Rider Magazine, January, 1979
By Denis Rouse
As promised last issue, I kept a running diary of our long-awaited 2,000-mile Beach Alpine European Motorcycle Tour in which we participated last year from September 4 through September 22. For the benefit of readers who may be interested in more information relative to riding a motorcycle through some of the most electrifyingly beautiful, historically fascinating scenery in the world, plus of course, total immersion in culture and custom vastly different from the stateside variety, here is the unabridged notebook version of the best ride we've ever had.
Los Angeles to Boston the easy way on a big American Airlines bird.
Since Mrs. Beach didn't raise any dumb kids, after seven years and 14 tours Bob has learned that using Boston as an embark-debark point for his motorcycle tour group beats the customs zoo at New Yorks Kennedy Airport. This is doubly pleasing to Joanie and me because neither of us has ever visited Boston, and arriving a day early gives us a chance to briefly explore the cradle of American history and have some breathing time before the long flight to Munich tomorrow. Our short time in Boston turns out to be terrific, an excellent prelude to the history lessons to come. We do all the recommended things: a refreshing morning jog along the shimmering Charles River, the four-mile Freedom Trail walk featuring Bunker Hill, the old North Church from which Paul Revere warned of approaching British Troops in 1775, the USS Constitution, and no less interesting, a visit to the wonderful Brookstone Store on the corner of School and Province which inventories enough unusual high-quality tools and sporting goods to drive any red-blooded outdoor type totally bonkers. No trip to New England is complete without a meal of Eastern lobster, so we do it right at Jimmy's on the wharf and learn forevermore how good the clawed critters can be when you eat 'em fresh from the Atlantic, and above all, locally prepared.
Swissair Flight from Boston to Munich via a short stop and plane change in Zurich.
Flight to Munich is an eight-hour ordeal, but the drag of too-long-in-the-seat is somewhat ameliorated by superb meals, snacks and service doled out by lovely Swissair hostesses. First shock of trip comes while browsing around the shops during seventh inning stretch awaiting a plane change in Zurich Airport. Prices overseas are staggering, and the declining value of the American dollar adds insult to what is already a mortal wound. The anticipation I harbor about smoking Havana cigars wanes when I see they're getting four to five dollars apiece for the big brown devils. Of course, Cuban smokes are an unnecessary luxury, but the necessities of life, like food and drink, are similarly out of sight. We learn early that a good packaged tour like Beach's, which includes all lodging and many meals, may be the only way to go motorcycling overseas on a reasonable budget.
Arriving at Reim Airport and on board the bus headed for our first night’s lodging, the Huber Hotel in the Munich suburb of Germering, we take our first wide-eyed glimpses of the Bavarian Countryside. Somehow, it’s as I imagined; green, semi-forested, often postcard lovely, yet evidencing an austere sort of orderliness. Rather than quaint, the villages are crisp, clean and frightfully well-organized. The billowing flowers and colorful murals you might expect elsewhere in Europe are not so prevalent in Germany. And nowhere is the penchant for non-fluff more obvious than in the suburbs around the once war-ruined city of Munich.
After getting settled in the hotel. we walk across the street to the train station and hop the quiet, electric streamliner to the Marienplatz, Munich's famed downtown square, We gaze at the Glockenspiel above the Rathaus (city hall), walk amidst throngs and in and out of the shops, and finally plop down in a sidewalk cafe to sample the local wurst, kraut and brau. Sensational!
With jet lag frying our eyeballs, we're grateful that Bob and Elizabeth Beach understand that a couple of days recovering around Munich is a good idea before departing on a 2,000-mile motorcycle ride through a heck of a lot of strange territory. Besides, there are about 13 riders on our tour, and additional time is needed for everyone to pick up the machines they are either purchasing, renting, or as in the case of At Gelfand and myself, borrowing. First order of business in Germering is to walk a couple of blocks from our hotel to Mike Krauser's retail BMW store to get reacquainted with our favorite Bavarian, and drool over Mr. K's super selection of de rigeur European road riding accessories, including a new soft-luggage scootboot that's set for U.S. marketing shortly. It appears to be a beautiful piece of equipment.
