Driving the Autobahn

Driving on the autobahn in Germany, Austria and Switzerland is fun, fast and at times frustrating when there’s a traffic jam. The autobahn is built for speed with smooth pavement and wide curves. If you are used to driving on the interstate and highways in the U.S., driving the autobahn is vastly different from driving in the U.S.

Know the differences between U.S. traffic laws and those in Europe. Traffic laws for European countries can easily be found on-line. Also, it’s important to know the rules (official and unofficial) of the different style of driving you’ll find when driving the autobahn. I found when talking to Europeans about driving, that unlike Americans, Europeans have an unwritten but strict driving code of behavior.

When driving the autobahn, Europeans expect that the fastest vehicles will drive in the far left lane. The left lane is only for overtaking or passing. The far right lane is for the slowest vehicles. It’s considered extremely rude to drive slow in a fast lane and hold up any cars. I also found Europeans and Germans in particular, are more aggressive drivers. If you are laid back, don’t stay alert and don’t pay attention to your driving, the road and those driving around you – you may have problems. Traffic in Europe is high volume and fast paced, but it is more civilized with well-trained, excellent drivers, who are confident and know what they are doing. They assume you will drive the same way they do – with speed and skill. Overall, I think that driving in Europe is safer, even at the faster and more aggressive pace. The following guide includes things I found essential for driving on the autobahn.

No passing on the right

The first thing any driver needs to know about the rules for driving the autobahn is that passing on the right is illegal and drivers take this seriously. You must move into a left lane in order to pass.

Double check your side-view mirror before moving into the left lane
Always check your rear and left side-view mirror before moving to the left land. This is critical on sections of the autobahn with no speed limit. Even if you are doing the “recommended” speed of 130 km/h (81 mph), you may feel like you are standing still when suddenly another car flies by. Make sure you check your mirrors before changing lanes.

Slower traffic stays to the right.

Whenever possible, stay in the middle lane at a steady speed (if on a 3-lane section of the autobahn) or the right lane (2-lane sections) if driving slower than the rest of the traffic. Move back to the right as soon as possible after passing slower vehicles. If you are in the left lane and see a vehicle coming up from behind, signal and move over to the right – quickly. Speeding cars can suddenly appear out of nowhere, with headlights flashing at speeds exceeding 100 mph in unrestricted speed areas. Drivers flashing headlights is common and a perfectly acceptable way to let someone going slower know you’re coming up from behind. If you see flashing lights, just move over to the right as quickly as possible.

Always use your turn signals
Drivers almost always use the turn signal to indicate a lane change. Do the same.

Follow the speed limit

Contrary to popular myth, there are speed limits on the autobahn. While there are still a few stretches where it is legal to drive at top speed however, those sections are limited. The autobahn often has speed limits in sections with consistently heavy traffic, dangerous curves, poor weather, at entrances/exits, and near towns and cities. When you get further away from these areas the speed limit restrictions are lifted.

The sign that indicates an area with unrestricted speed is gray with diagonal lines. This sign lets you know you can go as fast as traffic (or your car) allows. Occasionally, the signs include a number painted behind the lines; 130, for example, indicates the end of the 130-kilometer-per-hour speed restriction. Even in unlimited-speed sections, the autobahn has a recommended speed of 130 kilometers per hour (or 81 mph).

Driving the Autobahn - Autobahn sign
Autobahn Unrestricted Speed Sign
Driving the Autobahn - Autobahn sign
Autobahn Unrestricted Speed Sign
Driving the autobahn - Autobahn Sign
Autobahn Legal Speed Limit Sign

The speed limit sign for restricted speeds is a black number on a round white sign outlined in red. Dynamic or changeable overhead electronic signs may also show the current speed limit and warnings based on traffic flow etc. Some sections have limits of 120 km/h (75 mph), 110 km/h (68 mph) or lower, especially in urban areas. Speed limit signs on the autobahn are spaced farther apart than those on the interstate in the U.S. Make sure you always know what the speed limit is even if you don’t see a sign.

In Europe, you rarely see warnings like “reduced speed ahead.” One minute you are driving 130 km/h, and suddenly you see a 110 speed limit sign. You are expected to pay attention to the posted limits and slow down. The speed limit signs are not just “guidelines”. From my experience, almost every vehicle immediately slows down when the sped limit changes.

AutobahnConstruction delays and traffic jams are also part of driving on the autobahn. At construction zones or near exits, you will see a series of speed limit signs, usually starting with 100, (62 mph) then another sign with 80 (50 mph), then another with 60 (35 mph). You can’t resume speed until you see an end-of-speed-limit sign or a new posted speed. Some GPS units, can identify traffic problems and route you around them.

Don’t Take Aggressive Driving Personally

Drivers in Europe can be – well, actually most are – aggressive. They honk, they flash headlights and they drive fast. They pass and suddenly cut you off. You are not given a wide berth when passing like what is typical in the United States. Don’t take it personally – it’s just the way they drive. Learn to go with the flow. You are not in Kansas anymore or anywhere else in the U.S.

