If the Alps were an oyster, for motorcyclists the Dolomites would be the shiny pearl in the center. Although formed at the same time as the famous crescent of mountains that spans six countries in Europe, the ragged peaks, spires and plateaus of the Dolomites are a unique fusion of rough, pale-colored calcium and limestone rock—dolomite—that sprang from an ancient volcanic seabed. Within a Delaware-size chunk of northeastern Italy, 14 separate massifs and 18 10,000-foot-plus summits have thwarted every attempt at laying a straight, flat road beyond a few hundred meters, creating a kind of motorcycle Mecca. If the roads in most of the Alps can be described simply as fast and sinuous, like a championship road-racing course in the high mountains, those that snake around Italy’s Dolomites are a clean, paved TT track of constant twists, drops and climbs that seem engineered specifically for the delight of motorcyclists. They, the scenery and warm culture of the area will leave you awed and speechless.
As one of the top riding areas in the world, the Dolomites were a natural location for another one of Edelweiss Bike Travel’s new Touring Centers. Although it would be relatively simple to rent a bike in Munich or Milan and ride there on your own, a stay at the Dolomites Center is potentially quicker, easier and more focused on the area, perhaps even cheaper (see Dolomite Details). In this case, you get yourself to Bolzano, Italy, by plane or train (say, from Innsbruck). Here a guide picks you up and takes you to the Center hotel, where your room and bike await. Five glorious riding days and six nights later, it’s back to Bolzano and home…where you unpack for only the second time.
Rather than travel from one hotel to another as on most motorcycle tours, at the Dolomites and Edelweiss’ other Touring Centers you stay in one place and make daily loops by bike. Or not, as this also allows you and/or your significant other to remain behind for a day…or all five. The bike is yours to use for the day. And in an area as lovely as the Val Gardena in the heart of the Dolomites surrounded by hiking, shopping and delicious food, not to mention the hotel’s amenities, this can be quite a tempting option.
My wife Genie and I had taken the direct route through the Dolomites together a couple years before on our way elsewhere, and as the saying goes, one look was all it took. We vowed to come back for further exploration, but as working stiffs, can’t spare much time. The Saturday-to-Saturday schedule of the Dolomites Touring Center made it possible to see more than enough of the mountains by bike. We even ditched the group one day to make a shopping stroll in the large Bressanano pedestrian zone, and still bagged the beautiful Passo di Erbe to the north that afternoon.
Edelweiss wisely limited the Touring Center dates to June, September and October in 2003, when the temperatures, traffic and Euro summer tourist throng are moderate in this popular area. We still had to endure some slow traffic getting out of the valley and into the mountains each day, and at times the lovely, warm weather could become hot and stifling in our armored textile suits. Once out of the series of small villages in the Val Gardena, though, the roads opened up, and quick passes around the occasional slower vehicle were a snap.
The hotel’s air conditioning hadn’t been turned on for the summer yet, but we slept comfortably each night in a spacious room with the alpine breeze from the balcony window. An early evening thundershower or two—even a brief marble-size hailstorm one otherwise lovely evening—only added to the ambiance, and we had perfect 75- to 85-degree riding weather during the day.
The Hotel Gardena is a newer four-star spa resort right at the foot of 6,578-foot Mount Seuc and its cable car, which Genie and I took up to the restaurant on top the afternoon of our arrival day. From here you can seemingly reach out and touch the massive Sella and Sassolungo Dolomite groups, and I highly recommend the view. The hotel also has a nice indoor pool and Jacuzzi, gymnasium, full spa and sauna (including a no-clothing section) and a comfortable piano bar. We even had a private group wine tasting (for 10 euros each) from the hotel’s private cellar one evening.
We met the rest of our friendly and cordial group from all over the United States the first evening, and among the various personalities and occupations the common thread seemed to be motorcycling experience. Of the 24 regular tours in the 2003 Edelweiss catalog, in fact, only three are stamped “For Experienced Riders Only,” and the Dolomites Touring Center is one of them. Even with the many hairpin turns (tornante), cars, numerous motorcycles and tour buses competing for space on the narrow, winding roads, among our group we only had one minor tump-over in a hairpin on the first riding day. Gotta watch for those oncoming tour buses filling your lane….
Despite the group’s experience it’s these kinds of tips that should have been covered during the first morning’s briefing rather than the second, but I guess our affable guide Michael chose to assess our overall skill and experience level on the road and then fill in the gaps. Michael did just that and more in subsequent briefings, and also did a yeoman’s job of laying out routes, helping with bike maintenance and suggesting lunch and coffee stops. He was an excellent leader according to those who chose to ride with him, though as on most Edelweiss tours we were encouraged to ride in smaller groups, meeting at the hotel each night for dinner.