Herr Krauser gives Gelfand the news that he's loaning him his own personal hot-off-the-line BMW R I 00RT for the tour, and before I can turn enviously green, I learn that its twin is waiting for me at the BMW building downtown. Getting our throttle hands on two of the most talked about upcoming BeeEm's in years - machines our compatriot motor magazine editors back in the states won't even see for months has Gelfand and me jumping up and down (See report on this machine on page 37.) We top off the day with a visit to Mike's factory and lovely country home in nearby Mering, and end up consuming an unbelievable amount of Edith Krauser's magnificent German table fare. The final traces of jet lag finally hit, and it is a nearly comatose condition that envelops us when we tumble into the sack back at the Huber late that evening.
At last, we're riding! Al and I are like birds let out of a cage on the RTs. The lush, green, open Bavarian countryside affords a sensational setting for riding, so we naturally opt for backroads west and south of Munich for an appropriately circuitous route to Hohenschwangau. Although there's no mountain riding today, the Alps are surrounding us, and we see the peaks are far more jagged than the Sierras or the Rockies of Western America, portending things to come. We stop for lunch in the beautiful Hansel-and-Gretel town of Oberammergau. Once again, the wurst, potatoes and unparalleled taste of lusty dark German beer are overwhelmingly good. Continuing south out of Oberammergau, the villages and small hamlets begin to get farther apart and the road begins to arch and wind and roll, often canopied by trees. occasionally beside shimmering lakes, sometimes dividing impossibly green meadows, and it is difficult to describe how great it feels to be sensing it all from the seat of a motorcycle. Our attention is occasionally diverted by a slow-moving horse-drawn farm wagon ambling down the middle of the road, or a typically aggressive European automobile driver passing at eye-blink speed on a curve, or a disturbingly unfamiliar road sign, but it hardly interrupts our fascination with what is decidedly a whole new ball game.
Arriving at the little burg of Linderhof, we park the bikes for a while to take a tour of one of King Ludwig's lesser castles, a rococo wonderland where the good king occasionally summered a century or so ago and entertained Richard Wagner, his favorite composer. Apparently given to great bouts of indulgence, the monarch also commissioned the construction of an immense underground grotto, near the castle, complete with artificial stalagmites, stalactites, and an impressive stage carved of plaster rocks from which Wagner's stuff could be performed. Decidedly bizarre.
After the castle tour, we get back on the road only to be greeted by a closing, darkening sky and when we reach Fussen it starts to do the maximum rain. We pull under the roof overhang of a roadside shed, don our wet gear and enjoy the exhilaration of riding the last few miles of the day in a banshee of a rainstorm.
Hohenschwangau is a hauntingly beautiful place. Our hotel, the Lisl und Jagerhaus, is situated on the side of a forested mountain and affords an incredible view of Ludwig's most famous castle, Schloss Neuschwanstein, the model for Walt Disney's replicas in California and Florida. Replicas just don't make it, however. The real thing is an awesome, white, spired, decadently ornate structure, the likes of which is never going to be built again.
Al, Ellyn, Joanie and I decided to get a late start this morning to shop in nearby Fussen and simply soak up the area around Hohenschwangau, which many feel is the most beautiful in the Bavarian Alps. It's pleasant to have the freedom to ride on our own schedule, and a tribute to the excellent planning behind the Beach tour. Bob and Elizabeth, both ardent motorcyclists themselves, realize that most riders are an independent, freedom-loving lot, and to tie the group into a concrete, everyone-ride-together schedule would impinge upon personal adventure and discovery, and thus detract greatly from the experience, The Beaches only ask that we arrive at the prescribed destination at the end of each day, or simply call to let them know if we can't. It's an ideal situation, one that certainly garners all the benefits of a tour, with none of the restrictive hangups normally associated with group travel.
