Sunday, December 28, 2008

Over The Pond – Part 9

The Ride Home.

Packed, fueled and layered up like the Michelin Man against the elements, we headed north on our first leg of the trip home. Our planned route north up the border of Switzerland and Liechtenstein into Germany would take us north of Bodensee then turn west towards Luxembourg, Belgium and eventually back to the Netherlands. Continuing heavy rain encouraged more fluid (pun intended) route planning.

After a couple of hours riding in the rain, we sought shelter and sustenance at a roadside diner somewhere near Vaduz, the capital of Liechtenstein. There could not have been a more sodden pack of drowned rats than Gie, John, Wolfgang, Ad and myself. Fortunately the establishment was mostly empty and we were able to layer down and spread various and sundry dripping riding gear to dry (or at least drain). I’m sure they had to mop the floor after we left. Being the intrepid travelers that we were, a little water was not about to dampen our spirits though. Fortified with a hearty breakfast, discussions of weather forecasts quickly led to some alternate route planning.
Reports indicated that weather would only get worse heading north to Germany (the bad weather was mostly to our right). A revised route on the Switzerland side of Bodensee heading west in the direction of Zurich seemed in order.

Our choice was good. By heading west, within an hour we left the last of the rain behind, ironically just about the time that we arrived at one of Europe’s more impressive water features, The Rhine Falls or Rheinfall in Switzerland, near the town of Schaffhausen. The significance of Rheinfall, (other than the arrival of sunshine) is as the widest plain waterfall in Europe. Although only 75 feet high, the falls span 450 feet and averages a summer water flow of 700 cubic meters per second. Situated in the middle of the falls is a small island serviced by a tour boat. To look down from the island viewing platform at this volume of water thundering past just feet away is pretty awe inspiring. We spent a couple of hours at Rheinfall, enjoying a hearty lunch, touring the site and enjoying the blue skies and warm weather. While there, we bumped into Axel Wittick, another Tiefencastle rally attendee on his way home to Germany.

With spirits renewed, it was soon time to hit the road again. It was mid afternoon now and there was a lot of day ahead of us yet. We bid adieu to the waterfalls and headed out again, this time north towards Germany, Swarzwald and the Black Forest region.

Our lodgings for the night were to be in Neustadt at the very southern end of the Black Forest. This would be an ideal starting point for our anticipated next-day assault on one of Bavaria’s best known recreation areas with it’s never ending network of great motorcycle roads.

One stop of interest en route to Neustadt was the town of Sankt Blasien with it’s beautiful domed cathedral.

Sankt Blasien Cathedral is somewhat of an anomaly in this small town of approximately 4000 inhabitants. The Cathedral’s roots date back to the ninth century and the Sankt Blasien Abbey but the present structure is much more contemporary.

The abbey church burnt down in 1768 and was rebuilt as a Baroque round church with an enormous dome 46 metres across and 63 meters high – the third largest in Europe north of the Alps. It remains as the “Dom St. Blasius” or St. Blaise’s Cathedral, so called because of it’s size and magnificence, not because it is a cathedral in any ecclesiastical or administrative sense.
From Sankt Blasien, we continued north and after a brief stop at an old time rural train station at Schluchsee we continued north to Titisee and our pension for the night in Neustadt.

Our route the following day took us north through the Black Forest region. Gie started the day by tossing me the keys to his Connie and grabbing the keys for the Diversion. “We’re doing the Black Forest this morning” he said with a grin. “Go have fun”. Who was I to argue?

The Black Forest was a significant mining region back in the seventeen hundreds but today is more significant for it’s tourism. Although the region is quite small (approx. 200 km. long and 60 km. wide) it is home to an extensive trail system servicing hikers, mountain bikers and cross country skiers. If you include the main motorways, this region boasts over 23,000 km. of track. Needless to say, with this vibrant tourism industry, small cottage industries are everywhere. There are many wood crafts to be had and the Black Forest is often associated with traditional German cuckoo clocks although contrary to what some think, they did not originate in this area. The roads through this area are, as you would expect in a tourist promoted area – well maintained, well designed, curvy, and scenic and just generally a fun ride. Also being that the primary tourist season was over, we had them pretty much to ourselves. Can you say, “Yee-ha”?

We continued north past Baden-Baden then began to angle west towards Luxembourg. It was getting a lot warmer now and after playing in “the forest” all morning, the heat and more boring main thoroughfares were taking their toll on all of us and rest breaks came more frequently.

Wolfgang separated from the group and headed north for Cologne. Now we were down to just four.

It was on this leg of the trip that we passed briefly through France - probably no more than an hour – allowing me to add another country to my new globe-trotting prowess.

Running along the Germany Luxembourg border is the Mosel River. The region we were entering was the Mosel wine region. The topography, the many small vineyards through which we passed combined with the warm temperatures reminded me a lot of British Columbia’s south Okanagan. In fact, many times on my trip through Germany, I felt as though I could have been back in BC.

From the wine region city of Trier, we continued west into Luxembourg. Next stop of interest, nestled serenely in the woods, was the ruins of Castle Beaufort dating back to 1150. Gie,having to work in the morning, headed west from here leaving the remaining three amigos – Ad, John and me – to head north a short distance to Vianden, which was to be our home for the night.

John, also needing to get home to work, left from Vianden in the morning.

Being only hours from home –Prinsenbeek – Ad and I took advantage of the time to spend a leisurely half a day touring through my last European castle of the trip, Castle Vianden.

Sitting in the warm afternoon sun at a riverside café, sipping an ice cappaccino and knowing that the road trip was just hours from being over, it was really hard to pull myself away. I wanted just one more day, then maybe one more after that. I wasn’t ready to wake up from the dream yet.
But all good things must end and it was time. With heavy heart, we saddled up for the last time for the three hour ride through Belgium then on to Prinsenbeek and home. Not easing the departure is the fact that Vianden and all of Luxembourg that I saw is absolutely beautiful. Ad told me that he regularly takes the three hour drive down to Vianden just to enjoy a weekend away. I can understand that. I think fondly now of taking a thirty hour plane trip to revisit this beautiful country.

I arrived at my Netherlands home in time to park Yomaha for the last time and head over to Trudea’s home where she had prepared a welcome home dinner for us.

We spent the following day on four wheels as Ad toured me around the more rural parts of the Netherlands.
Before heading out to farm country, we paid a visit to the small village of Oudenbosch. The most significant landmark and the reason for our visit to Oudenbosch is its Roman Catholic Basilica which is an exact one third size replica of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. As much as I was impressed with the previously mentioned Sankt Blasien Cathedral, I was even more overwhelmed by Oudenbosch’s Basilica. It is hard to conceive of an identical structure in Rome three times as large. This is more fodder for a return visit across the pond. As with many of the wonders that I saw, this one served to remind me that I’ve only scratched the surface. OTP has truly “primed the pump” leaving me hungering for more.

