The International Brigade


An out of the blue invite took Chris Prior and friends through the best bits of central Europe.

Good place for a castle – Burg Hochosterwitz is perched on top of 170 metres of dolomite rock

Words and photography: Chris Prior

The email came out of the blue: ‘I’m flying to Munich. I’m taking a tent. Cousin Wolfe is lending me a bike. If you want to ride with us, meet us at the family farm at Olching.’

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I’d met Rich in 1985 through work and we’d remained in contact ever since. Overcoming my antipathy towards camping (born of 10 wet days tramping the Brecon Beacons as an RAF apprentice) I bought a £20 tent from Tesco and accepted the invitation.

One August evening I rolled up at Olching, northwest of Munich. The timing had been chosen to coincide with the Volkfest at nearby Dachau. On borrowed bicycles Rich, Wolfe and I pedalled there for a typical Bavarian fest, complete with oompah band, locals in traditional dress and vast quantities of beer.

After a few days of local exploration, we set off for Sud Tyrol in northern Italy. Now we were five, having been joined by Hannes and experienced worldwide rider Brian Gohery. Leaving the plains around Munich, we soon passed through the narrow stretch of western Austria and took the toll road from Mautstelle that wound its way to the 2509-metre Timmeljoch Pass that forms the border between Austria and Italy. Near the summit a cow wandered over to inspect while Hannes was replacing his snapped clutch cable. A nice touch, but we were fearful that it would knock over one of the bikes. They’re difficult beasts to move. (Cows or bikes? Ed.)

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A ride along the Timmelsjoch High Alpine Road, the Eastern Alps’ highest pass, is a truly memorable experience, with views to the majestic peaks of the Ötztal Alps on the way down to the South Tyrolean vineyards with more than 60 spectacular bends.
There are wonderful vantage points, crystal-clear brooks and steep rocky faces form the Ötztal valley to the Italian Tyrol.

She’s carrying eight litres if you include the froth

That evening we crossed the St Leonards Pass and arrived at our night stop, an Alpine hut at Naserhof. Although this area is (now) in Italy the locals insist it’s ‘Sűdtirol’ and speak German. We were met with a complementary beer and lugged our gear up to the attic where paillasses were laid out. After a generous cold meat and cheese supper, accompanied by more beer, we bunked down at about midnight. We stayed at Naserhof two nights, spending the intervening day enjoying wonderful mountain roads and spectacular scenery before refuelling with goat stew and beer.

Have A Green Beer

Wolfe, Hannes and Brian had to go home the next day so Rich and I set off eastwards towards Slovenia. We crossed back into Austria and rode along the scenic 100 and 110, turning southwards to re-enter Italy at Coccau Valico, soon turning east again and crossing the border into Slovenia. The previous year my Zumo had navigated this country faultlessly, but now it wouldn’t play – it turned out that increased details included in an upgrade had wiped several countries off its memory… However, at Dovje we found a campsite overlooked by the majestic Julian Alps and pitched there for two days, allowing exploration time.

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First we rode to the 11th century fairytale castle that overlooks the amazingly beautiful Lake Bled. From the castle museum, we carried on along the south side of the lake to the larger but less well known Lake Bohinj. The road ends just beyond here, so we returned to the campsite the way we’d come. Thunder rumbled around the hills as we dined in a nearby village, but the storm held off until we were safely tucked inside our tents.

Bled, part of Slovenia’s very own Lake District

There’s not much worse than having to decamp in the rain and pack away wet tents, but sometimes you just have to get on with it. As we headed east to Maribor the rain got heavier and our slow progress on narrow roads impeded the progress of many an impatient lorry driver. Sorry, but we had no choice.

The rain had stopped by the time we reached Maribor, but all we wanted was somewhere to dry out. Fortuitously, we stumbled across Hostel Pekarna where we took rooms for €26, and I was given a disabled person’s room with a bathroom large enough for my tent to be hung up to dry. As for Maribor, I was a bit disappointed with the place. It had been designated European City of Culture in 2011, but to me it just seemed drab. Many old buildings looked abandoned or had plaster falling off. The second disappointment was to learn that on Sundays it’s rare to find a restaurant open. We were directed to one where we dined outside and tried the local speciality, green beer – no, it really does exist. Green beer turned out to be nothing special, but one has to try these things. Anyway, squid stuffed with ham and cheese made up for all the trials of the day.

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Rich remarked that although Bavaria, Austria, northern Italy and Slovenia were separate countries, there were many similarities, especially in the architecture, which followed a uniform style. As an island nation we sometimes forget that in mainland Europe borders have changed as countries have expanded and retracted over the centuries, hence the similarities. Also they have some of the most beautiful scenery in the world.

Chris’ Bonneville in northern Italy

It was Monday morning that we set off north, following what looked like a major road. Somehow we ended up on narrow lanes that looked as if they’d take us back to our starting point, but while we were consulting the map, a passerby stopped and put us on the right road. Soon we were heading for the Austrian border, and as if by magic, the moment we crossed into Austria the Zumo realised that we were back on planet Earth and gave directions to Salzburg.

The ride over the mountains would have been joyful had it not been for the weather. Low cloud and intermittent heavy rain hid the views, and the slippery overbanding repairs, especially on the Slovenian side, made the going somewhat dodgy.

In no mood to camp, we rolled up at a budget hotel, only to learn that a Mozart Festival was in full swing and we’d be lucky to find a room anywhere in the city. We did, but at a price, and the 4-star Schaffenrath declined to offer discounts for wet and weary travellers, pensioners or not, so we had to bite the bullet. They may well have looked askance at our filthy bikes parked among smart cars at the hotel’s entrance. Still, by the time we’d had a couple of beers and a Weiner Schnitzel we felt better.

Before checking out next day we took a bus into the city and walked up to the castle, but again dull weather spoilt the views and made for poor photography. The whole of Salzburg is devoted to its favourite son, as every other bar and café seems to be named Mozart, as is just about every piece of tourist tat. There’s even Mozart Chocolate.

About 30 miles west of Salzburg is Lake Chiemsee. Mad King Ludwig had his imitation Versailles built on the island here as his summer palace, the cost of which just about bankrupted Bavaria. He spent all of 17 nights there, and his ‘accidental’ drowning has never been satisfactorily explained.

After a couple of days back at Cousin Sepi’s farm at Olching, our next step was to head futher west to Bergheim in Alsace, somewhere else in Europe which has seen national borders ebb and flow. We had an incentive, to accept an open invitation from Joe Dietche, who met Rich whilst working in Washington State on a dam project. Wolfe rejoined us and with a light mist covering the fields the three of us set off for France. Wolfe guided us along lovely country roads which were narrow, well paved and raised above the level of surrounding fields. They lacked the hedgerows of typical UK lanes, but the views benefitted. That night, after riding through the Black Forest, we camped by the Donau (Danube) at Hausen Im Tal.

There was a barbecue waiting for us at Bergheim, courtesy of our hosts Joe and Marietta, followed by a selection of home-made liqueurs. Next day their son Patrick arrived on his Tiger 950 and spent two days guiding us along the best motorcycling roads in the region. “Beware weekends,” he warned us. “There are some crazy riders about, and some don’t stick to their side of the road on blind bends.” Fortunately, we didn’t meet any of them and the Vosges Mountains really do provide some of Europe’s best motorcycle roads.

It was time for me to leave the others and head back north, so next day that’s what I did, while Rich and Wolfe returned to Olching via Switzerland and Austria. As for the next email, that’s another story…

Dawn over the Donau

Take a look at the map below, or download the .GPX file if you fancy giving it a go yourself!


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