Western Europe by motorcycle- Living the Dream

Jake Cole

After a two-week blast around Western Europe, taking in both the Pyrenees and the Alps, Jake Cole reckons you don’t need to take six months out to have an adventure.

Sat in the Crown pub in the Cotswolds, two pints of lager and lime and smoking menthols, Belstaff jackets and Dr Martins caked in shite after another epic Sunday of ‘adventure biking’, my friend Phil and I were pissing off the grumpy landlord by blabbering on and dreaming about how one day we were going to ride right around the world. That was back in 1980, we’d just graduated onto DT175’s after our poor little Yamaha ‘Fizzers’ had literally been rattled apart by the off-road abuse they took.

My name is Jake Cole, I’m an adventure rider, or at least I think I am in my tiny little mind! I’m yet to put my life on hold and go and ride around the world, I’d like to, but I can’t really. You see, I’m self-employed with a business to run, a mortgage to pay and two sons I don’t want to leave behind, and nor can Phil. He has a wife and a family too, that’s got to be the same story as 95% of us so-called ‘adventure riders’ hasn’t it?


Those days up at the crown have long gone now, but fast forward 35 years, four kids and four wives later, and here we are still dreaming up and planning bike trips. I say planning but to be totally honest our planning only consists of the initial decision of when to go and booking the ferry or plane tickets, from there on we just wing it and see where we end up, the uncertain outcome is what the adventure is all about for me, I don’t really want to know the exact route, there never is one, we’ll make that decision on the other side of the horizon/mountain/forest/desert etc. and that feeling of riding out of our hotel or campsite and having no idea where we’ll be sleeping next is the very freedom and adventure I crave.

Phil and I have been going on these mini-adventures around Europe and North Africa for years now, we’ve been caught in snowdrifts in July and roasted out in the Sahara but in all those years we have only ever pre-booked one hotel and that was in a shitty part of Marrakesh!

This last trip began as another mid-winter pub conversation (without the fags and the lime though nowadays) about which mountain range to ride this year. We’ve both ridden the Pyrenees and the Alps a couple of times before and loved every moment of it, so we thought sod it! Why not do both, it’s doable in a fortnight, right?

We formulated a loose plan of where we’d enter and exit the Pyrenees, how we’d probably boot it across France as fast as possible and where we might enter and exit the Alps, perhaps blast it back up through the Black Forest then see where we’d end up before deciding which is the best way of getting back across the channel. We’d worry about the minor logistics en route, I mean it’s not like we were going away for six months. The weather ahead can often dictate the route and it’s not unknown for us to completely turn around, change plan and head for another totally different country, so what’s the point of planning your stopovers too much, let’s face it as long as you’re in Western Europe how far can you ever really be from a hotel or campsite, a restaurant or petrol station?

‘Something will turn up’ is one of our funny little traditional bike trip sayings, and how many times have we said that as we slowly ride through a mountain or desert village late in the day, feeling hungry and bug-eyed looking for a bed for the night much later than we said we’d stop that very same morning. It’s always the same, we ride, we stop for a brew in the most scenic spots we find, we ride more, we can’t get enough of the never-ending amazing scenery, the mountains, the deserts, the forests, the rivers, those addictive twisty mountain roads and those signs that warn the road over the top of the mountain isn’t surfaced and isn’t suitable for vehicles.

Big Scenery
Big scenery: riding in Europe offers some spectacular roads

For an adventure biker that’s a red rag to a bull, doesn’t it just mean fun this way? We always try to ride as much off-road as is realistically possible on these trips, bearing in mind that by coming off at 51 years old my bones aren’t going to bounce and bend as well as they did in the ’80s. Anyway, as I said, we always ride late into the evening and sure enough, something always turns up, we’ve never really had to sleep rough. Yet. In the weeks leading up to the journey, as usual, we both started to text each other with places of interest we’d maybe like to add to the trip, I recalled meeting two riders up in the Sierra Demanda a couple of years back, they told us of the great trail riding fun they’d had down in the Bardenas desert near Zaragoza, after a little Googling that was added to our potential route, we also knew we wanted to revisit the stunning Ordesa National Park high up in the Pyrenees for the mind-blowing scenery and to ride those empty, twisty, rolling roads again. Phil also had the old Roman ‘Pont du Gard’ aqueduct in Nimes on our ‘maybe visit’ list and I’d also been having recollections of a massive gorge I’d once seen photos of in a Sunday newspaper travel supplement, it turned out to be the jaw-dropping Gorge du Verdon.

