Recreating the world's first ever road trip in Germany

Think ‘road trip’ and the USA springs to mind, but the first ever long-distance car journey happened in Germany. Inspired, we hit the tarmac to discover castles, eccentric kings and a little touch of magic

8 mins

Does Cinderella live here?” asked the little girl while she pulled at the guide’s skirt and gesticulated wildly at the building ahead. It might sound like a naive question but gazing up at the white stone walls of Neuschwanstein Castle, rising impossibly from the cliff top above Pollät Gorge, I confess that I found myself wondering that too. Its towers, topped with ornamental blue turrets, resembled upturned ice-cream cones, while the facing wall was adorned with an elaborately large balcony, the likes of which could easily stage the closing scene of a children’s cartoon. It’s little surprise that Walt Disney famously used it as the model for the Sleeping Beauty Castle at Disneyland.

Standing above the city of Füssen, this Romanesque beauty was just one of several fairytale castles I’d spied since arriving in Bavaria. It was built for King Ludwig II, a man famous for his eccentric behaviour, love of lavish artistic flourishes and disinterest in any state affairs. It was he who was responsible for making Bavaria look like it had been lifted straight off the pages of a storybook. But it wasn’t just the architecture, or indeed Bavaria, that had got me thinking that I was in a land of make-believe.

Another tale of an equally fascinating character had brought me to the country. And like most good stories, mine had started some time ago in a city far, far away (well, over 300km away at least) in a place called Mannhiem…


Neuschwanstein Castle that inspired Disney's Sleeping Beauty Castle (Neil S Price)

“There was a massive explosion – 12 horses ran away and six chickens, two geese and a dog all perished,” my guide Melanie Kastner explained as we stood at the city centre beneath the Wasserturm, a cylindrical water tower that looked like a turret plucked straight from one of King Ludwig’s castles. She was recounting what sounded like an embellished tale of a madcap inventor called Carl Benz, who, having just patented the very first ‘Motorwagen’ (aka horseless carriage), took it on a test run along the main street of Friedrichstrasse, causing pandemonium and several animal deaths. But this wasn’t a story, this actually happened 130 years ago on the street where I was now walking.

Back in the late 19th century, the very idea that people would drive around in cars for fun was as far-fetched as the idea that a Disney princess lived in Germany. So how did he recover from this disaster? It’s all down to one woman: his wife.

Mention the name Bertha Benz to most people and they will stare blankly at you. Visit the town where she lived and opposite the water tower where a replica of Carl Benz’s first automobile stands you’ll find a huge mural dedicated only to him. But had it not been for Bertha, his invention may have been lost to the ages, and few would deny the legacy of the woman who undertook the world’s first road trip and sold the idea of driving for ‘leisure’ to a sceptical public.


A replica of the first Motorwagen used by Bertha Benz (Neil S Price)

Bertha wanted to help her husband sell his new invention by showing people what it could do. So, one August morning in 1888 she crept out of their house in Mannheim with her two sons – leaving a note to Carl that read: ‘gone to see my mother’ – and took the car. She was headed to Pforzheim, a town 90km away.

“It not only broke social standards but would have been against the law too,” said Melanie as we reached a sign on the wall that discreetly marked this as the workshop belonging to Carl and Bertha – now, somewhat aptly, a garage.

In the tyre tracks of giants…

Inspired by this risk-taking, adventurous woman, I picked up my own car and set out to recreate her journey. Back when Bertha left, getting out of town would have been tricky as there were no proper roads. Today, it was almost as difficult because there were so many. I found myself funnelled by a constant stream of cars onto a busy highway, and with roadworks forcing me to re-route, I soon lost my bearings.

Following my nose, I finally cut south-east, passing Ladenburg, which houses a collection of prototype cars and family heirlooms inside the Carl Benz automobile museum. A little further on, the ruins of a Renaissance-era castle and the old bridge of Heidelberg zipped by my windscreen. I continued, eager to reach Bertha’s first significant stop on her trip – Wiesloch.

