Motorcycling's "Final Destination"

Combining some of the best riding in the world with some of the best scenery can be dangerous to one's perspective

From the RiderAnnual, 1982
By Bill and Dixie Estes

Sunday morning was quiet in Cortina d'Ampezzo, Italy, until the bells of a centuries-old church began to summon parishoners. On the previous day, we had arrived in the rain, grateful for the warmth of the Hotel de la Poste, yet impressed by the precipitous Dolomites even in the overcast.

The bells were more effective than an alarm clock and we stumbled out of bed to open the shutters. Like floodgates they let in brilliant sunlight and intoxicating air of a shockingly clear September day of the kind that celebrates summer's change into autumn in this section of Italy.

The view from our hotel balcony confirmed what we had read — there is a visual feast in all directions. Roads pick their way through the mountains, twisting and switching back on themselves to the delight of motorcyclists and the discomfort of tourbus passengers. Anticipation of the day's ride made the day sparkle even more.

As we absorbed this scene, a faint sound of music became apparent. The sounds grew, and soon a marching band appeared — its members wearing colorful uniforms of native origin. Townspeople followed, also dressed in native attire. Music was rousing, and the town square across from the hotel soon filled. We dressed hurriedly and rushed downstairs to join the celebration.

It was yet another day among 19 spent in the Alps of Austria, Switzerland, Italy, Germany and France with Bob and Elizabeth Beach on the 24th of their famous Alpine Motorcycle Adventures. To be sure, that day was one of the most memorable, but many others were close or equal. One Switzerland traveler described his reaction to the seemingly endless Alpine spectacular vistas as ''scenic overload,'' Combining that with the sensation one gets from riding what seems to be an endlessly curving road results in an even higher form of sensory overload.

Much of this is due to the fact that the Europeans have had many centuries in which to build roads in the most inaccessible places. By comparison, many of our spectacular areas are accessible only on foot. Roads in many of those Alpine recesses have existed since Roman times and many of the immaculately maintained farms have been in the same families for centuries. Small towns that grew along the routes are invariably fascinating. Repeatedly we would inspect the map for roads indicated by the smallest red lines and the road invariably would offer such fantastic curves that scenery would be almost secondary. But how could it possibly be secondary? The conflict followed us throughout the trip.

After 24 tours in this kind of country, one might wonder what kind of schizophrenics Bob and Elizabeth have become. But they seem to have survived well, sampling the superb sport riding along with the scenery and interesting hotels, restaurants, museums and castles. Their adventure consists of a loop tour starting and ending in Munich. They determine where the hotel stops will be and offer guidance on routes and scenic attractions. Luggage is taken care of, as are all breakfasts and most dinners. Beyond that, the participant makes it into the kind of tour he or she wants.

The Beaches don't lead the tour, because riding in large groups is unwieldy. Groups do form, but in most cases they consist of less than five bikes because it's almost impossible to keep a larger group together. All members of our tour rode BMWs, some personally owned, some rented and others borrowed. The marque is very popular in the Alps.

Group touring may seem rather tame for the aggressive sportrider until these arrangements are understood, and until freedom from carrying luggage and arranging for accommodations is appreciated. Also, the long flight from the United States (Boston or Los Angeles) is shortened by the fact that other Beach tour members provide good company.

Having flown from Los Angeles to Frankfurt and then to Munich, we settled into the Hotel Huber in Unterpfaffenhofen, a suburb of Munich. That town name was one of many tongue-twisters everyone struggled with. Some were linguistically rather fun, like Hohenschwangau. The w is pronounced as a v and we had fun overemphasizing, the v ... HohenSCHVANgau. King Ludwig's famous castle, Schloss Neuschwanstein, is near the town of Hohenschwangau. But that was near the end of the trip.

When we departed Hotel Huber the first day, the concept of a group tour was nowhere in sight. Some of the participants rode together but it was purely by choice. Each tour member was issued a book that listed the schedule of overnight stops and described in detail how to get to the hotel. A route was recommended — usually scenic and not too difficult from the standpoint of terrain. Thus, the newcomer was offered a reasonable amount of instruction. But by discussing additional route possibilities with the Beaches or with veterans of the tour, dozens of other interesting sights and routes could be discovered.

