By Peter Colwell
The speedo was nudging 180 and still they flashed past. Up to 190 and the overtaking slowed, but they were still pulling away from us in the outside lane. Determined not to be outdone I pulled into the left lane and latched on to the tail of one of these missiles and poured on some coals. A white BMW 525i and our metallic green K100LT formed a train at a steady 200Kmh, the big LT steady as a rock and the fairing providing a pocket of relative serenity.
We had just finished three weeks in the Alps, at typical Alpine speeds and were reveling in this unrestricted autobahn riding. It really is good for the soul, freedom was never so free.
As we moved into the former East Germany, where not so long ago it was verboten to leave the autobahn, we passed the forlorn abandoned border post. We became aware of increasing numbers of the dreaded two stroke blue-grey Trabants, mostly loaded to the gills and heading west. At one point we left the autobahn and went into a small grey village. The central village square was filled with equally grey Trabants, the atmosphere depressing. Suddenly I felt very foreign as everybody stared at us.
In about half the time I had allowed for the trip from Munich, we approached Berlin. We soon found a hotel just across the road form the Hard Rock cafe where the bikers of Berlin congregate. It was early Sunday morning and relatively deserted as we cruised along the art-plastered Wall, past Checkpoint Charlie, where 80 people lost their lives in the Cold War. We became totally immersed in the awesome feeling of being at such an historic place where the breaking down of the Wall in 1989 signified the momentous changes in the world's history.
Our trip had begun months, before with a decision to take a Beach's Adventures' Alpine tour. After a quick shakedown run into the Austrian Alps we were into the tour. During this day run we ate pork knuckles for lunch, paid tolls to an elderly gatekeeper in lederhosen to ride on two short backroads, and passed through our first border gate. Suprisingly we were asked for passports and the works, a sort of compressed version of things to come. After a day of riding through dramatic scenery, ordering food with hand signals and generally having a ball communicating in every way except speech, it was good to have an English-speaking group of friends to compare notes with at the end of the day.
We shunned a restaurant if it had an English menu, - no fun in that! (There wasn't much fun in the raw bacon which Kate found herself confronted with in Italy though! We also once asked for Coca-Cola and got hot chocolate.)
The Austrian border guards looked very official and stern, and wanted our Passports and bike ownership papers. One tour member didn't have his but the guard didn't seem to notice and he slipped through. Everywhere in the valleys there were cows with bells on; the hills are alive with the sound of music...
The tour groups always stay at the Swiss town of Zermatt, at the foot of the inspiring Matterhorn. The hotel has a perfect view of the famous peak at its back door. The 4250-metre Matterhorn is almost always mist-shrouded and it was no exception the afternoon we arrived. Imagine our delight then when we awoke next morning to the sun rising on the cloudless mountain, turning it gold. It doesn't get any better than this.
Similarly, crossing the GrossGlockner Pass, crystal clear sunshine made the valley views astounding. We parked on one particularly tight Pass to watch the Sunday parade of fully leathered and color-matched German and Italian scratchers screaming up and down. They don't go anywhere, just up and down, up and down, with an occasional break at a mid-way Tavern. But they do choose roads and passes which are free of the feral tourist buses clogging the hundreds of hairpins.
After two days in Austria we headed into Switzerland and then Italy and the spectacular Dolomites. Our lodgings at the foot of the GrossGlockner pass were in a pension which the Beachs have used on 70 or so tours over the past 20 years. We were treated like family.
The magic atmosphere which envelops places like this is completely lost on everyone else I suspect. The few times that we did brief city tours on buses brought it screaming home to me just how transcendental motorcycle touring is; it really is on a different plane. Throw in perfect weather, amiable companions and hosts, no budget (almost everything is pre-paid on a Beach tour), and it comes close to Nirvana.
Our night and day in the Italian Dolomites brought the only serious rain of the tour. This only served to make the near vertical mountains even more ethereal and mysterious as the perpendicular peaks disappeared to Heaven.
A free day and it was my birthday so someone suggested we zap down to Venice for the day - why not? I soon decided I would rather go in the winter. In summer the place is like a sauna, the high temperature and wringing humidity combining to make a smog that shows up even inside buildings! It's kind of awesome to feel the ancient history of the place though - like standing in the 1000 year old St Mark's Cathedral. A thousand years. How can anything be that old?
