Here’s our first “from the Vault” series of articles. With Spring sprung we thought we should kick this off with a classic from 2004 when Editor ‘Arris was still popular with BMW and got invited on a rather schmancy Alpine Tour!
I remove my helmet and approach the picture-perfect chapel, nestled in a clearing that is slung between two mountains.
Wild flowers breathe on a bed of lush green grass and the foreground drops away into the valley below. Therein lies a bowl filled with a large town, its buildings bunched up into one of the few patches of flat terrain to be found.
I sit on the edge of this incredible space and unfurl the map to try and work out exactly where I am.
The map is an abstract canvas of colours with roads navigating the gray shading of vertical drops and fine blue squiggles of river run-offs.
The asphalt bunches up like textbook pictures of small intestine – long passageways compressed into small spaces – as they work their way through the torturous terrain.
|Even the maps are spectacular.|
It was no good; all it told me was that I was somewhere special. Somewhere with the perfect balance of history and population, so that every conceivable pass had been cut through and paved, or failing that, connected by inconceivably long tunnels, bored through the most stubborn of mountain masses.
Welcome to the European Alps, somewhere between Germany and Italy, the exact country no longer known, nor did I particularly care.
It was day two of a three-day tour courtesy of BMW Canada – eager to show a select bunch of journalists just what their German touring counterparts could offer the Canadian motorcyclist.
|Happiness in the Dolomites.
Photo: Manfred the guide
Even though I’d spent my first 25 years in Europe, albeit mainly in England, I had never managed to make it to the Alps before. Student poverty had meant that any Euro-excursion was a mad dash to the cheapness of Spain and Portugal, not the rich and expensive Alpine peaks.
But had I actually absorbed just what a wonderland of road innards, blanched summits and a land carefully decorated by the hand of man was like, then I’d have willingly sold my brother’s kidney for just a few days of this ‘Alphetamine’ high.
Our excursion was a custom 3-day tour of the German, Austrian and Italian Alps, organized and operated by Muenchner Freiheit – one of three touring companies in Germany that are associated with BMW.
This enables them to offer a vast array of package and customizable tours across the world – and all on BMW motorcycles, which I guess is why BMW Canada were picking up the tab for this trip.
MUNICH – BED, BICYCLES, BEER AND BMW’s MOBILE TRADITION
|Heavy rains in Munich meant that the locals did the obvious – surf!|
We arrive in Munich on the red-eye flight, and despite a very nice seat in business class, I stagger out sans-sleep and find myself in a rather pleasant town-square, sipping espresso with my BMW handlers.
With the start of the tour the next day, it was important to adapt to the new time zone quickly and so after a few hours kip, BMW drag us all out for a quick bicycle tour of the city. Of course, this ends up with us drinking beer in the ‘English Gardens’, chewing on humongous salty pretzels while admiring the local talent.
Somehow, after dinner we once again end up drinking beer, this time at the HB Beer Hall in central Munich (basically a large hall, filled with benches and drunks from all nationalities). An ‘Umpah’ band pumps out a mix of swaying thumps and more modern tunes, while toasts and introductions are exchanged with newfound neighbours and compatriots.
It sounds like a recipe for a big punch-up, but it somehow manages to avoid the descent into brawling – everyone just happy to be there.
|They found this under London. Started third kick too.|
The next morning I wasn’t so happy to have been there, as I stagger through a guided tour of BMW’s Mobile Tradition, located next to their Research and Innovation Centre. It’s a not-for-public collection of bikes, cars and yes, even a recently uncovered engine from a WWII bomber plane, all in a state of semi-storage and semi-display.
It was quite fascinating, and I’m sure I would have enjoyed it even more without the fog of the previous night’s alcohol, but I thought it was important to be able to pass on to the CMG readership the full experience of the Munich beer hall over a clear rendition of a collection of vehicles that you won’t be able to see anyway.
