Austrian couple MARTIN LITSCHAUER and VERENA KAISER-LITSCHAUER travel more than 1,500 miles on a tour of the Alps and discover some of the best motorcycling roads in the world
We’d been planning a motorcycle trip to Iceland for ages. Everything was booked. Car trains and ferry crossings had all been organised ahead of four glorious weeks exploring the land of fire and ice. However, shortly before our departure, Verena accidently burned both her legs with boiling water. Due to the severity of her injuries, we had no choice but to cancel our plans so she could concentrate on healing.
Thankfully, she received excellent treatment and within a couple of weeks we found ourselves coming up with a new plan for a summer motorcycle adventure. Due to coronavirus travel restrictions in Europe at the time, we needed to stick close to home so we decided to ride through Austria to the Alps. We had great memories of exploring the mountains by motorcycle a few years ago, so we were more than happy at the thought of returning. It was a pretty good plan B. We only had a rough route but we were excited to get going and so, after a big breakfast one morning, we began our trip with a cheery “let’s go!” ringing out over our intercoms.
This was the first time on one of our bike trips that we didn’t have a specific destination to aim for. In previous years, we’d set off with the goal of reaching Norway’s North Cape, Istanbul, and the Highlands of Scotland, but this time we simply rode off in search of great roads and adventure.
The Journey Begins
To begin with, we wound our way along quiet side roads in Austria, stopping in small towns and enjoying embarking on a motorcycle once trip again. During a rest stop, we took advantage of our lack of route planning and made a snap decision to visit the Lipno Reservoir just over the border in the Czech Republic. It’s a huge lake with beaches that is popular with tourists who want to enjoy the area’s natural beauty. It more than lived up to its reputation and we spent some time relaxing by its shores in the summer sunshine.
Finally, we tore ourselves away from the lake and rode back over the border to Austria. A few miles down the road, we came to the River Danube where we found somewhere to camp. Verena spotted some information about a walk to a local lookout point called Schlögener Blick. A gentle stroll soon turned into an exhausting hike but it was worth it when we arrived at the lookout and got to experience a breath-taking view of the River Danube at sunset.
The next day we packed up early and headed south. Our destination was the Upper Austrian Lake District. Via small side roads, we approached the turquoise waters of Lake Attersee which is the largest lake in Austria. We looked for a campsite nearby but everywhere was full. It seemed the area was attracting record numbers of visitors this year, no doubt because coronavirus had made taking holidays close to home more popular than ever. The situation became so frustrating that we decided to give up exploring the lake district and ride to the ski resort of Schladming about 100 miles away. We’d been visiting the area in winter with our families for many years, but this time we exchanged our skis for hiking boots, and after we had parked up our bikes, we decided to set out to explore what it had to offer in summer.
We headed over to a cable car where there were countless downhill mountain bikers ready to make their way to the summit of the mountain. We were taking a break from two wheels, so we got off at the middle station and hiked to the summit from there. Despite the crowds on the mountain biking course, it was peacefully quiet in the forest and on the wide ski slopes as we made our way up and then back down the mountainside.
After spending a morning on foot, we jumped back on our bikes and typed Ursprungalm into our SatNavs. The alp can be reached via a five-mile long gravel road, which is one of the few such roads in Austria that can be legally ridden by motorbike. We enjoyed the ride to the fullest as we travelled through a beautiful landscape, before topping it off with a panoramic view at the summit.
Over the next few days we rode through the Tyrol region and took a side trip to Bavaria to explore the German lakes. We then continued on to Switzerland where our first stop was Chur, the country’s oldest town which has been the site of a settlement for more than 5,000 years. We strolled around the picturesque and car-free old town and took in the cultural and gastronomic delights on offer before turning in for the night.
The following day we travelled a snaking road to the ski town of Arosa, winding our way for 18 miles up the mountainside. There were countless curves and little traffic so we arrived in the bustling town centre with huge smiles under our helmets.
