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EuropeTopics specific to Western and Eastern Europe, from UK to the Russian border, and south-east to Turkey.
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I just got back to Canada after doing a 9 week riding tour through a whole pile of European countries. I didn’t ride off road (I have a Honda ST1100, it’s not much of a dirt bike), and I didn’t camp, but perhaps some of the information below may be of use to others who are planning travel through Western and Central Europe.
Note that I consciously avoided going into any city larger than about 50,000 people unless I absolutely had to (due to work commitments, etc.), so my observations and comments are very much biased towards travel in the rural areas of the countries mentioned.
I did England, Belgium, Germany, Switzerland, France, Spain and Portugal. England was expensive and I wasn’t much impressed with the country. Belgium is one of my favorite countries to tour through, nice people, nice architecture, lots of variety in the geography. Quite inexpensive overall and lots of very bike-friendly hotels, especially in the smaller towns. Every hotel and pension I stayed at always offered to put my bike in their garage at night, no additional charge. Gracious people there, good hosts.
Germany – the southwest is great, through Baden-Württemberg, lots of inexpensive places to stay in the smaller towns that are very bike-friendly. Switzerland – I can’t comment objectively on this country, I work there and have an apartment there. I like it, roads are great. It’s expensive compared to everywhere else but you get value for your money.
France, through the high alps in the far east, was great. Lots of gîtes to stay at that are cheap and friendly. Superb roads, especially the secondary (departmental) roads. Tough to get gas in the early afternoon as you get south, everyone closes up shop between noon and 3 PM. The bigger cities in the south are congested and best avoided. France can be a bit of a PITA to get used to – you can only by cigarettes at a tobacco shop, only buy pastries at a pastry shop, etc. Almost like there is some kind of law against convenience.
Spain was a disappointment. From Barcelona all the way around to Gibraltar, from the coastline to about 10 km inland, it’s like Waikiki Beach in Honolulu – all condos, urbanizations, etc. catering to the Germans and British. From 10 miles inland on in, there ain’t much to see. My take on Spain is that it is an under-developed country priced like a developed country. Poor value for the money.
Portugal was great, other than the Algarve region in the south, which has the same problem as described above for Spain. Good roads, nice people, good food, cheap like you would not believe, altogether delightful. Had to get my tires changed in a small town in northern Portugal (they had worn out) – the top mechanic at a very well equipped Honda shop only charged USD 11 an hour as a shop labour rate, and the tires themselves cost less at retail in Portugal than they cost wholesale in North America. Amazing. I really liked this country, lots of hills and twisty roads.
Austria – nice place, lower than average prices for food and accommodation but a killer sales tax on everything else. Nice roads but not as entertaining as eastern France or Switzerland.
Slovakia – A great country, another one of my favorites in Europe, nice people, great roads and geography, hills and twisties everywhere, cheap like you would not believe, a real delight to tour through. In the same town that you can find a nice B&B for about USD 10 a night, you can also find a fully modern Esso station where you just shove your credit card in the pump, just as you would in Los Angeles, Zurich or Toronto. One of the best kept secrets in Europe, I hope they don’t raise the prices there. Take a pass on Bratislava, the capital – it’s depressing to look at.
Slovenia – Another very nice place, surprisingly well developed but still very cheap, also nice, courteous, welcoming people, varying geography so very interesting riding as a result. Not much to see there, but a pleasant place to pass through.
Croatia – about the same level of development and services as you would find in Germany or Switzerland, lots of infrastructure improvements have been made in the last 10 years or so. The roads constructed in the last 10 years are equal in quality to the best in Europe. Less expensive than Western Europe but not the same value as Slovakia or Slovenia. Prices are rising fast in Croatia and it is no longer the bargain it used to be. A very beautiful country, though.
Bosnia – nice country to drive through but an economic basket case that will get worse before it gets better. Nothing especially wrong or bad with it, but nothing to recommend it, either.
Hungary – another development surprise, like Croatia. About the same level of development as you find in rural Austria, seems these folks have been doing a lot of rebuilding and there is a great deal – arguably too much – foreign investment in Hungary. Walking down the main pedestrian mall in Budapest is like walking through a shopping mall in suburban Chicago – all the chain stores are there. Almost depressing. Good values for food and lodging in rural Hungary.
= = = = = = = =
The only two places I ever saw cops, in two months of riding, were Croatia, where they are quite intent on reducing their rather high accident rate, and Hungary. In Croatia the radar traps were in sensible locations, such as twisty mountain roads where you seriously want to keep the speeds down to avoid bus crashes, etc., or in front of schools inside the villages. In Hungary, I think they were more out for the money, the radar traps there were behind the bushes on long, flat stretches of 4 lane divided motorways, where you could do 180 km/h with no safety hazard, but the limit was 130.
Portugal needs some traffic cops. The drivers there are pretty wild, and have not yet figured out that the stripe down the middle of the road is designed to keep vehicles going in opposite directions apart. This was the only country I visited where I was actually concerned about my safety in traffic.
I ran into a group of about 30 police, all on BMW's, in rural France. They were out with two instructors, finishing the "proficiency" training that is required before they can be assigned to ride motorcycles. I was invited to ride along with them (they had a great 130 km long route laid out). Towards the end of the day, the chief instructor suggested that maybe I could lead the pack, and asked that I keep up a "challenging" pace for the students. So - I wicked it out of there, scraping pegs in the corners and hitting 160 to 180 km/h on the straights through all the secondary and tertiary roads, with a pack of 30 cops following way behind me. I always slow right down to 40 or 50 when I go through villages (too many kids, dogs, pedestrians, etc.), but the cops would come ripping through the villages in one big wolfpack at Warp 7, with all their blue lights on, in order to catch up the distance they had lost to me during the rural riding. What a howl, it was the highlight of my trip. They bought me dinner at the end of the route.
