Take a second to recall every example of bad driving you've ever witnessed. Excessive speed, excessive slowness, no-look lane changes, drifting out of lanes in curves, drifting out of lanes in straights, tailgating, hard braking, passing on blind curves, slowing down after passing, reversing on the motorway, stopping on an entrance ramp, talking with hands whilst using a mobile phone and driving a manual-transmission car, etcetera.
Now imagine a land where all of this is commonplace, where it happens with such regularity that no one cares. That land is called Italy.
I spend a week in the country's Tuscany region as part of my epic European adventure (read Part 1 here and Part 2 here) and I'm the only one using my horn. Everyone else seems to be OK with this. They thrive in it.
Making good progress through a particularly twisty bit of road one day, I get schooled by a dude on a Vespa. He is wearing a T-shirt, shorts and sandals. The strap on his 1/2 helmet is undone and a cigarette hangs from his lips. He waves cheerfully as he passes me in a corner.
As you can see, Tuscany is an awful place.
In temperature and topography the area reminds me of Texas Hill Country. But, thankfully, no one here takes Toby Keith seriously. There is no air conditioning, and after a week in 38C (100F) heat I'm ready to head north. I push hard toward Genoa, then up the quiet space between Milan and Turin. The eastern side of the Piedmont region has a charming flatness. By European standards it is sparsely populated, which allows for some of the quietest roads I've experienced this side of the Atlantic.
I spend the night by a river in northern Italy's Gran Paradiso National Park. It is one of the prettiest places you could ever hope to go, but I don't get much chance to enjoy it. I'm up early the next morning and pushing toward Switzerland's capital city, Bern.
Before this trip, I knew little about Switzerland beyond its being home to watches, fancy knives, and WWE superstar Cesaro. Now it's one of my favorite countries. I arrive via Great St. Bernard Pass. The corners here are swooping, allowing more speed with less stress. The quality of the road is good. The views are incredible.
View from the top of Great St. Bernard Pass
I make Bern by noon. Tomorrow, when I ride out, I will wish I had arrived earlier and stayed later. The primary reason for this is the Aare, a glacier-fed river that serves as a tributary to the Rhine (which I will be following back to the Netherlands over the next few days).
I first heard about swimming in the Aare five years ago. It's the nature of being an expat, however, that when I have money/time for travel it almost always gets spent on trips to Texas and Minnesota, where my family and friends are. The desire to come to Bern has been a constant, but it's taken me this long to get here. I've been missing out.
The jade-colored, mineral-rich Aare rushes through Bern at a pace of roughly 4.5 mph. That doesn't sound quick but it's faster than most people walk. It will pull you off your feet. Stand near the river's bracingly cold water and you'll hear the sound of its rocky bottom churning –– thousands of stones and pebbles being ground smooth. Dip your head below, and the sound is intense: a whooshing, crinkling ring. An adventure film would use this sound to represent something immense and unstoppable, something with its own gravity.
A gravity that pulls people to the river's banks and encourages them to jump in. It is hyperbole to say EVERYONE in Bern swims the Aare, but it's not a huge exaggeration. At any given time on any given warm day, you'll see hundreds of people in and near the river. You'll hear their laughs and shouts in response to the cold. A surprising number even let out a distinctive yodel: "Ahh hoo-hoo hoooo!"
Beach at Eichholz
A popular jump-in point is Eichholz, the urban campsite where I've pitched my tent. From here, it's a roughly mile-long float/swim to the city center. There is a ritual of getting in, of building yourself up mentally. People stand knee-deep in the water like wildebeest amassing at a crocodile-infested river, waiting for some instinctive cue to jump.
I wade in, feel my feet ache from the cold, and my shins go numb. Inspired by the Swiss yodels, I offer up my best grito and leap into the current. I pop my head out of the water with a deep, "huhuh" –– cold pushing air from my lungs. The flow is so strong I'm already 20 feet downriver. And just as quickly, I am the most purely happy I've been in a year.
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There is a reason we baptize in rivers. They don't just wash away sins, they also take away pretense. Jewellery and expensive clothes cannot be worn; makeup will be wiped off; fashionable hair styles will be undone. Jump into a river and all that's left is yourself.
Because the Aare is so central to Bern life, this clean and clearly wealthy city maintains a welcoming, come-as-you-are feel. Young and old, rich and poor, float down together. Once in the city center, a walking path follows the river back to Eichholz. This path is crowded with hundreds of barefoot and shirtless souls, energized and chatty. I get into conversations with Swiss, Polish, Italians, Americans, and Germans over the course of my several runs down the river. I feel like a kid. I am so happy, so euphoric that I don't eat lunch. I don't notice the cumulative 8 miles I walk in bare feet.
People swimming in the Aare River.
Eventually, the shivering is uncontrollable. I begrudgingly put on dry clothes and head to an outdoor cafe that's part of my campsite. Bratwurst, fries, and beer. The healthy traveller's choice. As I eat, I hear occasional yodelling ring out. It becomes too much to ignore and I make four more runs down the river.
