The Austrian Tyrol -- indeed, much of Austria -- is staggeringly beautiful. Still, dark lakes reflect snow-capped mountains; cows graze in meadows of grass that look like velvet, their bells clanking and tinkling; pure, clean air fills a clear, blue sky. When I first went there in the early 1980s, I found that Austria was more like the Switzerland I had always imagined than was Switzerland itself.
When you go there, take your time. Yes, there are excellent winding roads through all this gorgeous scenery, but you don't want to go through the country too quickly. The last couple of times I've been to Austria, I've been on my way somewhere else (Slovenia in 2001, the Czech Republic in 2003) and it's nothing like as good if you are passing through in a hurry. You could easily spend a week in Austria: if you've only got a day, make sure that it isn't a crowded day.
If there's a choice of a tunnel or a pass, take the pass, every time. You will be rewarded with sparse traffic, excellent roads and beautiful scenery: a vast improvement on thundering through a dwarf-mine in the company of others impatient to get where they are going. A depressing (and increasing) number of Austrian motorways are underground.
There are some spas but we've not tried them. Frances had a quick look at the one at Laa on the Czech border, and it looked good: leisure-oriented and reasonably priced, rather than a 19th century 'Cure'.
The famed Gemuetlichkeit -- it's not really translatable, but it comes down to a capacity for enjoying yourself -- may be a little more formal than you expect, and a little less like old-fashioned carousing (defined as drinking a lot, and missing your mouth quite often) but that doesn't make it any less heartfelt.
Don't bother with Vienna (Wien, on the signposts), unless you like big cities. Sure, the old centre is attractive enough (and expensive enough), but it's not exactly motorcycling: there's an awful lot of commuter-style hacking through dirty, polluted suburbs to get in and out, just as there is around (say) London.
The ski areas can be tacky, too. I've never seen the attraction of tying two planks to my feet and falling down the side of a mountain, so I've never been there in winter; and a ski area in summer always looks like what it is, a machine for extracting money from people, temporarily switched off.
Austria is one of the most welcoming countries for motorcyclists. A surprising number of hotels, inns and restaurants actually hang out signs saying 'Motorcyclists Welcome' (in German, of course), and they mean it. More than most countries -- though Luxembourg is another -- the Austrians have realized that today's motorcyclist is likelier to be at least moderately well-to-do rather than poor, which makes motorcycle tourists a group worth targeting.
www.austriatourism.at is pretty good: it loads quickly, and tells you a fair amount about the country and its practicalities, though some fairly basic information (for example, on driving) is missing. It also gives addresses of local tourist offices, and numerous customized variations of the same web-site in different languages.
For maps I mostly just use the regular Michelin European Atlas, at a scale of 1:1000 000, 1cm = 10km, 16 miles to the inch. This is just about adequate for most purposes. If you want more detail, Michelin 11730 is a single-sheet 1:400 000 (1cm = 4km, 6.3 miles to the inch) and Geocenter does two maps (East and West) at 1:300 000 (1cm = 3km, or 4.7 miles/inch). Freytag+Berndt cover the whole country at 1:200 000 (1cm = 2km, or about 3 miles to the inch) plus a lot of more detailed maps for hikers etc.
Austria is one of those countries, though, where you might as well just head in a direction that looks interesting, and if you get a bit lost on the way, well, it will probably add to the pleasure.
As already noted, motorcyclists are generally very well regarded in Austria. More than in most countries, it is true, you get the middle-aged 'born again' motorcyclists, and quite a lot of young Austrian riders are as serious and respectable as their elders. This does not detract from the pleasure of motorcycling: far from it. Just as the popular American image of motorcyclists as drug-crazed West Coast hooligans is extended to cover 600-lb retired couples from Kansas on Honda Goldwings, the popular Austrian image of motorcyclists as respectable, well-to-do citizens with a sense of adventure is pervasive too; you really do have to go out of your way to be antisocial if you want to attract opprobrium.
