By Lisa Hornung
Most people who go to Germany assume that train travel is the most efficient way to go. They’re not wrong – Germany’s trains are quick, on time, clean and safe.
But I wanted to see the countryside on my own schedule, so we rented a car for three of the seven days we were in Germany.
Because we got the trip including the hotel as a (great) package deal on Tripmasters.com, we just stayed checked into our Munich hotel and paid extra for hotels in Salzburg and Altötting. It was worth it.
Pro-tip: If you’re older than 28, flexible rail pass tickets get really expensive — like several hundred dollars. Our car rental for four days was about $130, and it carried us both comfortably.
When I booked the trip, my plan was to take a road trip to some of the cute medieval towns that surround Munich. But in the end, we decided to use our rental car to drive to Berchtesgaden, Salzburg and Altötting.
We took the train to the Munich airport to pick up our rental, which was available at 11 a.m. But when we got there, there were about 40 people in line, and the line wasn’t moving fast.
Lesson learned: Get there early to pick up your rental car.
While standing in line, I had plenty of time to think. Finally, I said to Steve, “I think I should drive first.”
“OK,” he said.
“Just because … I think I will be more … um, calm.”
“Thank you for being diplomatic,” he said. I knew he wouldn’t be able to remain calm in the stress of driving in a foreign country, whereas, I would. I’ve driven in Europe before, even if only for one shot on the autobahn. And it was 25 years earlier. But whatever.
Steve is also a much better navigator, so it worked out perfectly. I get distracted by the pretty things along the way.
When we finally got through the line, the man behind the counter was very friendly and spoke excellent English, but with an accent.
“OK, I see you reserved a small car, so I have a Sköda.” (Pronounced Skoo-da)
“What? A scooter?” I asked, confused.
“No, Sköda. It’s a German car.” (It’s not.)
Steve, to me: “Did he say he’s giving us a scooter?”
Steve, alarmed: “We can’t get a scooter!”
To the agent, Steve said, “Wait, did you say scooter?”
Him: “No, Sköda. Sköda.” It’s a small car. Four doors. Roof. It’s a car.”
We all laughed, a bit nervously.
Me: “You get to ride on the back of the scooter. And hold our luggage.”
Once we got the keys, we went in search of our Sköda.
“I still think he gave us a scooter,” Steve said.
In the parking garage, it took us about 15 panicked minutes to find the car. Then Steve saw the logo. “OH, Sköda! They sponsor the Tour de France. And it’s a Czech car, not German.”
We loaded up our bags and drove out of the garage. Steve navigated with the help of Google maps. But as soon as we got on the road, we realized we’d made one major mistake – we didn’t look up what German road signs mean. Most of the signs were pretty intuitive, arrows and such.
Except for speed limits. We later learned that there are speed limit signs, minimum speed limit signs, end-of-speed-limit signs and even speed limits for different lanes. While driving, we had no idea. I just decided as long as someone was going faster than me, I was OK. And someone was ALWAYS driving faster than me. I’m not slow, but man, Germans drive fast!
Lesson learned: Look up road signs before driving in a foreign country.
Also, speeds and distances are in kilometers, not miles, but that didn’t faze me. I got used to thinking in metric pretty quickly. There’s no need to convert it in your head: Just go with the flow.
Once we got on the highway, driving was pretty much like being on a highway in the U.S. Stay in the right lane, then move to the left to pass. Use your turn signal (ahem, looking at you, Americans). Easy stuff.
In Europe, almost nobody has an automatic transmission, so you’d better know how to drive a stick. I learned early and it paid off in Germany. Also, when you stop at a light, the car shuts off. When you hit the gas, it comes back on. It’s so quiet, though, you don’t even notice it most of the time. It’s all about efficiency. I wish we had that here.
We were running late because of the long line at the airport, and we had a tour to catch up with in Berchtesgaden, which is a couple hours south of Munich. Hitler loved the area and used it as his vacation home, and other Nazis followed suit. A lot of the buildings, including Hitler’s home, were destroyed after the war by the Allies, but there’s still a lot to see. The Germans today are careful to make the Nazi sites places of learning out of fear that they might become pilgrimage sites by neo-Nazis.
Pro tip: Even if you’re not a history nerd, I highly recommend Berchtesgaden. It’s gorgeous, and there’s plenty of stuff to do there.
The Eagle’s Nest
We got there after the bus left, but we managed to catch up with the tour at the first stop.
We took the Eagle’s Nest Historical Tour to Eagle’s Nest (Kehlsteinhaus), Hitler’s chalet in the Bavarian Alps. First we went to the Dokumentation Obersalzburg, which was once used by Hitler as a guest house for visiting dignitaries. Now it is a museum, or place of “learning and remembrance,” run by the Institut fur Zeitgeschichte, Munich – Berlin, on behalf of the State of Bavaria.
