Sunday, September 25, 2011

First Fall ride back home

After wandering around Europe for 3 weeks on a motorcycle and bicycle it felt a bit odd to be back at home on our own BMW, traveling familiar Vermont roads. No hairpin turns, tour busses to contend with on narrow twisty roads, cows in the middle of the road, or a group of friends to ride with. Today it was just Mike and I, spending a day together on our BMW.

Burlington, VT waterfront

The day started off foggy and misty, but the sun broke through by the time we reached Burlington. We headed straight to the waterfront, and spent a few minutes watching the boats and streams of people taking advantage of a sunny, warm Fall day.

After lunch with friends and a walk along the bike path we pointed the bike toward home. Heading south, we rode through the Champlain Valley with the Green Mountains to the East and the Adirondacks across Lake Champlain to the West.

Close to Burlington there was a line of traffic heading in both directions as far as we could see, but the further south we traveled, the less company we had on the road - which is exactly the way we like it. Early Fall is a beautiful time of year in Vermont, with fields still lush and green waiting to be harvested yet some of the early leaves are beginning to change color and people decorate their homes and businesses with pumpkins.

Dorset Union Store

There's something comforting about riding familiar roads. I've driven these roads countless times in a car, yet this was the first time on the BMW. On the bike, I notice the barnyard smells, catch glimpses of hawks soaring on updrafts, wave greetings to other motorcycles on the road, and fall into the rhythm of winding our way through the valley. At times like this, Mike does the 'motorcycle happy dance', similiar to a skier carving "S" turns through the powder.

I can't think of a better way to spend the day.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Reliving the trip - one week later

After we completed the RoadRUNNER 5 Country Tour, we headed to Amsterdam for a week on a bicycle/barge trip in the Netherlands. Peddling a bicycle for 7 days through the flat Dutch countryside is a whole lot different than riding on the back of a powerful BMW motorcycle through the towering Alps and Dolomites. You can read more about that trip here:

Eric and Catherine from the motorcycle trip were also in the Netherlands on a different bicycle/barge tour, so we made plans to meet in Amsterdam at the end of our trips to catch up on our adventures. We picked up right where we left off in Germany:  sharing stories, laughing, and talking about the next motorcycle trip we hope to make.

An evening in Amsterdam wouldn't be complete without going to a cafe and sampling the local beer, and this is where our final evening in Europe became truly amazing. It was crowded at our first stop, so we shared a table with a young couple. They turned out to be American expats living in Amsterdam for the past 3 years, very willing to share information about the city and their life. As they left, they told us about their favorite bar, a tiny spot just down the street, but off the typical tourist path.

Cafe de Dokter was founded in 1798 by a surgeon from the local hospital, hence the name. The 7th generation of the Beems family continues to operate it to this day. de Dokter claims to be the smallest bar in Amsterdam, and at 194 square feet, I have to believe them. We squeezed into a small table in the corner next to the back of the bar, and the fun - and magic - started. Henny suggested his favorite local beers for us to try. A woman born in Suriname but now living in Amsterdam told us about her sisters in Canada. An Amsterdam native who spoke perfect English told us stories about his travels and why he loves his city. Everyone in the bar started singing along to old Frank Sinatra tunes, surprising us that they knew the lyrics better than we.

Henny inside de Dokter

The old buildings in Amsterdam are notorious for their steep and narrow staircases, but the circular steel staircase at de Dokter has to be the scariest. It's the only way up to the bathroom on the 2nd floor, which means that we also had to come down that staircase with steps barely wide enough for half of my size 6 1/2 feet. Henny, the owner, gave us a postcard of his business and wrote out our bill on a prescription pad.

