Taking the Scenic Route – Jena to Milan

Lying in our tent for the first time, nine days into the trip, and it suddenly kicked in that we’re travellers now. Not tourists, not bikers on a camping trip; proper nomads.

The morning started with a waffle breakfast courtesy of Ilka and the usual packing up routine. I’d finally put the sat nav away and made some notes from the map, so we knew we were heading roughly towards Milan, and stopping at Neushwanstein to see the famous castle, but we weren’t really sure how long it would take us or where we’d stop to sleep. Heading south on the road out of Jena, and every time I dropped into first gear to stop at the lights, or a junction, my bike would just cut out and stall. I ignored it the first few times, hoping it was just that the engine was cold, but half an hour later it was still happening and I pulled in to a petrol station to have a look. The sting from my last repair bill was still with me, so I was picturing having to replace spark plug coils and god knows what else. Fortunately, Maria’s had every conceivable problem with her BMW, so she was on the case. Apparently the computer system that controls the fuel injection sometimes starts to miscalculate, so it was reading my throttle control wrong and dropping the revs below zero. An easy fix; you just turn the engine off and slowly rotate the throttle to fully open a few times, allowing the computer to read the full range available, and adjust accordingly. Problem solved.

Back on the road we had some nice hills to twist through, giving us the chance to familiarise ourselves again with the heavy bikes. Just as we were starting to really get into it we got hit with the first rain of the trip. Bound to happen eventually I suppose. Just south of Nurnburg the drizzle abated, so we decided to look for a place to camp. The first sizeable grove of pine trees we found ran alongside a small road so we followed that and soon came across a dirt track leading in to the forest with a sign forbidding entrance that usually signifies a good camping spot.

The path led to a logging station next to a nice soft spot of grass that was perfect for the tent.

Behind us was a small hunter’s platform that we stretched our tarp over as the rain started again, giving me a dry spot to fire up the stove.

The next morning was cold

and the camp stove wasn’t working, so our first stop was a supermarket cafe for hot coffee and a pastry breakfast. The hilly South-German terrain kept the roads twisty and the sun was doing it’s best despite the crisp spring air so we were having a blast working our way towards Hohenshwangau and the castle when suddenly, out of the mist, the alps towered over us. Almost instantly the towns took on a less German, more distinctly alpine feel and before long the castle appeared on it’s rocky outcrop above us.

Icebear got all excited about the castles and wanted to free his frog princess ;)

Icebear got all excited about the castles and wanted to free his frog princess 😉

I can understand the castle’s reputation. The romanesque details and the location make it an impressive sight, and you can see why disney have copied it’s design so often. Unfortunately, it’s a bit overrun with tourists – apparently receiving up to six thousand people every day – so not only was the town heaving, it had also been turned into a machine for emptying pockets. The tiny car park charged a huge fee, you couldn’t drive up to the castle so you had to pay for a special bus, god knows how much they charged for entry. We eventually decided to just turn around and head out. It was nearing the end of the day and we were more interested in finding something hot to eat and putting up the tent.

The next town we came to; Fussen, was a great little hippy paradise. There is only one road in, across a bridge, and cars aren’t allowed in unless they belong to residents. Maria decided to temporarily forget how to read German while we rode past that sign, and we pulled our bikes up next to a little organic coffee shop. No-one seemed to mind that we were there, despite clearly not being residents, and the bearded, be-poncho’d hippy outside the cafe was only interested in the home-made tool holders we’d zip tied to the bash plates. A hot dinner of coffee and crepes and we were off into the foothills of the alps to find camp.

Just across the Austrian border, and we veered off the main road, across a railroad and down a track reserved for agricultural vehicles. Well the F650 is sort of the tractor of the bike world. The track led us past a few wooden shacks and alongside a stream before opening out into a flat field with a spectacular view of the mountains. Since we were technically not allowed to be there, we stopped to speak to each person we met to ask if they wouldn’t mind letting us camp and the response always seemed to be; “its fine with me, but it’s going to be so cold you might die”. Encouraging stuff. We set the tent up, threw the tarp over it to protect the seams from the frost and settled in with a bottle of wine to keep the cold at bay.