This is also probably a good time to mention that BMW are working on reopening their public museum – currently being refitted – sometime in 2006. Or was that 2005? Hey, it was a foggy day without a notepad okay?
Just remember my dedication to the job when it comes time to try and find a suitable liver donor.
KEEPING ON THE TWISTY AND NARROW
Manfred the guide
We eventually managed to get out of Mobile Tradition and across Munich to BMW Motorrad Hall (they seem to own half the city) where we had lunch, were introduced to the touring company (Muenchner Freiheit) and got geared up for the ride
Muenchner Freiheit have an almost complete fleet of the latest BMWs, so I opt for one of the big 1150GS Adventures, keen to have a chance to see how it compared with the new R1200GS.
Not far south of Munich the terrain starts to rise up around us. A line of bikes cut through lush meadows, past picturesque chalets – balconies festooned with potted plants – meandering our way though the Alpine foothills.
|Lush meadows south of Munich.|
But this is not a faux Disney play-land. Any piece of flat landed is cultivated, with slithers of green spanning the valley floor and terracing their way up the surrounding hillsides.
As we sink deeper into the hills, the road bunches up more and more, traversing almost preposterously tight valleys. At a glance we pass half demolished Customs & Excise buildings – the only clue that we had now left Germany and entered Italy. No, that would be Austria to Italy.
When had we entered Austria? A quick stop for coffee gives no clue of the fact, as German is still the main language of the area, the currency still Euros and the roads still rapturous.
It’s not long from here when we come across our first real pass – Jaufen.
Let me refer to my notes …
DOING THE JAUFEN
|Low sunbeams add mood to the Jaufen Pass.|
I’m out of adrenaline. I need more.
With the ending of the day, the faster riders have migrated to the front and our guide has appropriately upped the pace. The road has narrowed to the extent that there’s no longer room for a centre line.
Hairpins become the norm and the faster pace leaves little room for error. Combined with a late low sun, the heart
lives in the mouth as indiscriminate beams of blinding light make every corner a mix of skilled precision and best guesses.
Thankfully traffic is light but a wide turn could still spell trouble, T-R-O-U-B-L-E.
|Okay, so my Japanese tourist photo techniques didn’t work this time. These are the Dolomites, but that road is very similar to Jaufen.|
The joyride finally comes to an end as we reach the summit and I’m rewarded with spectacular views and a well-deserved cigarette. I’m taking pictures like a Japanese tourist, high in all senses of the word.
But hang on, there’s still the other side’s descent.
The road seems to narrow yet more, and it’s hard not to focus on the knee-high road barriers – the only thing between rider and a 9.81m/s2 free fall to the base of the valley below. I can’t resist and take a quick glance over the side.
A near-vertical drop, down, down, down …
A wave of electricity sweeps up my body from toe to head, and I decide not to do that again. Instead I fix my vision firmly on the steady white line at the road’s outer edge. I need to cut a path as close to this as possible. Not too close so that I use up my safety margin, but then not too far that I risk running wide and into the path of an oncoming vehicle.
|The classic Alpine hotel at St. Leonhard. Bar was pretty good too …|
The riders ahead of me are reminded of this too, as an approaching car comes to a rapid halt and sits on the horn – frustrated at an unfurling line of bikes swinging wide around a particularly taut hairpin.
It’s an easy mistake to make, but I wonder how often this happens and what it must feel like to experience the moment when you swerve off to the side – bike stopped by the barrier – eyes filling with the expanse of a rapidly approaching valley below.
Thoughts like this are best left unexplored, at least beyond the realization that they are a real and present danger. However, I harbour no death wish and keep it that way by reminding myself of the potential consequences of going beyond my own abilities.
As we near the base, after what seems like an eternity of hairpins and potential mishaps, we come across the first few houses – clinging to the lower mountainsides in steep meadow clearings.
|View from a balcony – sans head-fog.
Photo: Manfred the guid
The road is starting to untangle itself now and it’s not much longer before we finally hit the
bottom where we find the town of St. Leonhard and our hotel for the night.