Arosa is a beautiful town with a lake and sandy beach. To the west, you can catch a cable car up to the Weisshorn mountain which towers 4,506m above sea level. From the summit you get a view of the Piz Bernina, the highest mountain in the Eastern Alps. It’s a stunning part of the world, and reluctantly, we dragged ourselves away to make the return journey to Chur, where we enjoyed the mid-summer evening at our campsite. So far on this trip, we’d experienced some sensational riding and stunning landscapes, but as we lay in our sleeping bags that night, we were excited about what the next few days had in store. The famous mountains passes of the Alps were calling.
We packed up and left Chur behind the next morning and rode west on small side roads through the Swiss Alpine landscape. Most of the time, Verena and I could be heard exclaiming over our intercoms with amazement and enthusiasm about the beauty of the world around us. There were blue skies, green meadows, cows by the roadside and plenty of picturesque villages to pass through. After a short stop in Wassen to fuel up and restock our provisions, we turned off at a crossroads and headed up the famous Susten Pass.
A Motorcycling Paradise
Right from the start, the Susten Pass offers breath-taking views of the surrounding mountains. We cruised along the curving highway, settling into a rhythm on our bikes and soaking up as much of the views we could. Then the tight bends began and we twisted our way up the mountainside, diving into turn after glorious turn. The 26 bridges and tunnels that are dotted along this incredible road added to the variety of the riding. It was motorcycling at its very best through a dream environment.
The top of the pass itself is dominated by a view of the magnificent Steingletscher Glacier. There is also a mountain inn and former hospice which is the meeting point for bikers. Just a few metres below the pass station, there is an enormous view of the glacier and the mountain panorama. It’s a truly special place and we revelled in the moment as we explored on foot. We even had a picnic in the sunshine and took plenty of photos of what became a favourite place in the Alps.
We finished up our food and rode to Gadmen, an inconspicuous little place that is located at the foot of the Susten Pass. It would serve as our base camp for the next few days. We’d been to this quiet and idyllic area a few years earlier and the campsite hosts, Lupita and Felix, welcomed us back warmly. On our previous visit, we’d sampled Felix’s home-brewing skills, and this time we did it again around a campfire. It was a wonderful evening, soundtracked by Mumford and Sons and Bruce Springsteen as we talked about our plans for the next day’s ride.
We awoke to the sounds of cow bells ringing and birds chirping before we crawled out of the tent to boil some water. We sat with a cup of tea and admired the view of the mountains as the campground slowly came to life around us. With every passing minute, the sun’s rays inched closer to our tent, eventually drying the dew off the wet material. Ahead of us, was a superb day of riding over the Grimsel, Furka, St Gotthard, and Nufenen mountain passes.
On Top Of The World
In the village of Innertkirchen, we stocked up on Swiss cheese, bread and smoked ham for the day. The chocolate milk and orange juice were also a must. We then joined the start of the Grimsel Pass, following the meandering path of the River Aare through the Swiss countryside. We twisted our way past Alpine lakes and navigated tight switchbacks as we rode to the summit. At Lake Totensee, which translates to Lake of the Dead, we turned off and travelled four miles along a dead-end road into the Bernese mountains. It felt like we were travelling through a world of giants as we arrived at the Oberaarsee hydroelectric reservoir at the end of the road.
Want To Ride The Alps If you enjoy riding mountain passes then this tour is an absolute pleasure. There are plenty of campsites and accommodation options along the route. However, if you plan to travel in peak summer tourist season (July/August) like us, make sure you book at least one day ahead.
Costs can vary but an overnight stay in a campsite will cost around 15€ (£13.65) and you can get a hotel room from around 40€ (£36.41). We usually buy some snacks in the supermarket in the morning and look for a nice spot along the route to have a picnic. This saves buying food in Alpine resorts which are expensive.
The weather in the Alps is changeable and mountain passes can have snow on the ground even in summer, and many are closed during the winter, so check before you ride. If it rains, fresh asphalt strips in bends from road repairs can also become very slippery, so watch out and enjoy a safe ride.
