Alpine Motorcycle Diaries
The best way to see the Austrian Alps in two days? An amateur’s guide to two-wheeling it
O.K., so it wasn’t a motorcycle, we were on a Vespa. But let’s not begin by splitting hairs. Zigzagging through the Alps on two wheels is a humbling experience, whether on a Ducati or a small motorbike, what the Germans call a Zwiebacksäge a "Zwieback Saw", for apparent reasons.
I was sceptical when my husband suggested a two-day trip from southern Germany to Vienna to transport his scooter home. We began the trip in Bad Buchau, a charming little spa town near Stuttgart. I couldn’t imagine having a good time for 800 km on the back of a scooter — for love or any other reason.
It was a rough start.
One of them
There is a strange understanding among lone riders of the world. As we passed motorcycles going the other direction, a driver would stretch out a few fingers of their left hand in greeting, as they careened around a hairpin curve.
"They usually won’t do that to a scooter," my husband grinned. "It’s ‘cause we’re the only people crazy enough to take a scooter through the Alps!" And that seemed to forge respect. Wherever there was a lay-by off the road, there were bikers, alone or in small groups, waiting for others or just resting their bones for the next hill.
On a scenic stretch along a cliff we reached the edge of a hill and a by-standing biker signalled a thumbs-up before the downhill stretch roller-coastered our breath away.
It’s a weird group of freaks, which is meant in the most affectionate way. They share an adrenaline so personal and dangerous, requiring skill and a certain kind of nerve that seems senseless to most. The pace and the proximity to one’s surroundings create a kaleidoscope of impressions all your own.
Fernpass and the Zugspitzblick
Leaving Germany we bypassed the Autobahn in favour of country roads, or found bicycle and hiking routes that would barely fit a car, right through villages with names like Sulzberg or Nesselwang, and (believe it or not) Oy. Passing from Baden-Württemberg to Bavaria, in fact, all the –ingen turned to –hausen and –wang (green). There were great ones like Bad Hindelang (which translates into something like "Bath Around the Backside"). Around Haag (Hedged Land) and Schönbichl (Beautiful Hill) we crossed into Austria; through the Frauenwald we finally made it to Reutte.
We were surprised to see how much was going on in this cute little town. It seems to be the meeting point for hikers, climbers and white-water rafters. There were markets, maypoles, and craft stores, with people from 7 to 70 filling the sidewalks. At our leisurely in-town pace of 30 km/h, we could take in the mood of the city in the circa 90 seconds we needed to bisect it.
Down through Bichlbach and Biberwier (I am not making this up) we reached the road to the Fernpass. This was the first view that made us point and exclaim in wonder. It was beginning to look like a nice trip after all.
It’s a weird group of freaks: They share an adrenaline so personal and dangerous, requiring skill and a certain kind of nerve that seem senseless to most.
We reached the top of the Fernpass and saw a "truck-stop" with so much alpine charm that it could have been wearing Lederhosen. We pulled up and parked, and were promptly approached by a middle-aged woman in a Dirndl, who took our order. The menu was an Alpine potpourri, with everything from Backhendlsalat to Berner Würstel; we both had salads, in ample portions, and between bites, interrupted each other:
"Did you see the horses by the lake about a kilometre back?"
"Totally, and then there was that chapel built into the hillside, with the vines…"
There’s something about not being able to communicate while watching the world whizz by that makes the experience all the more personal. We looked across the landscape with the highest peak of the Wetterstein Mountains, the Zugspitze in the background and decided this had, in fact, been a good idea.
I had been converted.
Telfs, Innsbruck, Wörgl
After our meal, we set out again down the winding roads towards Telfs in the Inn Valley. This valley is tucked in between the surrounding peaks, protecting its dark wooden huts from the outside world. We then chose country road 171, which parallels the highway but winds through the little towns and hamlets, each a little universe.
Driving on Fürstenweg into the city of Innsbruck, you pass Innsbruck International "Airport", which is overgrown with wildflowers and still respectably sweet. We took a detour along a hillside residential street that looked just like Italy.
In summer, Innsbruck is a bustle of activity. From 4–29 July, there are concerts on the Promenade, with brass bands and the Alt Matreier traditional dance music. From 19–27 July there is also a New Orleans Jazz Festival on the Market Square. More unusual, the Clownifornia Festival of clowning, street art and "courageous craziness" takes over from 7–26 August.
All along this stretch, we passed through precious little hamlets and bustling summer destinations like Wattens, the home of Swarovski Crystal Worlds, or the town of Pill (again, not making this up), where we could have stopped to pick strawberries for €3. Castles also appeared on the horizon, that led us to medieval towns like Brixlegg and Rattenberg, with narrower stone houses and fewer wooden ski huts.
By now our posteriors were numb and throbbing; we needed a goal: We would make it to Wörgl. With a few water breaks and a full tank of gas we arrived at about 21:00.
But where to stay? So, just like a good Hell’s Angel, I whipped out my iPhone and used an app ("AroundMe") to find and rate the closest hotels. We chose Mariasteinerhof, good reviews and a mountain setting. A few snaky roads over a hilltop or two, we arrived in Mariastein, were greeted warmly, and shown various rooms.
Mostly we just wanted a bath tub. (Note to self: Next time arrive earlier so you can take advantage of the sauna, massage, steam bath and wine cellar on offer.) As it was, we fell right to sleep.
Steinernes Meer, Bischofshofen, Golling
Next morning, we were last to have breakfast. Nevertheless, a young dirndled woman made us scrambled eggs right in the dining room, while we stuffed our faces, compensating for the fatigue-lost dinner. Soon we were back on the road.
In fact we were on the Jakobsweg, the Camino de Santiago trail, heading for the Steinernes Meer, literally "ocean of rock". Since there’s no sound system on a bike, you start hearing songs as you speed along, and I couldn’t stop humming "We Built this City", by Starship. There was no real continuity in my mental jukebox, but it mostly came out rock. Was it because of the bike?
Between Bischofshofen and Golling there is a winding uphill stretch. At the top, the helmet in front of me nodded a few times and revved the motor. Gulping, we started a steep, serpentine downhill stretch. All I could hear was "Don’t Stop Me Now" by Queen – O.K., maybe that was totally lame, but it felt awesome careening down this massive mountain at what seemed like a hellish speed, with nothing for protection but a padded parka and my trusty Levi’s.
My inner soundtrack quieted down in St. Johann, famous for mining and skiing, and I kept looking for ski lifts and slopes, almost unrecognisable with cows grazing in the summer sun. Hochfilzen, said the helmet, was a world-renowned site for biathlon training and competitions. I kept waiting for the mountains to end. I knew we had to be getting closer to Vienna, and the Alps had to give way.
When we stopped by the lake in Hallstatt – the town the Chinese have rebuilt as a live-in themepark in Guangdong – we decided you really need three days for this trip. We would have loved to spend a night in Bad Aussee, the town where Mahler spent his summers, that proudly claims to be the "geographical centre of Austria".
Instead we pushed on. All the way back to Vienna we were rewarded with little treasures, like Altenmarkt, and unpleasant surprises like Liezen, an industrial mixture of shops and factories, with hardly a pedestrian in sight. But those were the exceptions. We stopped for lunch in the relatively forgettable town of Hall.
The last two hours were not painful enough to spoil the trip, but to all who attempt this pilgrimage, be warned: The Alps take it out of you. Biking through the mountains is no trifle, and I was glad I was with an experienced driver.
Now, I just need a motorcycle licence. ‘Cause the next time I want to do the Alps in a weekend, I want my own two wheels.