The Summer of 2023 will forever be remembered as our first extensive European motorcycle trip. Maybe the most extensive motorcycle trip of any kind so far in our riding history.
In May we flew to Germany to meet up with our Kawasaki Versys 1000 motorcycle, which we shipped from California in Feb 2023. We used it to ride 10,000 miles through 12 countries on roads ranging from 1,960 feet below to 9,092 feet above sea level over four months. See our route on a map.
Such a fantastic experience. We visited historic sites, museums and major cities like London, Edinburgh, Liverpool, York, Oslo, Berlin, Stuttgart, and Munich. Such a trip includes so many places, people and experiences that I could not possibly write about it all so I'll keep this as short as possible with a summary, in the order we visited, of a few stops.
First we met up with our motorcycle in Heidelberg where it was stored after shipment. We spent a few days there adjusting to a new time zone, getting the motorcycle prepared and packed. During these initial days we did some short rides around the Heidelberg area to see motorcycle shops and castles. As ready as we could be, off we went to our first stop on the Rhine River.
Hotel Pension Winzerhaus in Bacharach Germany was our base for exploring along the Rhine. We visited some villages, castles, and fine eateries overlooking the river. Our hosts were incredibly welcoming joining us for breakfast then sharing their wine (made from grapes on their property). Both the husband and his wife spoke excellent English (which was quite common in Germany) and were willing to listen to my very poor and limited German as I began to get back into speaking the language.
German Horizons Unlimited
An apartment on a farm in Börrstadt Germany was our "home" for three days as we participated in the spring Horizons Unlimited (HU) even. Once again, our farm hosts spoke excellent English and the husband was a master motorcycle mechanic. Both husband and wife were riders. I gave a presentation at HU about riding in Colombia to the group. As with all such events I've visited in the past, I meet all kinds of interesting people and riders, this was no exception. The participants includes some riders from England who included us in their English speaking group. We made plans to reconnect weeks later when we would be in the UK.
Leaving the HU event we were off to Bastogne Belgium where we spent the day at the Battle of the Bulge museum, which was the largest and bloodiest single battle fought by the US in WWII. A fantastic museum with many artifacts. They tell the story of the battle from the perspective of four real people there at the time and include a simulated experience auditorium. Very impressive.
Off we ride to the French coast as we made our way quickly towards the United Kingdom (UK). For Americans, we have visa free privileges in most of Europe, particularly in all the countries known as the Schengen Area. However, that privilege is limited to 90 days over the past 180 days. Given that we planned to stay in Europe for four months, clearly we needed to be out of the Schengen Area for at least 30 days. The UK is not a member of the Schengen Area and also offers visa free privileges to Americans.
England (south) and the United Kingdom
After overnighting in Dunkerque France (aka Dunkirk in English, yep the place where Allied troops were evacuated in May 1940) we boarded a 2 hour ferry for Dover in the UK. On arrival, we switched to riding on the left and road across southern England to our apartment in Hamble-le-Rice. Located in a small village on a river, this spot was ideal for our few day explorations of Portsmouth, Southampton and later a visit to a Kawasaki dealer in Bournemouth England to get some tires and minor repairs.
This area included visits to the ships Mary Rose (launched in 1511) and HMS Victory a 104-gun ship of the line from 1765. Victory is the oldest naval vessel in commission and was Admiral Nelson's flagship at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805, where he won the battle and died at the end.
The Tank Museum in Bovington Camp England was next up for us. Another very interesting stop. After a few more days wondering south west England, we arrived at Land's End, which is the farthest south you can go on the Island of Great Britain. Correspondingly, John O'Groats in Scotland is the northern most point and traveling from one to the other a distance of 838 miles (1,349 km) is known in England as "doing an end-to-ender", which of course was part of our plan.
As May came to a close we were off to Hinckley England to visit the Triumph motorcycle factory. This required advance planning and tickets, a bit unusual for us but well worth it. We enjoyed the guided tour, a walk through the factory museum and a drink in the Triumph Cafe. Our overnight was at a local pub just a short distance away. A unique and fun experience. English Pubs (short for Public House) are numerous throughout the country, unlike what you find anywhere else I've been, and nearly always a fantastic experience. They combine a bar with restaurant and offer a few rooms upstairs. Frequented by locals of all ages these are such fun places to spend time, meet others and enjoy a (slow) meal. While we visited many during our time, this was the only stop where we overnighted.