We soon backtracked and jumped onto our second mountain pass of the day, the famous Furka Pass. It was another incredible road clinging to the mountainside. We swooped into bends and carved around hairping turns, loving every second of the ride. Along the Furka Pass is the grand old Hotel Belvédère which sits 2,272m above sea level. Sadly, it closed a few years ago but there’s a car park on the side of the road where you can stop and explore the Rhône Glacier on foot. The glacier has lost much of its size over the past two centuries but it remains a magnificent sight.
Back on the bikes, we continued along the Furka Pass and then jumped onto the St Gotthard Pass, which has been one of the most important road links across the Alps since the Middle Ages. After the opening of the motorway tunnel in ‘80s, the old road, known at the Tremola Pass, is now mostly used by tourists. It’s packed so densely with switchbacks, it’s difficult to spot a straight section of road on the map. The surface is a paved with cobblestones which can be slippery in wet weather so it’s best to take extra care. We decided not to take the old cobbled road but instead rode the smooth bypass which has plenty of twists and turns of its own.
It had been a simply stunning day of riding so far but it wasn’t over yet. On the way back to camp, we took the Nufenen Pass which provided yet more scintillating riding. We later arrived back at our campsite, took our helmets off, looked at each other, and couldn’t stop smiling as we reflected on what had been one of the best day’s riding of our lives.
With heavy hearts, we packed up our tents the following morning, stowed them on the bikes, and said goodbye to our campsite. How could we top the last few days? After all, we’d experienced some of the best riding of our lives. The Swiss mountain landscape, the small towns, rivers and lakes will remain in our memories for a long time to come.
However, we grew excited as we crossed into yet another new country on this trip, Italy, and rode to Bormio. Near the town, we found a campsite where we unpacked and put up our tent. It was a lovely spot but we hadn’t chosen to visit this area by chance. Waiting for us just a short distance away was the mighty Stelvio Pass. Located 2,757m above sea level, the Stelvio is the highest mountain pass in Italy and the stuff of legends among European bikers. It’s also the second highest paved mountain pass in the Alps after the Col de l’Iseran. It contorts its way up and down the mountainside in a series of tight twists and switchbacks guaranteed to get any motorcyclist’s heart racing.
The Bikes Verena rides a 2017 BMW R 1200 GS Rally and Martin a 2018 BMW R 1200 GS Adventure Rally. Both were inspired to ride BMW bikes after watching Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman on television in Long Way Round and Long Way Down. Both motorcycles are equipped with SW-Motech luggage. For tyres, they use the Heidenau K60 Scout which they say is the perfect all-rounder for the mix of on and off-road riding they do on their trips.
Unsurprisingly then, the Stelvio Pass is very popular with motorists, whether you’re on two wheels or four, so we were determined to be the first up it the next day to avoid the crowds. Our alarm clock rang shortly after 6am. There wasn’t much talking, as we were still sleepy, but we had one goal, to ride the pass free of traffic. The Stelvio connects the South Tyrol and Lombardy regions of Italy and makes its way through a national park of the same name. In keeping with our experiences of the past few days, the scenery was mountainous and spectacular.
The road is around 30 miles long and boasts an impressive 87 hairpin bends, 48 on one side, and 39 on the other. Riding the Stelvio more than lived up to our expectations. It was both exhilarating and technical, requiring plenty of skill and concentration as we threaded our bikes along the seemingly endless sequence of tight turns. The early morning atmosphere as we rode along this road can hardly be put into words. Slowly the sun fought its way over the surrounding mountain peaks, vanquishing the morning fog. Arriving at the top of the pass we stopped and enjoyed a stunning view into the valley below.
We were feeling elated and contented as we looked at each other, knowing these are the moments that make travelling by motorcycle so special. This feeling stayed with us as we spent the remaining days of our trip riding back home to Vienna. Sharing special moments that like that, stood on what felt like the top of the world, is one of the most precious things you can do. We live in an incredible world, so get on your bike and explore it.