Fast Times in the Alps
The rain and sleet beat a staccato on my motorcycle helmet and penetrated my protective clothing, while the wind drove the icy little daggers deeper into my skin. My hands ached from clinging to a cloth strap that kept me attached to the back seat of a BMW motorcycle.
John Valentine, my friend and business partner, was doing the hard work, maneuvering the curves of this Italian alpine road. I was just along for the ride, and I took comfort in knowing that he had driven 50,000 accident-free miles on a motorcycle. John handled the bike expertly, but I tightened my grip and offered a prayer to the biker gods anyway.
The deteriorating weather matched the worsening road as we traversed the Passo de Lanza, overlooking the Lago di Garda region of northern Italy, on this, the fifth day of our nine-day motorcycle tour through Europe’s majestic Alps. We had switchbacked up a narrow but serviceable road for a time, but the surface changed to patches of loose gravel alternating with poorly maintained blacktop, a treacherous combination for a motorcycle in the best circumstances. Added to that was a fog so thick we couldn’t see our comrades 20 feet ahead of us. It took 40 minutes to claw our way to the top of the pass, dodging slick leaves, rocks and the occasional pile of animal droppings.
To our left was a 2,000-foot drop-off. To our right was a rock-strewn landscape.
I was too numb and too scared to ponder why I’d paid $2,700 for this little bit of bliss on the back of a bike. Maybe when I thawed out it wouldn’t seem quite so much like a masochistic motorcyclist’s idea of a good time.
Or maybe it would.
In an e-mail three months earlier, John had dangled the prospect of making a 1,500-mile alpine adventure with longtime friends. We would begin in Munich, head south to Switzerland, tour the Italian Lakes region, then work our way back to Munich by way of Austria. John and three others, including a guide, would ride motorcycles; three of us would tag along in a chase car. I occasionally joined John on the back of the bike
“If you come on this trip, you’ll remember it forever,” John wrote to me. “If you don’t come, you’ll forget what you did those nine days as soon as you turn the page on your Day-Timer.”
That clinched it.
We booked the tour with Hermann Weil, who, with his wife, Hermine, runs Munich-based Munchner Freiheit, one of Europe’s largest motorcycle touring companies. Last year it led about 3,200 bikers on 350 tours, mostly in Europe but some as far away as South America.
This was John’s eighth trip with Hermann. Indeed, John was the thread connecting our group of six. He, Scott McCormick and I had been friends and business associates in the advertising world in Kansas City, Mo., for more than 30 years. Phil Jones and John Rose, the other non-bikers in the group, had known Valentine since their fraternity days in the ‘60s at the University of Missouri in Columbia. Twenty-four-year-old Brandon Nott was the son of a friend of John’s and the only single member of our group. The rest of us had embarked on this adventure last October with the permission of our spouses, to whom we had promised presents and a year’s worth of the penance of her choice.
Manfred Fruhbeiss was our Munchner Freiheit guide and had accompanied John, Scott and Phil on previous trips. He was living proof of the dichotomous German personality: He had an irrepressible urge to have fun, and he had a passion for details. With his good looks, impish grin and the confession that he sometimes gained a couple of pounds a day on tours like this, Manfred was our kind of tour guide.
We gathered at the Weil farmstead 20 miles southeast of Munich, where Hermine was preparing one of her famous dinners. She had spent the day simmering a stew that Hermann promised would provide a fitting gastronomic send-off.
Midway through the meal, we started trying to guess which parts of what animal had gone into this stew. Liver? Stomach? Intestines? Veal? Pork? Mutton? Hermann was clearly amused. “It’s a delicacy I predict you have never tasted before,” he said with a devilish look.
We were still stumped.
“Do you remember that pen of sheep we passed earlier today?” he asked. “Those little critters have all contributed in their own way to this stew.” Then it hit us: Hermine had served us the alpine equivalent of Rocky Mountain oysters. We had just consumed enough testosterone to feed our libidos for eternity.
Not a bad way to start this, the ultimate guy trip.
