The morning meeting starts at 8:30 sharp in Mainz, Germany. Our guide pulls out what may now seem archaic to most, but is an essential tool for the tour’s success: a map. Not a handheld GPS with pretty graphics or a British woman’s proper prose, melodically telling you to, “Bear the next left.” Instead, he uses a pliable, old school paper map.
It’s held by Axel Allgaier who speaks impeccable English complemented with a discernable German accent. He explains the route we’re about to embark on. Axel has highlighted the roads, points to the different regions and talks about what we’ll encounter on this eleven-day tour that hosts a diverse group of international motorcycle riders.
After the brief overview, we’re suited, booted, and firing up our borrowed motorcycles. Off we go. We’re strangers, at first. But after the better part of two weeks, we’ll become family. For better or for worse through five European countries including Germany, Luxembourg, Belgium, France, and Switzerland. We’ll ride together, eat our meals together, and sleep under the same roof.
I’ll preface this story to say that for most participants in the group, it’s not their first rodeo with Edelweiss Bike Tours, an Austrian-based company that has been a purveyor of merriment and motorcycling for over 36 years. Carlos, from Costa Rica, is on his 16th. Bruce and Sue from Golden, Colorado are now on their 10th. Brian from Calgary, AB has racked up five. Phillip and Ray came all the way from Australia. I am the virgin of the group and the baby.
But when it comes to touring on two wheels, it doesn’t matter where you come from or how many outings you’ve participated in. Or, apparently, how old you are. It’s the love of riding that unites us. The desire to feast our eyes upon skylines we’ve never encountered. To sample local culinary creations and beverages. Enjoying all that the Breweries and Castles tour has to offer.
We ride along the Mosel and Rhine Rivers, whose twists and turns offer outstanding touring. The various shades of grey best describe the overhead arrangement of clouds. It surprisingly adds to the appeal of everything.
With castles buried partly in the heavens while rooted in the earth, it makes you feel like you’re in an episode of Game of Thrones, with chaotic street side markets and stench of roaming livestock. Though a few centuries ago this was often a reality.
These were the domiciles of nobility, the epicentres of trade routes, and symbols of wealth and power. Today, they still stand tall and proud, though weathered and worn, often surrounded by vineyards clinging stubbornly to near-vertical cliffs.
You contemplate how life could sustain itself in such steep conditions. But it did and still does. I’ve been to Germany on countless occasions, but never in the saddle.
The familiar face of the Autobahn seems like a continent away when navigating the slim, back roads from Mainz. Roads which are miles away from any main artery or light-speed superhighway. We’re not in a rush, other than to get out of the horrible downpour that is now upon us.
The pace is generally relaxed. These eleven days aren’t about quantity, but quality. The speed-limitless highways have their appeal, but not in this context. Various coffee and sightseeing stops along the ride day gives us a chance to stretch our legs, sample local cuisine and wander through castles whose walls pre-date Canada by centuries.
The same can be said for many of the towns, roads and yes, breweries we come in contact with. Apropos to the tour name, we were not left without educating ourselves on the German beer making process. Or partaking of their efforts.
[Disclaimer: I’m not a beer drinker, but that doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate how it’s made.]
Two instances in particular stay fresh in my memory. The Rothaus – translated to Red House brewery, where we reposed for two nights – is the brewery at the highest altitude in Germany. Established in 1791, this brewery lies in the heart of the Black Forest offers guided tours. Of course, it comes complete with a sampling of their famous Tannenzäpfle pils after the educational component.
Then there was a stop in Ehingen. Where we were further educated by a beer sommelier at the Brauerei-Gasthof Schwanen. We were informed that beer was the most important drink during the Middle Ages, that regional water wells were used in the process, and that the flavour of beer alters the more you filter it. Furthermore, the Purity Law of the times didn’t allow individuals to produce beer with a plethora of ingredients. They usually stuck to malt, water, hops and yeast.
These facts might be common knowledge to enthusiasts, but to someone like me, it was fascinating. And sometimes overwhelming. But that’s part of the tour.
At times, you’re experiencing sensory overloads. Breathtaking building here, ribboned, abandoned asphalt there, the crumbly crunch of a fresh baguette, an impossibly comfortable bed inside an ancient castle. That’s one of the added benefits of this kind of travel.
You’ll realize that despite having a great bike to ride – my noble steed being the BMW R1200R – that’s only one small factor in the equation. The switchbacks, hairpins, and wide-open-throttle straights that have been handpicked for your enjoyment are the things we dream about.
For fragments in time, you feel like a fly on the wall, observing daily interactions of residents as you leisurely ride by. You see a woman standing on her porch in her housecoat, curlers in hair, chatting with her friends and gesticulating fervently. Perhaps it’s a common occurrence in small-town Luxembourg.
Your heart warms when children run furiously up to their school’s fence, start screaming, smiling and waving at you when they hear a parade of flat-twin boxer engines, reverberating off stone walls and rolling through their village.
You appreciate the beauty of long-legged trees that line the French countryside, with their upper bodies hunched over, creating a canopy of foliage that looks like they’re embracing graciously.
The Belgium roads, with their uneven cobblestones will put your bike’s construction to the test. Despite the temporary discomfort, you’ll realize you’re riding the infamous “Belgium roads” and will forget how much you want to find smooth asphalt. Along these roads, you experience a deeper emotion that is humbling and makes you grateful/in awe.
In Romagne, France, an unassuming building will have your jaw open. Inside, you’ll partake of a delicious meal coupled with a potent dose of history. Over the course of almost four decades, local resident Jean-Paul de Vries has put together a staggering collection of over sixty thousand findings of World War I leftovers in an unpretentious and dedicated space.
Bullet holes through helmets. Shrapnel. Rusted rifles. Boots piled high. All items left over from the wrath of war. You can reach out and touch them. Surreal doesn’t begin to describe it.
Down the road in Verdun, France, another war memorial was erected to honour those fallen on the battlegrounds. Bend down, look through the windows and discover the skeletal remnants of tens of thousands of unidentified soldiers. You feel grateful for their sacrifices and blessed for our freedoms.
You bask in camaraderie that comes from sharing laughs, life experiences and libations with your bandmates. Or wonder why there has to be one curmudgeon in every group.
Then there’s the romantic element: sipping champagne in Reims, France. Or walking along cobblestone streets in Rothenburg, Germany while the Night Watchman regales the group with tales or yore. All set to the backdrop under the starry sky and harmonious laughter.
Autumn’s grasp on summer’s wilting hand tightens with each passing day. The sharp cold breathes deeper into the lungs during the morning meetings, yet invigorates. Along the perfectly manicured pastures, amidst grazing cattle and birds of prey hovering overhead, sunflowers humble their heads towards the earth.
Winter is coming. The almost 2,500 kilometre-plus loop is nearing an end. At 8:30 am sharp, you’ll once again meet, as you have every morning of the past eleven days. Shortly thereafter, you’ll be on the road. Engines purring and heated grips on full.
With the sun out in full force, it’s a far cry from day one but a magnificent sendoff. The family you’ve come to know will soon disperse.
But not before one last ride.
Visit Edelweiss Bike Travel for more information.
Images courtesy of the author.