The Nürburgring is to motor racing what Dolly Parton is to country music: Well established, adored by a legion of devoted fans – plus a few others who have come off second best, and trademarked by torturous man-made curves across undulating topography. Ever since its inception in the 1920’s, outside of racing events this legendary track through the forest of the Eifel hills has been available to the public as a one-way toll road. Over the years of reconfigurations and safety improvements, nowadays it is the 20km Nordschleife (North Loop) section that is open (of which the current Formula One circuit is not a part – though for a separate fee that too was open to the public the day we were here).
My mate Hoges was on an overseas work assignment in Germany for a few weeks and, being a huge petrol head, driving the Nürburgring was high up on his list of things to do before he died. There was no way I wasn’t going to come up from Switzerland and join him, though after just seeing many You Tube clips of regular drivers going beyond their limits on the tricky curves and coming a cropper into the Armco railing, I was just hoping it wouldn’t be the very last thing I did before I died.
Fortunately one of my fears had been allayed even as we left Frankfurt early in the morning – the weather was perfect, dry and sunny (outstanding for this part of the world in early November). But though we arrived only 20 minutes after the Nordschleife opened, the vast array of hotted up BMWs and Audis and a fair few Porsches (not to mention some other more exotic pieces besides) we watched entering onto the track meant we were both highly uncomfortable doing likewise in the diesel Ford S-Max hire car I had for the weekend. That hesitation was solved by heading up the road into Nürburg proper and, in the shadow of the castle that gives the village its name, stopping into one of the companies who offer cars for the very purpose of joyriding around the Ring.
Without a booking in advance we were very lucky, as all their cars were solidly pre-reserved with the sole exception of a right-hand drive Suzuki Swift. Though that sounds on first mention as even more of a slow-coach safety obstacle than my hire car, it did boast semi-slick tyres, a full roll cage and a completely stripped-out interior with the exception of two racing seats with harnesses.
With Hoges having all the experience on a track compared to me, he took the driver’s seat for the first two laps and I was quite happily the passenger before we switched over for the last two. Though Hoges was comfortably able to get the modified Swift to 200 km/h at one point, it was still considerably lacking in power in a straight line than every other motorised brute on the Ring, but that wasn’t a disappointment – the Nordschleife is not exactly stacked with straights. It’s the torturous corners that make it such a challenging course, and going into those the Swift was incredibly nimble and stuck to the road like bubble gum to hair (now there’s an analogy learnt from a painful childhood lesson). It was a brilliant experience, but it felt like it was over far too quickly despite the fact we’d covered a distance of 80km over the four laps. We’d have both loved to have kept going for a lot longer, but this is not an activity that is kind on the hip pocket.
Back in the sensible hire car and on the regular road network, we had a few hours of daylight left after lunch to make the most of. One option was the Rhine river to the east – the hilltop castles along it are a deservedly popular spot with international tourists for scenic drives and river cruises, and I’d been very impressed by it on my first ever trip to Europe a decade ago. However, in the middle of this year I’d also discovered a similar attraction along the Moselle River not too far to the south of Nürburg, and it was here I wanted to show off to Hoges.
The ultra-sweet Riesling from the Moselle may be somewhat maligned by snooty wine buffs, but I doubt anyone can so easily scoff at how picturesque the growing area of those green grapes is. Back in June the quaint villages, steep vineyards, peak-perched castles and quiet roads co-existing with cyclists all along the narrow Moselle valley had felt more intimate than the broader and much busier Rhine I went on to re-visit later that same day. And noticing that all the caravans and campervans that filled the many riverside campgrounds back in the summer had German number plates, I assumed the Moselle seemed popular with overwhelmingly domestic tourists. I felt quite lucky then to have stumbled on an insider’s spot away from the steady stream of foreign coach tours along the Rhine, and now only a few months later I was keen to see how it compared in late autumn.
We stopped first at the Burg Eltz which, while tucked away in countryside well above and behind the Moselle, is still undoubtedly the most impressive of the area’s castles that I’ve seen. German economic stimulus funds were being used to restore the exterior on two sides, meaning the scaffolding that had hidden the castle’s full glamour from me when I was here in the summer were still in place now in November. I had thought this government funding was pretty generous considering the castle is still a private residence for three different families, and I wondered how I could get German taxpayers to help support my own lavish lifestyle. But evidently I’m not the first foreigner to get on the act – currently it seems some in Greece have been taking advantage of this little scam for years. Given that from the looks of it not much has progressed in the restoration of Burg Eltz in the last four or five months, perhaps the funds earmarked for work here really have been urgently diverted to join the flood of German money fruitlessly trying to bail Greece out of its spending excesses.
From the Eltz it was down to the Moselle River proper, where the cruise boats and small power cruisers that packed the water in summer had disappeared. The only life on the river now was an occasional long cargo barge, so for the first time I saw this stretch of water take on a more glassy appearance, clearly reflecting the late autumn colours of the hillsides.
