Photographer and author Tom Lavine was riding for the brand when he embarked on the Edelweiss Best of Europe tour.
There stirs in the heart of every motorcycle enthusiast a wanderlust for the open road and new surroundings. This spirit of adventure is often pacified by a weekend ride to the coast or canyon, but sometimes the itch is deeper and you need to do some serious traveling to scratch it. When that happens you have two options: you can go it alone, hassling with reservations (not to mention worrying about possible breakdowns along the way), or you can bypass all the hassle and worry and book a tour with a professional company.
This summer I had an opportunity to set out on an adventure with one of the industry leaders, Edelweiss Bike Travel. I embarked on their Best of Europe Tour, a 10-day adventure taking me through the beautiful and mountainous landscapes of Germany, France, Austria, and Switzerland. Being an avid rider, the idea of spending 10 days winding through the picturesque back roads of the Alps was music to my ears. Well now I am here to report that the European tour did not disappoint and in fact turned out to be a life-altering experience, one that no self-respecting sport-touring motorcyclist should pass up.
June 20, 2005 – Monday
Munich to Sauerlach
My tour began when I arrived in Munich, Germany after a lengthy two-day flight from my home in southern Oregon. I was nervous with excitement when Michael Boese, one of the Edelweiss tour guides, greeted me at the airport. My education on European driving began immediately as we started off in the Edelweiss support van for our destination and tour jump-off point Sauerlach, Germany. As we drove Michael was explaining traffic, signs, and the general rules of the road. We aren’t in Kansas any more!
The Edelweiss van used to pick up participants in the Best of Europe tour. Many riders arrived in Germany a few days early, staying in Munich then traveling via train to Sauerlach.
Between Munich and Sauerlach we traveled on the amazing four-laned Autobahn. The flow of traffic is monitored by video cameras and each lane has specific speed limits controlled by large LED signs suspended over the highway. It even has sections that prohibit large trucks from leaving the right lane. One thing I learned for sure is to not lollygag in the left lane or you’ll get passed by a Mercedes or BMW so fast it will leave you spinning on the pavement like a top.
We went to the Edelweiss garage to pick up the BMW R1200ST that I would be riding for this tour. The bikes were arranged with sticky notes on the windshield for each of the individual riders in the tour group. Each rider chooses from a number of BMW models when they book their tour. After locating your bike, you and a tour guide inspect it for any damage before signing it out. My ST only had 4500 miles on it, and had been outfitted with new tires. The entire BMW fleet appeared to be in excellent condition.
Checking in and walking around the hotel, it was easy to spot other fellow riders. There were around 20 people in our group along with 15 bikes. Michael explained that worldwide Edelweiss serves about 3000 riders annually – 2200 drivers and 800 passengers. Edelweiss counts about 50 employees, most of them tour guides, and in 25 years of operation there have been only three fatalities – a very good record when you consider how many clients they have served and the amount of miles they cover.
That night I got my first real taste of German cuisine at dinner. It was delicious. I also relished my first of Germany’s many legendary beers, an Original Muncher Hell; the beer was even better than the label. Afterward, my friend Don Livingwood and I went out for a little more German flavor. Sauerlach is a very small town but we were able to follow the sound of laughter and found a small bar/cafe overlooking a train stop. We ordered mixed drinks and noticed to our surprise that they arrived with only a single ice cube in each. It was one of those little discoveries you make while experiencing a different culture, and during the remainder of our tour we noticed that ice was valued and handed out with thrift, trying to get an ice bucket for your room was almost impossible.
June 21, 2005 – Tuesday
Riding from Sauerlach to Rothenburg, Germany
My next discovery would be at breakfast. European breakfasts are very different than those in America. Every morning, in each country we visited, we would choose from salami, cheeses, and different breads. It was outstanding. I remember thinking to myself that the first thing I would have to do when I got home was hit the supermarket for some salami and cheeses.
Today was exciting because our group started out on our first big ride together, traveling from Sauerlach to Rothenburg, Germany. I couldn’t wait to get started on my blue R1200ST. I am a big fan of BMW and have owned five new models within the past 10 years. I love the low-revving torquey engines, as they require little shifting, and the compression of the big Twin engine is wonderful for braking in the corners. The attached locking luggage on these bikes is the best in the business, even if there are a couple models that require an engineering degree from MIT to remove them from the bike. Overall I enjoyed the ST very much, but wouldn’t trade it for my R1200GS that I ride at home.
As with any type of group traveling experience, just getting underway can be a task in itself, and this tour was no exception. Once we did get on the road, however, I was in for a real surprise when it came to European driving etiquette. When approaching a vehicle from the rear and you intend to pass, the driver of the car will pull to the right as far as possible, but the amazing thing is the oncoming vehicle will do the same thing, resulting in the motorcyclist being able to pass both vehicles while riding right down the middle line. It took awhile for me to try it, but I can say that it works quite well. Our tour guide Michael explained that many people in Europe ride motorcycles, so they go out of their way when driving a car to accommodate fellow riders.
Two other European traffic peculiarities I would become very fond of during our tour were the extensive use of yield signs (instead of stop signs) and roundabouts. As for the first, when you’re in the middle of nowhere and come to a T intersection, if you can see in both directions, why stop? Yield and be on your way. As for the second, I found the roundabouts very practical.
Another common drawback with group riding is the wide range of riding skills and styles. Some of the two-up riders tended to take things easy while others were ready to rock and roll. The faster you ride the less you see, so those folks who rode at the rear of the pack probably saw more; but it was a little frustrating when after riding faster to enjoy the roads, we would have to wait at every intersection or change of direction in the 90-degree heat for the others to catch up. No major complaint; that’s just the way it is with group riding.