I wanted to learn more about Holland’s famed dyke system. To this end, we departed Oudenbosch to explore the coastal regions of the Netherlands as Ad maintained a running commentary on the design, construction and history of Holland’s battle against the encroaching ocean. As most people know, a large portion of the western half of the Netherlands is below sea level. Amsterdam is a city of canals, which exist only through the ingenuity of decades of Dutch engineers. I was to learn that keeping out the water while maintaining an ecologically sustainable balance is far more of a challenge than simply building dikes. Remember that we’re not just dealing with controlling a narrow flood plain around an existing waterway. We’re dealing with flood plains covering half a country. Our tour ended at the Deltaworks interpretive center.

The Deltaworks project has been active since 1950 in the southwest of the Netherlands consisting of dams, sluices, locks, dikes and storm surge barriers. Changing environmental concerns and the current status of potential climate change make this an ongoing “work in progress”. Current project plans extend into 2015.

The American Society of Civil Engineers has declared the Works to be one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World together with the Zuiderzee Works.
For those with an interest in engineering, researching the Deltaworks Project will produce a fascinating study.

We arrived home late in the afternoon and after a quick ‘freshen up” headed out to a local restaurant. A pleasant surprise was the arrival of Gie and his wife and John. One last time, the group came together for a farewell dinner.

John stayed overnight at Ad’s place then the following day joined Ad, Trudy and me for a half day of Amsterdam “touristing”. We cruised the canals, ate pickled herring the right way (delicious. Sorry Hans – your Surrstromming has been seriously upstaged), hung out in sidewalk cafes and of course took the obligatory tourist stroll through the Red Light District.

What I will say about the RLD is that I saw the good, the bad and the ugly. The good were very good. The bad were more accurately “the sad” – posed zombies with dead eyes. The ugly were just plain scary – I’m thinking a couple of them that I saw were packing some extra equipment if you get my drift. The alleys in the red light district were populated during the day mostly by packs of tourists, like ourselves (apparently the night scene is a whole other deal that you really don’t want to know about). It is a “must see” if you’re going to Amsterdam if only so you can say “been there, done that, don’t need to do it again”.

Amsterdam is much more than hookers and pot shops though. It is a beautiful exciting vibrant city that I would recommend to any traveler. The half day we spent there was only enough to let me know that I want to go back. I am glad that we visited Amsterdam after the Deltaworks day as I could now appreciate how much the health of the Amsterdam waterways is influenced by Deltaworks.

At the end of the day, John drove north to his home and Trudy, Ad and I took the train south back to Prinsenbeek. The train system in Holland is wonderful. You don’t really need a car at all. It’s an expensive and unnecessary luxury. Public transit - Inexpensive, comfortable, convenient schedules - you rarely wait more than 10 minutes for a train. When I return, there’s a train that pulls right into the terminal at Schiphol connecting to anywhere in Europe I want to go.

My trip of a lifetime was rapidly drawing to an end. As full as my head was of these amazing images, as much as there was some sadness at the prospect of leaving, there was a little part that longed for a decadently large Montana prime rib dinner and the familiarity of home turf both of which I availed myself during my Minneapolis/St. Paul stopover the following day.

My evening was spent with packing, reminiscing and last beers. There was a sense of sadness over the impending end of the party as both myself and my hosts had enjoyed an amazing three weeks. Through our shared adventures, I believe friendships were forged which will last a lifetime. I look forward to returning the great kindness and hospitality shown to me throughout Europe. Plans are already afoot for return visits by new friends to explore my part of this big old world. I can neither express deeply enough what an impact this trip has had on me nor can I state strongly enough how much I appreciate those organizers, supporters and hosts who made it all possible. I hope that in some small way my travelogue conveys that.

The following morning, Ad, Trudy and I traveled once more by train to Amsterdam and Schiphol for my flight home. We don’t linger over farewells - there’s a lump in my throat, which I didn’t want to tempt. Farewell Europe. I’ll be back.

Put a light in the window, Cheryl. I’ll be home soon.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Over The Pond – Part 8

The Alps – Livin’ the Dream.

The next five days were somewhat of a blur. Some adjectives that spring to mind are whimsical, breath-taking and challenging. Mostly, I was simply overwhelmed.
You, faithful reader, will be pleased to know that I will strive to be succinct in my review of Tiefencastel and the rally. The events of the next five days have already been covered in various reviews, both pictorial and narrative. To relate my take on every personal detail of this amazing event in this amazing country would become tedious, I’m sure. Suffice to say, my mind was truly and totally blown. I will share just a few observations and offer a representative framework which hopefully will allow you to accurately fill in the spaces. In truth, no amount of rhetoric will give you the true picture. You need to experience it first-hand.

First of all, the event was the 7th Annual GCE rally.
The GCE is a loosely knit association of GTR enthusiasts. Essentially it is Cog’s European cousin. The acronym GCE stands for “GTR Club Europe”. My understanding is that there is no structured membership - the alliances are maintained simply through a network of like-minded riders who enjoy getting together from time to time to swap war stories and drink beer.
There is a much larger GTR Owners Club in Europe with an official membership numbering in the hundreds which follows a more traditional club structure. There is no connection between these two clubs. Involvement in one or the other seems to be dictated by individual needs and ideologies. The GCE culture would seem to espouse a philosophy of “we don’t need no stinkin’ constitution, newsletter or board of directors. We just wanna go for a ride with our buddies… oh yah, and drink beer”. The casual flow of the event and participants seemed to embrace this philosophy.

Anyone who has been involved with any of the events that I have organized over the years will immediately appreciate how well that fits with my preferences. Keep it loose, keep it safe, and keep it fun.

This “loosey-goosey” attitude about club structure does not, however, carry over onto the road. European group rides are definitely more structured than what we are familiar with on our side of the pond. Each day of the rally, specific guided rides were conducted and controlled by a ride leader and a “sweep” rider who is in constant radio contact with the leader. Illustrating the level of structure on GCE group rides is this hard and fast rule - Everyone is responsible for his or her tail rider (the rider behind them). If you lose your tail rider, you have to buy a round of drinks at the end of the day for the group (with a rally attendance of over 40, this can get expensive). This one rule covers a multitude of activities including passing within the group. If you want to “freewheel it”, advise your group leader at the next rest stop and take your leave to wherever suits your fancy. I spent a couple of days with guided tours and three days of freewheeling. It was a good mix.

The site of the event was a tiny Swiss town called Tiefencastel; year-round population of less than 400. Apart from being absolutely storybook beautiful, the primary appeal was its location. At the confluence of the Albula and Julier passes, Tiefencastel is within day-ride distance of some of the best of the Swiss, Austrian and Italian Alps. What we got was just a taste of it, as it would take at least a month to truly explore this piece of our world.

