Category Archives: Italy

Italy

Poised for the run down to Austria border

Poised for the run down to Austria border

It all started in Munich. Helga, her young son Jean-Paul and I all drove to Patricks place in preparation for our week or so in Italy. Considering that we’d just spent six hours on the road, and were planning to spend much of the foreseeable future driving, Helga and JP did the sensible thing and went to bed. Come midnight, of course, Patrick and I were sitting under the Maximillian statue in downtown Munich, hoping that a friend would eventually turn up and show us where the party was at. Sure enough, at one in the morning he eventually decanted from a taxi and took us to a wonderful rave in what appeared to be an old school, where we danced and watched the girls until the sun came up.

Patrick proving that he's an old smoothy

Patrick proving that he’s an old smoothy

Only then did we set off, a somewhat bizarre convoy of Patricks Ducati 748, my fully laden XJR 1200, and Helga and JP in Patricks recently restored Alfa Spider. We were supposed to be doing the long haul to Venice, but what with all the fun we had burning around the mountains in the sun, and time out for an impromptu dip in the lake at Achsen, we decided to make for our familiar ski-resort of Zell am See instead.

Taking a break in the sun

Taking a break in the sun

Patrick and I were having a fantastic ride, ranging ahead of the car and racing each other and everybody else up and down the mountains, pausing every now and then to catch our breath and wait for Helga to catch up. It was wonderful, and we arrived content but thirsty at a campsite close to Zell, where we were delighted to find that the bar was open.

Always a good thing

Always a good thing

Several beers later we got around to having some food, and then, just as we were getting stuck in to the post-prandial refreshment, we realised that (a) we didn’t have any Austrian cash, and (b) they didn’t accept Visa. No matter. Leaving the others at the table, Helga and I nipped into town in the Spider, where my cash card put the machine into such a flurry that it had to reboot. Warily we tried a second machine with Patrick’s card, which Helga happened to have with her, and luckily it behaved long enough to give us some Schillings. Hurrah! We set off for the campsite… only to realise that we were now thoroughly lost.

After about an hour of driving around in the dark, visiting several campsites on the way, we began to laugh at the thought of poor Patrick, sitting in the bar with JP, while I was cruising around in his sports car with his girl and his credit card. To put his mind at rest, we called his mobile… which began to ring quietly in his jacket in the boot of the car. We turned into yet another darkened campsite. The fuel began to run out. Fortunately, after some furious backtracking, we made it back to the correct site, to find JP entertaining the (now off-duty) waiter with his comic book while Patrick desperately searched the tents for spare change. All in all we were too exhausted to stay for the live band, and crept, embarrassed, to bed.

The next day we decided to take the famous Grossglockner Hochalpenstrasse into Italy, but before we got anywhere near it, we found ourselves inexplicably drawn to the ski rental store on the Kaprun glacier. It was blazing hot in the middle of summer, and the surface of the glacier was awash with slush, but it was simply such a ridiculous idea that we just had to go skiing.

Completely ridiculous! Skiing in high summer

Completely ridiculous! Skiing in high summer

By lunchtime, though, the glacier was so wet that it was like skiing a blancmange, so we handed back our ski equipment and set off once again for the Grossglockner.

See that wiggly bit? We just did that

See that wiggly bit? We just did that

Weirdly, although the toll booths accepted just about any form of cash, they didn’t take credit cards, so we had to part with almost all of our notes and coins in a medley of different currencies just to get onto the pass. However, it was well worth it; the road was great fun and the views excellent. We stopped for nothing, not even photographs, and coming down the other side, Patrick and I just let go and rode completely balls-out.

About half way down the switchback mountain road, I became aware of the smell of burning rubber. As I overtook the next half-dozen cars and slammed into yet another hairpin, I noticed that the smell was getting stronger and I began to wonder just how hot my brakes were getting. A couple more cars dropped by, and suddenly I could see smoke, and then began to grin because now I could see the flames, too. Id tucked in behind a large German family packed into an elderly Opel, and I crept forward to knock on the window. What? shouted the children in the back as neck and neck we negotiated the next curve. Your wheel’s on fire! I yelled, in German. And it was, too.

Follow the chick in the red sports car!

Follow the chick in the red sports car!

