When traveling in a foreign land, knowledge of basic vocabulary is key. In English these words mean “beer, please,” a wheat beer to be more precise. And while it’s only my first day in Germany I’ve mastered the phrase through repeated use. Which helps explain why I’m in Munich, dancing arm-in-arm with a group of rowdy strangers, bellowing soccer chants at the top of my lungs – not worried in the least that I have no clue what I’m shouting. Tall half-liter glasses of creamy tan beer are swinging back and forth as the outdoor biergarten booms with celebration.
It’s the final weekend of Oktoberfest, akin to being in New Orleans for Mardi Gras or Rio for Carnival. Originating in 1810 as the wedding celebration for Bavaria’s Prince Ludwig I, the world-famous festival now draws millions of foreigners and Germans for its sudsy debauchery.
In Munich, finding Oktoberfest is simple. The trick is walking the opposite direction of staggering men in leiderhosen. The closer we get the more intoxicated festivarians we encounter. By the time we walk through the massive gate of the festival, the party is in full swing.
A completely schlitzed teenager wearing a top hat swings his belt and chases after old ladies with his pants around his ankles. Turns out the drinking age in Germany is 16, so no one bothers to ID me or my nominal interpreter, Erick, whose two years of college German and MCUSA marketing position have scammed a free ticket to Oktoberfest.
Just hours earlier we had landed in Munich and picked up a pair of BMW R1200RT test bikes for a week-long German tour. But with the bikes stowed away in our hotel parking garage and Munich’s fantastic transit system depositing us within walking distance of Oktoberfest – it was time to dig in.
Weissbier, bitte. The cloudy unfiltered wheat brew is popular throughout Germany and Bavaria in particular.
“Weissbier, bitte,” I say and weissbier from the Paulaner brewery (one of the six brewers supplying the festival) is poured from the tap in special tall curved weissbier glasses – regular lager beers are served in the traditional large steins. After a couple of drinks a group of ex-patriot Irishmen from County Cork hear our American English, and the common tongue and countless 16-oz glasses transform us from strangers into fast friends who ride Honda “CBair-sixhoondreds.”
Next to us, spacious wooden buildings line the Theresienwiese – a large square in central Munich which hosts Oktoberfest. Inside the massive beer halls our outdoor rabble rousing is replicated at an even greater magnitude, with brass bands booming drinking music as busty waitresses pack armloads of steins to table-dancing revelers. Tables are hard to come by, with reservations required, but we are happy where we are and enjoy the chilly night.
Waking up at our hotel in the Munich suburb of Garching, I face a paradox. On the one hand I remember how much fun I had the night prior, on the other hand the finer details of getting back to the hotel room escape me. Last night’s revelry combined with jet lag beckons more rest, but I remember the Beemer downstairs in the garage and grab my gear. It’s time for some motorrad-ing through Bavaria to our evening destination of Konstanz – about 170 miles to the southwest.
Traffic impedes our progress, the roads packed with drivers taking advantage of the October 3 Day of German Unity. The holiday celebrates the reunification of East and West Germany in 1990. Yet the modern nation of Germany is still relatively new too, at least by European standards, younger than even the United States. It wasn’t until 1871 that numerous republics, principalities and duchies forged a united German state. As such, the country retains distinct regional identities, and our day’s ride takes us from Bavaria into the bordering state of Baden-Wurttemberg, which, along with a western swath of Bavaria, encompasses a region known as Swabia.
Heavy rain showers spoil a possible route through the high Alpine passes of nearby Austria. Instead our Beemers stick to backroads before taking the traffic-packed A96 autobahn to Lindau, a beautiful town located on the shores of the Lake Constance, or as it is known in German – the Bodensee.
One of the largest lakes in Europe, the Bodensee is fed by Alpine inlets, with the mighty Rhine River draining through its western outlet all the way to the North Sea. The snow-capped Alps visible to the south, we skirt the northern shore and take a ferry to Konstanz, located on the western shore bordering Switzerland and straddling the Rhine.
