The Verdon River is green due to a naturally occurring substance.
The big Harley-Davidson Electra Glide Ultra Limited pulled strongly up the narrow corkscrew Alpine highway. The golden fall-changing trees were giving way to high-altitude shrubs and tan mountain grasses. We were winding our way up to the highest pass in Europe on what had to be the prettiest day ever.
On that day I understood how a stranger could never know the powerful euphoria granted to a biker on such a trip. Sharon and I soon dropped our chatter and exclamations of wow and became still. The only sound was the rich exhaust note of the 103ci engine bouncing off ancient mountainsides and rolling down steep canyons.
The High Alps of Provence
I turned the temperature on the Ultra's heated grips up a notch as the crisp air took on more bite. As we approached one of the hundreds of hairpin turns-270 degrees and nearly 20-percent grade, we expected to hear the floorboards scrape. Accelerating through the turn, once again, no scraping. The new Ultra has a frame that makes me think I'm a much better biker than I really am. Floorboards do, however, scrape on the ride down the mountain.
This perfect ride: it was an accident. We had planned a trip through Germany, Austria, and Switzerland. Good thing we were ready for the unexpected. Instead of Germanic culture, we found Napoleon, proud monuments to WWII resistance fighters, architectural footprints of Romans, Goths, French royals, a French Grand Canyon: Gorge du Verdon, medieval walled towns, and roads cut into steep canyons. The roads! Holy cow!
What a playground for the Harley!
Looking through the turn, I ignore the French Alps in the background.
Just out of Grenoble, we were forced onto a detour that even now lingers in our minds.
This little village was over 800 years old.
Maybe because our last European motorcycle trip gave us three to six hours of daily, heavy rain, we might be a bit rain-phobic. The weather forecasts for our chosen destinations showed the entire area was being pounded with buckets of rain. Since France appeared mostly dry, we fired up the Harley and headed west out of Munich.
I know only about 30 French words, and we had no reservations, so our level of concern about easy traveling went up. We had planned our trip to begin on the first day of school for European children: September 9. This also marks the beginning of low season in many places. Low season means plenty of vacant, discounted hotel rooms, narrow highways devoid of European RVs and family cars. Would we find lodging in France? We had a TomTom Rider navigation unit with us, so we figured we could find our way to a hotel.
Our French trip started in Strasbourg, then shifted to Grenoble as the rain drifted off. Both of these beautiful, magic places we could have seen with a train ticket. We had a brand-new bike out of Harley's European press fleet: so much better than a train ticket! Time to point the bike to the part of France called Provence.
A fall tour offers more colors and fewer hot days to a traveler.
Ah, Provence. In a way, we were expecting a mild, hilly area similar to Southern California. Not having actually planned a trip to Provence, we didn't have many other preconceptions other than the area was a favorite subject for such painters such as Van Gogh, Renoir, Monet, and Picasso. The only other time we traveled in this easternmost French state was years ago; we cruised Nice and Cannes in our VW camper bus. At that time our impressions were that it was beautiful, but hot, crowded and expensive. This time we would be in the rural mountains during the fall low season, so we didn't worry about heat and crowds. We would worry about rain and fret about hotel reservations.
For much of our journey through Provence, we would travel the Route Napoleon. In 1815, when Napoleon abandoned his exile on the isle of Elba, he, and 1,200 of his favorite soldiers, decided to sneak into Grenoble using secret paths, obscure mountain passes and travel through tiny villages to avoid the king's soldiers - who's job it was to prevent Napoleon from taking the government away from Louis XVIII.
Provence is full of protected, natural areas.
Now the route is famous for its narrow, picturesque roads, which wind through pretty towns that must look much the same as they did in 1815. Some villages maintain a charming medieval character. Each village seems to have several cheese factories, a fabulous bakery, and fascinating stone buildings that love to be photographed. Napoleon would have noticed that many of these tiny villages cling to amazingly steep mountain slopes. A biker notices that the pavement quality is high and the canyons and passes offer spectacular, scenic motorcycling.
The highest paved pass in all of Europe, Col de Bonette, twists upwards from these stone villages, past deciduous forests, and beyond the timberline. The highway is above 9,000 feet in some places. Other bikers I met told me the pavement is kept in such good shape because the Tour de France uses it. I like taking this ride on the Harley.
Everything closes down during the middle of the day, so get gas early or late and plan to
The high, cold mountain passes in this part of France made me very happy to have the heated grips on the Ultra. I also loved the factory pipes. We burned through at least 2,000 kilometers of steep, downhill engine braking and not one backfire. The engine has a strong, rich note that says: this a big Harley, but it's not so loud as to be annoying on a long trip.
Harley had promised to provide us with a 2010 Ultra for this trip, but one was not available immediately on our arrival. They outfitted us with an earlier model for a few days: one with a 96ci engine. Looking back, I wonder if this was some kind of plan to make us appreciate the added torque and feel of the Ultra Limited's 103 engine. If so, it worked. We loved the eager, competent pull of the big engine as our fully loaded Ultra took us everywhere we asked it to go.
Above the tree line, only shrubs, grasses and moss grow.
The Ultra got a new frame in 2009. This new frame allows the bike to hold a line in a fast sweeper or tight turn like it's on a rail. No noodling corrections as the bike completes a turn. My only quibble with this bike is that I really needed a backrest. I don't look for Harley to make this standard equipment any time soon. The bike drew a crowd whenever we parked it. With Harley selling more and more bikes in Europe, I wonder how long it will be before these bikes are commonplace?
