Slow rain in the Tyrol

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.

Austrian Tyrol

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.

Porsche 918 (2)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…



In Bruges? Not today, thank you…

One of the cool things about 2017 for me is anniversaries: it’s 50 years since I started riding motorcycles (okay, it was a knackered old Lambretta Li150 scooter and so not technically a motorcycle, but that’s when the bug bit me and I’ve been riding ever since). My Suzuki TL1000S is 20 years old this year, the Ducati 1000 SportClassic is 10, as is my V-Strom, and the Valkyrie is 15 years old; only the Rune breaks the symmetry as it’s 13.

So here’s the thing: someone who’s been riding for 50 years and touring for 44 must know a thing or two about packing bikes, you’d think? I thought so too. I’ve had a particularly handy device called an Oxford Cargo Net since for ever – probably 15 years – but when I used it for a recent trip to Cape Town it had lost all its elasticity. So while visiting our daughter Charlotte, son-in-law Nikolas and grandsons Theo (that’s him on the Valkyrie, pre-trip) and Zak in south-east London I was delighted to find a new one in a nearby bike shop the day before we set off for our two-week tour of Europe.

We duly headed off first thing next morning for the Channel Tunnel, with the new cargo net holding our tubular waterproof bag to the top of our Kuryakyn tote bag. The net packaging said it was good for loads of up to 1 kg, and the bag was probably just under 2 kg – no problem, I thought. I’m sure I’ve used it for heavier loads in the past. I duly left my trusty but non-matching bungee cords at home and hit the M20 for the Tunnel terminus.

My mirrors showed me the tubular bag was moving slowly but steadily leftwards under the cargo net, so Peter kindly held it in place with her left hand while we rode through the heavy rain to catch our 08:20 train. We made good time, so Peter nipped into the terminal building and emerged with a pair of purple bungee cords which we used to secure the luggage properly. So much for 44 years of touring experience!

The Eurotunnel boarding process has always been fast, efficient and easy – but Passport Control these days is another matter. You used to be able to pass through almost on a nod with a European passport, while my wife’s South African document usually needed a quick visa search and a stamp. Not any more. It was bad last year and worse this year. The queue for the border check was moving so slowly that we missed our 08:20 train and had to take the next one, about 20 minutes later. On the way back in Calais, it was even more chaotic. I guess that’s the price we pay for security.

The rain had disappeared by the time we emerged into watery sunlight in Calais. The French have not been too diligent of late with their maintenance, and the road signs out of the port were in such a bad state that the road numbers were rusted beyond legibility. We eventually found the right exit and headed for our first overnight in Germany.

We’d both loved the movie In Bruges, a dark comedy-drama (highly recommended), and seeing that our route passed straight by the old city we figured a lunch stop there was called for. Unfortunately, our visit coincided with some daft “No Car Day”, which meant that all entrances to Bruges were blocked to normal traffic. Only pedestrians and bicycles were allowed in.

We tried a selection of different routes, to no avail, so with great reluctance had to skip Bruges and move on. I’ll never be a tree-hugger, and I am not convinced that global warming has much to do with the internal combustion engine, so I doubt that this token exercise in vehicle banning will have done any good for the people of Bruges – just inconvenienced tourists who would have spent money there. Shame.

We rode on dry roads in ever-increasing sunshine across Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany, enjoying a largely traffic-free journey. The only glitch was being offered a rip-off exchange rate of £206 for €200 at some German autobahn service area, which we declined.

After about 450-odd miles on the road it seemed time to look for a campsite, although the air felt increasingly chilly so a three-star hotel was also on the menu. We found one in Bad Camberg for about €72, including breakfast. It wasn’t anything special but it was warm, dry, had lots of space for bike gear and out-of-sight, off-road parking. We both needed an end-of-day beer and so started a mini restaurant crawl that began in a tapas bar and ended up with superb pasta in the town’s Italian eatery. We wondered if we’d succumbed to the attractions of hotel touring too easily, but there wasn’t a campsite to be found – maybe we’d camp tomorrow night, weather permitting.