At the Ruppaner brewery, we meet our photographer for a dinner of Bodensee trout. And, yes, there’s more weissbier on tap. Kristalweizen – a clearer filtered version of the wheat brew. I stare in admiration at the generous glass – the clear, brown liquid lined with straight streams of carbonation from the bottom to the frothy foam on top. Good food, a tall pour of Kristalweizen and view of the evening sun off the Bodensee – it doesn’t get much better.
It may have been cold and dicey when the snow fell, but the ride through the Black Forest passes was memorable and trouble free aboard the R1200RT.
Our photographer promises good roads are in store the next day… As long as the weather holds. Heading northwest through the Black Forest is certainly picturesque. And the weather does hold through the thick forested hills, at least for a little while… About an inch of snow tries to spoil our ascent over one mountain pass, but the Beemers plod along, steady mounts for our German motorrad experience. The touring R1200RT is graceful and sporty, even in the mucky slush, and I remind myself to personally thank the engineer who came up with the heated handgrip concept as we roll into the Black Forest region’s largest town, Freiburg.
We don’t stop, instead heading back into the hills and eventually the Schwarzwaldhochstrasse – a mountainous route snaking through the northern Black Forest from Freudenstadt to Baden-Baden. The curving roads prove the best of our trip and afternoon sun springs out briefly before showers make us appreciate the BMW’s ABS.
Legit Black Forest ham looks a little different than the processed cube of meat your local grocer deli slices!
Memorable stops on the road include the Mummelsee, a small deep lake home to a rather bawdy mermaid – if the roadside PR is to be believed. We also see Black Forest ham, and not the stuff they sell at the supermarket deli either. This is the real deal, aged dark ham shanks hung in shop windows. Lunch is a delicious plate of Jagerbraten, a meat cutlet in a mushroom crème sauce. It is served with spaetzle, a simple noodle dish associated with Swabia.
Baden-Baden is a popular tourist destination, the resort town gained fame in the 19th Century for its hot springs and casino. The town lured European, in particular Russian, nobility to come gamble and take in the waters and the casino still stands.
Daylight fades as we head north from Baden-Baden on the more utilitarian Autobahns. Triple-digit cruising speeds make short work of the kilometers to our destination – the historic castle town of Heidelberg.
The light didn’t quite agree with our photo, but the view of Heidelberg’s gothic castle is unforgettable.
There are two strong American connections with Heidelberg, explaining its popularity with US tourists. First, it was the headquarters of the US Army during post-WWII occupation. Second, is the university town’s association with American wordsmith, Mark Twain, who lived in Heidelberg for three months and would turn his European travels into A Tramp Abroad.
Arriving late, dinner at a local restaurant allows for more strong drink. This time, following the advice of our photographer, we chose a Dunkelweizen – a darker wheat brew, one we also discover holds a much stronger alcohol content.
The morning requires a photo stop at Heidelberg’s renowned castle. The town sits on the bank of the Nakar river, a tributary of the Rhine, with the castle looming over the southern shore. On the northern side of the river is a nature trail dubbed the Philosophenweg or Philosopher’s Walk – where great historical thinkers from the town’s university are reputed to have contemplated the mysteries of life.
The scowls of elderly German hikers let us know that our big Bavarian mounts aren’t allowed on the picturesque trail, but photo ops sometime require minor law breakages – so our Boxers climb up the dirt path in unexpected off-road action. Unfortunately the light does not comply with our grand photo wishes, but the view of the Heidelberg castle is unforgettable nonetheless, as is the descent of the dirt pathway.
Heidelberg is well worth a full day of discovery, but we have to make time, and the nature hikers are glad to be rid of us as we leave the Philosopher’s Walk to find the Rhine and follow it northward.
Entering the state of Rhineland-Palatinate, vast vineyards line the steep slopes of the Rhine, with numerous ancient castles littering the narrow river canyon. Between Bingen and Cologne, the castles and vineyards are a major tourist attraction and Rhine river cruises are quite popular on this scenic stretch.