One guy had the first come-down of the group. We guessed he'd be in for an ach schiese award that night. He made it over the passes through heavy rain at the Timmelsjoch, with snow and ice by the roadside, but came down very gently on a corner while looking at a waterfall. Both he and the bike lost only pride and a little skin. Physician heal thyself, so he did.
From our hotel window at the Austrian ski town of Obergurgl we could hear cows with bells walking across the carpark. The hills are alive... inside our TV showed 'The Flying Doctors' dubbed in German.
Next morning we rode back over the Timmelsjoch in clear sunshine, then paid $1.85 for a liter of petrol in Italy. A few miles on in Switzerland it was almost half that.
Being Australians, we'd had to get visas - at horrendous cost - to enter France. The Beach tour skirts the French border but we decided we were going to get something for our money, so we went into France; 12Km through Mt Blanc, on to Geneva, then onto the night's hotel at Montreux.
We followed a back road along the shores of Lake Geneva, studiously avoiding the autobahn entrances, to our very placid overnight stay at Montreux. The Bonivard was our best hotel and had a magnificent view of the lake and Chillon Castle. The ancient and modern contrasts here as the autobahn towered over the circa AD1300 castle. Early next morning we toured the castle, the only time we did any touristy things. I find that my enjoyment of any tourist attraction is inversely proportional to the number of other loopies also visiting. We vacated when a busload of Japanese arrived. Among other thing, Chillon Castle is famous for the stone pillar which bears the carved name of Lord Byron, who spent some time in the dungeon as a guest. Very depressing place.
Returning to Switzerland we asked the French border guards for a 'souvenir stamp, s'il vous plait'. This caused great amusement amongst the officers, who kept sarcastically repeating our request, but they delivered eventually anyway. I'm not sure it was worth $66 though! But we flaunted them to the Americans that night anyway. They don't need French visas.
We headed for the small principality of Liechtenstein via more Swiss backroads. To travel on a Swiss autobahn requires a $30 permit which lasts for a year. To be caught without one costs about $100, hence an added reason to use the backroads. Our entrance to Vaduz, Leichtenstein was right through a Swiss army camp. Imagine our surprise when, just as we were about to ride though a medieval gate, a Swiss guard popped out, holding a serious looking rifle. "Quick, take a picture," I whispered to Kate. "Are you nuts?" came the reply. Our surprise was evident to the guard's mates, who were sitting down some distance away, falling about laughing.
Switzerland, despite being neutral, is very heavily fortified. Many mountain passes and bridges have subtle little trapdoors in the road which hide goodness knows what kind of emasculators. Quite a few mountains facing the roads also have iron 'windows' hiding other neutralizers.
We were scheduled for a couple of nights at Interlaken in central Switzerland and a more spectacular setting would be hard to find. The group scattered for the free day, some just sitting up in the Hills watching the scratchers at it again. We counted sixteen motorcycles in a row at one point, followed by a red Ferrari, with colorful para-gliders on the skyline.
Kate and I, in company with some Belgians, took the opportunity to take a helicopter flight up to the roof of Switzerland at Jungfraujoch. We landed in the snow on a plateau at 4000 meters. Both the Matterhorn and Mt Blanc, Europe's highest mountain, were in clear view. Christian, the young pilot of the French helicopter, then flew us to a hiker's hut for lunch. It was kind of awesome to be sitting in the sun, eating our lunch with only a few other people around, watching a group of trekkers roped together, slowly inching their way up a glacier. A ten-out-of-ten-trip.
There are lots of variations in Europe's mountain passes. Some are really beautiful scenic wonderlands, like the Susten and Julier. Others like the Stelvio, are barren and tight, with up to 47 hairpins in a climb of a few kilometers. The top of the Stelvio was almost a traffic jam of bikes and cars.
After three weeks of bliss our party was about to break up. Our last overnight stay on tour was at the King Ludwig Castle of Neuschwanstein; what incredible excesses there. Then we headed back to our hotel in Munich for a rest. Next evening was the time for the traditional dinner and speeches before the group dispersed. Some went on through Europe or to the UK, others back to the States. We headed for Berlin, London and the USA. We left Bob and Elizabeth Beach with ten days to prepare for an influx of 27 participants for the Octoberfest tour. Hard work for them, but someone has to do it!
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