All of the customs and immigration people I met, everywhere, were very efficient. When I crossed borders, I was only asked to show my passport about half the time – the other half of the time, I was just waved through in order to keep the traffic moving. No-one ever asked to see motorcycle papers, etc. The longest stop I ever had at a border crossing was about 30 seconds. I think all the border guards and immigration people are focusing all their attention on economic migrants and potential terrorists now, they generally could not care less about recreational motorcycle riders.
There are a surprising number of toll roads now in Central Europe, but the tolls are pretty cheap. The Croatian tolls, by example, worked out to about USD 2 per 100 miles. That’s a heck of a difference compared to the French tolls, which were pretty expensive. In Hungary, Slovakia and Austria, you buy a motorway sticker for less than USD 10, it’s good for 7 to 10 days. In Switzerland, the only sticker available costs USD 25 for a year, but you really don’t need to use the motorways in Switzerland, the country is pretty small and the secondary roads are wonderful and will get you where you want to go just as quickly.
Had one minor accident this trip - I had stopped alongside a narrow road to take a picture, and the ground gave out under my right foot. The bike, all 400 kg of it, tumbled upside down into the very deep ditch at the side of the road. Some scratches and a broken mirror and windshield, but nothing serious. It took 6 people to get it out of the ditch, but I was able to ride it away.
I’m back in Canada now but have left my bike in Switzerland, hopefully I’ll get back in a few weeks to finish this tour off.
[This message has been edited by PanEuropean (edited 21 July 2002).]
Where did you go when you were in England then?
We have got some lovely countryside and our country is FULL of historic places to visit,
no matter what part of the country you are in.
I dont know how you could say "Not much impressed".
I agree it is expencive, but if our country is that bad for tourist not to be imprssed with it, then I think our tourist board need to do something about it.
I went to Spain this year and I found it breath taking in the Mountains and in the areas away from the coast.
The Spanish were freindly and it was cheap in the areas I visited.
[This message has been edited by Carl 389 (edited 24 November 2002).]
Sorry, I didn't mean to knock England by saying it was not a nice country to visit, I just didn't think it was a nice country to RIDE in. Perhaps if I had a smaller bike (instead of a PanEuropean) and more of an interest in looking at historic locations, etc. I would have had a good time.
Concerning RIDING in England, I found the country to be rather congested (as would be expected, considering the population density), radar cameras everywhere, and it was kind of off-putting to be on the 'other' side of the road.
Belgium - not too densely populated, at least, not where I went - good riding, gobs of interesting things to see, not a lot of traffic, no speed cameras.
I would like to go back to England at some time in the future and spend a month or so there, but I think I would rent a small bike (500cc or so) and not plan to put a lot of miles on it - perhaps spend more time looking at the places of interest, and less time riding.
Hope that puts it in perspective, and my apologies for any offence I gave.
Excellent report, especially the parts refering to eastern Europe.
Despite the Euro, I've found Spain to be cheap, not suffering from massive price hikes in the same way as France or Germany. I think it's more expensive on the coast but inland it's good value for money. In the Picos last year, we had a double room in a Pension for 16 Euros total, breakfast was 3.00 each.
Found it strange that Andorra was not mentioned as it is very cheap for just about everything?
just a thought on spain - i spent ten days in the north of that country last summer (2003). it was splendid. beautiful touring roads, lovely scenery (more like scotland than the arid south) friendly people (try the basque country) cheap food, drink and accommodation.
we travelled - almost always 'on piste' (my trophy 900 isn't designed for dirt tracks) from santander west to navia then cut south towards grandas de salime into some fabulous curvy, tight, hilly, river valley roads.
we spent a couple of days in santiago de compostella - one city that everyone should visit before they die, a magic place.
travelling east from there to ponferrada along the new road which traces the river sil was an experience not to be missed, too. bigger, more open cruising territory in mountains and hills. gorgeous.
then on to the picos de europa - bigger, more majestic and impressive landscape - more like switzerland, here. i'm not the most experienced motorbike tourer, but it's difficult to imagine anything better to do on a bike.
we went through the basque country - fabulous people and food (go see the guggenheim it's worth the trip - although the roads around bilbao get a bit crappy), down to pamplona and on over the pyrennees and so into france.
i don't know about other parts of spain - but this part is very well worth the trouble. i guarantee it.
Ah, there's nothing like a one line put down to raise some patriotic voices! Reminds me of the most succinct travel review ever; Mostly Harmless!
As a Briton working abroad, with a fair amount of European travel under my belt, I'd have to say that pretty much all the European countries (even Holland!) have something to offer the bike tourer. But also, choose the wrong time of day in the wrong place and everywhere in Europe can be a dreary nightmare for a biker. (Although I agree with TChallen about Belgium.)
Michael, for future trips I'd recomend posting here for some advice on roads to ride, places to avoid, etc. I think most of us could have told you that the Costa del Sol is not a biking Mecca. Though, as people have said, go a little inland and there's great touring to be had. And as for the Picos, well no Viagra needed there!
As for England, forget the small bike and that culture stuff, take the Pan and head for the South West, Mid-Wales, The Peaks, Yorkshire, The Highlands, etc. And currently we're one of the few toll free places in Europe, if you're going the use motorways in the first place.
Nice story about the cops, I've been pulled in France purely so they can have a gander at the bike and talk motos! Nice!
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