If you’re into motorcycles you’ve most probably heard of Edelweiss Bike Travel. They offer guided motorcycle tours pretty much all around the world. My girlfriend Roxanne and I recently took part in a tour that took us through a number of former Eastern Bloc countries – an area of the world I’d never before seen.
We arrived in Vienna a day before we were to depart on our two-week motorcycle journey that would take us from Austria to the Czech Republic, Germany, Poland, Slovakia, Hungary and back to Austria, a trip totalling more than 3,000 km.
It was later that evening during the introductory dinner that we met our tour guides, as well as the 15 other tour participants.
Roxanne and I represented Canada, there were six Americans, one Australian and the remainder were from Brazil. The tour guides — serious riders, selected through a stringent screening process — consisted of Thomas Kastner, Tom Ritt, and Edelweiss’s newest addition Ted Goslinga, who’d recently retired from the Dutch navy.
The tour started off with the Brazilians running to their own schedule, arriving at their bikes quite close to the scheduled morning departure time. Turns out one of them had lost his bike key. Edelweiss makes it a point not to bring extras, in a way forcing riders to really mind their keys. Fortunately the key was found just as the Edelweiss guides began rolling out a spare Kawasaki ER-6n.
Because of the group’s size, riders were split into two groups, each one following a different Tom along a slightly different route. Goslinga, being the new guy on the block, got truck duty, transporting everyone’s luggage.
Kastner set a spirited pace as we crossed into the Czech Republic, though we hit some heavy rain before lunch. Post lunch the roads got much tighter, and the pace quickened. Kastner let us by and I led for a while on the damp roads, but Kastner — who often takes part in track days — caught up and blasted by, followed closely by American Barre Bull and his wife Sandra on a BMW R1200RT.
Bull, 62, is a stand-up guy. However, his name suits him well behind the handlebars of a motorcycle, as he thrashed around the fully loaded RT, two-up, like it was a 400-lb supersport machine. It was also immediately evident that Sandra had ridden like this with him many times before. She was cool as a cucumber on the pillion, looking over his shoulder into the turns as if she were at the controls.
The pace on this tour was obviously going to be spirited, a good thing when you quickly realize that Czech drivers are borderline insane – especially when behind the wheel of a small cargo van. It seemed every time we came up on a driver of one of these small utility vans, it was game on. As our lead rider would pull out to pass, said van drivers would nail the gas, pushing hard enough into the turns to almost roll the tires off the rims, often smiling maniacally behind the wheel as you finally made the pass.
We rode into the Bohemian town of České Budějovice (Budweis in English) early that first evening, where we spent the night at the four-star Hotel Budweis in the centre of town. This medieval town has been brewing beer since the 13th Century and is home to the original Budweiser Budvar brewery, which still brews beer throughout much of Europe. It is not to be confused with the American Budweiser, originally brewed as an imitation, though it went on to much larger worldwide success.
The next day I rode with Kastner again, and two more riders joined our group including Murray Pratt, standing tall at six-foot-seven. Pratt, from San Diego had come into an inheritance and was enjoying the first of probably many bike tours as a result.
He had shown up late for breakfast that morning, looking rather haggard. “Tip of the trip,” he said, as he leaned towards me bloodshot and hoarse, “don’t go out late with the Brazilians.”
We left Budweis and headed for Prague for the first of several non-riding rest days. One of the stops along our route was in the postcard-picturesque town of Český Krumlov. The entire town looks like the set for a medieval movie, including a prerequisite, fortified castle that is guarded by a pair of bears. You read that right.
Arriving into Prague the two Toms took us on a walking tour of the city. I was completely enthralled by the cobblestone streets and Baroque, Gothic and Romanesque architecture – absolutely stunning. I made a mental note to return to Prague because a full day is nowhere near enough time to experience this historical capital of Bohemia.
The dark clouds of WWII
After Prague we headed north and dipped into Germany and the city of Dresden, via rolling hills in 27C sunshine, and — finally — no rain.
In stark contrast to the warm, picturesque architecture of Prague, Dresden was cold, bleak and lacked the Baroque beauty of the Czech capital. This was the result of a massive fire-bombing campaign in February 1945, which left the previously picturesque Dresden in ruins, to be hastily rebuilt in concrete during the post-war Eastern Bloc era.
