July 19, 2018
The Gasthaus Sonne in Niedereschach provides simple comforts and we awake to a glorious sun that seems to blur the world in the most delightful way. Before heading into Touratech HQ we take a quick ride around the area; the small towns and quiet streets quickly lead into narrow, winding rural roads. In fact, in no time at all we’re winding our way through fields with little proof of life visible for miles.
The trip into Touratech itself is quick and a tight right-hander through Niedereschach before a steeper hill makes it all the more fun. Entering the shop it’s hard not to be impressed – this place is a dream-store for adventure riders. The entryway is lined with posters of current and past riders who share their adventures and leads to a café that makes for a good lunch stop. The shop itself is expansive and we soon find ourselves surrounded by countless goodies that we’d love to try. To the left, a collection of bikes sporting well-used gear stand ready for another adventure – or in some cases, another shot at the Dakar. It’s truly a fantastic place.
We’re met by Philipp, a young guy who’s been helping coordinate our arrival with the shop. Basically, we’ve been making his life difficult for the past couple of months while our schedule has kept changing and he’s responded to every request and change with total kindness and patience. He quickly has us move our bikes from the iconic frontage of the retail space to the service shop in the back. Here, we meet Wolfgang, one of the techs who’ll work on our bikes. His name is very fitting!
Looking over the machines his face forms a half-smile, half-scowl. “These tires are terrible. Terrible.” He’s not wrong, of course. We’ve pushed the TKC–80’s pretty far and Nita’s front is the worst we’ve seen. No wonder her bike feels greasy.
His disapproving gaze moves from the wheels to us. “You rode them like this?” It’s not the question that stings, it’s the shake of the head. Before we know it, the bikes are on the lift and the wheels are off. Margit, who’s in charge of marketing, arrives to interview us and by the time we’ve finished talking the old suspension is off the bikes and the lads have disappeared for lunch. They’re much faster at this stuff than we are.
We grab a bite to eat in the café and are surprised to discover that the food is not only tasty, it’s cheap – a pleasant surprise after our brief time in Switzerland. While we finish up our schnitzel, Philipp joins us and lets us know that tires are available and they’ll change them for us while we wait. There’s a few more hours to kill before the new suspension is on the bikes and, if I’m honest, we’re pretty happy to while away the time here.
After dreaming away some time in the books and maps section, Philipp arrives to let us know the bikes are ready; the day has somehow vanished. We make our way to the shop and see the kids sporting new kicks (tires) and some sweet-looking suspension. When we hop aboard them, the first thing we both notice is how tall we both feel. This is going to take some getting used to.
We move the bikes to the front of the shop where we meet a group of older Brits who’ve covered a small part of the earth on their own adventures. They’ve got plenty of stories to tell – mostly of broken bones, crashed bikes and their utter dislike of Pakistani’s. Sometimes adventure travel seems a poor brother to destruction travel.
Having told us we’ve “…travelled the easy countries…” a sufficient number of times, they head off leaving the stale scent of machismo to hang in the air a little longer. Still slightly annoyed by the conversation, we pack our bikes to leave when someone else emerges from the shop running toward us.
“I’m sorry I haven’t had the chance to say hello yet.” It’s Martin, Director of Sales for the Touratech. A lovely guy, we talk briefly before he invites us over for dinner with his family that night, offering to pick us up at seven so we can enjoy some wine. It’s an offer we can’t refuse!
Martin arrives right on time, delivering us to his house via some lovely roads and beautiful evening light. Dinner with his family is fantastic and reminds us of late summer nights spent with Nita’s brother, wife and little girl. It’s a moment that brings home closer for us. Martin and his wife Katja spent a year travelling South America and knows first-hand what it’s like to be on the road for an extended amount of time.
“How long have you been travelling now?”
“Just over a year. We celebrated our wandering anniversary in France.”
“Ah. You’ve travelled long enough that it’s no longer about days. It’s no longer competitive.”
It’s an idea we immediately like. The world of Adventure Biking is clearly now an industry-driven, testosterone-fueled gambit of harder/faster/longer – a viewpoint we obviously don’t subscribe to. Ted Simon, Elspeth Beard, Sam Manicom – and all the others that paved (unpaved?) the way before this current generation of travellers rarely seem to talk about harder/faster/longer as the goal. Rather, their efforts focused on seeing the world, to experience something else somewhere else – that seems to be what’s being forgotten in the current adventure-craze. To travel. To be a traveller.
Perhaps, it’s to be small in the midst of things that are so big.
We finish a fair amount of wine before it’s time to turn-in back at the Gasthaus Sonne. With our time at Touratech HQ over, we’re moving to Villingen-Schwenningen in the morning for a few days of R&R while the bikes get a scheduled service before continuing north toward the Arctic Circle.
