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A two-wheel, thrill-a-minute ride through the Alps

A two-wheel, thrill-a-minute ride through the Alps
Motorcyclists lean into a curve in the Stelvio Pass in the Italian Alps. (Tim Graham / Getty Images)

After I spent a week in Italy’s Tuscan hills on a Ducati, I got complaints from friends in Bavaria.

“Why would you waste your time in Italy on an Italian motorcycle when you could ride in Germany on a BMW?”

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I didn’t want to start an international incident, so my wife, Julie, and I decided to fly to Munich and take on the Alps — five countries in six days, hitting some of the most famous motoring and motorcycling passes in the world.

We mounted up early, after half a day visiting Munich’s Marienplatz district followed by a night at the agreeable Hotel Henry in Erding.

Our BMW R1200RT touring bikes purred beneath us as we rolled past fields of grain and herds of black and white cows. We stopped for coffee and a pastry in the picturesque walled city of Landsberg am Lech.

(Lou Spirito For The Times)

By late afternoon, we had left the lowlands for higher ground, which meant fewer villages, cooler temperatures and heavy clouds that threatened rain. We bunked for the night in the hill town of Warth, just over the Austrian border, where we seemed to be the only tourists.

Our itinerary was based on a self-guided Alpine tour created by Edelweiss Bike Travel, which for 38 years has outfitted riders with motorcycles, gear and fully guided tours of the European continent.

The Edelweiss folks had assured me that, after Munich, I didn’t need to book hotels. The Alpine skiing season was over, they said, and the August tourists wouldn’t arrive for another month. Our plan was to ride each day at a leisurely pace and then stop and find lodging in whatever village appealed to us.

The morning broke cold and wet. We put on our regular riding gear, then added a rainproof layer and headed into heavy fog. Furkajoch, the first of our planned mountain passes, was shrouded in mist.

We shed our rain suits and warmed up with coffee and cocoa in Feldkirch. A short time later we crossed into Liechtenstein — and an equally short time after passed right through it, eager to climb back into the mountains and take on more mountain passes.

By evening, we had ridden the Klausen, Susten and Grimsel passes and crossed the border into Switzerland. Dusk found us in Andermatt, a scenic ski town that, off-season, was empty. We took a room in the charming Hotel Sonne, a gingerbread structure near the town center. We swapped our riding gear for street clothes and had dinner in the hotel.

Higher and higher

The weather improved with the new day. We started the morning with a brisk hike in the hills, then spent the day skirting the Alpine crests, climbing ever higher.

Summer can be quiet in the Alps, where ski season is the busy time. So inns, such as the Hotel Sonne in Andermatt, Switzerland, have last-minute rooms.
Summer can be quiet in the Alps, where ski season is the busy time. So inns, such as the Hotel Sonne in Andermatt, Switzerland, have last-minute rooms. (Charles Fleming / Los Angeles Times)

I was impressed with the BMW and our increasing proficiency on it, but I was more impressed with the company we had on the road. As we approached the Furka Pass, the tops of the Alps gleaming above us, we overtook increasing numbers of leg-pumping cyclists.

Then, near the crest, we came upon half a dozen men and women taking the hill on cross-country skis fitted with roller blades. They were members, we learned, of the Swiss Olympic ski team.

It became more difficult to stick to the Edelweiss itinerary because we kept stopping to take photographs of the breathtaking mountains, to ogle the wondrous collections of motorcycles and sports cars gathered at the summits, and to sample the local coffees, pastries and cold drinks.

By the end of the third day, we were half a day behind. By the end of the fourth, we stopped trying to catch up.

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By then, we had crossed from Switzerland into Italy and back again, had picnicked by the water at Interlaken, taken on the San Bernardino and Splügen passes, spent a night in Biasca, lunched under a waterfall outside the delightful town of Chiavenna and had a coffee by the lake in St. Moritz.

Northeast Italy: The Dolomites loom above Pordoi Pass, west of Cortina d'Ampezzo, Italy.
Northeast Italy: The Dolomites loom above Pordoi Pass, west of Cortina d'Ampezzo, Italy. (Charles Fleming / Los Angeles Times)

The next two days and nights were the best of the trip, a slide show’s worth of glacier fields, high mountain glens filled with wildflowers and one flowing road after another.

On the fourth afternoon, we crossed into Italy again, through the Livigno Pass into a lovely green valley where we obtained a clean, comfortable room at Hotel Forcola. Dinner here was a local specialty of buckwheat pasta, bitter greens and cheese known as pizzocheri.