Our first stop is the Lorelei, a large rock located on the east side of the Rhine. A winding road breaks off the river route and twists up to the top of the rocky formation. Marking the narrowest point of the Rhine between the Konstanz and the North Sea, the Lorelei has been a source of inspiration for German writers like poet Heinrich Heine. Myth attributes the rock as the place where a spurned lover jumped to her death, haunting the treacherous river bend afterward as a siren who claims unwary ships and their crews. One thing is beyond doubt – the sweeping panoramic view atop the Lorelei is worth the ride.
We head northward for lunch in Koblenz before backtracking south to our hotel in Boppard. The touristy town caters to the numerous river cruising pensioners. A fact confirmed by our marketing liaison, Erick, who returns blushing from the sauna – which was nude, co-ed, and extremely wrinkly with an average age of well over 60.
Strolling up and down the alleys of the village, we find a hole-in-the-wall more our speed and right on the river’s edge. A salty bartender serves drinks, pouring weissbier bottled from a Koblenz brewery. Reserved locals make small talk. The tang of cigarette smoke lingers. Live records of the Rolling Stones and the Doors pulse out of the sound system and remind me of home as the Rhine quietly flows at my back.
The ride from Boppard to Cologne, or Koln as it is known in Germany, is a quick one, with the scenic riverside turning more and more industrial. Cologne, Germany’s fourth-largest city, would be our base of operations for three days covering the INTERMOT Bike Show – one the largest in the world.
Our hotel is located on the Severinstrasse, an old street which contains segments of the town’s medieval wall. I wander up the road through a collection of modern shops and stands, contrasting its medieval lineage. Much of metropolitan Germany has been rebuilt since the catastrophic destruction of WWII, but there is still an aged aura permeating the country. Rounding the corner in the town center I understand why.
The Cologne Cathedral shoots straight up in the air – its sheer verticality warping perspective. Lit at night with haunting yellow/green lights, the gothic architecture and exterior sculptures are a strange balance between holy and sinister. The interior is just as impressive. Words like breathtaking and awe-inspiring are too cliché. The Cologne Cathedral is rightly considered an artistic treasure and a World Heritage Site.
Three days of actual work, if you want to call it that, covering INTERMOT get us anxious for more riding. The 358 miles from Cologne to Munich sound like a full day in the saddle, but we sorely underestimate the speed of the Autobahn. Although rain impedes our journey at first, we still make incredible time. The Autobahns are made for speed, they even include purpose-built fuel and food stops directly on the freeway.
Burning through the miles, the rain stops and a dry, empty road stretches out ahead. It’s time to bury the needle. Crouched behind the windscreen I max out at 220 kph. Making the metric-to-mile conversion in my head, I realize the windscreen is at its highest setting. The road starts to slope downward and I gingerly move my thumb over to the left handlebar control. The windscreen drops and I see the speed needle creep upward – 225, 226, 227… I keep it pinned as cars blur to the right of me and look down at the speedo one last time.
I can’t contain a big grin and loud yell. I’m not a grown man with a mortgage, I’m a kid crouched behind my 10-speed as it coasts out of control down the steepest hill in town. Beaming under my helmet I let off the gas and glance over my shoulder to see Erick gaining. He’s beaming too. He lifts his hand and I know exactly what he’s going to sign.
Two. Three. O.
Munich’s Hofbrauhaus has been a popular tourist destination for well over 100 years – its current location opened in 1897.
After blurring the space-time continuum from Cologne, we drop off the bikes at BMW’s press fleet HQ, back in Munich for one last day. The free time requires a visit to the famed Hofbrauhaus, an historic bier hall associated with Munich for hundreds of years as the Bavarian Duke’s official weissbier brewery. A tourist sensation since its current location opened in 1897, the Hofbrauhaus also caters to a devout local clientele who keep their steins locked away in a special safe. The whole variety of Hofbrau brew is quite satisfying, as are the Bavarian foodstuffs shoveled out to patrons.
The final day is suited to picking up knick-knacks and checking out the more sober side of Munich. But realizing I may never be this way again, there’s one last important thing to do. I walk over to one of the many outdoor biergartens near the Marienplatz town center. Sidling up to the ordering window I know just what to say.