Much later, the mountains spat us out onto a beautiful section of freshly made road, running through forested foothills and valleys, rolling us eventually into the pretty town of Cortina. We successfully located a bank machine, and began looking for a hotel. Since Id just made myself a millionaire – last chance before the coming of the Euro! – it seemed only sensible to stay at the best place in town. A Hotel de Poste valet fought for the privilege of being driven by Helga to the parking lot, while the manager ushered the bikes into the vaults beneath the hotel. The rooms jacuzzis eased away the aches of the day, and, through the window, the jagged peaks of the Dolomites rocked to the lights of an electric storm. All it needed was some Barolo and Chianti to end a perfect day.

Helga the biker babe

Helga the biker babe

Occasionally I remembered to stop to take photographs

Occasionally I remembered to take photos

Helga had become adept at picking superb biking roads from the map, and the next day she excelled herself. Patrick and I thrashed our bikes unmercifully, and soon, having regularly redlined in every gear, I began at last to regard the XJR as being fully run-in. After a mind-bending run down to Belluno, we got onto the iautovia/i to Venice, riding in delta formation behind the Alfa, and making occasional forays into the distance whenever we felt the urge.

We weren’t actually heading for Venice itself, but for the Lido de Jesolo, a long thin peninsula that curves around to a point just short of the canal city. The promontary is one long beach packed with campsites, equipped with a regular ferry service into Venice itself, and we soon found ourselves a suitable berth in amongst a load of caravans.

The following morning saw us all crammed into the Spider for the short hop to the ferry, and we spent a pleasant morning ambling around the Venetian side-streets and back-alleys. The stripy-shirted gondola touts were out in force, and when we happened on a small fleet of particularly fine gondolas under the Rialto Bridge, we stopped and asked how long we got for our no doubt exorbitant fee. “Ah, said the gondoleer, we prefer-a not to think in-a terms of time. We think in-a terms of experience. You want-a the short trip, the medium trip, or the long trip?”

PHGondola
O sole mio, etc

O sole mio, etc

For 300,000 lire (about GBP 100), we took the long trip. Patrick and Helga were ensconced in some style on a padded throne, while JP and myself sprawled out at the sharp end. The man had promised to take us to corners where nobody else went, and we were somewhat surprised to find him true to his word. From the crowded main thoroughfares, where fleets of overladen gondolas jammed end-to-end with coachloads of tourists jostled for space with bargeloads of vegetables, we slipped smoothly into a maze of cathedral-silent canals backing onto old Venetian palaces, cruising the vivid green water and quietly wondering at things in hushed tones so as not to disturb the peace. It was quite a magical experience, and in the end the gondolier was right, we had no idea how long wed spent on the water, but all of it had been thoroughly enjoyable.

The quiet Venetian backwaters

The quiet Venetian backwaters

Back on land, the day was hotting up and the crowds were thickening. An hour-long queue snaked around the heat-bowl of San Marco on the way into the Doges Palace, so we jumped on a ferry bound for the Lido to see what was there. The answer appeared to be not much, but we had a fine time sitting at a streetside bar and watching the girls go by, until finally wending our way back to the ferry and to our sandy home.

On the beach was a bar restaurant which boasted an internet cafe, and since I was not only in the process of arranging an email mortgage but was also hoping for a job offer in the sun, I thought Id give it a go. Sitting only metres from the sand, I fired up the PC as the beautiful barmaid brought me the first beer of the night. This, I thought, is the life. But sadly, it was not to be. I couldn’t get a connection, whatever I tried. The barmaid poked heroically at it for a while, and then declared with pretty gestures that shed have to call the expert. This worthy duly emerged, drying his hands, from the kitchen where he’d been washing dishes. He clicked on a few icons and then stood back, shaking his head. “Is-a the internet,” he explained, “sometimes it-a work, sometimes it-a not work. Try tomorrow?”

The following day saw us hammering down the autostrada towards Firenze. The truckers all loved the chick in the red sports car, and pumped their horns manfully, although they couldn’t quite work out what to make of the two powerful motorcycles hovering protectively by her back bumper. The sun was very bright and we were all wearing sunglasses, which became problematical in the frequent dimly lit tunnels, where all we could see were the faint disembodied glow-worms of tail-lights floating in the air before us. Still, we made it through alive, and at last Patrick guided us off into the wilderness toward Imprunetta, where he knew of an agrituristico where maybe we could get a room.

