During my recent trip to Italy, my good friend Giorgio had suggested that we take a ride to his mom’s villa in San Gimignano, Tuscany for the weekend. Tuscany is famous for it’s beauty and history and the medieval town of San Ginignano is a gem of the area and known as the Town of Fine Towers. In it’s heyday at the end of the medieval period it boasted a total of 72 towers, built by the rich and powerful of the time to show just how rich and powerful they were. Today, only 14 remain.
In passing, he mentioned a few of his mates would be tagging along, but when Paolo showed up on a Guzzi Breva, Cristiano on a Ducati Multistrada and Simone on a Yamaha Super Tenere, I had a suspicion that the Guzzi California may be about to experience some serious footboard scraping.
I wasn’t wrong and as soon as we left the Autostrada I was introduced to the true Italian way of riding a motorcycle – seemingly exempt from the laws of man, motorcyclists are allowed to pass at any point (the very short straights between hairpin curves being a favourite), ride at full throttle (or as close to it as the road allows) and filter through all traffic to get to the front at any stop or to pass even when traffic is oncoming (thankfully the cars try to make enough space).
Doing all this in the mountains that seem to make up the bulk of Italy is even more interesting. Add a cruiser into the mix, and it’s a full-attention day with a lot of scraping of floorboards. The California must have been a few kilos lighter by the end of it as a result
Having said all that, there are three hazards to consider (assuming crashing and falling off a cliff is already taken for granted);
1) Speed cameras. They seem to lurk on any kind of road and although they do come with a warning sign, they’re not big and are in Italian. I just learned to hit the brakes whenever there was a sign that had an image of a cop on it, though I’m not sure if a ticket can follow you to Canada (I’ll let you know).
2) Cops at roundabouts. In Canada they like donut shops, but in Italy they love to hang out at roundabouts. They come in pairs. One holds a rather comical oversize lollipop to pull you over while the other has been known to hold a submachine gun (I asked for a pic but didn’t argue when he declined). I don’t know if they open fire if you don’t stop, but I bet everyone stops just in case.
3) Italian drivers. For some reason, Italians have great difficulty understanding what lanes are. Many (though not all) will straddle two lanes as if they just didn’t quite make the lane change or were still unsure if that is what they wanted to do. Not a biggie, though in the more twisty stuff they also tend to cut the corners which makes it tricky to get an early pass in and can be interesting if they’re coming the other way!
From the occasionally glimpse to my sides I could see we were going through some pretty spectacular countryside. Italy has an awful lot of hills and mountains and thanks to such a long history, there are many, many good roads cut into the side of them, making this a motorcyclist’s playground but, if the signs are to be believed, a graveyard too. The roads are all left, right, left, right, straight, passsssss, right, righttttt, phew, left, and so on.
With this being the first warm weekend of the year (spring was very late), the roads were full of motorcycles, making passing a car doubly interesting as a backwards glance before pulling out was good insurance against an overly keen squid.
By the time we reached Genoa I had managed to somewhat keep up with the pack, though I think they were holding back a little too. Still I was looking forward to a slowing of the pace now that we’d hit a city.
Oh how wrong could I be.
Genoa, birthplace of Christopher Columbus, is ultra compressed between the Ligurian Sea and the Apennine Mountains. As a result the traffic is compressed down narrow streets, making the scooter the ride of choice. Everything is done at mach speed and as Paulo so eloquently put it “Genoa, you need ten eyes to keep a track of what is coming at you. I hate it”.
Oddly, I loved it. With just enough chaos to make it interesting but with everyone paying (just) enough attention to keep it all safe-ish. Besides, I figured that in a clash between a 160Kg scooter and an 320Kg California, the scooter would likely be swatted off like a fly on a bull’s back. Still, I was somewhat relieved to be free of it as we left town and started to hug the coast north to our destination.
But first, lunch, courtesy of the rather lovely town of Recco, a small seaside town famous for focaccia col formaggio and in a region known for pesto, making for a rather good lunch choice.
As generalizations would have you believe, Italian food is very, very good. Not as in pasta, ice cream, etc, but as in Italian food. in Italy the pasta has an extra dimension, and the ice cream is light, yet creamy and popping with flavour. It’s also very affordable, which is a pretty good combination in my books.
Oh and let’s not forget the coffee. The Italians justifyably love their coffee. So much that many places don’t even have seats, just a bar where you get your coffee, drink it relatively quickly and carry on with your journey till the next coffee opportunity. Once you taste the coffee then you’ll understand why it’s worth making so many stops.
With lunch devoured, we hit the road again and it continued to swoop up down and all around through the mountainous coastal terrain. Oh, and at great speed of course.
I pondered the North American acclaim of the Tail of the Dragon and how silly it seemed when you have the many tails of the mega dragons all over the place here, only with good food and endless coffee. And all this is not far away, but there’s a plane in between, the need to get a bike once landed and for many, a language barrier, but surely that’s a small price to pay for entry into this wonderland?
Sadly, in some ways you really can get too much of a good thing and as the sun dropped we had no choice but to hit the autostrada so we could make it to base before dark.
As we rode, Giorgio frantically waved his arm, pointed to the left and over the highway barrier was the top of the leaning tower of Pisa – a symbolic reminder of all the history I’ve passed in the previous week, yet not really experienced.
The final stretch up to San Gimignano was a gentle (and fast) curve of perfect asphalt, but I got stuck behind a fast moving car after the front runners had passed and am forced to make my move in a short straight that requires a fistful of brake before the next right hander.
The right hander turns into a hairpin and the California shrieks out as its floorboard pushes down hard against asphalt. I could only hold the line and hope that nothing hard touches down until after the apex.
I’m lucky, but it’s a timely reminder that I am not on a sportbike and no road is worth ending up in the ditch for.
The day ends 12 hours after it has started and I realize that in three riding days I’ve spent 42 hours in the saddle, covering 2500 km, with very little of it in a straight line. My arse hurts but it’s been quite a reintroduction back into motorcycling after a long Canadian winter.
But more importantly, I’ve been introduced to Italy.
I like Italy, but I think if I lived here there would be a high chance that it would be a short one – either through the windscreen of an errant Fiat 500, or at the bottom of a 1000-foot ditch or via a pulmonary expiration thanks to one too many tastes of the oh-so-fine food.
For now, I just have to work on how to get back here. Only next time I’ll put aside some time to see the sights, learn some Italian and try those roads again on a bike a little more suited.
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