As we navigated the narrow, rainy, cobblestone streets back to our hotels, all 4 of us talked about the highlights of the motorcycle trip and the friendly, welcoming people we met this evening. Lasting friendships were definitely created, and we're looking forward to more unexpected and magical adventures in the future.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

the end of the road

lunch at Lake Misurina, Italy on 9-3-11

Since we returned to Lenggriss in the middle of the afternoon, I used this opportunity to go for a run on the wonderful paths around this beautiful Bavarian town. I shared a gravel path along the Isar River with folks on bicycles, young mothers pushing baby carriages, and elderly women out for a stroll. All of us notice how active Europeans are, since every day we saw people hiking in the mountains, riding bicycles up the mountain passes, and walking along the paths that seem to exist everywhere.
By the time I returned from the run and showered, members of the tour group started to filter into the restaurant in our hotel, ready for a last night of German beer and reliving the trip with friends. Peter downloaded video from his helmet camera, giving us the opportunity to see the trip from his viewpoint. Jon shared hilarious video of some of us dancing at the Fest in Arabba, Italy on Saturday night. Mike showed several clips of my video today, getting cheers from the group as we watched Martin, Barb and Jay, and Ben and Michelle pass busses and trucks on the mountain roads. Collectively we’ve taken well over 2000 pictures and hours of video, and plan to post everything to the Web so we can all share in the memories. Stay tuned for our video posted to this blog, since Mike will put that together once we get back home.

Nockalmstrasse, Austria
At dinner we shared stories of the trip, congratulations on refining driving skills, cheers for the pillion riders for our contributions to the tour, thanks to the tour guides for their knowledge and planning, and of course email addresses so we can stay in touch. I heard talk of some of the group signing up for the ROADRunner Magazine tour in Peru next year, tentative plans for a group trip in Alaska, and offers of places to stay and friends to ride with all over North America.

Mangartstrasse, Slovenia

I stayed up later than usual because I couldn’t bear to miss out on any of the stories or the fun. It’s difficult to bring the last night of the trip to an end. We rode through amazing scenery on fabulous roads in Germany, Austria, Slovenia, Italy and Switzerland. We sampled local foods, experienced a community festival, pushed our limits on challenging routes, waved at the locals as we passed through their beautiful towns, enjoyed rest breaks on tops of mountains and in cobblestoned squares centuries old, learned about Munich and Salzburg on informative walking tours, and made new and lasting friends.

leaving Salzburg, Austria
I’ve never ridden with more than 2 other people at one time, and during this trip learned to enjoy being part of a chain of motorcycles. We looked out for each other, shared gear, offered tie-down cords and stow-away bags when needed, pointed out the best views, and told stories about the ride. Along the way we became friends in a way that can only happen when you’re together every day for 12 days sharing a common passion and new experiences. Everyone came for the riding, and left appreciating the entire experience. The trip may be over, but I don’t think I’ll ever stop smiling reliving the memories.
Florian and Sarah:  Hochtennjoch, Austria

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Down from the mountains into the valleys

Our last morning in Serfaus, and the last time we packed up the bikes dawned cool and cloudy. Mike observed that if Monday when we summited several exhilarating passes culminating in Stelvio, the highest paved road in the Alps, was like Christmas Day (one surprise and exciting moment after another) that today was like the last day of summer vacation before school starts. It's our last day on the bikes, and the mood is a bit somber knowing our trip is almost finished.

But first we have mountain passes to climb! We twisted our way down from Serfaus and rode through gorgeous green valleys. Then we started to climb again, stopping at Kaunergrat for breathtaking pictures of the valley we just passed through.

view into the valley

We went through the Hochtennjoch pass, enjoying views of snow-capped mountains. By now we know what to expect:  we start climbing in the middle of forests, with pine trees close by both sides of the narrow, winding road. As we climb higher, distant peaked mountains come into view and we're able to look down into the valley below. Finally we ride above the treeline right into the heart of the mountain peaks we've been glimpsing. All along the route we twist through sweeping turns, narrow switchbacks, and often through dark tunnels. Even though we've done this countless times over the past few days, every ride is a bit different, and always fun.


switchback on Hochtennjoch

Once back down in the valleys, we passed by two large, beautiful lakes:  Plansee where we stopped for a morning coffee break, and Walchsee where we stopped for lunch. The lakes are so clear we could see the bottom, and the scenery is breathtaking with the mountains in the background. Several of us wished we had time to go for a swim, even though the water had to be bone-chillingly cold.


