There's so much amazing riding to be found in Europe - but sometimes too much choice is a bad thing. How do you know where to go? What's good about the different places – and what's bad? I've must have ridden a couple of hundred thousands of miles by now, in every country in Western Europe, seeking out the best roads and the best places to visit... so here's my top ten.
As a touring destination, Germany has a lot going for it. It's hugely civilised, with great facilities – whether we're talking about petrol station or pleasant cafés or parts for the bike if something breaks. It's a major industrialised nation so it's usually pretty easy to get anything you need.
That's also part of the reason it's languishing at the bottom of my personal league table: it's a well-developed country so it can be a fairly pricey destination. It's also packed full of people and lots can be pretty busy. Not just the sprawling cities: in some parts of the "countryside" it seems you're out of one village for no more than half a mile before you're into the next one – it's just one 50kph limit after another. Some parts of it are pretty flat and with not much terrain, there's not much in the way of twisty roads.
The good bits can be very good, though. Generally, any area with "wald" (forest) as part of the name is likely to be pretty great – whether that's the Schwarzwald (Black Forest), Thüringerwald (Thuringia Forest), Bayerischerwald (Bavarian Forest), Pfalzerwald or Odenwald (er... er...) You get the picture: hilly, covered in trees, usually packed with twisty roads and quaint places to stay. Brilliant riding in great scenery. Plus there are some stunning rides in other area – the Harz, the Moselle Valley, Swiss Holstein, the Bavarian Tirol and more.
Germany is also a speed-freak's paradise, with derestricted motorways and (if you can't find a quiet one) the Nürburgring on which to test your mettle. Another thing that helps is a lot of Germans speak better English than most Brits speak any other language. Plus they brew great beer. I was going to make joke about the food, but those are the würst...
9 Benelux - Belgium, Luxembourg and Holland
Okay, clearly this is three countries, not one – but excluding the micro states (Monaco, San Marino, Andorra, etc) Luxembourg is Europe's smallest country and by rolling the three into one bigger area, I not only have more to talk about but also don't have to exclude the Netherlands from the list... Though (sorry Dutch people) it's a handy way to get to the Continent, with ferries to Rotterdam, the Hook of Holland and Ijmuden, but it's not really a country to tour by bike unless you're going to Assen to watch a race.
Half of Belgium suffers with the same problems as Holland: it's flat land that's packed full of people, so the roads aren't particularly interesting and they're often busy. But then there's the other half of Belgium – the bit that borders Luxembourg. Broadly speaking, we're talking about the Ardennes and this is where things get more than interesting: they gets brilliant.
This is a decent-sized area packed with loads of quiet, well-surfaced roads. Quaint little villages, plenty of nice places to stay and eat and drink... And apart from a regrettable tendency to add fruit to some batches, the Belgians might be even better at brewing beer than the Germans. Luxembourg might just be, mile for mile, the country with the greatest concentration of brilliant roads in Europe: it really is small but perfectly formed for motorcycling.
While we're on the subject of beer (though this is a guide to riding, not drinking) you do get a different quality of Guinness in Ireland – it's definitely worth sampling when you're over there. And it is definitely worth getting on the ferry to see for yourself. Though of course you have to get luck with the weather if you want to see it... not just peer at it through sheets of rain on your visor. You only really appreciate why it's all so green when you have a day of Atlantic rain on the west coast...
That west coast is usually the big draw: the Ring of Kerry, the Dingle Peninusla, the Wild Atlantic Way... but there's lots more besides. There's great riding in Northern Ireland as well, which has its own great coastal ride. On both sides of the border there are ranges of low hills (okay, call them mountains, Ireland – we won't hold it against you) criss-crossed by interesting roads, There are plenty of twisty roads the through the moors and hills and, yes, bogs that dot the empty countryside.