From our cozy high alpine refuge, Zurich, Bern, Innsbruck and Milan are within a day’s ride - but we were more interested in names like San Bernardino, Umbria, Fluelapass and Stelvio, all high alpine passes which, for decades, have teased bikers with dreams of riding alpine twisties. If you venture into this playground, bring your “A-game”. I got a serious schooling in switchbacks. Some of these tracks are definitely not for the timid! I had some moments that swung erratically between stark terror and delirious elation. These are memories to last a lifetime.

My first group ride took us to a small ski resort town of Arosa situated high in the mountains. The road to Arosa served up 350 turns in 18 miles - great fun, and a great way to get familiar with the group. At around the halfway point to Arosa, our group leader Bernt led us into a lay-by and announced “free ride from here to Arosa”. Jim and I looked at each other, grinned, and we were gone. After regrouping in Arosa (with much laughter and high fives) we backtracked a short distance, then took a run into Lago di Lie, basically an end of the road restaurant just over the Swiss/Italian border.
To reach Lago di Lie, we had to travel through one of the many tunnels that I came to recognize as a hallmark of Switzerland. During my three week OTP visit, I passed through tunnels as refined as interstate highways, complete with underground interchanges. One tunnel that we traveled through on our way to Tiefencastel was over seven kilometres long. At the other end of the scale are tunnels that looked as though they had just been chewed out of the mountain by some giant mole. No lights, jagged edges and low ceiling – you’d better not meet anyone in the tunnel, because someone would have to back out. That’s really not something you’d want to do on a bike. The tunnel to "Lago" was one such tunnel and we required special permission and a pass to traverse this subterranean worm hole.

In addition to the constant dripping from the ceiling and weeping walls, the tunnel roadbed was equal parts water and ice… we proceeded with extreme caution. Although only a few hundred yards long, twists and turns had us completely in the dark for most of the length. I was really glad to emerge into sunshine at the other end.

With my arrival at Lago di Lie, I had now officially been to Italy, even though my visit would be measured in yards not miles. Europeans pass from country to country like we travel from state to state or province to province. Still, the notion of adding another country to my itinerary was a rush. I was beginning to feel like quite the international traveler.

As stated initially, the following days were a blur of amazing images. From San Moritz - where the Really, Really Rich & Famous play, to the breathtaking vistas of Passo de Stelvio. Switzerland is so different. Amazing, stunning, breathtaking and diverse. Whatever fanciful notion you may have of Switzerland, I can assure you that it is all that and more. Do the trip at least once in your lifetime. You will not be disappointed.

Jim’s description of San Moritz as “a centuries old European town with Rodeo Drive plopped in the middle” is pretty accurate. Gucci, Cartier, Prada, Versace, Emilio Pucci, Louis Vuitton, Van Cleef and Arpels – they were all there and more. Being that this was my first visit to fantasyland, I was not going to let it pass without playing it up a bit. After strolling the promenade, I entered Prada. The salesclerk reminded me of that great scene with Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman. If you saw the movie you’ll remember the scene. The proprietor of this establishment was about as thrilled to see me as the snooty salesclerk was to see hooker Julia Roberts in her snooty Rodeo Drive haberdashery. After surveying me from a distance with an air somewhere between disdain and revulsion (…and of course, I’m playing it to the hilt now) her manner improved slightly when I told her I was on vacation from Canada and was looking for a gift for my wife. Then I told her I was looking for a T shirt that said “my husband went to San Moritz on his holidays and all I got was this crappy T shirt”. The cold front came in faster than a Wayne Gretzky slapshot. She turned on her heel and disappeared into the back. Leaving the shop, still laughing, I turned with camera in hand to take a picture of the Prada sign. Miss Prada reappeared, glared at me and closed the door. I was still laughing when I got back to Tiefencastel - so much for my ambassadorial skills.

Nestled amidst the scenic splendor of the five days in Switzerland was the obligatory OTP tradition of “surrstromming”. On that subject, I will only say that the entire event lingers in my memory as prominently as any other from my holidays, even if not for the same reasons. Hans officiated over the ceremony. I can attest to the fact that in the end, enough shots of really strong liquor can kill almost any taste in the mouth – almost. The OTP price was paid and the party raged on.

Although inclement weather threatened a couple of times, it held off until September the 7th, the morning of our departure. Harry van der Laan and Marc Kleefstra had already left on the 6th , and Jim and Sean had left for Frankfurt the morning before that on the 5th. Most of the rally attendees were preparing for departure sometime later this day. Rally Masters Ria and Hans-Peter Heim had expertly planned every detail of this dream rally. Nobody wanted it to end. Departure day had arrived though and the rain, cooperative up until now, couldn’t hold off any longer.

Our departure group was different from our arrival group. Phil Tarman had charted a more easterly route, intent on spending some more time at Dachau before returning to Frankfurt and his flight home. Ad joined Gie, and me for the ride out. German member Wolfgang Ziehe and John Zonneveld from northern Netherlands also joined us.

Much time was spent huddled under eaves out of the rain. Lingering farewells were shared with new and old friends but eventually we had to venture out into the wet. By ten o’clock we could delay no longer, and our little caravan, now grown to five, bid Tiefencastel and the Alps one last farewell and headed north to Germany.

Over the next two days our group dissipated as one by one members left for their own route home. Ad and I were not to arrive back in Princenbeek for another three days, but that’s a story saved for the concluding chapter of this odyssey. My flight out of Schiphol was still five days away.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Over the Pond – Part 7

From Hitler’s Horror to High Alpine Splendor – Tiefencastle at last.

This was to be a long day. It shouldn’t have been, but the most memorable travel adventures very often are wrought by those misadventures that conspire to throw a wrench in the best-made plans.
The previous days headlight issue turned out to be no more than a switch problem. Did you know that euro bikes have a standard equipment on/off switch for the headlight? I didn’t either. Duh!!! Problem solved.

Allow me to jump back to the previous day and our gas stop at Linz where we parted company with Walter. This is the very same Linz which was the childhood home of Adolph Hitler, and is where his parents are buried. Needless to say, there were no plaques commemorating this fact. My sense was that even 65 years later, Germans generally would prefer to put that whole era behind them - if not out of mind, at least out of sight.

This historical factoid is a perfect segue to our next stop, Hitler’s infamous detention facility at Dachau.

I will not wax eloquent about my experience at the site of the Dachau camp memorial. I will only say that, if you have a chance to go there, don’t miss it -it will expand your social conscience. I have done some reading about the camp since I have returned. There is a foreboding sense of evil there that I could not explain. Since we arrived on a Sunday, the facility was not open. We did not need to walk the yard to feel what we all felt. Our little group became very quiet as we came to the wrought iron gates upon which was sculpted that infamous phrase Arbeit Macht Frei (work makes free – this sentiment is meant ideologically rather than literally).

