I always thought that weekend jaunts to Europe were reserved for nitro-fueled rock stars, self-destructive offspring of industrial billionaires, and diamond merchants (like this guy).
Sadly, I don’t find myself falling into any of those categories these days.
Yet here we are, shuffling through security at Dulles International on a muggy July afternoon, bound for Western Germany’s Rhineland and a flat-out, 4-day automotive-nirvana, including Formula 1 at the Nurburgring, hot laps (in a rental car) on the legendary Nordschleife, and high-speed autobahn barnstorming.
On the excursion is my 17 year old son Derek, a lifelong racing fan who just graduated high school and is headed to study engineering at Lehigh University in the Fall. My father is aboard as well, himself a former sports car racer, and the one who’s responsible for implanting the motorsports bug in yours truly, pretty much at birth.
Three generations of speed freaks, jetting off to the birthplace of internal combustion. Um, Hell yeah.
The flight is an overnighter, and since it’s easier to teach trees to sing than it is to sleep in coach, we watch in-flight movies instead, drink bad airline coffee and stare at the black Atlantic below.
We land in Frankfurt, and blow thru customs like the wind. Hit our first (and very rare) batch of Teutonic attitude at the Avis counter, when their customer service rep completely ignores us, chatting nonchalantly with a co-worker, then argues about the validity of the reservation confirmation I have in my hand. Grampa vehemently opposes the tiny Citroen subcompact they’re thrusting upon us, and we end up in an Audi A4 diesel wagon with the S-Line trim package that’s slick, sturdy, and comfy, yet has roughly the same acceleration rate as an insurance seminar ($151.00 US per day, plus tax. Note: tiny Euro hatch was over $100 per day on its own).
The Audi has built-in navi, but it’s nearly impossible to figure out, and even more difficult to comprehend once we do. Luckily I’d also brought along my Tom Tom, and spent the $30 to download Germany before we left. This is a gift from the Gods. While Tom works marginally at best in the States, here in Deustchland it’s a native tour guide, with knowledge of every alley, speed limit, and shortcut. Beauty.
We head west, out of the city into a light gray morning mist on the A66 autobahn, and I fall in love with Germany’s focused, purposeful, no-bullshit driving style immediately. No cell phoners, no left lane blockers, zero meatheads.
A few miles into the countryside, we hit our first free-speed zone. I coax the Audi up to 180 kph (about 110 miles an hour), and we move freely with the traffic, faster than the trucks and sub-compacts on our right, yet still watching 4-door luxo sedans and sports cars powering by on our left at regular intervals. The Audi’s 0-60 time may be measured in minutes, but once at speed it feels very sure-footed and capable, with no drama. Outside, lush green countryside flashes by that looks a whole lot like Pennsylvania.
We reach the tiny hamlet of Nurburg, not far from the Belgian border in the Eifel Mountains. It’s a classic German village surrounded by Hansel and Gretel-bait pine forests, with the obligatory castle at the top of the nearest hill, and home to one of the planet’s premier motorsports complexes. Nurburg is absolutely oozing with racing goodness, from the BMW Motorsports training facility in the center of town, to flags and engine sounds and classic racing signage everywhere. Their official year-round population is 159, yet on Sunday’s F1 race day Nurburg will swell to more than 400,000, arriving from all corners of the globe.
They’ve been racing here for nearly eight decades, first on the famed Nordschleife (North Loop), a notoriously difficult, 170+ turn, 12.9 mile course that blasts wildly through the countryside, past farms, forests, fields, and villages. Nordschliefe was nicknamed the “Green Hell” by former world champion Jackie Stewart, and was finally deemed too dangerous and closed to Grand Prix racing after Niki Lauda’s fiery crash in 1976. A few years later, a new 3.2 mile Nurburging circuit was constructed on an adjacent stretch of land, and F1 racing resumed.
These days, the historic long course still sees its share of sports car racing, and has also become THE proving ground for automobile manufacturers the world over, from Ford and Chevrolet, to Porsche, Cadillac, Nissan, and a host of others. You can even take your own street car out and run it at speed, merely by signing up and paying per lap (more on that later).
It’s still misting and cloudy, temp in the low 60s. Yet, in true, travel-mensa fashion, I’m in t-shirt, shorts, and flops. It was 97 degrees when we left DC, but somehow it didn’t occur to me that where we were going was somewhat more north (further north than Montreal, actually). Duh. I’m wondering how many Europeans are playing “Spot the American Idiot” right now.
We enter the supremely shiny, high-tech complex, and find dry seats under an overhang at the end of the front straight. The F1s are just coming out for practice, and it’s our first chance to see the fastest road-racing cars on the planet driven by the likes of Sebastian Vettel, Fernando Alonso, Jenson Button, Lewis Hamilton, and a bunch of other mega-celeb athletes that most Americans have never heard of. The sight is amazing, but the sound is even better: a 12,000 rpm wailing whoop that’s both pulverizing and magnificent, and giving me rampant goosebumps. It takes me a few minutes to regain the ability to form coherent words.
Lunchtime. We hit up one of approximately 130,000 food stands for some bratwursts mit (with) mustard and pommes frites (french fries) mit ketchup. Most of the folks around us are getting THEIR pommes frites mit mayo, Pulp Fiction-style. And instead of using our fingers for the fries, they give us this nifty little plastic fork thing for stabbing. Brats are pretty damned good. Fries are meh. Euro ketchup doesn’t help. Still, you gotta love a country where beer is cheaper than Coca Cola, especially at a sporting event. Since I’m driving, I grab free bottled water from a sponsor display (Well, I think they’re free!)