It became clear as we assembled our gear for the trip into Munich that we were a troop of high-tech junkies. The bikers had a hands-free communication system that enabled them to talk with one another. Those of us in the chase car could communicate with them on handsets.
Brandon had loaded his iPod digital music system with 500 songs, ranging from the Beatles to Beethoven, and he programmed different selections for different driving events: hard-driving rock for zipping down the autobahn, something mellower for the countryside.
Scott was determined to record every aspect of the trip with a miniature camcorder attached to his helmet. What he didn’t capture on the helmetcam, he could record on his more substantial mini-DV recorder. The two Johns sported identical digital cameras. I also carried two digital cameras, a new one and a well-worn one.
Besides enough Elvis and country-western CDs to push the Von Trapp family over the edge, Phil had packed two throwaway cameras, “just in case you high-tech boys run out of memory.”
Then came our introduction to the big toys. The bikes, which the riders had chosen before they left the U.S., were BMWs (Munchner Freiheit uses them exclusively) but different models. Scott and John chose touring bikes, comfortable but with plenty of power for long stretches of highway. Brandon chose a sport bike capable of pulling wheelies.
Taking a motorcycle trip though the Alps is not for the uninitiated. Manfred, who has led more than 200 motorcycle tours, says riders must have significant experience before embarking on such a trip. The bikers in our group all had experience riding in Europe.
Riders also must be prepared for all kinds of weather, even in the spring and summer. Temperatures routinely drop 20 degrees from valley to mountain pass, and the wind-chill factor lowers temperatures 10 to 20 degrees more, depending on the speed of the bike. Little wonder the riders had bought heated vests that plugged into the bikes’ cigarette lighters. All wore visored helmets and full leathers. Perhaps the most unusual accessory belonged to Scott: a pair of his wife’s pantyhose to “prevent chafing of the leathers against my tender thighs.”
You learn the most amazing things about your friends on a trip like this.
After a safety briefing, the bikers started their engines and wove their way through midday Munich traffic onto the A-95, and the rest of us followed in the car, also a BMW.
The German countryside, washed clean by a shower the night before, unfolded before us in a blur of green and gold as we got up to a 90-mph cruising speed. With temperatures in the mid-70s, it was a perfect day for the first leg, which would take us to Guarda, Switzerland, about 115 miles southwest of Munich.
About 20 million people live in the Alps, which form a 750-mile arc stretching from the Gulf of Genoa to the Danube River at Vienna. The drama of the peaks derives from the speed at which they rise from the valley floor. The Colorado Rockies, for instance, reach heights of 10,000 to 13,000 feet, but they do so from valleys that start at 5,000 feet above sea level. By contrast, the alpine valleys often sit at no more than 1,000 feet, making the ascent to the passes heady.
We exited the autobahn at the German city of Garmisch-Partenkirchen, then crossed the Reschen Pass. At nearly 5,000 feet, it was one of the lower passes we would traverse.
We stopped for lunch at Alt Mosern restaurant in Mosern, Austria--near Seefeld--where the alpine countryside unfolded before us as a sea of lush farmland languishing far below a rim of rugged, snowcapped peaks. Our lunch included a crisp local white wine, roasted duck, fresh fish and apple strudel. (All meals and lodging were included in the price of our tour, although wine and beer were extra. Incidentally, we never consumed more than one glass of alcohol when there was ground to be covered.)
After lunch, we dropped down into the Inn Valley and continued through a series of minor passes until we reached Guarda. Ascending to this picturesque village from the valley floor, we made the circuitous climb through pastures populated by mountain goats, sheep and cows. With each turn, more of the town was revealed. First a church spire gleamed in the fading sunlight. Then the village’s slate-colored houses came into view. Finally we saw brightly colored laundry hanging from clotheslines that danced from house to house like multi-colored spider webs.
Guarda’s Hotel Meisser is family-run, made up of three farmhouses that date to 1658 and typical of the lodges and inns that Hermine had selected for us: intimate accommodations, each with its own character, regional cuisine and ample wine cellar.
