There are basically two ways to go touring. One is to set out hopefully, with only the very vaguest idea of where you want to go. You don't need detailed maps for this: the miserable sketches that you get in guide books, or the nigh-worthless maps distributed by so many tourist offices, are entirely adequate. The other approach is to plan everything down to the last letter: not just 'It's Tuesday, so this must be Belgium' but exactly which roads to take, where to turn onto the next road (with both the road number and the direction), and so forth.
We prefer to mix the two: assiduous planning for the beginning and end, and wandering in the middle. This allows us to get where we want to go, as quickly or as painlessly as possible (preferably both), and to return as quickly and painlessly as possible from our last fixed point. Then, in the middle, we go where the mood takes us. We may go further than we had originally planned, or not as far; we may skip one town where we had thought we might stay, then stay three nights in another we had never even considered.
Sometimes this means we are bored, cold, tired and hungry, but it has also led us to some truly magical places, to some of which we have returned again and again, with and without the motorcycle. There's Mertola in Portugal; the Pyrenees, on both sides of the Franco-Spanish border; Germany, near the Czech border; Pecs in Hungary (and several of the thermal spas in Hungary); Forcalquier in the Alpes Maritimes in France; Goa, away from the heavily touristed bits; California's Gold Country; Capodistria in Slovenia. Even when somewhere isn't magical, it can still be far better than you expected -- Brugge/Bruges, for example, in Belgium, or Madras in India -- or it can be worth seeing just to confirm your suspicion that it isn't all it's cracked up to be, such as Athens (and nearby Sounia, the only place I have ever heard a sunset applauded by the tourists) or Alhambra de Grenada in Spain.
Then there are the places we first saw without the motorcycle, but subsequently returned with one, such as the Brindavan gardens in South India, or the places we haven't been with a motorcycle yet, though we have been there in hired cars, such as the Greek islands.
There's also the countryside, the places that scarcely ever figure in the guide books, but are simply beautiful or fascinating or engaging in their own right. Particularly in France, but also in many other countries, there are really good little restaurants: not haute cuisine, but first-class local food, superbly cooked, sometimes at silly-low prices, often less than a US dollar a head in India. You see and appreciate all this much more on a motorcycle than in a car.
So: how do we plan and map our routes? Somewhat to our own surprise, when we analyzed it, we found that there are five reasonably constant steps or stages, as detailed below.
STAGE ONE: INSPIRATION
Why does anyone want to go anywhere? Because they've heard about it; because they've read about it; because they've seen pictures; because of a sense of adventure; maybe even because of past lives. Oh, yes: and because it's relatively easy or even essential to go there, directly on the way to somewhere they really want to go, or only a small detour.
Personal recommendation -- and past lives
My father was in the navy, so I grew up hearing about exotic places, and even visiting some of them. When I lived in Malta from 1958 to 1960, I also visited Navarino Bay in Greece (on HMS Ausonia) and Tripoli in Libya, in the days before the People's Jamahiriya. On the way back to England from Malta (by sea) we called in at Gibraltar.
Or: one of the closest friends of Frances's mother, Helen Latif, moved to India in the 1930s as a young woman, and married an Indian. She used to visit the United States occasionally, and Frances would always listen spellbound to stories of the sub- continent. We finally got to visit her in the early 1980s.
Or: my first wife's father was posted to Albania briefly, and said it was one of the most beautiful countries he had ever seen. That was in the days before Enver Hoxhe, of course.
Or: the first time we were in South India, on Tibetan government business, our driver wanted to show us Brindavan Gardens, but because he hadn't been there for a while, he forgot the way. Frances said, "There's a van over there, and it says 'Brindavan Gardens' on the side." The driver, Yusuf-la, looked at her strangely. "That's right," he said, "but I didn't know you could read Kannada." That's the local language, with its own unique alphabet.
Think of your own stories. Think back: what first made you want to visit a place? Or has it fascinated you as long as you can remember?
