The Alpine Adventure

Mountain Passes and Cultural and Sensory Overload

Rider, February 2001
Story and Story & photography by Donya Carlson

The little village of Arabba, Italy is nestled in a verdant valley surrounded by mountain passes that attract motorcyclists from all over the world. On this June day, the surrounding Dolomites still have snow can them and the hillsides are covered with vivid- yellow dandelions and white flowers. From true vantage point at an outdoor cats, Bill and I watch the adrenaline-pumped riders in their bright color matched leathers strewn into town. We know what they're feeling. These twisty roads are like acme we've experienced before, with everything from fast, sweeping turns to first-gear hairpins that require looking back over your shoulder in order to negotiate them.

Rob Beach of Beach's Motorcycle Adventures has ridden in the Alps hundreds of times, as he and his parents have led European tours for almost 30 years. "They just paved over the cow trails". Beach explains about why the passes, which climb up, up, up - some to more than 9.000 feet - are so twisty. Our group of 25 came from all over the United States and New Zealand to spend two weeks touring on BMWs through Germany, Austria, Switzerland and Italy. Early spring can be cold and bring rain to the Alps, and some of the passes can still be closed, but we were fortunate to have many warm days and wildflowers in bloom (though we did get rained on several times). Each day as we became more comfortable with the hairpins, the noise level at dinner increased as we shared tales of the mountain passes we had conquered and the roads we had discovered that weave through pastureland and medieval hamlets.

Beach supplies maps and detailed descriptions of suggested routes so you can venture out on your own; or follow Beach or his Kiwi sidekicks Donna and Graham Beker and you'll he treated to little-known caf�s and "tiki tours", as Graham calls the harder-to-find roads. My companion Bill, who was riding a BMW R11100GS from Beach's stable, and I on an F650GS on loan from BMW Munich, followed Graham and Donna one day on a one-way dirt road with rock tunnels way up high into farmland. That same day we rode through a thick blanket of tog up Furkapass, where at the summit it was clear, and walked inside the Rhone Glacier, where a narrow pathway leads about 200 feet into the ice.

Each day was a kaleidoscope of snowcapped Alps, fortresses, tunnels that go for miles, waterfalls, lush hills and valleys, and wonderful people. Then there are the sheep that graze on near-vertical hillsides so steep I wondered what kept than from tumbling down. Everywhere were churches with bell towers that date back hundreds of years and the wonderful sound of those bells filled the villages. We'd come around a turn to see a castle overlooking a town, and every five minutes ...Wow! where's my camera?

Like when I was floating hundreds of feet above the Thunersee (See means lake in German) strapped to Heinz Rudi from Paragliding Interlaken. Rob Beach had described the experience as "magical," so a handful of us from the tour found ourselves running down a hill toward a dropoff, then suddenly being whisked upward as our chutes caught wind. Rubi steered us toward sheer cliff walls where the chute caught updrafts and lifted us higher. It was completely quiet as we floated slowly back down to earth.

At the top of Italy's Passo Fed�ia, to avoid the crowd we crossed a cobblestone bridge over a deep ravine.

We sat outside at a caf� perched on a cliff, drinking hot chocolate as thick as pudding, watching motorcyclists appear and disappear through open tunnels cut into the hillside. In Italy at the base of the mighty Passo di St�lvio, known for its four dozen 180 degree switchbacks that will challenge even experienced riders, two from our group chose to take a flat road. They relaxed at a little caf�, while the rest of us who took on the St�lvio were greeted by incredible views.

And just when we thought the landscape couldn't get any more enchanting, we reached Switzerland with its wider roads, even greener pastures with more flow-ers and cows wearing big bells. The quaint town of Zuoz, Switzerland, where we spent a night, has a church that was built in 1499, cobblestone streets and old buildings with rounded doorways and recessed windows with tucked-in shutters.

The cathedral in Salzburg alone is worth a trip to Europe. The original was built in 744, destroyed by tins and rebuilt several times, finally being completed in the early 1600s. In this cathedral where Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart composed numerous works, the center dome is 235 feet high, almost 1 � times the height of Niagara falls, to put it into perspective. There are five giant organs, and it took 20 men to pump the main organ in order to play it. Overlooking Salzburg Is Hohensalzburg Fortress, the largest fully preserved fortress in central Europe. More than 900 years old, it has remained unconquered by enemy troops throughout the centuries.

