The Sahara and Us Morocco 2011

Friday, September 18, 2015

Audi Factory Tour

Stainless Audi R8
For those interested in cars and the car business there has been a lot going on in the past few years, ever since the CEO of Volkswagen Group announced that by 2017 or something like that , they would be the largest car manufacturer, supplanting Toyota auto group. This goal was laid out in approximately 2009 and at the time Porsche looked to buy out the VW group. As it turned out VW Group bought Porsche and made in a wholly owned subsidiary. For some time Audi has been one of the luxury brands, as well as Bentley and Bugatti. Later, Lamborghini was brought into the group and most recently another Italian company Ducati motorcycles. For the complete list check here.

Audi is recognized in the industry as having the most efficient auto manufacturing processes and their brand ranks in the top 5 for quality, so it has been on the list to tour one of the plants. Today was the day. A few years ago I covered the Porsche factory/museum in Zuffhausen, just outside Stuggart. That blog post is on this site as well.The Audi plant we visited is in Neckarsulm, some 60 kms north.
The neat thing about Audi that differentiates it from apparently most if not all other manufacturers is that they can build multiple platform vehicles on the same assembly line at the same time. You have to see it to believe it. Their logistics and automation is truly amazing. You see most other manufacturers have plants or assembly lines designed to handle a particular chassis, and that’s what they build only. Here I watched a 2016 A6 Avant followed by an A7, right wheel drive for Britain and an A4 being built for the America's.

Audi also has apparently become in such demand now that according to the factory guide (who has drank the KoolAid), every car on the assembly line already has an owner. I can attest to this fact from my search for my current car, it was very hard to find one.

This plant in Neckarsulm is situated on the property once owned by NSU (Neckarsulm Strickmaschinen Union or NeckarSulm KnittingMachine Union) and purchased by VW group in 1969. So I can understand where the saying "It runs like a sewing machine" comes from.There is a NSU museum onsite as well as the factory.

NSU Motorcycles

NSU Prinz We saw this car in Canada
Also since Audi owns Lamborghini and the R8 shares much DNA with the brand new Hurrican there are Hurrican bodies in the body shop before being sent to the assembly plant in Italy. The R8 has most of the 1st floor designated to its 10 year production to date.
Sandra's favorite, a matte chocolat finished R8 Cabriolet
Audi has had a lot of success at Lemans totalling 13 years. Only Porsche has had more with 17. Here is the 2000 factory winner for Audi.
2000 Audi 24 hrs winner of Lemans

And of course when you take factory delivery of your new Audi you would come to this plant for your scheduled pick up. Unfortunately Audi Canada isn’t on board with factory order/pick-up program, while Audi USA is. Go figure?? But you can see an array of many of the Audi vehicles on display there was well, And bonus, the cars we got to see today are new 2016 models, some of which haven’t reached Canada yet.

The factory plant does not permit photos inside so all photos here are from the show floor. 

Next we hope to visit the Frankfurt Auto Show 2015.
New 2016 Apple Green RS7

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Europe Through the Back Door – Two Wheels Edition