Crossing the German border at Reutte and entering Austria, there is a subtle change, but one that is immediately perceptible. The Germanic laundered abruptness gives way a bit to a hint of more color, adornment and festivity in the Austrian villages, and one gets the definite feeling the script is kicked back a notch or two. Too, we are also starting to ride higher into the Alps and the total, mindbending visual splendor of these magnificent mountains is practically blowing us off our seats at every turn. We meet Bob and Elizabeth by chance in Warth, and decide to follow them up and over the 5,500-foot Flexenpass, one of the oldest pass roads in the Alps. The deep green valleys, granite walls that yawn upward through the clouds, roaring waterfalls crashing from dizzying heights . . it's all there just as we've seen a thousand times in travel posters, photos and films. But to see and feel it like this, to ride through it on a dipping, winding, switchbacking mountain road with fragrant rain blowing in our faces has to be one of the experiences of a lifetime.
Finale of the day is a ride up the mountain to Malbun on a road that features a sensational view of what appears to be the entire Rhine Valley. Hotel Montana in Malbun offers an indoor swimming pool and a sauna, both of which feel mighty good after many hours in the saddle.
This morning we know Demon Adrenalin because our route for the first time includes several miles of Autobahn. No matter how many times you've heard about how fast folks drive on that four-lane public racetrack, you're still totally unprepared the first time a Mercedes-Benz passes at 140 mph and literally yanks the cilia out of your ears. Even right lane riding demands very brisk speeds, and you don't pull into the left lane to pass slower traffic without looking back, and looking back hard several times. Automotive iron looms up at Grand Prix straightaway speed and unless one exercises extreme caution there is likelihood of promptly becoming one with a hood ornament.
With an audible sigh of relief, we come to a landing off the Autobahn at Chur, and once again head up into the grasp of the mountains toward the Oberalp Pass, and our route into Andermatt. The mountains of Switzerland must be the heaven to which all riders aspire. In Colorado and Wyoming we have been impressed with places of awesome loveliness, but truly nothing like this. Here, is a continuum of purely spectacular beauty that increases in intensity, mile after mile, for hundreds of miles. On the Oberalp today, the rain has passed, and we are riding above the clouds inhaling this incredible cold perfumed air, the RT feeling more like a great silent glider than a motorcycle. Ten kilometers east of Andermatt, on a deep green grassy slope high above a sparkling white Swiss village, we stop to share a lunch of cold milk, fresh pastries from a local bakery and simply to absorb the tranquility of it all.
Although the Alps are more beautiful than any mountains we've seen in America, there is little sense of wilderness. No matter how high we ride, how obscure the road, there is always habitation present. The reason becomes obvious when we realize people have been homesteading in the Alps for literally thousands of years. The deserters from the Roman Legions, for example, in danger of being summarily crucified whenever they were caught, understandably sought out the most remote valleys, inaccessible gorges, and highest passes to begin new lives. They and their ancestors have obviously flourished, and as a result, there isn't a road in Switzerland that does not finally end as a gravel path leading to someone's cottage. It is also entirely appropriate that this land of unparalleled physical stature has been one of the most peaceful places on earth for hundreds of years. While cataclysmic wars and bloodletting have punctuated neighboring countries since the dawn of history, the Swiss have always made a cagey deal with the armies of the world: Come through, but keep going. Such diplomacy has apparently worked well.
In the picturesque town of Andermatt, our first two-day stay of the tour, we find ourselves beginning to unwind, and take time to relate to the European pace. To slow down and linger over good food and conversation, to pause and absorb visual beauty, and above all simply savor the present, which happens to be occupied by the most outstanding motorcycle adventure imaginable.
This morning we embark on the shortest mileage day of the tour, but it is easily the best riding day yet, for we cross the Susten Pass. Many believe it to be the most beautiful in the Alps. The Susten is a great granite theatre of huge glaciers cascading down monstrous U-shaped valleys ... strange, blue-tipped alluvial fans of solid ice hundreds of feet thick, inexorably grinding their way down toward alpine valleys, occasionally spewing waterfalls that mist us with spray as we pass.
