The ride from San Francisco to Vancouver went smoothly, amazingly enough no rain until the last leg from Seattle to Vancouver. Not what I expected in an area sometimes referred to as the "Pacific Northwet".
Not surprisingly, the Transalp has performed very well. The custom Wilbers rear shock and the progressive front fork springs that were installed prior to departure transform the bike when fully loaded. I figure I have at least 100 lbs of luggage and gear and Erika is not even on the bike yet. But the new suspension allows me to cruise at speeds of 75-80mph with complete confidence. I would highly recommend these modifications to any rider contemplating any extended touring.
Riding in the rain is much easier when one has the proper rain gear. On the advice of Jake, a rider I met a couple of days ago at Mike and Lori's home, I purchased a "Fog City" shield from Ride West BMW in Seattle yesterday. This is a strip of plastic which adheres to the inside of the helmet face shield and prevents the inside of the shield from fogging. It works kind of like a double paned window, trapping a small layer of air between the shield and the plastic strip. It rained all day today, I kept the shield down the whole time and my face shield never fogged up. Incredible!
A huge thanks to my friends Reina and Blake in Seattle and Michael and Lori in Washogal, WA (outside of Portland) for extending some wonderful hospitality. Michael took this cool photo of me leaving his home in the morning.
The big task of today was dropping off the bike at Worldwide Animal Travel at the Vancouver Airport. The folks there were very helpful and getting the bike ready was a breeze. I just had to have less than 1/4 tank of gas remaining, the battery cables disconnected and taped, and the dirt and grime on the bike wiped down. They even helped me clean the bike! The bike will be shipped out on Monday, it needs to be delivered to the shipper at least 48 hours prior to departure. I will give everyone a full shipping report in Paris after the bike arrives.
Tomorrow morning I will be boarding a flight to Paris where I will meet up with Erika and our friends Tony and Caroline. The bike arrives 4 days later at Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris on Wednesday morning, April 13. In the meantime, we will have some quality time to explore Paris!
We couldn't have had a nicer start to our time in France than being able to stay with Dave's friends Tony and Caroline in their cute little Parisian flat, conveniently located just steps away from the kebab house and the croissant bakery. It was tough to tear ourselves away from all that good food and hospitality, but being the dedicated travellers that we have committed ourselves to be for the next year or so, we hauled ourselves out of bed each morning at the crack of dawn (okay, maybe it was more like some time before 11:30) to discover all the charming neighborhoods and tourists haunts we could find. As the motorcycle did not get shipped until a few days after we did, we relied on our feet and the Metro to get us where we wanted to go.
Our personal tourguides had the weekend to orient us to the town. Had some great Greek food in the Latin Quarter, then stood in the fast-moving line to enter Notre Dame Cathedral. Who would have known that you could take the elevator to the roof of La Samaritaine, a big trendy department store, to get a scenic view of the Seine River.
Of course it took a while to drag Dave away from all the haute Parisian fashion he wanted to buy. Gotta love those cute plaid handbags, a nice complement to the Transalp paint job.
Next day we checked out the Arc de France, a modern structure allegedly big enough to encase the Arc de Triomphe (with room left over for the pidgeons). Not too far from the Champs Elysees, where real high class city folk shop for the latest GAP jeans. Further exploration led to the Place de la Concorde, a huge square surrounded by government establishments and a great Egyptian obelisk, and the Jardin des Tuilleries, not too vibrant with spring flowers in the April chill but still quite a draw for all the Parisian workers who seemed quite content munching their big ham-and-cheese baguettes for an extended lunch break.
Monday we spent an aesthetic morning at the Louvre purveying treasures from Egypt to England. Dave felt he was just as mysterious and intriguing as the Mona Lisa and stood for some time near the original to see if other viewers found him as lovely. Most viewers seemed to focus more on the Mona Lisa. No accounting for taste.
Finished up with a panoramic view from the chilly Eiffel Tower--in retrospect we were pretty lucky as that afternoon was the only one on our trip so far where the sky wasn't a blanket of clouds and rain.
That evening Tony and Caroline rounded up a bunch of French friends to have drinks at a smoky club in the up-and-coming Butte-Aux-Cailles neighborhood. Erika could figure out a few words of their lively banter, but both she and Dave were glad they could manage a few more words of English. Caroline is a native of France who has spent time in San Francisco, as well as New Zealand, from whence Tony hails. Her fluency in French and English came in handy way more than once, as we attempted to navigate menus, subways, and motorcycle pick-ups. After drinks, we headed down the street to find a restaurant special enough to qualify for a birthday dinner for Dave (who spent his actual birthday Erika-less at the International House of Pancakes in Vancouver). Had a traditional French meal with tasty fried tripe and white wine. Wish Dave had enjoyed his main course as much as the fried tripe--though he is not fond either of boiled vegetables or fatty gristly meat, he wound up ordering "Pot Au Feu", which, loosely translated, seems to mean something like "boiled vegetables with fatty gristly meat". Mmmm.
