Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Are Motorcycles Even Allowed On The Autobahn?

When it comes to motorcycling my wife and I are partners.  After we met we both seemed to have an interest in motorcycling but neither had really done it. She being a bit of an athlete I had no doubt she would take right to it. So we bought a bike practiced a little and off to the riders’ safety course we went.  A few bikes, a couple of accidents and many journeys including our wedding later and we are still at it after  the better part of a decade.

This is my wife and our bikes in Montana last year.


A few seasons ago I picked up a copy of John Herman’s Motorcycle Journeys Through The Alps and Beyond and began dreaming. Pages were bookmarked, highlighted, underlined and became the basis of many web searches. Then life stayed busy and finances moderate. Last year I trailered out to Montana so my wife could fly out and we could ride some of the great roads out west like the Beartooth Highway. The Alps became a distance thought as the book found its way to the bottom of the nightstand pile.
When this year’s vacation plans came into view and no weddings were planned  and being vivid witness the effects of aging along with having too many examples of contemporaries who were denied the chance out came the book and serious research began.  Was it financially fair and reasonable?  Probably not but other than motorcycling most other vices have been either given up or never started. I figure booze alone could easily average $10 a day so I added that to our vacation budget.  Driving cars over ten years old to save money should be rewarded I think as well and we stopped buying ski lift tickets when the prices went to the moon.  Anyhow I came up with enough justification in my head to pull the trigger.
I really enjoy following along on rides in progress. Regretfully I couldn't even try so I am writing this after our return.

Vertically Challenged

The first task (after getting over the sticker shock of airfare) was finding suitable bikes at a reasonable price. We have rented before I knew this might be a challenge.  A standard position, powerful street bike with a low seat height seems ridiculously rare yet super ground clearance GS bikes that are so unlikely to jump anything but a curb that they are shod with street tires abound. No big deal unless you have less than a 34 inch inseam I guess. We ended up renting two Kawasaki’s both about an inch higher than we would have preferred.  I took a Versys and her ER6F which is a Ninja 650R in the US because apparently we prefer bikes with silly names.  Being used to riding a cruiser with pullbacks and finding sport bikes uncomfortable I was surprised that other than being slightly too tall she had no complaints whatsoever with the Ninja. I found the Versys similar to riding my R1100R with the exception of the useless windscreen and the absence of heated grips.  I had hoped to start out closer to the Alps but these were out of Frankfurt.   This didn’t turn out to be so bad since the final stop on the way back was fantastic and would have been missed otherwise.
Here are the bikes we rented at the dealer.

Don’t worry honey I know my way around.

Once my wife figured out I was serious about the trip she hopped on the web and found some nice looking tour companies and said ‘why don’t we do one of these?’ The biggest reason is that I have pretty much no interest in following someone else around but I stuck with the cost argument. Besides I was stationed in Germany and owned a car so certainly I could find my way around. I didn’t mention the number of times I had been lost or what little language skills I had were long lost in the decades.  So my limited memory, a map I bought at the bookstore and laminated and a rented GPS that wouldn’t stay charged were our guides. I will elaborate on the results of that later.

Guess who had no clue a landslide had closed a tunnel that was on our route.

United helps you stay in shape while you travel.

I guess in an effort to absolutely fill the planes extending boarding time to the point of screwing up connections is acceptable.  I am no more fit than my wife but a bit of a better runner so I managed to get to the gate at the opposite end of the terminal in DC following our connecting flight from Boston so we could be the last to board.  Had I been able to make the reservations a little earlier we could have flown direct. Except for a storm that shook the plane enough so we barely avoided sickness after take off the flight was ok. Taking the trains and buses to the hotel near the motorcycle shop seemed straightforward but we had to give up on that at the main train station and take a cab.  He had to ask around about the location but he found it in his GPS and drove what seemed like a pretty direct route.  It was a pretty long ride but the charges seemed fair.

Just a bit confused by the combination of subways and commuter trains.