And there are men in horse-drawn buggies, especially in the south. That tells you how busy the country roads can be... not very. The only real drawbacks are the possibility of rain (summer's usually okay, in spring and autumn it can be one extreme or the other) and the risk of a busload of Americans looking for their Irish roots interrupting your coffee stop. Other than that, it's a fabulous place to ride.
7 Great Britain
So, leaving aside Ireland, the larger land mass of Britain and its key satellites – such as Skye and Anglesey – is still a fantastic place to ride. I know a lot of visitors to the country fixate on Scotland (especially thanks to the North Coast 500) but there's so much amazing riding in the North of England, Wales and even the Midlands and East Anglia as well, if you know where to look.
True, the south of England is increasingly congested, strangled by lower limits and plagued by potholes, but at least it has some hilly and interesting quiet bits (just enough to keep it ahead of Holland, in my book). And there are certain cities – notably London and Edinburgh – where bike theft is a real problem, but that's easily solved by avoiding them.
For the most part, we have so much amazing riding in Britain and the best thing is: it's on our doorstep. It's the easiest place to tour and can be hugely rewarding as well as very easy. Really, the tragedy is that more European riders don't realise this and come to discover Wales or Northumbria or Lincolnshire...
Okay, let's get the the negatives out of the way first: if you want to use a motorway, you need a vignette which is massively overpriced, as you pay for a year even if you're only visiting for a week; second, if you get caught speeding the fines are MASSIVE; third, it's one of the more expensive destinations in terms of hotels and food and drink.
But if you're comfortable with the cost of the vignette or plan your route cunningly and you're not going to break the sound barrier on an Alpine pass, Switzerland is amazing. Truly amazing. It helps that all the industry and most of the people are concentrated in the valleys, so the highlands are quiet – miles of road through stunning scenery, where the only real traffic is other motorcyclists marveling at how good it is.
From the more general point of view, Switzerland's an amazing place to visit: everywhere is so clean. I've never found a bad café and hotels always seem to be efficient and comfortable. In summer, bikes are everywhere – you really feel at home.
Much like Switzerland, but not quite as expensive (and you can buy a 10-day tourist vignette for sensible money) Austria has some busy valleys and amazing, quiet mountain areas. It's stuffed full of famous must-ride passes: the Timmelsjoch, Nockalmstrasse, Silvrettastrasse and, of course, the Grossglockner, but there are many more besides.
The catch is that these mountain roads have tolls and now have lowered 70km/h speed limits. Not that you'd be doing 90mph into the hairpins, but now you can't even do 90km/h on the straight bits. Well, to be honest it doesn't actually spoil them – not when they're in such glorious surroundings.
Besides, there are plenty of other roads – ones that might not be so famous but definitely repay the riding. The catch is those tend to be a bit further east. Don't think it's like Switzerland, but a half-hour further away; it's like Switzerland but two days further away. In each direction.
So a trip to Austria is a good, long trip – which I see as a plus. And when you're there it's another beautiful, clean, well-organised country with great facilities and good local beverages.
If you want a country where motorcycles truly are a part of the culture, you want to visit Italy. There is a trade-off, in that if you want a country where everyone drives like they're trying to be a GP driver that's also Italy – and if you want a place where everyone drives like it's Mad Max, that's Sicily...
Each region of Italy does have its own flavour, but broadly speaking the northern bits – especially the alpine areas – are a bit cleaner and posher and more expensive, while the far south tends to be a bit more rough-and-ready and affordable. In the middle, there are pockets of crazy prices (hello Tuscany) and one or two surprisingly down-at-heel places to (I'm looking at you, Isernia...)
The crazy jumble is what makes Italy so captivating. Everywhere's a bit different, even though the tendency to talk at a million miles and hour while mostly communicating by semaphore seems to be a universal way to baffle non-Italian speakers. But if you want great food, great coffee, awesome and varied scenery and lots of twisty roads, where bikers always seem to be welcome, you can't beat it.
