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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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?”
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.
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.
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!”
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.
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.
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.
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.