Off the Bus Route; On the Bike Route

Reprinted From November 1979 CYCLE Magazine

Story and Photographs by Bill Stermer

On Beach's Alpine Adventure you can ride a BMW through a high pass topped by a brooding granite eagle, picnic in the Alpine meadows, have your tongue wrung by Bitter Campari, enjoy the sensual delights of backcountry Italy and find that verbal mishmash can make sense. If Europe is a land where everything is available, Beach's is a tour which makes it all accessible. It's like hearing, "I'm going to be gone three weeks, kids. Would you mind watching the toy shop and candy store?"

Two years ago to the day that the spring 1979 Bob Beach group arrived in Munich, I was on an American Express tour bus chuffing through the Arlberg and Brenner mountain passes in the company of a large contingent of white-haired geezers and blue-haired geezettes. Occasionally from afar back would well a buzzing roar and up would pop five or six serious riders on modified cafe bikes. They would dance behind us momentarily, then blip a quick downshift and, one by one, peel off past us like a squadron of fighter planes. I'd watch them reach the next turn where they'd drop a knee, hang off, and take it in a hard and graceful snapping arc. "Next time," I said, "I'm going to do Europe that way!"

For Americans, the lure of Europe is strong. We envision the romance of sharing a bottle of wine at an outdoor cafe while speaking of Life's Truths, of great dreamy castles clinging to craggy islands, of quaint-looking "real" people in native dress toiling and smiling dutifully for our cameras, and of classy hotels where we talk wryly with the waiters in that kind of clipped, knowing dialogue so popularized by Ernest Hemingway's writing. And the American rider has the added dream of encountering the magnificent Alps from the seat of a motorcycle.

For most Americans this ultimate Alpine ride is out of reach, buried in official papers they do not understand, hidden in languages they have never learned. Others simply leave the complications to professionals: Bob and Liz Beach.

Bob Beach, the American importer of Krauser equipment, arranges and directs Beach's Alpine Adventures with his wife Liz and their son Rob. They have conducted a three-week guided motorcycle tour of the Alps each spring and fall since 1972; the spring 1980 tour will be their 17th. They arrange air travel, hotel accommodations and round up the BMW of your choice to buy or rent. I joined the spring 1979 tour.

The 25 tour members and three Beaches began by sleeping off their jet lag from the red-eye flight, getting acquainted, then picking up their BMWs the third day. On Day Four our riding began. We departed from the Hotel Huber parking lot, first loading up, talking, the lot filling with the fluttering sound of BMWs starting, then riders moving out with a wave from the others.

The Beach tour follows the same basic route each year, beginning its three-week run from Munich across the backbone of the Alps to Cortina D'Ampezzo, Italy, and Mestre. It then cuts west, meandering through northern Italy and Switzerland near Lakes Garda, Como and Maggiore to Mont Blanc at the corner of France. Finally, the tour heads northeast through Italy, Switzerland, Austria and Germany again, ending in Munich. The loop's direction is reversed every other trip.

While the United States seems to have sprung anew out of the sea foam, expanding, modernizing, all future and little past, Europe is in the flux of change. It was haying time in Austria as we passed, and the cutting machinery was pushing the sweet smell of hay into the wind. But it was being raked by hand, herded into windrows by foreshortened old men, chunky hausfraus, children and even young women in delightfully brief bathing suits. Babushkas shared the fields with Farrah Fawcett lips.

Past and present run together in other ways. In Austria I met a forester dressed in traditional lederhosen [leather shorts] and white brocade shirt. He could have stepped from another century -- except for the brushed-aluminum digital watch on his wrist. And change is in the storefronts of Munich where a McDonald's hamburger joint looks embarrassingly out of place along a street that has witnessed the passing of troops to the last four wars. And Europe will be a long time changing, for its very rich and deep culture, which is its appeal, assures that change will be neither quick nor easy.

One pleasant aspect of Beach's tour is that it is not a mass ride. Each rider has a highly detailed map and a tour booklet with suggested routes. Each morning some awoke early and left; others slept in and enjoyed a leisurely breakfast. Beach requested only that everyone be present at the hotel by evening-or call to notify him where they were.