This was definitely the best tour we went on for our whole trip because we all got earpieces and could hear everything the tour guide said, even if we wandered off and looked at other things or sat down for a bit. Our guide, Sharon Fendt, was friendly, knowledgeable and excellent.
Pro-tip: Look for tours with earpieces!
From the Dokumentation Obersalzburg, we entered Hitler’s underground tunnels. The Nazis constructed an elaborate network of bunkers in the mountain, and we got to go into a portion of them.
The neatest part was the Allied graffiti. When the French and the Americans captured the mountain, they carved into the walls, marking their new territory.
After the bunker tour, we boarded a new bus to drive to the top of the mountain. The buses are especially designed for the trip to the top. They time their drives perfectly so that buses going up and down meet at one area where the road widens enabling them to pass. German precision!
As went up the mountain, it began to snow. Yes, it was in late May, but we were high up into the Alps, so snow wasn’t that unusual. At the top of the road, we moved to a large marble tunnel that takes you to Hitler’s elevator. The tour guide told us that when Hitler was in power, the tunnel was heated. “Why isn’t it heated now?” I asked, shivering. “Because it costs way too much money!”
The elevator was designed to hold 40 people and lined with polished brass, looking almost exactly as it did when Hitler used it. We rode the elevator up into the Eagle’s Nest, which is now a restaurant. The inside is designed like most Nazi buildings, built of large blocks of stone, with high ceilings. It was a birthday gift to Hitler from Martin Bormann, head of the Nazi Party Chancellery.
Our tour guide told us that nobody ever stayed the night at the Eagle’s nest, and in fact it was rarely used. It took too long to heat up and was too difficult to get to, so it mostly sat empty. Here’s some more info on the Kehlsteinhaus.
Unfortunately, the snow brought with it fog, so we weren’t able to see much from the mountaintop. Normally, there are beautiful panoramic views from up there, but we had the bad luck of weather. No biggie. We had a bite to eat and a beer, Steve got a crushed penny, I got a souvenir beer glass, then we went back down to wait for the bus.
When we got there, we saw that it had snowed a lot more while we were up there. There were about 4 inches of snow on the grass, and it was freezing cold.
Bus Ride of Terror
We finally boarded the bus – the last one of the day. Then our trip took an ominous turn.
The bus started moving … and sliding. You know the panicked feeling when you’re driving in snow and you feel your car start to slide? Imagine that feeling on a large bus filled with about 60 people on top of a mountain. The bus stopped and everyone looked concerned. The driver tried to reverse, but his wheels started spinning.
“I guess someone will be spending the night at the Eagle’s Nest tonight!” I said, and heard some nervous chuckles around me.
Truth: I’m not a fearful person. I don’t have phobias, and I don’t get unnecessarily nervous. But this scared the living shit out of me.
“Well, I guess this is how we die,” I told Steve. I took a photo of him and one of me, and said, “These are the last pictures of us that they’ll find in our camera at the bottom of the mountain.”
We were cracking jokes, but it was mostly to ease the tension. I was gripped with terror. We knew these bus drivers were specially trained for many years to be able to navigate this mountain, but we also knew that shit happens.
A bunch of men dressed in orange jumpsuits came out, and someone drove a small Bobcat to shovel snow off the road. Somehow, the bus started moving backward, and the driver got us back up to the parking lot. That was a relief. We sat there for about 10 minutes while men worked around us on the road. Eventually, the bus started to move slowly. A man in an orange jumpsuit moved right past our window, and Steve said, “That guy did NOT look confident.” The people around us all cracked up. When there’s nothing you can do to prevent your impending death, you have to keep laughing.
Slowly, we made it down the mountain. At each turn, I kept looking at the wall of mountain out my window so that I didn’t have to look down at where we might tumble. Once we got low enough that we didn’t see snow on the ground, I relaxed. When the bus pulled into the parking lot and stopped, we all cheered for the driver.
We paid our tour guide and thanked her. When we told her that we thought we were going to be the first to ever sleep at the Eagle’s Nest, she laughed and said, “Me too!”
We got in the car and drove to Salzburg, our nerves calming on the way out of town. We were sad to go because there are lots of other things to see in Berchtesgaden, but we didn’t have time. We really wanted to see the Konigsee, a beautiful alpine lake nearby. Next time, Berchtesgaden. Next time.
We had been told to avoid the major highways when crossing borders because the passport enforcement sometimes gets passport-happy, causing a Stau, or traffic jam. So we took the back roads, and it didn’t take long at all. I never really knew when we crossed into Austria.
Lesson learned: All the roads in Germany and Austria were in perfect condition. They don’t have the patchwork/pockmarked roads we have here. Infrastructure!
The hotel I’d booked on Hotels.com was the Star Inn Hotel Salzburg Zentrum, which was right by the Old Town. By the time we got to the hotel, we were exhausted and hungry. We rested for a bit and showered, then ventured out to the Old Town, looking for grub.
