Excitement was mounting as we left the Stuttgart train station to collect the rental car for the first leg of our road trip.
We planned a 1,000km drive from Germany to Switzerland through snowy mountains and had hoped to do it Top Gear style – in a completely inappropriate Mazda MX-5 roadster.
Lugging our baggage uphill on the cold busy city streets did little to deter our march towards the warm sanctuary of the rental car office.
The receptionist took her time giving us a brusque welcome and all was fine until she dropped a bombshell – no cabrios in winter, even though we’d booked it months ahead.
(Map credit: Google)
After extensive negotiation, we threw our bags into the spacious hatch of a Seat Leon ST, thus marking the beginning of our adventure.
It wasn’t an ideal start, but our first stop at the Porsche museum raised our spirits. An escalator brought us back to the 50s where vintage vehicles pivotal to the Porsche legacy were displayed, from esoteric racecars to the Volkswagen Beetle.
Subsequently, machines that cemented Porsche’s reputation as a sportscar manufacturer in the 60s were featured, with 550 Spyders and 904s sitting proudly, having enjoyed no degree of small success in the early days of road rallies and hill climbs.
Walk past them and you’re greeted by different variants of the Porsche 917, with later versions capable of 390km/h – a feat that clinched victories in the 70s.
The exhibits continued chronologically, with successful racecars taking centerstage, flanked by lovingly restored road cars. Be it the visceral 2.7 RS, tech-laden 918 or even a driveable Sally Carrera from Cars, there is variety for every generation to enjoy.
(Restaurant Christophorus, Stuttgart)
STUTTGART - BERN
After a satisfying steak lunch at the museum’s Christophorus Restaurant, we set off for Freiburg im Breisgau, driving through the winding Black Forest High Road, which boasted an enjoyable mix of wide mid-speed corners.
We checked into a quaint Latvian family hotel on a hill overlooking the old town for the night. Black Forest cake and other delightful pastries fuelled our energy the next morning for a long drive to Bern in Switzerland.
We embarked on a walking tour around the medieval UNESCO heritage site and took in the beautiful sights of the river Aare, which wraps around the Old City. With Rösti in our stomachs, we continued our journey to Interlaken. A scenic cruise past Lake Thun against the backdrop of the setting sun brought us to our B&B in Interlaken.
INTERLAKEN - GRINDELWALD
The next day we enjoyed a generous Swiss breakfast spread complete with a jug of hot chocolate served in our room, before leaving for Grindelwald via slippery mountain roads linking the ski villages.
The first half of the route was grippy enough, but the higher the altitude the thicker the snow depth, calling for gentle inputs while entering and exiting those second gear hairpin turns.
Unfazed by the conditions, the trusty Seat pressed on into Grindelwald’s ski slopes. After limited skiing due to closures, we tried to explore the roads leading further up into the mountains.
However, no amount of fancy footwork could prevent the Seat – bereft of all wheel drive and snow chains – from sliding around.
We cut our losses and headed back down past Bönigen around Lake Brienz, stopping to admire the turquoise water while having a quick snack in the hatch of the Seat before exploring the small village of Iseltwald.
Heavy rain foiled our plans to see the Giessbach Falls, but we spotted a restaurant nearby on the map. The drive there was an adventure on its own – a narrow path up a mountain with treacherous hairpins opening up into fast chicanes. We dashed into the cosy diner situated on a cliff over the clear lake.
While waiting for the rain to stop, we enjoyed a warm bowl of Borscht soup, pork chop and Mont Blanc. The locals recommended that we continue the drive up to the peak of the mountain Axalp. A light fog added a hint of mystique to the stunning blue lake surrounded by the snow capped Alps.
Our next stop was Lucerne, where Christmas lights lit up the cobblestone streets. We concluded the night sampling cheese fondue by the river.
SWITZERLAND - STUTTGART
Our morning began with a decadent buffet spread followed by a boat cruise around the picturesque Lake Lucerne. We bade goodbye to Switzerland and stopped by the Black Forest towns of Titisee and Triberg on the way back to Stuttgart.
Our last stop before we had to return the Seat was the Mercedes-Benz museum. By far the largest of the museums, it is effectively a portal through time that details the history of both the company and Germany from the pre-war days.
From high-brow machinery such as the aluminium bodied 300SL to utilitarian trucks, it perfectly showcases the breadth of the company’s portfolio. There are even “youngtimers” – soon-to-be classics from the 90s that Mercedes curates and offers for sale.