Driving and riding standards are high: a bit like Germans, but more law-abiding when it comes to speed limits. You'll generally find that the people who are really ignoring the speed limits on the grand scale are visiting Germans. On the motorways around Vienna, though, everyone goes quickly: I hit 100 mph, 160 km/h, and people were still overtaking me.
Helmets are compulsory, as is a first-aid kit. Failure to produce one if asked is not an offence, but if you stop at an accident to help (or are involved in an accident) and cannot produce a first aid kit, you may be charged.
Spare bulbs are not compulsory, but daylight riding lights are. Use of the horn is forbidden in Vienna (except in very serious emergencies) and may be forbidden by signs elsewhere.
In general, the roads are first class, though you can expect frost damage on some of them in the spring and inevitably there are a few minor roads that are overdue for resurfacing -- but not many, and when they are resurfaced, it is done very well.
If you want to use the motorways and expressways you will need a a vignette, a stick-on permit to show that you have paid for your share. These are not expensive, however, and are available for short terms as well as long: the natives have to buy them too. They are available at most petrol stations, OAMTC offices (see below) and at a surprising number of smaller shops too -- even outside Austria, in border towns.
A 10-day pass for a motorcycle is 4.60 euros, a bit over US $5 or slightly over three quid. You can also get two-month passes and an annual pass: the latter costs 29 euros, call it US $33 or GBP 20. Car passes are significantly more expensive (7.60 for 10 days and 72.60 a year respectively) and the fines differ too: the driver of a car that is caught without a carnet is fined 220 euros, a bike rider, 65 euros.
On top of this, there are several roads, passes and tunnels that collect tolls as well, though some of them offer a discount to vignette holders.
Priority is to the right, as usual, except that trams have priority even when they are coming from your left. Otherwise emergency vehicles are the only ones that have priority.
The speed limit in town is 50 km/h (31 mph); on the open roads, 100 km/h (62 mph); and on motorways, 130 km/h (81 mph). In Vorarlberg and the Tyrol, the speed limit on the open road is 80 km/h, 50 mph. As noted above, the Austrians are better at observing speed limits than Germans, but they still speed quite a bit, especially in Vorarlberg and the Tyrol.
In contrast with the endlessly detailed information about parking and waiting, below, overtaking appears to be pretty much a matter of common sense -- and of never crossing a solid yellow line in the middle of the road.
In towns and cities, park only in marked bays (which may be on the sidewalk/pavement); do not park on the sidewalk unless marked. Otherwise, take note of the following restrictions: where the road narrows; on the brow of a hill; on a bend; on or under bridges, tunnels or underpasses; on (!) or near level crossings, within 5 metres (16 feet) of crossroads or 15 metres (around 50 feet) of bus or tram stops; anywhere that obscures traffic lights, road signs, etc.; or on motorways except in marked parking areas.
The Austrians wisely distinguish between 'parking' (Parken, over 10 minutes) and 'waiting' (Halten, under 10 minutes). Both are illegal in all the above circumstances but you may wait (but not park) where there are 'no parking' crosses on the road, in front of entrances, in two-way streets less than 7.5 metres (25 feet) wide, on the left on one-way streets less than 5 metres (16 feet) wide, and on priority roads outside built-up areas in reduced visibility.
Do not park in Vienna on roads that have tram lines, between 15 December and 31 March. This is to allow for snow clearance.
You must use parking lights unless the vehicle is visible at 50 metres (55 yards) without them. Fortunately, many hotels have garages or at least parking lots.
Weather is typically Central European: after all, Austria (along with the Czech Republic and Hungary) pretty much defines Central Europe. Summers are warm or even hot, with average daily maxima above 20 degrees C, 68 degrees F, from mid-May to mid- or even late September, and winters are cold, with minimum daily temperatures below freezing from sometime in November to sometime in March.
Summer is also the rainiest season, but the rain tends to fall in hard bursts with plenty of sunshine in between; there is a daily average of nine or ten hours a day of sunshine in July. This is why the grass is so green and velvety!
I've never been there in the spring -- by which I mean May, or even late April -- but I've been there several times in the autumn, and I can heartily recommend it. Summer is good too. But in winter, when there's an average of only a couple of hours of sunshine a day, I'd give it a miss.
