Road Trip 2015 – Part Two

ROAD TRIP 2015 – PART TWO

This is the second part of the write up of my road trip – you can read the first part here: Road Trip 2015 – Part One.

We had left our hosts in Digne by around 08:15 and carefully made our way down from their place by first of all taking it pretty slowly down the gravel incline, heading into the church yard, making a U turn and then making a steady descent on the narrow and loosely surfaced road and not picking up any speed until the surface had become firm and properly constructed.

Dave led us into the centre of Digne for fuel and then up through the towns main road, a particularly pretty tree lined boulevard.

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Although today was the day that we were set to go our separate ways we rode the first couple of hours together and headed towards the town of Barcelonnete. Almost immediately on leaving the centre of town we were onto a good road – the D900A.

The D900A Is quite a narrow road and is actually part of the Alps Maritimes and located in the Provence Alps (Cote d’Azur), it’s known as  a balcony road which means one that is cut into cliffs and it’s more than worth the effort.

It’s an impressive piece of road, well surfaced and winding between incredibly dramatic rock formations, some of which curved overhead and reminded me a little of the road that sweeps through the Tarn Gorge, although this road was better surfaced and empty.

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We found a convenient place to stop for a mid morning coffee before we said our farewells and wished each other the best for the remainder of our respective trips.

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Col and Dave were heading for an overnight stay in Baveno on the shores of Lake Maggiore. Baveno is a pretty place and is one of over 50 small towns set around the beautiful Italian lake.

It’s been a popular place for us in different ways really. I first stayed there for a couple of nights back in 2010 and then again (the following year I think), a few of us (Rich, Col and another friend Mick) had traveled down that way and across the Alps and stayed for a couple of days. In 2012 a group of us had also stayed down at a place called Varrelo Pombio and had skirted Lake Maggiore on as we headed back towards the Swiss Alps.

Later Mick had returned there with his wife and then  earlier this year (2015) my wife and I spent some time down there when we had driven down through Germany and then into Italy via the San Bernardino Pass. So you can see that in one way or another it’s charms have been enough to call us back several times and if you have never spent time in that part of the Italian Lakes I can more than recommend it.

Lake Maggiore itself is pretty big and is around 65km (40 miles in length).  it’s actually the longest lake in Italy, although Lake Garda has a greater surface area. The lake itself is partially in Switzerland as well (Ticino), and if a visit to the race track at Monza is your thing then its pretty convenient for that as well, although in truth I cant recommend a trip there. As there is little to see and do (on a non race day) other than see some of the old track and experience the simple joy of being there.

After an overnight in Baveno, Col and Dave planned to head across the Gothard Pass and onto their overnight stop in Germany and then on the last full day of their trip they had booked to stay overnight in the pretty Luxembourg Town of Vianden. Their final day of this years trip would then consist of the ride to Calais and travel back to the UK via the Eurotunnel.

Rich and I had other plans and we had both booked accommodation for that evening, but after that it was pretty much a ‘take it as it comes’ type of trip.

Although we had both booked accommodation in Italy we were heading to different places and would head in separate directions later that day but we did share the ride together for the next few hours.

After the coffee stop and farewell’s Rich and I headed across the Col de Larche. The Col de Larche is a high mountain pass that rises to almost 2,000 meters (6,549’) above sea level. Its route stretches between the Cottian Alps and the Maritime Alps. It’s a cracking good road and you are more or less on it after leaving Barcelonnette – the road is actually called the D900.

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The upshot of starting the day on the D900a and then the D900 meant that we had some pretty fabulous riding and it’s worth bikers adding this to their list of roads to do if ever traveling in that area.

The weather conditions were magnificent and the road was a joy to ride. Later Rich and I stopped stopped for some lunch (by this time we were in Italy), and then we headed towards the town of Alba and on through the Piedmont area. Apparently Alba is famed for white truffle, peaches and its wine production and although we didn’t get to see (or sample) the truffles and peaches we did see plenty of vineyards. For what its worth Alba is also the home of the Ferrero confectionery group. It was shortly after our lunch stop that i noticed the bar end on the right hand side was working loose, it took more time to stop and unpack the correct sized allan key than it did to actually tighten it.