Theoretically, this is a kind of working farm where you can stay, but the Agriturismo Vecchio Borgo di Inalbi is a far cry from a farmhouse B&B. Exquisite little terracotta-tiled apartments are scattered amongst olive groves, the whole set in a chianti vinyard and supplied with a restaurant and swimming pools. Over dinner, we soon discovered that although the food and service, although passable, weren’t exactly cordon bleu, the wine was out of this world. Discarding the suggested carafes, we insisted on their best, a rich thick dark 1998 Chianti, which (to their evident delight) we proceeded to drink by the crate for the duration of our stay.

A little bit of paradise

A little bit of paradise

Tuscany is made for motorbikes. Stripped down to the barest minimum of protective clothing – the temperature was in the forties – Patrick and I howled around the local roads, grinning like maniacs, while Helga and JP lounged by the pool. Occasionally we’d stop in some tiny bar for a cooling ice tea or perfect Italian coffee, being politely ignored by unsmiling men nursing a plate of sausage and something in a small glass. In the towns and villages, children would point at the bikes. Strangely, they would dismiss the exotic but Italian-made Ducati, and would stare in awe at the XJR until they could make out the badge, upon which they would stare wonderingly at each other and breathlessly exclaim, “Yamaha!”

A passing hill fort in Tuscany border

A passing hill fort in Tuscany

One evening we all visited nearby Siena, a marvellous maze of steeply sloping alleyways clustered about a vivid green-and-white striped cathedral and of course the huge bowl-shaped Piazza del Campo, the finish line for the bi-annual Palio, the famous bare-backed horse race through the town. We arrived at the Piazza in twilight, just as the pavement cafes were lighting the candles, and we sat and watched the people taking an evening stroll or simply sitting and absorbing the atmosphere. The chef of the back street restaurant that we chose had won the Palio in 1967, and such is the respect that this engenders that, when we asked, the waiters discuss it in hushed tones, beneath walls filled with pictures of his triumph.

They take the Palio seriously in Siena.

Siena

Siena

It was time for the others to return to work, and I, resting between contracts and fancy-free, had intended to carry on to the south. However, the weather was getting uncomfortably hot and I was hankering for some cool mountain breezes, so we formed the familiar delta formation and headed northward together. In Modena, the others peeled off for Switzerland, and I headed in the direction of the Brenner Pass and Austria. The day continued hot hot hot, so I just hung in there at a steady 160 kph and waited for some altitude. It certainly got higher, the temperature dropped barely at all.

It was a Sunday, and the only way that I could get fuel was to feed my few remaining 10,000 lire notes into automated petrol pumps, so by the time I reached Varna I was not only low on fuel but hungry and broke as well. I pulled into a hotel/campsite/restaurant where a nice young girl took half my remaining cash in exchange for a place to pitch my tent, and told me that there was a bank machine just up the road. She was right, but it was broken.

Still, I had enough cash for a few beers, so after pitching my tent I wandered over to the bar, where a rather lovely Goth girl not only served me a well-deserved Weissbier, but also told me that if I hung around for another hour then the kitchen would open, and – joy of joys! – after that I could put my entire bill onto Visa. Several hours, a number of beers and a splendid meal later, I was joined by a German couple, and we laughed and told stories until it was time to stumble to bed.

In the morning, my new friends stopped by my tent on their 600 trailie and mentioned that instead of taking the Brenner Pass, they’d found a guide book that recommended the smaller and little-known Jaufenpas towards Otzal. Somewhat later, after leisurely breakfast, I followed, and soon found myself tearing around a tiny, crumbling and deserted switchback road, heart swelling with that sheer unadulterated joy that only comes from riding a bike fast in the mountains. As awe-inspiring view replaced stunning vista, I was both figuratively and literally on top of the world.