Other Christian festivals taken as public holidays are:
Formalities on entering the country are minimal, especially for EU citizens: a glance at the cover of the passport if you are entering from an EU country, a look inside as well if you are entering from a non-EU country. Austria is a Schengen Group member.
You will need your passport, but no visa for the vast majority of countries for visits of up to 90 days, including Australia; your driving licence (see below); the vehicle registration; a letter from the owner if the bike is borrowed; proof of insurance and a constat a l'aimable.
You need an international driving permit unless you have an EU or Swiss driving licence; you may be OK with some other European licenses too. The minimum driving age is 18, with (as far I could discover) no exemptions for younger licence holders from other countries.
There are the usual reciprocal health agreements for citizens of EU countries as well as for some others. British citizens don't even need an E111: they can get treatment on production of a passport. Even private treatment may be refundable: the local Gebietskrankencassen can help you with this. There are no special requirements for vaccinations.
Customs regulations are the EU standards with a value for 'other goods' of 175 Euros.
When they leave by air, visitors from outside the EU can get the VAT or MWST (sales tax) back on items costing over 75 euros. Ask at the time that you buy it, because you must have all the proper paperwork in ordnung.
Currency is the Euro. Credit cards are not widely accepted, even in petrol stations, and you may find your choice of accommodation and restaurants somewhat limited unless you have cash to hand. There are more hole-in-the-wall machines (autotellers) than there used to be but they are still somewhat less common than you might expect.
On weekdays, most shops open at 0800 and close at 1800; in the smaller towns, there may well be a lunch break, at most from 1200 to 1400. On Saturdays, look for 0800 to 1300. Banks are open typically 0800 to 1200 or 1230, then 1330 to 1500; they may stay open 'late' (1730) on Thursdays.
Tipping is widespread, but modest: a service charge is included in all menus, etc., so rounding up is the norm -- like 19.20 euros would go to 20, or 21 if you really want to make a point, while 63.95 would go to 65, or to 70 if you were feeling generous.
Austrian petrol stations tend to keep fairly abbreviated hours -- typically just 0800 to 2000 -- and surprisingly many of them do not accept credit cards: the Austrians are one of the last great hold-outs against these. Just two grades of blyefrei (unleaded) are normally stocked, 91 ordinary and 98 super. There's also a 98 lead replacement petrol. Prices are around the European average.
I'm afraid I didn't check oil but I'd imagine that the usual injunction to buy in supermarkets holds good. Repairs should be no problem at prices at or a little above the European average.
Despite several companies who claimed to rent motorcycles in Austria on their web-sites, I was unable to locate any who actually did. Some didn't even rent motorcycles at all, except for organized tours. If there is anyone hiring bikes out in Austria, I'll be delighted to publicize their name here in return for a reciprocal web-link.
You can however rent in Germany or Switzerland. Bosenburg, www.bosenberg.com is one of the larger agencies.
Austrian police are polite and old-fashioned, and very formal: follow their lead, and you will not go far wrong. They prefer to caution visitors rather than giving them a ticket, but they can impose heavy on-the-spot fines (and they take major credit cards). They are also very hot on drunken driving, with heavy fines, immediate loss of licence, and a week in the slammer on the menu of minimum deterrents. It is normal to call the police even for minor accidents.
The OAMTC (Osterreichischer Automobil, Motorrad und Touring Club) operates a Touring Breakdown Service on all motorways and main roads, and can be called to breakdowns on other roads: call 120 in most areas. The head office is at Schubertring 1-3, 1010 Wien 1, phone 1 711 99.
Assistance is far from free, and depends on time of day, help rendered, whether the bike has to be transported, and more, but members of affiliated foreign clubs ought to get a discount: check with your own club before you leave.
Austrian food is a bit like German, but with numerous influences, all of which improve it, from other neighbouring countries, especially Hungary and the Balkans. Expect, therefore, an intelligent but not over-enthusiastic use of spices; a variety of pastas and tomato-based sauces as alternatives to potatoes, cabbage and salt; and food that is, by and large, very well worth eating, and good value even though it seems slightly expensive. It's good value because you get quite a lot of it, and it's good quality.