So the adventure trip finally came around and we lucked out and had yet another beautiful millpond flat crossing of the Bay of Biscay, we pigged out in the boat restaurant, quaffed a couple of bottles of Beaujolais and destroyed the cheese board, we chewed the fat and had fun with other bikers except for one, the obligatory drunk gobby chap, the Mr Know-It-All who’d had every bike ever going, and who is louder than all of the bikes on board put together. The ‘conversation’ ended with Phil suggesting he may soon end up swimming with the Dolphins who were brilliantly bow wave riding alongside the boat!

Rolling off the ferry is always a special moment for me, riding out of the dark fume-filled belly of the boat out into the bright sunlight and smelling that warm foreign air, then riding in a pack to the passport control, pushing in front of the cars towing caravans with the dads driving and looking at you jealously as the kids are squawking and kicking off in the back, and they haven’t even got out of the port yet.

We stuck to the fantastic roads on the Spanish side of the Pyrenees, and sure enough, the Bardenas was great fun, it turned out to have the craziest sandstone rock formations, I felt like I was riding through a Road Runner cartoon!

Great St Bernard Pass
Great St Bernard Pass

The Ordesa National Park was as lovely as I’d remembered, with the scale and height of some of the mountainsides just hard to comprehend. We rode on again still on the brilliant N-260 through the Pyrenees, before hooning it across the south of France as fast as possible. The southern French Mistral wind was kind to us this time and blew on our back instead of blasting at our sides for once, we got ourselves onto the motorway and into a little convoy with a few other bikers, hunkered down behind our screens and just pinned it eastwards knocking off the kilometres as we went, we stopped off at Nimes and that 2,000-year-old aqueduct is a true sight to behold, the river beneath it looking so refreshingly temping, I don’t know how I stayed out of it, to be honest.

We pushed on up into Provence past the purple lavender fields and our hotel turned up on the banks of the surprisingly warm, aqua blue waters of the Lake of Sainte Croix, the catchment lake for the Verdon river which runs from the Alps through the mighty and truly stunning Gorge du Verdon, 25 kms long and up to 700 metres deep, it’s hard to ride the narrow twisty road around the cliff tops as the breathtaking views just totally distract you. At one point a bridge crosses the gorge and is probably 300 metres high, here right in the centre of the bridge is a bungee jumping operation, they seemed quite quiet as we rode over. Directly opposite them on the other side of the road but also right in the middle of the bridge was a large pile of old sun-dried floral wreaths! You couldn’t make it up, not the best advertisement for a bungee jumping business. Needless to say, we decided not to jump.

On we rode up into the Rhone-Alps and over the next few days crisscrossed in and out of France, Italy and, Switzerland becoming at one with the bikes as we rode the totally fantastic Col d’Izoard & Col d’Iseran and both the Petit and the Grand St Bernardo passes, basking in scorching sunlight and then an hour later putting on the waterproofs and turning on the heated grips as we climbed above the snow line. I had a feeling I’d seen St Bernardo pass before and it turns out it was where the opening scene of The Italian Job was filmed with the Lamborghini cruising up the mountain and Matt Monroe crooning on.

This is the very sort of place where I go into my meditative state, only using the front part of my mind, living in the moment, totally forgetting all my worldly worries. It’s just me and the bike the road and the mountain, until Phil blasts past me and snaps me out of it. Paradise.

A picturesque mountain stop

The road came to an abrupt halt at Ferden in the Swiss Alps where the dirty great Aletsch glacier gets in the way, fortunately, there’s also a vehicle train which goes right underneath it. As it happened, we were the only bikes onboard and we misbehaved as we stood where we weren’t supposed to, outside on the flat car carriages and train surfed through Alpine villages with the wind in our hair.

I’m not sure if it was something to do with being in a black tunnel for 10 minutes but as we came out into Kandersteg the scenery seemed to take on an even more stunning look, it was like the visor of my Tour-X had an Instagram filter on it, the air seemed clearer, the sun seemed brighter, the sky seemed a deeper blue, mountains seemed higher, the snow on top of them looked whiter and the meadows seemed a more lush deep green, this really was chocolate boxville.