Valley

Hey look, a crazy Englishman with a camera

Hey look, a crazy Englishman with a camera

The pass dropped into a deep bowl, containing the attractive little town of St Leonhard, awash now with the lunchtime thunder of motorcycle exhausts. I considered staying to look around, but I was hungry for more and was soon climbing up some crazy mule-track of a road, emerging on a high ridge looking out onto a wall of alps stretching from side to side across the world. Here I caught up with the Germans again, who were having a great time, but who had blown a
headlamp bulb and were thus having some nervous moments in the tunnels. I rode point for them down to the Austrian border, and then at the toll booth found that once again I didn’t have enough cash for the crossing. Luckily, however, I found a forgotten envelope of German Marks deep in my luggage, so they let me through.

We continued in tandem down the other side until we got caught up in a snarl of bikes doing no more than 80 kph on beautiful winding roads. Not only was it a crying shame, but the sun was beating down on my leathers and I was getting uncomfortably hot, so I waved goodbye to my friends and got the hell out of there. Once up to cruising speed, I thought that I may as well stay there – and in any case the toll booth had stripped me of all my remaining cash – so I settled in until I dropped out of the mountains and onto the autobahn.
I was going to meet up with Moz in Munich, but he was still at work when I arrived, so I scouted the local bars and settled, as usual, for the one with the most attractive barmaids. When Moz finally turned up, the shift changed, and we began to be served by Carole, who seemed to run the place. She turned out to be such fun and we had such a good time that we simply stayed there for the rest of the evening.

Carole, our favourite Munich barperson

Carole, our favourite Munich barperson

Prost!

Prost!

I had no real plans for my next destination, and sitting there under the stars in the middle of the night, chatting over yet another bottle of the bars best wine, I thought to myself, why move on? I could cheerfully come back to this bar every night.

So I stayed.

Three men on a train – Venice

In an effort to conserve money on accommodation, we had spent most of our nights thus far under canvas. Venice and Rome were next on our itinerary, and were unlikely to offer either camp sites or inexpensive hotels. Examining our Thomas Cook timetables, we noticed that the two cities were separated by an overnight train, so we hatched a plan to spend a total of two days in each city, but alternating each night in order to get a free sleep on the train as we travelled back and forth.

We were going to begin right away by taking a day train from Naples to Rome, and then immediately boarding the night train to Venice. That meant that we needed to stock up on provisions, so we popped into a local supermarket to get some bread and meat.

Much of our short experience of Italian life had been bewildering, and the meat counter was no less so. All the prices were marked in lire per pound of meat. We asked for a quarter of a pound, but were given quarter of a kilo, which was substantially larger and thus more expensive. Luckily David spoke enough Italian to sort that one out, but apparently it was no mistake, that was simply the way things were done. Meat is priced by the pound, but sold by the kilo.

Once in Rome, we hung around on the platform waiting for the overnight to Venice. To our surprise, we bumped into Keith and Lee, friends from our school days, who were also heading to Venice but they were travelling in style and had stumped up for a couchette on a sleeper train.

We waited for our own regular train, but it never showed up. Seeing that the sleeper train hadn’t departed, we ambled over for a chat with Keith and Lee, who kindly offered to share their reserved compartment with us. The train was cramped and crowded, and sleep came with difficulty, but we were on the way to Venice.

 

Venice

We could not fail to be impressed by Venice. The back streets and back waters were fantastically peaceful and quiet, with not a car engine to be heard. Highly polished wooden taxi-boats skimmed beneath the stone-arched bridges, or dodged around gleaming black gondolas.

Europe by train - Gondola

A gondola waits on a quiet backwater

The winding cobbled ‘roads’, only ten feet across, were lined with colourful shops selling the fine local glassware and beautiful pastries. We were surprised to find that the prices were the cheapest that we had encountered in Italy, and we lounged on the banks of the Grand Canal eating luxuriously soft crusty rolls, cheese and salami, watching the life of the city pass by on the water.

Europe by train - Grand Canal

The Grand Canal

The city had a strangely magical air. Squinting my eyes and looking carefully at each building in isolation, I could clearly see that they were rotting and crumbling away, but as soon as I stepped back and viewed them in the context of the wider city, they were magically transformed into beautiful avenues.

Europe by train - Venice

Ambling around in Venice

We queued briefly to get in to the Basilica on St Marks Square, which was very impressive indeed. Every inch of its structure seemed to be painted with gold leaf. The nearby Doge’s Palace was also marvellous, I joked that it was a bit like the Basilica converted to living quarters.

