Bianca Reich of International Tours of Brookhollow (713-861-6133).