An E30 3-Series, Three Friends, Three Days, And A Pilgrimage To The Homeland
Let’s share the same religion. The one with Bibendum above the bed rather than a crucifix, a mechanic who asks you as penance pads and a pair of discs after confessing to some abusive braking, where mass is celebrated with the sound of starter motors and what comes next. Devout follower of Automobilism, in an effort to strengthen your faith, once in your life, you must make a pilgrimage.
The garage door still creaks. Lately I’ve spent too much time under the hood of my BMW to remember to spray some WD40 on these damn hinges. But it does not matter much today, for after a long winter spent chasing mechanical problems and discovering and repairing rust, it’s time to consider the road. It’s time to get outside. Traveling by car, a road trip off the main route, presents an opportunity to meet old friends that we see too little of—like Damien, whom I’ve damaged some small cars with when we were kids doing what kids do—but it’s also an opportunity to consolidate fresh friendships, like the one I’ve shared for the past year with Yannick, in Strasbourg, France. Our road trip was far from the epitome of organization, but we knew enough about where we would end up.
The plan was to cross into Bavaria via the Alpenstrasse to reach the Holy Land for those of us who swear by Bimmers: Munich, the world headquarters. The approach of summer left the three of us with some free time to spend how we liked so we dedicated three days to roaming more than a thousand kilometers of cool, twisting, wandering roads rather than major motorways and Autobahns. We would pick and choose our way there, the gear shift acting as the pilgrim’s staff.
Day 1 : Strasbourg to Schwangau
The weather is miserable, Yannick’s sofa is as soft as his cappuccino, and the rain doesn’t look to be letting up anytime soon. We catch a break between two downpours eventually, and our bags with a few pairs of socks and pants are thrown into the trunk before we engulf ourselves in the cockpit, safe from the pelting sky. We head towards the Rhine, the natural border between France and Germany, by crossing the bridge that sends us into another country.
The narrow roads that meet us as we enter the Black Forest are slick and the wall of trees does not look very inviting in the case of a too-wide slide, but we still appreciate the beginning of our adventure into Germany. The music is synchronized with the turns that follow each other with a consistent cadence, the wipers provide the percussion, and the straight-six snorts at each lift of the right pedal. Growing more confident with the roads, each thrust of the throttle sends the tires away from grip and makes the rear end swing out like the hips of a hula dancer. We are having a good bit of fun by this point, and soon enough this mechanical orchestra takes us to the shores of Lake Constance. The road along the lake is perfect for cruising with one’s elbow on the windowsill, but alas, it’s still raining. We are reminded that there are tradeoffs in this world.
The lake closes and turns into mountains proper, and soon we are at the gates of Bavaria. The car whirs enthusiastically through the gears, and we anthropomorphize it a bit; it must feel the satisfaction of returning home, 33 years after leaving the factory. The Alpenstrasse offers us beautiful wide roads with perfect asphalt, and we make good progress. Behind us the windows drip the water, and behind the water, mist covers the tips of the mountains. They seem to play with the clouds, playing a lofty game of hide and seek amongst themselves, their summits exposed and hidden with the rhythms of the wind. It’s enjoyable to witness and our curiosity stays piqued as the range reveals itself in this piecemeal fashion. We point excitedly at each break in the cloud cover, though we hope that the morning will be rung in with the sun.
Day 2 : Schwangau to Königssee
Alarms. Showers. Shutters opened. Eyes strain, but for good reason: sunshine streams in through the windows, our prayers have been answered. Thank you, Gods that rule the Road Trip.