Despite the severe warnings, we had a reasonably comfortable night, albeit having to sleep fully clothed, but the view we woke up to was completeley worth it. The previous evenings mist had cleared and the alps were even more impressive than they had seemed when we put up the tent.

The bikes were reluctant to start, but eventually we were on our way up and over the alps. What a spectacular day’s riding. The constant hairpins twisting higher and higher were endlessly entertaining, and I was only occasionally brought back to reality when the back wheel caught a patch of ice. Apart from the occasional coffee, we were both reluctant to stop since we were having so much fun but despite that, we were making slow progress.

It didn’t matter much although neither of us was thrilled about the prospect of camping at 2000m. We gradually passed through into Lichtenstein and on to Switzerland, where the first cafe we found treated us to a strange scene of accordion playing, granny choir weirdness.

We were finally starting to make good time, until we hit Buchs – the first sizeable Swiss town and our introduction to Swiss driving. For all their reputation of order and efficiancy, they have no idea how to navigate a town and we endured two hours of rage inducing congestion before finally getting back onto twisty roads and the last hundred miles of mountain pass. Night fell and the temperature dropped, turning our final few miles of the alps in to a bit of an endurance test but soon enough we pulled up on the Italian side of the border for a smoke and biscuit break. From there it was straight roads and tunnels, a mercifully warm italian night and finally a quick trip through Milan, using the sat nav to find our friend’s house and get settled in for a drink and a midnight dinner.

The next day, after a much needed sleep-in, we headed out for a bit of sushi with some friends of our hosts. Alex and Sveta are a Russian couple who’ve spent the last five years travelling the world in a mercedes van, so we had plenty to talk about. After lunch we walked through Carneval – infested Milan, swapping stories and travellers tips with them and Alex’s sister, and getting a tour of the city from Marta with occasional visual accompaniment from Mattia.

After ice cream from the best place in Milan – actually a great experience; through some sort of alchemy they manage to create really convincing flavours of things like bread and jam, basil and salted chocolate –

we ended up in a bar for  aperitivo – happy hour cocktails (with lots more food from the buffet)

then off to play some pool with more friends.

Parking can be a bit of a nightmare in the city at this time of night, but luckily we came up with a solution….

just move the No-Parking sign one space along ;)

just move the No-Parking sign one space along 😉

The following day Marta and Mattia had booked themselves a day of snowboading in the alps so we had the place to ourselves. The bikes needed some general maintenance, and Maria wanted to change her front sprocket so we headed down to the garage, got the tools out and prepared to get dirty.

That done, we decided to cook a bit of dinner for the guys, figuring they’d come back from the mountains starving and late, and anyway we wanted to do something to say thanks for putting us up (and putting up with us). Over dinner we asked about the two small pit bikes Mattia’s got stored in the garage – as it turns out he’s a bit of  a speed freak, and he suggested that if we were willing to stay another day we could go down to the track and try them out. Our two day stay very quickly became three….

And it was well worth staying for. It was a monday afternoon, so the track was practically deserted, and the little 125cc, 9 horsepower bikes are amazing fun to throw around. We had two bikes between the four of us so we booked two twenty minute slots and swapped around every ten minutes or so. Mattia of course left us all in the dust – he’s been racing since he was eighteen and has a cupboard full of trophies – for the rest of us it was a case of pushing a little bit more for each lap just to see how far you dared lean over. I’ve definitely picked up a new addiction. Oh well, add it to the pile.

Of course no trip to Milan would be complete without a pizza so after dropping the bikes home we headed out to a Napoli-run place and stuffed ourselves before heading back to slump in to bed in a carbohydrate-induced daze.

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