This was not a place that I would have sought out to visit. It was only through the encouragement of fellow traveler Phil Tarman that we added Dachau to our itinerary, and I’m glad we did. Phil returned to Dachau after the rally and spent some time inside the facility. I’m sure if prompted, he could offer up a far more detailed dialogue on the place. I will say only that throughout history, there are places where pure evil has walked the earth. This was one of those places. I was glad to see it fade in the rearview.

An appropriate antidote to the horror of Dachau, our next stop of interest was to be probably the best-known castle in Germany - Neuschwanstein. This is the most fanciful of Bavarian King Ludwig’s three castles, and is the castle upon which Walt Disney modeled his Sleeping Beauty castle.

We proceeded south along picturesque secondary roads in the direction of Hohenschwangau. Near Swangau, Phil’s bike lost power and rolled to a stop on the side of the road.
The Connie is pretty simple. Problems are either spark or lack of ‘go juice’. It didn’t take too long to establish that Phil’s battery was as dead as last week’s roadkill. The next half hour could have been a National Lampoon skit as the four of us took turns trying to bump start Phil’s bike. Now with no disrespect toward Phil, it became quickly clear that the good Reverend lacked the finesse to qualify as a likely candidate for bump starting the Connie so the task fell to the kid of the group - our tour guide Gie. This left the task of pushing to the remaining two old guys (that would be me and Harry). We definitely got our workout that day. Repeated efforts to get some charge into the battery were in vain.
As long as we could keep the motor spinning at high revs, we had drive. Any drain on the battery beyond maintaining basic life functions killed forward momentum immediately. This included such things as brake lights and turn signals. Once again, only the deft touch of Gie was sufficient to keep Phil’s loaner bike moving. So with fingers, toes and whatever else crossed, we headed off for the nearby town of Fussen with Phil riding Gie’s Connie.

While the others scouted around in search of a shop, I took time for a run up to Neuschwanstein. Although I didn’t take the official castle tour, I did get close enough to see this German landmark firsthand and that was worth something. The full tour is just one more thing to add to my “to do” list for my return trip.

Upon returning from my little side trip, I rejoined the crew in Fusson. They were having no luck at repairing Phil’s bike. They had acquired a new battery but it still wasn’t holding a charge, and it was decided that the problem was the alternator. The plan now was to switch out the battery from Gie’s bike, which was fully charged. With Phil’s stone cold battery recharging in Gie’s bike we proceeded – after bump starting Gie – onward to Teifencastle, a distance of about two hours. Once there, abundant technical assistance would be available. If the charge died before Tiefencastle, we would simply have to repeat the process of swapping the batteries again.

Of course we didn’t make it.

By halfway, Phil’s power was fading fast. Of course this had to happen after sundown. So there we were on the side of the Autobahn, somewhere in southern Bavaria, with tiny flashlights trying to swap batteries. “Shit, I dropped the battery terminal nut. Everybody on your knees and find that sucker or we ain’t going nowhere.”

Eventually, after much cursing, we did get going again. – two old guys bump starting a young guy on a Connie – again. At this point we were running along the Switzerland/Germany border very close to Leichtenstein. Teifencastle couldn’t be far now.

One memorable thing did happen while we were stranded on the side of the Autobahn. A Lamborgini Diablo blew by us at warp speed. The intoxicating effect of the sound of twelve very exotic Italian cylinders at full boil had us all grinning like 12 year olds looking at their very first pin up centerfold. The pilot must have been having fun because he circled back and blew by us twice more over the next three quarters of an hour. That’s a sound you just don’t forget.

Being dark now, the necessity of running headlights drained Phil’s battery faster and we rolled into Teifencastle as his lights flickered their last spark. I don’t think he would have made another mile safely and we were not real excited about standing on the side of the road again. Of course, none of this was Phil’s fault, but I’m sure he did not view any of this as a propitious start to his great alpine adventure. Regrettably his sick bike compromised his first couple of days in the Alps but some good fortune and creative thinking had Phil back in form within a couple of days. I’ll leave that story for him to tell.

We arrived in Teifencastle at approximately ten thirty. The bikes were parked, the gear was stowed and now it was time to meet and greet. In this crowd of faces speaking nearly every language but my own, it was good to see some familiar faces. Walter had arrived the day before. Ad and Marc were there from the Netherlands. Hans from Sweden, the grand Poobah of OTP, officially welcomed me. Then from across the room came a hollered greeting in a familiar American voice. I turned to look as Jim Pavlis and Sean O’Donovan, still fully geared up from the road, burst into the room – Jim tends to do that –having just arrived from Frankfurt. They must have been just 20 minutes behind us on the road coming in.

Tomorrow held promise of alpine adventures beyond what we could imagine but right now was for socializing and settling into what was to be home base for the next five days. With laughter, animated greetings and the steady flow of new arrivals, the Hotel Albula was “party central” in full swing. What a wonderful welcome. We had arrived.

Tomorrow would begin a whole new chapter.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Over the Pond – Part 6

Austria – Johann Strauss, Mozart and Marching Bands.

Sunday, August 31st.
The scene to which I awoke was nothing short of magical. The first of my senses to welcome the new day was hearing. At first only in the background of dreams, but with increasing volume as the fog of sleep dissipated, I heard the distinctive sound of an old time Oompah marching band. Rolling out of bed to greet the day, I opened the window to a stunningly picturesque scene (see sidebar picture); the sound of “oom pah pah” enveloped me. There was definitely a live band playing somewhere, although 7 on a Sunday morning seemed an inappropriate time for band practice in any culture.

Then it stopped.

Hmm, that’s strange, but not inconsistent with the surreal I had come to expect over the last week. Everything here was different.

I took a minute to breathe in the morning air and bask in the amazing panorama before me, then turned from the window and commenced with my morning routine in preparation to greet the day and my fellow travelers.

Ten minutes later, when I stepped out my door into the common area of the pension, the band struck up again. Now with eyes wide open, I went to investigate. Following the sound, what I discovered was a perfect fit for this dreamlike storybook to which I had awoken.
On this clear alpine morning in a village right out of an Austrian tourist brochure, along the main street of the hotel complex marched an Oompah band, forty strong in traditional Austrian garb. Hallelujah, I went to bed God-knows-where and woke up in Disneyland; but this wasn’t Disneyland. This was the real thing. I had not yet seen any of my traveling companions so for these few brief moments, I stood transfixed, watching this amazing performance unfold in front of me.

Weddings in Austria, Germany, and Switzerland can be as mainstream and familiar as anywhere in North America. If you opt for a traditional wedding in any of these alpine cultures though, you had better have a well tuned sense of fun, as the old traditions are built on a framework of ribald festivities and exaggerated pageantry that can carry on for days. I will not expand on this as that’s another chapter in itself, but it’s an entertaining study if you have the time and interest.