Those with a sweet tooth are very well served by the konditorei or patissiers; Viennese konditormeisters (master-confectioners) are perhaps the most famous in all the world. They also use lots of whipped cream (Schlagobers or simply Schlag). A friend of mine told the story of asking, "Das ist mit Schlagobers?" (Does this come with whipped cream?). There was a shocked silence before the waitress replied, "Mein herr! In dieser Haus ist ALLES mit Schlagobers!" (Sir! In this house, EVERYTHING comes with whipped cream!).
For a quick snack, try a Wuerstl (sausage) stand; or for a bit more variety, a heuriger is a wine-tavern that (usually) also sells food.
Picnic food is not expensive, and as in Switzerland, there are so many stunning places you can stop for a picnic that this is a worth-while option.
Austrians drink beer, wine and coffee, very frequently; all are widely available. Neither the beer nor the wine is outstanding in the way of (say) Czech or Bavarian beer or French wines, but it's all very drinkable. Coffee comes in a wild variety of forms: the Austrians had this down to a fine art long before the invention of Starbucks. Coffee and konditorei go together far better than anything Starbucks ever did, though, especially mit Schlagobers.
In the autumn, look out for Sturm. It's the same as the German Federweiss or the French Bernache: recently-pressed grape juice that is still fermenting. It's moderately alcoholic -- anything from four or five per cent upwards, depending on how long it's been fermenting -- and it's delicious.
Read the labels on mineral waters carefully, because the Austrians share the German (and Hungarian, and Slovenian) weakness for salty 'digestive' waters, which some people, including me, find undrinkable. Once, in the car, I ended up washing the windshield with a particularly poisonous brand. The tap water is drinkable everywhere.
The blood alcohol limit is 80 mg/100 ml; see the note above about the penalties.
Accommodation is normally of very good quality, at fairly modest prices: around the middle of the overall European price range, a little more than France, quite a bit more than Portugal, rather less than much of Germany and most of Switzerland and a great deal less than the United Kingdom. Out-of-season prices, especially in Vienna, can be 25 to 40 per cent lower than high season.
Bath-tubs (as distinct from showers) are rather more common in Austria than in many countries. Prices are normally quoted per room, not per person, but this is not invariable. Breakfast may or may not be included; it normally isn't, so check carefully. Austrian breakfasts are unpredictable: anything from the full High German style, with bread, cold meat and cheese, to a disappointingly modest French-style croissant, roll, butter and sweet spreads. But there is always the Konditorei...
The address of the Osterreichischer Jugendhebergsverband or Austrian Youth Hostel Association is at A-1010 Wien, Schottenring 25, www.oejhv.or.at. Phone +43 1 533 5353, fax 535 0861. They own 30 hostels and are partners in 68 more; according to their (helpful) web-site, a bed in a dormitory-style room should cost no more than 10 to 14 euros, US $11-15, but I'm not sure if that includes breakfast or not.
There are numerous camp sites of a high standard, and 'wild' camping is legal if you have the permission of the land-owner: inquire at the local municipal offices if you want to camp on public land. Very sensibly, camp fires are banned in or near woods.
The language is German, albeit with an accent that some Germans pretend not to understand. It's a lot easier than Swiss German, though. English is moderately widely spoken, but don't rely on it except in the bigger or more expensive hotels, or touristy areas. Relatively few English-speaking tourists visit Austria (compared with other European countries and fellow-German-speakers) so there's not much pressure on Austrians to speak English. In theory, it's the most widely spoken second language.
Road signs are mostly international, but the following written signs may be important:
The Austrian (and Bavarian) greeting is "Gruess Gott!" and it will always go down well if you say this before asking the way, etc.
This information has been verified as far as possible but should not be taken as definitive. You alone are responsible for your safety on a motorcycle (or elsewhere) and should always ride and behave accordingly. Click here for the Official Health Warning.
last updated: 11/12/03
© 2003 Roger W. Hicks