READING ABOUT IT
Many of the best guidebooks are timeless, in the sense that while they may describe a country that has changed greatly, you can still see the underlying continuity. You can read books from a couple of centuries ago, and more, and know that the country much have changed enormously -- but still see references that could almost have been on last night's television news.
We shamelessly collect guide-books, especially in second-hand bookshops, charity shops (thrift stores), car boot sales (swap meets, vide-greniers) and our friends' cast-offs. Old guide books are frequently seen as worth nothing, or next to nothing, but if you only get two or three ideas or inspirations, they can be worth a few pence, cents or centimes. More modern guide-books generally come under the heading of 'research', below.
Go to the library and look in the 'oversize' section -- or for that matter, to the photography section and take out books by Roger Hicks and Frances Schultz (better still, buy them). Where are the places that appeal to you? Could you get there on a motorcycle?
A SENSE OF ADVENTURE
'New' destinations -- ones where not too many people have visited -- always have a fascination of their own. When we first visited Russia it was in the days of the old Soviet Union, and not many people went there; though actually, my great-grandmother Flo went there in the 1960s, when she was in her 80s and had been a communist party member for almost 50 years. Her political leanings never attracted the rest of the family much.
Likewise, there's Slovenia (where we have been) and Albania (where as of 2003, we hadn't). And within ten days of German unification, we were in East Germany. The old guard-posts had been thoroughly vandalized, and there were Trabants lying in the ditches where they had been abandoned.
IT WAS ON THE WAY ANYWAY
This is one reason we went to Andorra: we were on our way back from Spain, and it looked like one of the best routes (it wasn't -- the passes were blocked by snow, but luckily, we were in the Land Rover, not on the bike). The other was the wonderful song about their defence budget: four dollars and ninety cents, allegedly, in one year, largely to pay for the blanks they fire on ceremonial occasions. And the main reason that most people go to Luxembourg or Monaco is that they happen to be nearby, though if you knew more about Luxembourg you might want to go there anyway, and the marine biological research institute might draw you to Monaco.
Ultimately, though, either you want to go somewhere or you don't. You can change your mind, as a result of something you hear or see, but there's no real point in spending a lot of money to go somewhere that you don't have any great desire to see. For example, although I always wanted to go to Portugal, I never had much inclination to visit Spain; and to this day, I love Portugal, while there are comparatively few parts of Spain that I have any great inclination to revisit. Yet I have other friends who love Spain. Why? It's probably impossible to say.
STAGE TWO: SCALE
Actually, this stage is intimately bound up with the next, research, but it warrants a separate heading for the simple reason that there is always a temptation to try to do too much: to be constantly on the move, with no time to appreciate the places you visit or even pass through.
CITIES, TOWNS AND THE COUNTRYSIDE
Many ancient Roman patricians -- the sort who had extensive country estates as well as a big place in Rome -- use to grow up on the family estates, visiting Rome seldom, until their 'teens, when they would move to Rome and visit their estates from time to time. Then, in middle age, they would retire to their estates, again visiting Rome seldom.
Although (alas) we have neither large estates in the country nor big town houses in capital cities, we have noticed that as we get older, we tend to prefer the countryside more -- the small towns, the villages, the countryside itself -- to the big cities.
Partly, no doubt, this is because the cities grow more crowded, and dirtier, and more expensive: even Paris is not what it was, though it is still one of our favourite cities, and we don't care for London at all, though both of us have lived there in the past. Surprisingly, we actually find New York pleasanter nowadays than we did 20 years ago. But regardless of the changes in the cities, it's also a question of age, so younger readers should aim off a bit.
Even so, there are plenty of cities that we have enjoyed. A lot of them are small university cities, such as Pecs in southern Hungary, which we found infinitely preferable to Budapest.