After yet another stunning ride past glacial lakes and on up higher and higher our night’s accommodation just turned up yet again, not in the €200 a night hotel in Gridlewald but in the €30 a night ‘Down Town Lodge’, directly next door, a wooden built ex Swiss army barracks, it reminded me of the accommodation in The Great Escape except we didn’t have to tunnel out. My room was so big I had three double beds and one bunk bed to choose from! I lay on the top bunk (of course) and looked out at the spectacular and famous north face of the Eiger and the lush meadow which was the only thing between the lodge and the mountain.

As we rode out of Grindlewald later that day we both had that feeling that always eventually comes on tour, the feeling like you’ve made the imaginary turn in the road that heads for home, I knew we still had Germany to ride through and I knew we’d have fun but it was the mountains we’d come for really and I always feel slightly flat and sad to see them disappear slowly in my mirrors as we head for the low lands.

The train under the Aletsch glacier
The train under the Aletsch glacier

The Black Forest was great and the famous B500 is a true biker’s dream to ride passing through picturesque farmland. Then we had rain, lots of it, bloody lots of it. In fact, outrageous amounts of it, as we rode into Belgium the rain came down so hard that something happened that I’d never seen before, the cars on the motorway just had to stop, all three lanes, not in a traffic jam but just randomly stopped, there was no choice, you couldn’t see. We had to stop and just sit there in the torrent feeling very vulnerable. ‘This is all part of the adventure’ I told myself, ‘keep smiling it’s character building’ right? And thank God a hotel always just turns up because as the visibility opened back up there it was, our hotel 200 metres away, thank you God!

Our final place of visit was the beaches of Dunkirk, though there’s not much to see there nowadays. I strolled out onto the sand and tried to imagine the carnage that happened there and those brave men, they didn’t crave adventure, they just wanted to be back home with their families, but here we were two Englishmen on French land riding German bikes, riding freely in and out of different counties, I guess that’s what they fought for.

I still dream of the big six-month overland expedition but sat alone in my back room four months after the tour I wonder, how would I feel if I was still out there now and hadn’t been home yet? Do I really want that or is it all in my mind? If the truth be told I’m really not certain.

A slightly different adventure in the Ordesa National Park

We stayed in Broto in the lovely and biker friendly Hotel Pradas Ordesa, the proprietor rides a GS and is most welcoming. His lovely daughter Maria hooked us up with an awesome adventure out of the saddle for a day of totally crazy unsupervised canyoning and rock climbing alongside a 300ft vertical waterfall, then on up to the top of the mountain, it’s like GoApe on steroids! One slip and it’s certain death. A British health and safety officers worst bloody nightmare but it was awesome unplanned fun and a day I’ll never forget!


Don’t Miss: The Ordesa Valley

While the US has the Grand Canyon, Spain has the Ordesa Valley. The glacial valley in the Spanish Pyrenees forms part of the Ordesa y Monte Perdido National Park and it’s hard not to be amazed by the incredible views and towering walls.

Approach the valley from the town of Torla, located on its western edge, and you can park in what must be one of the most scenic car parks in the world (situated just below where this image was taken) to appreciate nature’s work or, if you’ve packed your hiking boots, take a walk into the heart of the canyon.

While there take the time to explore the rest of the National Park, you’ll be rewarded by stunning roads which twist and turn through the mountainside, carving holes through cliff faces and providing views that’ll test your in-saddle concentration.

Ordesa Valley

Don’t miss…

Phil’s favourite strip of road from the trip was the N260 in the Pyrenees between Biescas and Broto. Stop for Coffee in the old town and relax before your mind goes into bend overload for the next 25 kilometres. You cross the Rio Gallego and just follow the white line, bend after sublime bend as only the Spanish know how to lay and the Germans know how to finance.

N260 in the Pyrenees
N260 in the Pyrenees between Biescas and Broto

The bikes

I ride a BMW F800GS and Phil has a GS1200. Phils likes the GS1200 being the fourth one he’s had, ‘they just keep getting better’ he says, they may be everywhere, but there’s a reason for that. They’re just good at what a middle-aged guy wants them to be good at. Touring, light off-roading, with Phil reckoning that it goes ‘as fast as I’d dare these days, and making me feel as safe as possible on a bike’. I love everything about the nimble F800gs except for the torturous saddle, without my Airhawk my arse would resemble that of a male Baboon after a day in the saddle.

The Bike

Photos: Jake Cole