Rheinfells, Schauffhausen Switzerland
 the beginning of the Rhein River
 OK, OK, Europe through the Back Door (ETBD) is a Rick Steves terminology, and may even be copy-righted by him, but the concept of his descriptor was that he was showing people how to see the ‘real’ Europe, and experience people and places not on the main stream Tour company’s radar screens. Rick, rightly so, has become part of the main stream now, his impact on travel since we started in 2004 (he was virtually non-existent back in 1991) is such that he has his own tours now, sells an extra-ordinary amount of books, literally gives away his advice in YouTube videos, and on public television. And frankly I love his approach because when he travels he stays in the small little places. I am a fan.
 Unfortunately his tours go to the small places, but now due to their size they stay in more upscale places, a demand by the primarily US consumer. Also, he has made some places so popular, they are on the radar screen now. I know Rick  took a swipe at Tripadvisor and back 2 years ago because they are in our mind the most efficient aggregators of tourism information and accommodations. He viewed them as travel Nazi’s, and I gave hom our feedback.  I mentioned back in 2011 the entrepreneur in Sighisoara, Romania used exclusively as his booking agent and for the 15% cut they took, it was cheaper than him hiring staff to manage his bookings and website. did it for him.
In 2013 we stopped in NeuRavensburg Germany, just outside Switzerland and that evening happened across a small village gathering of people who came to a social gathering place to hear a Hamburg “BigBand” and enjoy some drinks and food on a warm early July night. The village was maybe 100 people large, so we stood out. And the host purposely sat English speaking villagers with us so we could enjoy and converse with them. They all asked “Why are you here?” And of course it was partly we are just passing through, and we are curious.
This year we have taken it a bit further. For two separate days we have purposely stayed in non-tourist towns, Uhlingen- Birkendorf at the Gasthaus Zum Schwanen,
Zum Schwanen
and today in Stuhlingen at the Landgasthof Rebstock. Both are in Germany, technically in the Black Forest, but very close to the Swiss border.
These places ; U-B in particular have maybe 100 people maximum in them, Stuhlingen probably 500-600. They are very German, little or no English spoken unless you approach a young person which we did in U-B. The meal we had last evening was excellent, Gasthaus’ being both pub/restaurant and Hotel and small, maybe 8 rooms at best. Very nice rooms, very good food, reasonable prices on everything and fresh ingredients, farm produce (oh the cheeses are out of this world!), and spectacular beer. Our host at Zum Schwanen
Family Schwanen
tells us we are the first Canadian’s to stay at his place. It’s nice to be the first at something! Our walk through the village which is on a hill overlooking the Swiss Alps, has million dollar views, and the smell of fresh cut hay, and yes some manure. There is even a board in the village that has everyone’s last 3 digits of their phone number on it. And German beds are the best to sleep in.
At Rheinfells
Today, in the rain, we drive to Stuhlingen, which is right on the Swiss border. We decided to go to Schaffhausen, back in Switzerland, to see the Rheinfells, Essentially the Falls where the Rhein river begins its journey from Lake Constance in Switzerland, to the North Sea and has been the economic throughfare for barges dating back to the middle ages at least. There as we enter the motorcycle parking a couple wave to us, and call out, “We loved Niagara Falls!”. We laugh as they walk away.
Petra (Peewee) and Berndt
A few minutes later we are down by the falls and they come back up to us and ask if we’d like them to take our picture, so we agree, and then begin chatting and taking pictures of each other. They are from Berlin and have recently hosted an American on motorcycle, and while they aren’t currently riding bike, they own Honda Valkyries’.  They have a lot of interest in Canada and have visited a few times before so we exchange cards. We hope they come so we can show them our neck of the woods.

So how did we find these great little places? Well I looked at a map that was about the riding distance we wanted for one day ( 300-350 kms) and then checked on for larger centres around there. Based on the ratings you can tell the good establishments and we booked them. Go to the map view of the places and find ones that aren’t in the big centres but a ways away. They have both been wonderful, with this last one even opening up the garage to park inside since it’s raining again.
So what I’m getting at now with the internet, the information available using resources like Rick Steves, and and Trip Advisor you can source very good reasonable accommodation, not far from the main centres, but that allow you to have a personal experience that can’t be recreated by buying a ticket. Our son and daughter-in-law have experienced a similar feeling by travelling off season and visiting the Christmas markets in European cities. Either way allow your curiosity to take you to new off the beaten path or back door locations. And while we are on motorcycle this is a travel tip that works for anyone.
Landgasthof Rebstock

Rebstock Family

Sunday, September 13, 2015

A Rain Day, Random Thoughts, and the Mind is a Beautiful Thing

So this won’t  be a usual blog entry about seeing a particular place, just one that covers a number of things that go on when you’re travelling, like today, a rain day.

Rain days are a consideration when motorcycling and in particular this rain day here in Sestri Levante where there is an Orange Level Thunderstorm warning, not translated to English but it must be bad right? As I sit here writing this I realize OH YEAH! It’s bad, but we are safe and dry.

Paying attention to weather forecasts is an important part of adventure riding. When we travelled based on a fixed schedule and we had to be back at work then you would ride in some bad weather, or if it crops up during a day then you obviously deal with it, but when it is this pronounced then you respect it.

