At the Slovenia/Austria border, riding on husband John’s BMW 850GS, I noticed an odd blob in my peripheral vision. Upon further inspection, this blob proved to be a yellowjacket inside my helmet. WTF. Normally I’m not one to panic, but this called for pummeling hubby’s back until he pulled over a few leisurely kilometres later. Here I learned that should this situation recur, I should simply flip up my face shield and let the wind blow the pest away. (Sure. Right into my eye, stinger first.)
Fortunately, this theory was not put to the test over the next two weeks as we rode through five countries on AMT’s classic Czech Hungary tour. I had always wanted to visit Central Europe, whence came a few illustrious ancestors (well, farmers). I looked forward to sampling real goulash and strudel – John came for the beer – and to walking fabled Budapest, Prague, and Krakow on rest days.
The group was small – four including ourselves, inimitable guide Matej Fortuna, and Lee, a footloose Californian halfway through a six-month sojourn. The dynamic of a small group is much different than that of a large one and could curdle over the course of 2500 kilometers. However, our drinking habits being similar, we got along fantastically. Checking into hotels was a breeze, pulling out in the morning a snap, and fuel stops were finito in the time I could dash to the loo. The only down side: no tour van trailing with suitcases for my gowns and tiaras. I was allotted two miniscule canvas bags, one for the top box, one for the side pannier. Ouch!
So who needed clothes. It was hot. Very hot. And dry. On a calm July morning we four left Ljubljana, Slovenia’s capital, and were in the mountains a few hours later, sharing narrow curves with hikers, minivans, and packs of bicyclists (many cheating with electric motors, I noticed). At the Jezersko Pass, there was no border control entering Austria, in fact no border control anywhere on the tour, thank you EU. We spent the afternoon weaving through the manicured Austrian countryside, arriving in Graz in good time to see its Uhrturm, an ancient clocktower, before dinner.
Vegetarians will be advised that meat (sausages, salamis, roasts, stews, hocks, tails, necks, steaks) was served in abundance throughout our trip, as was that nectar of the gods, beer. Fruits and veggies: no problem. Salads were lovely. Desserts, luxurious. Breakfasts royal.
But I digress. We spent the next night in Tihany, Hungary, on the shore of Lake Balaton, second largest lake in Europe. That huge, turquoise water was a welcome sight after a day’s ride past cornfields scorched by the sun. Guide Matej brought us to a rather special hotel, this one a historic 1830’s inn (I only banged my head twice on the low beams). It was easy to dress for dinner, as I only had two choices.
On to Budapest, a mind-blowing panorama of Turkish baths, Romanesque bulwarks, Art Nouveau masterpieces, Eclectic mansions, nonstop monuments, museums, basilicas, palaces, and plazas. By night the lights of Parliament, an edifice maybe the size of ten football fields, reflected brilliantly in the Danube. I could spend a year here and still not capture everything.
Now toward the High Tatras, an alpine range on Slovakia’s border with Poland. Mountains here seemed to erupt into the sky, forming a granite wall over two thousand meters high. The switchbacks past deep forests and lakes to our hotel in Stary Smokovec kept John (and my camera) snappy. I felt lucky to enjoy these grand vistas while he minded the road (though I suspect he was having a blast doing exactly that).
The Wieliczka Salt Mine in Poland is one of the oldest in Europe. Descending the 380-step staircase to the first level, I could see why it was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Cultural Site. That’s a helluva lot of salt! A three-hour tour took us through grottos, caverns, and monumental chambers large enough to host soccer tournaments – 135 meters below earth’s surface. To my relief, the lift back up to daylight worked perfectly.
Under a gentle summer moon, we relaxed in the main square of Krakow, entertained by horse-drawn carriages and all manner of pedestrian traffic. We heard marching bands, gypsy violinists, and a trumpeter blaring from a steeple. I noticed several white-gowned brides parading past with their bridesmaids in full regalia, all hammered to say the least. Going to the chapel? No, Matej informed me, I was seeing the distaff equivalent of stag parties, in Krakow for a wild weekend before the proverbial axe fell. I wondered how many of these ladies would be proceeding down the aisle on crutches: stilettos, cobblestones, and alcohol were not a match made in heaven.
Our adventure took a somber turn with an optional day trip to Auschwitz, the concentration camp an hour west of Krakow. Eighty years later, the accursed place remains terrifying and profoundly shocking. Yet I count it as one of the unforgettable experiences of the tour.
A day’s ride past serene fields, lakes, and villages brought us to Olomouc, one of Moravia’s oldest towns. Its main square boasts a huge astronomical clock dating back to the fifteenth century, as well as six gorgeous baroque fountains. In an old restaurant on the square, Matej (once again) ordered the most delectable appetizers and desserts. We dined on smoked pork, beef stew, and creamed mushrooms as chimes rang the quarter hours.
Into Bohemia to visit gothic Bouzov Castle and an ossuary chapel housing a mere forty thousand skeletons. In a tour filled with unexpected gems, these sites were strangely alluring and romantic. The monuments and relics of the past have a way of capturing the heart, filling one with gratitude for those who have toiled and tilled and fought to bequeath us our world. I never once regretted dismounting from that BMW to see a fresh wonder along the way. Thank you Adriatic Moto Tours for doing all the hard work!
Prague was huge, colourful, teeming with tourists. Did I mention hot? Our hotel in the Old Town, steps from Charles Bridge, was ideally situated for a walking tour to Prague Castle and its awesome cathedral, also teeming with tourists (and, unbelievably, two shitheads on motor scooters). That afternoon I considered shopping for souvenirs but knew they’d never survive the crushing jaws of the panniers. Local wine and sausages offered consolation.
A fast ride through the forests of Sumava National Park brought us to the tiny medieval town of Cesky Krumlov. This UNESCO site featured a castle with high parapets (handy for summary executions) and a couple of bears roaming its foundation. Matej brought us to a restaurant that not only brewed its own beer, but kept a historical motorcycle museum on the top floor. Wild.
After a night in Salzburg (no, I did not get to the opera), we headed back into the alps for a hair-raising excusion through three mountain passes. Blackening clouds, plummeting temperatures, and heavy rain made this last day invigorating indeed. Up down, up down, hairpin, oncoming, Jeez was that hail, sheets of water, hairpin up, hairpin down, how the hell does John keep this rig upright, tunnel, mud, hairpin, finally we were through it and safely back at the AMT garage in Ljubljana. I felt like Cinderella, my carriage about to revert to a pumpkin. No more living out of two Munchkin tote bags? No more mountains, castles, goulash? The Pillion Princess (and her fair prince) will be back for more.
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