Central Europe: European Romance Tour

Text: Uwe Krauss • Photography: Uwe Krauss

Some of the most beautiful places in central Europe are connected by outstanding motorcycle roads that are just perfect for our KTM 1190 Adventure R. On this tour, every overnight location is protected by UNESCO 
World Heritage status, and each September day leads my wife and me through a completely different landscape.

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Although the Germans may not like to admit it, hops (one of the three important ingredients of beer) originated in China. It made its way from Asia to Europe via the Silk Road and was first used by monks in the eighth century. They originally referred to their brew as medicine and later called it beer.

We are cruising through the Holledau, the world’s largest hops growing area (responsible for 50 percent of the world’s production). Small roads lead through unique fields of the 30-foot-high plants. This is typical small scale Bavaria: picturesque villages, farms, and country living. The start of our trip in busy Munich is only 30 miles back but worlds away from the relaxing surroundings of this area. We enjoy the flow as long as possible before the medieval town wall of Abensberg forces us to stop. The natural stone towers and arches, as well as the cobblestone streets, are too pretty to drive past, and everything is preserved very well.

Just a few miles farther north, a geographic barrier is responsible for our next interruption—the Danube River. Almost 2,000 miles long, it’s the second largest river in Europe, and we must be at one of the really striking spots along it. The Danube had to cut its way through the plateau of the Franconian Alb and left a scenic gorge lined by white limestone rocks. And, as if they wanted to make a picture postcard, the monks left an impressive mark in an inside corner of the river—Weltenburg Abbey, the oldest brewery in the world. Underneath the old chestnut trees, a fine-looking beer garden (a typical Bavarian landmark) is inside.

Ferries and Fairy Tales

A small ferry powered by the current of the river brings us onto the north side of the Danube. The landscape changes from here. No more hops fields. The elevation is much higher now at the plateau of the Oberpfalz. This area wouldn’t be that special if a couple of rivers hadn’t carved their way through it to leave breathtaking valleys made accessible by scenic roads. This is a motorcyclist’s heaven. In some places it looks like an illustration for a fairy tale—blue rivers and big rocks like solidified giants with houses and churches tucked below them.

It’s all very attractive, as is the city of Bamberg, one of the most lovely in Germany, which also has the largest historic downtown in the country. It has been a UNESCO World Heritage site for 20 years, but that’s only numbers. We walk the narrow alleys with the timbered houses. Suddenly there are wide views over the bridges that span the two arms of the Regnitz River. The historic town hall sits very picturesque on an island in the middle of the river. Because Bamberg is built on seven hills with the all-dominant cathedral sitting on one of them, it often is called the Franconian Rome.

The next morning, the sun shines on our faces as we head east. After we ride an hour through the pleasant Franconian Switzerland, the landscape changes considerably. Our way takes us up into the 3,000-foot Fichtelgebirge. Some chairlifts and weather-beaten houses make it obvious that life and winters in this region must be rather tough.

Beyond the Former Iron Curtain

Before we know it, we are crossing the former Iron Curtain into the Czech Republic. There is not much left of the physical and political border, which once parted Europe. Actually there is not even a border control anymore. Only road signs in a different language indicate that we are in another country. There are differences, of course, such as the architecture in Karlovy Vary. The rural charm now past, we are right in the center of a masterpiece of Belle Epoque. Karlovy Vary once was the favorite spa of royals from all over the world. During socialist times, it was a more-or-less forgotten town. Celebrities from Hollywood have rediscovered this place in the northwestern corner of the Czech Republic. Karlovy Vary is beautiful; Prague is famous. The capital of the small country is only 80 miles away. The German-Roman emperor Charles IV once called Prague “The Golden City” for its splendor. After Paris, it is the most visited city in Europe. So it’s rather predictable that we are not the only ones crossing the Charles Bridge, on which 16 arches span the river Moldova. It is about 1,700-feet long and one of the oldest bridges in Europe.

After seeing the architectural wonders of the country, we are ready for some nature, and the mountains of the Bohemian Forest are our playground. They go up to 5,000-feet high, and a large part of the range is a national park. Backroads connect small villages. This is the least inhabited area of the country, but it’s not boring. A steady up and down through the forested peaks make for a grand motorcycle day. The occasional charming village and an impressive castle on a summit are added bonuses.