A trip to Europe is an expensive venture -- expensive not only financially, but emotionally as well. Jet lag prepares one for a part in "The Night of the Walking Dead." And facing weeks of unfamiliar lands, differing customs, strange foods, unintelligible languages and floating currencies can shake a person used to hanging on to the solid and familiar. Money is one of those emotionally expensive games. Each country's currency differs in size and color. Some have little hidden pictures which reveal themselves when held to a light. I don't care how often you repeat, "A mark is worth 53 cents" when that time of reckoning comes you're never quite sure just how much of the stuff is really going out.

One way it really goes is for gasoline. Prices range from about $2.20 per gallon in Germany to over $3 in Italy. A tank of premium in the BMW can cost more than $10. What is needed is the proper attitude. After laboriously counting out your restaurant tab, for instance, you may not understand how much it is, but you're satisfied and the waiter's satisfied, and you merely say to yourself, "What the hell -- it's only play money."

Language is very expensive emotionally; you must learn to play the game or die a thousand deaths with it. Thankfully, Beach provides a booklet of tips and phrases. Before buying gas the first time I was so petrified that I ran 50 kilometers onto reserve before finally pulling into a station and grunting, "Volltanken, bitte". And you know what? The guy actually filled my tank! You needn't be conversant; a few phrases are sufficient.

After an overnight stay in Bad Reichenhall, Germany, we crossed into Austria and met at the Pension Resch in Fusch. Pensions are private homes; they allowed us to meet the family informally. We tromped in, wet from a downpour, and were greeted on the porch by the daughter, about seven years old, with a very calm and beautiful "Sound of Music" Bavarian face. "My name is Maria Louise," she began, offering each man a glass of schnapps and each woman a decorated box of candy.

In the mountains, riders are often confronted with the violence and rains of the quick-change weather, with the rockstrewn writhing roads, with the feeling of isolation between occasional gas stops. I find it satisfying to place myself at the mercy of these Alps, to trust to cunning and ability in the face of something so terribly powerful and incomprehensible.

Alpine roads are good two-laners, usually clean and well maintained. They pass from low summer countryside to yellow and blue-dotted layers of spring flowers to the timber line and above into the rocky starkness and functional honesty of the high country. Up there the road is roofed, sometimes for miles, so the snow may pass over it. Grill-like avalanche guards march a staggered pattern up the steeper slopes, and exhaust-smudged tunnel mouths gape -- man's concession that the mountain there was too much -- the only way the road could go was through. It is all evidence that no one ever subdues the mountains; they merely do their best to get by where the mountains allow.

Call them hairpins, switchbacks or 180s, they're the sharpest turn in the smallest space and thousands of them grow in the Alps. They are the best way to climb a steep slope in a limited space; each is a challenge. I found running a series of them both exhilarating and exhausting. They swung left-right-left with almost monotonous regularity, whipping me harder and harder as I became used to them, the cornering loads jamming my shoulders into the stubby handlebars.

A major devilment is that in many places, no doubt for grip in the snow, the apex of the hairpin was upholstered in cobblestones. These wobblestones are merely an annoyance to the occasional rider, while the experienced grit their teeth and curse that their riding must lose its edge to the uncertain footing.

The Alps are laced with hundreds of passes, those places where it is less impossible than in others to get a road through. But these passes aren't merely roads. Each has a different face and personality which leaves an almost human impression. We cut our teeth on the friendly Grossglockner, our first high pass, with a warm-up ride on the twisty hairpins. The Simplon left a sinister taste from Napoleon's brooding eagle statue at the top. The Oberalp was a foggy, rainy mess where our face shields fogged and we had to open them to take the pinpricks of rain on chin and lips. Newness and freshness characterized the Grand St. Bernard. It had opened that day beneath a high blue sky with snow piles stacked everywhere, water running in rivulets everywhere, a cool, refreshing ride going up and an easy, meandering feeling coming down through the bends.

The names of these passes have an abrupt sort of dignity which lends character to them. In the Alps you'll find the Brenner, the Arlberg, Novena, Furka, Grimsel, St. Gotthard and Brunig. In parts of the United States they might have been designated Route 147 or Mountain View Estates Drive.

