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 …
“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 clifftop above Pollāt 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 dosing 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 oft 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…
“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.
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.