Sooner or Later... Europe

My Motorcycle Dream

Road Rider Magazine, April, 1975

The only thing Bob Beach forgot to tell us to bring along on our motorcycle tour of the Alps was Contac cold pills. Fortunately he had mentioned that we should bring our own toilet paper (the European version of that particular luxury is definitely not for our "civilized" fannies) and we also had to bring our own soap and washcloths. European hotels do not know about soap and washcloths.

There is one nice thing about European hotels however. They are in Europe.

If you are a road rider and know the supreme joy of sitting in the saddle with a powerful machine beneath you — if you enjoy cycling even when you are wet, cold, hungry or lost — if you long for each new horizon and relish being surrounded by spectacular countryside — then sooner or later you'll want to visit Europe.

There are several ways to get there, but one of the easiest and best ways to go — especially if it's your first time — is via a group tour. That way your itinerary is designed by experienced Eurotravelers to offer the most sightseeing for the time you have. In addition, overnight accommodations and most meals are prescheduled, your two-wheeled transportation is waiting for you (along with an official backup van which carries skilled mechanics and most of your luggage) and all the necessary paperwork is done for you. This combination of services takes care of all the "foreign travel" problems — the enjoyment is left up to you.

Having decided to go with a group, I sent a letter to Bob Beach's Motorcycle Adventures and before I knew it I had arrived at Mike Krauser's BMW dealership in Munich, Germany. My brand new BMW was waiting for me there — complete with a bouquet of flowers attached to the handlebars.

Our tour group consisted of people from many different walks of life. But during the next three exciting weeks we would be cemented together by the common denominator of our Alpine experiences ... the thrill of riding to the top of a high mountain pass ... or of accepting the challenge of high winds and bad roads ... or the sharing of beauty and grandeur to rival that of anywhere else in the world.

All of our party were veteran riders — except for me. But in a way, the switchbacks and the cliff roads hanging onto the mountainsides actually intensified the adventure — keeping my heart in my throat most of the time. (I was glad it was foggy the day I rode over the Grand Saint Bernard Pass. If I had known about what was not on the other side of the road markers, I really don't think I could have done it!)

The first (and last) place we visited on the tour was the city of Munich, Germany. Because of its varied structures which span centuries of changing styles and methods of construction — the city is not only an architectural contradiction, but a fascinating place to visit.

Outside of Munich on our way to Austria, the autobahn disappeared and left us riding through rolling pastureland — dotted frequently with attractive chalets. Each chalet had its own collection of window boxes and the flowers were growing everywhere. At our first stop in Worgl, Austria, we were treated to a fine show of traditional folk dances. Afterwards the dance floor was open for anyone who wanted to take advantage of the excellent combo's lively music.

Pension Resch in Austria (where we stayed our third night out) was a newish building. But it was furnished entirely with antique furniture. It looked like it might have been the original setting for the story of Hansel and Gretel. There were many similar touches throughout the tour. (We soon learned to adapt to the ubiquitous hotel featherbeds — though some of us never really got used to them.)

And so it went for three glorious weeks. We rode from one storybook spot to the next — each connected to the next by the most challenging and rewarding motorcycle dream-roads imaginable. The rides each day were neither long nor tedious. There was plenty of time to see most of the famous sites listed in the daily itinerary, such as Hitler's "Eagle's Nest" or the Gruyere cheese factory in Gruyere, Switzerland, or the salt mines at Hallein, Austria.

The itinerary also included some of the most famous cities in the western world. Venice, Chamonix, Salzburg, Zermatt, Andermatt and the Roman ruins at Aosta, Italy. The famous Castle of Chillon which inspired Lord Byron to write "The Prisoner of Chillon" was on our route, as were the caves of Postjana, Jugoslavia. We even learned to blow the alpenhorn at a yodeler's party in Lucerne, Switzerland.

One reason the tour was so interesting was the fact that Bob Beach had handpicked each route. "Interesting" is an understatement. At one point he sent us on a road to Pieve, Italy that I am sure was nothing more than an enlarged goat path. However I admit that the view of Lake Garda from the court of a restaurant clinging to the side of a mountain must be seen to be appreciated. It was worth the scary ride.

But even with all the wonderful places we visited, for me the best parts of the trip were the profoundly personal experiences. Sitting on a rock by the side of the road listening to the sound of cowbells drifting down from the mountain pastures high above. Having lunch on the Alpine pass where Napoleon brought troops and cannon over in winter. Walking where Da Vinci walked. Eating dinner at the Stockhorn Restaurant in the shadow of the Matterborn in Zermatt where Julien, the owner, cooked our steaks beside our table.