A few taxis were waiting to bail folks like us out at the train station.

The hotel was a very orderly business hotel with tiny but fully functional rooms and is virtually right next to the motorcycle shop. They gave us a little map which led us to walking paths, a nice restaurant and market.

My lovely wife outside the hotel.

Meeting new friends on the walking paths.

Inside the restaurant.

And outside.

You have to push twin beds together most places in Europe if you want to pretend to sleep in the same bed but we managed to get a pretty good nights sleep. We got something close to what we wanted for breakfast at the McD right next to the hotel which seemed way too hard to accomplish since the menus were only in English. Sorting out all the luggage for biking took most of the time until the shop opened and we shlepped our bags across the street in light rain. Of course the rain remained steady for us to try out the almost new rentals on wet cobblestones. 

The bedding was ok once we...ok I pushed the bunks together.

These were our hot coffees at McD and finding Wi-Fi for the tablet was more trouble than it was worth in most cases.

We are getting pretty good at dragging these things around. Thats the bike shop but there are no bikes out yet because it's not close enough to noon for them to be open

Some folks actually ship thier own bikes across the ocean to avoid this.

Of course there was a little anxiety involved in picking up the bikes since they couldn't seem to figure out running the deposit charges  ahead and there seemed to be achance for the credit card company to throw a red flag but we somewhat patiently waited for the one active worker to push bikes around. We packed the rental cases, filled out a bunch of forms and even listened to the young fella tell us how operate the turn signals and not leave the key on to avoid draining the battery. By the time he got to the GPS we were pretty ready to be starting to make our way to our first stop. He realized that it wasn't charging and thought he had it working but I had doubts nonetheless we really had to start making our sequence of reservations hopefully it was just the loose connector as he thought. For whatever reason the shop is north of Frankfurt while everywhere anybody is likely to take a rental motorcycle is south. I had mentioned that I planned to avoid the autobahn and the response was it would be no problem. Well if your on the north side of a city and you need to get to the south there are pretty much two options. Through city streets or around it on the autobahn. I don't remember much about the first ride so it must have gone ok. I do remember using my toes to reach the ground at stop lights. Barbara didn't seem to be having much trouble at all. She may have mentioned that I might have learned by now to select a bike that fits. I could argue that the ergonomics were really very good but judging by her ride good ergonomics could be had closer to the ground. At least I didn't take the two inch taller GS they tried to put me on. 

Our first rest stop which appears to be on the autobahn which I had planned to avoid. The rental shop guy encouraged us to expect nothing but rain all week but it let up and we avoiding going into full rain protection mode.

Let the navigational errors begin

I wish I could say I was surprised when the GPS started to die. It wasn't charging and I knew it  because I look at the same screen every day and if the battery symbol is showing its running on battery.  Last time we rented I brought our own GPS and getting that mounted and powered was a problem so this time I went with an installed rental. Next time I will ask for a ram mount ball and a powerlet and bring our own again. I am not sure about the updates on the rental but it drove us into quite a number of walking paths and dead ends. We struck on a bit of luck when passing an electronics store. We figured out a cable by trial and error and plugged into one of the stores laptops to test it when nobody was looking. Got a funny look when we paid for it out of the package. Seemed like the battery had a long enough life that we might be able to get by. Now finding the first hotel. Getting late, raining a bit and pretty much blindily following a device that had little battery power left so obviously a mistaken address input was in order. 

  As nice as this is it doesn't appear to be the Hotel Goldene Kanne. Thankfully a local with some English language skill redirected us.

There it is on Segringer Strasse in Dinkelsbuhl not a Strasse in Segringer near Dinkelsbuhl

Got in late. Thought I lost the building and room key and went through the luggage on and off the bikes a few times until Barbara found I left it at check in. Still raining and no supper yet. First day was a little stressful but at least we got to our stop.

Kinda strange but at least the beds are already pushed together or maybe I gave them a little shove..

And we did get a chance to do a little sightseeing before dark.