There are two problems with Portugal. The first is that it's a long way away from the UK. The second is that, like Belgium, it's almost two countries in one. The big cities of Lisbon and Porto are surrounded by a halo of smaller towns and villages, with one speed limit blending into the next, so you can almost never open the throttle. Much of the Algarve feels the same.
But then there's the other Portugal. The one that seems to have been created with motorcycling in mind. Mile after mile of mind-bendingly good roads with – it often seems – nobody else on it. Literally nobody. You'll ride 20mins and see two other vehicles. The weather is great, when you get a café the coffee is great.
Okay, in some places it seems like there are no cafés or petrol stations or even people... it can be almost unnervingly empty. And the lack of traffic sometimes means dusty, sandy dirt can build up on some roads, which is unnerving if you hit a slick of it mid-corner. And while many of the roads are immaculate, generally those that aren't really aren't...
Overall, though, the majority of Portugal seems to be a bike-friendly place blessed with brilliant weather, glorious scenery and more great roads than the locals need, so it's only sensible that we help them use them. Especially as, compared with places like Switzerland, Austria and northern Italy, it's a very affordable place to tour...
When you do a lot of touring in Europe, eventually something clicks: you don't see many bikes with an F on the number plate in other countries; not compared with the numbers of Dutch, German or Italian bikes – or even English ones, sometimes. A French bike journalist explained it to me: "When we have so much in France, why would we go anywhere else?"
And that's the magic of France. It doesn't just have mountains; it has a succession of significant mountains, from the Alps to the Pyrenees to the Jura to the Massif Central to the Vosges... And if you don't want mountains, there are hills and valleys, gorges, rolling plains covered with vineyards or thick with sunflowers. There are beautiful villages and fabulous cities. There are castles, cathedrals and coastlines... and there's Corsica, which is like the distilled essence of all the best bits, floating in the sun-kissed sea.
Of course, the French can't decide what the speed limits should be, so in some areas it's 80km/h and in others it's back to 90km/h – and there are increasing numbers of speed cameras to catch out the confused. Plus the toll motorways are expensive, food and drink isn't cheap – and don't believe the myth that all French food is great (or the coffee). There are some really rough budget hotels, too...
Navigated with care, France has so much to offer. It not only has some of the greatest roads through some of the most spectacular landscapes in Europe but also has something for everyone. Whatever kind of riding you like, France can deliver it. And with a bit of careful booking, you can enjoy it in comfort without breaking the bank. It's a fantastic, bike-friendly place to tour on a motorcycle.
Top of my personal league-table, though, is bike-mad Spain. Everyone seems pleased to see a motorcyclist arrive. It's an affordable destination, too, for the most part.
The catch is that it's a long way away, so your choice is to ride down – over several days (unless you want to be to tired and saddle sore to appreciate it when you get there) or take the ferry, which isn't exactly the budget option. It's worth it, though, for the way it maximises your time in one of the truly great riding areas.
There are, let's be clear, some big flat bits of Spain that aren't much to write home about. Significant plains covered by straight roads. That's fine, because they get you quickly to the next amazing bit. Whether you arrive by boat and hit the Cantabrian mountains and the Picos de Europa, or come across France and find yourself in the Pyrenees, that's just the start of Spain's glory. There are sunny sierras all over the country, where twisty roads rise and fall, with hairpins if you want them or sweepers if you don't.
Generally, as long as you stay away from the real tourist traps on the coasts, the food is amazing, accommodation affordable and the people are friendly (though good luck finding an English-speaking barman in Extremadura). And the roads... my god, the roads... Let's just say that if you like riding bikes, you'll like riding your bike in Spain. For me, it's the number-one place to ride a motorbike.
PS... Croatia and Slovenia
Any top-ten list is tough and not everyone makes the cut. In this case, these two belting destinations. They'd have knocked Germany into 12th place and argued about which was 10th and which was 11th if (a) they were larger and offered more variety of riding, and, mostly (b) they weren't so far away. But they're two amazing destinations that don't deserve to be overlooked...