Recently I visited La Jolla, California and was delighted to find that the 10th annual La Jolla Concours D’Elegance was being held the same weekend I was there. I didn’t go into the main competition area, but there were many classic cars on display in the scenic village of La Jolla. Sprinkled among the Ferarris, Corvettes, Shelby Cobras, and Rolls Royces were a selection of my favorite classic roadsters like the Porsche 356 and the MG.
My article titled Top Snorkeling Spots in Grand Cayman has been the most popular one on my web site over the years. The folks over at Sunplay have seen my list and sent me videos of some of the snorkeling sites on Grand Cayman. These videos include underwater photography!
Grab your fins and mask and get in the water!
We were barreling down the Autobahn in southern Austria at 170 km/hr (106 mph). I was pushing the little Mini as fast as it would go in order to not be devoured by the bigger Audis and the BMWs. We had left Bolzano, Italy (in search of Oetzi the Iceman) that morning and were heading back to Munich. After surviving the Swiss mountain pass (see Trouble in Switzerland), we had enjoyed several wonderful days in Nice (View of Vieux Ville in Nice), and endured painful road construction on the Italian Autostrada near Milan and Genoa. We were now in the Austrian Alps south of Innsbruck and the views were fabulous.
“I have to go to the bathroom,” said my daughter, who was crammed into the miniature back seat of the Mini.
“So do I,” said my wife.
“OK, I’ll take the next exit to make a bathroom stop,” I replied.
At the next exit I got off the Autobahn to find a rest stop, gas station, or restaurant where we might find the proper facilities. Instead I found more road construction.
I followed the detour signs and wound the Mini through multiple hairpin turns down a narrow road until we arrived at what looked like a truck stop. At least it used to be a truck stop. Currently all of the buildings were closed and the parking lot was empty except for a couple of trucks.
“You two are going to have to hold it. Everything looks closed. Maybe it’s because of the road construction. Let’s get out of here.”
I drove around the area looking for a way out and back to the Autobahn. We couldn’t go out the way we came in because it was a one way temporary road. After several minutes of searching I determined the only way out of the area was through a gate. I pulled up to the gate and checked the control box. Everything was in German. It looked like I needed to insert a special card into the machine in order for the gate to go up and let us out. This I did not have. I am not a trucker on the Milan to Munich route.
I backed out of the gate lane about 50 meters and turned the car off. We had three choices. Drive the wrong way up the narrow one way road with the hairpin turns and gamble that we wouldn’t run into a semi, wait for one of the sleeping truckers to wake up and need his espresso, or ram the gate with the Mini.
Door #1 sounded too risky to me. I had no confidence in the Mini’s ability to withstand a head-on collision with a semi. Option C also seemed like a bad idea, especially since it was a rental car and I would have to pay for the damages. It would have to be Plan B. We would have to wait it out.
Luckily, it wasn’t long before one of the trucks lumbered toward the gate. As the truck reached the gate, I snuck in behind it. As the barrier went up, I followed the truck through the gate to freedom.
The road took a convoluted route up, down, and around but eventually sent us back onto the Autobahn. I waited to get off the Autobahn until I found an official rest stop. The ladies did their business and on we went to Munich.
Several months later I saw a charge from Sixt, the German car rental company, on my credit card statement. It was a mystery to me, since it had been a long time since I rented the Mini. After some communications with Sixt, I learned that the Austrian and Italian roadway bureaucracies had collectively determined that I had defrauded them of a toll fee. According to the Italians, I had gotten on the Italian Autostrada through a toll booth and never exited. I had vanished from the Autostrada without paying the toll.
The Italians told the Austrians, who in true Teutonic efficiency then tracked the Mini to Sixt. I was billed for the missing toll fee, an extra fee for losing the toll slip, a fine for driving on the road without paying the toll, and administrative fees for the various agencies to handle all of this business. It totaled $184.
I didn’t even think about disputing these charges. I would lose any effort to battle the European bureaucracy (for example, see the Swiss Train Chief). It was an expensive bathroom stop, and the bladders stayed full throughout.
“The flight is canceled.” I said. “It’s so typical of the French to go on strike and screw things up for everybody.”
We were supposed to fly to Nice in the south of France to meet up with our former foreign exchange student named Natacha (yes, I know that sounds Russian and not French; she even has a brother named Boris!). The French air traffic controllers had called a three day strike, and Air France had already changed our flight to avoid it. We headed to the airport hoping for the best. The flight was scheduled to leave at 3 pm. It was now 4:30 pm.