Villingen-Schwenningen is hard enough to pronounce for the locals that we’re given a free pass in the form of simply Villingen. Our home, Hotel Garland, is far enough from town that a taxi is needed to get to the good bits – which is fine since it gives us a chance to practice the small amount of German we’ve been learning from a young waiter at the nearby restaurant.
Before heading into town, we drop the bikes at Grueneburg, the local shop that Touratech set up for our service. There are very few English-speakers here which makes discussing the requirements of our visit interesting; beyond the usual work we need a new lens for one of Nita’s indicators and the small oil-leak on my R1200GS is producing enough of a smell that a good looking-over is needed. By the time we leave, we’re confident that our messages have gotten through.
The old part of town is beautiful – quaint even, though I thoroughly dislike that word as descriptor. It’s always carried a note of condescension with it to my ears ever since I heard a large American woman with a southern drawl repeat it over and over when describing a hotel in Austria to her husband. Ain’t this quaint? Oh hun, ain’t this quaaaaaint?! I was nine and the word’s never been the same for me; perhaps this is the only negative side-effect of travel I’ve really suffered!
Our taxi drops us at an archway that leads onto Bikenstraße in the old-town, a cobblestone street densely lined with cafés, bakeries and restaurants. Set with plenty of outdoor seating, we imagine for a moment what this place might be like in high-season before realizing that this is high season. The roads are quiet and only a few people dot the patios along our path and we have to believe that it simply remains a relatively unknown gem.
Over the next few days we enjoy our time walking these streets and use the time to catch up on writing, processing photographs and keeping in touch with family at home. It’s not long before we get a call from Grueneburg letting us know the bikes are ready and that, outside of a seal replacement on my final-drive, everything with the bikes has checked out a-ok which, to be honest, is a relief.
The day before we leave Villingen-Schwenningen, we plan to ride through the Black Forest – in part to have some fun on twisting roads and some dirt, and to also kick-off a review for the new suspension. About an hour and a serious speed-wobble into the day, it’s obvious we need more time setting up the bikes properly and return to the hotel feeling a bit dubious about our upgrade. However, a little effort and research makes the new suspension a revelation; our bikes have never felt so amazing!
(Our full review of Touratech’s excellent suspension can be read here.)
The next morning we load the bikes and say goodbye to our hosts at Hotel Garland before making our way down a side road and into a lush parkland. It feels great to be back on the bikes and, much to our relief, the addition of bags settles the ride down considerably. After a few hours of winding our way along narrow roads we’re definitely feeling more at one with our motorcycles.
Much of the day is spent riding narrow farm-roads that remind us of why we fell so in love with France. Narrow strips of tarmac lead us past bavarian houses, twisting down into gentle valleys before delivering us into straight, flat stretches flanked by differing fields on either side. It’s absolutely beautiful.
Our day is also speckled with barricades which sometimes block the road leaving no option but to backtrack 20 or 30 km. The sign often flaunts umleitung (diversion) when, really, it means dead-end. Still, they genuinely offer us no frustration; we’re truly happy to be on the bikes today. A few blockades divert us down beautiful winding roads through small villages that we’d wouldn’t have seen and, for these moments, we feel exceptionally thankful.
Before we left the hotel we were warned of a possible hailstorm by the owner and, for much of the day, the clouds threaten to fulfill their promise. Somehow though, our route winds it’s way through the calmest parts of the gathering storm and we manage to avoid the rain almost entirely. Eventually though, the rain catches us briefly and the torrent leaves us soaked until the wind dries us completely.
One of the joys of travelling by motorcycle are the fleeting relationships we share with others on the road. At the very minimum, they can last less than a second – perhaps a glance or a wave as we pass each other. Sometimes they can progress into conversations which lead to travelling together for days at a time and friendships that endure or end as suddenly as they begin.
Today, we leapfrog a couple on two red GS’s; the first time we pass them, they’re standing at a lookout holding each other and we almost feel as if we’ve interrupted an intimate moment. Then, as they pass us while we enjoy a roadside coffee, they smile sheepishly as if having been caught. Finally, we pass them enjoying their own pastry a few miles later.
This time, this last time, they wave and smile. And then we never see them again.
The worst of the rain falls while we grab a bite to eat in a truck stop but it’s not the food that stops my heart; rather, when I reach into my pocket for my wallet, I realize that I’m still holding the key to our room at the Hotel Garland back in Villingen-Schwenningen. Damn. I’ll have to mail it back to them at our next stop. Amazingly, this is the first time we’ve done it!