PASSES, BUSES, PASSES
I awake with yet another dull throb beating in my head. A day of adrenaline inducing riding is always liable to end up in the bar, and last night was no exception.
Although a fun way to end the evening, I was starting to feel like a present day Hunter S. Thompson, only without the writing style. No, tonight would have to be different – these roads demand a clear and calculating head.
Just then my room lights up as the sun finally climbs over the adjacent mountain and floods the valley with it’s warming light. Hmmhh, more like a burning light, the sanctuary of the shadows keeping the dull throb just that – dull.
|Luscious roads can be spoilt by lardy buses.|
I discover that my room has a balcony and use it to take some recovery time. Before me is a
wall of meadow, rising steeply upwards, becoming a mass of trees as it steepens beyond the point of agricultural tampering.
Wow, I love my job sometimes.
An hour later and I find myself staring at the arse-end of a tour bus. Manfred (our guide) is swinging from one side of the single-width road to the other, desperately trying to find a gap to squirt though, while indicating his annoyance to the driver’s mirror.
His frustration is obvious as the bus flatulates out another cloud of black exhaust, changing down yet another gear – slowing to a stumbling pace – as it navigates the next hairpin.
|Manfred goes gooey next to Hotel La Majun’s Natalie.|
A two-foot gap opens up as he bus swings out and both Manfred and myself manage to squeeze through before it’s slammed shut again as the bus swings in to the corner.
Ahead and free, Manfred waves an annoyed arm at the driver and slaps an open palm on his bags in frustration. But the driver ignores his protests and refuses to give way to the rest of the group still stuck behind.
That’s enough for Manfred and on come his four-ways as he angrily announces, “I vill stop zee bus”. He does, and I wonder whether the driver is about to get a righteous bitch-slapping, but the group is by within seconds and Manfred sees no need to waste anymore time.
“Zer’s azoles all over zee world” he declares, before slapping shut his helmet and lurching off to lead the pack again.
He’s right of course, zer are azoles all over the world and the Alps has its fair share, although – barring the occasional bus driver – I’d say most of zee azoles still live in North America.
THE MIGHTY DOLOMITES
|The road leading up the Sella Pass. Guts mate, guts!|
It’s mid-morning and we’re now in the Italian Dolomites – a geographically unique region of the Alps consisting of massive limestone spires. It’s a hiker/climber paradise that also satisfies the motorcyclist with yet more world-class roads.
These mountains were also the scene of intense fighting in the First World War and many of the roads I found myself on today were tribute to those near-century-old battles and the need for military access.
When there’s not enough room to hang a road from the mountainsides, tunnels are the only solution – dimly lit passageways, some unfeasibly long, meander under rocky mountains. A small circle of light signifies the inevitable end of the darkness, opening back out into steep valleys with a burst of bright sunlight.
The highlight of the day is the Sella pass. 32 switchbacks (I believe), are rewarded at the top with a cable-car ride to the heavens, where you’re treated to a vertigo sufferers nightmare and a snowball fight at the top.
Here you’re as near as dammit on top of the world, and I once more become a Japanese tourist and fill up my camera’s memory card with panoramic views of the valleys around me.
The road down the valley to our next hotel is a divine carpet of switchbacks and the big 1150 GS Adventure laps them up with precision ease – dropping into each arc perfectly, before picking itself up again on the throttle as we exit the apex.
|The perfect combo?|
It’s ideal BMW Boxer territory, mass and torque harmoniously cutting each curve that would no doubt prove to be all the more technical on a sportier four.
At the hotel, Manfred proposes another loop around the local passes before dinner. Alas, I need to attend to some CMG work and reluctantly decline in a poor attempt to be the professional journalist.
After spending two frustrating hours trying to connect to the Internet, I curse the Italian phone system and retire to the hotel’s terrace. Here I meet the returning bastards, only too happy to enlighten me on the truly amazing ride that I had just declined to partake of.
Dammit, even the beer has a sour taste.