The marching band tradition is apparently a very localized one. The newlyweds, having survived the main event the day before, are not free to begin their new lives together yet. Today, they will be the focus of much good-natured “tomfoolery” designed for them to prove their suitability for wedlock. A price must be paid for future matrimonial bliss. I will leave that for you, the reader, to research at your leisure.

For all these shenanigans, their day must start early. At 7AM a marching band performs with great gusto – I suspect many of the participants were still partying from the night before -outside the newlywed’s window. This boisterous performance is repeated every fifteen minutes until the couple finally makes their appearance.
This was the pageant to which I awoke. Austrians love to party, and if a day long party is good, then obviously a two or three day party is even better.

Our arrival could not have been better timed, having afforded me this experience albeit only as a spectator. We did, however, have an itinerary and more adventures awaited us down the road.

After another typically healthy Bavarian breakfast, we left the wedding celebration behind and prepared to hit the road again.

Austrian CGE member, Dr.Walter Kirchweger, had just arrived and took the lead as our tour guide for the day. The Autobahn route from Kaltenberg to Walter’s home in Amstetten is somewhat circuitous running west, then south over the Danube, then back east again - but this was Walter’s backyard and he was not about to lead us over so boring a route. With the advantage of local knowledge, the good doctor led us through some really entertaining twisties on a route south to Amstetten.
Walter’s familiarity with this track made it a challenge just to keep his taillights in sight. Suffice to say there was a lot of leanin’, grinnin’ and sparkin’ going on behind him until I decided that keeping up with Walter took second seat to staying up on Yomaha, if you get my drift. Never challenge a man on his home turf on a borrowed bike. I was still giggling like a school kid when we reached the Danube at the end of the twisties. Thanks for a great ride, Doc. It was more fun that a barrel of monkeys - a solid hoot and a great way to start the day’s ride.

First stop en route was the Danube River. The Danube is one of Europe’s most significant transportation routes. Due to the familiarity of Austrian composer Johann Strauss’ “Blue Danube”, we tend to associate the Danube with Austria. However, from its source, less than a third of the Danube travels through Germany and Austria. Heading east out of Austria it winds through Slovakia, Hungary, Croatia, Serbia, Romania and Bulgaria until finally spilling out into the Black Sea. Its headwaters are in Germany’s Black Forest region and this is the continental divide. The other major aquatic highway in Germany, the Rhein, flows north. A 171 km canal and lock system connecting these two waterways links the North Sea to the Black Sea, making this a truly transcontinental superhighway. In a word, even this close to its source, this is one “big ass river”.

We pause long enough on the banks of the Danube to consider its significance, snap a few pictures then continue on our way south to Amstetten and lunch. It is a short distance from the Danube and very quickly we are sitting on Walter’s terrace enjoying an elegantly prepared and served lunch by wife, Elfi and his two daughters, Connie and Uli.
After this midday break, we once again saddled up and, led by Walter, headed west.

Our first stop was for gas at Linz. Travel on major motorways in certain EU countries requires that a road tax vignette (sticker) be purchased and always displayed on the windshield of the vehicle. Austria and Switzerland impose this road tax - Germany doesn’t. At this first gas stop, Walter took the opportunity to ensure that the visitors were all legal (thanks to the due diligence of my host, Ad, I already was) and generously purchased vignettes for those who weren’t. As we were now venturing out on the Austrian autobahn, this was necessary. Walter left us at this point, plotting a route through Austria to land him in Tiefencastle, Switzerland that night. We four, now legal, headed first to Salzburg, Austria then back into Germany for another day of sightseeing before our planned arrival at the CGE rally tomorrow night. We should have had a couple of easy days ahead of us. We could not have guessed how long tomorrow would end up being.

Our destination for the night was the Hotel Kohlmeier in Kranzberg. Since we planned to visit Dachau the following day, Kranzberg, a municipality of less than 4000 just 25 km. north of Munich, presented a perfect starting point, and allowed us to avoid Munich traffic.

…But since we were in the neighborhood already, we had to pay Mozart a visit first.

Salzburg, best known as the birthplace of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, more recently gained world recognition as one of the primary location sets for “The Sound of Music”. With three universities, it has a decidedly cultural air not dissimilar to Heidelberg.

Gie and I managed again to lose Phil and Harry somewhere at the entrance to Salzburg. Searching for our lost compadres through the many narrow streets running off the town square afforded us an hour or so of sightseeing around Salzburg. Although Salzburg’s population is close to 200,000, most every route in the old town radiates out from the town square, so it was not an unreasonable expectation that we might find each other. It was not to be so. Again trusting in the power of Garmin – and knowing that Harry had that night’s accommodation location plotted – Gie and I saddled up and hit the road.

Although Krantzberg was less than 175 km. from Salzburg, we managed through artful exploration of numerous backroads between the two to spin it out all afternoon.

Chiemsee - sometimes called the Bavarian Sea - is midway between Salzburg and Rosenheim. It was also directly on our route to Krantzberg. Chiemsee is a very popular recreational area and it is easy to see why - the area is beautiful. One of the larger islands in the Chiemsee is Herrenchiemsee, which is home to a castle of the same name. Herrenchiemsee is one of the three famous castles of Ludwig the second. Neuchwanstein is the best known and that was on the itinerary for tomorrow.

We didn’t see Herrenchiemsee, but we did find Harry and Phil relaxing on the lake shore. Reunited we proceeded north towards Munich through some of the most idyllic countryside I have ever seen. Traversing from tiny country backroad to tiny country backroad, I was convinced that we were totally lost most of the time, but didn’t really care. The roads we were on were (for the most part) single lane and meandered over rolling farmlands linking tiny settlements, some no more that two or three houses. There was a sense that we were riding down someone’s private driveway most of the time, except that there were no fences or gates and they all linked together in a random flowing weave pattern. Locals waved happily to us as we seemingly drove through their front yards but it was “all good”. There was that same strange surreal feeling that I was to sense many times on this trip.

We lingered long enough that daylight was fading before we reached our destination. This was only significant because at some point I had lost my headlight, so we hastily made tracks to Hotel Kohlmeier, arriving at dusk. We would address the headlight issue in the morning. For now, we parked, ordered beer and laid into some of the biggest ribs I have seen this side of Montana. Bike maintenance could wait - rider maintenance was the order of the hour.

This time tomorrow we would be in Tiefencastle, Switzerland – or so we thought!!!

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Over the Pond – Part Five

Bavaria and Beyond.

Bavaria is Germany’s largest state, covering an area of over twenty seven thousand square miles - slightly larger than New Hampshire or about the same size as New Brunswick. Filling most of the southeast quadrant of Germany, Bavaria shares international borders with Austria, the Czech Republic and Switzerland. It’s small by North American standards but large by European scale. Everything here is different. I have to constantly recalibrate my thinking to “Euro scale”. Once we leave Bruhl heading east, we should be in Bavaria in less than an hour.

