Italy – The Two-Wheeled Way

by Tim Walker

There are plenty of sensible ways to go about taking one’s first long-distance motorcycle tour. In Minnesota, this might be a jaunt around Lake Superior, or a cruise along the Mississippi River. And it would no doubt make sense to travel with another rider or two with some road-tripping experience. That would be the sensible way, of course. But if we did only sensible things, we’d miss out on a lot of living, right?

So, here’s the story of my first motorcycle tour: a thousand-mile, weeklong solo tour of central Italy on an unfamiliar, rented motorcycle — one with twice the horsepower of my current ride.

No, not very sensible at all. Especially considering that I would be touring Italy, where chaos on the roads is a matter of national pride.

Why Italy? Because I was sent to Florence on business in late March and I had the opportunity to extend my stay an extra week. (Thanks, wife!)feature105_2a

So I charted out a circular, counter-clockwise tour of central Italy. My route would take me north to Venice, west to Lake Garda in the Alpine lakes region, southwest to the Cinque Terre villages on the Mediterranean coast, south to the island of Elba, and finally east then back to Florence.

My trip begins on the morning of Thursday, April 3; the day after my meetings end. I start walking the six blocks or so to the rental agency, where I have a 600cc Honda Hornet waiting for me. Or so I thought.

Long story short, I do not have a Hornet waiting for me. Mechanical problems, they say, and no replacement bike available. They offer me a scooter. No, grazie, I say.

So they call around to see if anyone else has a motorcycle available for a week. They eventually connect with Alessandro, just down the street, who has a small motorcycle repair shop that can accommodate me. Great, I thought. With any luck, I might actually leave soon and still make good time on the first and longest stretch of my trip, a 170-mile ride to Venice.

In five minutes, I was shaking hands with Alessandro and negotiating the rental. Actually, the negotiations were easy. They had to be, because Alessandro knew about as much English as I knew Italian, which was molto piccolo. But I was able to decipher that I would be renting his personal bike, a metallic blue, V-twin Honda CB500.

So, after a brief run-through of the Honda’s controls and features, I finally head out on my grand Italian adventure, insecure in the knowledge that there was no way that Alessandro’s one-man operation could provide me with any assistance whatsoever in case of a breakdown. It was now almost noon, and I was nearly two hours behind schedule.

Soon I’m out of town and on a four-lane, divided toll-road: an Autostrada that takes me to the outskirts of Venice. I’m cruising into some mountains and there are lots of tunnels, lots of curves. I’m feeling good. I’m feeling very comfortable on this bike. The high, leg-tucked riding position on this “naked” sports bike feels fine, even though it’s very different from the low, cruiser style I’m used to. I feel my mind wandering while at the same time becoming very focused on the task of riding. Yeah , I know that’s contradictory, but a lot of Zen moments are like that.

And then, I run out of gas. I coast to the shoulder and come to a halt. I jump off the bike and open the tank to find that it’s bone dry. Naturally, I curse Alessandro for sending me off with the petcock switch in the reserve position.

After catching my breath (taking someone’s name in vain takes a lot of lungpower, you know), I take stock of my situation. A very deep fear begins to settle into my gut that my vacation is over before it’s really even started. If I miss my first hotel reservation, my entire schedule is lost and I’ll be screwed. I conclude that my only hope is that the Autostrada authorities use some of the toll money they collect to fund a “Highway Helper” type of service. After about an hour or so with no help arriving, I’m thinking that I’m firmly in the “I’m screwed” camp. I have a cell phone that works in Europe, but I have nobody to call. I feel very alone and I begin to think that this whole trip was a very bad idea.

feature105_2bBut suddenly I see a car pulling two motorcycles on a trailer coming toward me in the right-hand lane. I catch the driver’s eye and put my hands together as if praying, which I indeed was doing. I couldn’t swear to this, but I think I also made a sad puppy dog face.

It worked. The driver pulls over. It’s wonderful, isn’t it, the worldwide fraternity of motorcyclists? Anyway, I’m now profusely thanking the driver, Bernd, from Stuttgart, Germany; who will drain some gas from the tank of his bike for me. We carefully fill a plastic bag with about a quart of gas, and carry it over to my bike. I pull out my pocket knife and puncture the bottom of the bag that Bernd has positioned over the tank opening.

I thank Bernd for his kindness, and offer him 10 Euros for the gas. He accepts a fiver. But no amount of money can fully express my gratitude. This Good Samaritan quite simply saved my vacation. As I pull out onto the busy Autostrada to continue my journey, I resolve to pay back, to some stranger in the future, the kindness that I had just received.

I arrive in Venice in the late afternoon, settle in, and grab a bite to eat (pizza, of course). At dusk, I take a stroll along the waterfront of Guidecca, the island I’m staying on. I can see St. Mark’s Square and Cathedral across the wide Guidecca canal and I am mesmerized by the beauty of Venice lighting herself up for the night. Despite the tribulations I faced during the day, taking in this scene of incomparable beauty has made it all worthwhile. And although I didn’t know it at the time, I had already hit the low point of my trip and the rest of my vacation would be as smooth as an Italian silk scarf.

