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21st Century Motorcycle Touring in Europe

Part 1: Solo? Group? Where to Go?

Publishers note: In the early 2000s, moto journalist Colleen First headed into the Alaska frontier on her motorcycle and brought us back a four-part series on her travels, as well as a feature story about what riders need to know about touring through Alaska. A few years later she headed to Mexico and documented her travels. Once again, we were able to share her wisdom with others. Then she moved to Europe and that was that – or was it? She recently contacted me and asked if we'd like a feature on 21st traveling smarts for Europe by motorcycle. Of course, we couldn't say no, so after a decade of living abroad, take it from a seasoned world traveler, then book your passage. TM


So, you want to ride in Europe. Excellent! But now what? There are a lot of resources online that go over some of the basics, and I will too. But I hope to add a little personal touch that tells you something the others haven't. Let's start at the beginning: what kind of trip do you want to take?

Photo: Choose a century in the last 10 or 15, and there's sure to be a castle destination for you and your motorcycle during a future visit to just about anywhere in Europe.

Tour group or solo rider?

This really depends on a few factors:

  • How much time do you have?
  • How much money do you have?
  • How much "adventure" do you want?

There are pros and cons to each type of trip through Europe, and it is a highly personal decision. For me, the third point is the most important one: regardless of money and time, it is the type of holiday that you want that should drive your final decision.

For some of you, it might be your first time to Europe and you are unsure of "how things work," or concerned about the languages, currency and even the rules of the road. Or it could be that you don't want to have to think about things: someone else is there who knows the good roads, the good hotels, the good restaurants. They know the local conditions and customs. You pay your money, and everything is provided for: the bike, the support vehicle, the guide, the rooms and meals. Your guide might be full of information about historical locations or events. If you run out of gas, someone is there to bring you a canister of fuel. Or worse: if there is an accident, you have someone who knows how to respond and who to call. Going with a tour group can also provide a ready-made group of like-minded people. At the end of the day, you can sit around at your mountaintop hotel and relive the day's ride or talk about previous or future trips.

Or you can go it alone.

Photo: Beyond the Alps, you could spend endless days touring just the coastal regions of Europe.

There are many places in Europe that rent motorcycles for days or weeks at a time. Air Canada even offers a special deal of shipping your motorcycle with you on the plane. But renting is easy: if you go with a reputable agency, you'll get a late-model bike that is set up for the type of riding you want to do, recently serviced and with the required documentation. A couple of the rental places that I am aware of are near Zürich and Milan, two locations that are easy to get to, and fun to ride from.

The benefits of riding without a tour group are some of the cons of riding with one. You have the freedom of riding whichever roads you want, as many times as you like and at whatever pace you prefer. You are the boss of your own time. Want to hit the road early? Go for it. Want to keep riding well into the evening? Go for it. Don't like the people you've met? Go somewhere else. Of course, you're also losing out on your interpreter, but perhaps you embrace the challenge of trying to communicate with someone using only your hands and a couple of words.

To be honest, I have never joined an extended motorcycle tour group. My only experience with any type of guided motorcycle ride was a one day, off-road adventure in Spain. Although even just that one day give me an insight as to what it might be like for me on a two-wheeled organized holiday. I loved that our guide knew the roads and which trails to take, and I had only to follow along. We passed through forests and farmlands and crossed a few streams: all places I wouldn't have found on my own. But I really chafed at not being able to stop to take photos, or slow down to admire a particular view, or even go more slowly when the track was rough. Yes, our guide seemed agreeable to making adjustments for my requests (there were just three of us plus the guide, and we were good friends), but when it came time to actually slow down, or stop, it just didn't happen the way I wanted it to. By the end of the day, my resentment had slowly overwhelmed my appreciation and I was left with a negative view of the day.

This is not to say that I have sworn off motorcycle tour companies. I have ambitions to take a tour through several African countries and in a situation like that, I would appreciate the guiding hands of someone who knows the customs and laws, where the best riding is, and any areas that should be avoided. Knowing what I learned from my time in Spain, I now understand better what to look for in a tour company, to better meet my own personal needs.

It really comes down to you and what you want out of your holiday and I really can't stress enough that this is where your decisions should start.

Best places to go

Ok, so now that you've decided to come to Europe for a motorcycle holiday, where do you go? Most motorcyclists come to Europe to do one thing: ride the Alps. This is an understandable goal, and one that I would not deter anyone from striving for. But keep in mind that Europe is more than just a single mountain range: there are numerous places to ride other than the Dolomites or the French and Swiss Alps. For example, there are the more laid back and empty roads through the Vosges (France) and Jura (Switzerland) mountains. The Pyrenees are spectacular and not nearly as crowded as the famous Swiss passes that we've all heard of. Northern Spain is a quiet wonder of mountains and ocean views. Croatia is more than just a coastal country, with mountains that climb dramatically from the shore and work their way to the Bosnian border. Romania, Hungary and Slovenia are full of excellent yet relatively empty roads.

One mistake that many people make when planning their European trip is thinking that they can hit half a dozen countries in one shot, ticking off passes on their list. While the continent is not that big, the travel time between cities isn't as fast as one would expect. The little villages that dot the landscape are slow and unavoidable (unless you get on the motorway, but then what's the point?). The mountain roads are narrow and twisty and while the speed limit might be posted at 90 kph, you'd often be hard-pressed to hit 70; and 60 is often a more reasonable pace. Trying to calculate a route on Google doesn't account for the above very well, and you might find yourself scrambling to reach your daily destinations.

All of this assumes that you are coming to see the roads and the views. Cultural destinations are an entirely different barrel of fish, and one that will take careful planning on your part. Most non-motorcycle-related destinations are in cities, and the cities can be chaotic to ride in. I myself avoid riding into the cities when at all possible. They add so much stress to a ride that any appreciation I might have had for them would be vanquished by the annoyance of dealing with the maze of streets, impatient drivers and thick traffic. That isn't to say that there aren't interesting things cultural places to see outside of the cities, though. The Vosges Mountains that I mentioned earlier parallel some of Alsace's most beautiful villages in the heart of wine country. The Pyrenees are dotted with ancient hilltop fortresses and castles. And Northern Spain has a food and wine culture that is worthy of a visit on its own merits.

Best places not to go

I am not really one to shy away from riding somewhere just because someone from the government told me that it is dangerous. Sure, I'll take their caution under advisement, but I'll also do my own research into the what and why of the warning. That being said, I cannot think of anywhere in Europe that I would deter someone from visiting.

Your own tolerance level of what you think is dangerous will affect how you see things, but on a broad scale, Europe is a very safe place. Of course, you should always be aware of your surroundings and listen to your gut instinct. But on the other side of the coin, be prepared to embrace the differences between European and North American cultures. If you eat only at McDonalds and stay in your safe hotel room, you'll miss out on the experience of "life in Europe."

Colleen First/November 2018

-- end of part one. Stay tuned to the next issue for part two. --

Need more from Colleen in the meantime? Enjoy her blog at http://dantesdame.com/


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