Nuts & Bolts

Beach's Motorcycle Adventures (BMA) which marks its 30th year in business in 2001, was started by Rob Beach's parents Bob and Elizabeth. Owner Rob Beach, an animated fellow who leads the Alps tours and speaks German and Italian in addition to English, knows the region and roads well. He's educated on the history of the area and was excellent at giving us some background about the next days riding choices during the evening briefings.

In 2001 the two-week Alpine Adventure costs $4,150 for the rider and $3,250 for a passenger (add $350 for single occupancy) and includes motorcycle rental, accommodations, buffet breakfasts, all but two dinners, chase vehicle, souvenir shirt and a large area 1:600,000 map of the Alps (detailed reaps are extra). Tour guides Graham and Donna Beker drove the chase vehicle with our luggage (which is waiting for you by your room when you check in) and gladly gave up a seat in the van to ride a bike and lead a group when someone wanted a rest day.

The tours run from May through October (there's also one three-week tour available). Not included is airfare (though they will transfer you to and from the airport), gasoline (we paid about three times the amount per U.S. gallon), alcohol (which is conveniently billed to your room), lunches and two dinners.

BMA currently has BMW R1100GSs and R1100Rs, and says it will be replacing those models with 1150s soon. Insurance for the motorcycle is included, though the rider is responsible for the first $1,500 of damage. Riders and passengers must have their own medical insurance. The bikes are kept in tiptop shape so you will be billed for any damage - and I mean any damage - including scratches on plastic parts.

Beach gave it a personal touch on our tour with little extras such as surprising a couple who were on their honeymoon with a suite at one hotel; and loaning an electric vest to a rider who needed one. BMA also offers tours of New Zealand and Norway. Contact BMA at 2763 W River Parkway, Grand Island, New York 14072; (716)773-4960

Hotels on the tour are chosen for their character and/or history; and when we checked into our rooms each evening, our luggage was waiting by the door. Some hotels arc situated in towns with nightclubs within walking distance, others in locations so peaceful that from the balcony of our room near Imst, Austria, for example, I could see only a meadow of flowers and trees and the snowcapped Alps.

We fell asleep that night to the sound of a light wind rustling through the trees and distant cowbells. Several hotels are ski resorts with saunas and/or Jacuzzis, and several had indoor pools and massage facilities.

Another favorite, the Romantik Hotel Post in Villach, Austria, was originally a post office on the stagecoach route in the 1500s. The hotel has vaulted ceilings and wooden floors and intricate pieces of art adorning the hallways. Our room was decorated with a big throw rug, ornate armoire and an old radio, and had ancient wooden doors so squeaky you'll want to be on the same sleeping schedule as your roommate. The hotel opens onto a cobblestone street with an eclectic mix of old and new caf�s, taverns and shops.

Buffet breakfasts-with fresh-baked breads, cheeses, meats, yogurts, cereals, fruits, and steaming pots of strong coffee and hot chocolate made with milk - and most dinners, which are excellent, are included in the tour price, and there's no way you'll go away hungry: Dinners are a two-hour grazing affair, with Beach going over the next day's itinerary. Beach is good at giving the group a bit of history and insight on little knowrn places, as well as giving riding tips. "Remember to pull over to look at the scenery;" he tells us while we're being served portions of beef the size of Duraflame logs. You're not invincible just because you' re on vacation."

There were no major accidents on our tour, only some low-speed tipovers that scratched saddlebags and cylinderhead covers. The only complaints I heard were from several tour members who said they'd blown their diets, and a few women who wanted more time to shop. Their husbands, however, patted their wallets and said they'd spent enough. Since Rob Beach personally leads every one of his Alps tours, he is right there to talk to should you need anything. Or you can always ask Neil Huffman for advice, since there's a good chance he'll be there, this being his 21st tour with Beach's. Huffman treated our group to a picnic in Sottoguda, Italy. Ahh, Sottoguda; there's a narrow one-way gorge at the edge of town with steep cliff walls, overhanging rocks, shrines, caves, a stream and little turnouts for picnicking. Wait, I need a picture much film do I have left?

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