Europe by train - Doge

A typical gilded ceiling in the Doge’s Palace

The Palace was not all about the gilded ceilings; the dungeons were particularly atmospheric, with a feeling of hopelessness and despair that could not even be dispelled by noisy American tourists.

During our travels, we had become slowly accustomed to the strange European practice of paying to go to the toilet. In Venice, though, they had taken the concept to a whole new level. At the station, instead of a cleaner sitting by a saucer of coins, I encountered a man with a cash register. There was a menu of price options according to the intended nature of the visit, and after paying I received a paper receipt. Once inside, my receipt was taken by a girl who led me to a freshly cleaned cubicle. When I had done my business, she led me to an exit door which opened out onto a softly furnished waiting area, complete with daily newspapers, where my friends were waiting.

With several days to explore, we tended to split up and go wandering. Venice is made for that kind of exploratory ambling, and there was a kind of natural gravitation to the steps of the main station, where those travellers who cannot afford to do the tourist thing in St Marks Square sit and smoke or picnic.

Europe by train - St Marks

Dining al fresco in St Marks Square

Three men on a train – Pompeii and Vesuvius

Slightly tanned and completely relaxed from our idyllic week on the Greek island of Zakynthos, we caught the leisurely ferry across to Italy. The boat decanted us onto the dock, from which it was a straightforward walk up the main street to the train station. Unfortunately, this is the only possible route and the locals are fully aware of it; the road was a frantic, seething and expensive tourist trap. We paid the exorbitant price for bottled water, because we were hot and needed the fluid, but reckoned that we had enough left-over solid food in our backpacks to see us through to a less money-grabbing town.

It was much quieter inside the station, where we sat on a deserted platform and put together a meal of sorts from the remnants that we had left over from our ferry trip.  We were sitting quietly, sipping our luxury water, when a train pulled in.

Everything went crazy. From nowhere, the platform suddenly filled with Italians, all running around shouting at each other, at staff, at passengers, and at random passers-by. Nobody got on or off the train apart from a handful of bewildered Interrailers who fought their way through the crowds to the exit. The train departed, everybody vanished, and suddenly it was all quiet again. The platform was deserted, apart from three baffled young Englishmen, chewing slowly on two-day old bread rolls.

Our own train wasn’t due for some hours, so I took a deep breath and popped out to see what the town was like at night. I stepped out into a street packed with yelling, screaming, snogging locals, their bodies packed across the entire width of the road, driving their motorcycles down the pavement and generally having a wild time. I’d just spent several days bimbling around in the wilderness and swimming in deserted seas, so it was all rather a shock. I forced myself to conform to the snails-pace push-and-shove just long enough to buy an extortionate can of lemonade and some chocolate, and then meekly retraced my steps to the station.

On my return, I found Andrew and David chatting to Mike and Jez, a couple of Interrailers heading in the same direction, who had found that beer from a supermarket was far cheaper than my soft drink, and indeed any soft drink, including water.

Five men in Pompeii

After a good sleep on the overnighter to Naples, we caught the local underground train to the ruins of Pompeii, only to find that we had arrived several hours too early. Mike and Jez were still with us, so we hung about and drank beer in the sun until the site finally opened.

After baulking a little at the entrance price, we all found ourselves delighted. Even though much of the area originally excavated in the 1960s is now closed to the public for conservation reasons, the remaining area to explore is still enormous.

Three men on a train - Pompeii sign

Walk carefully!

Despite (or because of) having been inundated by the eruption of Vesuvius in AD79, the town is marvellously well-preserved. We stared in wonder at the original paintings, frescoes and shop signs, as well as the occasional shadow of a body, preserved by injecting plaster into the person-shaped hole left in the volcanic ash after the original had rotted away (although most of these had been spirited away to other museums).

Europe by train - Pompeii fresco

Pompeii must have been a colourful town in its day

Europe by train - Pompeii amphitheatre

The amphitheatre at Pompeii (a decade earlier, the site of the recording of the eponymous Pink Floyd album)

There was plenty of room to wander. Most of the buildings had been truncated at just over head-height, giving the feeling of a Romanesque tiled maze, punctuated by ponds, fountains, baths and weirs. Every now and then I would turn a corner and find myself walking down an avenue of stone columns dotted with vibrant palm trees.