“We have two choices.” I said to my wife and daughter. “We can wait until 9pm for the next flight, but that is likely to get canceled too. Or we can go home and come back tomorrow and hope that the Frenchies have found something better to do than continue the strike, like drink wine and eat cheese.” Neither of these sounded good, since we were supposed to meet Natacha at 7pm.
As we were waiting to get our checked bags back from luggage purgatory, I had another idea.
“What about a road trip?” I said. “We can rent a car and drive there. We should be able to get there by midnight.” Munich to Nice by car is 800 kilometers (~500 miles) – about eight hours of driving. “We can call Natacha and tell her we’ll be late.”
“Road trip!” they chanted in reply.
I hiked over to the Sixt counter while the ladies waited for the bags. Since it was peak tourist season and I didn’t have a reservation, there were very few cars available, and all were at outrageous walk-up prices. I ended up getting a brand new Mini Cooper. Cool! I’ve never driven a Mini before. This will be fun!
I also had to rent a GPS unit. I have one of my own, by I had purposefully left it at home since I thought I was going to be flying on a plane, riding in a taxi, and taking the bus on this trip. I had no desire to drive in central Nice.
Suitably outfitted with Mini and GPS, I picked up the girls at the curb outside of the departure door, and quickly discovered my first mistake. The car.
The Mini might be considered a fine automobile if you are by yourself, are taking it across the city to pick up a book at the library, prefer a rock hard suspension, and if you have never driven a real BMW. It is not the right vehicle for a cross-country trip with three people (two of them women), three suitcases, a backpack, a carry-on, a large tourist camera, two purses, snacks, three cell phones, three water bottles, and an iPad. Especially if it is a two-door model.
“Why did you get a two-door?” asked my wife.
“Uhh, it’s what they gave me. It was the only thing available.” I replied. I didn’t admit to forgetting to ask the Sixt woman about this feature.
This Mini didn’t have a trunk. It had a small cubbyhole behind the rear seat. I managed to stuff my backpack and the carry-on into the space and slammed the back door shut. I piled the suitcases into the back seat by wedging them through the space between the front passenger seat and the rear quarter panel. The Mini had about four inches of space on the floor behind the front seats where my daughter, sitting in the back seat, could put her feet. If I sat back there, my knees would cover my ears. She squeezed into the little available space in back while my wife and I claimed the front seats.
I put the clutch in gear and took off into the Munich rush hour traffic. Every time I looked to the left I banged my head on a handle attached to the Mini’s ceiling. I had to crane my neck down to see out of the windshield. If I straightened up my vision included the inside roof of the car. The seat was hard and my legs were cramped after five minutes. Only eight hours to go.
I relied on the GPS to tell me where to go. This would prove to be my second mistake. I managed to set it to speak English instead of German. Das gut!
We left Germany behind and crossed the skinny part of Austria, then raced across Switzerland. The view of the Alps was spectacular while we climbed higher and higher. A few hours later we were getting close to Italy. The sky was darkening. It happens every night.
“Look! There is a tiny mountain village named Splügen!” I called out as I read the road sign. “What do they do in Splügen? Hello, I am from Splügen. Excuse me, I think I just Splügened.” After five hours in the car I found this to be the funniest thing in the world. My wife rolled her eyes. My daughter groaned.
And then we came upon road construction signs indicating the road ahead was closed. We got off the main road and followed a semi in front of us, while peaking at the detour signs as they flashed by. We drove a few hundred meters on a parallel one lane road and then came to an impromptu tee in the road. The semi turned left, but our rental GPS told us to turn right. So I turned right.
The road wandered down a short valley and then took a hairpin turn to the left and up a slight incline. In a daze I slowed to first gear to take the turn. I cranked the wheel of the go-cart I was driving and scampered around the hairpin. After a hundred meters I was doing it again in the other direction. In my head I was thinking “can this be the right way to go?” I trusted the GPS, it must be right. I was tired, cramped, and cranky. I should have been relaxing in a hotel room on the French Riviera after a stupendous dinner and a bottle of wine. Instead I was manhandling this Mini up a couple of Swiss hairpin curves in the dark.
After three more hairpin turns my decaffeinated brain finally overcame its stupor and kicked into gear. This can’t be the right road. How would the semis handle this? These turns are so tight there isn’t enough room for a truck to make the turn. I had to turn around.