On Day Seven we rode from Cortina D'Ampezzo, the famous ski resort, to Mestre, Italy. From our hotel an inexpensive 20-minute bus ride took us to Venice, where a vaporetto (water bus) waddled us along the Grand Canal. The canal is lined with hundreds of classic palaces, some eight centuries old, many now serving as hotels, residences and warehouses. They are showing their age spots, fading, but the pastel colors of this "Jewel of the Adriatic" still glow at sunset.

It can be difficult for an American to grasp a place like Venice. In Southern California, some folks can trace the history of their apartment complexes all the way back to 1971, while in my home state of Michigan a family occupying the same farmhouse for a hundred years may erect a marker announcing that theirs is a Centennial Farm. With such a short history, how can we relate to thousand-year Venice, or to Aosta, Italy, which was founded during the reign of Caesar Augustus?

Being the first resident of a new home can contribute to a false sense of importance. "I am the one and only master of these lands!" But a short walk away from our hotel in Aosta was the old city wall and ruins of the Forum. The worn archways framed the surrounding mountains, and inside Romans thundered their speeches 2000 years ago. In a place such as Aosta, where 80 generations have walked and worked, battled, loved and died, you come to view yourself in a more reasonable perspective.

High atop the Simplon Pass in southern Switzerland stands the statue of a brooding eagle cut from blocks of granite. Its talons grasp the peak and it stares back menacingly over its rough-hewn shoulder. Napoleon's men erected it in 1804. 1 did not help build it because I was not there. Nor were you. But within the spirit of the continuum we realize that had we been French at the time, we most likely would have built it. And had we been in Aosta 2000 years ago we could have participated in and understood the workings of the Forum. Taken in this light, history is not just a story-it is our story.

Everywhere it seems that Italy is crumbling too, groaning under the weight of its history. While the Germans are busily building, painting, planning and subduing nature, Italy's look is one of dilapidation. Its tile-roofed buildings slump in the heat; its fields are unkempt, weeds grow along its roads and among its rubble.

There seems to be a difference in national tempers. The Italians try to live with nature. If a tree grows they may build around it. If the mountain twists this way and that, they will string a road on it like a necklace. But not the Germans -- they will axe the tree, clean up the sawdust and plant a new tree where one should have been. They will tunnel through the mountains and throw bridges over the gaps.

Rain gear was especially useful because, in any high mountain area, the weather could and did change abruptly. One such instance marked my most harrowing experience of the tour. Day Ten, from Pieve to Sondrio, Italy, began idyllically enough, the sun kissing our skin and the light through the trees all golden and full of spring. It hardly seemed we would soon be taking on the worst the Alps had to offer. I rode out from Lake Garda through some back-country roads with Neil and Kip Huffman, father and son auto dealers from Kentucky. In shirt sleeves we started up a 2162 meter (7100 foot) pass. The weather cooled, trees disappeared, and gravel littered the switchbacks. Near the summit we stopped for a picnic lunch of salami, wine, cheese and bread. As we left, a gloomy front moved in and began to putter us with rain.

The snowplow had been careless, twisting guard rails and breaking guide sticks. Riding third, I came around one gravelly hairpin to plow into a muckhole and stop. Rocking the RS only sunk the bike to its crankcase.

The Huffmans returned with the news the pass was closed. As we donned rain suits hail began clicking off our helmets. Then a brilliant flash struck and the peak exploded in thunder. Then another struck. And another. After hauling the RS out backwards we shouted over the thunder; should we stay atop this enormous lightning rod, or ride our smaller lightning rods down through the slippery hail? It was unanimous -- we ran!

Returning down the mountain in a deluge, I entered a left-hand hairpin, laid the RS way over and hit the throttle. The rear tire broke loose; I remember only watching the BMW skitter along on its cylinder head and golden fairing. Such moments confront one with his own stupidity, and provide a subtle reminder that the body is more frail than the road. A good combination for tackling the Alps is 1000ccs of confidence and 50ccs of imagination.

Later that day we found a second pass closed and had to wind far out of our way, arriving in Sondrio an hour late for dinner. "I feel like I been rode hard and hung up wet," Neil quipped. That evening I received one of Beach's "Ach Scheisse" buttons. Several days later the Volkswagen luggage van would throw a rod and Beach would have to give it to the garage owner who hauled it down the mountain. Import taxes made selling it impractical. Beach would receive one of his own "Ach Scheisse" buttons that night, and a Fiat van would appear in time for our next move.

