The last time I was in Austria on a bike was for the press launch of the BMW R45 and R65 in June 1978. I remember liking the bikes and loving the roads, though after all this time I have no idea where this took place; somewhere Alpine. My wife has long had Austria on her must-ride list, so spending four days there was one of the two main goals of our summer tour this year – the other was to hang out with family for a week in Tuscany.
The Tuscany side of the trip dictated the timing: the villa we wanted was too expensive for our pockets in the peak season, but it was both affordable and available for the last week in September. Our daughter Elizabeth and her husband James had taken walking holidays for two successive years in the KItzbuhel area and thoroughly recommended it, so that was our destination.
The plan had been to camp, but night tempertures were around 7 degrees, which made hotels seem a much more attractive option. My Internet-savvy wife is a great Airbnb fan, so she went online over breakfast in Bad Camberg and found us a decent-sounding ski-lodge apartment in the Tyrolean town of Oberau for a mere €30 a night. We’d hole up there for three nights and take day trips out into the mountains for a mixture of riding and hiking.
Torrential rain east of Munich kept us on the autobahn until we reached the Austrian border. I’m no huge fan of riding in the rain – I served my time over the years in the UK and Ireland – and motorways at least get you through it faster. The non-motorway roads in Austria were reasonably well surfaced, but the pace became quite slow. The area seems overrun with towns and villages, so you’re forever slowing down to meet a variety of speed limits that run 90 km/h, 80, 70, 60, 50, 40 and even 30!
Local drivers seem a little unsure of how to behave at roundabouts: three times in about two hours we entered a roundabout only to find the car on the road joining from the right shooting straight across in front of us. Maybe the Austrians envy the French their archaic priorité a droit rule and think that roundabouts are cool places to employ it.
We reached Oberau by late afternoon and were pleased to find we’d be upgraded to a nice one-bed apartment with mountain views.
However, the rain continued for the next two days, always steady, sometimes heavy. There seemed no point in riding, but we hiked some the area’s many trails. At one point, as we continued uphill on a steep mountain path, I noticed that the rain had suddenly taken on a mysterious, mesmerising slow-motion quality. I even said to Peter “oh, look at that – slow rain”! It took a few seconds for it to register that this, in fact, was snow! Not what one expects on a summer holiday, but the peaks next morning presented a stunning display with their fresh covering of white powder.
The rain and snow eventually moved away and we continued our ride to Italy. I’d known of the Brenner Pass for years but never traversed it. The much-acclaimed Grossglockner Pass was too far out of our way to make sense, so we opted for the Brenner. What a disappointment! There were some nice mountain roads en route, but nothing to write home about. Suddenly you find yourself in a town, the signs say Brenner, and that’s it! No sense of achievement, no really challenging twists and turns. If you’ve ridden decent Alpine passes like the Stelvio and the Great St Bernard, the Brenner is a big let-down.
We made up for it, though, once inside Italy. We set the Garmin for non-motorway routes and aimed for Tuscany, and within a few miles found ourselves on an increasingly narrow single-track road that pretty much ran through a few back gardens! At one point the tar gave way to a few yards of gravel but then resumed, putting us on the SS44 (or the SS508 – it was impossible to tell), which was a fabulous mountain road that kept us entertained for a while. It was popular with motorcyclists, and this Porsche 918 Spyder driver.
We eventually rejoined the autostrada for the ride down to Florence, stopping at Modena (of Ferrari fame) for the night. Couldn’t find any signs for campsites, which was a shame because it was warmer now at lower altitude and we would have gladly camped. We asked a BMW rider for directions, found nothing, and then stopped at a few miserable-looking three-star hotels before finding one that seemed acceptable for a rather pricey €94, including breakfast. Heading for the highway next morning, we followed the on-ramp as it looped around on to the autostrada, and there found a sign for the campsite! C’est la vie…