Dropping out of the Grossglockner Pass down to Cortina, we successfully located a bank machine, and began looking for a hotel. Since I’d 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 autovia 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 she’d 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.