After lunch we wound our way through the valleys, leaving the mountain peaks and switchbacks behind us. The open, wider roads gave Mike the opportunity to ride faster, and both of us enjoyed speeding along from town to town. Mike also amused himself by popping wheelies whenever possible. As long as he gave me some warning so I could wrap my arms around his waist and hold on tight, wheelies are great fun and always make me laugh out loud. When I don't hold on, my back is slammed against the tail bag which definitely is NOT fun. School has started in Austria, so we made sure to pop a wheelie whenever we passed a group of school kids, which always elicited excited waves and shouts.

We pulled into Lengriess, where we first picked up the bikes, in the mid-afternoon. It's difficult to believe our 12-day trip is coming to an end, but we have a final group dinner this evening to look forward to. Watch today's video here: The bikes may be returned to Martin BMW, but there is still fun to be had tonight!

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

sunshine in the Swiss Alps

view from my hotel balcony
We were greeted this morning with very welcome sunshine after all the rain yesterday. Everyone was in great spirits as we set off toward the first of 4 mountain passes in Switzerland – our 5th and final country during this trip.
As we rode through the valleys toward the Swiss town of Susch, I was really glad that I put the warm liner in my motorcycle jacket; plus I also had on a Smart Wool base layer topped with a light fleece shirt since the temperature steadily dropped to a low of 40 degrees.  Factor in the windchill generated from sitting on the back of a motorcycle, and it was cold! When we reached the top of the Fluelapass between Susch and Davos in the Swiss Alps, the temperature was 52 degrees and just right for a hot chocolate in the Hotel Fluela Hospiz, a family-run inn built in 1869 at 7,837’ above sea level. The small stone hotel is off the grid, getting their power from either a diesel generator or water. This was our first stop in Switzerland, and where we learned how expensive everything is. Our cup of hot chocolate cost $5.25 in US dollars!

Mike at the top of the Fluelapass

Hotel Fluela Hospiz

Zooming up and down the hairpin turns on the mountain passes is becoming almost second nature for our group, and everyone is feeling more confident in their driving skills after yesterday’s steep roads in the rain. The Swiss mountain roads are wider than the ones in Italy, and while there was a fair amount of truck traffic on the roads today, Mike only had to pass one tour bus. He was excited to pass a logging truck on the way up our second pass, the Julierpass.  It’s definitely a thrill to be on the back of a motorcycle speeding up a mountain, passing a logging truck! See more on today's video here:
Julierpass hairpin turns
The top of the Julierpass was busy with lots of motorcycle riders from several  different countries. The small grill served only the basics for lunch, including their special “Mc Julierburger” which Ron couldn’t pass up.
We rode through St. Moritz, a famous Swiss ski and spa resort city and on to our third pass, the Ofenpass in the Swiss National Park. All of today’s passes rise above the treeline in a gravel, rock-strewn landscape that reminds us of the moon. Many of the mountains are dotted with ski areas, which makes me wonder how difficult it is to drive up these roads in the winter!

top of Julierpass

Once back down in the valley we crossed into Italy and stopped in the 700 year-old walled city of Glurns for an afternoon break, which of course meant trying out the local ice cream. The market square in the center of town was packed with both tourists and locals trying to navigate the narrow, cobblestone streets and sidewalks.

center of Glurns

We finished our ride today winding our way through the valleys, passing small towns, farmers working in the fields, and the ever-present cows in the meadows. Even though we rode 195 miles today, we finished a bit earlier than usual, which meant we had time to sit outside our hotel and enjoy the late afternoon sunshine and warmth. A perfect day!

Monday, September 5, 2011

Switchbacks! Hairpin turns! Tunnels! oh my!!