From the Hinckley area we headed north and west to Little Sutton in the suburbs of Liverpool. From our rented apartment we could easily walk to the train station that delivered us into central Liverpool. So much here! A local bus tour company (red double decker as seen nearly everywhere in the country) was a quick and painless way for us to get the general history and overview of the city. This is the home to the Beatles during their formative years. They met, started playing together, and built a following by performing in the local clubs and pubs. A life-size bronze statue of the "Fab Four" is on the waterfront in Liverpool.
After a few train rides into Liverpool exploring the city, we left and headed north out of England and into Scotland to arrive in Edinburgh. Here we had an apartment rented in a downtown high-rise making it very convenient to explore the core of the city. A few days riding the buses around the city gave us the opportunity to visit the historic old town area, waterfront and some museums.
From Edinburgh we head north to ride the full length of Loch Ness south to north. While we enjoyed many stops along the Loch, including a few in small villages that we'd like to re-visit one day, we could not find Nessy nor any sign of the monster in the Loch. We did find Urquhart Castle, or at least what remains of the 14th century castle, after the last destruction in 1692. Our overnight destination was the Cnoc Hotel, which was a fabulous find. Nice people, views, room and great eating. After a good night and breakfast, we left Cnoc behind and road to the far north west corner of Scotland then followed the one-lane coastal road across the north from west to east. Our target was John O'Groats, the most northerly spot in Great Britain and the completion of our end-to-ender.
As John O'Groats offers few places to stay overnight and is very cold and windy, we retreated south along the east coast to Wick, a small fishing village. We stayed in a classic old BnB with a view of the harbor. Breakfast was ordered the night before and delivered on a rolling cart directly to our room first thing in the morning. The place was run (and owned?) by a very pleasant older (pensioner?) couple that dressed very well. He brought our breakfast in white shirt, tie and black suit. Throughout the entire experience I thought maybe the end-to-end ride had caused a time warp and we were experiencing 1950's Scotland.
Over a few days, stopping in places like the Culloden Battlefield, Aberdeen, Montrose Air Station Heritage Centre (oldest airport in Great Britain), and Bamburgh Castle we made our way south along the east coast leaving Scotland behind and entering back into northern England.
We took a few day break from daily riding near Newcastle to visit the living museum of Beamish. Such an interested place where they have re-created the historic England from different time periods. Old double decker buses take you from one village to another, each reflecting a different time period where all the staff is dressed in period costumes and speaks to you as if you were in the target time. Kind of a Disneyland for history buffs. A great day!
York was our next significant stop where we spent three days exploring. This is possibly our favorite larger city that we visited in England. There's too much to describe—York City Walls, The Shambles, Jorvik Viking Centre, and The Shop That Must Not Be Named. Check our pictures or better yet go there!
Continuing south we visited the coast at Great Yarmouth for a few days. Then to Cambridge for a couple more days seeing the historic locations—The Eagle Pub and Mathematical Bridge—around the town and university.
A key stop for me was next up at Harrold England. This is the village my direct ancestor, Matthias Button, at about 19 years old left from for his journey to the New World in 1628. I really wanted to see the village and explore any information regarding him and the Button family in Harrold. It's a small place. A few homes, a pub, and a church. I was aware that the church was known to have Matthias birth record. Similarly the church had records of his parents along with others in the family. We visited the church, which was open, and looked around. Next door was a cemetery that I thought might have some "Button" gravestone markers. As we looked around the cemetery, a village local, Peter, was passing through with his dog on their morning walk. As this village was more than small enough for a visitor to be obvious to all, Peter stopped to inquire why we were there. I explained the family connection. Turns out he is the church record keeper and is working to digitize them. He offered to complete his walk then return to the church for us to review the records. I enthusiastically agreed. He walked on and we adjourned to the pub for breakfast.
About an hour later Peter returned with his computer and some old books. Sure enough, I was able to locate the birth entries in the records for Matthias and references to his parents in 1607. Peter also told us he is the church bell ringer and offered to show me the bells up close and personal. Once again, I enthusiastically accepted the offer. We climbed the 500 plus year old steps up the tower and he explained and demonstrated how the bell mechanisms work, including a ringing demonstration. Such welcoming and fantastic experiences!