We concluded our first day’s ride with our arrival in Rothenburg, Germany, a town I will always remember. Rothenburg has been in existence for the past 500 years; think about it, America is just shy of 230. The city sits inside an old fort built on a hilltop and its streets are indescribable, as you’ll see in the photos.
Again, my friend and tour roommate Don and I discovered another interesting difference in European hospitality when it came to sleeping arrangements. All of the rooms had two single beds but they were side by side, and I mean touching.
June 22, 2005 – Wednesday
Riding from Rothenberg to Heidelberg, Germany
The hotel in Heidelberg was nice looking from the outside, but the interior reminded Tom of being in a maze, as moving through the halls like a rat trying to find the cheese.
Our tour had two guides, Michael Boese from Austria and Claus Lazik from Germany. They took turns leading the group on a yellow BMW R1200GS. One would ride the GS out front, while the other would bring up the rear driving the Edelweiss support van. Both men were excellent riders and at first I thought that the ride tempo was very different between the two, but over time I changed my mind – some days we were balling the jack, other days just cruising – it all depended on the terrain.
Every morning prior to beginning our ride the tour guides would hold a briefing session, highlighting the planned schedule and what to look for on the road. Like Tuesday, it was very warm, but the roads and scenery kept your mind off the heat while riding. We didn’t spend much time on the Autobahn; more often than not the roads we traveled upon were so small they didn’t even have a centerline. Although the distance to our destination was usually between 140-300 kilometers (87-186 miles), it seemed to take most of the day.
The scenery was beautiful, and being a photographer I never stop running out of things to take pictures of. While traveling through a large valley with many crops being grown, I spotted an elderly lady hoeing all by herself in the midst of an enormous field, with a small barn in the background. Oh, this would have been a wonderful shot, but the group rode on and so did I. Earlier in the day I had stopped for a quick photo and it brought the entire tour to a halt, as everyone thought I may have been experiencing bike problems.
Arrival in Heidelberg, one of Germany’s oldest towns, was memorable. The city contains a population of about 150,000, with about one-third of them attending the local university. A spectacular view of the castle on the overlooking hillside is obtainable from just about anywhere in the city. The castle is particularly prominent at night when it is lit.
The streets of Obernai, France. Often times the buildings are right up against the street with no sidewalk.
June 23, 2005- Thursday
Riding from Heidelberg, Germany to Obernai, France
Thursday was our longest riding day of the tour, covering 330 kilometers (205 miles) from Heidelberg, Germany to Obernai, France. It also marked our first stay where we would spend two nights in the same hotel; on the second day we were all free to go do whatever we wanted.
The ride was comfortable, although the temperature again began to rise as the day wore on. The roads in Europe are in excellent shape, perhaps not the widest in places, but the surfaces were spotless. We stopped for a break at a cafe in Johanniskreuz. Even on a weekday the parking lot contained at least 40 bikes. I was told that on weekends the entire parking lot is overrun with hundreds of motorcycles. All the roads leading there are ideal for riding, with lots of turns and clean surfaces.
Unlike in the U.S., where you will see multiple signs meaning the same thing (for instance, no passing, with a solid line painted on the roadway along with signs, sometimes on both sides of the road, saying No Passing), in Europe the traffic laws seem much more relaxed. Signs are kept to a minimum and solid centerlines are not that common. I liked the three arrows painted in the pavement signifying an approaching turn.
A typical gas stop meant paying about 1.25 Euros or 1.50 Swiss Franks per liter. That translates into about $6.50 per gallon!
The traffic seems to mirror the kicked back demeanor of the European people themselves. During the tour I saw a motorist stop at an intersection a little late so his vehicle was sticking out into our lane. The three vehicles ahead of me simply drove around him. No flipping the bird, no horns, no hollering. I think it was looked upon as a simple mistake, so let us just get on with life. Not me though, as I passed I did all three… just kidding!
June 24, 2005 – Friday
On our second day in Obernai, my friend Don and I decided to walk downtown and do our laundry. It turned out to be a great opportunity to mix with the village folk. Earlier in the tour I had asked Michael about communication issues, and he told me that most students who graduate from high school in Europe have had between four and seven years of English. He didn’t feel we would have any difficulties, and sure enough if we ever needed directions or information, our best bet was to ask a young person. Older folks would go out of their way to help out, but communication was sometimes reduced to sign language.
I asked a girl we met on the street if she spoke English and we were in luck, although she was from out of town. She went to a service station with Don, getting an address for us and drawing a map on how to reach the laundry. After walking for a considerable distance, we once again had to stop at an outdoor juice bar to ask for directions. After a lot of conversation (none of which we understood) one of the fellows at the place named Steven agreed to escort us to the laundry.
It was hot and humid, and I was wishing to myself, “I hope this f
ellow has a nice big Mercedes.” But there was no such luck – he rode a bicycle. However, we did arrive at the laundromat in no time, only to discover it was in fact a dry cleaner.
Undeterred, we were off again in search of a real laundromat with actual washing machines. In time Steven found one, and received as appreciation one of Don’s prized t-shirts from Sturgis. He accepted it with great excitement, even if it did have to be washed.
Americans hear a lot of negative things about how they will be treated in Europe and by the French in particular, but don’t believe it; the folks of this little French town were gracious and accommodating. We figured out the washing machines and dryers by extending our hands full of Euros to a young woman also doing her laundry. Once we figured out how to work things, we headed over to the small neighborhood pub two doors down. We were able to relax, doing our laundry and drinking beer at the same time, since buying a beer and walking outside was no big deal.
So while we had a lot of interaction with the community, and some fun to boot, I would still recommend bringing enough clothing to last your entire tour.