At the end of our 10 hour, 310 km day today, Ted said “if I were a kid, this would be just like Christimas!”. We experienced a little bit of everything today, including the narrowest roads we’ve been on, 14 switchbacks in a row up the highest elevation we’ve attempted, pouring rain, warm sunshine, fields of apples as far as you can see, conversations with motorcycle riders from Denmark, Germany and the Netherlands; and sweeping turns through lush green valleys. Wow!

Check out today's video here:

It was raining when we started at 8:30am, but everyone was in high spirits, because today we were attempting Stelvio, a 9,045' mountain pass that is the highest paved mountain road in the eastern Alps. We started off through the valleys around Merano, Italy, which are planted with millions of apple trees, supplying apples to all of Europe.

Our first pass of the day, the Passo Tonale, greeted us with a steady rain. A stop at the top for hot chocolate gave us a chance to warm up and put on more raingear in preparation for the trip back down the mountain pass.

We passed in and out of rain, mist and clouds on our way to the Passo Gavia, a twisting, steep, extremely narrow road that led right along the side of the mountain through switchback after switchback. It’s a good thing we traveled this road on a Monday where there was little traffic, because in order to pass an oncoming car, we had to inch our way to the very edge of the road, stop, and wait for the car to slowly crawl past us. By the time we reached the top, everyone breathed a sigh of relief for successfully mastering the technically challenging and often scary (for both drivers and passengers!) road.

The trip down wasn’t as steep, or else we were becoming used to riding up and down mountain passes. By the time we reached the valley for lunch, the sun broke out of the clouds. We laughed and told stories about the ride up Passo Gavia over a delicious Italian lunch of salad and pasta. For me, riding on the bike is a solitary experience since Mike and I can't talk. We often communicate with hand gestures, or a tap on the leg. But on this difficult road, Mike needed to concentrate and I kept my thoughts and observations to myself. At lunch, everyone wanted to share their stories of the trip, tell jokes, laugh and enjoy the shared experience of riding in a group. We had a blast!

Sunshine meant we would definitely tackle Stelvio today. We had heard from Peter and Florian, our tour leaders, about this difficult mountain pass. We’d also spoken with several motorcycle riders we  met at rest stops the past two days, and all of them warned of Stelvio’s technical turns as well as the incredible views. This was the mountain pass we’d been waiting for, and when we saw the sign that announced "14 tornanti", or hairpin turns, ahead, we knew we were in for some real fun. Not only could I watch the riders ahead of me as they wound their way up the mountain above the treeline, but I could also look back down the mountain and see what we had just ridden as more bikes swept up behind us. Mike kept his eyes on the road, waiting for the video and pictures later that night to finally see all of the majestic scenery.

this is what we rode UP!

We were ecstatic and relieved to make it to the top of the mountain, and even rode up a short, steep path to a look-out known as Tibet for even more incredible views.
view from 'Tibet'
After a short break, we headed down the mountain, traversing more hairpin turns until we zoomed into the valley.
the route down Stelvio

We had about 45 miles to go to our hotel in Serfaus, Austria, a resort village in the Tyrol at 4600', which meant we drove up even more switchback turns. We relieved the thrills of the day and shared stories about bikes and travels over dinner, going to bed early to get ready for another day tomorrow - into Switzerland!

Sunday, September 4, 2011

A day in the gorgeous South Tyrol

We spent the entire day today in Italy, or more correctly in the South Tyrol . It seemed like everyone decided to spend a beautiful Sunday morning in the mountains. We passed motorcycle groups, a long line of antique Fiat Topolino cars, tour busses, and people hiking up the mountains. This area is filled with ski areas, from small local places to large, extravagant resorts. Most had gondolas operating today to ferry people up and down the mountain. Don't miss today's video:
The views continued to be incredible, and I even spied the largest glacier in the Dolomites:  the Marmolada (Queen of the Dolomites) at 10,964’ elevation.