I wish I had space to describe the cloud-bound passes where, if you wait a while, the clouds lift to reveal a beautiful lake below ... or the vineyards in Italy which are hundreds of years old ... or the frightening exhilaration of a ride on the Italian autostrada where everyone is a Grand Prix driver.

At one high mountain stop I sighted a fairy town thousands of feet below in a lovely valley. The road was narrow and hazardous but I rode on. Before long I was sitting in that town having soup — trying to figure out the rest of the menu and feeling mighty pleased with myself. Memories like these are the most important things that an American motorcyclist brings home from a visit to Europe.

Obviously the trip was also a marvelous learning experience. We learned quickly to have our cameras ready at all times. The European people were often wearing traditional dress and presented many unexpected candid shots. But more often we were the topic of interest rather than the other way around — at least our bikes were. The people seemed to admire our motorcycles more than they did the riders. This was not surprising. By their standards a BMW motorcycle is the best and most expensive luxury. They gathered around our motorcycles wherever we stopped. Unless you speak their native language you just have to accept that admiration, smile back and forth and try to understand sign language.

Since you will know in advance where you'll be going, do bring extra tour guides along. (The Michelin Green Guides are excellent sources of information and are available in your library or local bookstore.) We found that tourist attractions in Europe are not advertised like they are in the States. There are no billboards just one picture postcard scene after another. The tour guides really came in handy.

Luggage was no problem (one suitcase per person) since almost everything goes in the follow-up van. Of course rain gear, cameras and a change of clothes went with each rider, stashed in the saddlebags and ready for instant use.

Speaking of saddlebags: In most cases the accessories we ordered in the States were installed on our bikes when we picked them up in Munich. But it is highly advisable to bring some kind of a windshield with you if you prefer to ride behind one. They are almost impossible to get anywhere in Europe.

Riders on the tour were allowed to team up as they pleased or go it solo. Most of us did a little of both at one time or another. We found it most enjoyable to be able to ride with whom we wished and when. That way everyone sets his own pace without having to worry about anyone else.

As a matter of fact that was the key to the whole trip — the lack of worry. If things ever got confused or a bit touchy, Bob was there to smooth the matter over calmly. There was one no-injury mishap on our trip — but the van driver and mechanic pounded a dented front rim back into shape, installed a new valve cover and the couple was soon back on the road.

There are tours leaving for Europe every spring and fall. Either season has many advantages, but in my own case I'm glad I went in the fall. During this time of year few European tourists were seen and the tourist attractions were seldom crowded. Also in fall the changing colors of the leaves rival New England for splendour.

One unusual advantage to the fall trip — especially in Switzerland and Austria — was that it was the time of year when the cows are driven along the roads from high summer pastures to warmer winter quarters. The cows are fastidiously decorated for the trek. Pine branches are attached to their horns and great bells hung around their necks to knell the coming of the sleek herd — and winter.

Another extra attraction of the fall tour was the opportunity to attend the Krauser Rally. Sponsored by Mike Krauser (the largest BMW dealer in Europe) this annual weekend rally has become the biggest motorcycle event of its kind in Europe.

Imagine a cobblestone street at six in the morning with 300 motorcycles lined up and waiting for the starting signal. Guys and gals in tight fitting leathers stood waiting quietly in groups of fifteen or so, their faces wrapped to the eyes to keep away the cold. Anticipation and excitement hovered keenly in the brisk morning air. Ever so slowly the clock reached seven and all 300 motorcycles roared to life. The earth trembled as the rally was guided out of Munich by the police. Before long the 300-bike caravan stretched out for five miles!

The leader set a snappy pace through the mountains of Austria and then into Italy. Before nightfall all of us were gathered in the plaza of an Italian village in the Dolomites. Sunday morning in the plaza the 300-strong procession of bikes — as orderly as before — embarked on their journey over even rougher terrain and narrower passes. Adults and children alike came out to line the roadway and wave us on our way and wish us good luck. Farmers raking hay leaned on their rakes to watch us pass by. In each village where we stopped we were serenaded by a band and greeted warmly by city officials.

Even better — the young German riders in the group behind us told us, "You American grandfathers ride pretty well." It was a compliment as most of them were in their twenties — and were superb motorcyclists.

The Krauser Rally — like the wonderful three-week tour it followed — was well organized and beautifully executed. Above all it was a fitting finale to the experience of a lifetime ... a motorcycle tour of Europe.

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