Munich is fascinating but little time is afforded there at the start of the tour; that comes at the end, along with the great party — Oktoberfest. Leaving Munich, the countryside is interesting but not spectacular, particularly if rain is encountered, as it well may be. The weather put us in rainsuits early in the trip, and a few of the highest and most spectacular passes were crossed in inclement weather (rain, plus one snowstorm, although it didn't stick to the pavement). Munich is in fairly flat country but the first day's ride brought us in mountains near Salzburg, Austria, and from there it's into the highest reaches of the Alps. Salzburg, inhabited since 3000 B.C., offers so much of historical interest that ''you will be hard pressed to decide which places you wish to visit,'' as the Beach tour book states. Indeed the choice is bewildering and time is short. We opted for a chambermusic concert in the Residenz in Hohensalzburg (built in the 12th century). Mozart conducted symphonies here.

The next day led us to the small town of Fusch, at the foot of Grossglockner pass (8218 feet), one of the most spectacular passes in Europe. Our lodging, at Pension Resch, offered a glimpse of this type of family-style tourist accommodation which is popular throughout Europe. The Pension is actually the Resch/Jordan family home; mom, pop, grandma and the kids run the place, which was hand built, complete with woodcarvings, flowerboxes on all balconies, and charming rooms. Bathrooms were community-style, an arrangement encountered in a few other hotels during the trip, but in most cases it caused only minor inconvenience. After dinner, the family at Pension Resch entertained with songs and music on native instruments including zithers.

The day for Grossglockner dawned bleak and cold, but nevertheless exciting because we were dressed for the weather, and the scenery promised to be spectacular even if it was partially hidden by the clouds. The road up to the pass traverses a mountainside, which affords a rather acrophobic view into the valley several thousand feet below, and across many miles of thin air to the opposite mountain. As we climbed, traces of rain clouds scuttled up the valley in the great abyss below us. The scene was breathtaking, to employ a word that quickly becomes overused during this trip. As usual, the roads were winding and invited an aggressive sportriding style when pavement wasn't wet.

The main highway down off the pass leads to Lienz, where one picks up a major route from that city to Cortina d' Ampezzo, our next overnight stop. However, the number of passes that can be ridden in the immediate vicinity is too much of a temptation and a ride that might normally take five or six hours (180 miles) at a slow, sightseeing pace is turned in to 10 or 12 hours at a faster pace, eating up all the pavement possible before the 7 p.m. dinner hour. At least a dozen outrageous passes surround Cortina and the Beach tour conveniently spends a couple of days there. Sightseers do not want for activities, and the sportriders usually leave at dawn and return after dark. John Hermann of San Diego has most of the routes in his head and it's fun to join him for a hard ride without having to stop at every crossroad to study the map. Hermann has been on nine Beach tours.

Departure from Cortina takes one over Falzarego pass, on the way to Lake Garda. For the many tourists who view the Dolomites and Alps in buses, this must be one of the most excruciating drives, for it is a huge collection of switchbacks. Initially we were introduced to the road at night, having wandered too far from our intended route. Without cornering lights, feline vision would have been handy because our headlight would illuminate the apex of the curve while we were trying vainly to see where the road led. Luckily, none of the crazy Italian drivers were on that road at that time ... they had better sense. Retracing the route in daylight was great fun, if you happen to like diving into one switchback after another. It requires special technique, which is picked up quickly, and when they are fairly close together it can be great fun except when you must try to pass a 40-foot tour bus on a stretch of road between switchbacks that seems only about 80 feet long.

Crazy, yes — those European drivers. But usually very competent. Driving a motorcycle in Europe, particularly in Germany, Austria and Switzerland, is distinctly a different experience. All the European drivers may seem a bit crazy compared to car drivers in the United States, with the Italians leading the pack, but they are accustomed to motorcycles and mountain roads, they know how a motorcycle accelerates and maneuvers and they don't panic when one comes at them while passing another vehicle. If the bike can't get back in, everyone makes room and the motorcyclist just splits right down the middle. It's not a situation anyone tries to create, but experience, competency and an appreciation for motorcycling as a sport are evident.