Today will be a big mileage day at around 700 kilometers. 700 km of “bahn blasting” is no big deal but Gie had planned a route to minimize the big fat lines on the map, and maximize the skinny squiggly ones. Much like our major highways on this side of the pond, the Autobahn is an efficient way to cover distance, but comes up short on entertainment value. I find that after a couple of hours on the Autobahn, I’m ready for a break. The sustained higher speeds – average 160 km/h. – and the aggressive Autobahn drivers take their toll. Extended periods of both of these factors are mentally fatiguing and the Autobahn is not the place to be shifting into a state of mental cruise control.

Saturday, August 30th - 8:00 A.M., right on schedule, we were waving goodbye to Roland and making our way back out to the Autobahn. This would be my second day of serious Autobahn mileage and at this point the Autobahn – or more specifically, German drivers – still scared the crap out of me. I was, however getting more comfortable with it and when the time came, hours later to take the “ausfahrt” (off ramp) back to the skinny squiggly roads, I found myself actually missing the energy of the Autobahn. That feeling was quickly replaced as the ausfahrt landed us back in serene rural countryside.

But I’m getting ahead of myself; between urban Bruhl and the return to rural serenity, we did have some adventures. Phil almost died, Harry got misplaced, Gie ran out of gas and I got a lesson in bilingualism.

Probably less than 15 minutes away from Bruhl, Gie, then me, Phil and Harry were cruising down the four-lane. As inevitably happens when you’re dealing with four lanes and aggressive traffic, we were separated, but not so much that we couldn’t maintain sight of the bike ahead. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a bike and rider pulled off on the shoulder to my right, and at the same moment I saw Gie’s brake light ahead. Some standards are international and one is that you don’t leave a fellow rider stranded if you can help it. Gie, already in the right lane, was pulling onto the shoulder to offer assistance. I was a couple of lanes left of Gie but proceeded to follow suit when safe. As I slowed, Phil, who was back a few lengths and one lane to the right of me, drew alongside. In turn, we would each make our way to the shoulder. As he drifted right, I fell back. The next horrifying sight/sound that assailed me was a tractor/trailer unit, nose down, hard on the brakes, tires smoking as he bore down on Phil who had slowed and drifted into the right lane directly in front of him. From my perspective on the left, the front bumper of the truck appeared to be no more than a foot off Phil’s fender. I don’t think Phil even saw him. At the same moment, with Gie now obscured on the shoulder by the truck to my right, Harry flashed past two lanes to my left. Phil continued on, making his way to the shoulder without further incident. I continued my change to the right lane, falling in behind the transport, then pulled to the shoulder. A minute later, with my heart rate now back to normal, I joined Phil and Gie, now talking to the stranded rider. It seemed I was the only one –other than the trucker - who had witnessed the near fatal encounter that had just unfolded only feet away from me. That could have been a really crappy way to start the day. Fortunately, all ended well.

I assumed Harry would pull over ahead when it was safe - apparently not. He had missed the whole drama – it had only lasted a few seconds - and was now blissfully continuing on down the road. We figured that at some point he would figure out that he wasn’t following anybody anymore and circle back. Since both Gie and Harry had the day’s route programmed into GPS, we weren’t overly concerned. Gie reasoned that they could connect on cell phone at some point if necessary.

The stranded rider worked for a local Triumph/Kawasaki dealer and was on his way to work. With no answer at the shop (it was, after all, only 8:30) he just needed to get to the shop, get a truck and return for his bike. Fifteen minutes later, there was still no sign of Harry. We decided we needed to abandon Harry for the moment and detour off the Autobahn, transport the stranded rider to his shop in town 15 minutes away and trust in GPS and cell phones to reconnect us with him later.

We mounted up again, now four riders on three bikes and headed for the next ausfahrt into town.

Those kindred spirits that revel in the sights and sounds of world-class superbike racing will appreciate this next vignette. As we were sitting in the parking lot in front of the bike shop having a quick stretch before heading back out onto the “A road”, I heard the distinctive soundtrack which accompanies every pro level superbike race. You know the sound. It sends a shiver down your spine and makes your heart race. It’s the banshee wail of race bike engines bouncing off rev limiters. I’d just never heard what I assumed to be an in-shop entertainment system reproduce it so well, especially right out into the parking lot. When I commented on it, an employee of the shop said with a grin, “ Oh no, that’s just some of the guys running laps over at Hockenheim track. It’s just over there.” If you’re familiar with World-level Superbike racing, you’re sure to be familiar with Hockenheim. That would be like saying “some of the factory boys are just running some practice laps over at Laguna. – no big deal.” Wow!! Which way to the track? By the sound of it, I’d say it couldn’t have been more than a half mile away but “No can do”…. We had miles to make and time was wastin’- and we still had to find Harry – so it was back out to the Autobahn.

After a few unsuccessful attempts to connect with Harry via cell phone, we did finally reconnect at a roadside diner just north of Regensburg. For those who are following along with a map or are familiar with Germany, that was a few hours later and not far after the point at which we left the Autobahn and got reacquainted with the little squiggly lines.

I mentioned earlier that I had a lesson in bilingualism along the way. We had pulled over at a rest stop on the Autobahn. Sport and sport touring motorcycles are far more prevalent in Europe than in N. America, so the appearance of one at a rest stop is not even noteworthy except that this one was a very bling’d out version of my 12R back home. The rider and passenger were typical Euro i.e.: Upscale, custom leathers - all the best of the best. Euro riders have a far more positive image than the cliché biker image that too many North American riders seem to cultivate.
Taking a particular interest in his bike and having some time to kill, I attempted to engage him in conversation. It became immediately evident that he did not speak any English. His passenger - young, hip and very cute (okay, I’ll just come right out and say it, she was smokin’ hot) - remained mute, so presumably she understood less English than him, which was none. Confident in this assumption, I turned to Phil and enquired if his mastery of German was sufficient to tell me how to say, “excuse me, sir, but being Canadian, I was wondering if you might possibly allow me to engage in a carnal liaison with your incredibly hot girlfriend as a gesture of international good will”(I’m paraphrasing here but you get the idea). Phil hesitated for a moment then cracked up completely, almost falling over. My back is turned towards Miss “Hot as a Pistol” but Phil is looking over my shoulder. She first looked straight at us, grinned then rolled her eyes before walking back to her bike. Her comprehension of English, it would seem, was just fine. Good one Dave!! Maybe for my encore performance, I could climb on my bike and run over my foot. Phil and I were still laughing when they pulled away. I wonder if she told her boyfriend later what Phil and I were laughing about.

For our next mini adventure, Gie’s Connie sputtered to a stop out of gas. We were less than five km. from a gas station. Fortunately it died just after turning off the Autobahn as running out of gas on the “A road” could have been a real problem. The mystery did not unravel until AFTER he had borrowed Yomaha to run to the nearby town for a liter of gas. When the subsequent fill up came in a couple of gallons shy, the mystery was solved. Gie always runs with his reserve open. Don’t know why - he just does. When he took it in for servicing, the shop closed the reserve shutoff. Duh!!

