2,600km around Europe by motorcycle

IMG_0160View from the parking area at the Chateau de Trigance in the Gorges de Verdun national park.

And there’s still more to see!

Last week, I rented a KTM 990 Super Duke from Darcos Paris and rode from Paris to meet up with my friend Matt in Lucerne, Switzerland. Last year, we did about 1400 miles around the Old West, including Yosemite, Nevada Route 50, and southwestern Utah. When we realized that his summer trip to Europe overlapped with my sabbatical we jumped at the chance to get some miles (ahem, kms) through some of the most beautiful countryside in the world.

Generally speaking, you can rent a bike in France or Switzerland for 75-200 EUR/day depending on the make, model, and included mileage. Helmets are available for rent but jackets typically are not. I picked up a new leather jacket from Speed Wear Paris for about EUR 380 after the July liquidation discount and the VAT tax refund, which I think was a pretty good deal. Matt’s BMW S1000XR came with a GPS unit but the raw, no-frills KTM lacked even a charging port so I rigged a pretty good solution using a handlebar phone mount and a Mophie 8x batter pack in my pocket for navigation. Ultimately with GPS the software makes all the difference, so we preferred the routes from Google Maps to those built into the BMW’s GPS, although in many cases the directions were exactly the same.

The route (roughly):

Google Maps

The stopping points:

IMG_0039Reims, France. If you’re not on a champagne trip, there isn’t much to see here unfortunately. I wanted to check out the Porte de Mars but it is undergoing renovation as of August 2016. Grabbed lunch and kept going. The A4 autoroute from Paris to Reims is not particularly beautiful, but it’s the fastest way to get out of the traffic of Ile-de-France.

IMG_0044Nancy, France. Stopped for a coffee at the Grand Hotel Foy at the gilded Place Stanislaus. Interesting little town in that the Poles had a strong influence on this region of Lorraine some centuries ago. The “D” roads leading from Nancy to Strasbourg were a lot more interesting than the A4 autoroute and not too much slower. Lorraine was rolling hills, crumbling stone buildings, bales of hay, and some of the best scenery on the trip.

IMG_0045Strasbourg, France (overnight). A pretty cool town set on a river with obvious Teutonic influence. The best choucroute and spaetzle (at La Corde a Linge) I’ve ever had. The cathedral of Notre Dame de Strasbourg is not to be missed. I stayed at the Chateau de l’Ile Hotel & Spa just outside the city  — although I got in too late to use the pool, the food at the restaurant was quite good and the room had quite a bit of character. Strasbourg rush-hour traffic is about as bad as you’d expect, but I avoided much of it by staying outside the city.

IMG_0078Basel, Switzerland. As it was the Swiss “confederation day” most things were closed, but a lot of people were nonetheless outside enjoying the beautiful weather. Had time for a coffee in the downtown area before pressing on to Lucerne. Interestingly the border crossing just north of Basel was pretty much a non-issue, just a half-dozen of Swiss dudes in uniforms scratching their beards.

IMG_0092Lucerne, Switzerland (overnight). Met up with Matt and his girlfriend here and stayed overnight in the cleanest, nicest Best Western I’ve ever seen. Lake Lucerne is truly beautiful at night, there were fireworks for Confederation Day, and I ate some fondue that won the gold medal at the Alpine Cheese Olympiad. Notably, on the road south from Lucerne you will pass through the Gothard Road Tunnel, a 20-minute/17km exercise in driving in a straight line. While exciting at first, I think I much preferred the curvy mountain roads punctuated by shorter tunnels that we found everywhere else in Switzerland.

IMG_0129Bellinzona, Switzerland. Did you know Switzerland had an Italian-speaking area? I didn’t until we stopped here to see the three castles and get some lunch. I’ve been really interested in castles lately and the two we had time to see were quite nice. You can walk into the lower castle from the centre of town and you can drive up a curvy road to the top castle, but we were a little behind having to make Genoa by the evening so we skipped the middle castle.

IMG_0143Genoa, Liguria, Italy (overnight). I’d never been to Northern Italy (having just done my first trip to Italy, Rome and Pompeii, in late July) so I didn’t really know what to expect. So you can be better prepared, I’ll mention:

  1. The autostrada is amazingly flat and well maintained and you can hit 180kph.
  2. The Audi Q7 behind you wants to do 240kph even when the road gets curvy.
  3. He tailgates at a distance of 10-30cm because he doesn’t care if you live or die.

The roads leading into Genoa were pretty much the only situation on this trip during which I felt unsafe. A combination of fatigue, hot weather, high speeds, and locals who will take blind curves at insane entry speeds made this quite a scary ride. It’s a shame really since the surrounding countryside was quite beautiful. Once you finish navigating the last white-knuckle 50km or so, you enter Genoa on an elevated highway between the sea and a beautiful waterfront area that mixes building facades from the 13th century onward. I’ve never been so happy to park for the night. Our hotel, the Bristol Palace, was an outstanding period piece with old parquet floors, high ceilings, powerful air conditioning, and free breakfast and wifi. Got some delicious pizza and hung out in the Piazza La Ferrari where a really talented musician was playing an open-air concert and it seemed like half the city had stopped to listen. Fantastic.

IMG_0148Noli, Liguria, Italy. A cool little beach town off the autostrada about an hour from Genoa. The highway through here was an endless series of tunnels and bridges through the coastal mountains – very beautiful.

