Simon Calder: No car trouble in the land of the Autobahn

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The Independent Travel

By Monday evening, you'll be fed up with people telling you where they were on 9 November 1989, the night the people of East Germany were finally allowed to travel to the West. So instead, let me tell you where I was on 10 November 1989: at the West German ambassador's residence in London's Belgrave Square.

When I say "at", I actually mean "outside". It was in the days when I had a proper job, as a sound engineer at the BBC. Part of the work involved driving the radio car. His Excellency Baron Dr Hermann von Richthofen (grand-nephew of the First World War "Red Baron") was called upon for interview by Radio 4's Today programme. And I was despatched to drive the converted London taxi to the handsome official residence.

The ambassador was as charming and courteous as his name is long, and by the end of the interview he was shedding tears of joy at the sudden liberation of his kin. As I drove back to Broadcasting House afterwards, I also felt a little misty-eyed.

I mention this only as evidence that I am legally permitted to drive. Despite being a fervent supporter and user of public transport, every year or two I assert the right to take the controls of half a ton of metal.

Now, usually my idea of a good drive is successfully hitching a ride in a car driven by someone both more competent at driving and providing interesting conversation than me. These are not difficult targets to achieve. So the prospect of a road trip where I do the driving appals me.

Until this week. Starting at the former US Air Force base at Hahn near the Luxembourg border a kind of Continental aircraft carrier in Cold War days I intended to trace the former Iron Curtain and re-visit Checkpoints Alpha, Bravo and Charlie. The only sensible solution was to drive, so I reluctantly collected the keys at the Hertz desk and tried to recall the basic principles of motoring. But by the end of the trip, I knew why one half of Germany's total contribution to pop music is "Autobahn" by Kraftwerk (the other being "99 Red Balloons" by Nene): the nation where the car was born is the best place on earth for driving.

Need to cover long distances as quickly possible? Most autobahnen have no speed limits to delay you. I pootled along at a 80mph, but there were plenty of Mercedes and Porsche drivers who overtook at nearly twice the speed. At a legal 150mph, Frankfurt to Berlin takes barely two hours, twice as fast as the train.

At the other extreme, the standard speed limit when passing through villages is 50km/h (31mph), which is reduced to 30mph (18mph) near schools: to slow vehicles to the pace of a swift cyclist is commendable.

To encourage compliance, speed detectors at the entrance to villages are equipped with electronic faces that exude an LED frown if you exceed the limit, changing to a cheery grin when you reduce your velocity.

Some aspects of German motoring management are questionable: "DURST?", enquired a huge sign at the Berlin service station where I refuelled. "Thirsty?"

The purveyor of motoring necessities also offered crates of beer for less, per litre, than it charged for petrol.

I waited to slake my thirst until I had handed back the keys to the rental car at Schnefeld airport in Berlin. I refuelled myself at the Schnell Imbiss at the airport railway station, where a half-litre of excellent beer costs just 1.60 probably the cheapest at any international airport in Europe.

Then one of East Germany's few surviving Trabants trundled past, and I realised that the nation is also the home of the funniest car ever built.

The papier-mch vehicle and, to be fair, its car comrades such as the Czechoslovak Skoda and the Russian Lada spurred jokes such as "How do you double the value of a Trabant? Fill it up with petrol."

A man goes into a garage and asks "Have you got a windscreen wiper for a Trabant?" The proprietor thinks for a moment and says, "Hmm, seems a fair swap".

And, in the land of Nietzsche, it is worth remembering the epithet that "Trabant drivers are philosophers: they think they own a car."

Berlin has a good claim to be Europe's capital of excellent public transport, with a seamless system integrating rail, underground and bus. Yet it is also a superb city in which to drive presumably because many of the citizens are tempted off the roads by the cheap and reliable alternatives.

At tea-time on Wednesday I motored through the quiet streets of the city centre to Checkpoint Charlie, and parked just off Friedrichstrasse for free. Then a convoy of Trabants arrived and did the same.

I then drove on to the Neues Museum, which opened last week after possibly the longest closure in museum history: 70 years. It was heavily bombed in the Second World War, and remained in poor shape during Communism, but has finally been put back together.

The dramatic use of space and light to focus on artefacts ranging from ancient Egypt to medieval Europe is startling. Even more amazing: you can park right outside, on a meter, for just 3 an hour. The car is dead? Long live das Auto.

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