I am fortunate to be almost spoiled for choice when it comes to having Volkswagen enthusiast events. 1 From informal get-togethers to multi-day events at huge venues, there’s always something to keep you and your car sociable. And if you were to walk into any one of these events and ask which is the most famous water-cooled VW gathering in the world, it’s likely that one word will be a common response: “Wörthersee”
The acclaimed Wörthersee (Lake Wörth in English), is a tourist hotspot in southeastern Austria, with multiple towns and villages dotting the hilly landscape around the lake. It’s here that the GTI Treffen has been held every year since 1981, attracting millions of Volkswagen fans over that time. Last year’s event promised to be one of the biggest yet, as it marked the 35th anniversary of the show, the 40th anniversary of the European Golf GTI (the USA Rabbit didn’t come along until 1983), and one more birthday that less people would know, the 20th anniversary of the U.S. market multi-colored VW Golf Harlequin. So with this in mind as I sat around in Pennsylvania daydreaming about traveling to the show, I decided that it might be fun to find one of the 264 Harlequin models ever produced and take it to Austria with us.
After many hours of searching, the right car was located, and brought back to my shop in Pottstown, Penn. A full restoration was undertaken, with the chassis being completely gone over and repainted, new suspension components and brakes fitted, with refinished BBS 2-piece wheels, and a whole lot more added too. I wanted to keep the car with its original specification for the most part, as it was such a limited edition and would be almost unique driving around Europe on its American vanity tag.
You can read about the trip over here; the Harlequin had of course arrived safely, and I quickly hit the road heading south through Germany. Our plans included a visit to the Nürburgring, although snowy conditions made us hesitant to try our luck on a track nicknamed “the Green Hell.” With over 14 miles of tough elevation changes and corners to contend with, it’s one of the most challenging circuits in the world – and at certain times, open as a one-way public toll road. So if you wanted to drive up with your American registered automobile and pay the roughly $30 entrance fee, you’re welcome to have a go in your own car. The poor weather meant that the entrance lines were short, and living up to the local weather’s ability to quickly change, almost as soon as we entered the track the sun started to peek through the clouds and dry it out. We didn’t time our laps, and I’d been skeptical about taking the freshly rebuilt car out onto it, but I say this with my whole heart: It was amazing. Huge grins, lots of stomach-pushing fast dips and rises, and just corner after corner of fun. I thoroughly recommend going, and you can even rent track-prepared Volkswagen GTI and Scirocco models from local independent garages if you’d like to really give it a go.
And so with that, and some brief stops in Düsseldorf and Munich, our tourist section of the trip was done. We drove to the lake heading southeast from Munich, stopping to buy the mandatory Austrian Road Tax sticker and also to take photos of the snow-capped mountains. The 2016 event was scheduled earlier than usual, and we caught the end of the winter’s snow on the way. As we approached the show, more and more VW enthusiasts joined us on the road, which was all the morale boost that we needed to complete the journey.
The official show is called the GTI Treffen, and it’s held for four or five days in the village of Reifnitz around the month of May, with the exact dates determined by a German holiday. The “Wörthersee” event lasts for weeks though, and that’s where planning gets a bit tougher, as this is not your usual VW show. Thousands of people start to arrive at least two weeks before the show, and rent out almost every hotel and guest house around. Impromptu meets spring up all over the place, but there’s a few key spots that one needs to be aware of to make the most of your time.
- The Velden gas station and car wash. The site of so many famous photographs, you can’t miss it if you’re browsing the internet searching for cars at Wörthersee. The owner of the gas station wanders around and politely says hello to you, while lines form for both fuel and for the enclosed car wash area, which is the place to see and be seen. The security guards politely wave you into the private parking area where the nicest cars get to be viewed, and when the crowds aren’t walking through here, they line the street outside with folding chairs and picnics during the day to watch the cars slowly roll by. At night it’s still a great spot to visit, but it does close at midnight, when the crowds quickly disperse. There’s a handy webcam online so you can even check out the action before driving there, or from your office cubicle back home of course.
