by Tammy and Victor Wanchena
The Alps call to motorcyclists the world over. They do this by combining amazing scenery and twisty roads; all in an area roughly the size of the upper Midwest. From the high, Alpine passes of Austria, to the mountain vineyards of Italy; through the craggy peaks of the Dolomites, to the snowy switchbacks of Switzerland, this is a motorcyclists’ nirvana.
We were very fortunate to incorporate a test of BMW’s R1200RT in the Alps with a trip to Europe visiting friends. Our plan was simple: don’t plan anything. Our focus was to ride through the Alps. We weren’t going to try to see everything. We didn’t plan stops or book hotels prior to leaving, which worked great for us, figuring part of the adventure was not too plan to many details.
Our route was a 1000-mile loop of the Austrian Alps. We departed Munich and headed south for Austria. The first stop was at Neuschwanstein Castle. This is the castle of King Ludwig II, and was the inspiration for the Walt Disney Castle. The first night we followed the advice of a gas station attendant and followed a winding alpine road to the town of Rinnen, Austria. The pension there was phenomenal. We were treated to great food, and marveled at the view from our room. The following morning, we rode west through Austria, then into Lichtenstein.
From there, we continued south into Switzerland, heading for the Fluela Pass. At 7800 feet, the Fluela treated us to plenty of snow and fog. Quite the adventure. Night was beginning to fall as we descended into the Alto Adige region of Italy. We found another wonderful pension located in the middle of a lush vineyard. The only restaurant open in town was a pizzeria, go figure, but the pie was nothing special. The cheap wine, on the other hand, was very appreciated.
The next day, we rode east in to the Dolomites. These were, by far, some of the wildest roads we had seen thus far. Many of the passes had over 30 switchbacks per side. The roads and the scenery were positively stunning. We went as far as Cortina d’Ampezzo; the Aspen,CO of the Alps. We then turned north for Austria and The Grossglockner Hochalpenstrasse. At nightfall, we were blessed to find yet another perfect pension. The owner even insisted park our bike in his garage. The next morning we set out to conquer the Grossglockner Hochalpenstrasse, a major play road in Austria. This road is privately owned and thus, there is a toll. The toll for motorcycles is 18 Euros ($24 dollars US at the time). Expensive, but the views and the riding are worth it. It was 60 and sunny on the south side of the mountain, but once through the tunnel at the top we found ourselves battling winter. Snow chased us down to lower elevations, but the joy of running this road was evidenced by the conga line of Porsches dancing through the corners.
The after breakfast, we followed the Deutsch Alpenstrasse; a road that winds along the northern edge of the Alps. We marveled at the miles of glassy smooth, sweeping corners, ending up in the town of Wallgau. Sadly our ride was coming to an end so, we headed back to Munich, with some spirited riding on the Autobahn.
This was our first motorcycle trip in Europe, and a real learning experience. Most of the worries we had prior to leaving evaporated once on the ground and riding in Europe. The first adjustment was redefining how many miles to cover in a day. 250 miles of twisty mountain roads in the Alps can take all day and involve several countries. Our Midwestern brains saw 250 miles as a trip to Fargo.
Getting to Europe is easy and accessible, with reasonably priced flights running in and out of all major European cities surrounding the Alps. We flew into Munich, Germany at the end of April for less than $1,500.00. Fares fluctuate a lot, and a little shopping around can definitely prove worth the time. The best riding is in the summer, but good weather can be found May through mid-October. You will need a passport, which you will need to apply for well in advance of your vacation. Entry Visas are not necessary within the EU, unless you are planning to stay longer than six months.
Preparing for a trip through the Alps is no different than preparing for any other long distance trip on your bike. You will need standard motorcycling gear. Helmets are mandatory, and you will experience large degrees of temperature changes, especially the higher you climb up into the mountains. So pack accordingly. In the navigation department, a good Alpine Atlas, like the ones available from ADAC (the European equivalent of AAA), is a must. A GPS with detailed European maps proved to be a lifesaver for us in a couple situations. You will need to get an international drivers license. These are available locally from AAA.
We highly recommend anyone considering a trip to the Alps purchase a copy of Motorcycle Journeys through the Alps, by John Herman. He has ridden the Alps extensively and provided loads of great information. We found our lack of foreign language skills to be a non-factor, as many people spoke English. But we did try to learn a little German, the language of the Alps. Knowing basic words and phrases is helpful, especially when navigating.
Motorcycling through Europe is very similar to riding in the U.S., but with a couple of significant differences. All distances and speeds are measured in kilometers. Doing 100 kph is not as thrilling as it sounds. And except for the major highways and freeways, most roads are unnumbered and unnamed. This poses a unique dilemma for riders unfamiliar with this foreign concept. Instead of numbers, the roads typically state, with much simplicity, the next town you will come to. So you can imagine how important it is to pay close attention to all street signs. This is particularly challenging when navigating through the narrow streets of ancient villages. This was where our GPS helped keep us headed in the right direction.
One of the great attractions of the Alps are its’ wonderfully paved roads. They were almost always well maintained and seemingly designed with motorcyclists in mind. There was a little bit of something for everyone, but riders who enjoy twisty mountain riding will be rewarded in particular. If there was one thing we learned from this vacation, it was that we both love to spend our vacation time on bikes in the mountains, rather than stuck in the big cities surrounded by people.
Border crossings? What border crossings? Thanks to the creation of the European Union, border crossings are similar to traveling from one state to another in the U.S. With one small exception, where an Italian border guard told Tammy not to take his picture, we did not have to show our passport once. If there is one thing you can say about riding the Alps, it is “Biker Wilkommen”. Bikers are truly welcome and encouraged to ride through every country we visited.
One major downside to traveling through Europe, especially in the Alps, is the high cost of gasoline. During our visit, we saw gas prices ranging from five to six U.S. dollars per gallon. The sting of this on the pocketbook was only slightly offset by the fuel economy of our BMW test bike.
“Zimmer Frei” means there is a Room Free, but not free of charge, just available. Thanks to the tourism-based economy of the Alps, lodging is plentiful and reasonably priced. However, we arrived in the off-season, and on more than one occasion we had to search to find an open hotel or pension. It is important to call it a night early, by no later than 7:00 p.m., as there is little to no nightlife, in spite of their beer drinking reputations. Even restaurants close much earlier there. We had the best lodging of our lives in small pensions; nicer than any bed and breakfasts we have ever stayed in. Unlike a U.S. bed and breakfast, the rates are cheaper than most hotels, and the rooms almost always provide your own bathroom, and include breakfast.
The pension breakfasts are always the same. Fresh fruit, jellies, jams, and fruit juices, yogurt, granola, rolls, pastries, cheeses and meats, coffee or espresso…no bagel or boxed cereal like The Holiday Inn. You won’t find much use for antacid tablets since most of the meals you will find in restaurants are quite bland. Pack your own hot sauce; you won’t find any here! But the food is always fresh and the portions are always generous. Wait staff will not come around to your table very often and you may have to aggressively flag one down to get your bill and hit the road.
The one detail that you must plan ahead for is motorcycle rental. There are reputable rental agencies located in major cities through Europe. For a first trip I recommend renting a bike versus shipping yours over. The price and the paperwork only make shipping your bike work if you plan to stay longer than a month.
This is a trip worth doing, period. We can’t say enough good things about our time spent in the Alps. The people of the region were nothing but hospitable through the entire trip. Our experience of Alpine culture was fantastic and only strengthened our desire to return.