Driving in Europe: What You Need to Know (or basically, everything we didn’t)


Obviously, Vanessa and I are road trip fans—hence the name of our website. When we say every road is a story, we really mean it—especially when that road is Germany’s autobahn.

Before our trip, we both assumed that the autobahn was a single highway in Germany. Turns out, the autobahn is the entire highway system throughout the country. (Maybe we should have done some research?) Chances are, if you’re road-tripping through the country, you’ll get a chance to try out your super speedy driving skills. If your co-pilot lets you.

Terri: The autobahn! This is going to be fun!

Vanessa: No talking, no shouting, no making any noise whatsoever. I have to pay attention.

Terri: You might need my help.

Vanessa: To go up in flames?

I managed to stay quiet for the first five minutes but then had to share the advice I’d heard from a German driver who probably figured that it was the last time he’d see us. Until the funeral.

Terri: Stay in the right lane if you’re going to drive like an old person. Get in the middle lane if you’re going to drive like you normally do.  And then scoot on over to the fast lane as least once. Otherwise, you don’t get bragging rights.

I know Vanessa would have rolled her eyes at me, but she was intent on keeping them on the road. She handled the autobahn like a boss, including the fast lane. Which it turns out, is really, really fast. Like light-speed fast.

Vanessa: Dear god. That little dot of a car miles behind us got here in seconds!

Terri: I’ll remember that when it’s my turn to drive.

Vanessa: Not happening.

Terri: I don’t get to drive?

Vanessa: Not in this lifetime. Which would be considerably shortened when you started chatting and forgot you were in the fast lane. Like you do.

Terri:  That’s not fair.

Vanessa:  Fine. We’ll pull off the road and I’ll get out. Then you can drive. I’ll wait.

Needless to say, I did not get to drive the autobahn that day. It took a return trip to Germany without Vanessa for me to get my chance, and obviously I lived to talk about it. Not sure about the other drivers, but at least I’ve got bragging rights!

A red shoe on the ground in front of a castle.
What? You don’t run across Cinderella’s slipper on your road trips?

Beyond the Autobahn

The autobahn isn’t hard to navigate, you just have to remember which lane you belong in. The rest of the roads in Germany, however, were a bit more challenging. We figured this out while driving the Fairytale Route through the Black Forest, where the deep, dark forests and abundance of castles served as an inspiration for many of the beloved fairytales by the Brothers Grimm. Along the way, we visited the house of the Seven Dwarfs, slept in Sleeping Beauty’s castle and even kissed a prince. What we should have probably done was walk through the woods instead of drive—but we all know how that worked out for Hansel and Gretel.

Our first difficulty was the language barrier. Neither of us speaks a word of German—except “prost†because it’s absolutely necessary to know how to say cheers in every language. Considering most road signs were devoid of words, this wasn’t an issue; you just have to interpret the symbols, right?

We picked up the speed limit signs right away—it’s a number (duh). If you can’t figure that out, you should never leave the country…or the house. When a speed zone ended, a sign appeared with a slash through the number—sort of like a no smoking sign for drivers. The only problem was that the speed limit signs only appeared occasionally; turns out you’re expected to know the standard speed limits for country and city roads. We had no idea. Still don’t.

Managing to avoid tickets by keeping pace with other drivers worked fairly well for us, though we did get a ticket emailed to us—it was in German, so we’re still not sure of the offense. All was going well until we entered Heidelberg. I was chatting as usual when this appeared…

A street sign with arrows pointing in different directions.
Any idea what this means? Yea, neither do we.

Vanessa: What fresh hell is this?

Terri:  I think it means that there’s a circle somewhere, and lanes around it.

Vanessa: Great. So there’s a massive carousel in the middle of the road? WHAT AM I SUPPOSED TO DO?

Terri: Close your eyes and pick a lane.

I’m not sure if she actually closed her eyes, but she picked a lane with no oncoming traffic and somehow, we survived. While I realize that Germans are very good at math and science, is it really necessary to use geometric symbols on road signs? Why not use words?

Oh, that’s right. Some people don’t speak German.

A blue sign with yellow arrows on it
According to this sign, things are canceled. We just don’t know which things.

Following Bertha Benz

Because we’d so obviously mastered driving in the country, we decided that one of our road trip goals was to follow the Bertha Benz Memorial Route, which was the world’s first long-distance road trip. Married to the legendary Karl Benz, the automotive brain behind the world’s first patented automobile, Bertha was equally pioneering. Without informing her husband, in August 1888 she took her sons Richard, 14, and Eugen, 15, to drive the Patent Motorwagen No. 3 from Mannheim to visit her mother in Pforzheim—a distance of about 65 miles. Her goal was to show her brilliant husband the way to properly market his invention to the public.

Along the way, the intrepid Bertha solved a myriad of problems. When a fuel pipe became clogged, she remedied the problem with a hatpin. And when she needed to insulate a wire, her garter served as the tool of choice.

Inspired by this innovative woman, Vanessa and I set out to follow her journey. We failed. Not because we had no hatpins or garters on hand for car repairs, but because, once again, we were at a loss when it came to signage. We lost the route within minutes of sighting the first memorial marker, only to spot it randomly as we wound our way through the countryside; it was like a huge game of German Where’s Waldo?

