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Special Travel Issue | Europe

Fast Times in the Alps

Motorcycling Through Germany, Switzerland, Italy and Austria on the Ultimate Guy Trip

March 30, 2003|Craig Ligibel | Craig Ligibel lives in Mission Hills, Kan. He last wrote for the Sunday Travel section about the Margaret River wine region of Australia.

The rain and sleet beat a staccato on my motorcycle helmet and penetrated my protective clothing, while the wind drove the icy little daggers deeper into my skin. My hands ached from clinging to a cloth strap that kept me attached to the back seat of a BMW motorcycle.

John Valentine, my friend and business partner, was doing the hard work, maneuvering the curves of this Italian alpine road. I was just along for the ride, and I took comfort in knowing that he had driven 50,000 accident-free miles on a motorcycle. John handled the bike expertly, but I tightened my grip and offered a prayer to the biker gods anyway.

The deteriorating weather matched the worsening road as we traversed the Passo de Lanza, overlooking the Lago di Garda region of northern Italy, on this, the fifth day of our nine-day motorcycle tour through Europe's majestic Alps. We had switchbacked up a narrow but serviceable road for a time, but the surface changed to patches of loose gravel alternating with poorly maintained blacktop, a treacherous combination for a motorcycle in the best circumstances. Added to that was a fog so thick we couldn't see our comrades 20 feet ahead of us. It took 40 minutes to claw our way to the top of the pass, dodging slick leaves, rocks and the occasional pile of animal droppings.

To our left was a 2,000-foot drop-off. To our right was a rock-strewn landscape.

I was too numb and too scared to ponder why I'd paid $2,700 for this little bit of bliss on the back of a bike. Maybe when I thawed out it wouldn't seem quite so much like a masochistic motorcyclist's idea of a good time.

Or maybe it would.

In an e-mail three months earlier, John had dangled the prospect of making a 1,500-mile alpine adventure with longtime friends. We would begin in Munich, head south to Switzerland, tour the Italian Lakes region, then work our way back to Munich by way of Austria. John and three others, including a guide, would ride motorcycles; three of us would tag along in a chase car. I occasionally joined John on the back of the bike

"If you come on this trip, you'll remember it forever," John wrote to me. "If you don't come, you'll forget what you did those nine days as soon as you turn the page on your Day-Timer."

That clinched it.

We booked the tour with Hermann Weil, who, with his wife, Hermine, runs Munich-based Munchner Freiheit, one of Europe's largest motorcycle touring companies. Last year it led about 3,200 bikers on 350 tours, mostly in Europe but some as far away as South America.

This was John's eighth trip with Hermann. Indeed, John was the thread connecting our group of six. He, Scott McCormick and I had been friends and business associates in the advertising world in Kansas City, Mo., for more than 30 years. Phil Jones and John Rose, the other non-bikers in the group, had known Valentine since their fraternity days in the '60s at the University of Missouri in Columbia. Twenty-four-year-old Brandon Nott was the son of a friend of John's and the only single member of our group. The rest of us had embarked on this adventure last October with the permission of our spouses, to whom we had promised presents and a year's worth of the penance of her choice.

Manfred Fruhbeiss was our Munchner Freiheit guide and had accompanied John, Scott and Phil on previous trips. He was living proof of the dichotomous German personality: He had an irrepressible urge to have fun, and he had a passion for details. With his good looks, impish grin and the confession that he sometimes gained a couple of pounds a day on tours like this, Manfred was our kind of tour guide.

We gathered at the Weil farmstead 20 miles southeast of Munich, where Hermine was preparing one of her famous dinners. She had spent the day simmering a stew that Hermann promised would provide a fitting gastronomic send-off.

Midway through the meal, we started trying to guess which parts of what animal had gone into this stew. Liver? Stomach? Intestines? Veal? Pork? Mutton? Hermann was clearly amused. "It's a delicacy I predict you have never tasted before," he said with a devilish look.

We were still stumped.

"Do you remember that pen of sheep we passed earlier today?" he asked. "Those little critters have all contributed in their own way to this stew." Then it hit us: Hermine had served us the alpine equivalent of Rocky Mountain oysters. We had just consumed enough testosterone to feed our libidos for eternity.

Not a bad way to start this, the ultimate guy trip.

It became clear as we assembled our gear for the trip into Munich that we were a troop of high-tech junkies. The bikers had a hands-free communication system that enabled them to talk with one another. Those of us in the chase car could communicate with them on handsets.

Brandon had loaded his iPod digital music system with 500 songs, ranging from the Beatles to Beethoven, and he programmed different selections for different driving events: hard-driving rock for zipping down the autobahn, something mellower for the countryside.

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