Germany has a reputation not only for building fast cars but also for testing their capabilities on high-speed autobahns. But the diesel scandal has taken the shine off of automobiles, while massive traffic jams and European Union regulations have slowed the speedways. Instead of staring at the backs of trucks, take the nearest exit and enjoy some of the country’s most beautiful little-known towns.
If you do, make sure you have time to enjoy the ride. The Bundesstrasse 3 — known as the B3 — is a sleepy two-lane highway that runs about 500 miles from Basel, Switzerland, where I picked it up, to Hamburg in the north of Germany. It’s 27 miles short of being Germany’s longest highway, but what it lacks in superlatives, it makes up for in sightseeing.
The B3 meanders through diverse terrain — sometimes it’s almost autobahn-like; other times it’s been diverted through towns. In the section that runs through Baden-Württemberg, it parallels the Rhine, cuts through pastures and cherry orchards and skirts the Black Forest.
Speed is not the point of the B3. Blissfully slow travel is.
“The B3 is like seeing a cross-section of Germany,” says Wolfgang Groeger-Meier. Drive it, he says, and you’ll see “the landscape’s different, the food is different, the architecture is different, the people are different.” Groeger-Meier should know. The photographer from Munich — which is nowhere near the B3 — has been driving the old highway most of his life, starting when he was growing up in Hamburg. For the past two years, he has documented his travels on a blog and now in a book.
Speed is not the point of the B3. Blissfully slow travel is. Stop at casino towns and spa resorts where people soak in curative waters. Stroll down cobblestone pedestrian zones with working centuries-old fountains and half-timbered architecture. Take lunch at guesthouses that overlook narrow portions of the Rhine.
Plus there’s an Elvis Presley connection. In 1958, Presley’s chauffeur drove him on the B3 nearly every day from the Villa Grünewald in Bad Nauheim to the Army base in Friedberg where the American idol was stationed. Presley’s hotel room — No. 10 — has been preserved so it looks identical to when he stayed there.
There are other historical gems along the B3, which the Celts were the first to tread and the Romans paved. The B3 was a mere bridle path when Bertha Benz bumped along it in August 1888, stopping at the Stadt-Apotheke in Wiesloch to buy a few liters of benzine to fuel her car. Today Benz’s trip is recognized as the first long-distance trip by automobile (a feat she undertook without the knowledge of her husband, Carl Benz). In doing so, Bertha not only proved the usefulness of a horseless carriage but also saved the family business: Daimler-Benz. “We were the first filling station in the world,” says retired chemist Adolf Suchy, who will open his private museum at the Stadt-Apotheke to tours if you call ahead.
If you’re looking for places to stay, there are dozens of pensions and guesthouses along the B3. An alternative to traditional lodging is the Cloister Maria Hilf in Bühl, which is run on behalf of the elderly nuns who reside there (overnight stays help pay to keep up the grounds). The rooms are cheap and predictably sparse.
On a culinary note, the B3 intertwines with the Baden Wine Route, where travelers can taste traditional rieslings, gewürztraminers, pinot noirs and lagreins that winegrowers started planting a decade ago in response to climate change. Of course, even along the Wine Route, there will be a beer garden. There’s always a beer garden.
Back on the road (there’s also a bike path that runs parallel to the B3), as you pass fields, forests and vineyards, the B3 can become a spiritual journey, even Zen-like. (Warning: It’s not all pretty — there are some industrial stretches.)
Entering a Zen state is useful when your GPS says it’ll take about three hours from Zurich to Stuttgart, and instead, it takes two days. Your patience will be rewarded.
Driving in Germany
Unlike autobahns, which often have a recommended speed limit of 130 kph (80 mph), the B3 is much slower. Speed limits differ depending on where you are, but the fastest stretches are 80 kph (50 mph).