When we tried to stop for photos, we couldn’t find legal parking—though we did find a number of what turned out to be one-way roads. While we were going the wrong way. Clearly, we were not in the same league as Bertha when it came to pioneering road trippers…which is pretty pathetic considering we actually had GPS, real fuel and smartphones. Maybe next time, we should take some brains.

A man and woman on a bicycle with two men.
Bertha Benz & Sons (Recreated photo: we didn’t actually meet her…in case you were wondering.)

If You Go:

I’m not sure we should advise anyone to drive in a foreign country, but we do it, so in good conscious, we have to give you a few tips before you follow in our wayward footsteps.

  1. KNOW BEFORE YOU GO! Look up the standard rules like speed limits and what the road signs actually mean before you leave home. The Internet is your friend.
  2. GPS is also your friend—but only if it speaks to you in English. Make sure you have it set to a language you can actually understand. Also be prepared to exit on a dime; our GPS marked distance by saying “Stay on this road a long time…†only to suddenly tell us to exit without any warning. Not easy to do when you’re flying on the autobahn, missy.
  3. Rental car companies may offer you a free upgrade to an SUV. Think twice, because there are some pretty tiny parking spots in parking garages throughout Europe. And gas is fairly expensive. There’s a reason everyone drives compact cars. Also make sure to specify if you need an automatic; a lot of cars are still standards.
  4. Don’t believe the time Google Maps says it will take you to get to a destination in Germany. Germans are much more comfortable driving at the speed of light on the autobahn than the inexperienced (aka us). We were late to every single place we went, and that was even driving at 120 mph. Seriously.
  5. Don’t be cheap. If a country offers a paid pass to drive on the interstate, suck it up and pay the fee. This from the woman who didn’t pay the fee in Switzerland and ended up lost in the dark alone for hours because my GPS didn’t understand why I couldn’t just get on the highway!
A blue sign on the side of a road.
Couldn’t help but giggle at this exit sign.

 

Vanessa & Terri Taste Scotland…Literally


A man in a kilt and hat playing the bagpipes.

Somewhere in Scotland…

As bagpipe music pierced the air and young Scottish lasses swirled on stage, I was distracted by a somewhat more annoying, persistent sound.

Vanessa: Psst. PSST!

Terri (whispering): What?

Vanessa: What’s that on my plate?

Terri: Some sort of Scottish food. Taste it.

Vanessa: I don’t know what it is.

Terri: Just eat it!

Vanessa: Give me one good reason.

Terri: Because we’re on a Taste of Scotland tour, so you should taste things. Now please just put it in your mouth so I can hear the music.

Vanessa: Not until you identify it.

Terri: It’s haggis!

Vanessa: You mean sheep parts?

Terri: Pretty much. It’s like an American hot dog. With unidentifiable parts of unidentifiable farm animals. Except Scottish.

Vanessa: There’s a real future for you in menu writing.

A man in a kilt and a woman in a dress
Welcoming the haggis…but, why?

While perhaps not the most appetizing food, haggis has a big role in Scottish traditions. In fact, it sometimes even gets its own ceremony, as we learned at a true Scottish dinner, where this “delicacy†was escorted by a bagpiper in full regalia, accompanied by a kilted man with a thick accent who sang the praises of haggis in a very moving tribute that we completely couldn’t understand. But while tasting haggis is certainly an option on a CIE International Taste of Scotland Tour, it’s not a requirement. In fact, the only thing required of you on this type of tour is that you show up…and relax.

A boat is in the water near some trees.
Lovely Loch Ness

Let someone else do the work

Vanessa and I tend to be independent travelers. We’ve set out on our own in countries like Belize—where renting a car from a local in less than stellar condition (the car AND the local) landed us in the middle of a herd of goats. Tackling Germany with its mind-boggling road signs also comes to mind as one of our less than thought-out decisions. And, we’ve been known to book lodging in locales with frightening amenities…or lack thereof. But this time, we let someone else do the planning—and the driving—as part of the Taste of Scotland motorcoach tour with CIE International.

Although this is not our typical style of travel, choosing this trip turned out to be the best possible experience for our first foray into Scotland for many reasons. Not only did we get to experience the highlights of Scotland including Glasgow, the Scottish Highlands, St. Andrews, Loch Ness, Edinburgh and points in-between—but we got to do it while drinking whisky. And seeing really large, hairy cows.

A fountain in the middle of a park with buildings behind it.
Stunning architecture in Glasgow

No One has to Drive (or Die)

One of the best parts of touring on a motorcoach is that you don’t have to figure out how to drive in a foreign country. On the other side of the road. Or with someone who, according to Vanessa, might be easily distracted.

Terri: I can totally drive on the opposite side of the road. I did it in Ireland once…for about 15 minutes. And then there were sheep.

Vanessa: And I’m sure there are now less sheep in the world. You’re not driving. And since I’ll be sampling whisky, I’m not driving either.

Terri: And the sheep rejoice!