Since today is Sunday, there are many other bikers on the road and we get our first real look at European riders and machines. Lots of Ducatis, Moto-Guzzis and of course an increasing number of Japanese machines. Nearly all of the bikes are fitted like road racers; short clip-on bars, small racing-type fairings, rear-set foot controls and generally equipped to go very fast on very short trips on incredible roads. Same goes for the riders; most are crouched in sleek, one-piece leathers and full-face helmets, And it's definitely not for show. All the riders we see hurtling up and down the snaky road of the Susten — many riding two-up — appear to be doing so with a formidable degree of precision. Our experience this day proves motorcycling is indeed an international brotherhood, for not once do we pass another rider without the offer or return of a friendly wave . . . an acknowledgement that there is an unspoken allegiance among riders, whether in Ames, Iowa, or on a windswept mountain pass high in the Alps.
On the road to Grindelwald, we stop at a natural attraction called the Aareschult near Meiringen. The Aareschult is a very narrow, deep gorge that has been carved by a rushing glacial stream, A catwalk has been erected above the stream, making it possible to walk a mile or so into the grottos of the gorge and witness up close the violent sculptor that is raging water. It's an impressive sight.
Arriving in Grindelwald, we're immediately glad it's another two-day stop. We're treated to what locals tell us is a relative rarity. A perfectly cloudless, crystal-clear day. Some of the most famous mountains in Switzerland — the Monk, the Jungfrau and the Eiger — stand abrupt in granite, snow-mantled authority against a cobalt blue sky, and we can only stare in awe at these towering peaks and wonder what brand of courage or madness it takes to scale their unforgiving vertical cliffs.
A respite from the mountain passes today as most of the route covers valley roads, presenting some opportunity to get the cobwebs out of the higher speed jets in our carburetors. Before leaving the Grindelwald area, we take a short sidetrip to Lauterbrunnen; a gaping, glacial canyon with four waterfalls plummeting hundreds of feet from its rim. Slightly reminiscent of Yosemite Valley, but even more awesome. Riding over the low Jaunpass is interesting because it's hailing like a bandit at the top. Kind of fun to watch the buggers bounce off the windshield, but once in a while one gets me right smartly like a BB on the cheek.
We stop in the famous cheese town of Gruyeres for lunch. Gruyeres is also the site of a magnificent castle that figured heavily in the Burgundy Wars five centuries ago. We duck into the patio of a small, romantic restaurant that overlooks a verdant green French-Swiss valley laced with vineyards. The place looks for all the world like a setting where the late Charles Boyer made love to so many of his leading ladies on the silver screen. We drink a bottle of superb local wine, feast on local ham and potatoes, and pinch ourselves for the thousandth time to insure we're not dreaming.
Montreux is an old, picturesque city of French influence on huge, deep Lake Leman Our hotel sits above the lake overlooking the mysterious Castle of Chillon, that dreary dungeon-equipped edifice made famous by Lord Byron in his much-read Prisoner of Chillon. The castle is centuries old, its earliest history etched in the days when it was an outpost of the Roman Empire. Walking in its dark, wet catacombs you can still feel the chill of hundreds of years of human suffering that was endured within its ancient gray walls. Montreux is the first large city we we've been in since Munich, so a night on the town is a welcome change of pace.
A short day because we linger in Montreux, enjoy a late breakfast, and top up dwindling oil reservoirs in the motorcycles. The road to Les Marecottes is mostly mundane, passing through some dull industrial areas in the Rhone Valley. But the last few miles up the mountain to the eagle's aerie setting of Les Marecottes features some spectacular views, including a bridge over the 575-foot Gorge du Trient. The bridge is fairly typical of those in the Alps. It looks like a narrow, inconsequential overcrossing, but when you stop for a look down, it 's Katie bar the door!