- Faak (aka Faaker See). About a 25-minute drive west of Wörthersee lies an equally beautiful lake, but that’s not why we go there. Opposite a buffet-style restaurant is a large private parking lot which gets packed full of every type of VW and Audi imaginable. Some of the smaller meeting spots can be hit or miss, but there’s almost always people at “Faak.” Inside the restaurant they offer Wiener Schnitzel and made-to-order pizza, and it’s family friendly – there’s often videos of previous year’s events on the TVs. They also erect a festive tent outside, where you can hang out and listen to the sounds from the “turbo corner” – what the Germans call a stretch of road where engines can be revved
- Velden. This is the small town where the famous gas station is located, which used to be the place for well-to-do Germans to vacation, complete with a casino and some nightlife. Now for a few weeks in May the streets are lined with Golf R and Audi RS cars, and it’s a great spot to get some good food in a restaurant, and to stroll along the lake’s edge.
- Reifnitz. Until the main GTI Treffen is happening, this is either a peaceful village or a temporary construction site for the massive Volkswagen display. Home of the famous stone statue of a Golf GTI, you can take your photo next to (or on top of) the partially finished car, as it emerges from the rock it’s been carved from. Once the Treffen has started this is a must see, although the “cool kids” might have left town before this time. There’s plenty of walking as the cars and vendors are spread through the village, so wear appropriate shoes and don’t forget your sunblock. This isn’t like the quiet little local VW gathering you’re used to.
- Pyramidenkogel, and the lookout tower at the top. At 2,700 ft., this mountaintop parking lot is a spectacular place to meet other Volkswagen owners, and the twisty mountain drive up to it is worth the side trip alone. At the top sits a 272-ft.-tall tower which you can reach the top of via your choice of taking the stairs or the elevator. From the top, both ends of the lake are visible on a clear day, and you can hear VR6 engines roaring through the trees. For a few extra Euros you can opt to take the high speed (and slightly claustrophobic) 215-ft slide down to the bottom – and it’s well worth it.
The next week was spent meeting old friends and making new ones, as the weather went from freezing to the more usual bright sunshine and warm clear days. Our rental house now hosted our group from across the United States, Europe and Japan. Throughout the week we met people from all across Europe, Africa, and a good number of other Americans, and we all managed to communicate fairly well, or at least when the cars were the topic of discussion. If you’re thinking about taking the trip, some very basic German language skills will make your stay more enjoyable – a simple “guten Tag” (good day) and “danke” (thank you) will be appreciated by the locals, who likely speak enough English to help when you run of words in their language. If you’re making a family vacation out of the trip, there are also plenty of other tourist spots nearby, such as the beautiful lake in Bled, Slovenia, which has a church in the middle of it. The Italian border is also nearby, with Venice a day’s drive away.
With our own trip starting to wind down, we saw some high quality cars pack up and leave, with others replacing them in anticipation for the main event. For this, Volkswagen AG’s show team had constructed a massive display covering half a football field’s worth of space with cars and interactive displays. The Golf Clubsport S that had just smashed the front-wheel-drive lap record at the Nürburgring was on display, next to standard versions of each generation Golf GTI from the original Mk1 to the latest Mk7, via the 20th Anniversary Mk3 and the 25th Anniversary Mk4 (released as the 337 Edition in the USA). And then there were also a select group of enthusiast owned cars invited up on stage. These included a nice Mk2 Golf Rallye, a Mk7 Golf Cabrio, a clean Mk4, and then a certain 1996 VW Golf Harlequin…
I honestly believe that everyone has a Volkswagen story; whether it’s your current car, maybe your best friend had one back in high school, or perhaps one of your parents had a Beetle back before your were born. I think that helps create a common bond, and it’s an amazing feeling to be able to travel to a different country in a different continent, and be with complete strangers who you could likely quickly count as friends after a simple conversation about that shared passion.
Wörthersee really is a special event, and I hope that you have the chance to visit it yourself to enjoy it. Just make sure to pack a smile, a few simple German phrases and your favorite Volkswagen story, and you’ll fit in just fine.