Germany: Test the endless autobahn

By Diana Plater

Germany drives home its rich automobile history, writes Diana Plater.

Germany has 12,700km or more of autobahn.
Germany has 12,700km or more of autobahn.

We're hurtling along the left lane of the autobahn at 140km/h and I notice I'm being flashed by car lights from behind.

I pull across to the middle lane to let the driver pass. I know the rules. If you're not going fast enough, get the hell out of the way.

The car that passes us could easily have been doing 200km/h, but that's okay; some German autobahn have no speed limits, although many are lobbying for a change to that situation.

But be careful - 130km/h is the recommended top speed on most autobahn, and unmarked police cars and automated roadside radar/photo devices are ready and waiting to take photos if you go over the speed signs.

Germany has one of the densest road networks in the world, with 12,700km or more of autobahn. There are also scores of minor roads and scenic routes to take, such as the Half-Timbered Houses Route, the Avenues Route and the Fairytale Route, through picturesque villages and landscapes.

I have picked up my rental Mercedes-Benz from Budget in Stuttgart in the south and driven to Frankfurt airport to pick up my niece, who is fluent in German.

Sweat covers the steering wheel after weaving in and out of trucks and other vehicles, but I have made it in reasonable time without the use of the GPS (known as Navi here, which I find even more complicated than autobahns).

Thank God for clever nieces. She has it working in no time and we nickname it Frau, who is pretty good, if not perfect, at suggesting alternative routes to construction delays and traffic jams.

Stuttgart, where motorised vehicles were invented more than 125 years ago, is the city to start a driving tour of Germany.

Wonderful museums explain this history, including the Mercedes-Benz Museum and the Porsche Museum, displaying everything from vintage vehicles to racing cars.

Gottlieb Daimler and Wilhelm Maybach developed the first lightweight, fast-running petrol engine in 1885.

Very soon after, in January 1886, Carl Benz registered a patent for a three-wheeled carriage, calling it a "vehicle driven by a gas engine".

At first it was referred to as a "horseless carriage". It wasn't until August 1888 when Benz's wife, Bertha, and her sons took the first long-distance journey by car from Mannheim to Pforzheim, that amazed onlookers began to realise the importance of a self-powered vehicle.

Twelve years later, in 1900, at Daimler-Motoren-Gesellschaft in Stuttgart, the first modern automobile was created.

It was named Mercedes after the 10-year-old daughter of Emile Jellinek, who had initiated the development of the car.

The whole story of the company is on display at the Mercedes-Benz Museum, which doesn't hide its role in Nazism and World War II: Hitler was fond of being driven in them.

Germans might think they are the best drivers in the world, but safety is also stressed.

And while public transport in Germany, particularly trains, is fabulous there's no alternative to having the freedom to explore in your own car.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Singapore Airlines flies daily from Auckland to Germany via Singapore.

Getting around: When not driving, Berlin WelcomeCards are a handy way to use public transport.

Accommodation: Some good hotels to stay in while driving in Germany include: in Kassel, Hotel Gude; in Bremen, Ringhotel Munte; and in Berlin, The Hollywood Media Hotel.

Further information: See germany.travel.

Tips for driving on the autobahn:

Drive like a good German driver.

Be alert and stick to less than 130km/h where possible.

Never overtake on the right. You must move into a left lane to pass (unless in a traffic jam). Always check your left side-view mirror and your blind spots before you overtake, and then head straight back to the slower lane. Be aware of flashing lights and fast cars coming up behind you. And always use your indicator.

If there's not much traffic, locals expect you to be in the far right lane, not the middle lane.

Take regular breaks. The autobahn has rest stops (Raststätten) with petrol stations, restaurants, picnic tables and toilets.

Don't forget a good map.

The writer travelled as a guest of Germany Travel, Visit Berlin and Singapore Airlines.

- AAP

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