Linz to Opatija by sidecar - July 2012
Our First European Sidecar Adventure
Sometimes one is like the dog that caught the car. And there you are with a whole mouthful of what it is you wanted – now what?
That’s kind of what happened when our plan to ride from Linz in Austria down to Opatija in Croatia with sidecars hatched successfully and we Greeffies were on our way to our very first European Sidecar Adventure.
To say that the administrative hurdles and obstacles in the form of applying for Schengen Visas through the Austrian Embassy and getting Unabridged Birth Certificates for the girls etc etc etc almost caused a divorce is no understatement. I can now finally in the second half of my forties acknowledge and admit that paperwork and authorities, i.e. bureaucratic processes combined with its inherent illogical demands bring out the absolute worst in me and will probably eventually drive me to drinking from first light. Nowadays the words ‘Visa Application’ illicit the same response as my all time most hated word, ‘Eskom’
But with all that behind us we were heading for Linz in Austria and our first European Sidecar adventure.
It had to be Linz as this is where our Ural life as Africans start. Although all Ural sidecars are still made in Irbit, we import the sidecars from Austria – Linz to be specific. So our connections reside in Linz. The girls and I’ve never been to Linz so for us it was all new and wonderful. Ry had visited Hari and Birgit, the good people Sidecar Africa do business with, 2 years before so at least one of us knew what to expect.
They fetched us from the airport on Monday morning and took us to their offices and warehouse. It always amazes me how if one might struggle with language, a shared passion takes away almost all obstacles in communication! Soon we were on our way to the Hotel Zum Schwarzen Baren where we were staying 2 nights. Once we had settled and unpacked, Hari and Birgit fetched us for a real good Austrian lunch. We also managed to take a photie of our reflection in a Capetown winery Cafe Bar!
I practised riding a sidecar with the sidecar on the right as opposed to what we’re used to. So round and round my monkey and I rode in the big car park outside for the rest of the afternoon. This in an attempt at reversing muscle memory - assuming there is any of course! Late afternoon Hari and Birgit and her beautiful Golden Retriever, Kira, took us for a ride into the hills and a fabulous light traditional supper. I did not know at the time that Hari was real busy watching me to see if I could actually drive a sidecar! Apparently our Austrian hosts thought me capable as I got told that I was ready to ride the next day.
On Tuesday morning we got up bright eyed and bushy tailed. Hari and Birgit had shown us around Linz the night before and today we would be starting the sidecar journey for real.
Hari accompanied us as far as Hallstatt. Never having heard of Hallstatt I had no idea what a big treat was in store for us. But I’m getting ahead of myself. We hadn’t managed to get out of the outskirts of Linz when we stopped to do the rain suit jiggle. Nothing like a good summer storm complete with lightning and pouring rain to help one into it faster.
I was so mesmerised by the foreign country side and riding on the right hand side of the road that I couldn’t believe it when we arrived at Hallstatt. Luckily Hari was there to lead us through the first angst of dealing with an incredibly organised society when one is not from there yourself! There is such a vastly different approach to life – from parking, to driving to flower boxing all buildings!
After a really fabulous lunch right on the edge of the Hallstatter Zee, we went to look at the church and the Charnel House in the village. The village is minute and the houses and buildings are lined up vertically perching right on the edge of the Hallstatter Zee – each house standing on its neighbour’s shoulders if that makes any sense? It was fascinating to see how seriously they take the management of snow on the roof for example, for obvious reasons. The Charnel House was a very interesting experience. I thought it was going to be really creepy, but it turned out to be quite reassuring! The plot of land that surrounds the church that can be used as a cemetery, is very small.