Unfortunately, it was raining, so we didn’t get a good view of this gorgeous city. We took rainy selfies in front of a statue of Mozart, Salzburg’s favorite son, then made our way to Gasthaus Zwettler’s, a nice little Austrian pub, for dinner. The atmosphere was laid back and festive. The bar was filled with bros, but we managed to get a nice little booth for two. Unfortunately, there was a family at a nearby table with a tired and cranky toddler who screamed a lot. Steve was not pleased.
Luckily, they left about 10 minutes after we arrived, and peace was restored. The food was delicious, though I don’t remember what I ate. When we ordered dessert, we asked what was the most local thing we could order, something we tried to do in most circumstances. Our server recommended the Salzburger Nockerl. It’s a sweet, raspberry soufflé, that kind of looks like the Sydney Opera House. It’s huge, but it wasn’t substantial, so it didn’t leave us feeling miserably stuffed. I won’t say it’s my favorite dessert by any means, but I’m glad we had it and it certainly was tasty.
Pro-tip: When in a foreign country, always save room for dessert. It’s such a nice way to experience culture that you may not be able to get ever again. Actually, always save room for dessert anyway. You deserve it!
The next morning, we walked around Salzburg, taking in the sights. I’ll write more detail about that soon. But we need to get back on the road.
A lovely thing we saw in Salzburg were tall digital signs that tell exactly how many parking spaces are left in nearby parking garages. We didn’t need to use them, but it made so much sense! In a city where parking is at a premium, why drive in circles hoping to find a space? It’s beautiful.
The Austrian countryside
As we drove away from Salzburg, we were left feeling that we really needed to come back and see more. One night was not nearly enough, especially in the rain.
The farther away from Salzburg we got, the clearer the skies became. This may have been the most beautiful part of our entire trip. The area is lush, hilly and green, with tiny little towns dotting the landscape. Immaculately clean and idyllic. it makes you want to stop the car and lie in the grass with flowers in your hair. Every town has a large church spire in the center, and it’s like you imagine in storybooks.
Our first stop was in Eggelsburg, where our friends live. They needed a bit of time to get ready to meet us for lunch, so we went to the center of town and wandered around. We walked up to the main Catholic church, the Maria Himmelfahrt Parish Church. Maria Himmelfahrt means Assumption of Mary. The church was built around 1420, and it’s amazing. Nobody was there, but we just walked in the giant wooden doors and peeked around for a few minutes, careful not to disturb anything. We were not disappointed.
The churchyard was equally as interesting. Unlike American cemeteries, the graves are smaller, but very well-tended. They all had beautiful flowers planted on them, and in many cases, instead of headstones, they had beautiful iron-work. While in the U.S. we buy graves, in Austria they lease them. Also, family graves can have several people buried in a single plot. It was gorgeous to wander around. We did see a woman come to tend a plot, so we tried to give her space.
As we walked toward town, we stopped at a memorial for Egglesburg’s war dead from World Wars 1 and 2. While it’s easy to think of these people as our enemies during the war, they were still people with families and friends who loved them and mourned their loss. They deserve the same respect as our own.
As we were walking back to our car, a man drove up and asked us for directions in German, and the only word I recognized was “Gasthaus.” I panicked and said, “We’re American!” Oh God, I’m such a doofus. I can speak some German, but I get too nervous, unless I’m drinking. He laughed, waved and drove on.
In that part of Austria and in Southern Germany, the standard greeting is Grüβ Gott, which basically means “May God greet you” or “God bless you.” In the small towns, nearly everyone said this to us. It was kind of like the small towns in the Southern U.S. in that everyone says hello to everyone else.
We then went to have lunch with our friends, and it was really nice to have a full conversation in English and get random questions answered. After a lovely lunch, we set out to see some more small towns. On the advice of our friends, we went to Oberndorf bei Salzburg to see the Stille Nacht Kappelle, or Silent Night Chapel. This is a monument to the hymn, written by Joseph Mohr and Franz Xaver Gruber, and it stands in the place of the former St. Nicholas Church, where the song was first performed on Dec. 24, 1818.
Getting there was a bit of an adventure.
Driving on not-roads
Driving into Oberndorf, we came upon a roundabout, which is not unusual in Europe. But the road we needed to take out of the roundabout was closed by police. OK, no biggie. Steve used Google maps to redirect us, and we went the other way. He told me to turn onto a dirt road, but I was dubious. “Are you sure?” I asked. “Yes, turn here,” he said. The further we went, the more rural it appeared. At one point, he had me turn into a field. The road wasn’t even dirt. It was literally two tire tracks in tall grass.
“Steve, this isn’t a road. This is some guy’s yard.”
“Yes, it is. It says right here, something-strasse. Keep driving.”
