German Alps: Driven to new heights
Jeremy Clarkson, eat your heart out. Pól ó Conghaile discovers the real meaning of the term 'road trip' on an adventure through the German Alps in a luxurious Audi
'Vorsprung durch Technik.' It's been the Audi tagline for as long as I can remember, and it still evokes memories of my dad swooning over his Car Magazine subscription. But now, with snowflakes churning up the air in a thick Bavarian winter, I'm finally going to learn what it means.
The literal translation, of course, is 'Progress through Technology'.
I'm not here for a German lesson, however. I've signed up for an Audi Driving Experience, a package allowing me to whisk a top-notch motor away into the Alps. How does it work? Simple. You choose the car, then Audi suggests the routes, books the hotels and throws in a breakfast, a factory tour and a bon voyage. Jeremy Clarkson, eat your heart out.
Thankfully, given the weather, I'm eased into the driving. A chauffeur picks me up at Munich Airport, driving me 75km to Ingolstadt, where the Audi Forum is located. It feels as though we're inside a snow globe, but my chosen vehicle -- the 3.0-litre Q7 TDI Clean Diesel -- is eating the autobahn like a packet of After Eights. There's no speed limit on large sections of German motorways, but the car is fitted with winter tyres, a sticker warns. So, maximum speed: 240km/h.
Okay then. The chauffeur drops me off at the Hotel Rappensberger, at the heart of Ingolstadt's Old Town, and I pore over my maps in the company of a frothy beer and a piping-hot plate of beef and cabbage. Somehow, I doubt I'll hit 240km/h. But I'm bloody excited.
The next morning, I get my first taste behind the wheel on a short spin to the Audi Forum, the brand's gigantic campus in Ingolstadt. The engine purrs, the car prowls and I grow instantly accustomed to a driving position worthy of a Roman Emperor. I won't mention time spent figuring out how to release a foot-operated handbrake (nor the symphony of horn-honking this provokes in the traffic behind me) because, other than that, the journey goes swimmingly.
Turning into the Audi Forum, a gleaming city of glass and steel, I pull the Q7 up alongside fantastic specimens of automobile. There is an A8 with blacked-out windows; an S5 with wing mirrors tucked away; an R8 surrounded by admirers in a foyer. It's all a big Audi love-in, of course (I'm one of 400,000 visitors every year), but there isn't a whiff of cynicism -- just bona fide feeling for the four-rings brand.
It's urbane, it's savvy and it's a paradise for petrol-heads.
Inside the Forum I meet up with Matthias Strotkötter, a customer- service rep who hands me a wristband for a complimentary "second breakfast" (Genius! Why don't they exist over here?). We then repair for a 101 in the Q7's onboard systems. The familiarisation session takes place in a sleek lobby, through which a steady procession of new Audi owners files to collect their motors. A swanky espresso bar and Audi shop add to the glamour.
After that, it's onwards for a tour of the production line. This is a gob-smacking two hours, during which I literally witness galvanised steel sheets become finished cars. A strange ballet of robotic arms joins, welds, squirts and bolts more than 400 parts into a chassis. "They work almost perfectly," explains Nadia, the tour guide. "They never get tired. They never get sick. They never go on vacation, and they work for 14 years for around €26,000."
I keep expecting Wall-E to whirr round the corner.
From there it's the human touch, as workers float in and out of the production line adding air bags, dashboards, headlamps and so on. Some 2,400 cars are produced every day at the factory, with a tolerance for error of just two millimetres on a six-metre vehicle. It's hypnotic to watch, and moments like the marriage of the body and chassis, or the first turn of key in a newborn car's ignition, are strangely beautiful. All it lacks is the narrating voice of David Attenborough.
By now, I'm gagging to hit the road. But there's one final visit -- the Audi Museum. Set on three levels, the collection here runs from 1899 to the present day, taking visitors from old custom-built models through gaudy rally cars to cutting-edge coupés.
Running my finger along funky models from the 70s and 80s, watching people snap photos of the Audi RSQ (a concept car driven by Will Smith in the movie I, Robot), I prepare to send several gloating text messages to my dad.
After all of this, it's finally down to the drive itself. Matthias has programmed the Sat Nav, so I simply sit in, press go and nose towards the lobby's automatic doors. They glide open, my winter tyres crunch on to a snow-covered piazza, and I pilot the Q7 out on to the open road.
On the A9 autobahn, I hit a happy cruising speed of 140km/h. The car's technology is like a fellow passenger. If I stray too close to the white lines, the steering wheel vibrates in warning. Sensors and a camera guide me into tight parking places. When I set lights to 'auto', they vary their brightness automatically. The clean diesel engine apparently reduces nitrous oxide emissions by up to 90pc, but all I know is that it drives like the automotive equivalent of a La-Z-Boy.
Shortly after bypassing Munich, the Alps pull into focus. Huge and hulking, I can soon make out the ski runs. The Bavarian countryside is swathed in a swaddling blanket of snow. Its pine trees bend under the weight; old churches look newly pristine; fields cry out to be tobogganed on. I take one stop, in Traunreut, where I break for a mosey and a takeaway coffee. The town square is a pretty winter scene; its shops arranged like the cover of a chocolate box.
My touring experience is just one of several on offer, I should point out. Audi also offers a training experience where you can improve your driving techniques under professional instruction in the Austrian Tyrol. You can check in for an ice-driving package inside the Arctic Circle in Finland, even a gourmet tour. Customers choose pretty much whatever model they like, and there's also the option of a customised experience, where "you're the boss", as Audi puts it.
The Alpine route soon takes me off the autobahn and on to twisting mountain roads. A host of options are open to me here -- from Seefeld to Kitzbühel, St Johann to the dizzy (and dreadful) heights of Hitler's Eagle's Nest. I'm leaning into it a little more now, gripping tighter as the Q7 gobbles up the hairpins, applying its size to the nip and tuck of mountain driving.
By the time night falls, I'm glad to hit the driveway of the Intercontinental Berchtesgaden. After several hours on the road my eyes are starting to tire, and this classy five-star, built along elegant curves overlooking Mount Watzmann and the Alpine landscape, is just the ticket.
Handing the keys to the doorman, I check in for an evening of downtime.
It comes easy too -- there are loads of nice touches including a sunken lounge based around a raised marble fireplace, a wine cellar-cum-tapas bar, sleds stacked for guests just outside the front door, a spa that boasts two saunas (one with a window overlooking the snow), and an outdoor hot pool in which I sit and steam, dipping my fingers into the snow alongside.
Berchtesgaden is a pretty pocket in the German Alps, and the Intercontinental nests above it like a penthouse. There's loads to do here too -- Salzburg and Lake Königsee are a short drive away, and Audi has suggested several looped drives, each a couple of hours long, to fill up the weekend.
I also take in a couple of hours on the ski slopes just below the Intercontinental, turning my legs to jelly before resuming the controls of a vehicle that I really don't want to return.
It's been a road trip, in every sense of the phrase.