IMG_0152Menton, Cote d’Azur, France. Stopped for lunch on the seaside here since I wanted to avoid the traffic around the area’s main city, Nice. The weather was beautiful and the beaches full. Heading out of here towards our overnight in Trigance we opted to avoid the autoroute and take the smaller roads through the country and villages since the estimated drive time was about the same (thanks Google Maps!).

Puget-sur-Argens, Var, France. Stopped at the only bar in the village for some cold drinks. We were definitely the most interesting thing to happen in the village that day. A nice slice of rural French life while we stretched a bit and got ready for the last leg of the day — an entry road to the Parc Regional Gorges de Verdon, one of the most famous motorcycling spots in France. The flat lands of Var gave way to alpine passes through countryside that reminded me most of Yosemite.

 

IMG_0168Trigance, Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur , France (overnight). In planning this trip, one of my goals was to see things that were as much unlike the United States as possible, and the 13th-century Chateau de Trigance was one of the highlights. Constructed, destroyed, reconstructed, destroyed, and finally restored in 1961, this hotel and restaurant perched high on a mountain in the park offers a perfect place to overnight. The stone walls, creaky floors and beautiful vistas from the top of the castle didn’t disappoint, and neither did the quality of the accomodations or the food at their restaurant for dinner and breakfast the following morning. Truly an outstanding little place, family run, 10 rooms, not to be missed.

IMG_0172Sisteron, Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur , France. The roads from Trigance to Sisteron are incredible – mountain passes carved out of the cliff face, over rivers, bridges, gorges, etc. Stopped for lunch before hitting the road up to Lyon. We took some mountain roads before the autoroute that led through some absolutely amazing valleys.

Grenoble, France. Stopped for gas on the outskirts of the city. The sky was darkening and the weather getting colder and more windy, so we didn’t head into town, but the approach into the city surrounded by mountains was breathtaking.

IMG_0174Lyon, France (overnight). France’s second city, unfortunately hit by a downpour of rain that (fortunately) started about 10 minutes after we parked for the night. The parking attendant at Central Parc lent me an umbrella after we talked a little bit in French about KTMs. Pretty cool guy. The Lyonnais places we wanted to hit for dinner were mostly closed for summer vacation (since it’s August), but the Mercure Beaux-Arts provided clean and comfortable accommodation for the night. We woke up early next morning to get on the road to meet our ladies up in Paris, but…

IMG_0183Mâcon, Saône-et-Loire, France. First, it was still raining, and we briefly got pretty soaked. Second, this was an unexpected stop we had to take after the gas tank lock broke on the KTM! With only maybe 60km left of fuel in the tank, we had to drive into the town of Macon looking for an atelier mecanique to drill out the lock. The first place we stopped wouldn’t work on motorcycles but a customer there basically said suivez-moi au garage moto (“follow me to a motorcycle garage”) about 3km from the city center. After some phone calling back to the rental shop in Paris, Christophe (shown above) and his team drilled out the tank lock and even gave me one of their old screwdrivers to manipulate the ruined lock so we could continue. We quickly ate some gas station poulet roti sandwiches and jammed back on the autoroute after maybe a 3 hour delay. This was our last stop (save the aires, or rest stops) before Paris. The A6 from Mâcon north was warm, dry, and well-maintained and we maintained a steady 150kph for most of the way back to Paris. Probably my favorite freeway section of the trip, really beautiful and blissfully free of murderous Italians in Audis.

 

IMG_0180Paris, France. Home. At least in my neighborhood (4eme), I felt safe parking the KTM overnight outside my apartment. The rental shop is over on the opposite side of the Arc de Triomphe, between the Champs-Elysée and La Defense. So my last ride before turning the bike in was along the quays, past the Louvre, up the Champs-Elysée and around the enormous roundabout surrounding the Arc. I couldn’t think of a better way to wrap up this six-day, 2,600km adventure of a lifetime.

Good to Know

  • Mileage overages are easily possible here. Matt’s bike came with 2400km and mine 1400, and I exceeded mine by a fair amount. It worked out to only 30-40 EUR extra per day, but it’s worth eyeballing your rental contract or asking before you go.
  • Toll roads (péages) are quite common in France and Italy and they may not take your bank card. Each country has their own FasTrak-like system but you won’t be able to use them. The icons above each toll gate indicate which forms of payment the gate takes, but these are often hard to read from a distance. In my experience, my bank card worked at French toll gates but not in Italy. Some gates in Italy only took coins. The best roads (like the A6) just give you one ticket at entry that is good until you exit, so you only slow down to pay once. Technical malfunctions at the toll gate were common, so you could do everything right and still get held up for a few minutes while someone comes by to straighten things out.
  • Rest stops are plentiful and usually have gas, food, water, bathrooms, etc., but don’t expect repair facilities or much in the way of tools for sale.
  • Automated gas stations may or may not take your bank card and may or may not take cash! Fortunately, gas was frequent everywhere except within the Gorges de Verdun park itself. At many stations you just fill up first and walk in to pay the attendant. I’m not sure what’s keeping you from driving away with the gas without paying other than your honor as a motorist.
  • We didn’t see much in terms of speed limit enforcement in either France or Italy. That said, there were many cameras, but all front-facing, so if you’re on a bike, you’re probably golden.
  • Earplugs are essential. Rest stops may not have headache pills (“voglio qualcosa per il mal di testa” — “niente, niente“) but they will always have espresso!
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