After spending far too much time looking at these cars, we hopped back in the Seat to enjoy our last moments with it before boarding the train back to Mannheim.
(Map credit: Google)
Christmas Eve frenzy at the rental car lot was a blessing in disguise as we landed ourselves a free upgrade from an Opel Astra to an Insignia Sports Tourer for the next leg.
Post Christmas celebrations, we set the coordinates for Nördlingen, a quaint town built in a crater from a meteorite impact. After using the 2.5hr drive to get used to the extra girth and tech-toys aboard, we arrived at the city wall.
Built during the middle ages, this wall circles the perimeter of the city and is open to the public. While troops of the era looked outward for threats, we look in towards elevated views of the old town.
We continued our journey along the Romantic Road and visited the third largest city in Bavaria, Augsburg. We walked along the cobbled streets, admiring the festive atmosphere and elaborate Christmas decorations adorning the Renaissance buildings.
As the sun set, we resumed our journey towards Füssen where we stayed for the night.
Fully recharged after a buffet breakfast, we hiked up to the popular Neuschwanstein Castle, an enchanting fairytale palace on a hill. Snow covered the trees framing the castle – a sight to behold.
Next up was Wieskirche, a rococo church, and we marvelled at the stunning interior frescoes. We followed a local driver down an uncharted path through the woods and past a frozen lake to our next destination.
The last town we saw along the Romantic Road was Landsberg am Lech, where we strolled along the river with the sun glistening off the water.
An hour’s drive later, we arrived at the home of BMW – Munich. Of course, the Bavarian experience was not complete without pork knuckle and beer, so we headed straight for a feast near the iconic Glockenspiel.
The next day was spent at the BMW Museum. Highlights – aside from squeezing the five-metre long Opel in a tiny parallel lot – were creations from BMW Motorsport.
Rows of racing engines adorned with carbonfibre covers and individual intake trumpets proudly preceded the display of successful race cars such as the E9 “Batmobile” and E30 DTM.
But of more relevance to us were their motorsport inspired road cars – the BMW M cars. Up on display were watermark cars from the original M5 to an M3 CSL.
All day could be spent gawking at these greats, but alas, we had to leave the bustling city for our ski resort in Krimml, Austria.
By now it was getting dark, and we needed to step on it if we wanted any hope of a good night’s rest. Upon entering the derestricted Autobahn, we powered to Austria with 400Nm of turbodiesel torque under foot.
This is where the big Opel came into its own, unfazed by crosswinds even at our cruising speed of between 200-230km/h. Having made short work of the motorway miles, we now had to climb the snow lined mountain roads up to Austria in pitch black darkness.
Absurd as it sounds, few cars could keep up with the Opel here not for lack of grip, but for lack of visibility.
Our rental came with full LED matrix headlights that not only had automatic high-beams, but could swivel the lights around oncoming cars or towards corners as it saw fit.
It gave so much confidence that what started out as a cautious tip-toe turned into a make-believe rally stage, with us in our oversized wagon of a WRC car crossing the chequered flag into Austria earlier than expected.
Exhausted from the challenging drive, we retired early for the next two days of skiing and sledding in Bramberg am Wildkogel, where the Insignia’s length was now an asset rather than a liability as it fit all our equipment with room to spare.
Our time in Austria drew to a close as we arrived at the birthplace of Mozart, Salzburg.
The time we had to explore the beautiful baroque and medieval town was limited, but we departed like gleeful children with bags of original Mozart chocolate balls.
From here, we had to make haste, as a daunting 500km drive back to return the car awaited us. We made a pitstop for hot chocolate midway at Ulm, and decided to visit the Ulm Minster, the world’s tallest church.
After stretching our legs, it was time to drive another gruelling three hours to Mannheim. Unfortunately, we encountered a traffic jam which made us regret having a manual for a while, but we got to witness the amazing scene of every car pulling aside, creating an emergency lane in the middle of the Autobahn for emergency vehicles to pass.
As the jam cleared and the motorway miles racked up on the odometer, we had the bittersweet realisation that our trip was coming to a close.
Despite unexpected situations thwarting some plans, we accomplished a well-balanced trip of historical European landmarks, picturesque hikes, delectable local cuisine and of course, automotive history.
It is also a reminder that travelling by car affords the luxury of stopping anywhere we want or going anywhere we like whenever plans go awry. The scenic and rewarding routes that one can only experience on the road was the icing on the cake of our fun-filled adventure.
STORY/PHOTOS Lim Sze Hui & Philip Ng