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.
My wife had her first experience driving the Autobahn. It is a lot of fun. When you are fully rested. When you are tired, well…. I make her drive since I navigate, and she can’t navigate her way anywhere. Just like the US interstate this time of year, there were a lot of campers on the road, who drive slow in the right lane. When the autobahn is currently three lanes, it’s no problem. Pass the campers in the middle lane, and stay out of the way of the speeders in the left-most, passing lane. Because they are going 120mph, and they don’t want you in front of them. When there are only two lanes, it gets tougher, because the chance to pass the campers and stay out of the way of the speeders is small. But she managed. Until she felt like falling asleep, which would be a bad thing to do when you are driving on the Autobahn. Luckily, there are many turnouts on the Autobahn (perhaps every mile or so) to temporarily get off the road. We switched and I drove.
We got to our first stop, Rothenburg after about 1 ½ hours. It is a walled town from the middle ages. It was partly bombed during the war, but the oldest and prettiest part of town survived and has the original buildings from the 1400 and 1500s. I took a wrong turn somewhere and couldn’t find the Burg Hotel. I knew it was built into the town wall on one side of town, but once I got into the narrow windy streets of the town I was lost. And my navigator didn’t know where on the map we were to start with, so she was no help. But the town is rather small, so after minimal frustration we happened upon it. The hotel advertised on-site parking on it’s web site, but since the hotel, as I have said, is built into the town wall next to a street about 10 feet wide, street parking is definitely limited. Nonetheless, the kindly old gentleman manning the front desk had me park the car right out front in the street. If I block traffic, oh well, he said I could park there, it’s his hotel. After struggling to pull a U-turn on the very narrow, sloped road, with the reverse and the balky unfamiliar clutch, I managed to successfully sort of block the road.
It was only 11am, and I was unsure whether we could get early check-in. When we went to England once upon a time, we got to our hotel in London after a night of sleepless travel only to have to wait on a couch in the hotel lobby for 4 hours. The kids were small then, and having stayed up all night, couldn’t move at all. But we had better luck here. We got into our room right away, and the teenagers only had to wait ten minutes or so. Lisa and I promptly fell asleep.
The Burg Hotel is hundreds of years old, but the rooms are kept up very well. Nice and cozy, with an old world feel. We have a view out the window of the town wall, a garden, and the surrounding valley.
At 1pm, our son burst into our room and announced that he was hungry. So we got up and starting walking around the town. We found a Chinese restaurant (!) and went in for some egg rolls and fried rice. It is a little strange to be served Chinese food by a rough looking German man, but it wasn’t bad. We then walked around most of Rothenburg. It is filled with very old houses, shops, museums, hotels and restaurants.
I had read about schneeballs and thought we should try one. It is the signature desert of the town. A schneeball is a baseball sized ball of pie dough, coated with sugar, chocolate, or other sweet things. We bought one and munched as we walked. It was OK, but I needed a glass of milk to go with it.
We went in the Crime and Punishment museum. It exhibited torture devices from the middle ages too gruesome to recount here. Ok, I’ll describe just one. A chair had spikes on the seat, the seat back, and on straps that held down the arms and feet of the victim. Interesting in a twisted sort of way. If a defendant pleaded “not guilty” to a crime, it was standard procedure to torture the person until they confessed. I believe this resulted in a 100% conviction rate. The museum also had many pictures and documents showing what life was like in the Middle Ages.
After a few hours, we were tired again and went back to the hotel for another nap. We had to have our energy for the Night Watchman tour.
At 8pm we walked through a steady rain to the market square of the town for the tour. About 15 years ago, a guy decided to give tours about the town. This has spread by word of mouth and some guide books. Some say it is now one of the best things about the town, so despite the rain, I knew we had to make the most of our only night in Rothenburg and take the tour.
The night watchman appeared from a doorway down a very narrow alley. He was dressed in black, with a long black cape. He carried a lantern, and a halberd. A halberd is a long pole with sharp blades on one end. A very effective weapon back in those days. He lead about 30 of us on a walk around the town for an hour, telling stories about the town, what it was like to live in the Middle Ages including tales of the bubonic plague, and why people through their chamber pot contents into the mud street every morning. It was very entertaining. Definitely worth the money he collected from us at the end (6 euros for adults, 4 for students). He said he had 200 people in the tour the night before. That’s a lot of cash for one hour’s work. But he was good.
We were hungry again so we stopped in an Italian restaurant full of locals for pizza and a first taste of authentic German beer. Two Italian guys ran this restaurant, telling us “Prego”! when we ordered. The pizza was excellent. We have made it through the first day here without eating any bratwurst and sauerkraut.
The Burg Hotel was the quietest hotel I have ever stayed at. Of course, it had interior walls two feet thick, and was built into the wall of the town. It was exceptionally quiet. That is, until the breakfast was laid out in the room next door. We had breakfast in an adjoining room, like a covered terrace, overlooking the Tauber River valley. It was a good way to start the day.
We walked around a portion of the town wall. The wall is about ten feet thick and twenty feet high. At the top of the wall is a covered path. From the top of the wall we could see out over the town on one side, and through arrow slits in the stone to the other. We walked a few hundred yards of the wall, just for the experience. The length of the wall overall was probably a couple of miles (the circumference of the town).
Rothenburg is known for its Christmas stores. Lisa went in to shop while the kids and I went to the top of the town hall tower to get some good bird’s eye photos of the town. We never made it due to the large throng of Japanese tourists packing the attic of the town hall, waiting there turn to ascend the narrow stairway to the very top of the tower. Only a few people at a time could be at the very top. After some time waiting, we gave up and went into the biggest Christmas shop. It was a maze inside, many little rooms filled to the ceiling with every kind of ornament, decoration, doll, anyone could imagine. And it was packed with Japanese tourists buying loads of things. Which is kind of strange, because in Japan they don’t really celebrate Christmas like we do, so why buy all of the stuff?
On the way to Munich, we stopped at a Burger King next to the Autobahn. We were a little surprised to see Burger Kings at many of the stops on the Autobahn. The menu has most of the items as in the US, but with a funny mixture of English names and German names. So you can get a Whopper burger, but the fries are called “King Pommes”, and so on. Pommes means “apple” in French, and pommes de terre means “potatoes”, so I don’t why they chose that name for German Burger Kings… It was tough to order, since we spoke no German and the cashier spoke no English. I know she asked me what kind of dressing I wanted for Lisa’s salad, but there was no way for me to tell her. The food tasted the same; I’m not sure if that is good or bad.
We also stopped at a truck stop to use the restroom. There was a special kind of bathroom at this place where you had to pay to use the toilet. But it was a fully automated, sanitary and clean place. The toilet seat automatically rotated and was disinfected prior to use. Haven’t seen that before!