Damien has fun with the map and draws a route along the edge of a nearby lake charting out the perfect route to a place for a picnic breakfast. We set off enthusiastically, and the seats of the car don’t make us miss the beds of the hotel in the slightest. It is barely eight o’clock in the morning, the sun filters through the mountain-dented horizon, and we discover the first lake of the day. Three expletives ring out in the car as we all describe the beauty in the crudest terms. Our eyes surely shine as much as the blue water, for we have the kind of spot that travel sites sell you all day long when you’re stuck at work indoors. We settle down, smoothies and cacao, unfolded map pointed at, passed around, thoroughly used. The roads we choose all seem to build on the craziness of the others. The country is so beautiful that we forget the bickering over routes and just keep driving; there are always alternatives, and you can’t drive them all, so it’s best to enjoy the path you’re on.
We leave the road winding through the valley and the route that we’ve drawn at the last minute takes us on a path that grows smaller and smaller. “It’s going to end in the dirt,” “Should have brought a Range Rover, not a BMW.” We think about making a U-turn before losing the rapidly narrowing and patchy asphalt below us when suddenly a panel leaning against a shed begs us to stop driving and pay a toll for the use of this “road.” We lose four euros, perplexed as to why that must be the case, but we keep going, sinking deeper into the forest and onto a small road that cuts through it. The firs block the view until the exit of a wooden bridge brings us to the planes of visual nirvana. On the left rise the mountains, on the right a valley where a blue glacial river flows wide. We stop at each viewpoint: the spool of wire that was to be used should we have to repair something on the car could be useful now in raising our jaws. Three more expletives in the pursuit of describing this vista sound out in the valley.
The road is amazing, smooth, tortuously twisty, stretching about twenty kilometers to the Sylvenstein Bridge. It is an architectural marvel, but its position on the lake makes it quite stunning in a different sense than that of something like the Golden Gate. As if the surroundings did not offer enough, the bridge seems to have been shaped by the landscape: it flits over on the water with a gentle, natural twist. Getting onto the bridge, leaving the trees along the road abruptly, it gives us the impression of cutting the lake in two. Prophets of a moment, we continue to drive to Lake Königssee. With all the contemplative and photographic breaks along the way, and the meal based on beer and schnitzel, we arrive too late to take a boat ride. Too bad? No! It’s still plenty of time for a drink!
Day 3 : Munich, The Holy Land
Today we hit the highways to rally to Munich, the mecca for those who cruise with a propeller on the hood. The tachometer shows a healthy 230km/h even with the windows down. It’s hot and the speakers shout inaudible noise that cannot overcome the sound of the wind. We don’t know if the five bars on a white background, announcing the end of speed limits, are a paradise or a hell. Surely a bit of both, depending on whether you are under the hood or behind the steering wheel.
The Autobahn makes you chase speed single-mindedly, and the pilgrimage turns into a crusade. Whenever the limits come back into play we go down to decent engine speed and our steed is rewarded with a loving slap on the dashboard. Fortunately for my old rod bearings, we are now in urban traffic again as we exit toward Munich. We look for the tower of the BMW museum, guardian cathedral, beacon. We finally see it. The car is with us, we are with the car, we’ve done it together. There’s nothing to do but recharge in the museum, pray to the M12/13, the engine that earned an F1 world championship in ’83 as the first turbocharged unit to do so, and contemplate the treasures of the brand that made our fourth fellow traveler.
This pilgrimage with buddies, not well prepared for, with a car not really ready to perform more than a thousand kilometers, pushed us to the question: why do not we take to the road more often? Obviously, this trip is a modest one in relative terms to cross-continental treks. We have not traveled three quarters of Europe, or crossed the oceans, but this is precisely the interest. It’s not a busy calendar, a too-empty bank account or a too-capricious car.
We aren’t nailed to the couch and reading the travel stories of others. The right to drive on nice roads cannot apply by proxy. The spirit of a road trip, whether it is around your home or far away, remains the same. If there is evening drunkenness, a little stomachache when the car gives a sign of weakness, laughter between friends, a windshield that turns into a movie screen, turns and high-speed straightaways, one has no choice but to look back on it and say it was a categorically good time. Still reading? Why not take a break between two articles, say a little prayer at the feet of Bibendum, and get in you car for whatever kind of drive suits you.