Sunday, August 19, 2012

Why France (and Italy)?

In my last post I addressed the question that comes up about why it's so great to ride in the Alps.  Next up is the follow up question, of all the alpine countries, why France?  Good question.  The Alps span France, Italy, Switzerland, Austria, Germany, Slovenia, and you could even include Liechtenstein and Monaco in that list.  You'd think that surely there must be great riding in those countries, and you'd be right.

After all, Austria is the country of The Sound of Music and its expansive alpine scenery.  Austria is home to many roads - often toll roads - that seem to exist primarily for the pure joy of riding or driving them.  The Grossglockner is a case in point.  Austria is also home the greatest concentration of Biker Wilkommen signs I've ever seen.  It seems the whole country is filled with restaurants and hotels competing for the business of vacationing motorcyclists.

Then there's Switzerland, the archetypal alpine country, all beautiful lakes, perfect houses with exquisite flower boxes, perfectly trimmed lawns, and roads without a speck of litter.  Combine that with it being the home of some of the most legendary alpine roads (Furka, Bernina, etc.), and it would seem to be the one perfect place for an Alps motorcycling vacation.

Germany is a classic portal to the Alps.  It's easy to get air connections from the US to Munich, visit the BMW factory, and take off into the Alps.  The reality is that Germany is only a tiny portion of the Alps, and while there are nearby places to ride in Germany that are great such as the Black Forest, if you want to experience much of the Alps themselves, you won't be restricting yourself to Germany.

I can't really speak to Slovenia because I haven't ridden there yet, but what I know about it makes Slovenia very attractive, and I'm looking forward to trying it out.  It looks wild and rugged and remote, and that's just what I most enjoy.

This brings us to France and Italy, and the things that are great about both of them.   This may not win me any friends with the ministries of tourism for these two countries, but here goes.  What I most love about France and Italy is that they are just a bit wilder, at bit less controlled, a bit more rugged,often a bit more remote, a bit more ragged than the other alpine nations.  This is true in many ways, but seems particularly true around attitudes towards motorcycle traffic.  It seems that both police and other road users in these countries understand that you're on a motorcycle and that you're going to be going quickly, and they make allowances for that.  That hasn't been my experience in Austria, or particularly Switzerland - where it is joked that everything that is not obligitoire is most certainly interdit.  France and Italy are just a little more like the wild west. 

Where else can you come flying up behind a police car, have the officer look in the mirror, then wave you around?  All this in a no passing zone!  Where else do car drivers routinely move to their right a foot or so to enable you to easily overtake them on narrow mountain passes (truth be told, a lot of California drivers are pretty good about getting out of the way)?  Where else is it acceptable  to split between lanes of traffic moving opposite directions?  Where else in the Alps can you find passes as wild, rugged, and simultaneously perfect and imperfect as the Col de la Cayolle or the Passo di Gavia?

An exaggerated  analogy might be that France and Italy are to Switzerland as California is to Disney's California Adventure.  One is the real thing; wild, imperfect, chaotic, and maybe a bit more dangerous.  The other is refined, perfected, triple-distilled, constrained, controlled, and safer.  Fair?  No, not really, but fun. 

For me, the greater wildness and tolerance of France and Italy make the experience of actually riding there ever so much more intense and enjoyable.  As a rider it also requires me to be more on my game, more vigilant, more flexible, and more responsible for my own conduct because traffic enforcement isn't going to save me from myself. 

France over Italy?  Yes, by a slim margin.  I somewhat prefer French food, but Matt prefers Italian.  We both prefer French drivers, if only because they're slightly less aggressive than Italians.  Both are a huge improvement over Americans.  Oh, and I love the sound of the French language, whether I understand what I'm hearing or not, though Italian is quite nice too. 

There you have it.  Why I love riding some countries more than others.  Some of the touring companies seem to concentrate on Austria and Switzerland.  My suggestion is to try France.  All those GS's with German plates seen each summer in the French passes may be on to something.  

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