Take a Break

Driving the autobahn takes concentration, can be stressful and is tiring if you are not used to the intensity of driving it. When you need to, take a break and relax a bit. The autobahn has rest stops (Raststätten) about every 35-40 miles with gas stations, restaurants (some are very good), shops, picnic tables and toilets or WC (with an entrance fee – keep change handy). There are also smaller stops along the way that are simply parking lots or areas with picnic tables, a WC and parking. Watch out for “Autohof“, larger service stations located near the Autobahn, but not directly connected to it.

Tolls on the Autobahn

Austria and Switzerland charge drivers a toll for using their autobahn. Both countries use autobahn stickers and require display of the sticker on the windshield – driver’s side.

Switzerland uses an annual fee for driving on the autobahn. I purchased the sticker at the border crossing (after leaving France), where I was also able to change our Euros to Swiss Francs. The sticker can also be purchased at post offices, petrol stations, garages, touring club offices (TCS) and Customs. The price for the sticker during our trip was 40 francs. See The Swiss Motorways for more information on tolls in Switzerland, as well as general information about the autobahn in Switzerland.

Austria also requires a sticker for driving on the autobahn, but is available for shorter lengths of time – 10-day, 2-month etc. with the ten-day toll sticker you can use Austrian toll roads for ten consecutive calendar days, with the punched day counting as the first calendar day of this ten-day period. Austrian toll stickers are available at most petrol stations, tobacconists and automobile clubs, as well as at all ASFINAG toll stations. See ASFINAG for more information about tolls in Austria.

There is a heavy fine in both countries if you do not buy the sticker. You can avoid the fee if you stay off of the autobahn in these countries, but it is not easy to do.

I hope this guide helps when driving on the autobahn. Have fun and happy driving!

If it’s Monday it must be Switzerland, Austria, Germany and Lichtenstein

Today is Monday and according to our itinerary it must be Switzerland, Austria, Germany and Lichtenstein – and we were in some of these countries more than once. Our final destination was Fussen, Germany. Fussen is located in Bavaria, near the Austrian border, at the end of what is known as the Romantic Road. We decided to stop in here because it’s near Neuschwanstein Castle, one of King Ludwig II’s three castles, which we’ll be visiting tomorrow. In photos the castle looks like something out of a fairy tale.

Since it was going to be a long day, we had decided  our only stop on the way to Fussen would be Vaduz, Lichtenstein. Lichtenstein is a tiny country, between Switzerland and Austria, covering just over 62 square miles, with a population of about 35,000. While it was a bit out of the way, we decided it would be fun to add it to the list of countries we visited. Vaduz is a beautiful pristine, small town. No litter, no graffiti – postcard perfect everywhere. In the center is a pedestrian mall filled with artwork, expensive shops and cafes. The Prince of Lichtenstein’s castle was built in the 12th century and prominently sits  high above the town. The Prince by the way is Prince Hans-Adam II von Lichtenstein – head of the 900 year old family.

Lichtenstein is a wealthy country, with a per capita income of $134,000. The town is filled with BMW’s, Mercedes’, Bentleys, Audis, Porsches and Jauguars, most of which were black. After exploring Vaduz, we stopped at the visitor center to have our passports stamped with Lichtenstein’s seal – and from the line evidently it”s a popular stop for tour buses. Included here are also a few photos of  the sculptures and buildings in Vaduz.

We spent the rest of the afternoon driving through the countryside on small roads in Austria and Germany. The rolling hills, villages and farms were beautiful. By the time we stopped for the evening in Fussen, we were ready to cool off and relax – the weather has turned hot. Getting to our hotel was a bit tricky since it is near the center of Fussen in the old town area. After a few wrong turns and some back tracking (the GPS is not a lot of help when streets suddenly turn into pedestrian only – it still wants you to drive down them…) we made it to the Hotel Hirsch. You can’t miss it – it’s big and pink. It fit my criteria for hotels, being old and family run – in the same family for four generations. The staff are wonderful and upgraded us to a larger room in the turret at the front of the hotel. The room is huge with a small balcony. Tonight we are having thunderstorms, with thunder that I haven’t heard since living in the Midwest. But it’s a welcome change and cooling things off a bit. The temperatures have been in the mid to upper 80’s since we arrived in Annecy, France. Even in the mountains in Switzerland the highs were in the 80’s. Rain or no rain, we’re headed out to walk through the old section of Fussen, and then had a late dinner at the hotel restaurant.

 

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These photos are of Fussen and Hotel Hirsch.

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And a parting shot of Switzerland as we left Lauterbrunnen this morning. We didn’t get a chance to spend much time here and have added it to our must return to list. Next time I’d like to visit some of the waterfalls. Staubbach Falls, the one in this photo, is just one of 72 in the Lauterbrunnen Valley and is the first thing you see as you drive into town.