And the eating was good.

I moved the bikes to a more safe and convenient location which was likely
 posted with some no overnight parking sign that I couldn't read.

No reservation required.

A couple of weeks before our flights Barbara inquired about where we were staying. I hadn't really figured that out yet. Having traveled with me before without lodging planned she promptly went on and walked us through making reservations near the stops I had or was in process of pencilling in. If it were possible a couple of nights at at least some of the stops would have been more relaxing but there just wasn't any way we were going to see much of the Alps unless we kept moving. I tried to make the rides in between relatively short but just packing up everyday takes a little time and effort. So next stop Neuschwanstein.

One of the nicer continental breakfast.

Back on the bikes and no rain rental man!

Pretty sure the dollar store keep went to great length to tell me that I wasn't welcome to use his men's room but luckily I understood not a word because waiting wasn't really an option. Intended to follow the custom of buying something for the privilege but due to his tone it was likely to be some of his Chinese duct tape for his mouth so best just to move on.

And here is where we start to see the Alps and Neuschwanstein Castle.

 An idea for europe to promote tourism is some pull-offs besides the bus stops for folks to stop and take pictures near sights and landmarks.

This has got to be the wrong route again.

We knew we had made reservations very near the castle but as we weaved our way through hundreds of pedestrians and poor horses pulling carts of humans up the hill towards the castle I finally had to concede that the GPS and I had failed again. We turned around to join the hoards in the paid parking in the tourist village below. There after jockeying around the Japanese men with cameras who seemed way too interested in the little lady on what they might consider a big bike from their native land the lot attendant was kind enough to refund our money and send us back up the hill where apparently we were supposed to go after all. 

This is what we had to balance, clutch, throttle and maneuver through uphill at walking speed on our little too tall bikes.

Heavy cart and about ten bodies up a grade steep enough to wind folks in decent shape. These horses did not find paradise.

This one is taking a break. It's a pretty long hike.

We did take the tour of the castle that Ludwig never finished. 

Some contractors were helping him out while we were there. I kinda enjoyed seeing the various restoration and repair projects in progress along the way.

Not the best facilities or the best food but it's pretty neat to have stayed right there. 

The schlossrestaurant has some rooms upstairs. The staff was very busy and doing a great job.
If you haven't guessed Barbara is a bit of a animal lover. This guy and his budy were sneaking around the restaurant after hours. 

Pay at the pump?

Getting fuel seemed pretty easy at first. Then the stations seemed to vary between pay at the pump, pay with a card inside or cash only. The only catch was they didn't seem to feel any obligation to post which it was in any language. The wallet got unexpectedly drained a couple of times but at least we never came up short.

Ok where is the card reader?

Ok anytime now.

This really isn't the most fun part.
I couldn't figure out why I found the narrow little unmarked door to the restroom so odd then I realized that it's because there didn't seem to be any accessible option. Not required in Europe?

Can we handle the famously challenging alpine passes?

This seems like a good place to say how much I appreciate my wife for taking on this trip with me at this time. Like most folks our age we have issues and situations of many types. No details here but I am grateful to her. I think we both realized that the perfect time for this trip was never going to come.
As far as the actual riding the turns were tight and surfaces varied but we are pretty experieced mountain riding folks. Once we got used to the bikes other than oncoming busses and moving over for the speedsters it really wasn't bad. The dozens of hairpin turns can be a bit of a mental and physical challenge but its hard to complain since on every ride there were multiple pedal bikes doing the same roads.

So our alpine riding started out a little wet and we left a huge puddle in McD. Nothing we hadn't been through on most every trip.

Ok this is a little different that's snow and I had to scape the ice of my visor to see. Sure wish my waterproof over-gloves fit because I can't  feel my hands. Timmels joch pass is so beautiful that it's worth the toll they say. All we can verify is that it is a toll road.