In Europe, 138 miles is a long, long day, especially when all of it is on obscure mountain roads. The route that leads us out of Switzerland into France toward the village of Chamonix presents an imposing view of 14,291-foot Mt. Blanc, the highest hunk of granite in Europe. The glaciers on the mountain seem to stretch from the peaks to the valley floor. Instead of opting for a short tunnel route under Mt. Blanc to Italy, we go for the route over the treeless, windblown Picolo St. Bernardino Pass which descends into the northern Italian valley where Aosta, has been buzzing since the reign of Caesar Augustus. Once over the pass and through the Italian border, the transition is noteworthy. From the scrubbed, litterless, freshly painted, manicured villages of Switzerland, into the harsh, stark, gut-level reality of Italy. Suddenly there is absolutely no pretense. The gray towns of northern Italy still bear the scars and bullet holes of war and violence. Life has never been easy here, and it shows. Aosta, - called ‘Rome of the Alps’ - is an intensely interesting city with the dust of centuries of history in its streets. Its ancient 2,000-year-old Roman heritage is still evidenced by a remarkably well preserved forum, amphitheatre and city wall. The evening . . ah, Italy! We sit in an outdoor cafe, drink cappucino, listen to music and watch the beautiful Italian women walking and laughing in the city square. A far cry from Switzerland where the streets are rolled up and put away after dinner.
Today we ascend the Great St. Bernard Pass north to Switzerland in the tracks of Napoleon. Still regarded as one of the great military feats of all time, the French general brought his 40,000-man army over the pass in four days during the dead of winter early in the last century. We enjoy yet another fantastic ride over the hump of some of the most rugged mountain terrain in the Alps.
We motor to the town of Tasch and garage our bikes for a train ride to a two-day stay in Zermatt where gasoline vehicles are not allowed. Zermatt is very touristy, but how could it not be with such spectacular proximity to the famous Matterhorn, a great shark's tooth of granite that quite literally casts its shadow over the whole burg? Despite the no-vehicle rule in Zermatt, the town is very noisy due to all the hotel construction going on. It's a sad note that the little cemetery next to the river. which entombs the graves of people of all ages, from many countries, who lost their lives on the treacherous mountain, is no longer directly and appropriately overlooked by the Matterhorn, but instead by a new hotel going in across the street. Despite the commercial compromises and tourist froufrou, we enjoy Zermatt because nothing can diminish the splendor of the mountains, and it is but a short walk out of town to enjoy them at their fullest. Plus, the road out of Tasch offers several miles of some of the best motorcycling of the trip . . wide, sweeping, fully visible, well-banked curves make for some of the tour's most purely spirited riding.
Our route from Zermatt to Verbania once again follows one of the great arteries of military history, the majestic Simplon Pass. Two thousand years ago, the mighty legions of Rome moved north to do battle with the fierce Germanic tribes, and much more currently, the ubiquitous Napoleon marched south to attempt conquests in Italy. The poplar trees planted by the French army still line many parts of the road, and a great granite eagle stands at the top of the pass to commemorate the passage of Napoleon's troops early in the previous century.
Dropping down the Simplon into Italy, we are once again aware of the great fundamental changes that take place practically the moment we cross the border. In the old town of Domodossola, the road is washed out, and we get into the first traffic jam of the tour. On an L.A. freeway it would be maddening, but here in old Italy we sit and absorb the throngs of interesting people and parade of assorted vehicles, and simply become part of it all.
In Verbania, a fog of strange and mysterious quality has settled and it accentuates its haunting attraction. Our hotel is located smack on the shore of Lake Maggiore an area of old opulent, overgrown hillside villas where one supposes the wealthy and aristocratic of Northern Italy have been ensconced for many years, perhaps even in refuge from the political and social turmoil that has wracked the country since Rome fell. The Grand Hotel Majestic, Our night's lodging, stands in a slightly tarnished brand of century-old splendor, with magnificent handlaid hardwood floors and large ornate balconies that afford superb views of the lake.