Traffic in the cities and on the major tourist routes does get rather hectic at times, but it's possible to avoid most of that by staying on the most obscure routes. While traveling from Cortina to Lake Garda, the major route around the lake is rather congested but it leads to one of the most interesting roads we traveled — the route up the cliffside from Limone to the Plateau of Tremosine, and our hotel in the little town of Pieve. The hotel balcony is cantilevered out over the cliff, above the lake, and another dose of acrophobia can be administered here — especially after a long day on the road and a couple of beers.

The next morning we headed out, threading our way through the mountains to the east and angling toward Switzerland. As yet we had been through parts of West Germany, Austria and Italy. Already scenic overload was taking its toll and we hadn't even crossed the Swiss border. The route from our hotel at Sondrio, Italy, to Verbania, on Lake Maggiore came tantalizingly close to Switzerland and we couldn't resist a dash into the mountains to St. Moritz the famed ski area, for lunch, and onward to seek out the great San Bernardino pass. By the time we had traveled the great roads on that loop and were heading for the next hotel at Verbania (back in Italy) it was getting late.

We found out rather late what we had neglected the most luxurious hotel on the tour. We elected to go along the east side of the lake which appeared less congested (lakeshore roads in Europe usually are jammed) and take the auto ferry across. Dragging in about 30 minutes after the appointed hour for dinner, we found ourselves in the Grand Hotel Majestic at the lakeshore, and in palatial rooms with bathrooms larger than the entire space we had occupied earlier at quaint Pension Resch. But that was a different experience — quite enjoyable in its own way.

It was a good example of the variety built into this trip, as yet another example of the conflicting desires to enjoy hotels, restaurants and tourist attractions and to ride as many high roads and passes as possible. As the trip progressed toward a close, the roads and passes became almost an addiction. We began to appreciate why Hermann has been back nine times, and keeps a bike in Munich just for touring with the Beaches. Other regular tour members have similar arrangements.

Next stop was Zermatt, Switzerland, after we had crossed much of northern Italy. Zermatt is at the foot of the Matterhorn and the only way to get there is by train or on foot. We parked the bikes in a prearranged underground locked area and boarded an electric narrow-gauge cog train for the short but beautiful ride to a town where tourists are hauled around in horse-drawn carriages and most people walk. It was rainy, which obscured much of the view, but the clouds did clear away enough to permit a view of this spectacularly steep peak the following morning. Any such view was invariably accompanied by very clear air. Europe does have smog, but not in the Alps. Shopping in Zermatt was especially enjoyable due to the absence of motor vehicles.

The next hotel destination was in Courmayeur, Italy, our last stop in Italy and everyone made sure to get rid of all their lire (the Italian currency) since it could be exchanged in Italy at a better rate than in other countries.

Returning from Zermatt to the main highway and heading west, we're still in an area that offers a great number of interesting stops — and many great roads to ride as well. After having visited Aosta, Italy, we made a dash through the French countryside to bypass the long tunnel that connects Entreves to Chamonix. This is a fascinating area where Italy, France and Switzerland meet. The nine-mile tunnel under Mont Blanc undoubtedly is a marvel of engineering but the ride through the high, mountainous French countryside seemed much more attractive. The roads we took were little traveled, and the inns where we stopped for lunch or for European hot chocolate appeared hundreds of years old, exuding much character. In several sections, concrete military fortifications, somewhat obscured by weeds and brush, offered mute evidence that tranquility wasn't always status here. At one point earlier in the trip — at Simplon pass near Brig we stopped at a restaurant near the top. Centuries earlier, the Romans had traveled the same route. While we were there, the Swiss were on maneuvers and our repast was interrupted by the shock and vibration of artillery fire nearby. The Swiss seem always on maneuvers and are one of the most well-prepared countries in the world. We encountered this again in Andermatt, where tanks rumbled through the town at 6 a.m.