At the end of the day, we will be treated to one of the best surprises of the trip, Ceský Krumlov. I had heard that this would be a stunning place, but I never expected such a gorgeous setting. The river Moldova flows via two horseshoe bends through the rocky hills, and nestled in between them is the historic part of the town. Right above the red roofed houses sits a huge castle. This is where we’ll stay tonight (or so we thought). We end up staying three nights because we fall in love with Ceský Krumlov. The next day it is raining lightly, but that’s fine. We use it to stroll around town and to visit the castle, a puppet museum, and (of course) the local Eggenberg Brewery. Czech beers are well known for their quality. The town of Budweis, the place where the real Budweiser comes from, is just a couple of miles away. Walking around Ceský Krumlov, we can’t avoid the lovely Moldova River. After we see some canoes floating downstream, our plan for the next day is settled. Several companies offer tours along the country’s most famous river. From multiple-day trips to a couple of hours—everything is possible. We have never experienced something so relaxing and exciting at the same time as when we float down the river for four hours through the pristine landscape that the river has cut into the mountains.

Even the next morning, the Moldova keeps us occupied. We follow the river’s valley upstream—a direction that would have been difficult in the canoe. North of Ceský Krumlov, there is only the river and nature. Now toward the south, the road stays right beside the water and invites us for a scenic ride. A magnificent spot awaits us in Rožmberk, where a white castle sits high above the dark river with a small town at its feet.

A Landscape Formed 
by the Danube

Half an hour later, we are (without any bureaucratic hassle) in Austria. The difference is noteworthy. On the Czech side, villages had looked rather rustic in places. Here every house and farm is nicely done up, and the curvy roads are flawless. For two hours we enjoy this uninterrupted ride until we hit a huge drop—and an old friend, the Danube. Now considerably larger in size, it has formed the striking landscape of the Wachau while cutting its way through a mountain range. A dramatic road, still occasionally used as an official racecourse, brings us down to the river’s bed and to a new level of cuisine. So far we have been to areas that are well known for the art of crafting beer. That has now changed. As soon as we hit the areas of the Danube Valley, we are surrounded by exquisite vineyards. Austria’s best whites grow here. Everything seems to adjust to this high standard. The towns along the shore compete for the title to be the nicest in the country. No wonder they’ve often been used as film locations. In Dürnstein, we get the impression that it can’t get better and look for accommodations. We end up in a former castle right at the river, which rounds out a wonderful day.

The next morning starts with an adventure on two wheels but very different from the mode we are used to. The wheels are not in line; they are side by side. We sign up for a guided tour on Segways through the wineries in the town of Spitz. The learning curve on such a computer supported two-wheeler is quite steep. Some practice is necessary before we set off into the “wild.” Our guide, Thorsten Busch, is the best teacher we could imagine. He worked for many years as a ski instructor, so nothing can scare him anymore—not even the steep hills of Spitz. It is amazing how the Segway climbs slopes that could only be attempted in first gear on a motorcycle. There is a reward for the effort. The view from Thousand-Basket-Mountain (some hundred years ago the Bavarian monks harvested that amount of winegrapes from this dominant hill) onto a wide curve of the Danube is just breathtaking. The slopes are so steep that grape cultivation is only possible because of the thousands of well maintained dry retaining walls artfully erected out of the limestone of the area. Meanwhile the whole Wachau with this dominant feature is a recognized UNESCO World Heritage Site.

So far we have seen them only as a white jagged stripe at the horizon, but today our journey takes us right between the kings of the European mountains—the Alps. Excitement is slowly building as we follow lonely roads through the foothills of the mountains. Suddenly we find ourselves in the deep valley of the river Enns and hit the first passes. From vineyards in the morning to the alpine surroundings in the afternoon, this is quite a change. And the day is not over yet. As we reach the village of Hallstadt, we both agree that this must be one of the most picturesque locations in Austria. It is wedged between the 10,000-foot Dachstein Mountains and offers a view across the ever-so-blue lake carved by glaciers. This is Austria’s splendor. We are not the first ones to find out. As we learn in town, the Chinese loved the village so much that they built an exact replica in Asia. Overall this seems like a rather fair exchange—giving the hops and taking an Austrian village. We enjoyed both and much, much more.