The fog is gone when the sun breaks in Verbania and we are treated to a spectacularly clear morning for the short ferry ride across Lago Maggiore to begin our route west to Tremosine. This day, the longest yet, gets us deep into the color and custom of Italy as we motor through dozens of small villages, places where very little has actually changed in hundreds of years. We ascend an old pass road — the Croce Domini - never see another vehicle and could just as well be riding in a time when they didn't exist. Toward the end of day in fading light, I'm not quite prepared for the sight that's presented as our motorcycles reach the road that drops down to Lake Garda from where we will begin our final ascent up to Tremosine. We're at least 1,200 feet above the lake, and the road perilously switchbacks down toward the lake, affording some of the most spectacular, seat-puckering viewing, and not to mention cautious riding yours truly has ever experienced. There are many interesting old fortifications and hidden gun emplacements still evidenced along the road because the Germans made aircraft engines in factories hidden in this mountain during the latter part of World War II. As we get down to the level of the lake and head up the cliffs to Tremosine, we're treated once again to the most dramatic riding one could imagine. The road is literally blasted out of solid rock, and snakes up the side of the mountain flitting in and out of a network of tunnels and radical switchbacks where the drop is actually corniced rather than vertical. Our hotel in Tremosine, the Paradiso, turns out to be appropriate lodging because it's situated like an eagle's aerie, breathtakingly high on the cliffs above the lake, featuring a cantilevered viewing platform where we can stand at the rail and gaze more than a thousand feet straight down to the water.
It's difficult to leave incredible Tremosine. We became good friends with the wonderful French family who own the hotel, and totally enraptured with the charm of the old village. But time marches on, and sadly, our tour is rapidly coming to an end. Since much of our route today covers the sensational Dolomite Highway, we hop on the Autostrada at Trento and literally race to Bolzano where the real riding of the day begins. The Autostrada is like the Autobahn ... only there are more Italian four-wheelers, and it seems they are faster than the German iron. But this time we're a bit seasoned and follow the basic rule: Avoid the left lane, and ride like hell.
The Dolomite road is a series of high passes linked by a circuitous road that seems to be made for motorcycling. A world famous example of highway engineering, it follows the central depression of the massif, and affords sensational views of the rugged Dolomite range, and for sure some of the most challenging riding of the tour. At the time of the Renaissance, this route was used by merchants traveling from Venice to Germany.
Cortina is a very uppercrust ski resort town more akin to Austria than Italy, because that's where it was before Italy claimed it after the war. It's a fetching place, and the girls particularly enjoy browsing in the many fine shops along the main street.
Just north of Cortina on the road to Dobbiaco is an area that experienced some of the bitterest fighting of World War I between the mountain troops of Italy and Austria. Old gun emplacements are evident everywhere, including several massive forts constructed of eight-foot-thick concrete walls. Although the bunkers are in an advanced state of ruin, with mature trees growing in the sediment on the roofs, you can still sense the violence and tumult that transpired here 60 years ago.
The final mountain pass of our tour is the 11,800-foot Grossglockner, a relatively short but nonetheless spectacular alpine crossing, At the toll booth at the south end of the pass a lady warns us that "it is snowing a little at the top, and it is very cold.'' Masters of understatement, these Austrians. It turns out it is indeed snowing, with a little freezing rain and very dense fog thrown in to make it interesting, and it is very cold at the summit of the Grossglockner. Beach warns us about ice at the head of a couple of tunnels, and sure enough I do a little whoopdeedo on one occasion, not serious enough to go down.
All of our lodging on the tour has been fantastic, but our accommodation in Fusch - a pension (private home) owned by the wonderful Jordan family - is the best yet. Each room in the fabulous flower-adorned three-story house of handcrafted wood is furnished with the antiques of old Austria. And the house is in a mountain valley setting that would make Julie Andrews blush. The warmth and comfort of the place is only heightened by the sincere charm of our hosts, who in the evening entertain us with a remarkable degree of musical and singing talent.
Our last few days in Munich are an appropriate finale to what has decidedly been a memorable experience, because it's Oktoberfest time in Bavaria! The festival has been going strong for more than a century consecutively — with the exception of the war years — and people come from all over Europe, a million of them a day, to put the world's troubles aside and drink outrageous quantities of the universe's best beer. It's a time to laugh and talk and sing with good friends, eat marvelous food, and simply relax in the heady, exciting sights, sounds and tastes of it all. We enjoy what we agree are some of the highlight days of our lives, and toast to the time we will have them again.
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