John Valentine, Scott and Manfred were quartered in posh suites, one of which had a small hot tub. John Rose, Phil, Brandon and I were in “the farmhouse,” a 17th century annex just down the cobblestone street. It had wide plank floors, a shared bathroom and no central heating. The housekeeper showed us to our rooms, chiding us to turn off the lights and not to lock the front door until we were all inside.
Dinner was a jovial affair. Our waiter looked like Hercule Poirot with a Roman nose. Guests from Germany, Austria and Switzerland joined us, the only Americans, in the wood-paneled dining room, and lively chatter in a variety of languages filled the elegant hall. Our meal--shrimp aspic, roast beef in pepper sauce and glazed carrots--was delicious and lasted so long that dessert wasn’t served until 10:30.
Pausing outside on the way back to the farmhouse, I glanced up. In the crisp, clear air, stars shone like diamonds against the infinity of the night sky. Then, reality set it. Phil had locked me out of the farmhouse. I repeatedly pounded on the huge oak door, summoning the housekeeper, who glared at me with a look that said, “You do not know how to follow rules.”
It was sunny the next morning when we left Guarda, bound for St. Moritz, 30 miles south. The bikers bobbed and wove through gentle turns. We agreed that swanky St. Moritz was too upscale for us, so we continued touring through the Maloja Pass, then descended into the Chiavenna valley in Italy.
We stopped at La Barcaccia restaurant for lunch. Even at 2 p.m., the multi-roomed dining place, which faced Lake Mezzola, was packed with local revelers. A two-man combo played enthusiastically, and waiters carried huge skewers of juicy roast beef, pork and lamb to each table. Wine flowed, and everyone seemed to be having a good time--especially Sophia, a jolly Italian grandmother celebrating a birthday with a dozen or so family members. She grabbed Scott’s arm, caressed his beard, pinched his behind and led him onto an impromptu dance floor, where they wowed the crowd with a spirited version of the polka, performed to thunderous applause.
We wound up that night at the Hotel La Soglina, in Soglio, Switzerland, a storybook town overlooking the Bergell mountains. A late-afternoon shower was just clearing as we pulled up to the hotel, and the setting sun painted the valley below with a palette of colors. A 17th century church dominated the landscape, its graveyard pristine, each plot planted with a variety of flowers.
On a walk the next morning I chanced upon a stooped, solitary figure at a bend in the road. He was an octogenarian who had lived all his life in the village. After a time, he came to a well-worn piece of wood set into the side of the hill about a half-mile above the town. He settled into his makeshift chair, rekindled his pipe and surveyed the valley below. He had made this trip up the mountain every day-- rain, snow or shine--for the past 20 years. “He is a fixture on the mountain,” one villager told me. “He goes just to go"--a motto, perhaps, for all travelers.
I climbed on the back of John Valentine’s bike as we left Soglio the next morning, ready for my first day of motorcycle touring.
We took a series of gentle turns as we snaked down to the valley. We would lean into the mountain, then straighten up. Lean and straighten, lean and straighten. John deftly downshifted the bike before we headed into the tight turns, then, with a flick of his wrist and a tap of his toe, shifted up to power out of the corners. We picked up speed when we reached the straightaway that bisected the valley. I was hanging on tightly, but, strangely, felt as free as a bird.
Our destination was Splugen Pass. This pass, at almost 7,000 feet, divides the eastern and western Alps and is known for numerous switchbacks. As we approached the mountain, the excitement began to build, as did the chatter on the headsets. We snaked up, up and up, our adrenaline levels climbing with the altitude. The scenery changed from lush to alpine tundra dotted with edelweiss, creeping pine and dwarf shrubs.
John deftly negotiated more than two dozen hairpin curves and within the hour we were at the top of the pass. We marked the occasion by taking pictures and throwing snowballs.
That evening we reached the Italian town of Cannero Riviera, perched precariously above the shoreline of Lago Maggiore. We were staying at a centuries-old villa that had been converted into a nine-room hotel, Il Cortile. Each of us had a large, newly renovated room with a luxurious bathroom.