Dave happily got a taste of reconnection with his beloved missing Transalp the next day when we stumbled across a street packed with motorcycle stores. REALLY tricky to pull him away from brand-new European Transalps and all the accompanying gear. He was conveniently able to locate a Honda place that had a computer specific enough to show the actual obscure part he needed (somehow the word escaped him en Français). Buoyed by contact with motorcycle parts, he was able to endure another afternoon on foot climbing the steps of the Sacre Coeur church. We loved Montmartre, the hilly neighborhood once frequented by Picasso, Dali, and other creative types of an earlier era and now frequented by busloads of rowdy foreign tourists.
Luckily for us we seem to have arrived a few weeks before the tourist buses. (in a week Erika's parents will be arriving in Montmartre for a two week tour, but since her mom is Swiss and her dad is honorary Swiss they don't count as foreign. Though they have been known to get pretty rowdy. Have a great trip M & D!! :)
We went out for our "last meal" with Tony and Caroline to a Thai/Lao/Cambodian restaurant in their neighborhood (sometimes known as "the chinatown of Paris"). It was great, but boy did we fool them about the "last meal" part. Our plan to leave early the next morning to pick up the bike at Charles de Gaulle Airport was thwarted when we found out the next morning that the bike hadn't arrived on time. (or so we told Caroline, who was then obligated to cook more meals for us. clever, huh.) So we bravely suffered through another day eating cheese crepes and croissants and exploring the Biblioteque François Mitterand (four modern buildings designed to look like open books, allegedly the largest book collection in the world). Erika wanted to tell our hosts that the bike STILL hadn't arrived the day later, but Dave could only be separated from his motorcycle for so long.......
Thursday morning we went to Charles De Gaulle Airport just north of Paris to pick up the Transalp. Getting there was easy, the metro took us very close to the airport and we boarded a bus which dropped us directly in front of the freight company holding our bike.
Retrieving the bike was straightforward. The bike was shipped from Canada on KLM Cargo, but Swissport was the agent in Paris. After picking up the paperwork from Swissport we then walked about a half mile to the French Customs office. The customs officials were very friendly and were mainly concerned if we were planning on selling the bike in France (if so, they wanted duty on the value of the bike), and whether we had the required "green card insurance" which is mandatory for all vehicles travelling in Europe. After explaining that we had no plans to sell the bike and showing our insurance card, the customs officials wished us luck and we were on our way back to Swissport to get the bike. We showed the Swissport officials the customs documents, paid a fee of 64 euros and were shown the Transalp parked out back in the warehouse.
The whole customs process was very simple, it probably took no more than two hours from the time we arrived to the time we were reunited with the bike. Everyone was very helpful during the entire process, although Erika's knowledge of French sped things up a bit.
We were finally on the road! The bike was shipped with less than a quarter tank of gas, so the first order of business was finding a gas station. After figuring out which gas pump was fuel and which was diesel, we filled up the Transalp with some liquid gold. Fuel in France is a whopping $6.00 per gallon! So no pity will be sent back to the States on account of the record prices back there. It's no wonder that everyone drives such small cars over here. Like the little Smart Car that Erika wanted to stuff in our motorcycle top box.
Getting out of Paris was a challenge. We made a mistake of not buying a decent map of France as we only planned on spending a couple of days in the country. After riding around in circles for nearly an hour, we finally made our way to the motorway heading in the general direction of north. Of course, we wanted to be heading east, but at least it was a start.
After an hour on the motorway and nearly getting our credit cards eaten at the tollbooths, we decided that French motorways were just as boring as American freeways. A change of scenery was urgently needed!
The next off ramp deposited us into a completely different world, the beautiful countryside of the Champagne region. Rolling, green hills, charming small villages and smooth twisty roads made for an unforgettable motorcycling experience. Unfortunately, we were in such awe that we neglected to take any photos. Doh!
Each village looked straight out of a postcard, with golden stone walled homes and farmhouses, perfectly preserved. We pulled off the road for a rest stop near an old church with gravestones from the 19th century, where the only sound was birdsong from the pastures nearby. As a matter of fact, where WERE all the people in those villages? Maybe we really were driving through a movie set.