My husband, Greg, joined us for this adventure and has opposite-side-of-the-road driving experience…sort of. But that would mean I would be constantly navigating, and Vanessa would be clenching her teeth and holding on for dear life in the back seat.

Not to mention, we had whisky to drink.

A group of people holding glasses with alcohol in them.
You can’t do this & drive!

It Turns out we Actually Like Other People (Sometimes)

One of the highlights of a group tour is often the group itself. On board the motorcoach we were entertained by our lovely guide who shared not just the history of the places we visited, but also plenty of folklore—all with a delightful Scottish brogue. And there was music…melancholy songs about the ‘bonnie bonnie banks of Loch Lomond’ along with peppier bagpipe tunes.

One thing that impressed me was the age range of all of the people traveling with us. For some reason I expected to be surrounded by lots of retired couples in their 70s and 80s. I would have been fine with that, but it was cool to see a young lady in her 20s sharing the experience with her grandmother. We also hung out in the hotel bar one night (OK, every night) with a couple celebrating a 40th birthday. When I asked what made them choose this mode of travel, convenience was certainly part of it. But it was more than that. They said that they didn’t like to research a destination. They preferred to show up with in-depth experiences laid out before them. Now I totally get that.

Spending time in the company of such a diverse group of travelers really enhanced the experience for us. I’m sure they felt the same way about traveling with us…maybe.

A view of the mountains from across the valley.
The moody landscapes of the Scottish Highlands

A ‘Taste of’ Just Whets the Appetite

Vanessa and I are both of Scottish descent, so visiting our ancestral country was a dream come true. In fact, we were so overwhelmed with all the places to explore that we couldn’t decide what to do when. We wanted to see it all!

Typically, I would figure out a way to cram 4,572 experiences into a 5-day trip, which would give Vanessa a headache, and me the feeling that there was still something else I missed! Thankfully, the itinerary for the Taste of Scotland tour offered an excellent overview—and just made us hungrier to plan future visits to our homeland.

We began our tour in Glasgow, a city with a unique blend of old and new architecture and fabulous murals. It was a wee bit soggy for our drive alongside Loch Lomond, but it was beautiful even in the rain—and the weather actually worked quite well with the melancholy lyrics being piped through the motorcoach’s sound system. The rain subsided enough in the Scottish Highlands for us to get a few photos of the stunning landscape, and during the ride we continued to enjoy viewing the awe-inspiring vistas and tumbling waterfalls–while staying completely dry.

Later we boarded a boat and cruised Loch Ness, searching for everyone’s favorite sea serpent, Nessie. She, unfortunately, failed to make an appearance, but I’m quite certain she was lurking somewhere deep in the cold waters—probably just waiting for the loud, laughing tourists to go away.

A sign that is on the side of a road.
Blair Athol Distillery – A must sip destination

Did I mention whisky?

We stopped at Blair Athol Distillery in Pitlochry, where we toured the facility while breathing in as much of the whisky-laced air as possible. And we tasted their delicious 12-year-old single-malt whisky—one of the best things to come out of Scotland (besides us, of course.) You have to love a place where you not only get to enjoy a fine product but also get to spend an hour in such a bucolic, serene setting—there’s something absolutely charming about a distillery where instead of modern machinery, there are signs to remind you that the malt whisky lies sleeping while Mother Nature and Father Time do their work.

A sign that is hanging on the side of a building.
Shhh!

Let there be sun

On our sunniest day, we explored the golf mecca of St. Andrews, Scotland. It was better for everyone if we didn’t attempt to play (the one and only time we tried to learn, the golf instructor actually threatened to quit, but that’s another story). Instead, we wandered the cobbled streets of the town, past shops selling custom-made kilts and, of course, whisky. The ruins of St. Andrews Cathedral beckoned us to the top of the hill, where we wandered through a medieval cemetery to see breathtaking views of the North Sea; we followed the road back down toward the beach, walking along the edge of the sea past what was once St. Andrews castle.

A castle like building with two towers in the background.
Ruins of St. Andrews Cathedral

Our final destination was the historic city of Edinburgh, where we toured the stately castle towering above the city center. The afternoon included wandering the Royal Mile, where medieval houses still stand and roaming the ancient cemetery of the Parish of Saint Cuthbert where a watchtower was built to keep a lookout for grave robbers—an occupation I’ve never quite understood. It’s just so….gross.

Which brings us back to haggis. While in Edinburgh, we greatly enjoyed the Spirit of Scotland dinner, where despite that offering (no one lining up for seconds?) there were actually many other edible options, all served with a wonderful side of Scottish dancing and storytelling.

So yes, we’ve tasted Scotland and we’ll be back for more. Probably not more haggis, but definitely more Scotland.

A view of the city from above, with trees in the foreground.
View from Edinburgh Castle including the Dog Cemetery

If You Go…

CIE International offers tours in several destinations including Scotland, Ireland, Italy, Eastern Europe and Iceland. There are several themes too—from family tours to castles to whisky tasting. There are also self-drive options for those who are competent. Check out all the options at www.cietours.com.

 

Disclosure: We were the guests of CIE International for our tour but all opinions, shenanigans and whisky consumption are our own–we claim it all.