The scent of freshly baked bread wafted through the air as I left the car (somewhat ironically, the town centre is now pedestrianised due to traffic congestion) and headed uphill. It was among these small cobbled streets, many hours after she set off, that Bertha arrived – a third of a way through her journey. By this point, what she needed was fuel for the car’s combustion engine. Thankfully, that was easier to come by than you might think. Ligroin was a popular petroleumbased cleaning solvent available in all good pharmacies. And so she stumbled into the Weisloch Stadt-Apotheke and asked them for every bottle they could spare – inadvertently making this town home to the world’s first filling station.


The statue of Bertha in the ‘car’ outside Stadt-Apotheke in Weisloch (Neil S Price)

I stopped outside the building and was pleased to note that it was still a pharmacy to this day. Wandering inside via the modern-day entrance, I got talking to owner Dr Adolf Suchy, who led me through the backdoor into the original building. Suddenly I was back in the 19th century, the sharp tang of disinfectant mixed with the scent of painted wooden dressers, all of which were adorned with an alchemist’s stash of potions and mixtures in blue bottles.

“Back then, people would use Ligroin for getting stains out of clothes,” explained Adolf, “and I’m sure she would have had a fair few from working the automobile by that point! She would have had to refill the water tank every few miles from streams to stop it overheating. Plus, the fuel line had got blocked, so she had to use her hatpin to unclog it.”

That wasn’t the only problem Bertha encountered – and solved – on her journey. Speaking to a local at her (and my) next stop, the town of Bruchsal, I was informed of how she used her garter to insulate a hanging ignition wire, had a cobbler nail on leather break shoes she designed when the wooden blocks Carl had made wore out (simultaneously inventing the first break pads), and commissioned a blacksmith to repair a chain that broke. All this, and she still found time to chat to passersby about the benefits of travelling by automobile, creating a storm of interest that spread by word-of-mouth across Germany and ensured that Carl’s invention would find an enthusiastic audience.

Before the day’s end – much like me – she neared the outer reaches of Pforzheim, her final destination. My car, despite being free from garter-made repairs, sputtered a little as the tarmac undulated on the approach. Bertha encountered the same issue – hills. Thankfully, she employed the help of her sons and coerced some onlookers to help push; it’s no wonder that on her return she insisted Carl add another gear.

No more than two hours after I left Mannheim, I had reached Pforzheim. Back in 1888 it had taken Bertha 15 hours to do the same trip. This was where she had finished her journey, but thanks to her clever marketing stunt we all now have reliable vehicles (with enough gears). So, with no mother to visit and now sat on the edge of the Black Forest, I decided to extended my road trip in her honour to see what other fantastical stories I could uncover on four wheels.


The gardens in Mainau (Neil S Price)

Continuing the legacy on the roads not taken

I didn’t have to go too far. The next day, as I headed deeper into the countryside and buildings gave way to trees, I found myself in Triberg. Once known for its cuckoo clocks, it found itself in the world’s spotlight in 2012 for quite a different reason. A multi-storey parking lot was built that featured two awkward spaces, positioned on a difficult angle. The mayor decided to label them as ‘men’s spaces’. The story went viral. A global outcry ensued, quickly followed by a rise in visitor numbers, proving that it’s not just the women in Germany who can manufacture clever PR stunts.

When I arrived I was less interested in parking and more enthralled by the fantastical promise made by a small road sign saying that I could stand inside the world’s largest cuckoo clock. I drove straight past the one in Eble Uhren-Park that claimed the official title from Guinness – too much of a coach party and gift shop affair – and continued instead to the very first giant cuckoo clock, built 36 years ago by local man Josef Dold Schonach.

“He wanted to build it to show people what the inside of a cuckoo clock looked like, so upscaled a normal clock to 50 times its size,” explained his daughter-in-law, who greeted me at the door. Being inside, with the workings whirring and clattering above me, I felt like a little girl. I watched in wonder as she demonstrated the bellows that mimicked the sound of a bird calling, and waited around to see it strike at the turn of the hour.