Along the way, the Transalp developed a peculiar problem. The bike ran out of gas within 15 miles of switching the fuel tank to reserve. It was strange, since there was still a good gallon of fuel remaining in the tank. Erika was not thrilled at running out of gas in the middle of the countryside on the first day on the road. We tipped the bike on its left side to allow extra fuel to settle near the petcock and the bike fired right up. Fortunately a gas station was within a couple of miles, so we filled the tank back to the top and the problem disappeared. Dave installed an inline fuel filter prior to departure and suspected that perhaps there was not enough of a "head" of pressure to move the fuel through the newly installed filter. This was still a surprise as Dave had already ridden the bike over 1000 miles with the same setup and hadn't had a problem. If anyone has any thoughts on this please let Dave know.
Everything was so picturesque that our 4 hour drive turned into 9 hours. We were due to arrive at Dave's friend Anne's mom's house in Le Val d'Ajol around 6:00, but 6:00 found us not even close. Using the Visa card in the local telephone was not an option to let her know that we were running late, nor was purchasing a phone card which apparently is the only way to operate the phone. We hoped that buying a nice bottle of wine would be a small appeasement for the worry we ended up causing her by being 3 1/2 hours late. At almost 10:00 PM we finally rolled up to her home. Anne's mom Annie and her sister Madeleine forgave our tardiness and fed us local specialties such as rabbit pate and cherries preserved in liqueur.
We had a great night's sleep and woke up late to a nice breakfast with Annie. The view from her place in the morning was great--green green valley, cherry trees in bloom, church turrets and red roofed farmhouses. Her daughter and two beautiful granddaughters joined us for a while. We wished we had had more time to explore this region, known in France for its charm and beauty, but had to move on to meet up with Erika's parents in Switzerland that day.
Leaving Le Val D`Ajol, we ascended smooth twisty roads through the French countryside into the rolling hills of the Swiss Jura region. This area is not known on the typical tourist route but is filled with beautiful scenery; old farmhouses; and cheese, watch, and chocolate factories. The closer we got to Cormoret, the very small town where Erika spent many summers with her mom's family in her younger days, the chillier it became. Those were supposed to be green fields where horses grazed in the sunshine! But they were covered with snow! Erika was reminded by the icy rain that she did actually own a heated vest and it was about time to try it out.
Erika's parents' warm greeting, however, warmed us up. And for the next week the we were warmed (and fattened) up with hot meals of regional Swiss specialties by different groups of Erika's relatives. First day was a big Raclette lunch (note: lunches usually start around breakfast and go through dinner). This dish consists of a huge half-wheel of cheese placed under a special grilling machine that you only own if you are a Swiss cheesemaker, which Erika's Uncle Hans-Ueli conveniently happens to have been. When the cheese begins to bubble, a big blob of it is scooped off onto your plate which has been filled with potatoes and pickles and onions. Erika was not able to top her childhood record of 8 helpings but Dave came pretty close.
We were also treated to a big sausage lunch by cousin Noelle and her husband Yann. Sausage lunch consists of at least 4 delicious types of regional sausages placed over a special grilling machine that you only know how to make if you are a Swiss butcher, which Yann conveniently happens to be.
On other occasions we enjoyed immense individual pizzas at a local restaurant (did we mention that lunch traditionally begins before breakfast and continues until after dinner), oven-roasted chicken and risotto (at Tante Erika and Uncle Marco's beautiful chalet), and Thai chicken coconut soup (at cousin Kiki and Marco`s wild and crazy tri-level apartment with winding staircase through the center and airplane chairs and food cabinets straight off some SwissAir plane, where Kiki has worked for many years. Shhh, don't tell SwissAir!) Naturally at all the meals there was lots of wine and beer to wash everything down. We were happy.
We did roll away from the dining table long enough to check out the watch museum with Erika`s parents in La Chaux de Fonds, a nearby city which is in the region's "Watch Valley". Many prestigious Swiss watch manufacturers are based in this region and the museum is comprehensive and modern. At those prices Dave will have to wait to add to his Rolex collection.
Overall there didn`t seem to be a whole lot of motivation to take off for campgrounds, grocery store bread and cheese, and long hours on the road since we were being wined and dined--and we were waking up to new snowfall every morning. Luckily it was lots of fun just to hang out with Erika`s folks in the chalet her grandfather built, relaxing and chatting and generally being spoiled. Thanks to all the great people in Switzerland: M & D, Hans-Ueli and Erika, Dany and Janine, Erika and Marco, Kiki and Marcos, Noelle and Yann, Dominique and Gilles, Martin and Valerie and Zoe and Samia, and the two little ones on the way (congratulations K & M and N & Y!!!)