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Tomorrow we’ll be visiting Mad King Ludwig’s castle and then on to Salzburg.

Top of Europe

Today we woke up to clear blue skies – a great day to take the cog railway up to Top of Europe.

Top of Europe is the highest railway station in Europe, located in the Jungfrau Region of Switzerland. The railway was started in 1893 when Adolf Guyer-Zellar decided that there should be a railway station all the way up to the top. The station is built into the rocks in the cradle of the mountains in between Mönch and the Jungfrau in the Bernese Alps. This year is the 100th anniversary of the opening of the railway all of the way to the top.

So what is a cog railway?  It’s a railway with a toothed center track instead of the two parallel tracks. The teeth connect with a cog underneath the the train cars. The cog and track create more traction for the train on steep slopes like mountainsides. While safe they move slowly – which we would soon find out.

After breakfast at our hotel, with cheese, meat, bread, yogurt and lots of toppings (nuts, dried fruit, jam, muesli – very healthy), we headed to the Wengen train station. Before long we were on one of the bright green and yellow cars taking us on the first leg of the trip to Klein Scheidegg. There we changed to the Jungfraubahn train, another cog for the rest of the way to the Top of Europe, located at 11,333 feet (Jungfraujoch Station).

For the best views on the trip up the mountain, arrive early and take a seat on the right side of the train. But don’t be surprised if some passengers think it’s ok to climb, lean and bend over you to get a better view for photos.

The trip from Wengen to Top of Europe takes about an hour and a half with stops at a few other small stations along the way. The scenery is breathtaking and always changing. There are some stretches in tunnels or avalanche sheds, but it makes the trip just that much more interesting to think what a feat it was to have tunneled through the mountain 100 years ago. The rail stays open during winter months providing service to  ski runs located along the route.

Before beginning the trip, first here is a view of the sunrise in Wengen from our balcony at the Hotel Edelweiss. We were on a south facing upper floor.

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The train climbs 6523 feet from Wengen, which is at 4180 feet. The ascent is pretty steep (25%). In fact it’s so steep that seats are angled on the train to prevent rear-facing passengers from sliding off. The trip up the mountain was filled with one amazing view after another with brief stops at stations. The stations were starting points for several hikers.

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The weather at the Top of Europe was crystal clear  and we were able to see Interlaken, Bern and the Black Forest. Days as clear as this are unusual – last week it was overcast and snowing.

If you’re a James Bond fan, and Top of Europe looks familiar, it was featured in the movie Octopussy.

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And here are a few more photos of Wengen.

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Yes We Do Hear Cow Bells…

One of the first things we heard from our room in Wengen, Switzerland  were bells somewhere in the distance. I immediately thought – cow bells. I asked the manager here at the hotel about it, and he said yes, there are several pastures in the area, and farmers use bells to keep track of the cows. When I was growing up in Wisconsin, we used to go to a small Swiss town called New Glarus named after Glarus which is near here, and I remember the cows in the pastures there also wore bells. They were the most beautiful brown Swiss cows that looked like this… 20120617-214625.jpg

We Love Switzerland!

We love Switzerland! The country is beautiful, the people are gracious and friendly, it’s clean and everyone drives fast – but safe. I love driving here, especially in our zippy little Renault. The highways are in excellent condition and efficient.

On the way to Wengen, we visited Gruyere (yes, where the cheese is made), and it has been one of our favorite places so far. It is a beautiful quaint, village with cobblestone streets, and buildings dating back to medieval times. In addition to the village, there is a cheese making institute, and a faint odor of gruyere cheese throughout the village.

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And now that we are in Wengen, how did we get here? Since leaving Portland, we have traveled by plane, Chunnel, TGV, auto, and lastly cog railway – and it has been worth every second, every heavy suitcase and every mile!

Wengen is simply – stunning. We are staying at the Hotel Edelweiss, which is more like a B&B, than hotel. The service is personal and the host makes you feel like you are at home. And dinner, a traditional Swiss meal, was excellent – the best yet. Our room is simple, almost spartan, but the view from it is, well….. You decide.

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This is the cog railway we took to Wengen from the station in Lauterbrunnen.

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Beaune in the Heart of Burgundy

I forgot to mention that before Annecy, on Friday morning we took the TGV to Dijon and picked up a car for the rest of our trip. Since I’ve been driving cars with a shift since I was 16, I decided it would be fun using one again. I wasn’t disappointed when we picked up a 6-speed Renault. It has been a few years and I forgot how much fun it is driving a stick.

It’s been a great day driving in France and stopping for the night in Annecy . But before telling you about today, here are a few photos of Beaune, a beautiful town located in the Burgundy region of France. We stopped here briefly for a walk around the town before heading to Annecy.

 

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