Trying to calm down from the excitement of my Harrold experiences, we moved on over the last few UK days to visit Bletchley Park, West Horsley Place (setting for the BBC TV show Ghosts and known in the show as The Button House!) and London, where we took in all the major sites and sights. Our five weeks in the UK were coming to an end.
To winding up our UK visit we were off to Folkestone England to catch the Channel Tunnel Train or Chunnel. A short 30 minutes later and we were in Calais France riding back on the right, which is most comfortable for this USA rider.
Our visit here was planned to be a rather short one of just a week to see key location in Normandie. We toured museums along the coast where the important D-Day events of WWII took place. Staying in Sainte Mere, Cormeilles, Dieppe, and finally Saulzoir provided the opportunity to see all the D-Day beaches, Pointe Du Hoc, as well as test my very limited French (2-years in high school with little practice since). Most impactful was visiting the US military cemetery. So many bright white grave markers helps bring home how many people died here. In the cemetery amphitheater a choir was singing the entire time we explored. Beautifully painful.
Belgium -- Netherlands
A very brief visit to Belgium and Netherlands as we transited to Denmark did provide the opportunity to visit the museums and sites around Ypres (Leper) and Flanders Fields documenting the WWI battles that took place here. Trenches and related structures have been maintained in their original form and location to aid in understanding the battles that took place here.
Germany (north) -- Denmark
Stops in Bergen to see the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp memorial where Anne Frank and her sister died, Wolfsburg for the VW factory and Autostadt, then Kiel to walk (crawl?) through the U995 WWII submarine and visit the naval memorial lead us to Denmark. We road north through Denmark headed for a Norway bound ferry. A late night cruise through the North Sea delivered us just south of Oslo Norway in the middle of the night (is 2 am night or morning?).
Our route plan was to explore up the Norwegian coast visiting a list of interesting spots all the way to the Arctic Circle. But the weather was starting to look questionable. Rain was setting in as we explored around Oslo. It stopped for a bit as we road north to Lillehammer to visit the Olympic museum there. Riding over the mountains to the west coast enabled us to pass through the longest tunnel in the world, Lærdal Tunnel, at 24 km or 15 miles it is long enough to need rest stops in the tunnel. While we did see some fantastic fjords and other mountain sights, a bit more than a day later the rain became continuous and the temperature dropped. As most of our interest was in the scenes, the clouds that came with the rain made it impossible to see much, so we decided to cut the route short and head back south. East over the mountains we went to get away from the rain (mostly successful) and entered into Sweden. At the southern tip of Sweden we boarded another overnight ferry leaving at midnight bound for Germany. This time we had a cabin reserved and took full advantage by sleeping through the entire trip. We awoke to docking in the northern Germany port of Rostock.
Germany (east and south)
Leaving the ferry in the early morning we road east to very near the Polish border. We spent a few days on the Ost See coast at Karlshagen, which is a small beach vacation town for Germans living in the north east. People there were quite surprised and curious why two Americans on a motorcycle would visit their small village. Fortunately my German is a bit better than my French so I was able to get the basic idea across. We favor small towns and villages where possible. While there we visited Peenemünde where the original factory and launching facilities for V-1 and V-2 weapons were located during WWII.
On a wet grey day we road through the east German countryside to Berlin. Our stay was almost in the center of town about one half block from the former check-point Charlie. In our days in Berlin we visited many sites and museums. It is a very modern youthful town filled with energy and fun restaurants and clubs.
Stuttgart entertained us for a few days with visits to the Porsche and Mercedes factory museums before we moved on to a week long stay in a Wenzenbach apartment near Regensburg to visit with family friends located there. Sadly saying goodbye to friends, we went off to Munich for a few days and toured the Audi and BMW museums.
Alps -- Austria -- Switzerland -- Bodensee
Nearing the time to finish our stay in Europe, we spent our final days with rides over the Alps through the Stelvio pass (at 2,757 m or 9,045 ft it is the second highest in the Alps) and visits to Freiburg im Breisgau (an intriguing college town that merits additional future exploration) ending at the village of Mearsburg on Bodensee. We rented an apartment here for three weeks. Our desire was to take a long riding break with a lengthy stay in one place to develop a deeper feel for the culture and evaluate future ideas for potential relocation.
We ended by returning to Heidelberg where we washed the motorcycle, performed an oil change, and placed the bike back into storage for next year, then flew away to South Africa (South Africa 2023). And that's a whole other story!