By the time Barbara found me I was well through a bowl of soup and a cup of coffee and the feeling was returning to my hands at this little shack on top of the pass. I have no excuse. She was able to put plastic bags in her boots there so her feet would stay a little more dry though.

This is what the road  up to Timmels joch looks like I guess.

The Towns Have Two Names 
The forecast was for much better weather in the Italian Alps than the German and Austrian and that turned out to accurate. By the time we found our lodging it was warm and clear and we had somewhat dried out. The parking was uneven but we were offered the patio for parking. It did not look like a common stop for motorcyclist. Again we were a little late so the receptionist was off duty but our reservation was found and we were shown a nice suite with a view. Then we were given a a pass to take the aerial tramway from the village into the city.  

The Hotel Latemar seems more of a destination than a stop but we were glad they shared it 
with us.
This is our lodging in Soprabolzano or Oberbozen. We didn't get a picture of the traditional wedding with men in lederhosen held downstairs.

And this is dinner in a nice little restaurant we found in Bolzano or Bozen. 

And this was our transport to and from dinner. Looking at this brings back a little vertigo.

The view from the tram of the roads we came up through the vineyards to the hotel.

Off to the heart of motorcycling wonderland.

GPS tried to quit before we quite made the next hotel so we stopped here in Selva di Cadore and Barbara found ice cream to buy in exchange for the use of the facilties at a little bar nearby. The locals rolled in from their weekend alpine ride on the bikes next to ours. Note they are all smaller, lower and lighter than our rentals. 

This looks like the route the GPS selected for us once I turned it back on as we neared the next lodge. The chickens, the farmer and the little girl all stepped out of our way as we ducked through where the eaves of the barn hung over the road. 

This is the parking lot. In spite of the great reviews the place was only okay. It's primary function seems to be ski lodging. Possibly it's better at that.

But the roads to the Giau Pass nearby were the the figurative if not the literal pinnacle of our alpine experience.
29 numbered turns plus some sweepers at the bottom and what a view.

There are dozens of passes and folks who race from one to another to see how many they can cover. Needless to say that wasn't our style. I figure we crossed ten and most on the way from one place to another. For the record Hahntenn Jock, Timmels Joch, Jaufer Pass, Penser Joch, Passo Constalunga, Passo Fedaia, Passo Falzarego, Passo Giau, Grossglockner, and Pass Thurn.

It really is a remarkable place for motorcycling.
Even up there she found a pooch to pet.

If there was a sign that the tunnel on a route to Mittersill was closed I sure missed it.

Even after tacking on another day we needed to start heading north in order not to have rush to Frankfurt. We started by crossing the beautiful Giau Pass again. Then I figured we would take the most direct route instead of another scenic pass to save a little time. Signs that things are no allowed are often entirely in English but ones with helpful information like turn around to avoid driving dozens of kilometers to a closed tunnel may not be. Thus we ended up at the entrance to a closed tunnel route due to some sort of landslide or washout. The only feasible option was over Grossglockner High Alpine Road which is one of the tallest and most popular passes. It has a glacier viewing area and is used for road testing by various auto manufacturers. It also has what must be the largest toll anyone has ever charged to simply drive a motorcycle on asphalt on anything other than a racetrack.

It is indeed a beautiful road.

We picked the right spot for a light lunch.
He wasn't all that impressed with us at first but he warmed up to my dog whispering wife.
In the background where the road goes up the mountain you may be able to see it is covered to protect it.
It was a pretty long ride up to this point and there goes another bicyclist.
The closest call of the trip was with these. Somebody should let them know they don't fit on this road.

Almost as much snow as Montana last summer.

And there were some pretty interesting vehicles up there.

They were testing some electrics that day I guess.

Soon we found the glacier viewing area at top was not in the actual route and backtracked down to the intersection with the route that continues north. 

I couldn't figure out why this little guy was blocking the pull off maybe the batteries were flat?

Then as we found a huge traffic jam through Mittersill and tried every route around to no avail. My best guess is that the bypass for the tunnel route being built caused the problem.