Our meal at the hotel restaurant was the finest of our trip. It began with salmon tartare with yogurt and poppy seed sauce, followed by a sauteed mushroom and cheese ragout, then a creamy potato soup garnished with white truffles. The meal continued with roast veal in rosemary sauce followed by Il Cortile’s signature dessert, panna cotta (egg custard) with wild berry sauce. Local red wines, cognac and cigars rounded out the evening.
Day 4 took us to the little island of Monte Isola on Lago d’Iseo. We had left our vehicles in a secure parking lot on the mainland and taken a small water taxi to the island’s hotel, Sensole, for a dinner of fresh fish, pasta and crisp Italian wine.
Had we known what lay ahead, perhaps we’d have appreciated it more.
The next day, the weather turned ugly. Rain, sleet and sometimes snow pelted the riders. Using our handsets, we delighted in telling the bikers how cozy we were inside the car. I won’t repeat their responses here.
Getting from one place to another took on a character that was entirely different from the days of fair-weather touring. At times, the motorcyclists pushed themselves and their bikes faster than good sense dictated because they were so miserable.
The bad weather lasted all four of our final days. It was on one such day that I abandoned the big Beemer and joined John for the hair-raising ride through the Passo de Lanza. I felt their pain. When I dismounted, I kissed the ground, and I felt like kissing John, but there are limits even to the male bonding thing.
Despite the inclement weather we continued touring, slowly working our way north.
In Magdalensberg, Austria, we met Petra, the Hotel Gipfelhaus’ irrepressible and comely waitress. We enjoyed bantering with her throughout the evening as we feasted on roast pork, blood sausage and pork fritters. As dessert time approached, Petra stared at the half-eaten plate of pig parts (the third we’d had that evening) and tapped her foot, saying, “No strudel until you boys clean your plates.” We groaned. Fortunately, a couple next to us had brought two huge golden retrievers into the restaurant. We looked at the pooches. We looked at the pork. It was a match. Petra was none the wiser.
In the end, men and machines triumphed over bad weather and heaping platters of pork. We arrived in Munich slightly soggier and somewhat heavier than when we left. On our last night, Manfred took us to his hometown of Freising for a late dinner of pretzels, spicy bar cheese and onions, washed down with local beer, and we reminisced about our 10 days together. We planned the next trip and talked about what we would do differently.
Scott wanted to bring more high-tech toys. Phil wanted to rent a faster car. John Rose promised to bring better music, or earplugs. Brandon hoped for even more challenging riding. John Valentine thought we should bring our wives. The group booed. We love our wives, but even grown men need play time.
Manfred put our journey into perspective. “The best trips are ones where everybody comes home safe,” he said, “and you are left with a sense of unfinished business . . . so much so that you can’t wait to come back and do it again.”
As for me, I vowed to learn to ride a motorcycle so I could one day join the bikers. Then again, maybe my bravado was fueled by the lingering effects of four helpings of Hermine’s bon voyage stew.
Vrooming Through the Alps
Telephone numbers: Country and city codes are included in the following overseas numbers. Just remember to dial 011 first.
Getting there: United, Delta, US Airways, Lufthansa, Air France, KLM, Swiss and British Airways offer connecting service from Los Angeles to Munich.
Touring information: Tour prices depend on the number of days, the route and the kind of bikes rented. Some start as low as $800 for a four-day tour. Others can go as high as $4,000 to $5,000 per person for a two-week extravaganza. Our tour price of $2,700 for the bikers, $2,200 for nonbikers (although we split the price of the rental car, which was about $500) included accommodations and meals. Airfare and alcohol were extra. You should also figure on tipping your tour guide 10% to 15% of your tour cost.
Be sure to match your motorcycle tour with your riding ability. Don’t try something that is beyond your skill level. Our trip was geared for those with a significant level of riding experience. You should be comfortable driving in heavy traffic, cruising at speeds of more than 80 mph, negotiating numerous switchbacks and staying “in the saddle” for up to four hours without a break. Be sure to check with your tour operator about licenses, visas and insurance.