Okay, that’s four for four. We’d all had our bonehead move for the day. Everybody took a turn.
From this point on the roads just got better as we moved east into the Bavarian Alps. The scenery and roads of this area are similar to the very best of the West Kootenays in BC, which is BC’s own motorcycle nirvana. As we moved through this region, the proliferation of sport bikes rose with each passing mile.

How appropriate that in the midst of all this we came upon a motorcycle treff (very loosely translated – a meeting place; most often a scenic location with services catering to a specific market, in this case motorcyclists) at Arbersee. This treff offered motorcycle videos, m/c related accessories, basic bike maintenance facilities and even a free helmet maintenance station. It was the kind of place that just felt right on a bike. In fact, if you weren’t in riding gear you would have felt out of place there.

After a snack and a pee break we were soon back on the road just grinnin’ and leanin’ through some of the finest m/c roads you could imagine. The area we were traveling through was called ‘the Bayerischer Wald” or Bavarian Forest. It is part of National Park Bayerischer Wald. Established in 1970, it is the first national park in Germany. With its endless forests, great roads, clear streams and mountain lakes, it is no wonder that I felt right at home here. Germany’s Bavarian forest extends over the Czech Republic border where it becomes the Sumava or Bohemian Forest.

The Bayerischer Wald is such a popular motorcycle destination that one of the very best m/c roads in the area, which Gie had planned to show us, was closed on weekends. Too many “Racer Boy Wannabees” had finally got the unwanted attention of the local constabulary. It would be a similar situation if Deals Gap were only open on weekdays. I’ll never know what we missed but since we hadn’t turned a wheel on a bad road for the last couple of hours, it was only a minor disappointment.

Trusting now in the power of Garmin, we were next guided to a dead-end gravel road. Recalibrate; eventually, perseverance paid off and we found an open border crossing into the Czech Republic.

Our next waypoint was Cesky Krumlov. Crossing the Czech Republic border was like falling off the edge of the world. Remember that it is not so long since Czechoslovakia was a Soviet country. The Czech border crossing was marked with nothing more than a broken down old sign. The roads got narrower. Road signs became almost nonexistent. Buildings in small villages that we passed through had a third world feel to them. What few vehicles we encountered were just flat out scary, both in mechanical condition and the manner in which they were being driven, but we made it to Cesky Krumlov. We did gas up in a small town on the way to Cesky and it was the cheapest gas stop of the whole trip ($30.34 Can.). Czech money is impossible to figure out (they don’t use the Euro) so thank God for Visa.

Cesky Krumlov is a small city in the South Bohemian region with a population of only around 14,000. The core of the old town is within a horseshoe bend of the Vltava River while the Cesky Krumlov Castle, dating back to 1253, sits on the other side of the river. Most of the architecture of the old town and castle dates from the 14th through 17th centuries.

The narrow streets and strange architecture enhanced by the fact that the light was failing when we finally arrived, gave Cesky a decidedly otherworldly feel of intrigue and mystery. This place was definitely not like anything I had ever seen. We spent about half an hour strolling around this mysterious place before sunset forced us back on our bikes. It was close to nine o’clock and we still had a ways to go yet.

I could not trace the route we took out of Cesky to save my life. I know after following taillights through the night for about an hour, we did arrive at the Neubauer Hotel in Kaltenberg, Austria. We arrived in the midst of a traditional wedding celebration in full swing. The reservation we were supposed to have was nowhere to be found, but after some animated negotiations by Gie and Harry we were able to secure not only lodgings but also a warm meal from the restaurant, which was now closed. The party atmosphere of the wedding swirled around us, and in short order we were all smiling enjoying Austrian beer and whatever food our hosts could rustle up for us.

What an amazing day it had been. It was just another in a series that was not even half over yet.
After food and beer, we got booked into our rooms and were asleep five minutes later. What a day it had been. What a day indeed.

Lights out.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Over The Pond – Part Four

Bridges, Castles and Raptors – and Steffi Graf.

Friday, August 29th. We were treated to the luxury of a leisurely day in our dash across Europe. We were to enjoy Roland’s hospitality for another day, affording us the luxury of a leisurely pace knowing that we really had to be nowhere except where we were until tomorrow. Tomorrow was to be a long day with an early start. We would pass through three countries tomorrow, but today we could relax.

As we lingered over German breakfast (think filling – German’s really enjoy their food) I learned more about where I was.

Brühl is a municipality in the Rhein-Neckar District named for the confluence of those two rivers. The former fishing village along the Rhine has become a satellite of a growing Mannheim and lies directly to the south of that city. The municipality of Bruhl is home to approximately 14,000 people many of whom work in Mannheim. Brühl is the hometown of former tennis player Steffi Graf.

The Rhine River is famous for it’s castles. Brühl would seem a perfect base camp for an extended Rhine castle tour. Had we ventured north from Bruhl we would have discovered Burg Frankenstein but our travels were to take us in another direction to another castle on another River.

Led by tour guide Roland, our first stop was Heidelberg.
In 1907, archeologists discovered a human jawbone near Heidelberg. Researchers dated the jawbone at approximately one million years old giving evidence of the earliest confirmed life in Europe. This discovery was dubed “the Heidelberg Man”. Heidleberg is not quite that old though. Based on ancient documents, 1196 is acknowledged by historians as the founding date of the city of Heidelberg. Heidelberg University, founded in 1386, and Heidelberg’s library, founded in 1421 have cultivated a decidedly academic flavor to this city. The romanticism of Old Heidelberg makes tourism a significant industry for the 140,000 people who call Heidelberg home. The most recognizable images of Heidelberg are the old bridge over the Neckar River, the ruins of Heidelberg Castle and the largest river tour boats I have ever seen.

We parked the bikes at the rivers edge near the bridge and set out on foot to explore Heidelberg. Once off the bikes, I walked around, starry eyed like every other tourist, content to allow the collage of images to wash over me like waves. There would be time for introspection and analysis later. Now was a time to just soak up the history, romance and old world culture of Heidelberg. The narrow streets, market place, city plaza, ornate buildings - homes to both ancient artisan guilds and centers of higher learning - spreading across the backdrop of Heidelberg Castle was the ideal medium in which to nurture this rather esoteric mind set. There I was once again thinking,” I can’t believe I’m really here. If I’m dreaming, then let me dream a little longer – don’t think; just feel.”

We did not explore the ruins of Heidelberg Castle. Instead, after an hour or so of site seeing, we mounted up again and headed a short distance east along the Neckar River to Burg Guttenberg.
Burg Guttenberg (or Guttenberg Castle) dating from around 1200, has been continuously lived in, hence escaping the destruction which has occurred to many similarily dated German castles. The current Baroness von Gemmingen (18th generation) could be your museum tour guide if you’re lucky. You can tour the kitchen, the torture chamber, a spinning room and the tower among other sights. Gie and I spent an hour discovering the many secrets of the castle museum finally culminating at the top of the imposing tower which afforded us as spectacular view of the surrounding castle walls below and beyond those the idyllic Neckar and Muhlbach valleys.