For the last stretch of the day we take the B500, one of the roads that leads into Baden-Baden near our destination for the night. Known for it’s beautiful, twisting tarmac and gorgeous viewpoints, the B500 is popular with the local riders – though today it’s pretty quiet. And there’s a reason; after a meandering roll along it’s first few kilometres, rain and fog set-in just as we reach the good parts leaving the mountain views unfindable and the road feeling quite slick. We slow down enough to enjoy the remainder of the day – which is surprisingly easy considering the weather. In the wet this road is an absolute blast, on a clear day this stretch of road would be a phenomenal. Nita and I both make a mental note to return one day.
When we finally arrive in Rastatt, we feel quite full with our day. The riding’s been wonderful, the bikes feel great and the dark clouds are breaking like ice in a spring river, leaving us with a late afternoon of fleeting blue. We set up camp in Rastatter-Freizeitparadies, a nice site on the outskirts of town and, surprisingly, home to a great patio where we celebrate the day.
Set along the edge of a small lake, our campsite allows for some evening people-watching along the waters-edge before retiring to our tent amidst a group of young cyclists. For the first time in ages, we’re not rushing like mad to get somewhere and, to be honest, it feels great.
The next morning reveals a glorious day and we begin our journey to Trier, cutting the northeastern corner of France before jumping back into Germany once again. Only in Europe does cutting through one country to re-enter the country we just left make any sense at all! As an added bonus, we also get a couple of hours on France’s backroads one last time before heading north.
There are no motorways on todays journey, not one. It’s absolute heaven. The back roads, small towns and abundant trestle bridges are framed by limitless fields of green and gold, and a deep blue sky that stretches into infinity above our heads. The signs flitter between German and French then back to German again as the houses alternate in rhythm with Bavarian and Tudor styles. Days like these are made to be spent on motorcycles.
As the clouds begin to soften the sky, we find ourselves at the gate to Campingpark Treviris. Unfortunately, it’s a locked gate. Many of the campgrounds we’ve visited in Germany close for lunch – and usually for at least a couple of hours. We’ve missed the opportunity to get in for now and wait with a growing line of trailers from around Europe.
Eventually the staff return, we’re allowed in and we find a spot toward the far end of the campground near the Mosel river. It’s unclear if we’re allowed to park our bikes on a nearby concrete pad but do so anyways; asking for forgiveness later has become part of our travelling mindset. As evening sets in, it’s hard not to notice the wonderful light that douses the camp. Bright and warm, it reminds us of the perfect summer night at home.
It’s also hard not to notice the massive base-tent set up across the way that is now home to about forty people in their early 20’s. The look of dismay on our faces must be obvious, as five of the group come over to introduce themselves. Cyclists from Belgium, they’re on a tour of Europe for the summer but their initial attempts to ease our fears of a sleepless night spent next to partiers is betrayed by their Rambo-style bullet slings filled with dozens of alcoholic shots.
Once the self-induced hysteria around a night that hasn’t happened yet wears off, we realize the kids from Belgium are, in fact, great! We laugh with them for a while, answering their quick-fire questions about our travels and even partake in a couple of their ammo-shots. When they discover we’re heading to Brugge next there’s a roar of pride as half of them tell us that Colin Farrel’s nightmare is their home. When we mention the movie In Bruges, there’s an audible groan, much like the sound that escapes us when someone mentions the Stampede at home. The collective dismay gets us laughing again.
Not long before the sun begins it’s quick march to the horizon, we see two big adventure bikes making their way towards us, riders standing on the pegs over the gravel road that leads to their spot beside us. Both sporting massive grins, we quickly find out they’ve just come from a day of learning to ride off-road. It explains the standing on their bikes; I remember after taking a course that all I wanted to do was stand on the pegs – down the motorway, all the way home! It’s a liberating day for the uninitiated.
We spend the remainder of the night sipping beers supplied by Siert and his friend who’ve made the journey here from the Netherlands for their training and there’s an enthusiasm in them that’s completely infectious. It’s not until the sun is completely gone that we realize the party animals across the way are already fast asleep and we quietly chuckle at the realization that the four of us are the last people standing. The talk of their day in the dirt and the ride home tomorrow makes the time pass quickly and soon enough we turn in for the night.
By the time we wake the boys are long gone, as are our partiers from Belgium. After breakfast we barely make it out of the park in time for checkout at 10 am – easily the earliest time we’ve ever heard of at a campsite! The motivation, if unwarranted, is appreciated; the rain is moving in quickly and as we make our way down the gravel road it’s already beginning to get heavy.