From high forests to giant lakes, my road trip continued south to the shores of Bodensee (aka Lake Constance). Itching to stretch my legs, I headed to the island of Mainau. It’s a spellbinding, natural space to wile away a day. Walking through its many tiers revealed sculptures of giant flowering ducks, faces emerging from the grassy banks and winding water features to hop over – it’s like a grown-up play area. Continuing the theme, I retired that evening to Klausenhorn Campsite, on the edge of the lake, opting to sleep in a wine barrel that had been converted into a glamping pod – the perfect place to watch the sunset.


The wine barrel glamping pods at Klausenhorn Campsite (Neil S Price)

At daybreak I took Route 31 along the north side of the lake in no particular hurry. Every few kilometres I’d stop at a diversion, visiting vineyards, churches and, notably, the archaeological open-air museum at Unteruhldingen where reconstructions of Neolithic stilt houses sat above the water, as if floating on its surface. As giant Zeppelins began to appear in the air above me, I realised that I’d reached the lake’s eastern edge and, as if by magic, I’d entered Bavaria.

Aside from its storybook castles, the state also has another claim to fame. It is home to the first tree-hanging tents at Waldseilgarten Höllschlucht. It sounded so deliciously childish – the idea that at the end of the day you could literally climb up to bed – that I had to give it a go.

“I suggest you go to the toilet now before you head up,” said instructor Markus Depprich as I put on my harness. I’d love to tell you I completed the ascent with the grace of Rapunzel’s prince, but as we’d feasted on a heavy meal of käsespätzle (cheese noodles with onion) before bed, mastering an ascending device to hoist myself 7.5m up a rope was less than easy. After half an hour of swearing, I finally made it to the tent and collapsed. I thought sleeping this high might be more scary than relaxing, but as my tent swung in the gentle evening breeze and the sound of actual cuckoos began to call, I drifted off into a deep, dream-filled sleep.


Tree-hanging tents at Waldseilgarten Höllschlucht (Neil S Price)

The magic kingdom

Sunlight stirred me around 6.30am and I awoke to watch the sun rise above serrated mountain edges far in the distance, all framed by the leaves. No sooner had I abseiled down to solid ground than I was back on the road, driving through the heart of Pfronten, a district made up of 13 small townships. Thanks to a tip-off from Markus, I started with breakfast at a mountain hut where another determined woman called Silvia Beyer had just made history (Bertha would be proud) by opening the first vegetarian Alpine hut in the country. At first, locals were sceptical – Bavarian food is legendary for its high meat content – but curiosity had got the better of them and the crowds were starting to come. “I had no business plan,” laughed Silvia, “But I knew it would work if I just cooked it my way. Many people don’t even realise that it’s all vegetarian.”

Fuelled up, I met my walking guide Erih Goessler, who arrived wearing a felt Tyrolean cap complete with feather (a wanderhut). We started at the ruin of Falkenstein Castle, also planned by the ostentatious King Ludwig II but never finished. Despite the crumbling walls, there was something unmistakably magical about its location and things were about to get even more enchanting. “We’re about to go along my favourite passageway,” promised Erih. “The Alps are on one side and the rolling hills and flatlands on the other – you’re going to love it.”

The next few hours were spent teetering on the edge of dramatic escarpments, dancing between the Austrian-German border that snaked along the trail and plunging deep into woodland where the floor was littered with pinecones that exploded like popcorn under our feet. By the time we finished at Alatsee Lake and jumped in the car to get a glimpse of Neuschwanstein Castle, I felt I’d finally crossed the line from reality into fantasy and didn’t want it to end.

But every road trip – like every good fairytale – must have an ending. Bertha’s story, you’ll be pleased to learn, finished well. The car was a huge success, kick-starting a business that would become Mercedes- Benz and she lived to be 95 years old. Then, in 2008, a local group established an official Bertha Benz Memorial Route. But there was one question still to be answered on my road trip. “So does she?” the little girl continued to press the guide at Neuschwanstein. “Does Cinderella live here?” The guide bent down patiently to look her in the eye. “No, that’s make-believe,” she replied. The girl looked sad.

“I can tell you about another amazing woman who did live near here though,” I offered. The girl looked up at me, and so I began: “Once upon a time there lived a woman called Bertha…”


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