Click here for a slide show. I'm several days into my first motorcycling trip, so it's time to offer my not-so-expert thoughts on our mode of transport.
I've come to think a motorcycle is best treated as a really fast bicycle: a way to see the paths less traveled. The one- and two-lane stretches of tarmac that meander across this region are usually not the fastest way to go, but they are the prettiest, dotted with villages and winding through forests or bright-green fields. Going 50 or 60 miles an hour on these back roads, I can sit back, look around, and do things like take a picture or check a map.
One of the first things I learned was that we—or more accurately, I—can only travel about 130 miles a day if I'm to come out happy at the end of it, capable of walking around a new town and enjoying my sausage and dumplings, rather than collapsing into a whimpering heap. Another factor limiting our road time is that we have tended not to get a move on until after lunch.
A lone driver with less baggage, more protective gear, and a need to get somewhere would certainly push the Bandit harder, and occasionally we do, taking a blast on a modern freeway. I find these stretches miserable. At high speeds, a motorcycle basically serves as a very uncomfortable car. You move in a cramped hunch, unable to converse or enjoy the view. My one sanity-saving device on our freeway stretches is an iPod, which pumps Billie Holiday or similarly mellow music into my ears as I cling to L.'s back like a limpet and we pass freight trucks at 100 miles an hour. It doesn't help that our helmets are not full-face. With visors but no chin-guards, they're great for tooling around cities, but the open road has given me a serious windburn. L. ends his days with tiny bugs mashed into his stubble. I now understand why Hell's Angels grow beards.
It took a few stretches on the road and reorganizations of the baggage before I got comfortable. (I think our sporty Suzuki did the job on this journey, but there are also built-for-comfort touring bikes and hybrid sport-touring bikes. Motorcycle USA regularly plumbs the finer points.) After a couple of achy days on the road and a day of rest in Krakow, I got back on the bike and found myself surprisingly at ease. Maybe I was adapting.
In Central Europe, I noticed, we were back in a land where being on a motorcycle makes you a member of a fraternity. This is also the case in the United States—where motorcycles are seen as toys, and motorcyclists wave at each other—but not in Paris. Heavy congestion and narrow streets have filled Paris with two-wheeled contraptions. There are motorcycles, scooters, and mopeds, and more and more crossbreeds: Brawny, powerful scooters; automatic motorcycles; and the BMW CityScooter, a fast-moving bubble evocative of the Jetsons. (It approaches Parisians' teeny-tiny cars in size.)
Which is to say that in Paris, motorcycles are just another fuel-efficient, easy-to-park way of getting around. Nothing to wave about. But since the first motorcyclist we saw on our way out of Prague, each one has given us a hearty hail.
Motorcycles are so rare that we make an exotic sight. Small children stop and stare, and sometimes adults do too. People ask us for money. Indeed, several times, people have reacted instantly to our presence by requesting dough. As soon as we drove over the Polish border, we pulled into a gas station in the Sudeten Mountains so that I could buy zloty and a road map. An urchin with a mean-looking blond buzz cut circled the bike, addressing us in Polish. When we shrugged, he thought for a moment and came up with the word "money." The next day, in Wroclaw, two disheveled young men, sauntering by with a dog as we were getting on the bike, stopped in their tracks and made the same appeal. We were never panhandled when we were on foot, but our big blue machine evidently screamed opportunity. In a rural Slovakian town, we pulled to a stop, and a boy said something like, "Hi, you have a motorcycle, can I have money?" (I couldn't understand him, but he pointed at the bike and held out his hand.)
Membership in the motorcycling club eases introductions. Just as we were caught out by rain in the rolling green hills of Central Slovakia, the medieval walls of the town of Levoca rose out of the mist before us. We drove through an arch in the wall, hoping, ideally, for a cafe with visible parking. (Restaurant line of sight has become key: Unless we want to unload the bike, we have to keep it in view.) We emerged into a square lined with Renaissance-era buildings and saw four late-model BMW motorcycles parked in a tidy row in front of a single open restaurant.
It was full of other refuge-seekers eating an early lunch, and the motorcyclists were immediately evident: four middle-aged men in pants that looked sturdy enough to survive atmosphere re-entry. (We were still in cargo pants and hiking boots, which were now damp.) Brandishing my helmet, I introduced myself to one of them. They had come from their homes in Bavaria, he said, covering about 500 miles in just two days. "They're very comfortable," he assured me, gesturing at the Beemers, in response to my skeptical look. Two of the bikes were 1100s, made in 1999. I felt my first twinge of motorcycle envy.
The Bavarians had come specifically to ride this north-central region of Slovakia, which encompasses the peaks of the High Tatras Mountains and, below them, a hill country of forests and lakes, dotted with towns, like this one, built in the 13th century. At that time, the king of Hungary ruled the area, and he invited Germans to colonize it as a way to ward off a Tatar invasion.
It was in this area that we got a few days of motorcycling nirvana.
The sun had shone on us as we left the area around Krakow on a two-lane, lightly trafficked road heading south. Between the villages, each one graced with a church steeple, families farmed by hand, forking hay into neat conical piles.
Up above the ski town of Zakopane, we wound our way to the border through a conifer forest. We pulled up to a remote chalet and handed our passports through a window, and we were on the move again within a minute. The only other border-crossers were a young couple traveling on foot and carrying backpacks.
Now in Slovakia, we curved through the forest, enjoying the turns, the piney air, and having the road almost to ourselves. The houses we passed were alpine-looking, with steep pointed roofs to resist the snow. Some had intricate wooden filigrees hanging over the balconies stained dark by age and weather. In the village of Stary Smokovec, where, if you look straight up, you can see the 8,045-foot peak of the Slavkovsky Stit, we stopped for the night. The mountains made the freeways all worthwhile.