The small cities, towns and villages offer better riding opportunities, though I have to admit that there's a thrill to riding in Paris that I don't get in any other city. I even wrote a short fiction piece about riding in Paris, Elysian Fields. It has appeared in a couple of British magazines and one in the United States. It'll cost you a dollar to read it (there are about 4000 words) but I think that if you spend the money, you'll enjoy it. The premise is a race on the Champs Elysees, open to all comers. It's set in the late 1980s or early 1990s; the only real change now would be that the entry money (which was pooled for the prize) would be in euros. I thought it worked better in francs, Deutschmarks, kronor and the rest, so I've not changed it.
Not only is the riding better away from the cities: everything is cheaper, too: gone are the days when you could find a cheap single room in Paris for GBP 4, US $6, though we did it in Paris as recently as the early 1980s. We'd not been together long, so a single bed for the two of us was less discouraging in those days than it would be today.
The differences in price between city and country can be spectacular, between 50 and 100 per cent for substantially identical accommodation. We've always felt that we'd rather have more time away, spending slightly less money, than a shorter but more luxurious trip. Having said this, it's foolish not to spend a bit extra -- or even quite a lot extra -- if it means you can wake up in the morning within walking distance of where you want to be. Sure, you can find accommodation on the outskirts of Paris for 30 euros or less (GBP 20, US $33), but you'll then be faced with suburban traffic and all kinds of hassles before you can get into the centre. We've always been willing to spend more, typically around 70 or 80 euros (GBP 50 or 55, US $80-90) at the time of writing, to be in the centre of Paris.
Over the years, we have noticed that often, the best times have been when we found somewhere we really liked and stayed there for two or three days, using it as a base for exploratory trips of just a few miles or scores of miles. Unfortunately, we have also found that it is impossible to plan these stops: we have to find them by accident. Thus for example in early 2003 we had planned to stay in Braganza in northern Portugal, which we had really enjoyed 20 years before, but it had grown so much that we stayed overnight (it was getting late when we arrived) and then got out. One of the real surprises on that trip was Tarragona in Catalunya, where we expected to spend two or three hours and ended up spending two and a half days. Another was the spas of Llo and St. Thomas in France, near the Spanish border. We were running out of time at that point, so we returned for another few days, later in the year.
What we try to do now is to have a minimum journey in mind, with possible add-ons if the places we planned on visiting turn out not to be as attractive as we had hoped. We have found this much more successful than setting out a maximum journey, with the option of dropping parts: for some reason, we find it much easier to add things on than to cut them out. You may be the other way around, but it is worth thinking quite hard about how your mind works on these matters.
Although 'happy accidents' may seem like an unfortunate choice of phrase in the context, one of our best stops -- in Burgundy -- was indeed as we were recovering from a real accident a few hundred miles before!
HARDENING OF THE CATEGORIES
A bad tour -- and they happen -- is very much a question of 'are we having fun yet?' Flexibility is essential: the ability to cut your losses and go somewhere else or (at the very worst) go home early. For example, we were in Prague in 1992. It was a very fashionable destination: the streets were full of trustafarians, all full of, "Hey, look at me, I'm in Prague, aren't I cool?"
We had gone there for a photographic trade fair, which was interesting, and there were several other good points: the VE day celebrations, the excellent beer (I much prefer Gambrinus to Budweiser Budwar) and the incredible National Technical Museum, which frankly is the only reason I would consider going back to Prague. But accommodation was scarce and overpriced, and besides, there is something peculiarly depressing about being surrounded by people who are both financially overprivileged and intellectually challenged. As the old saying goes, "If you want God's opinion of money, look at the people to whom he gives it."
On the way to Prague, we had noticed a place that looked good in south Germany, near Bayreuth, so we went there. It was good. The food was limited (or we'd have stayed more than the two nights we did), but we had a wonderful quiet room in a Gasthof attached to an old pub in a forest, off the side of a side road. There was nothing special about the place, though there was some pretty good gingerbread architecture, but sometimes 'nothing special' is in itself special: soothing, quiet, beautiful.
Wherever you go, therefore, it's best to have a back-up plan. If you don't have one already, always keep your eyes open for places that you pass through on the way to your destination and think, "I'd like to come back here when I have the time." The time when you have the time, if you follow my grammar, may come sooner than you think.