Now that everyone is more comfortable handling the hairpin turns on the mountain passes, we typically start as a group at the bottom of the pass, then ride at our own pace to the top where we meet up to talk about the adventure before heading off, again at our own pace, to another meeting point on the valley floor below. At the top of one this morning’s passes, we saw several cars brightly decorated, and one with “” painted on the sides in large letters. 4 men wearing orange jumpsuits jumped out of the car, and we couldn’t resist talking with them. They’re from the UK, part of a large group who purchases cars for no more than 300 each, decorates them with a theme, and sets off on a European trip. They’re on their way to France, having lots of fun and hoping the cars hold together.
We stopped for a morning coffee break at the top of Corvara Grödnerjoch, where a local farm family makes their summer home. Their original wooden house is at least 300 years old, with a larger, new home built within the past 3 years. They serve beverages and lunch on the porch, surrounded by mountains in every direction. This sure beats a traditional coffee shop for atmosphere and taste!
300 year old farmhouse

barn at Corvara Grödnerjoch

This was our last day in the Dolomites, and the Jaufenpass took us into a beautiful green valley in the Alps. We zipped along the wine road to Meran, enjoying the opportunity to ride a bit faster, but also missing the thrill of the twisty, narrow mountain roads. The valley is lined with vineyards for the local wine, and also seemingly millions of apple trees.
on the way to Meran
The only downside was the rain that started on the top of the last pass, and continued throughout the afternoon. I glimpsed beautiful homes and tree-lined streets in Meran through my rain-spattered helmet, but stayed dry with my Frogg Togg waterproof clothing. Jay and Barb actually know the women who started this company; motorcycling is a small world!
Our day ended in Kastelbell Tschars, our last night in the SüdTirol in Italy. Everyone here speaks German, even though they’re Italian citizens. Tirol was once an autonomous region of Austria, but after WWI was divided, with the southern section going to Italy. The people in this region consider themselves Tiroleans, not Italians, and proudly maintain their culture and language. I never would have experienced all of this on a typical trip to Europe – another benefit of riding pillion on a motorcycle!

Saturday, September 3, 2011

7 mountain passes and a local Fest

It was a beautiful, sunny morning in Kötschach Mautern, Austria, the start of our third day on the ROADRunner magazine 5-country motorcycle tour.

A few of us decided to start the day with a run along the river, then headed up into the foothills on a well-maintained path. It was a great way to start the day!
Our route today took us over 7 mountain passes in the Italian Dolomites, which required navigating more hairpin turns than any of us can count. You can't miss the video of today's route!

The talk among the drivers is all about the correct technique to safely navigate the hairpin turns, but as the pillion rider, all I care about is the scenery (awesome, stupendous, awe-inspiring), the camaraderie (it’s amazing how quickly we’ve become friends, how much we have in common with people from all over the world, and what we can learn from each other), and of course the delicious local food. Mike takes care of the technical parts of the trip, and we both enjoy spending time together. A perfect vacation and 30th wedding anniversary celebration!
Lunch today was something you might imagine in a dream:  picture a clear lake, surrounded by the craggy high peaks of the Dolomites, anchored with gorgeous hotels, and a beautiful sunny blue sky. Throw in pizza (we ARE in Italy) enjoyed lakeside, and the dream comes true.

After lunch, as we were heading up the Passo di Giau, we were passed by a man driving an Army green Ural motorcycle with a sidecar. He had a huge grin on his face, and looked to be having the time of his life. We met up with him at the top of the mountain pass, and had fun talking about motorcycles, his travels through Europe, and how much he loves driving a motorcycle with a sidecar. Motorcycle riders are definitely a friendly, talkative bunch!

The afternoon was spent enjoying more incredible mountain views and hairpin turns. When we arrived in Arabba, Italy, our final destination, everyone was in a celebratory mood after a perfect day. We were in luck, because a local group was hosting a festival right next to our hotel, complete with a 3-man band (accordion, tuba, and vocals) and "nogln" a famous Austrian drinking game that involves trying to hammer nails into a large tree stump, using a hollow metal hammer. It reminded me of the whack-a-mole game we used to play with the kids when they were young, except in the Austrian game the loser buys the winner a beer. We danced the polka and Ukrainian 2-step, played the nogln game, and had a wonderful time with our tour group members and the local folks. It reminded me how much fun can be had at a small, local Fest, and it was a fantastic way to end an absolutely wonderful day.