By then, even with just 120–260 miles under our belts, most of us were ready for the barn. We bagged six major passes on the first day alone, and the pass and corner count only went up from there. Highlights included lunch by the serene, reflective Lago di Misurina near Cortina; bagging the high and mighty 7,267-foot Passo di Pennes, the most Alpinelike of the passes on this tour; the surreal monolith atop twisting Passo Giau; and repeat laps around the inexplicable, magnificent Sella Group and over the Passo Gardena, allowing a scenic pace for one winding lap and peg-scraping pace on another. I can’t recall ever having ridden in an area so downright fun and scenic at the same time.
Culturally and geographically at a crossroads between Tyrol to the north and Italy to the south, the Dolomites have been almost exclusively an Italian possession following World War I, yet the culture remains a mix of Tyrolean, Rhaeto-Roman and Italian. As you ride among the awesome mountains, scenic villages and rolling green pastures, you may see an onion-domed Tyrolean steeple and tall Italian Gothic tower vying for supremacy against the surreal walls of dolomite. The preferred language seems to switch as you ride north and south, too, from Italian to German and back, and you may occasionally even hear some Ladinisch, a remnant of the Roman invasion in the first century. The people are mostly friendly, and restaurant menus are easy as they are usually in Italian and sometimes English…and spaghetti is spaghetti no matter where you go.
Although Edelweiss’ catalog and Web site suggest that you can also take in the famous Grossglocker Pass in Austria, even pay a visit to Venice during the tour, our guide talked most of those interested out of going during the very first morning briefing. True, the Grossglockner is probably the king of Alpine passes, but an 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. ride from Val Gardena and back, even without delays like road construction. And the trip to Venice from Val Gardena is a long, potentially hot ride through the urban congestion of the flatter, unscenic mainland, followed by leaving the bikes and taking a bus across the causeway, upon which motorcycles are not allowed. Stay more than an hour and you won’t be back before late evening. In my opinion the roads, scenery and overall experience of the Dolomites alone are fulfilling enough for the weeklong trip, though a small group on our tour rented a car and drove to Venice in lieu of riding one day.
From small roads like someone’s driveway winding through mountain, village and forest to two-lane highway lined with castles, to fast, higher pass roads, we looked forward to each day’s ride like a couple of kids at Christmas. Genie and I chose a BMW R1150RT for its nimble manners and two-up comfort. Riding solo I would have picked an R1150GS for its even quicker handling and good brakes. The less costly F650CS and GS singles aren’t as comfortable, but for a solo rider they are a light, nimble, easy-tohandle choice if you don’t need the additional power of the twins.
Dinner at the hotel each evening was a fixed menu but always consisted of no less than five entree choices as well as appetizers, a huge salad bar and dessert. The consensus was that it and the enormous breakfast buffet were excellent, though if Genie and I had a complaint about this tour it would be having to dine in the same restaurant every night without incurring extra cost. Even when the food and service are good, a little ambient variety never hurts.
Guess-timating the itemized costs—room, food, bike, guide, etc.—for the Dolomites Touring Center on the way home, no matter how we calculated it our total always came out near what Edelweiss actually charges. So the tour seems like a terrific deal, particularly because the surrounding area and the rooms, food and amenities at the Hotel Gardena are all very nice. We loved it, and would do it again in a heartbeat.
Depending upon which of nine BMWs you choose to rent and your rooming option, the cost of one of five 2004 Dolomite Touring Center dates is $1,660–$3,300. I recommend one of the spring dates for the wildflowers! All of the BMWs had a tankbag with map holder and some hard luggage and were new or less than 12 months old and in excellent shape. Edelweiss says it never runs more than 11 bikes on this tour, including the guide.
Included in the tour price:
•Van transfer from Bolzano airport or train station to the hotel in Ortisei/Val Gardena and backz
•Six nights hotel
•Breakfast and dinner every day
•Motorcycle rental with unlimited mileage
•Tour information package (maps, route book, packing list, etc.)
•Tour guide on a motorcycle
•Third-party liability insurance for the bike
•Comprehensive insurance for bikes with $1,000 deductible
Not included are lunches, drinks, gasoline (easily obtained on a major credit card but about $4 per gallon) and other personal expenses like film, telephone calls and tips (including the tour guide’s—not required but appreciated). You can also opt for VIP comprehensive motorcycle insurance for $18 per day to reduce the deductible to $200. The more plastic your rental bike has, the more you should consider this.
Edelweiss is coming up on its 25th anniversary, and runs over 150 motorcycle tours on five continents. All of the guests on our tour had nothing but good things to say about this and the other Edelweiss tours some of them had been on. Its U.S. travel agency can help with your other travel arrangements if desired. Contact Edelweiss Bike Travel, Tri-Community Travel, P.O. Box 1974, Wrightwood, California 92397-1974; (800) 507-4459 or (760) 249-5825; www.edelweissbike.com.
(This article was printed in the December 2003 issue of Rider magazine.)