And the snow finally melted... (see Cormoret below:)
For our last hurrah in Switzerland, Erika`s parents took us up to the Appenzell, a region in the northeast part of the country (they offered us the use of their rental car if we'd agree to let my mom drive the Transalp with my dad on the back, but backed down after we promised them a nice dinner at the hotel). Luck was with us and it was the first day of sunshine we'd seen in the country. As we rode through Interlaken, we could actually see the surrounding high mountain peaks covered in snow which Dave to that point did not believe actually existed in Switzerland. The lake was deep blue and the towns bordering the waters postcard-picturesque.
Everywhere daffodils were blooming, including at a peaceful cemetary below the high mountain peaks. Exiting the lake region, windy roads ascended into the rolling green hills and big farmhouses of the Appenzell.
Appenzell town was rather tricky to navigate, leading us to a few close calls as we tried to turn left, for example, onto narrow roads where in the cross-street cars seemed oblivious to the existence of any other traffic. Finally we spotted Erika's mom sitting conveniently in front of the tourist office where we'd planned to meet. We had (another) delicious meal that night after strolling around town.
The Santis beckoned the next day. A short scenic drive (yes, we were actually in the car this time) took us to the foot of this mountaintop, and we hopped onto the aerial tram to the top. We didn't anticipate such another world up there, with dramatic snowy vistas reaching as far as the eye could see. We took what looked like an established path to the summit but rapidly turned into a slippery ice-encrusted scramble. It was also fun to roam up and down the modern structure enclosing at least two restaurants with panoramic views through their picture windows. For once we did not stop and eat anything.
One last sentimental good-bye to Erika's parents, and we were off again, this time to see what Liechtenstein was all about.
When you read your campground guidebook and get all excited because the football field-sized country of Liechtenstein has about 20 campgrounds, you are ultimately disappointed to realize that the country with 20 campgrounds was actually LUXEMBOURG and that your campground guidebook does not even LIST the football field-sized country of Liechtenstein. However, if you are travelling with Dave, you still live happily ever after because he can simply ASK A QUESTION to some local Liechtensteinian who of course will know that a campground exists just down the hill in lovely Treisen. So you head on over, and a lovely campground it is indeed. 27 Swiss francs ($23 usd) had better buy you some loveliness. Apple blossoms waft gracefully down upon your tent in the breeze, cute trailers decked with wood carvings reflecting traditions of the Alps line the hillside, snowy mountain peaks peak out from behind clearing clouds, and "Biergarten" proclaims the sign. Not an RV to be seen. Hardly a step down from living indoors.
The next day we set out to explore the terrain. Views get better and better as we climb up to Malbun, a ski area more like a ghost town on this Sunday morning. Dave insists that Erika take a photo of him that will make it look like he has struggled valiantly through the snow on the bike. She doesn't try too hard.
Back down the mountain, we wind up in Balzers, which has beckoned with its castle atop a hill right smack in the center of town. We've come back down from the castle and are ready to hop back on the bike when we strike up a conversation with a friendly local family, Adrian and Mary and their kids Ursina and Moritz. Adrian and Mary speak great English and are kind enough to invite these internet-starved tourists into their home for conversation and computers. Erika tries to chase Ursina down with the camera but though Ursina (who just had her 12th birthday) has all the makings of a high fashion model, she plays coy and will just barely allow herself to be caught on digital camera. We had a great afternoon and send thanks for all their hospitality! (Incidentally, they just happen to live in a home with a castle pretty much literally in their backyard, which they found pretty boring but we thought was pretty cool).
Hi, I am a map of Austria. This is what I look like:
/\ /\ /\ /\ /\ /\ /\ /\ /\ /\ /\ /\ /\
/ \/ \/ \/ \/ \/ \/ \/ \/ \/ \/ \/ \/ \..............
Dave and Erika think they want to take some nice wind-y roads through my snowy peaks and rainy valleys, so off they go through the Tirol. Once again, the higher up they go the greyer the skies get and the snowier the roadsides become. It appears, in fact, that the entire country of Austria is one big ski resort. One in, say, six buildings looks like an actual residence, while the other 5 have "guesthouse" signs posted outside. The guesthouses vie for opulence with their carved balconies and fresco-painted exteriors, but few seem to have cars parked in front--it is probably too late in the season to do any real skiing. This does not stop Dave from proclaiming every ten minutes that he loves Austria and wants to come back to do some prolonged experimentation on the slopes.