OK … so, I kept on. We were literally driving through tall grass.
All of a sudden, the biggest rabbit I’ve ever seen darted across the “road.”
“Did you see that fucking KANGAROO?”
I really wish I could have caught that enormous thing on camera. Now I know how the people who search for Bigfoot feel. I realize this was likely a hare, but I’m not kidding when I say it was about the size of a small kangaroo. I guess it could have been much worse.
Because the ground was wet, Steve was worried that we’d get stuck, so he kept yelling, “Keep driving!”
“Seriously, some guy is going to come out here with a shotgun any minute,” I said.
Steve: “No, their gun laws are much more restrictive here.” (Small consolation.)
Then we drove right by a building and the doorway was literally about 10 feet from our car.
“OMG, this is someone’s house!” I looked to the right, and in the building was a 10-foot wooden carving of a horse. “Do you see that horse?” I asked.
“I don’t see anything, KEEP GOING!”
At this point, we were laughing so hard, all we could do was drive and hope for the best.
After we went around a couple of curves, the road started to get very steep, and we went down a huge hill, past another couple of houses, and eventually came out onto a road by the Salzach River.
I can’t tell you what a relief this was.
Lessons learned: 1. Google Maps is your best friend. 2. Make sure you have a good data plan. 3. Always find something to laugh at.
We drove until we found a parking space, then walked around the town. Oberndorf, Austria, is on the Salzach, and there is a nice walking bridge that crosses over to Laufen, Germany. The walking bridge, like all the bridges we saw in Europe, was full of locks, where sweethearts left their mark. I wish I had known to bring one. On our next trip, we will definitely be prepared with a lock or two.
There was a beautiful chapel on the Oberndorf side and a grotto. On the Laufen side, we were greeted by a wooden statue of St. Rupert, first bishop of Salzburg, which we dubbed St. Lightning Rod. You can see why in the photo.
His staff is supposed to symbolize the connection between heaven and earth. Or it’s a lightning rod.
The Stille Nacht Kappelle was beautiful, if a little underwhelming. It’s small and old, but not at all old in the European sense. I’m glad we went, though, and I wish we’d had more time to explore Oberndorf and Laufen.
Lesson learned: There will always be more to explore and never enough time.
The Hofdult at Altotting
This is the event I was most excited for. The only reason we knew about the Hofdult is because our friend plays in a band, and they were scheduled to play at the Hofdult, which is basically a small-town homecoming. We were so lucky that this was near us and during our trip.
I booked the Hotel Plankl, which was a great little place to crash. The interior design was strange, and the shower was tiny, but it served its purpose. We rested for a bit then walked over to the Hofdult. It’s basically a big neighborhood party with rides for kids and beer for adults. To tell you the truth, I don’t remember much about that evening, except that we sat with our friends’ Austrian family and drank and danced all evening.
We sang along with as many of the songs as we knew (“Achy Breaky Heart,” unfortunately, is a German party song), and drank untold amounts of beer. We were in such a hurry to get there, we didn’t eat dinner. So at one point Steve went and got a couple of (very large) pretzels and encouraged me to eat as much as I could. It didn’t help. I was sauced.
I don’t remember the walk home, but we made it, and that’s all that matters.
The next morning, we walked into town to try to find some breakfast, and we found a small bakery where we got pastries and a drink. I accidentally got water with “bubbles” or mineral water, which was disgusting. I was so hungover and dehydrated. All I wanted was some plain, cold water or Diet Coke with ice. Alas, that’s not the way the Germans do it. There are no Big Gulps in Germany.
We drove back to Munich, stopping in Erding to pick up a souvenir. We had taken the Erdinger brewery tour earlier in the week, but the shop was closed after our tour. We wanted to get a stein and stop for gas.
Pro-tip: The Erdinger Brewery tour was fantastic! Highly recommended. But take the train so you can drink all you want because they will give you LOTS of beer.
We tried to do what we usually do at a gas station, which is empty our car of trash. But the attendant stopped us. “No!” she said, as she reached in and grabbed a plastic bottle that Steve had thrown in and handed it back to him. Um, OK. She didn’t explain, at least not in English. We think it’s because you have to recycle plastic bottles, but we didn’t see a recycle bin, either. We decided to leave it for the rental car people to figure out.
We drove the car back to the airport a day early because we didn’t want to drive in Munich and pay for overnight parking at the hotel. This meant it took us longer to get back to our hotel because we had to ride the train back, but that was OK. It was less hassle in the long run.
Every night in Europe ended with us exhausted, flopping onto our beds, propping our feet up and talking about how tired we were. But it also ended with us rehashing our amazing day and talking about what adventures awaited us in the morning.
Though public transport was the way of most of our trip, I wouldn’t trade our road trip experience for anything.
The best lesson learned: You should always try to stray from the beaten path and see what lies outside the city. Untold exploits await!