Tour operators: Those who offer motorcycle excursions to the Alps include: Munchner Freiheit, Postfach 44-01-48, 80802 Munich; 49-89-395-768, fax 49-89-344-832, www.muenchnerfreiheit.de.
Edelweiss Bike Travel, Tri Community Travel & Cruises, P.O. Box 1974, Wrightwood, Calif., 92397-1974; (760) 249-5825 or (800) 507-4459, fax (760) 249-3857, www.edelweissbike.com.
Beach’s Motorcycle Adventures Ltd., 2763 W. River Parkway, Grand Island, N.Y., 14072-2053; (716) 773-4960, fax (716) 773-5227, www.beachs-mca.com.
The BMW Club lists more than 25 European tour operators at its Web site, www.bmwmoa.org.
What to bring: Foul weather gear essential. We found excellent rain suits that folded into small packets at www.froggtogg.com. You should also take soft-sided luggage. A long-distance phone card comes in handy, but you can also look into renting or buying a European cell phone or a satellite phone. Be sure you inquire about SIM cards, which enable you to call from various countries within Europe.
Where to stay: Hotel Cafe Schwaiger, 3 Feldkirchner Strasse, 85625 Glonn, Germany; 49-809-390-880, fax 49-809-390-8820, www.hotel-cafe-schwaiger.de. Fifty-five rooms. Close to the Weil farmstead.
Hotel Meisser, CH-7545 Guarda, Engadine, Switzerland; 41-81-862-2132, fax 41-81-862-2480, www.hotel-eisser.ch. Thirty rooms and suites, various levels of accommodation. Terrace overlooks valley.
Hotel la Soglina, Soglio, Switzerland; 41-81-822-1608; fax 41-81-822-1594, www.bergell.ch/alberghi/hotellasoglina/index.asp. Sixty-room, modern resort hotel with amenities including a workout facility, sauna and Turkish bath.
Il Cortile, Via Massimo D’ Azeglio 73, Cannero Riviera, Italy; telephone and fax 39-0323-787-213, www.cortile.net. Nine-room boutique hotel. Cannero Riviera is known as the “Nice of the North.” Castles accessible via ferry boat.
Hotel Sensole, Lago d’Iseo, Italy; 39-030-988-6203, fax 39-030-988-6842, www.paginegialle.it/sensole. Hotel located on island, accessible only by water taxi.
Hotel Aldo Moro, 27 Via G. Marconi, Montagnana, Italy; 39-042-981-351, fax 39-042-982-842, www.hotelaldomoro.com. Seventy-five rooms. The most elegant hotel on the trip.
Hotel Al Picaron, 3-33038 Via S. Andrat, San Daniele del Friuli, Italy; 39-0432-940-688, fax 39-0432-940-670, www.alpicaron.it. Thirty-seven rooms.
Hotel Gipfelhaus, Magdalensberg 16, Magdalensberg, Austria; 43-4224-2249, fax 43-4224-2249-13, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. Spacious grounds. Multilevel rooms with fireplaces.
Hotel Koller, A-4824 Gosau am Dachstein, Gosau, Austria; 43-6136-8841, fax 43-6136-8841-50, www.hotel-koller.com. The sauna, steam room and workout facility are welcome features.
For more information: “Motorcycle Journeys Through the Alps and Corsica,” by John Hermann. (Whitehorse Press, July 2002).
Austrian National Tourist Office, P.O. Box 1142, Times Square, New York, N.Y., 10108-1142; (212) 944-6880, fax (212) 730-4568, www.austria.info/us.
German National Tourist Office, 122 E. 42nd St., 52nd Floor, New York, N.Y., 10168; (212) 661-7200, fax (212) 661-7174, www.visits-to-germany.com.
Italian Government Tourist Board, 12400 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 550, Los Angeles, Calif., 90025; (310) 820-1898, fax (310) 820-6357, www.italiantourism.com.
Switzerland Tourism, Swiss Center, 608 5th Ave., New York, N.Y., 10020; (877) 794-8037, fax (212) 262-6116, www.switzerlbandtourism.ch.