Central Europe

Text: Uwe Krauss • Photography: Uwe Krauss

Expectations were high when Christa, the publisher of RoadRUNNER, asked me to put together my favorite route through Europe for her readers. “Great, how much time would they have? Two months? Maybe three?” I asked. “12 days,” was her short and definite response. That’s when it got tricky. Through my travels I have been to all the worthwhile places for motorcycles in Central Europe, and there are many. In 12 days? Impossible. Then I began to give it a second thought.

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One place I’ve remembered since my first visit is the Grand Canyon du Verdon in Southern France. I was stunned then and still am upon return. The name reminds one of the Grand Canyon in the United States, and its impact is similar, too, but the scenery is different and it’s not as huge. But it has one big plus: There is a breathtaking road with endless corners that leads right along the edge. Getting there requires crossing the western half of the Alps, which offer the highest passes and mountains on the continent and probably the most spectacular roads as well. The diversity of this tour is another plus: five different countries with different cultures and such geographical extremes as glaciers, the blossoming lavender fields, and the palm trees at the Mediterranean shore of one of the most beautiful lakes in Europe, Lago Maggiore.

I start in southern Bavaria, which is easy to reach by plane from the BMW city of Munich. It’s pretty and right at the edge of the Alps. For this scouting adventure my wife, Danica, joins me. She’ll be a good indicator of whether the distance is comfortable on a pillion and if there is enough road variety. In early evening we reach the traditional town of Bad Tölz, Germany, which is so pretty it’s used as the stage of a TV series. After we check in to our hotel we enjoy a Bavarian beer in the traffic-free center, taking in all the beautifully painted houses around us.

Day 1
Alpine Diversity

Our first choice of the journey is easy to make. There is a nice, lonely road that leads us past Germany’s highest mountain, the Zugspitze. We take a break at a café at the top of Fern Pass, which at 9,725 feet has the best view. Soon afterward we descend into the broad alpine valley of the large Inn River in Austria. An insider’s tip takes us to Piller Heights, with its spectacular lookout into the valley 3,000 feet below. Tranquility and view qualify the restaurant up here as a perfect venue for a lunch stop.

The Engadin, a picturesque area of Switzerland, is just around the corner, and we have to make a difficult decision. From here two big passes, Flüela and Albula, lead across a towering mountain range. We go for the Albula because it gives us the opportunity to see a historic train. Also, the narrow road on the downhill side is more demanding and a more interesting ride. Another plus: At the bottom we reach the small mountain town of Bergün. “We have to stay here,” Danica says. She immediately likes the place, and I can see why. This area has a well-preserved history, visible from each of its medieval-looking houses.

Day 2
One Country, Four Languages

Morning in Bergün is a bit chilly, and no wonder, there is a ski resort nearby. The wide sweepers of Oberalp Pass are just what we need to warm us up. Down on the other side, in Switzerland’s highest town of Andermatt, there are three different passes. We go for Gotthard, one of the most famous in the Alps.

Many battles were fought over this important crossing. Today it is known for its treacherous cobblestone downhill on the Italian-speaking side. Of course now there is a new asphalt alternative, but on a nice day the cobblestones aren’t dangerous and are a great thrill for any motorcyclist. As we reach the bottom of the Tremola Valley we immediately start climbing again for our third big pass of the day, Nufenen. It has a different character: Its main features are great rhythm and enchanting views, thanks to it being in a chain of the highest mountains in the country. At the top of the pass Danica brings to my attention that today we have been in all four parts of Switzerland that a different language is spoken. We started in Graubünden with its Rhaeto-Romanic, then came onto the German-speaking side in Andermatt. Italian is the main language on the south side of Gotthard Pass, and Nufenen marks the beginning of the French-speaking part of the country. Wallis is our stop for tonight. In this valley between the towering mountains, among them the famous Matterhorn, it is easy to find accommodations. Many hotels cater especially to motorcyclists, as this area is known for its high density of grand alpine roads.

Day 3
The Highest Mountains of Europe

The upper Rhone Valley marks our way to Chamonix, the French site of the 1924 Olympic Winter Games. The town is nice but the real attraction is towering behind it – Mont Blanc, at 15,780 feet, the highest mountain in Europe. With its many glaciers on top it looks untouchable. But there is an easy way to see it: A spectacular cable-car ride goes up 12,600 feet across a huge field, with views that are normally reserved for professional climbers.

Just down the road cowers the small town of Saint Gervais, a perfect place for the evening. We are in luck and get to see a magnificent sunset over the white cone of Europe’s roof. Danica later visits the hot-spring-fed bath in town, and I enjoy a glass of white wine while sitting outside one of the restaurants.