Twenty-four hours later, after crossing back into Switzerland and climbing the daunting Stelvio and Gavia passes, we found ourselves again in a deep verdant valley at the Baita Velon, a sweet albergo, or hotel, tucked among the trees. It was ideal for cooling and calming down after the long riding day. That afternoon we took a walk in a light misty rain along the Vermigliana River.

We realized we would have to forgo some Edelweiss highlights. Off the itinerary came Bolzano and Salzburg. We scratched Berchtesgaden, Hitler’s “Eagle’s Nest” and several more notable passes. There just wasn’t time.

Instead, we steered northeast back into Italy, toward Cortina d’Ampezzo. There after a long, lovely day of riding, which included a picnic stop at the magical Lago di Carezza and the splendid Falzarego and Pordoi passes, we easily found a hotel room at the Hotel Pontejel.

The iridescent water at Lago di Carezza, near Bolzano in the Italian Dolomites, makes this a popular roadside stop.
The iridescent water at Lago di Carezza, near Bolzano in the Italian Dolomites, makes this a popular roadside stop. (Charles Fleming / Los Angeles Times)

That night we dined well on pizzas and trays of cured meats at Prosciutteria Dok Dall’Ava, then joined the parade of locals making their evening passeggiata, or stroll, through the town square. This required a gelato.

We were due in Munich the next day. That made for a long, lovely ride. We left Cortina early, climbed back into the mountains on the road to Mittersill and crossed from Switzerland into Austria and then into Germany.

Along the way, as had become our habit, we stocked up on fruit, cheese and snacks before hitting the road, then stopped midmorning for coffee and strudel (this time at the pleasant Hohe Brücke) and later found a roadside park to eat a picnic lunch.

Before dark, we were back at the Hotel Henry. The trip meter showed we had ridden 1,720 kilometers — or 1,068 miles — during our six-day run. We had time to visit central Munich again that night, before making our way the next morning to the airport.

Twisting roads draw motorcyclists from around the world, who collect at spots like this roadside cafe in near Falzarego Pass in Italy.
Twisting roads draw motorcyclists from around the world, who collect at spots like this roadside cafe in near Falzarego Pass in Italy. (Charles Fleming)

As we took off, Julie said she was happy to be traveling somewhere not on a motorcycle. But as we flew west I could think only about how much I wanted to return, to do Edelweiss’ itinerary in reverse and see the spots we missed.

If you go

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THE BEST WAY TO MUNICH, GERMANY

From LAX, Lufthansa offers both nonstop and connecting service (change of planes) to Munich; Scandinavian, Delta, United, British, Air France, KLM, Austrian and Swiss also offer connecting service. Restricted round-trip airfares from $997, including taxes and fees.

TOURING

Edelweiss Bike Travel conducts dozens of tours worldwide every year. The High Alpine Tour, which most resembles the route we took, starts at $3,390, which includes motorcycle rental, hotels, most meals and the van that carries your luggage.

Our route would be just as exciting in a car as on a motorcycle. Whatever the vehicle, this itinerary involves more than a dozen border crossings. Especially for us on two wheels, it was useful to keep small amounts of money handy for tolls. It was also important to stay hydrated, to stop often, keep caffeinated and snack regularly. European drivers excel at remaining civilized on complicated mountain roads, but staying alert was essential.

WHERE TO STAY

Hotel Henry, 1 Dachauer St., Erding, Germany; 011-49-8122-90-993-0. Room from $107. Secure underground parking for $6 a night.

Hotel Sonne, 76 Gotthardstrasse, Andermatt, Switzerland; 011-41-4188-71226. Rooms from $194, free parking.

Hotel Forcola, 12 Via Forcola, Livigno, Italy; 011-39-334-8910479. We paid $36 per person for a fine room and a big breakfast.

Baita Velon, Località Velon, Vermiglio, Italy; 011-39-0463-758279. Rooms from $64, including breakfast.

Hotel Pontejel, 11 Largo delle Poste, Cortina d'Ampezzo, Italy; 011-39-0436-2525. Rooms from $127, including breakfast.

WEATHER AND GEAR

We rode in temperatures that ranged from the low 40s to the low 90s and managed to stay comfortable most of the time in Pivot Touring jackets made by Tourmaster. Rain suits from Fly kept us dry, and the jackets were also ideal for hiking in cool damp weather. We wore Shoei helmets without communication systems, but many riders use Sena Bluetooth headsets so they can chat while riding. Our motorcycle was a 2017 BMW R1200RT.

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