Here we are sitting in the traffic jam.
Here is where we took off layers including my long underwear so we could survive the traffic jam in the hot sun. That turned out to be a sport facilty across the street from which a few dozen children emerged while we were changing.

The roads through Pass Thurn to Kitzbuhel were really nice but we were a little too tired from the heat traffic jam and detour to stop and enjoy. Finally we made it here which had a number one value rating in the area and it was pretty nice except the no smoking in public areas thing doesn't seem to have fully caught on here.

All downhill from here.

The last pass was about half as high as some of the others and it was clear our Alps adventure was ending. There was still some chance of seeing some nice spots through Germany, We debated visiting the Dachau concentration camp outside Munich. We basically didn't decide against it and ended up stopping there. We knew how bad what went on there was but I never understood how companies like BMW  not only knew what was going on but used forced labor from the camps for thier own profit. People have done serious time for treating animals less poorly and it seems many individuals and corporations just went on without suffering any consequence. Gas chambers and incinerators were as disturbing as imagined. Still it seemed right to be a part of not forgetting what went on. From there the only near serious problem of the trip which was not having made a reservation at our next stop in Schwabisch Hall. Turns out they have a thriving business economy there and all rooms get booked during the week. Luckily we found the information office before it closed and at least they found us a room. I balked on making reservations for this portion because I just wasn't sure of where would want to stop.

Evil prevails when good people do nothing.

This was the something is better than nothing place. It was a half hour walk back to the nice part of town for dinner. Just glad the bikes were still there in the morning.I am sure it's fine for business travelers but it is not a vacation spot.

One Good Choice.

After the near lodging disaster I was determined to have a reservation for the next night. Since she had to put up with that sad place I decided to surprise Barbara with hopefully a nice place in a nice place. I had to hike over from the overflow building and sit in the lobby half asleep for wifi but a reservation was made.

A pretty long but mostly nice ride. Some rain then the a sequence of narrow roads with lots of pedestrians and  wet cobbstones and we arrived here.

An absolutely gorgeous 800 year old hotel

With perfect rooms.

In the historic medieval city of Rothenburg.

In from the rain at a romantic hotel what to do? Borrow an umbrella ,sightsee and shop of course. We hung around as long as we could to see a much of the touristy stuff as possible.

The city garden entrance.
Dogs in training in the square.
This guy made us miss our guy.
The mailman.
Churches playing organ music.
Plenty of souvenir shops.

The ancient wall surrounding the city. 

And so on then back on the road to return the bikes.

The Fast Way Home

Now we were on full autobahn, high speed traffic and all as trying to weave through Frankfurt seemed pointless. This is where Barbara wondered out loud if are bikes even allowed out there. I guess I haven't mentioned we have intercoms. We rode for quite some time and saw next to none. Really it's not great fun and it easy to see why its not all that popular. We stayed to the right with the trucks for the most part. Still along the less interesting roads are some things of interest to tourist.

Tablets in a McD 

Campers of different types
Similar but seemed a bit nicer than in America.

We got them back on time a day later than originally planned.

Lots of returned bikes.

Another nice walk in Frankfurt Nord.

I like the little conversion vans.
Another nice dinner with alcohol free beer outside this time.

At the same little restaurant as our first. Staying at the same hotel near the bike shop.

Breakfast at the same McD. 

A 100 mph ride via the unlicensed and unmarked taxi the night clerk arranged for us and a direct flight this time to Boston. Customs at the Boston end ate up an hour with nothing to declare. Otherwise a pretty good trip back all the way home.

Next time Switzerland.

Not that it needs any promotion since out of print copies of the current edition are listed on Amazon for about a thousand bucks but it wasn't until I was there that I fully realized what a remarkable resource John Herman's guide is and how much work must have gone into it. I didn't use it exclusively as we were as much casual tourists as alpine motorcycling adventurers but almost all specific details were referenced there. I am anxious to see the next edition.

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