It is dark when I return to my tent, and I sleep heavily. Only once am I awoken: by a yodel moving down the river at 3 a.m.
If you walk 12 miles on hot pavement with bare feet you will feel it the next day. Especially if you are riding a motorcycle on the German autobahn. Europe is still in a heatwave and the temperature hits 37C (98F). The discomfort is exacerbated by the stinging heat that comes off the V-Strom's engine when cruising at 100 mph.
The Strom itself has no problems, of course. Even when I push the bike to 130 mph the engine never feels overworked. But it does produce heat and I am struggling. My feet are blistered from the day before; the heat from the exhaust comes up through my boots and causes intense pain.
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The Swiss capital of Bern is surprisingly beautiful.
Whatever good time I'm making by travelling at such high speed is lost in the need to stop and rest often. At a gas station near Offenburg I meet a couple from Scotland who are touring on a Honda Super Blackbird (aka CBR1100XX). The woman is lying on the ground with her jacket off and riding trousers pushed down to the ankles (she is wearing shorts). She uses a bottle of ice tea to cool her womanly bits.
It's their first time riding in Europe. The man is nonplussed to have discovered the Blackbird is the sort of machine that naturally runs hot.
"Hadn't ever noticed that back home," he says in thick Strathclyde drawl. "Burned me trousers, too."
Nodding at his wife he says: "This one's none too happy with it. Are ya, love?"
The autobahn is hot and mentally draining.
Her response is more a string of expletives than coherent sentence. She is sick of the heat, sick of hanging off the back of a sport bike, sick of her husband's attempts to maintain a 120-mph cruising speed. While he goes into the shop to buy her more ice tea ("We'll call it 'fanny tea' from now on," he says), I tell her they should detour to slower, cooler roads. In particular, I suggest the Schwarzwaldhochstraße (Black Forest High Road), which I rode two weeks ago.
I read to her from my travel guide, show her pictures on my camera, and tell her about the massive, kirsch-soaked Black Forest cake I had there. By the time her husband returns she is sold and shows him the route.
"That's the 500," he says. "That's the road I wanted to go on."
"You didn't tell me there was cake," she says.
Turning to me, he smiles: "I think you just saved my marriage."
Unfortunately, I'm not able to take my own advice. I stay on the autobahn, pushing hard to get as far north as I can. In the early evening I find a campsite by typing "camping" into my GPS. It guides me to an RV resort brimming with German and Dutch families. I eat dinner at the restaurant on site and my waitress thrice brings beer I didn't ask for. When I get my bill, I discover she hasn't charged me for it. I promise myself I will visit Germany again soon.
German happy juice
The next day, I have 12 hours to cover 200 miles. I decide to avoid motorways entirely. I am rewarded in this decision by the roads of rural Rhineland. Beautiful, undulating, well-paved and dotted with farm fields, it reminds me of Southern Wisconsin.
Keeping with the Upper Midwestern theme, I soon cross into the Minnesota-esque Netherlands. Here I continue on slower roads. Very slow; the maximum speed on non-motorway routes is 50 mph. But it's enjoyable. How could it not be? I'm riding a motorcycle across Europe, for the love of Pete.
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This is the sort of thing you hope will come back to you in your final moments –– when everything's flashing before your eyes: "There I am singing Christmas songs with my grandmother. There I am on my wedding day. There I am in the Aare. Ahh hoo-hoo hoooo!"
I arrive at the ferry port early. I clean and lube the bike's chain and chat to an English couple who have been touring Sweden on their BMW R1200GS. A Suzuki Bandit 1250 rolls up. Its rider kills the engine, dismounts and pulls off his helmet in a single action.
British riders I meet waiting for the ferry
"Hello chaps," he says. "Sorry I'm late."
He's English as well –– a sergeant in the Royal Army who travels frequently to a base in Germany. Soon afterward, a 24 year old from Newcastle, recently fully licensed. He's been flogging an old Honda Hornet 600 to Finland and back. I don't know these people but it feels like a reunion. Something wells up in me I wouldn't have expected: eagerness to get back to the UK.
The next morning I'm exploring East Anglia –– a part of Britain I've never before visited. The weather is perfect: sunny and 22C (72F). You'll get none of that continental heatwave stuff in ol' Blighty. The Strom seems happy back on the left side of the road. It pops through roundabouts with renewed energy. It dances around traffic. I spend the day constantly asking and answering the question: "What's over there?"
Sunset finds me cruising through Norfolk on an uncharacteristically serene A47. It is one of those sunsets that kicks you in the chest, that makes you ache with the joy of being alive. Warm yellow-orange becoming bright pink; glowing across farm fields, the road, and broad sky. The late-day cool. The steadfast thrum of the motorcycle's engine. It is perfect. Add this to those moments I will recall in my final one.
Not too soon, though, Lord. This bike and I have a lot of places to go.
Somewhere in Norfolk, England