Of course, the places you use as a fall-back can be a disappointment too. Mirepoix in France comes to mind, very pretty with a gorgeous central square, yet curiously insubstantial. Everything there was to see, we saw on our first turn around the square.
STAGE THREE: RESEARCH
This is where you try to find out about the practicalities. In particular, can you afford to go? To a Briton, accustomed to absurdly overpriced hotels (though they are getting better) and indifferent, expensive food, most of Europe is good value -- though suddenly, an English bed-and-breakfast looks like very good value when you see what the French charge for a tiny and very indifferent breakfast.
When should you go? Will it be rainy, or stinking hot, or hopelessly overcrowded, or substantially shut down so that it's hard to find somewhere to eat?
Are there likely to be unusual hassles? At the border, perhaps? Are there any unusual formalities? The old Spanish bail bond was a good example of that. How about driving rules? Again, Spain provides an example: it is illegal to use full beam (brights) when driving or riding in towns and cities: you must use dipped headlights. The likelihood of being nicked for it is vanishingly small, but why tempt fate?
How are motorcyclists regarded? Americans are in for a wonderful surprise here: Britain is ten times better than the United States -- at least I have never had anyone deliberately try to kill me in Britain -- but continental Europe is ten times better than Britain; and arguably, India is ten times better than Europe.
What are the speed limits? How are they enforced? Britain is fairly crawling with automatic speed cameras, so if you break the speed limit by more than a very few miles an hour, there is a substantial chance you will be nicked. Not so in France, where you would have to be unlucky.
You also keep an eye open for the unexpected. Bed-and-breakfast is once again a good example. In the United States, bed-and- breakfast is normally quite a lot more expensive than a modest hotel, and the rooms are full of the most overblown frou-frou. In Britain, many bed-and-breakfast places are the cheapest places to stay. A Briton might therefore be shocked at the prices in an American bed-and-breakfast, while an American might not even think of visiting a British bed-and-breakfast, on the assumption that it would be too expensive. Equally, though, they might be shocked at how basic the accommodation sometimes is. They may be equally shocked, though rather more happily, at the size of the cholesterol-laden breakfast -- the famous British 'heart attack on a plate'.
Fairly obviously, this is the main purpose of this book: to give you all this information, and more, from the point of view of a motorcyclist -- and a motorcyclist who has, in most cases, been there. But this does not mean that others' guide books are useless.
We mostly use two very different guide books, which should complement the information on this site rather well. These are Lonely Planet and Blue Guides.
The hippie/backpacker origins of Lonely Planet are notorious, though as the proprietors get older, you can see them drifting away from their roots, towards greater comfort and higher prices. Updating (and on occasion, basic research) can be sloppy or non- existent -- we found their book on Mexico to be particularly poor when we used it in about 1990, and our nephew Simon was no more impressed when he went to Peru in 2003 and relied on Lonely Planet -- but despite all their faults, they remain one of the most comprehensive guides for the budget traveller. Many are quite well written, in the sense that they make you want to go there, though some are so badly written that they actually put you off. Their guide to India is justly regarded as the Bible of back-packers, and it's very useful for motorcyclists too.
Although on our initial trips to India we took the Lonely Planet book with us, we don't bother any more. They give you the flavour of a place (from a certain perspective) but the accommodation and restaurant recommendations are increasingly counter-productive: if it's in Lonely Planet, everyone goes there. We found it better to poke about a bit, and if necessary, ask, and we'd often find somewhere better (and often cheaper, for the quality) than anything in Lonely Planet. What we do now is read the book; get some idea of the places we'd like to visit; get some idea of which places are likely to have a good number of hotels, and which won't; and then leave the Lonely Planet guide at home.
