The 2020 BMW M240ix is a fast, comfortable, and sporty car. When you have the opportunity to drive a new one directly out of the famed Zaha Hadid-designed BMW Welt factory in Munich, and straight onto the Autobahn — where speed limits are largely non-existent and the smooth macadam leads to absolutely anywhere you want to go in Europe — it’s the stuff that travel dreams are made of.
The BMW is my brother Jordan’s new car, a significant upgrade from his 15-year-old Saab. Instead of picking it up at his dealership in Seattle, he opted for “European Delivery,” where the owner takes possession of the car at the factory in Munich and is provided with two weeks of insurance coverage, subsequent 6-10 week shipping time to your US dealership from one of a dozen European drop-off points, and up to 5 percent off MSRP. A perfect way to conquer the road and save money (except gas, hotels, and aperol spritzes).
The BMW Welt (world headquarters) is reminiscent of a glittering spaceship, and it recently surpassed Schloss Neuschwanstein, the model for Cinderella’s castle at Disneyland, as Bavaria’s top tourist attraction. The luxurious reception provided to new owners — a personalized welcome and instruction on your new vehicle, eagle eye viewing of your sparkling new car as it spins slowly on a giant lazy susan, complimentary buffet in a glass walled dining room (including beer at breakfast) — is a far cry from driving off a parking lot in Seattle or Norwood.
A day before the pick-up, I met Jordan at his Airbnb in Freising, a small historic city 20 miles outside Munich, where Bavarian architecture fills the downtown and Weihenstephan Abbey, the oldest brewery in the world, has been operating since 1040.
It was Oct. 3, German Reunification Day, a national holiday and one of the busiest days at Munich’s gigantic Oktoberfest. This year, Oktoberfest’s 6.3 million visitors quaffed 7.3 million liters of beer. We caught a train into Munich, packed with lederhosen and dirndl-skirted revelers; all of us headed for one of the world’s biggest parties.
Oktoberfest is mind boggling. Beer “tents” the size of airplane hangars are home to fields of picnic tables where casts of thousands feast on trays of wurst and pretzels the size of truck tires. Liter-sized steins of beer are ubiquitous. Brass bands and oompah bands play and everyone sings at the top of their lungs, many standing on tables. It was perfect for jet lag. We hefted our own gigantic steins, visited the midway and eventually returned to quiet, charming Freising where nobody was vomiting on the sidewalks.
The next morning, a chauffeured BMW delivered us to the shimmering Welt, where Jordan was introduced to his sparkling blue BMW. After a visit to the expansive BMW museum, we pulled out into stop-and-go Munich traffic. Then, with his foot to the pedal, we peeled off onto the autobahn.
“When you get a fast car, everything speeds up,” Jordan said. And it was true. We traveled more than 1,200 miles through five countries, zoomed from oceans to summits, got vertigo on 100-plus hairpin turns crossing three high alpine passes, visited museums, underground rivers, frescos hidden in Slovenian village churches. We hiked in snow, swam in the Adriatic, and often, we didn’t decide where we were going until we got there. We saw so much astonishing beauty in art and nature that we often didn’t remember where we’d been the day before.
Our first destination from Munich was the Grossglockner Alpenstrasse, Austria’s highest mountain pass and one of the world’s greatest driving roads, with 36 hairpin turns and views over 37 mountains. Snow was falling when we reached the toll booth and the road closed behind us. Jordan drove through misted mountain peaks. We hiked when we reached the top and spent the night at small wind-blown Berggasthof Wallackhaus, a hotel opened 50 years ago to feed the road’s first construction crew.
There was ice on the road when we left the next morning, but by the time we reached Bled Castle in Slovenia, less than three hours away, we had sun and temperatures in the 70s. The castle hangs on a precipice with spectacular views over blue Lake Bled, and to the distant Julien Alps.
And it was on that day, Jordan’s second with his new car, that a bit of brick flew at us from a farm truck, and dinged the windshield. So much for perfection.
Bled was a stop on our way to the capital of Ljubljana, a small city where cafes line the river and 50,000 university students energize the streets. Art, music, history, local modern cuisine, boutiques, and markets fill the bright lanes, and the shadow of Tito, who died there in 1980, is long gone.
We traveled in Slovenia for four days, through mountains, wide valleys, tiny villages, and disappearing lakes. We toured Predjama Castle, an incredible feat of Renaissance architecture where the castle is built in the mouth of a massive cave. We went deep underground in Skocjan Caves, Europe’s largest known cavern system. We stopped at a fortified church in the tiny hill town of Hrastovlje to see a medieval fresco depicting characters — from peasants to royalty — all being led to their graves by skeletons. Our final stop in Slovenia was Piran, a breezy coastal town of narrow streets, Venetian architecture, and views as far as Venice. We swam in the Adriatic and watched a perfect sunset. I could hear the waves from our hotel, and I didn’t want to leave.
We did leave, and reached Trieste as the city was preparing for Barcolana, crowned the world’s largest sailing regatta by Guinness World Records after this year’s race.
From Trieste we drove to Venice, missing the historic floods by a month. Early autumn was mild, with fewer tourists and easy access to hotel rooms and shorter lines at sites. We walked the city, often in circles, deep in the maze of alleys, and found our way to the Scuola Grande di San Rocco to see Tintoretto’s extraordinary masterwork. We visited the powerful Jewish Museum, wandered in and out of palazzos housing the Venice Biennale, listened to a concert in a peeling 17th-century villa, watched a sunset from the Campanile, and woke early to visit St. Mark’s Square before crowds of wedding photographers and tourists converged.
After Venice was Ravenna, where a friend was curating a photo exhibit. We were floored by the eight UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the city, an astonishing wealth of fifth- and sixth-century mosaics housed in basilicas and mausoleums. Saints, angels, parables, lions, and songbirds, all laid out in thousands of tiny glittering tiles, including one panel that’s believed to have the first depiction of the Christian devil, with blue tinged skin, sitting beside Jesus.
After Ravenna, we were saturated. And spoiled. So much art. So much food and wine. So many miles of beauty outside the car windows. We drove to Verona but did nothing more than walk the ancient streets, drink wine, visit Juliet’s home, and head for the hills.
We went to the Italian Alps via Lake Garda, stopping in Malcesine to swim and climb to the top of its castle before heading to the Stelvio Pass. We raced a storm front, nearly alone at sunset on the road’s 48 switchbacks, the sky glowing. Snow and bright yellow larch forests were laid out below us.
The ski town of Bormio was abandoned at shoulder season and we had our first rain that night. The next morning, under gray skies, we hiked a steep trail in the Stelvio National Park, with views far into the distance as the sun broke through.
Our final day together included the only major navigational mishap: we drove the Fuorn Pass — through Switzerland’s only national park — twice, not realizing the GPS had lead us astray. We drove the Flula Pass shortly after, across rocky peaks and misty moonscapes, missing the incredible views as rain poured down. We counted the hours to Lake Lucerne in inky darkness, arriving late at Seehof Hotel du Lac, a whitewashed Victorian hotel perfect for an Agatha Christie novel.
But in the morning, there was Lake Lucerne, snowy peaks in the distance, palm trees on the docks. Jordan had three more days. I would have stayed much longer. But after breakfast, he drove me to the Zurich airport, and I climbed out of the car.
Beth Jones can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.