As this community has been around, not exactly in the same form as today, for approximately 7 000 years, one understands that space in the cemetery comes at a premium! So what they used to do is to exhume the bodies after they had been buried for 10 or so years and then they would clean the bones. The femurs and tibias and all other limb bones got stacked quite arbitrarily, but neatly being Austrian, below the shelves in the Charnel House. The skulls however were painstakingly and beautifully painted with various designs symbolising different character traits as well as the relevant dates and name of the ‘owner’ – interesting question – what is the relationship to one’s bones after one’s death as one is no longer there to make use of it? How strange that something so integral to you as your skeleton has no value to you after death and yet it exists long after we’re gone. Found this absolutely fascinating. With cremation becoming a more and more popular choice in modern society, there is little need nowadays for space in the cemetery and the last person’s remains to be placed in the Charnel House was in 1993. I thought that quite recent until I worked out it was almost 20 years ago – that’s when I seriously give my age away, when I think the nineties were just the other day!
A really good idea at Hallstatt is to go and visit the museum on the mountain. Hari left us at the bottom of the funicular that takes one up to the museum and the old salt mine. The ride in the funicular, they call it a panoramabahn, was enough to entertain us little country bumpkins. It’s a world class museum with a train ride and slides as well as a light and music show. It really was wonderful. But we still had to get to Peter’s place, Zur Blonde Hutte near Postalm. Wow, how did I get so sidetracked – none of this has anything to do with riding a sidecar, but I suppose that’s where your sidecar will get you – sidetracked hahaha! Feeble but still……
Now we were riding solo into the unknown – no Hari to lead us on. Riding on the other side of the road requires a little bit of concentration but we managed just fine. On we rode through the magnificent Austrian country side. At Gosau we rode into a thunder storm and we kept riding through Abtenau and at Voglau we turned right into the mountains. The landscape changed and we climbed quite steeply into the mountains. The mist had rolled in and the last leg of our journey was done in a white haze. After a surreal electric gate in the middle of nowhere and somebody actually being on the other side when one asks for assistance we stop at Zur Blonde Hutte. Being from deep dark Africa where we left winter and short days, we kind of lost track of time and was surprised to find that it was well after eight when we arrived. We got quite a stern warning about not making noise in case we wake the baby (who turned out to be a toddler that we never really saw or heard) and not taking our boots up to the rooms under any circumstances - we were given a simple but excellent supper.
Peter runs the entire show – cooks cleans etc etc. Staying in what is one of those picture perfect Austrian ski chalets it felt more like living in a piece of furniture, a big wooden wardrobe in the middle of Heidiland, as opposed to a house. We were absolutely knackered and after our supper were all asleep in no time.
Being woken in the morning by the bells of many cows in the green hills outside was just indescribable. Heidi, Heidi where are you??!!! It really was fantastic. Our Peter even served breakfast in his leder hosen!
After a friendly goodbye we were on our way to the next part of our European sidecar adventure – the Grossglockner Hochenalpenstrasse! Not only is this a mouthful to say, it is also regarded as one of the most panoramic roads in Europe. We were very excited to say the least.
Riding down from Zur Blonde Hutte, I was surprised at how high it was and how steep the sides of the road! Thank goodness I couldn’t see anything in the mist the previous evening! Descending was beautiful and the views of the mountains around just jawdropping. It was unbelievable to see that not only did every chalet have flower boxes in the windows, they were colour co-ordinated! Some were pink and red, some orangy red and some just red red. This was almost intimidating in its uniform charm.
Imagine the quaintest most charming Alpine chocolate box country side you can and that is smack bang where we were riding – through little villages called Annaberg, Lungotz, St Martin, Huttau, Bischofshofen, Muhlbach, Dienten and finally our first stop for the day, the Zeller Zee. Here we had a splendid little lunch. This was a well deserved rest and good leg stretch before we rode on to the Grossglockner High Alpine Road. The Grossglockner Hochalpenstrasse is 48 kilometers long and reaches a height of 2,571m above sea level. The highest vantage point is the Edelweis Spitze where you can see 30 mountains over 3,000m high. Hari had warned us that we would need about 2 hours to ride the entire Grossglockner, go up to Edelweiss and see the Pasterze Glacier as well. As we climbed and hair-pinned our way through the Alps we found real snow and our monkeys were beside themselves! They had to make snow angels. Nothing screams tourist louder than rolling in the snow in summer! We weren’t the only ones though!