Most village hotels and campgrounds we drove past had closed for the season, though below the imperial castle of Cochem there was some rocking live oom-pah-pah music radiating out from a big white marquee set between traditional half-timbered buildings in the town centre. With the light fading we chose not to stick around for the party and managed to follow the river upstream, past steep vineyards curling up for winter, and on to the similarly attractive town of Zell before night fell.
A couple of hours later we were back in Frankfurt. I’ve not spent a great deal of time here, but I have read in tourist circles that Europe’s financial powerhouse cops some stick for being dead and dull outside of business hours. Evidently no-one has told the people of Frankfurt that, because on this mild Saturday night the city centre was heaving. In the Hauptwache it was the opening night of Japan Week – official motto “Celebrating 150 years of friendly relations between Germany and Japan”, unofficial motto “70 years ago we were bullies with no other friends”. Crowds milled around lots of Japanese food stalls – though there was also plenty of German beer, wine and pork to appease local tastes. There was live karaoke for daring members of the public (set up on a generously large and professional stage given the mediocrity of the performances), and later, a fire-breathing show. I’m still trying to work out what the fire-breathing had to with friendly Japanese-German relations, but the crowd seemed to like it nonetheless.
The other big crowd-puller was the Occupy movement, who had been encamped in a mini tent city in a park outside the European Central Bank for a few weeks, and where a band were putting on a set of heavy guitar and screaming vocals as we walked past. It’s been interesting watching this phenomenon spread from New York to other major financial centres and, though it’s unclear what the specific aims of the protests are, I’m not unsympathetic towards the general sentiment. Though it was more than a little ironic to see the gaggle of food and drink stands lining the park, all clambering to profit from the subsistence needs of a determined group protesting financial greed. Maybe Greece had taken all their German economic stimulus money too.
If Nürburg has motor racing pedigree, that is in large part only because of the automotive manufacturing lineage of Stuttgart. Hoges and I, along with a couple of his colleagues, left Frankfurt very early for a day in Germany’s “cradle of the automobile”.
We first visited the Mercedes-Benz Museum as part of the Daimler headquarters in Untertürkheim, before moving on to the Porsche Museum just across from their head office in Zuffenhausen. I didn’t grow up idolising either make (my dream cars were always Italian), but if someone were to give me a Merc or a Porsche for free I wouldn’t say no, so I was interested enough to see their displays. Both museums are housed in new and architecturally striking buildings, though just as the two manufacturers are very different, so too are the contents of their exhibitions.
Over at Mercedes-Benz, the separate works of Messrs Benz and Daimler are on show starting right back at the dawn of the motorised carriage in the 1880’s. As well as the expected walk through time along permanent displays of road cars and racers, the Mercedes museum also showcased a wide range of buses, trucks, emergency vehicles, limousines and a bunch of other utility vehicles used through the decades. But what really made this museum work for me was the contextual information presented throughout – an honest, sometimes blunt, account of how the manufacturer’s fortunes have risen and fallen in comparison to the wider social situation in Germany. From the merger of Daimler Motors and Benz and Company necessitated by economic uncertainty and hyperinflation after the First World War, to the ready co-operation with the Nazi regime and acknowledged use of forced labour in the Second. The real danger of the Daimler company dissolution immediately after World War II – which was avoided only due to the awarding of maintenance contracts by the occupying Allies to service their military vehicles – which led to massive growth of the Mercedes-Benz brand during the post-war economic boom in West Germany. To today’s rise of new competitors in Asia and beyond and flagging fortunes of traditional markets – including the 1999 merger (and subsequent de-merger in 2007) between Daimler and American manufacturer Chrysler, and looking to the next safety improvements and fuel alternatives of tomorrow. The Mercedes Museum was staggeringly impressive.
By contrast, the Porsche Museum was really just a collection of sports cars – which is great if you love Porsches. Before we entered, one of Hoges’ colleagues had joked there only needed to be one exhibit on show, with the 911 and its variations all looking the same. He was only half wrong. After the Austrian engineer Ferdinand Porsche had worked as a design consultant with Volkswagen for many years in the 1930’s and 1940’s, the very first sports car produced by the Porsche family in 1948 still bears a remarkable resemblance to almost all the later Porsche models that have followed it. We spent nowhere near as much time here, though what I did like about this museum compared to the fixed displays of Mercedes models, is that all 80 or so Porches appeared to be in working order and still driven regularly. There were a few empty spaces while the normal occupants were out competing in various events around the world, and others still wore the permit stickers of their most recent competitions – including a 1970’s racing coupe that had earlier in the year competed around my home state in the Targa Tasmania rally.
And in this sense the Porsche Museum complemented my weekend in Germany perfectly – the mighty Nürburgring, the scenic course through the Moselle Valley, the open speed zones of the autobahn network, my final drive from Stuttgart back to Switzerland via the twisting roads of the Black Forest – was to be reminded that cars are to be driven in order to be truly enjoyed, they’re not just to be looked at.