Day 4
The Big Riding Day

Today the route of the Grand Alps is our guide. It leads through the mountains of the Western Alps, climbs from alpine valleys above the tree line into breathtaking scenery, and back down. We experience five high passes, and among them is Col de l’Iseran, the second highest in the Alps. It gets the adrenalin pumping every time. The town of Briancon marks a grand end. It is impressively built as a fortress; alleys are just wide enough for a motorcycle, no cars! And best of all, Danica finds a cozy hotel right inside this unique piece of architecture, which can accommodate an entire group.

Day 5
As High as We Can

The day starts full throttle with a ride up Col d’Izoard pass. A tip from a friend leads us to a small mountain restaurant right at the top of the pass, which serves what could very well be some of the best blueberry cake in the Alps, and we need the energy from it. Coming up is another big pass, Col de Vars, which is the only connection to Cime de la Bonette, the highest pass in the Alps; it can’t get any better or higher.

After the thrill of Cime de la Bonette we leave the alpine mountains and enter completely different scenery: Provence, France. A lonely road through sparsely populated, pristine landscape takes us to Sisteron. I surprise Danica with an overnight stop at a 500-year-old lodge, which has been renovated with a great love for details.

Day 6
Into the Heart of Provence

Danica has persuaded me to stay another day at this beautiful place and use it as a base for a loop that runs deep into Provence. Blossoming lavender fields line our way, filling the air with a scent that is almost overwhelming. From time to time we pass through colorful canyons. Later we’re treated to great views from the top of the mountain range. This day could also be used as a resting day, with a visit to the old town of Sisteron and its towering fortress or relaxing at the swimming holes of the Canyon d’Meouge.

Day 7
At the Famous Gap

Our excitement is increasing. We’re heading south through the great smell of herbs and lavender toward the highlight of our trip: Grand Canyon du Verdon, one of the natural wonders of Europe. Before we enter this world of views and vertical drops we stop in the small and pretty town of Moustiers for a bite to eat. Once at the canyon there is only nature.

The turquoise Lake St. Croix marks our entrance to the big loop. Soon it climbs up to the edge and doesn’t go down before we have circled what feels like a million corners. The picture-postcard town of Castellane by the River Verdun, which carved the canyon, is just downstream, a perfect finale to a perfect day.

Day 8
On Rally Tracks

The morning leads us through beautiful gorges. Some of these roads are used for the famous Monte Carlo Rally. The reason is obvious: Challenging corners without end aren’t just fun for 500-horsepower race cars. Finally two spectacularly narrow passes take us across the southern edge of the Alps into Italy. There is nothing but the narrow road, the occasional herd of mountain goats, and scenery. It’s just good for the soul. Down in one of these fairytale valleys we find tranquil accommodations that perfectly match the mood of the landscape.

Day 9
To the Magic Lake

We leave the mountains for a short while and go through very different surroundings: the plains of Italy’s Po River. The fine architecture of the towns reveal that we are in one of the oldest cultural parts of Europe. After 100 miles we enter the Alps again, but what a change compared with the morning! Up here, huge glaciers carved out grand lakes, and international tourists have flocked here for hundreds of years thanks to the area’s mild climate from the south, Mediterranean vegetation, and Italian architecture.

We head to Lago Maggiore, and for about an hour we ride along its shore before stopping at a fine hotel. Situated between palm trees with splendid views of the lake we enjoy the mild evening sun and have dinner on a large terrace underneath grapevines.

Day 10
Hidden Valleys

This place is too pretty to leave so soon. We linger another day but for slightly different reasons. With a glow in her eyes Danica announces that the women on the tour must have their own highlight. What could be better than a visit to the famous resort town of Locarno, with its superb shopping? To her surprise I agree immediately but not without a hidden agenda. I know of two valleys near here, with beautiful rivers, waterfalls and secluded mountain villages where the walls and roofs of the houses are made of stone and still look like they did a couple of hundred years ago. One of the valleys ends right above the tree line. Some leftover snow patches almost look surreal when I think about the warm Mediterranean setup a few hours down the road.

Day 11
From Mediterranean to High Alpine

The morning along the shore of Lago Maggiore begins with bright sunshine and 85 degrees. This soon changes, however, as a long ascent takes us onto the San Bernardino Pass, some 6,000 feet higher and 30 degrees colder. The formerly treacherous Via Mala Gorge, which in parts is so narrow you almost can touch the other side, connects us to Flüela Pass, with its perfect corners, and leads back to Austria. We haven’t slept in this country yet. From a former trip I remember the hidden mountain village of Serfaus that sits on a balcony high above a valley and offers a great view of the sunset.

Day 12
Bavarian Backroads

The picturesque settings of Austria and Bavaria are an absolute perfect finish to the trip. We have 12 great days behind us. And yes, Christa was right: Twelve days are enough. Full of memories and impressions – almost too many – we complete the last few miles. I marvel at how much beauty and how many highlights fit into this tour. And I’m convinced now: This is a trip of a lifetime. It couldn’t have been better even if it was longer.