I stopped the car. It was pitch dark outside. I got out to have a look around. From the Mini’s headlights I could barely make out that to my left was a sheer drop off. Depth unknown. There was no guard rail. To my right was a sheer cliff. Height unknown. Then I comprehended that the road was only one lane wide. About 15 feet. There was no way to turn around. There was also no way I was going to back down the road through those hairpin turns. I had to go forward.
I resigned myself to this fate. The safety of my family was at stake. I had horrible visions of TV shows and movies where the car plunges over the side of the mountain road and bursts into flames as it rolls down and down into oblivion. Why do I always run into trouble in Switzerland? (See my other Swiss misadventure here). I vowed never to return, but this time it’s just passing through. Does that count?
I hunched over the steering wheel, peering into the darkness and praying that no one would be coming down this road from the other side of the mountain. I stayed in first gear, lunging and lurching around each hairpin turn, up and up towards the mountain peak. I lost count of how many times I spun the wheel first one way and then back again.
After what seemed like an eternity I took the last turn and the road straightened out on top of the mountain. I had made it! I now knew the euphoric feeling that mountaineers get when they reach the summit.
I passed a deserted café and a tranquil lake. The road then started to descend. What goes up, must go down. I could barely detect the lights of a city in the distance, on the valley floor below. How many hairpin turns away is that place?
For another eternity I crept downward, staying in first gear or coasting in neutral. Down and around, endlessly down and around went the Mini. Until finally the road straightened out and joined a wider road stretching into civilization. We were finally in Italy and I was a nervous wreck. At least we were alive.
I found out later that I had inadvertently driven the San Bernardino Pass road in Graubünden, Switzerland, one of the highest paved roads in Europe. (I was going to say “accidentally” driven, but that sounds bad in this context.) This road was featured in a Top Gear episode where the three guys try to find the best driving road in the world.
I ended up on the mountain road because due to the road construction and the f$%#*$! GPS navigation system I missed the route through the San Bernardino Tunnel. Yes, there is a tunnel through the mountain, which is the easy way to get into Italy on this route.
The top of the pass (at 6,778 feet) is the dividing line between German speakers and Italian speakers and is where the Rhine River basin starts. It is only open in the summer, primarily for mountain hikers. Luckily it was early summer when I was there, so the snow was gone. The route was originally a mule track in the fifteenth century. A road for wheeled vehicles was opened in 1770, and improved in the 1820s.
The bypass tunnel was opened in 1967 to facilitate passage by big trucks and tourists who rent Minis. It is used by all, except for those weary travelers who blindly obey their GPS systems.
While I was driving from Dusseldorf back to Munich recently, I detoured to Stuttgart so that I could spend a couple of hours at the Porsche Museum. The headquarters of Porsche is in Zuffenhausen, Germany near Stuttgart. A striking museum building is set amongst the factory and office buildings. The museum exhibits prime examples of the fine automobiles Porsche has built over the last 70 years.
The company got its start in the 1930s. At first it was a design company and didn’t build its own cars. The German government hired Porsche to design an inexpensive car for the people. This became known as the Volkswagen Beetle, one of the most successful car designs of all time.
After the war, Porsche designed prototypes of a car it called the 356. The 356 was a rear-wheel-drive, two door sports car. Because the 356 proved to be very popular with American aviators, a special version of the 356 called the American Roadster was sold in the U.S. starting in 1953. Early designs were air-cooled, rear engine configurations.
Approximately 76,000 356s were manufactured from 1948 to 1965, with only about half of them still surviving. They are highly prized by collectors today.
Porsche next developed a coupe design called the 356 1500 Coupé which came out in 1954. The iconic and instantly recognizable shape of the 1500 Coupé would be carried forward to many future cars.
There were three evolutionary stages of the 356, denoted A, B, and C. In 1963, the 356 C Cabriolet was introduced. It was an instant classic.
In the same year, the first 911 was produced. The 911’s profile resembled the 1500’s shape and had a six cylinder “boxer” engine which produced 128 HP. While I was at the museum, there was a large exhibition celebrating the 50th anniversary of the 911. Customers were being admitted to the museum at a reduced rate for anyone who was born in 1963 or owned a 911. I missed on both qualifications.
The 911 evolved over the years but stayed true to its original sports car heritage. More power and more features were added as technology improved.
This year Porsche came out with a 50th Anniversary 911. It produces 560 HP, goes from 0 to 60 mph in 2.9 seconds, and hits a top speed of 197 mph, all for only $181,000 (layaway plan to pay for speeding tickets not included).