Yesterday was a great ride back about 130 kms from Lucca to Sestri Levante and we took the back roads. It was busy being a Saturday in Italy all the bicyclists (would be Giro d’Italia participants) are on the back-roads on every pass you are on. And then there is weekend traffic. When we got off the bike yesterday, checked in and lying on the beach both of us got talking about the same thing, and it’s funny that it came up.

We talked about all the sensory inputs that are involved for both rider and pillion passenger when motorcycling and in particular on a day like yesterday. First off there are all the driver controls that need to be coordinated, right foot – rear brake, left foot – gear shift, left hand –clutch, right hand - throttle input and front brake input. Then there is bike velocity, terrain conditions, traction and lean, translating road signs or instructions, appropriate gear selections for these conditions, and then in Italy a myriad of hazard inputs from foot traffic, bicyclists, from both aggressive and elderly car drivers, some who want to beat you, some who don’t see you and then yesterday a last second cat that ran out, I backed off the throttle just enough that it made it past the front tire before being run over. Sandra never saw the cat, but thought I had backed off because I saw a car she didn’t. Oh yes, and then there is navigation with the GPS. This was a particular route I wanted to ride so I had programmed it and it gives me the graphic view, a written sub-instruction and a voice command. Many times I just listen to the voice command, and because the GPS is in my general field of vision, when I get a split second it gets consulted to confirm. Sometimes I will be to spend an additional split second consulting the graphics for the next bit of road.

And that’s where we must all sit back and respect the capacity our minds and our senses bring to the table when travelling and in particular driving. Since I was in high school I learned that I did best at anything on a good night’s sleep. Sounds simple and it is. And I promise to respect it and the amazing skill level of my partner.

So as I write this as well it’s been nice to get email from several of our friends, (as I type), we have met on the road this year and last. Must be raining all over Europe today! LOL.

Friday, September 11, 2015


Lucca Walled City
 Last year we heard both Cris and Sabrina and the Swedish couple mention going to Lucca. The Swedish couple were going there to get married and we had been invited but it was the same day we were to fly home so we didn’t attend.
This year it was on the list. So we are just finishing up our 2nd night here and while we have seen more spectacular walled cities, or more intimate settings, Lucca impressed us as a clean tourist centre that has much history to offer. All the food offerings we had while there were great, our accommodation, right outside the old walled city is excellent, and we even saw some things many tourists don’t know about.
Sandra read in someone’s blog about an aqueduct in Lucca, but it is not in any literature, and the blog she had read gave very poor partial directions, likely from someone’s faded memory. So we went to a tourist centre and asked how to get to it, and laughed after at the directions. The fellow told us to take the stairs underground from the train station to the other side turn left in the direction of a fountain, then at the fountain turn right towards an Obelisk and the aqueduct was close to it.
So we get to the train station, and since there are 3 tracks and 2 sides to each track there will be underground walkways that allow access to the tracks. Of course here you can use the underground walkway to cross under the train station to go home as well. No problem we get to the other side; incidentally the walkway is off to the left side of the train station.

Once there we turn left in the direction of the fountain, but see no fountain. We walk a ways and then I see the Obelisk surrounded by snow fence as it is boarded up. We walk to the Obelisk and find the aqueduct actually runs into the Obelisk that really was the centrifuge for the water to run down and then go underground. When we walked back we wondered where the fountain was. It was at that point we saw this. Not what we would call a “ fountain”.
A Luccan Fountain to turn at

A Real Luccan Fountain

Freakie Girl
The evening is a wonderful time to walk the top of the Walled City. There are many people out there walking, running, and bicycling. Sandra and I walk by this girl who was somewhat hiding and was texting someone. I said to Sandra, gee that kid was freakie, standing with a hoodie up, texting. 