Europe by train - Pompeii

Wandering around in the Pompeii maze

I completely fell in love with the civil engineering. The stone roadways are rutted by the passage of cart wheels, and at the end of each street there are holes drilled through the kerb stones where you can hitch your animals. It had never occurred to me before how messy a horse-based economy must be, but the roads run 18″ below the pavement to give space for the ordure. Pedestrian crossings are achieved by the placement of large stepping stones to keep feet out of the mire, with the stones separated by gaps to allow the passage of cart wheels. I am sure that on warm days, you could cut the air with a knife.

Europe by train - Pompeii street

Downtown Pompeii, with end-of-street markers in the foreground, and poo stepping stones in the background

The sun was getting pretty fierce, and the site began to quiet down for siesta time. We decided that we needed to go and see the volcano that had caused the whole disaster, so we climbed back down into the cool dark of the underground train system.

 

Three men up a Volcano

The train dropped us deep in the slums of Naples, with no obvious sign posts or even street markings. We didn’t need directions, though, because the volcano rose impressively out of the smog in front of us, and so we hid our cameras and money-belts and set off confidently toward it.

The city seemed to consist entirely of decaying buildings and rotting garbage. In the violent midday heat, we clambered up through layers of foetid odours, trying our best to avoid the indescribable streams that ran down the cobbled streets. I had pondered earlier on the possible smells of Pompeii in its heyday, and I suspect that these modern streets came close.

Finally we emerged from the indescribably foul city and onto the flanks of the volcano itself. Sweat pouring off our bodies in streams, we managed to hitch a ride up to the base of the chairlift.

The chair was very expensive, even more so than entry to Pompeii, but we were so hot and sweaty that we couldn’t face humping our backpacks any further.

The chairlift was magical. Apart from the slight hum of the tower wheels and the distant click of cameras, the journey to the summit was silent and very peaceful, revealing a breathtaking panorama. As we rose higher, the whole of Naples came into view, the squalor masked by distance, against a back-drop of mountain-tops poking up ethereally through the cloud.

Europe by train - Naples

Naples looks considerably better from a distance

At the top, we were met by a guide who apparently came with our chairlift ticket. His English was almost incomprehensibly accented, but he did rather amusingly demonstrate the echo across the crater. We were able to wander around the caldera a bit, but there had been some recent rumbles and a lot of the path was fragmented and inaccessible. That said, to our eighteen-year old eyes there was disappointingly little overt activity, just a few small fumaroles, but the size of the volcano was impressive and the views more than compensated.

Europe by train - Reinhard Vesuvius

Standing right on the edge of the caldera

Europe by train - David Vesuvius

David, not quite so close to the edge.

We were enjoying ourselves so much that we rather lost track of the time. Suddenly we realised that we only had three and a half hours to make the four-hour journey back to Naples Central station, so we set off down the volcano at a run. The road had recently been distorted by  recent volcanic activity, and now the first part of the journey down was actually uphill. Eventually we crested the rise and began swiftly to descend.

Following the success of our previous hitch up to the base of the chairlift, we decided to see if we could get a lift from one of the occasional passing cars. We didn’t having too much joy, because after all, who has room for three large men with backpacks?

A bus rumbled past. David optimistically stuck his thumb out. “Don’t be stupid,” I said, “you can’t hitch a ride on a bus”. There was a whistle of air-brakes and it came to a stop, the doors opening invitingly. David shouted something in Italian, and we climbed aboard.

It was quite a swanky bus, but all the seats were full so we stood in the central aisle, reeking of sweat and banging people with our backpacks. At least some of the paying passengers appeared to share my opinion about the logic of hitching on buses, and a voluble argument broke out. The driver shrugged, closed the doors, and took off like a bat out of hell.

We were assailed from all sides by the stony glares of the tourists, but soon all we cared about was hanging on to the ceiling straps as we tore down the small, winding road only inches from the precipitous drop. Perhaps in direct response to his passengers’ complaints, the driver took an unscheduled detour to drop us at the only train station for which we had valid tickets.

David still reckons that we owe him for that one.