The next couple of days were spent meandering along the north-eastern border of the Czech Republic, before heading into Poland. From day one of the tour we’d been told something that had left me with a slightly uneasy mix of anxiety and trepidation, but also of anticipation. That feeling peaked as we approached Oświęcim, otherwise known as Auschwitz, the location of the WWII concentration camp, now converted into a memorial and museum.
We entered the main gate at Auschwitz, passing under the metal sign declaring “Arbeit Macht Frei”, a message that gave prisoners a false hope of freedom through work. Despite the huge crowd of visitors at the entrance, once inside it was remarkably deserted, the desolation only broken occasionally when another tour group passed in the distance.
All I’ve ever known of this disturbing, ominous place is what I’d seen in gloomy black-and-white documentary footage. Adding a third dimension and colour made it no less sombre.
If it were not for the horrors that took place within, the brick and mortar buildings of Auschwitz, would have been like a resort compared to the hastily erected brick, and wood barracks of the factory-like Birkenau, located three kilometres up the road.
This evil black hole was an assembly line of killing, with the unfortunate arriving on a train and their bodies leaving on it. More than 1.1 million people were killed in Auschwitz-Birkenau, which this year marks the 70th anniversary of its liberation. Despite the woeful disposition the place left on me, I was glad to have visited it, and having now walked on its forever tarnished soil, I now look upon it in a different light.
After a mood restoring rest day in Krakow, we entered Slovakia and were welcomed by poorly maintained roads and rather squalid villages inhabited by Romani, otherwise referred to as gypsies. We got a pleasant welcome nonetheless, as children ran to the edge of the road upon hearing our engines and waved frantically with huge smiles on their faces.
Most everything is Slovakia is inexpensive, and you can have a coffee and pastry for just over one euro. I made another mental note to return.
On the penultimate day we hit Budapest in Hungary, the southernmost tip of the tour, along wonderfully twisty roads, crossing the Danube river by ferry for a paltry 4 euros per bike.
In the group on this day was the sole Australian, Gary Gill, a 69-year-old retired doctor. Being the only other Commonwealth representative, I considered him almost Canadian, something he affirmed each time we apologised to each other anytime we bumped into one another.
Hungary is an alluring country, and Budapest became my second-favourite city along this tour, behind Prague. Unfortunately, we also discovered that Hungary has become a very capitalist country, and you’ve got to empty your pockets of change anytime you want to empty your bladder – pay toilets are the norm here.
We returned to Vienna the next day, wrapping up what was an extraordinary riding experience that took us to places we’d never seen, most inspiring, one rather depressing, but all well worth visiting.
IS IT WORTH IT?
Edelweiss tours are not cheap (the Kings and Castles tour starts at $5,750 USD exclusive of airfare, though it is one of their longer tours at two weeks), but they offer a peace of mind you just can’t get if you manage all the planning and logistics of such an endeavour on your own, which probably won’t cost much less.
All hotels, daily breakfast, and dinner on all but rest days are included, as well as the guided walking tours on rest days. You’ve got to spring for gas, lunch on all but picnic days, and any other expenses (read bar tab).
A vast selection of motorcycles is available, and all of the bikes on the tour are well maintained and equipped with luggage. A truck is provided to carry the bulk of your luggage to each evening’s destination hotel, but note that it takes a different, more direct route, so you must carry necessities. And bring good walking shoes for the rest days.
Because of my position in the media it is easy to make a positive judgment on this tour, as I did not invest much into it compared to the other participants. However, my impression of how well this tour unfolded is mostly based on their reactions, and as in previous tours, everyone had a fantastic time and it turned out to be a memorable bucket-list experience.
A large part of any tour’s overall success is due to the tour guides’ ability. From my point of view the two Toms and Ted went above and beyond their roles as regular tour guides. They became completely involved in the tour, and spent time with everyone even after the riding was done. They made it feel more like a gathering of friends than an organized tour, all the while managing the large group with professionalism.
This is quite an endorsement, but probably the best example of how much I think Edelweiss tours (edelweissbike.com) are worth every penny is that several of my friends and I will be celebrating our 50th birthdays over the next year, and among the celebratory possibilities we’ll be discussing is a motorcycle tour with the Austrian company – this time using my own money.
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