At Chamonix, we took an hour or so for one of the best cablecar rides in the world, to a point near the top of Mont Blanc. Steepness of the ascent combined with thin air at the top (12,700 feet) and presence of snow and ice in mid-September made quite a transition.

From there, progress into Switzerland's highest mountains was rapid and spectacular. At Lauterbrunnen where we made an overnight stop, waterfalls cascaded down the mountainside near the hotel, trailing water vapor. Andermatt, our next stop, was surrounded by five of the best passes in the entire trip, although we missed seeing a couple due to rain. Sustenpass is reputed to be one of the most spectacular in Europe but we traveled it in a snowstorm, stopping at a lodge at the top to dry out and partake of some excellent wurst and gulaschsuppe. When traveling in Austria, Switzerland and Germany we learned that gulaschsuppe (literally, goulash soup) could be relied upon to be delicious regardless of where it was ordered. The soup's content and character changed from something closely resembling vegetable soup to what would be regarded as chili in this country; but invariably it was delicious, and during a wet snowstorm it was a better rescue than one of those St. Bernards with a cask of brandy around his neck.

On this pass occurred the worst weather we encountered, although other occasions when rain lasted two days were rather disappointing. Such periods of bad weather were excellent opportunities to spend more time in the interesting museums, churches, shops and restaurants, some of the more interesting of which were located in tiny Liechtenstein. The capital is Vaduz, and it's a superb city for shopping. We stayed at the top of a ski mountain, in the village of Malbun. The countryside, customs and people are almost indistinguishable from the Swiss. The country has only 61 square miles.

Next was that tongue-twister, Hohenschwangau, bringing us back into Bavaria for a visit to the eccentric King Ludwig's famous Neuschwanstein castle. It looks like a medieval castle, but in fact was completed in 1886. The king built spectacular castles of past centuries in several parts of Bavaria.

Were it not for the renowned Oktoberfest, our trip now would have been drawing to a close. If ever an event was designed to climax a tour of this sort, it could not exceed the great Bavarian beer festival. At least, that's our opinion, but we admit it does help to like beer. The discovery of how seriously deprived we American beer lovers have been for all this time comes as something for a shock. When first you enter a German restaurant or brewery and attach yourself to a big one-liter stein, you realize that it is a beer you can sink your teeth into. Possibly there is bad draft beer in Bavaria but we taste-tested every one we could find and couldn't come up with one. One of our favorites was Hacker-Brau, a very popular brew made in Munich. By accident, we walked right past the brewery, with its big brass boiler in a showroom window, on the way to Oktoberfest. Needless to say, the Hacker-Brau tent was our first stop at the festival. The brewery was founded in 1417.

Each of many breweries, most of them excellent but many unheard-of outside of Germany — sets up a huge tent, rolls in hundreds of barrels of special Oktoberfest beer and Germans and tourists from all over the world gather by the thousands to sample the fruit of the harvest. Each brewery specializes in a certain dish as well, whether it be whitefish, roast oxen, roast pork or broiled chicken. It's all delicious; the scene is incredible, 7000 to 10,000 people in each tent, having a great time, brass band playing oompah-style music that makes it impossible to keep your feet still, and Oktoberfest beer that is even better than the everyday German draft beer. For someone who likes beer or big parties, it's a memorable experience. For someone who likes both, the Oktoberfest is worth a trip to Germany.

The combination of Oktoberfest with such a great motorcycle tour as well as such a great ride, permits one to understand why so many people return many times. Our trip was a high point for returnees (75 percent), but the Beach tours usually have a rather high percentage, and many of the habitual returnees keep BMW motorcycles in storage in Munich just for the Beach tour. Of course, it's possible to book spring and summer Beach tours, and the spring tour is reputed to be even more spectacular, scenery-wise, because more of the mountains are snowcapped. However, some of the high passes may still be closed by snow.

Many tour members purchase BMWs for shipment back to the United States, and Beach handles details. Still others rent BMWs from Beach, and a few ship their own bikes to and from Germany (see article in this issue).

Whatever the arrangement, and whichever the tour, it is one of the great motorcycling experiences.

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