I stopped for lunch at a cafe in the sun on the road to Lienz. My leathers were hot, so I sat in the shade of an umbrella. "Gruss Gott," the waiter nodded in the traditional "Greet God." He wore a frayed black tux and, in broken English, cheerfully gave me a guided tour of the menu. As he went off to bring the wurst and beer it pleased me that Europeans take time to dine; they don't just stop-and-eat.

The outdoor cafe is closer to nature, to the sun, and presents an unhurried atmosphere. The waiters are professionals, not subservients as are the school kids, family members and second-income wives in the States. The buildings are old and substantial with no fakery or cuteness about them. No glitter, thank you. Stone is stone, flowers are real and food is important, not secondary to the fake decor. Europeans realize that people are there to enjoy a meal, not simply to tank up.

Each tour rider had his or her own special highlights of the trip. One of mine was the Hotel Paradiso near Riva, Italy. The ride from Riva to the Paradiso is majestic. The road follows Lake Garda, a magnificently-cliffed cut in the earth, which is so long that each end seems to fade away over the horizon.

The Paradiso enjoys a precarious setting at the edge of a sheer cliff a couple thousand feet above Lake Garda. "Go out on the deck," the early arrivals encouraged. It is a concrete slab with railing. As I walked out, I noticed the cliff wall receding behind me. My legs turned to rubber. I crawled to the railing and looked down. The slab hangs out over a sheer drop of 2000 feet to a bundle of roads and tunnels, and the rippled expanse of Lake Garda. Across the way was a town, then mountains which rise from warm beaches to caps of old, veined snow.

Northern Italy is as much a delight as the mountains themselves. The area has warmth and character, like a place people have used, not pampered. The back-country roads and towns of Italy are also a sensual delight. The streets are narrow, cobblestoned; we caught glimpses of faces in doorways, children pointing, the aroma from a pipe, a wisp of perfume. The walls are stone or plaster, the roofs tile, vines and trees are everywhere, always, and always there was a cathedral. Sometimes its bell was clanging as we passed. Italy is faces and glances, sounds and smells, the feel of texture and time in everything.

Our route took us to Verbania, Italy, then on to Zermatt, Switzerland, on Day Twelve. Since the only access to Zermatt is by train, we assembled in T�sch at the station, our group devouring International Herald Tribunes, one of the few English language newspapers readily available in Europe. I noted that the Dodgers were languishing in third place, while the Tigers were only four and a half games out. And all DC-10s were to be grounded. "Oh well," we joked, "we could do worse than to be stranded near Munich.

After the 20-minute electric train ride to Zermatt, we walked up the long hill to our hotel past ski shops, bakeries and souvenir shops with toy stuffed marmots in boxes out front. Near the hotel was a somber cemetery, some of its graves graced with climbing axes and coils of rope. Buried here were people who had fallen off the Matterhorn, the shark-tooth-shaped killer mountain now hidden by clouds somewhere "up there."

A group of us gathered at an outdoor cafe across from the hotel. The infamous Matterhorn was still hidden by windblown mist. For two hours the mighty peak tantalized us with a striptease, showing an ankle here, a cornice there, but never all of itself. Not until the next morning did the swirling clouds disperse so that the entire granite peak shone blue-white and solid: mountain, monument and killer.

The sense of history is strong in Europe. Our trip took us through Dongo, Italy, where Mussolini and his mistress were shot and strung up by their feet in a gas station at the end of World War II. And near Visp, Switzerland, the slender poplars lining the road were planted by Napoleon's men in 1800. The St. Gotthard Pass has rumbled with the gun-thunder of mighty armies for 10 centuries. Adolph Hitler was imprisoned at Landsberg, Germany, and the walls of Munich's famed Hoffbrau Haus rang with his speeches where we later lifted mighty mugs of good German beer. All through Europe, and all through the Beach tour, we were surrounded by, confronted with, and immersed in evidence of the famous and infamous acts and actors which have rung Europe like a bell for centuries.