The Blue Guides, published by A&C Black, could hardly be more different. The best word to describe them, perhaps, is scholarly. They focus exclusively on what to see, with a very strong historical bias. They are not illustrated: your imagination supplies the pictures. There is very little practical information, except on how to get to the more remote sites: 'take the A 123 for about 2 miles, 3 km, and there is an unmarked track on the left, just after a farmhouse with a distinctive tower', that sort of thing. There is little or nothing about hotels or restaurants, except perhaps to say where they are. But Blue Guides are the books that we take with us (if we have room) because there is no other way that you are going to find some of the places that sound most interesting, and there are few better ways to understand what you are seeing.
STAGE FOUR: MAPS
As a general (though far from invariable) rule, it is best to buy these in the countries you visit. You can however be badly caught out on this. When in early 2003 we went to Portugal, we hadn't been up north in 20 years. No problem, we thought: we'll buy maps when we get there. Wrong. We should have bought the Michelin Iberian atlas in Spain, because we just couldn't find it in Portugal.
We therefore missed a number of things that sounded interesting because we simply couldn't find them. Portuguese tourist offices have a great line in brochures about really interesting-sounding places, without any instructions at all about how to get there or indeed much idea of where they are. In much of Europe, working in a tourist office is seen as a suitable occupation for a well brought up young lady, and unfortunately, a lot of these well brought up young ladies are completely and utterly useless at their jobs. It's a bit like public relations or (worse still) publishing, which is increasingly seen as a refuge for young women who can't make it in PR.
This is where detailed maps can come in handy, even when for most of the time you are perfectly happy to wander about getting lost. In some countries you can ask the way, with a fair chance of being given good directions, but in others, if you don't speak the language there can be a real problem and even if you do, an astonishing number of people seem never to have heard of nearby attractions which the tourist office literature clearly describes as 'world famous'.
We have found Michelin atlases -- for Europe as a whole, or for specific countries -- to be the best maps for general route planning in Europe except in Britain, where the Ordnance Survey atlases are even better. The Europe atlas obviously does not have much detail, but the country-by-country atlases are often detailed enough to find all but the most obscure places of interest.
For those countries that are not covered by Michelin or the Ordnance Survey, it is much more a question of hunting around -- and of course of following the recommendations given in the country-by-country sections of this book. There are several good map shops on the web, though of course actually visiting them in person allows you to inspect the maps and see which are the best.
It is always worth contacting (or better still, visiting) National Tourist Offices -- their web-sites and often their addresses as well are given in the country-by-country sections -- to see what they will give you for free. You have to accept, however, that their quality varies widely. Entertainingly, the best and worst tourist offices do not always belong to the countries you might expect. For example, when we were researching the original book on which this site is based (Motorcycle Touring in Europe) we went to the London offices of most national tourist boards. The most efficient and helpful were the Irish -- anything they didn't know was solved immediately with a 'phone call or fax to Dublin -- and the Bulgarians were a close second, while the Swiss were lackadaisical and indifferent to the point of rudeness.
STAGE FIVE: ON THE GROUND
I have already vented my spleen against Portuguese tourist offices in Portugal, and there are plenty of other countries that are not much better. It must be said, though, that standards vary wildly, even within one country. In both Portugal and France, there are some offices that are decorated with a couple of young women, two brochures, and precious little else: getting further information is like pulling teeth. But equally, there are offices that are jammed full of free booklets, leaflets and maps and are staffed by really helpful people. The one in our own village, Moncontour, is a good example, though it is somewhat let down by being open only for about three months a year, in the summer.
Another odd thing about many European tourist offices is the hours they keep, with very long lunch breaks, and closed on Sundays, precisely when they might expect the most customers.
Despite all this, it's always worth calling in to any tourist office you pass, if it's not too much hassle, and if (of course) they are open. The maps vary from excellent to useless, but as long as they're free, who cares? Beware, though, of anything that a tourist office tries to charge you for. It is very, very seldom worth the money unless it's only a very few pence, cents or centimes, though the Dutch VVV is an exception: stunningly helpful, superb local knowledge, and expensive but very good commercial maps. Again, there are specific comments about tourist offices in many of the the country-by-country guides.
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.
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last updated: 30/10/03
© 2003 Roger W. Hicks