Travel Days

I avoided using the clichéd phrase Travel Daze in the title, but that’s what the past few weeks have felt like. Our time in Europe is drawing to an end, so Alisha and I have done a good bit of last minute travel while we still have the chance. Actually, Alisha is now back in the States full time because her cycling season is in full swing. I’m headed back to Munich right now after a quick long-weekend trip back to NC, and I’ll be headed back for good at the end of June.

Over Easter weekend in early April, Alisha and I decided to rent a car and head down to Lake Garda (aka Gardasee (German) or Lago di Garda (Italian)) in Northern Italy, at the foothills of the Alps on the south side (where as Munich is near the foothills of the Alps on the north side). This was my first opportunity to give the famed Autobahn a try in a nice car, and it certainly was a pleasure. I think there are several misconceptions about the Autobahn outside of Germany, or at least in America. First, the Autobahn is not a particular road or some special highway that you “go to”. Autobahn literally means Auto Way, and is just the German equivalent of the American Interstate system. And second, it is not exactly true to there “are no speed limits on the Autobahn,” as I think the common perception is. It is true that there are large parts (about 45%) of the Autobahn that don’t have speed limits some of the time, but much of it, especially around major cities, is just like the Interstate, with a normal speed limit of around 100-120kph (~62-75mph), and even down to 80kph through tunnels and very congested areas. Most of the speed limits are electronically controlled, actually, so they can be dynamically changed according to weather and traffic conditions. Every few kilometers there are electronic speed limit signs that change in real-time to keep traffic safe and flowing.

But the parts of the Autobahn outside the cities that are unrestricted are a hell of a lot of fun to drive on. We rented a Skoda, which is basically a re-branded VW Passat, and were able to cruise along at 170-180kph (I’ll let you do the math!) in the center lane with no problems, and it felt like we were riding on rails. The Porches, BMWs, Audis and motorcycles were still passing us on the left, running up to 200-220kph. For people wondering what kind of carnage this kind of driving leads to, no need to worry. The Autobahn is one of the safest highways in the world, with accident and death rates at less than half of the American Interstates.

To be sure, I imagine when crashes to occur at extremely high speeds, they tend to be quite spectacular, but all in all, the statistics are still on your side when driving (carefully) on the Autobahn. I’m sure there are lots of studies that will tell you why, but here are my off the top of my head observations (and generalizations, probably). First, the Autobahn is kept in extraordinary condition. I read that the asphalt is twice as thick as used on the Interstates, which helps the road to keep its shape without warping or cracking and is less susceptible to temperature changes, so there are no potholes and the subsequent dodgy patchwork. Second, aside from the relaxed speed limits, the other driving rules are very strict and very harshly enforced. In the US you’re supposed to drive on right and pass on the left, but much to my chagrin, as Alisha will tell you, this is hardly followed. In Germany, this rule is as fundamental as stopping at red lights. You always drive in the right-most lane possible and only go left when passing. Much less, it is illegal to pass on the right, and they will ticket you for overtaking someone on the right side. Also, they have strict following distance rules, but instead of the US rules where you’re supposed to follow 2 car lengths or something, which is hard to estimate and harder to enforce, there are painted tic-marks on the side of the road. So in normal conditions, you have to stay, for example, 2 tic marks back, and in rainy conditions you stay 3 marks back. Seatbelt laws are also strictly enforced, for all passengers. I know growing up, we often used the excuse that back-seat passengers “don’t need” to wear seatbelts. I think people are more conscious about that now in the US, but it’s very closely followed there. In addition, it’s basically illegal to do anything distracting while driving, like talking on your cell phone, eating and drinking. And not “illegal” like it is in the US, where you can still eat a Big Mac while talking on your phone while driving at 70mph and not worry about getting in trouble – I mean people I’ve driven with won’t even drink out of a plastic bottle, or even think about answering their cell phones without stopping first.

Most of these laws are enforced by cameras, where you receive citations in the mail a few days after you’re photographed, or by unmarked police in high powered sports cars. You very rarely see a marked police car on the Autobahn, and they’re usually not there to chase people down.

Finally, going into generalizations, it could be argued that on the whole, Germans are better and more skilled drivers than Americans. I learned recently how difficult costly it is to get a German driver’s license. You have to take private courses that cost over 2000E And entail several times more coursework and driving than our classes. Now that I think back to how easy and cheap it is for any 15 or 16 year old American kid to get a driver’s license, it’s a bit scary…. Not to mention, the high cost of driving probably keeps a lot of people off the road anyway. As US gas prices have continued to rise up to $3/gallon in some places, I know everyone gets tired of hearing “well you know what they pay in Europe?!” But yeah, it’s true – Gas in Germany runs about 1.30E/liter. That goes to 5.33E/liter ~ $6.40/gallon. Thankfully, the Autobahn doesn’t have any tolls, but other countries do. Just to get onto the Autobahn in Austria costs 10E for a Vignette, and even more in Switzerland. You can get monthly and yearly passes, if you live there though. But in Italy all Autostrades are tolled, so every time you get off you have to pay. It’s based on distance, but it generally came to about 5E per 30 minutes, so you can imagine how quickly that adds up on a long trip.

Well, as usual, I’ve gone on and on rambling about everything except what I intended on writing about. As I was saying about 4 pages ago, we spent several days in Arco, a small town on Lake Garda in northern Italy. It was still cold, with some snow, in Munich at that point, but getting onto the southern side of the alps put us in very nice, mild weather with snow only visible on the mountain peaks. We stayed at an excellent little fully furnished and equipped apartment, for less than the cost per night than a Super 8 in rural North Carolina. The little Italian towns are really amazing with how old and packed everything is. The streets are incredibly tiny and curvy, which is made even worse because Italians are bloody crazy drivers.

If Germans are on one end of the scale for following laws and driving responsibly, and Americans are somewhere in the middle, then Italians have gone completely off the deep end on the other side. I’m not even sure what the few laws they have are, but whatever they are, nobody seems to follow them. In Italy, passing on any road at any time seems to be fair game. If you’re going 5kph too slow on a 1.5 lane mountain road, prepare to be passed at any point, including around blind curves. Inside cities, Vespa scooters, motorcycles and bicycles seem to rule the roads. They will pass any traffic, in any space that is available – between lanes, into oncoming traffic, sidewalks, whatever. If you’re the first car at a red light, you can count on several scooters and motorcycles coming around front to get to first in line. Given all that, though, they do really respect bicycles, and we did not feel in danger riding anywhere there. While they pass a farm truck going uphill on a double line around a blind curve, they do take caution and give plenty of room when passing a cyclist.

But back to Arco – it seems to be a sporting center in Italy, with mountain and road cyclists everywhere, kayakers and rafters, paragliders, and tons of rock climbers climbing the huge rock walls overlooking the lake. We found the small town of Santa Barbara on a map, a few miles above Arco and decided to start the vacation with a hill climb on our bikes.

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