The Edelweiss lookout point is a real sidecar dream – it’s a cobbled windy little road with no access for busses or camper vans. Up at the top is a little curio shop, look out points with telescopes and a restaurant. As we got off the sidecars, a group of motorcycle riders were watching us and I had to smile when I heard a lady rider say quite loudly in Italian – it’s a family, it’s a family and then they clapped hands! Crazy Italians.
We still wanted to see the Glacier so we didn’t linger too long. I’ve never seen a glacier in real life and the Pasterzen Glacier is a particularly good example as it is the longest glacier in Eastern Europe. We saw the Grossglockner peak, at 3,798m Austria’s highest mountain and the most beautiful car I’ve ever seen. I kid you not, there is an automobile display that was absolutely fascinating.
The light was going golden and the shadows getting longer so we left to get to our destination for the day – Iselberg. We drove past Heiligenblutt with the most incredible church spire I’ve ever seen. On past Mortshach and Winklern till we got to Iselberg where we stayed over with Joseph at the Iselbergershof Hotel.
That night they showed us a DVD of their recent snow ride with sidecars. And again a shared passion broke down all communication barriers as we did not have to understand Austrian to enjoy the DVD! We loved it and appreciated that they made the effort.
Having conquered the Grossglockner Hochenalpenstrasse on our sidecars we were now unstoppable and today we were heading for the Italian border and some riding in the Italian Alps. Our final destination for the day was Slovenia.
Although everyone reassured me that crossing the border in the Euro zone was a non-event I was still apprehensive. We were heading for the Plockenpass in Austrian and the Passi di Monte Croce Carnico in Italian – one and the same pass! The Italian name derives from Latin Monte Crucis or Mountain of the Cross – a denotation of the pass in medieaval times. A bridle path probably existed already in the Bronze Age. Roman forces under Tiberius rebuilt the path as a road in 15 BC. This well constructed road was in use throughout the Middle Ages. This just sounded fantabulous and we couldn’t wait to get there. Going through the border post which is not currently in use was one of the biggest anti climaxes of my little life – nobody wanted to see our hard fought for Schengen Visa!!! Anyway being good South Africans where borders matter a great deal, we stopped and took photographs to document our crossing and the moment.
Descending into Italy can only be described as pass riding bliss – the Carnic Alpine range is magnificent and wild and the hair pin bends become switch backs – a whole different kettle of turns so to speak. At this time I didn’t know it yet, but these switch backs would prove to be good practise for the passes we would ride later in the day crossing from Italy into Slovenia.
All this intensely beautiful scenery and switch backing made for hungry little riders. We drove through Paluzza, a small village, in the direction of Paularo. And did we get lucky? Following a twisting and turning ride that meanders through the villages we found a little restaurant perched on a hill overlooking the valley we had just come from. We were now in a village called Ligosullo and how can a village with a name like this not serve the best pasta I’ve eaten in my life. The menu was simple and all pasta handmade – I could actually smell my mushroom (porcini sounds nicer!) linguine before I could see it. It was one of those magical memorable meals that live in your memory for a long time.
Everyone seemed to have enjoyed their meal as much as myself and we did withstand temptation and we did restrain ourselves from licking our plates you’ll be glad to hear.
After lunch we twisted and snaked along the valley floor to Paularo. Paularo saw us perform a perfect headless chicken routine in order for the GPS to find its way. After we drove past the same church, street café and construction truck combo about 4 times I think everyone else also knew we were lost. 2 sidecars repeating the same u-turn 4 times are pretty conspicuous. Anyway before we had to find overnight accommodation we actually did manage to get out of Paularo and on to the Passo Lazzo we rode. The only reference to Passo Lazzo I’ve managed to find on the internet is in Italian, so I cannot entertain us with the usual little facts and useless information. What I can tell you about Passo Lazzo is how splendid it was. Right after we left the village and we had driven past the sign that says Passo Lazzo (with no indication at all that this was going to get hectic in places!) the road narrowed to the point where the oncoming traffic causes one to find a little niche where you can pull into and then you draw your knees and arms in, because that’s how close they come past you. I also have to confess that the only fender scraping I did on the entire trip was done on the Passo Lazzo when I got too enthusiastic about staying out of the oncoming traffic’s way. Another confession – I now understand the inspiration for small Italian cars!
