An Epic European Road Trip
Published: October 2011
By Maria Shollenbarger
Five European countries, three days, one epic drive.
Day One: Brussels to Frankfurt (340 miles)
Before hitting the road, head to Place du Grand Sablon for a breakfast of—what else?—Belgian waffles. Angle for a table at Au Vieux Saint-Martin (38 Place du Grand Sablon; 32-2/512-6476; waffles for two $30), which serves some of the tastiest in town. Leave central Brussels and take the E411 highway going southeast. After about 45 minutes, you’ll enter the Belgian Ardennes—which look almost as pristinely wooded and unpopulated as they did decades ago. At the city of Luxembourg, pull off to stretch your legs at the I. M. Pei–designed Musée d’Art Moderne Grand-Duc Jean (3 Park Dräi Eechelen; 011-352/453-7851; mudam.lu) and have a snack at the café. Sated, head northeast into Germany across the hilly state of Rhineland-Palatinate on E44. At Koblenz, take E31 south, then E42 east, following the Rhine toward the city of Mainz, in German wine country. Push on to Frankfurt, and check in to the Gerbermühle (doubles from $210). Butter-yellow Gemütlichkeit on the outside, the small hotel (13 rooms; five suites) is all style on the inside. Sip an aperitif in the hotel’s Tower Bar, then venture out to the Westend-Süd for dinner at Gargantua (Park Gallery, 3 An der Welle; 49-29/720-718; dinner for two $100), where chef Andrea Torresan mixes French and German influences in dishes such as pike perch on lentils with champagne-mustard sauce and potatoes.
Day Two: Frankfurt to Munich (250 miles)
In the morning, fuel up at the hotel’s hearty (and complimentary) breakfast. Feel free to linger a bit: today’s drive is about 100 miles shorter than yesterday’s. Start on E41 south toward Würzburg, keeping an eye out for the castles and churches that cluster in the surrounding towns. Follow E45 south to Nuremberg (about halfway to Munich), and turn off to see one of those majestic buildings up close: the Imperial Castle (13 Auf der Burg; 49-911/244-6590), where the Holy Roman Emperors stayed from 1050 to 1571. Hop back on E45; from here on out, the highway widens to eight lanes. Fly past Ingolstadt, and soon all signs point to Munich, where you’ve booked a room at the centrally located Cortiina Hotel (8 Ledererstrasse; 49-89/242-2490; cortiina.com; doubles from $255), one of the best deals in town, with first-class service to boot. Drop off your bags and grab a taxi to the Alte Pinakothek (27 Barer Str.; 49-89/2380-5216), which holds a vast collection of European masterpieces by Dürer, da Vinci, and Rubens. Then to dinner: Stroll over to Maximilianstrasse—one of the city’s four royal avenues—and snag a table at Brenner (15 Maximilianstrasse; 49-89/452-2880; dinner for two $100), a perennially popular and cavernous northern Italian restaurant.
Day Three: Munich to Florence (450 miles)
You’ve got an eight-hour trip ahead of you, so wake early and order a traditional German breakfast spread straight to your room. Head south on E45, and within half an hour, Bavarian pastorals give way to staggering Alpine peaks. You’ll go through Wattens, Austria, home to Swarovski Crystal Worlds (kristallwelten.swarovski.com), a grandiose homage to the brand, where you’ll find one of the world’s largest Swarovski stores. At Innsbruck, the road swings to Brenner Pass—which is 30 minutes of curves and tunnels, cutting through beautiful Tyrolean peaks. On the other side? Italy’s Trentino-Alto Adige region. For miles, the European towns—carrying dual Italian and German names—cling to precipitous, terraced slopes and hide in the shadows of cliff faces. About an hour and a half beyond the pass, you’ll arrive in Trento, where, in the surrounding hills, some of northern Italy’s top wines are produced. You’re almost halfway there, so reward yourself with a lunch of porcini risotto from Locanda Margon (Via Margone di Ravina; 39-0461/349-401; lunch for two $49), which is helmed by chef Alfio Grezzi. Settle in again on E45; the peaks gradually mellow back into hilly terrain, sloping down to Lake Garda, with Verona at its wide base. From here, the driving is smooth and fast through rich agricultural flatlands; you pass Mantua, Modena, and finally, Bologna, where you switch to E35 south. It’s a winding four-lane joyride through steep hills, until a final crest brings you in sight of the Arno River valley—and Florence, with the Duomo just visible on the horizon. Don’t get too comfortable at the refined Hotel Lungarno (doubles from $295), owned by the Ferragamo clan. Give up those wheels and walk across the Ponte Vecchio into the city center to start exploring.
Maria Shollenbarger is deputy editor of How To Spend It at the Financial Times.