Today is almost the complete opposite of the previous day in the rain. Breaks in the cloud fill us with hope that we’ll soon be free of the storm before a curve in the road sends us back in to the heart of it. And so it goes for most of the day; six hours in the rain save for a lunch break – the only time the rain stops. We pass through Luxembourg and I immediately think of Terry Wogan. In my helmet I wonder how this small, wealthy country would feel if they knew of this immediate association I’ve had since childhood radio filled my ears.
When we reach Belgium there’s a shift for the worse in the drivers. In the span of an hour Nita and I both have close calls with people who seem too preoccupied with their lives and electronics to notice us on the road. With meters to go to our stop for the night, one last person emerges from a driveway, fails to stop and pulls out into Nita’s path. In fact, he’s so oblivious he doesn’t even notice that Nita’s radical swerve to avoid an accident now has them side by side. Unbelievable.
Our stop in Charleroi is timely. Within ten minutes of our arrival the sky goes a deep black and the wind picks up to an incredible speed. As buckets of water stream from right to left in front of our window, so does the patio furniture followed, at pace, by the two women who staff reception. Nita and I run outside to help gather the chairs, tables and umbrellas, returning to the lobby soaked to the bone. The two women who were polite but cool, are now polite and warm. Well, warmer. The storm barely eases and we fall asleep watching the bikes rock to the wind. Hopefully it’ll be better in the morning.
It’s not. There are breaks in the weather that allow us to pack a couple of bags at a time. After about thirty minutes we’re ready to go but it doesn’t take long before we’re back in heavy rain and, at times, dense fog.
The last of the heavy weather finishes just before Brugge where the GPS tries in vain to lead us down numerous roads that don’t exist before giving up completely and just shutting down. It’s like I’m Captain Kirk and I just argued my Garmin to death. After missing a turn and looping all four exits on a giant cloverleaf interchange, we finally arrive at our home for the next few days, the Leonardo Hotel Brugge, a cheap and surprisingly fashionable hotel that sits in the woods well outside of town.
On September 12, 1944, Canadian forces liberated Brugge ending the German occupation during WWII, a fact that isn’t lost on our taxi driver. “We love Canadians in Brugge.” We pass the bison of Canada Bridge and I can’t help but think again of the madness that gripped this part of the world not so long ago. We’ve met so many great people that, at times, the horrors of the world should seem impossible – yet they’re not. We are the best and worst of things.
The Markt in Brugge is magic. It’s a place who’s architecture is wholly fantastical. It’s buildings seem to reach far into the sky, narrow and colourful, stepped as though created by needlepoint. Every street is draped in awnings and cobblestone roads bounce ample tourists on bicycles like jelly on a plate. A series of bridges span brown, murky-watered canals, filled with longboats touring visitors around garbage-laden path; floating condoms and needles are as common here as chip bags. But somehow Brugge remains undiminished. It’s a wonderful place.
Well, mostly wonderful.
The people here are cooool, and not in a Ray-Ban, spiked-hair kind of way. Just, cool. They’re not rude either. Just cool. But, if we’re to be honest, we hardly notice. This place has so much in such a small space our senses are already full. With both of us getting a little peckish, we find a patio in the square and try to order desert, which turns out to be harder than expected.
When we inquire about a treat we’re sharply told there’s no dessert, only lunch. Surprised (but hungry) we order a meal which is, regardless of attitude, very tasty. It’s while we’re enjoying our food that we overhear a variety of stories told to nearby guests; some are told there’s a €30 minimum per person while others are treated quite humanely. Then, we see desserts being carted out to people at an unattached patio which belongs to the main restaurant.
Confused, we ask why our original inquiry is suddenly available and it’s explained to us in the most condescending tone possible that if we’d wanted dessert we should have sat at the island patio! It’s an explanation that explains nothing but serves as great entertainment. This is a serious bunch.
It’s a mild annoyance that works out for the best; walking down a side street we see a small window with stacks of waffles ready for the taking. And that’s when it hits me: Belgian waffles!
I black out for a moment.
When I awake I’m seated in a tiny restaurant with Nita smiling at me. I realize there’s a waffle in my mouth – but not the dry, cardboard-y waffles we get at home. Noooo, this is amazing. First of all, it’s heavy. Like half-a-pound-heavy. Secondly, while the outside is crunchy the inside is soft (some would say undercooked but they’d be wrong). There’s no need for syrup or berries or anything else; this thing is absolutely perfect.
It’s at this moment that I black-out again.
When I come-to, we’re back at the hotel getting ready for our journey to Oss and a meeting with our very first sponsor, REV’IT! who’ve been incredibly supportive of our efforts since day one. Filled in heart, mind (and stomach) with the beauty of Brugge, we quickly fall asleep in our room by the woods and dream of waffles.