After the first few hill climbs along the edges of the fields, we were suddenly swallowed by Alpine forest. Instantly it was dark and sunlight only filtered through in some places and the trees are monsters. Reason I saw how big the trees are is when you see their tops next to you and you look down, the forest floor is miles down! Here the road twists round little blind hairpin bends and sometimes the road side on the far down side, is bolstered in order for it not to fall away. Suddenly you ride out of the forest into the area above the tree-line and the air is chilly and you can see how big these mountains surrounding us are. I now understand that one could get lost in there never to be found again. Good incentive not to go off the road with the sidecars!
We enjoyed this tremendously and were now riding towards Pontebba where a good summer storm had us hauling on the rain suits (again Bob!). It was here that we turned towards another mountain spine in the direction of Saletto. We rode all along the valley floor with splendefourous mountains towering over us. We stopped to drink coffee and tea at a little road side café. It quickly became clear that we could have Espresso or Espresso, no tea or nothing else! Another storm was rolling in and after downing the strongest coffee I’ve ever had we were back in the rain suits and on the sidecars!
We made a dramatic exit and with lightning flashing we rode on up to Sella Nevea, a high mountain pass and ski resort in the Julian Alps. We were now riding a whole new range of Alps! It was on our approach to the Sella Nevea that I saw the Italian word ‘tornatti’ with a number painted huge next to the road. This was followed soon after with a switchback with a twist into a little tunnel – imagine riding into a twisty noodle – that is a perfect description of what ‘tornatti’ meant. This would have been immense fun but we were riding in pouring rain – in fact the rain was so pouring that water dripped onto my head in my helmet and proceeded to run down my nose! I had not closed the vents on my helmet. Combine the effects of the caffeine with the immense adrenaline high I was on and this gave this whole ‘tornatti’ episode quite a surreal feel.
Having crested the mountain and descended down the other side we rode past the Lago del Predil. It was raining so hard that I only realised we were next to a lake once we had almost passed it! At this stage we were getting ready for the Passo del Predil which takes you from Italy into Slovenia. And again no one wanted to see our Schengen Visas and where there were once a border control there were now a few empty defunct buildings. We hid under the overhead canopy for a while until it became clear that the rain wasn’t letting up a bit.
Sometimes you get lucky and sometimes you don’t. I didn’t. Starting what is probably one of the most spectacular downhill rides in the world, I got stuck behind 2 cyclists. I tried breathing in and out but that fogged up my visor, so I had to just swallow my frustration and get on with it – real slow. We’re not talking Tour de France contenders, we’re talking people dressed in socks and sandals on funny bikes with little electric motors and big panniers – these guys were no speed freaks, they took the slow way down! I did sing Hallelujah when they turned into a motel when we hit the first little village in Slovenia, called Log Pod Mangartom. With a name like that, I was expecting a true live troll to march out from somewhere any moment soon, but the only trolls I spotted were the ones on their bikes.
Not too far from Log pod Mangartom, we turned at Kal Kornica and rode along the Solca River until we reached our overnight stop, Gostisce Andrejc. The Solca River is something to see. The water runs straight from the high Alpine mountains. It is literally crystal clear, see through, unbelievable. It’s a popular rafting and kayaking spot for obvious reasons.
We arrived drenched but the accommodation was clean, friendly and dry so we were all smiling again in no time. It was the end of another epic sidecar day for us little Vaaljapies! We had breakfast in Austria, lunch in Italy and supper in Slovenia with 3 serious Alpine passes to boot – the end of a perfect day.
The next morning dawned as beautiful and crystal clear as the Solca river. Today we were going to ride up the Vrsic Pass. It is Slovenia’s highest mountain pass as well as the highest in the Julian Alps.