And she said yeah I noticed her too. Then I looked closer.
Still not responding

And then closer again.
Italian Modern Art

Chiavari, Portofino, and Rapallo

Classic Portofino

As we headed south to ultimately end up at Levanto we planned to stop in to Portofino, a well-known place for A list celebrities. I guess we saw one there, a popular soccer player with his pregnant wife since they were covered online the next day in a local paper.  They were just taking photos up near the church on the hill in Portofino.
On place to stay was Chiavari, a beautiful city about 20 kms away from Portofino.
The place we stayed, Casa Olivia is up behind Chiavari in the hills overlooking the sea and our host Cristina was incredible at decorating. Both the B&B and her kitchen were right out of a decorating catalog. She works part-time in Genoa as a designer, and runs the B&B as well. She does a great job of both apparently.

A benefit of the bike is when we drove to Portofino we fit right in with the locals and parked in the moto parking area and with the bike cover on, they couldn’t see that we weren’t locals not like our friend with the Lamborghini who got a ticket and was towed.
Not his day
From there we toured the picturesque spot, took our required pictures and finally went out for a really nice lunch sitting right on the water. OK, meal prices are all increased by 4E just to sit here, but it’s something you have to do.

Lunch in Portofino

On our way there we stopped in Rapallo, another bustling
Rapallo Fort
place and saw the old Fort that protected the harbor. The weather was perfect and later in the afternoon we enjoyed the private deck that came with our room. It was very enjoyable.  

View from Sestri Levante to Portofino

Old Guys Corner
The next day on the way to Levanto we stopped to visit Sestri  Levante a larger centre that has quite an Italian tourist draw. It is a pretty place that we will come back to. While there we noticed a group of old guysbegin gathering at a favorite beach spot, hidden under some trees behind the change area of one of the beach resorts, they come every day to visit. What a nice place!

Neck Muscles
I was intrigued by the strength of this African migrant worker carrying her wares, amazing.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Fort De Bard

Fort De Bard

Our next day was relaxing staying in Ivrea (Original home of Olivetti typewriters ) and just doing some sightseeing. The castle/fort we visited was the backdrop for the movie Avengers – Age of Ultron filmed just recently.
Age of Ultron

The early fort was built and developed its claim to fame by withstanding first a 14 day attack by Napoleon in 1800 and then a siege which lasted until June 1st. Eventually it would fall and Napoleon destroyed the castle terming it the “villaneous castle de bard” because it was so formidable he did not want to have to conquer it again.

A few features were the enclosed staircases to protect soldiers movements, and for tourists now a 4 stage funicular which is free to ride and get a great view of the Aosta valley.
Enclosed Stairs for soldiers

After Napoleon’s fall the Fort was re-built between 1831- 1838 by the Savoy’s and eventually fell into dis-repair until the late 20th century when it was restored again. It hosts many exhibitions and concerts in summer.
Similar in nature to Entreavaux in France, this Fort controlled access to the Aosta valley and was therefore a point where a travel tax could be collected for anyone wanting to move goods across the Alps and of course to defend access.
Aosta Valley

Similar in nature to Entreavaux in France, this Fort controlled access to the Aosta valley and was therefore a point where a travel tax could be collected for anyone wanting to move goods across the Alps and of course to defend access.

On our way back Sandra said to stop at a Suzuki car dealer since she saw a neat sports car in a window. We did stop and were captured by an eclectic collection of personal cars owned by the dealer. 
Original Audi Quattro dating from 1980, notice the styling to the VW Scirroco of the same era our son had a 1981 Scirroco gifted to him by his aunt.
The History of Suzuki - Coincidentally I drive an Audi quattro (a5), and ride a Suzuki V Strom
A Beautiful MG, for Brit car lovers

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

FRANCE Lacets, Col de Madelaine, Col de Pt. St. Bernard

Decorations from the Tour De France TDF
The next morning we got up earlier and the day was fresh. The day was perfect for riding. We made our way south to the Lacets du Montvernier
Lacets Vertical
(Stage 20 I believe in TDF 2015) We watched the Tour De France (TDF) a lot while I began to get back in shape. The road is a set of hairpins that wind up the face of a cliff and resemble a pair of shoe laces, hence the name. Needless to say we rode them.

Lovely from the Top

And this route was only 10 kms from the Col de Madelaine, a classic of the TDF. 
2000 meters

Add Col de Petit St Bernard and we’d be in Italy the same day, not before covering almost 400 kms of twisties.