Pulling away from a small crowd in the ancient town of Barcelonnette, Sharon looked down at the TomTom. The GPS indicated The Grand Canyon was on our route. Never having heard of this geological feature outside of southwestern United States, we didn't know what to expect. After spending three days exploring the canyon, we've added to our list of Must Visit places in Europe. Don't make the mistake of comparing this canyon to our grand canyon. This place is much more compact, yet it's wild and beautiful. It's over 2,000 feet deep and 13 miles long. It looks like the amazingly steep canyon walls were cut from solid rock by the green waters of the Verdon River. This place is so untamed, that it was believed to be impenetrable and not even explored until the 20th century.
We stop to admire the view on the way to the Col de Bonette.
Thanks to some brilliant French road engineers, you can take a motorcycle right down to the canyon floor and around the north and south rims. Like many of the European Alp roads, the scenery is compelling; a biker must choose between looking at the intense beauty of the land or paying attention to the road. Many people claim that it's possible to see the entire canyon in a day, but we took three just to soak in the scenery as well as enjoy the road.
Leaving the Grand Canyon, we started the trip down to the sea. In this part of Provence, it's called the Cote d Azur. We stopped to explore more beautiful roads and villages. As we approached the sea, the lazy, untroubled rural roads gave way to bustling narrow arteries taking traffic to and from the postcard-perfect blue Mediterranean Sea.
The northern part of Provence charms a biker with pretty, working farms, old tile-roofed h
When you start to get close to the Grand Canyon Verdon, the curves start to tighten up.
We stopped in Grenoble for a few days of walking tourism and learned to save money by havi
Sharon and I know that for travelers who love sunshine and shopping, the Cote d Azur is a perfect travel destination. We love motorcycling, so with a kiss to the sea, we turned our bike back to the mountains. The weather forecast indicated it was dry in the Italian Alps. Time to go.
Bruce Hansen is author of Motorcycle Journeys Through the Pacific Northwest (Whitehorse Press)
The rim ride around the Grand Canyon offers plenty of pull-outs to admire the view.
The Grand Canyon was believed to be impenetrable and wasn't fully explored until the 20th
This roadside sign proudly proclaims the Route of Napoleon.
On this trip we had only one brief rain shower, but that was not typical for a European motorcycle trip. Plan for rain. We took our Harley FXRG water-resistant leathers. We also brought the electric jackets and gloves, but didn't need them.
We drew a crowd nearly every time we parked the bike. This was outside of our hotel room
Bring serious protective riding gear because, when you ride in a strange place, with different traffic laws and signs, on a different bike . . . it is more likely that you could go down - most likely when turning the bike around in a gravel parking lot. Got gloves?
Bring your own helmet so you know the fit is right. We took our ultra-light carbon fiber full-face helmets. Helmets are required in Europe, and you will want the protection if you are going 160 kilometers per hour on the Autobahn and hit a bee. I thought I was struck by a baseball.
My favorite travel gadget turned out not to be the TomTom rider, which really did save our bacon a few times, but the iPod Touch. It allowed us to check the weather, translate signs and menus and check email. If you travel two-up like us, bring a communication system. We had a Scala Rider Q2 system that worked perfectly and had a battery that lasted over some really long days of riding.
Every one slows down when nearing the highest point on the rooftop of Europe.
Bring quick-dry clothes that you can rinse out in your hotel sink every evening and a pair of sturdy walking shoes. I loved my FXRG boots for riding and hiking in the snow, but was eager to put on my walking shoes when touring on foot.
We also brought a FirstGear Monza tank bag. I know what you are thinking; a tank bag on a Harley? Remember the walking shoes? You'll need the space, and it gives you a place to put your camera, phone, passports, money, GPS and it has backpack straps so you can haul it around when not on the bike.
The 2010 Ultra as a Two Up Bike
I want to say that the 2010 Ultra Limited made a great first impression with my wife, but alas we didn't have the rear shocks adjusted for two up riding. We hit a big bump, and Sharon feared she would fly off the bike. After inflating the air adjustable rear shocks, she was all smiles. Whenever we stopped among a group of bikers, other rear-seat riders would gaze enviously at the plush passenger accommodations on the Harley.
Let's face it, the bike wasn't designed for the sharp European Alpine switchbacks. That's sport bike territory. This was a two-up trip, and there's no way I would attempt to put Sharon on the back of a sport bike for a month. However, the Harley's low center of gravity, rear air shocks and the 2009 frame redesign worked together to make the bike steady when fully loaded and snapping through a series of switchbacks.
European roads are awash with turns somewhat more relaxed than the twisties that claw up and down the steep mountains. The Ultra truly shines as a serious road bike when on the sweepers. And the autobahn-the adjustable wind protection on the Ultra has always been first rate when the road is straight and the speed is fast.
Probably the hardest part of any motorcycle two-up trip is explaining to my wife that she needs to be able to fit all of her stuff in one saddlebag. The Harley saddlebag liners helped with our packing and the luggage rack held our too-long Nordic walking sticks. That trunk! It will swallow nearly anything a rider throws at it. The Harley luggage system is one of my favorites.
Why the Twin Cam 103 engine? I really liked the Twin Cam 96 when it came out. When Harley announced the 103 would go with the 2010 Ultra Limited, I wondered why. Then came this trip. We loved the extra 10 percent more torque when we needed to get the fully loaded bike up to Autobahn speed in an instant, or when we had the bike leaned over to the floorboards pulling up a steep hill and didn't want to make a downshift. I'm sold on the 103.