Beachs aptly named their trip "Beach's Alpine Adventure." A "tour" suggests the pampering and hand-holding I had experienced two years before on a bus trip. But Beach's ride is an adventure - if you care to make it one. Each day the guidebook suggests several routes, and the map beckons with many more. So many times during the bus tour I would like to have stopped for a photograph, a side road or an alluring cafe, but the bus went on. It is the active freedom to make of the Beach trip what you wish that distinguishes it from the passive "watch it go by the window" tours.

We passed under Mont Blanc, Europe's highest, on Day Fourteen, then rode a cablecar to near its summit. After four hours in France we returned to Switzerland. Our hotel in Les Marecotte looked like a lodge with its wood-paneled walls and rustic balconies.

That evening a group of us hiked through the narrow streets to a cafe. While the beers and wines had been uniformly fine, the exotic drinks were less so to American tastes. Bitter Campari is just that -- it seizes the tongue in both hands and wrings it. Pernod numbs the tongue, looking like grapefruit juice, tasting like licorice mixed with kerosene. Grappa is straight kerosene. One choice for dinner was native Raclette, a rather strongly aromatic cheese which is melted and poured over vegetables. Since I have a personal rule which says I never stick anything in my mouth which smells worse than my own feet, I had the chops instead.

We continued to Lauterbrunnen on Day Sixteen. It is located in a narrow valley along which suicidal waterfalls hurl themselves from the vertical cliffs, then seem to hang like slow, rolling smoke against the wet rock walls.

Our tour then wound back to Germany, stopping over in Hohenschwangau. From a mile away a white castle appeared through a break in the trees, beauty and mystery on a hillside. It was Mad King Ludwig's famous Neuschwanstein Castle, the one which served as a model for Walt Disney's castles, east and west. The tour through its gilded rooms was certainly worth the money -- all of it --.

After returning to the Hotel Huber in a rainstorm, those who rented bikes were escorted back to the auto factory near Freiman to drop them off. Those who bought bikes rode to the airport to crate them and ship them home. However, the bikes purchased may be kept at tour's end, and the Becks, a young California couple, kept their R100T an extra week to ride through Czechoslovakia.

Though our bikes were gone, it was only Friday night and we weren't to leave until Monday. We would have a celebration in the Hoffbrau Haus, then Saturday Beachs sponsored a farewell dinner where Mike Krauser showed a movie of his annual Krauser Rallye, and brought a police-equipped R10ORT for display.

The tour is absolutely first-rate, and Beaches run it with friendly humor and a certain unruffled aplomb which says, "Whatever's wrong, chum, we can fix." The hotels were comfortable and some even classy. Most provided bathrooms in the room. The food was furnished 15 of the 22 nights, and was usually good. When it was not good it was excellent.

Riding distances varied from as few as 56 miles to slightly more than 150 each day. There was always plenty of time to ride the suggested route. Cost of the trip included hotel accommodations, most meals and round-trip air fare from Boston to Munich for $1611. The bike's expenses are all yours, and a machine can be either purchased and flown home for near retail price in the States or rented for $1000.

Even if you wish to make arrangements to tour Europe on your own, Beachs offer four things you may be unable to provide yourself: experienced professionals to help you through the bureaucracy, a guidebook and guides, a chance to meet Europeans more directly, and most importantly, a lot of people to do it all with. It's great meeting for dinner with 27 friends, then sitting back and having someone ask, "Well, what did you do today?" This friendly support makes facing the emotional costs that much easier.

It occurred to me on the plane home that taking the Beach tour is spending 21 days without a TV set or stereo and never feeling you've missed anything. It's cow bells tunking in an upland meadow. It's not understanding words, but appreciating the feeling and patience behind them. It's switchback after switchback, left-right-left till your arms ache, your tongue hangs down, then you stop to rest and discover you've come only 60 kilometers. The beauty of Europe is that everything is there. The beauty of the Beach tour is that everything is accessible.

Some may feel that the Beach tour is too demanding, too devoid of hand-holding. That's fine. After all, someone has to populate those tour buses for the riders to blast past. And perhaps one of the caged will even sigh wistfully and say, "Next time, I'm gonna' do Europe that way!"

European Tour reviews
Who takes Beach tours?
Why join a tour?
Been There, Done That
Norway
Been There, Done That
Other places!
Been There, Done That
New Zealand