Friday, September 2, 2011

3 countries and 8 mountain passes in one day

It sounds like a Hollywood movie:  we had breakfast in Austria, lunch in Slovenia, afternoon ice cream in Italy, and dinner in Austria - all on our second full day of our 5 country motorcycle tour of the Alps!

It was 54 degrees and a heavy mist was hanging low over the mountains when we left Tamsweg at 8:30am, but within an hour the sun came out and the sky was a brilliant blue. We were on our way through 8 mountain passes today, with everyone looking forward to the famous cobblestone hairpin turns in Slovenia. Luckily for us, the sunshine and dry roads meant we'd be able to navigate those hairpin turns without mishap.

John on an F800GS and Jay and Barb on an R1200GS navigating a cobblestone turn

close-up of the famous cobblestone turns

On the way up the Vrisicpass in Slovenia, we stopped to take in the awe-inspiring views. It's a good thing Mike was paying close attention to the roads, because I couldn't stop looking at the mountains spiking into the sky all around us.

Eric and Catherine

We crossed the border into Italy where we drove up one of the narrowest 2-lane roads I've ever been on. At one point, I swear I could have reached out and touched the stone wall on the right side of the hairpin turn, and a car going the other direction on our left-hand side. The road led through a pass called the Passo Pomollo in Italian, or Nassfeld in German. Nassfeld translates to 'wet field', which was spot on because it started to rain as we came to the top of the pass at 1552 meters above sea level, home to the largest ski area in Carinthia.

The final cruise into Kötschach Mautern took us through a wide valley, bordered on both sides by mountains. The sun came back out and the temperatures reached into the low-80's - perfect for enjoying the ride and the scenery. Today's video is here:

The conversation at dinner centered around the roads (worst in Slovenia, scariest in Italy, best maintained in Austria), food (lowest prices in Slovenia, best ice cream in Italy), views (a toss-up; they were all outstanding!), road signs (a graphic of a man falling off a motorcycle, warning about dangerous roads), and various styles of rest rooms in the different countries. We're a diverse group from Canada, the US, and Austria and one of the best parts of the trip is spending time talking about our lives, motorcycle riding history, and rehashing the day's trip. Riding with a group is definitely more fun than riding alone!

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Hairpin curves!

Today was all about 50 hairpin turns, or Reidn in the local Carinthian dialect. We spent the morning negotiating the mountain roads of the Nockalmstrasse, a national park in the Nockberg mountains near Tamsweg. Peter, our guide and local expert, turned us loose on the road to ride at our own speed, and to enjoy the twists, curves, and amazing views as much as we pleased. Video for today:

We stopped for lunch of fantastic local favorites at the Glockenhütte, the highest point on the road at 2,024 meters. Riding the road on the motorcycle was a huge amount of fun, but I was amazed at the cyclists who chugged their way up and down the 35 km road. We actually had to stop more than once to let the local cows cross the road. They were completely unfazed by motorcycles, bicycles, hikers, cars, and tour busses!

We then wound our way along more narrow back roads, inspired by the scenery and the threat of impending rain, until we stopped for an afternoon snack (who says riding motorcycles isn't hard work?) at the Prebersee. Rain finally arrived, so we suited up in rain gear for the final 6 miles back to Tamsweg.

The best part about being a pillion rider on today's ride was the scenery. Mike had to pay close attention to the road and traffic, while I was free to look from side to side, and at times even on the road behind us, to not miss any of the mountain peaks, steep hillsides, and deep valleys.

Tomorrow we leave Tamsweg, headed for mountain passes in Slovenia and Italy before we cross back into Austria for the night. More fun in store!