I get up early on Friday to tour Venice on foot and by vaporetto, the city’s water buses. I’m captivated by this elegant, decaying city; it really is as magnificent as the guidebooks say it is. I would love to stay longer, but to make it to my next destination on time, I leave early in the afternoon and head to Lake Garda; about 125 miles to the west.

During my ride to Lake Garda, I climb in altitude. The Alpine air is cool, so I stop to add more layers. When I exit the Autostrada I have about a half-hour ride on a smaller, local road that takes me to Riva del Garda, a resort town at the northern tip of the lake. This twisty, narrow road is a small taste of what I hope to experience during the next two days here.

I’m not disappointed. Please forgive the cliché, but my all-day ride around Lake Garda on Saturday is a biker’s dream, with sparkling blue waters on one side, and sheer rock cliffs on the other; one curve after another.

But I take it easy around the curves, and never push the bike to its limit. I hold back for this simple reason: Around most curves are fallen rocks in the road. No way am I going to push the bike to the edge of its traction limit only to hit scattered chunks of cliff in mid-turn. Even a low-side drop would mean the end of my vacation. Remember, Alessandro is hundreds of miles away and couldn’t rescue me.

So I take it slow on the curves, because I still have a lot of Italy to see. My next stop is Cinque Terre, the five isolated fishing villages precariously perched on the rugged cliffs of the Italian Riviera. My Sunday morning journey to Riomaggiore, the only Cinque Terre village accessible by road, is through a drenching rain and even a little bit of hail.

But the rain stops, the sky clears and cliff-hugging Riomaggiore is as beautiful as its depictions on picture postcards. I’m here early enough to spend the rest of the day hiking on the trails that connect the villages. I hike north from Riomaggiore, on the famous Via dell’Amore, to Manarola, and then on to Corniglia, the middle of the five villages.

The hiking trails are exhilarating, especially when stepping to the edge and looking down at the rocky white coastline hitting the crystal blue water of the Mediterranean. I consider continuing on to the final two villages so I can experience more of this exhilaration.

But alas, I am carrying or wearing all of my gear. (The only item I’m able to safely lock to my bike is my helmet.) Hiking under the hot Tuscan sun for just two hours has done me in and I can’t go on. This upsets me, because I’m a little obsessive when I play tourist. If there are five villages here, I want to see all five of them, dammit!

I reluctantly return to Riomaggiore and my bike. I ride about 75 miles down the coast before stopping for the night. I’m about halfway to Pisa, which is my first destination tomorrow.

When I arrive on the outskirts of Pisa midday on Monday, I have no trouble navigating to the center of the city. At every intersection, and many points in between, there are signs directing traffic to La Torre. Clearly, this city knows it’s a one-trick pony. But it’s a pony worth seeing. Photos of the tower do not adequately convey how much the darn thing leans, and looking at the tower gives you the feeling that it will topple at any moment.

I experience a fun “It’s a Small World” moment when I recognize a former college classmate talking with a few other people near the tower. I casually stroll up and say “Hi Melanie” as if seeing each other in Pisa is no big deal.

After we each get over the shock of meeting each other halfway around the world, I explain what has brought me to Pisa, and she does the same. I learn she is one of several adults chaperoning about 150 high school musicians touring the country. Unfortunately, we have only a brief time to talk, as she needs to start rounding up her charges and get them on a bus. We have time to take a photo, though, to mark this unlikely occasion.

You can see all there is to see in Pisa in an hour or two and so, by mid-afternoon, I head south and hop on a ferry to the Mediterranean island of Elba; 12 miles from the mainland. History buffs know Elba as the island Napoleon was exiled to in 1814; although he escaped in less than a year and returned to France to run amok for a second time.

Today, Elba is better known for its secluded beaches. The attraction for me, however, is the rugged terrain that makes this 86 square mile island ideal for exploring on a motorcycle. Because of the island’s geography, the roads are narrow, steep and twisty.

feature105_2cI arrive late on Monday, and only have time to settle in to my hotel. Tuesday is a full day of exploring the island, and I take the roads recommended by Simone, a Ducati rider and owner of the hotel. This is an unexpected bit of good luck for me, and by following Simone’s excellent advice, I hit the best roads on the island. Simply put, Elba is the riding highlight of my tour.

My experience here is bittersweet, however, because it also marks the beginning of the end of my tour. I return to the mainland on Wednesday, ride to Florence and get to Alessandro’s shop by late afternoon. He checks the bike over and is satisfied that it has not been dropped or abused in any significant way (all true, of course).

Alessandro looks at the trip odometer, which reads 628 kilometers. I point and say mille (one thousand) to indicate that the odometer has rolled over. When he realizes I have ridden 1,628 kilometers in seven days, he gets a big grin on his face and I get a hearty pat on the back.

Yes, I think to myself, I do deserve a pat on the back. After all, I’ve just successfully completed my first motorcycle tour: a 1,012-mile trip, solo, and in a foreign country to boot. Definitely the ride of a lifetime.

Well, not quite. I’ve got to go back and see those two Cinque Terre villages I skipped, right?



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