There are people who go to Germany just to drive on an autobahn. Specifically, to drive fast on an autobahn. Very, very fast.
Some are drawn by the myth that there are no speed limits on German motorways. Others, perhaps, have mistranslated the old Kraftwerk song with its refrain, “Wir fahr’n fahr’n fahr’n auf der autobahn”, anglicising it into a Beach Boys-like “fun, fun, fun”, when its accurate meaning is the more pedestrian: “We drive, drive, drive on the motorway.”
Which is not to say you can’t rent a piece of European automotive excellence and propel yourself at a most un-Australian velocity on stretches of equally well-crafted roadway. The Porsche that only a few seconds ago was a speck in your mirror and is fast disappearing ahead of you is confronting proof of that.
Know your limits
There are speed limits – often a bewildering, ever-changing array of them – on the autobahns and they are rigorously enforced by police in unmarked cars and by traffic cameras. But there are stretches (signified by a black circle slashed diagonally with five narrow stripes) where it is not verboten to put pedal to metal.
(Note, too, that the more common blue-and-white tempo limit sign for 130km/h is a “suggested” or “recommended” speed, one that is often ignored.)
And good German drivers – plus the majority who merely think they are good drivers – revel in the freedom. It can be deflating for a slightly intimidated Australian visitor, tootling along at 140km/h, to be blown away, not just by a Merc or Beemer but by, say, a battered delivery van.
But having spent a few weeks navigating the varied roads of southern Germany, can I tell you that for the uninitiated and un-researched it is not always fun, fun, fun. It requires levels of awareness and concentration that can be draining, but careful observation will reveal a well-practised code of autobahn etiquette (or survival skills) that help to make the experience much more enjoyable.
In essence, do as they do.
Follow the locals
Whenever possible, keep to the right lane. That’s not always easy; it’s usually jam-packed with lumbering trucks. When you need to overtake – usually those trucks – the German way is to get out and very quickly get back in. In fact, it can be disconcerting to see how narrow a comfort zone the locals leave when cutting back in front of you.
On the subject of overtaking, it’s always to the left. It is illegal in Germany to pass a vehicle on the right, other than in exceptional circumstances such as verkehrsstaus (traffic jams, of which there are plenty).
This means making friends with your left-side mirror, double-checking what’s coming from behind. It’s frightening how suddenly something barely in sight just a few seconds earlier can be upon you.
Interestingly, there seems little in the way of road rage. If you’re out in the left lane too long, you might be subject to what an acquaintance called lichtupe: “light honking”, the flashing of high-beams or – worse – a look of contemptuous disdain as your momentarily inconvenienced fellow road-user accelerates past.
But perhaps the best advice I can give is, where possible, get far, far, far from the autobahn.
Roads less travelled
The 13,000 kilometres or so of German autobahn are designed to funnel the maximum amount of traffic from city to city as quickly and efficiently as possible. As such, large swathes of them are hardly scenic routes. And even in the prettier stretches it’s better – and life-preserving – to keep your eyes on the road and the surrounding thousands of other vehicles.
It’s far more liberating to take narrower, slower and more relaxed country roads (the standard of which still puts many Australian freeways to shame).
For instance, turn west off the A95 south of Munich and your mind and spirit suddenly and palpably clear like the crisp alpine skies. The snow-capped Bavarian Alps rear up to your left, there are deep blue lakes on the right and the road pleasantly meanders along through meadows, forest and farmland.
Castles in the air
Take your time to Schloss Neuschwanstein, eccentric Ludwig II’s precipitous, Disney-esque folly with vistas sweeping north across the Forggensee lake and south into Austria.
If the A7 beckons next morning, resist. Instead, slip onto the 310 and 308 and dawdle through mountain valleys and passes and little towns such as Nesselwang, Bad Hindelang, and Oberstaufen to the vast and impressive lake, the Bodensee.
There are other beautiful drives hiding between the motorways.
Take a day among the hairpin bends, fir and spruce forests, springs and waterfalls of the Schwarzwald, or Black Forest; twist and turn alongside the Mosel, overlooked by fortresses and vineyards tumbling down the slopes on either side of the river; or tour the wasserburgen, or moated castles, of Munsterland.
Off those autobahn you have all the time, freedom – and inclination – to stop and smell the edelweiss.
An International Driving Permit is strongly recommended if you hire a car in Germany, as it provides an authorised translation of your Australian driver licence and is a useful form of ID. They’re only available from RACV.
Combine a German driving holiday with a European river cruise. Get details on the 5 per cent RACV member saving at racv.com.au/cruisesandtours or call 1300 850 884.
Save on all sorts of products for your overseas holiday at RACV, from maps and guides to the all-important travel insurance. Go to racv.com.au/travel or visit any RACV shop.