Wikipedia tells us that: ’The road was begun in May 1915, and was completed by the end of the year. To ensure an uninterrupted supply of material to the front lines, the pass was to be kept traversable year-round, and the POWs were made to clear the road of heavy snowfall. On 8 or 12 March 1916 (sources vary), an avalanche buried a POW work camp, killing approximately 300 prisoners and about 10 guards. Exact casualty figures were never determined, either for the victims of the avalanche or for those of the brutal overwork and appalling conditions’.
The riding was absolutely outstanding. My little Retro just loved the passes and because of her slightly different specs she really hugged the hairpin bends and rode easily. At the top of the Pass, which tops out at 1 611m (a lot less than Sani though – how’s that for interesting?) we stopped and looked at the world. Had an interesting conversation with the man selling post cards. He is very proud of his country and told us more about the conditions on the pass and what it must have been like for those POWs who built it as well as for the soldiers on the Front. As life would have it, they experienced 2 of the fiercest winters in 40 years during the time they were up there. They had snow falls exceeding 4 meters.
We were heading for the World War I museum in Kobarid later that day where I would understand in far greater detail just how unbearable it must have been during that war. As it happened I had been reading Ken Follett’s When Giants Fall just before we left for this trip. This book is about the run up to World War I, the war itself and its aftermath. As I was in that space before we even landed in Europe, the visit to the museum and seeing some of the terrain where some battles took place, really left a huge impression.
While we were inside the museum there was an almighty storm outside and we finally ran out to the bikes, did the now familiar rain gear drill and left for our next destination – Postojna where the caves are and the Predjama castle is.
The weather was now being decidedly unfriendly. We rode through 2 more storms and decided that our initial route would take too long in the rain and we opted for the highway. This was all good and fine but we had to get ‘vignettes’ or toll tokens. Ryno stopped at the booth designated for the big trucks and I had to laugh because the window of the toll booth was too high for him to get his token!
At the off ramp near Postojna we had to pay toll again and we made the 2 ladies in the toll booth’s day – they laughed out loud when I paid them with a sopping wet 10 Euro note! We were equally wet – again!
We did get very lucky though when we followed the road signs and the GPS straight to the Predjama Castle. The Castle is literally at the end of the road so we were very relieved to find a little guest house, the Gostina Pozar where we turned out to be the only guests for the night! We also transformed their little parking lot into a mechanic yard in no time. Ryno’s bike had been giving problems with the brakes and the rear tire deflating for some time now. After supper he decided to do some maintenance. I think he actually had the owners of the guest house worried there for a while – wouldn’t you be a if this foreign family pitches up on sidecars and then proceed to fill your parking area with wet clothing, bike parts and monkeys at their games?
The next morning we got to put on wet riding gear – yeah! At least we got to visit the Predjama Castle. It’s an interesting place – part rock part castle with the necessary stories of deceit and torture, we just loved it.
Ry was concerned about his bike so instead of visiting the salt caves at Postojna we decided to head straight for Opatija and the coast.
At the border post between Slovenia and Croatia our passports and Schengen Visas caused no problems as my dearest husband anticipated. We did not even have to take off our helmets!
At this stage it is probably worth mentioning that this was the first Saturday of the summer holiday and we were enroute to the sea with everyone and I mean every other car in Slovenia. We hit our first traffic jam! After sitting and crawling alternatively for about 40 mins it turned out to be a toll gate! The slow puncture eventually became a flat tyre and Ry was pumping with an entire traffic jam as audience. My monkey kept a running commentary.
Finally we got to the turn off into Opatija. Opatija is a jewel like small coastal town with magnificent architectural examples of the Belle Epoque era. Our sidecar journey would end at the Hotel Kristal where we handed over the 2 sidecars to Max and friends who would be driving them back to Linz for us.
I always feel sad at the end of journeys, but this time I really felt sad, maybe because I wouldn’t see the little Retro again? I thought of her all along as a little Marlene Dietrich like character – cannot tell you why, just did.
I was also hugely relieved and immensely happy to have found out just how easy travelling in Europe is. So in my best Arnold Schwarzeneger voice I promised myself – ‘we’ll be baaaack!’
Written by: Alpha Greeff