Mist rolls in and Erika gets a little nervous on the icy roads. No need to worry, or at least not about the driving. The weather, on the other hand, is still a little tedious. More rain as we descend into slightly greener valleys, and more chill. We are hungry and tired and stop for a late lunch at one of the ubiquitous "M Preis" grocery stores with its attached cafe-bakery. Erika's mood skyrockets after she indulges in a hot latte and the most delicious almond custard pastry ever baked in Austria.
As we descend, the valley opens up into more small villages that appear to be 90% guesthouses. There are no shabby homes to be found; each one is substantial, attractive, and well-kept. Dave definitely wants to live here. Erika likes things a little scruffier around the edges. Green, green, green, surrounded by more snowy mountain peaks. We easily find the campground outside of Innsbruck as the rain buckets down. It is not so hard for the campground manager to persuade us to rent a "caravan" for two nights instead of pitching the tent. We peel off our soggy clothing which takes up most of the space inside our miniature orange-curtained trailer home, complete with non-functioning stove and toilet. We love our cozy home and sleep well as the rain echoes on the roof.
After indulging in sleeping in til 9:30, we hop on the bike for a quick ride into the stately, attractive, substantial and well-kept town of Innsbruck.
The buildings lining the river have been painted various pastel shades which make a scenic foreground to the snowy mountains which make a scenic background to the pastel buildings which make a perfect setting for us to take a scenic photo to slap onto the front of our webpage. (Erika has had enough of being introduced with a photo of the Transalp.)
We walk all over the elegant old town which is not yet swarming with tourists and buy thrilling things such as toothpaste and sunscreen. Innsbruck was two-time host of the Winter Olympics and still boasts a dramatic ski-run that looks like a giant green slide landing on the rooftops over town. We imagine it would have been a gorgeous place to stay if you'd been lucky enough to afford tickets and hotels.
We continue south through the alpine scenery the next day with better weather. We are riding now through Hohe Tauern National Park, a protected alpine area with more peaks and valleys and a large waterfall that we can't really see from the road. In tourist season the waterfall area is apparently open as some type of amusement park, with water slides and exhibits such as a "water yo-yo" and a high entrance price. The long tunnels also have high entrance prices. You gotta pay what you gotta pay.
The last stop in this quick jaunt through Austria is the town of Spittal, where we camp in a simple deserted campsite near the river. We buy "kebab" for dinner (like gyros at home), the cheapest option in a town filled with $25 restaurant entrees. The guy is very flustered by our order of two kebabs and has a hard time with our request to take the kebabs "to go"--even though everyone else is ordering "to go" and some Austrian teenagers translate our elaborate pantomime. It takes about half an hour to get our dinner which we eat on a pretty square with fountain and small castle next door.
Spittal is not so kind to Dave the next day when he tries to withdraw cash from the money machine. He tries about 4 times and is told by the machine that the amount requested is over the limit and that his card is not accepted internationally. He tries again in the next town and has the same response. The banker looks into it and says he needs to call his bank. Small fiasco ensues trying to get a calling card and figuring out how to use it. Bank says Dave withdrew 350 euros and is thus over the limit. Dave TRIED to withdraw euros but didn't get anything! Back to the first bank, which verifies that he didn't get anything. Later, in Slovenia, he finds out that his bank has charged him a bunch for each attempted withdrawal (about 9) as well. The kindness of Domen, a friendly Slovenian guy who runs a local tourist adventure company called 3Glav, is what ultimately gets Dave through the financial mess. Domen keeps his shop open late to let Dave use the computer and the phone, with no charge. Next time you are in Bled, Slovenia and want to do some river rafting or hiking, give Domen a call. Thanks Domen!
The roads in France, Switzerland and Austria to date have been a dream to ride on a motorcycle. The road surfaces are smooth, with no bumps, potholes, imperfections or anything. Much better road conditions than in the US. And twisty, twisty, twisty, with curves everywhere the eye can see, even on a fully loaded two-up motorcycle we could enjoy some serious lean angles.
The drivers so far have been very courteous and highly skilled. For the most part, other users of the road have also been very predictable, people seem to take their driving seriously here. And navigation has been easy, once you know a few towns in the general direction where you are headed, signs in the roundabouts and all through the towns & villages precisely guide you in the correct direction. The biggest riding challenge has been paying attention to the road when the scenery is so stunning!
In Switzerland and Austria we have seen many other motorcycles on the road, at least when the weather has been good, we seem to be the only riders out during adverse conditions. All kinds of bikes are represented, with a high concentration of sport bikes and BMWs. As in the US, most riders wave to each other when passing in opposite directions. Its a friendly riding atmosphere, similar to what we experience in California.
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