Possibly because the holiday season was nearing the end, our castle tour was self guided which allowed us to explore at our own pace. In addition to the castle tour, four of us (Phil, Harry, Gie and myself) enjoyed a German Falconry show on the castle grounds featuring an assortment of vultures, eagles, owls and falcons. Expert handlers put them through their paces demonstrating the dexterity of these amazing raptors.

Around mid afternoon, we saddled up again. Following back along the gentle curves of the Neckar River, we made our way, after a short stint on the Autobahn, to “Casa Kohl” back in Bruhl. Roland prepared another wonderful meal – enjoyed naturally with the requisite amounts of wine and beer.

This night was not to be a late one as tomorrow was to start early and was scheduled to be a long day. We would be pulling long Autobahn hours getting to motorcycle nirvana in the Bavarian region of Germany, then the Czech Republic and finally ending up in Austria. Packing for an early morning departure was more the order of business than partying. By midnight, not a creature was stirring; just a whole lot of snoring.

Good night, John-Boy. Good night, Mary-Ellen.

Good night Roland and thank you for your outstanding hospitality.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Over the Pond – Part Three

Two Wheels Times Four on the Road.

Thursday, August 28th – I’m up early. It’s ride day. I’m ready to roll. I’m excited. I’m always up early on ride day, and this is no ordinary ride. I’m on the other side of the world and have no idea what it has in store for me from one minute to the next, but I’m ready to find out.

Ad, Harry and I are expecting Gie and Phil around 8:30 to 9:00. It’s not to be. Gie phones around 9:00 to inform us that they’re running a little behind schedule. Expect them around 10:00. Okay, relax. They’ll get here when they get here. True to his word, Gie rolls into sight right at ten followed closely by Phil. We’ve moved Harry’s bike out of sight because Phil doesn’t know he’s here and we want to surprise him.
Phil is appropriately pleased and surprised, and after a half hour for greetings, high fives and excited bike talk, we’re on our way; Gie leading – who knows where- followed by me, Phil and Harry.

We snake our way through narrow Prinsenbeek streets for only a short time. Within ten minutes I am comfortably following Gie through rolling farmland heading for Belgium.

I am floating somewhere up on cloud nine and could not retrace my route to save my soul. I do know however where we ended, so I can draw a line on a map and take an educated guess.

Our first stop was less than two hours down the road at Alden Biesen Castle deep into the Flemish countryside of Flanders in northeastern Belgium.
A quick geography lesson.. The area we have just passed through is the Province of Flanders – remember “Flanders Fields” that we recited in school every Remembrance Day? West and East Flanders cover approximately the northern half of Belgium, and are populated primarily by the Flemish who make up sixty percent of the population of Belgium.
Although the Flemish have their own language, the intellectual norm in Flanders means learning two or more foreign languages, generally English, French and German, to a higher standard than most countries: this, in an area less than a tenth the size of Washington State. And you thought multilingualism was confusing here. I’m not confused. I don’t speak any of them. It’s all just European to me!

I’m not dealing with any of this though. I’m just following the leader and soaking in the beauty of this amazing country.

Alden Biesen Castle is the first real castle of my trip. Although the castle dates back to 1220, the existing buildings are from the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries. We stop for some good Belgium coffee in a courtyard café and spend an hour strolling the grounds. Still faithful to its architectural roots, Alden Biesen is now maintained as a multifunctional cultural center of the Flemish community.

From Alden Biesen, we head east and are soon on the Autobahn, German style.

Let me tell you a thing or two about the German Autobahn. I’ll tell you what it’s not. It’s not the Dutch Autobahn. Earlier, I expressed an opinion that Autobahn is a Dutch word for traffic jam. I knew when we crossed the border from Belgium to Germany because apparently the loose English translation of the German word “autobahn” is “ hey a—hole, get the hell out of my way”. Mind you, we had been rambling along Flanders lazy country roads, so that probably made the shift somewhat more dramatic - but Holy Crap Batman, German drivers are really aggressive!!!

The German Autobahn is not much different from any of our interstates; one way divided highways, always at least two lanes, most often three and occasionally four. The notoriety of “no speed limits” is not entirely accurate. There are sections which have speed limits seemingly capricious in nature. I saw speed limits drop from 140 to 70 (kilometers per hour) instantly. I have no doubt that there was some rationale to this, but at the time, I was more focused on just staying alive and not losing sight of my tour guide.

Consistent with the stereotypical image of the Autobahn, in between these periodic controlled speed zones there were vast stretches of free-for-all. After an hour or so on the Autobahn, I began to find the rhythm of it all and quite enjoyed the 140 - 180 km per hour pace. I was ever mindful of the notion that no matter how fast I was going, there was likely a Mercedes/Porsche/Volkswagen/Audi coming up on my rear left quarter at 200+ - with no intention of slowing down for my slowpoke Canadian tourist ass. I actually had a Volkswagen cube van pass me at 150. That was in the early stages of my indoctrination and seemed somehow to just fit right into this surreal world of the Autobahn. It would also seem that there are only two acceptable colors for German cars: silver and black.

To be fair, Europe’s population density is well served by this system and for all my initial misgivings about the insanity of it, the highway system works well. I did not see a traffic accident during my entire stay in Europe, a statement I could probably not make after three weeks of traveling North American highways. Everybody seems to understand the rules and those who don’t, won’t or can’t simply stay off the A roads.

The best I can make out from reviewing maps is that we traveled northwest to southeast towards Heidelberg. I know we stopped in Konken for gas. That was my first $40 gas tank fill up. I was mentally prepared for high gas prices. Although higher than Canada, my initial sense was that they were not that much higher. Maybe an extra fifty cents a liter. Then one of my compadres reminded me that the price is in Euros, not dollars. Yikes!!!

We spent most of that afternoon traveling the Autobahn. We did stop just long enough at a US air base (Spangdahlem)to catch our breath and snap a couple of pictures of the sign. My focus for that first day was mostly to just not get lost. I was a long way from home with no GPS.

Home for the night was Bruhl, and the abode of CGE member Roland Kohl. Bruhl is a small German town (suburb of Mannhiem) not too dissimilar to Prinsenbeek. Once off the Autobahn, we followed easier rural roads then narrow urban roads in Bruhl to Roland’s home and a welcoming banner strung across his entranceway proclaiming, “Welcome GTR 1000 Friends.”

Great food, even more beer, and much laughter (in English, German, Dutch and Belgian) carried us through the evening, eventually guiding us off to the land of nod sometime after midnight - a fitting end for a fantastic first day on the road.