Instead of paying with cash, we’re forced to use a ‘Ring Card’, which is handed to us while standing in line by a semi-hot German blonde. There’s a bit of a communication barrier, but soon I pick up that it’s basically like a debit card that we use cash or credit card to add points to, in order to buy stuff. She does the whole transaction electronically from a cool little box-thingy in her hand–another example of German efficiency.
Having a blast, but the temp is dropping, and we’re starting to turn blue. So we head back to the car to go track down our hotel. While walking along the main street in town, I’m using my hands to describe something and accidentally pop a guy behind me in the head like a spastic oaf. Now, back in Daytona or Talledega, we’d probably have been instantly throwing elbows, even WITH my quick apology. But in Germany, he simply shrugs it off with a smile, and we shake hands and move along, thus avoiding an international incident.
En route to hotel. Mrs. Bunny spent several weeks making our travel arrangements for us, and as usual, they’re stellar. Same with Tom Tom’s guidance.
We pop off the highway and enter an absolutely mind-blowing stretch of narrow, winding, two-lane Euro roadway. We’re dropping down the mountain to the ancient town of Boppard, and the asphalt, dips, weaves and curls before us, switchback turns and S-curves aplenty. I’m pushing the Audi pretty well, the all-wheel-drive and 6-speed manual gearbox assisting are great allies (fact: many cars in Germany are still stick shift, mainly because they know how to drive), and we’re all “ooh”ing and “wow”ing and grinning like mental patients. The road has a beautiful, artful appearance, from the brick underpass for the train tracks, to the expansive view of the Rhine River Valley down there that’s at times devoid of guardrails.
A few minutes later, we touch bottom and enter Boppard. It’s so perfect, it’s almost stereotypical. I’m convinced that Pinocchio has a summer cottage here.
We slip through a maze of tiny streets and even tinier alleys, hang a left, and find ourselves on the Rhine Allee, a line of beautiful old inns, hotels, and biergartens to our left, the Rhine’s black water and strong current there on the right. The sun is finally shining, and there’s people everywhere.
We find the Hotel Bellevue Rheinhotel, ($174.00 per night US, with breakfast buffet) an elegant grand old lady built in 1887, and now strangely part of the Best Western chain. They’re expecting us, and before we can even say “David Hasselhoff” we’re checked in and warmly whisked off to a clean, modern 3rd floor semi-suite with three beds, full private bath (not a given over here), massive TV, wet bar, and river-view balcony.
Grampa and I go back out to move the car (no hotel parking, all street. Hate that, but also expected it). Just like most US metropolitan areas these days, the meters are history and we need to instead buy a time ticket to stick in the windshield.
Simple, right? Uh….no.
Oh, the machine is easy enough to locate. But in a country that has so far had English printed as a second language everywhere we look, and here in a popular tourist town, the parking machine is an alien contraption, completely non-intuitive, and with instructions only in German. AND it doesn’t take credit cards. First passerby we flag down is French (just our luck). Pierre tries using hand gestures to explain the machine, then gets annoyed and stomps off when we don’t understand. Next passerby is a woman who simply continues to pass us by. Finally, an older gent sees us struggling, hustles over, and mercifully explains what is a ridiculously complicated process. When I tell him thanks, he laughs heartily and strides off, presumably in search of more good deeds to perform.
Checked in, unpacked, showered, dressed, quick call to Mrs. Bunny to let her know we made it… now I have but one thing on my mind: beer.
I’m talking REAL German beer, not the hack-kneed factory seconds they import to the States. See, with the country’s strict beer purity law, the grog you’re served is ultra-fresh and 100% preservative-free, and almost always from a brewery that’s not more than 10-15 kilometers from where you’re ordering it.
We head down to the ornate, wood-paneled lobby bar (it’s empty), and take a seat at the rail. Our bartender is Marco; he’s Italian, but his English is pretty good, and he’s an F1 fan. We ask for his recommendation, and Marco brings us cold Bitburger pilsners from the nearby town of–you guessed it–Bitburg.
Derek is pleasantly astounded to be legally served a cold draft from a smiling bartender who’s not asking to see ID, (legal drinking age for beer is 16) but it doesn’t stop him from digging in like a sauce king. It’s soooo good; well-balanced, light, and full of flavor. One soon becomes three.
We’re chatting with Marco about the weekend’s upcoming race, and then he asks what part of England we’re from. We’re stunned at first, but then it makes sense. Boppard sees more than its fair share of British tourists on a regular basis, and since English isn’t his native language, Marco can no more hear the difference between the England and USA accents than the average American can discern Barcelona Spanish from Argentinian Spanish.
Once Marco learns we’re from the US, he starts peppering us with “what’s it like over there?” questions. Grampa and I are giving him the 411 as Derek signals for another beer.
It’s been a loooooong day, one that actually started 30 hours and more than 3,000 miles ago. We’re hungry, but have neither the remaining energy nor the inclination to hit the streets in search of a restaurant, so we lazily grab a table on the front deck of our hotel, and dine from their menu.
The Rhine stretches before us across the one way street, with small mountains behind it that are adorned with grapevine terraces on the steep slopes, a reminder that this is Reisling country. There’s some interesting offerings on the menu (just what in the hell IS Weiner Art anyway? Sounds like something by Mapplethorpe). We order schnitzels and soup, and dig in. Derek gets lost en route to the bathroom, due to beers, exhaustion, or both.
As we’re waiting on our food, a colorful line of classic sports cars is forming down the street in front of us. MGs, Triumphs, Morgans, Austin Healeys, old Porsches, Renaults, even a Mustang, all with competition numbers on their sides. We head over for a closer look, and find out that they’re in the Berlin to Rome Classic Road Rally, and Boppard is an overnight checkpoint. Nice.
After dinner, exhaustion hits us like a runaway refrigerator truck. I actually doze off while still sitting at our table.
What a day. And tomorrow will be even better.