Over the years and whilst traveling it’s fair to say that I have seen some pretty extensive vineyards whether in Spain, Germany, France and Portugal but to be honest I don’t recall ever seeing such extensive vineyards as I saw here. It was a remarkable and beautiful sight

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We stopped just outside the town of Alba, to check maps and say our farewells. It was gloriously sunny and very very warm and at the same time as I was sorry to say goodbye to Rich, in truth I was also hugely looking forward to Part Two of the trip on my own – and I’m pretty sure Rich felt like that as well.

It’s great traveling by motorcycle with friends but there is also something quite different and quite good about traveling on your own. Of course it doesn’t suit everybody – but you don’t know how good it is, and liberating it can be unless and until you try it.

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To be honest I have met plenty of bikers over the years who have said how much they fancy riding in Europe but allow themselves to be put off by thinking about or being concerned about what might go wrong, what if the bikes breaks down etc – I can sort of understand those concerns but my own simplistic view is what if it doesn’t go wrong and what if you don’t break down.

But you know even if the bike was to break down or something was to go wrong then whilst it might not be ideal or desirable then really it’s just the start of the next bit of the journey.

If its security, organized comfort and a fixed itinerary then maybe it’s best to stick to ‘resort’ type holidays – which have got their own place and I know suit many people for all sorts of reasons.  Some people are happy to be part of something organized and in fact there are many organizations that exist to provide organized holidays for bikers, which again is fair enough if that’s what suits you – but it’s not for me.

In the same way traveling to a soulless airport, sitting on a plane then spending a couple of weeks in a resort before heading back to another soulless airport etc etc doesn’t really quite do it for me and although it can have its plus points i.e  being able to quickly get to somewhere it doesn’t really  make the top of my list when it comes to travel.

I think traveling on your own can make you look at and appreciate things differently – and in your own time/at your own pace, spending a couple of weeks at a resort type place might show on a passport that someone has been to Mexico, Spain or wherever but I don’t think it always means that that person has traveled there.

It’s horses for courses and all that so I’m simply offering an opinion rather than a judgement. I suppose in a way its maybe the difference between having a quick cup of coffee at home as opposed to sitting down in a coffee house and enjoying the rich taste and aroma along with the associated sounds and activities of the the barista – at the end of the day it’s just a cup of coffee, but … well you get my drift?

And just to contradict what I have said I would always be more than happy to consider grabbing a cheap late bargain for a week in the sun somewhere – but grabbing a week in the sun and ‘travel’ seem, to me at least, worlds apart.

So off we went – I was headed to a very small town called Bozzole a little over a mile or so from Pomaro Monferrato which is in the Italian province of Alessandria and to add some geographical context is only some 40km from Milan. The population of Bozzole can be counted in the hundreds and in fact its area is less than four square miles, so it really is a small place.

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The accommodation that I stayed at was called Casa Mortarino and it really was a charming place, with just a half dozen rooms and the most welcoming and charming of hosts.

The place is run by Michaela, who had previously worked in Germany for nine years where she worked as a translator (German/Italian).

Michaela had met her German husband whilst working there and had returned to Italy relatively recently to establish the Bed and Breakfast business by making their country home into an attractive B&B. Michaela provided me with a warm welcome and in fact had dropped me a text message earlier in the day to ask whether or not I would like her to prepare me an evening meal – she really did provide a first rate service.

The accommodation really is lovely with a fine attention to detail in both design and quality. There is a large garden with table and chairs and all the other things you might expect to find in a garden in the summer … plus a family of tortoises!

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After getting cleaned up and feeling refreshed form a good shower I went for a walk around the village.

It was still around 25C so shorts and tee shirt were just fine. There isn’t a great deal in the village of Bolzone although I did find a bar that although closed had the door open and so I wandered in and the lady who was in there chatting to someone did serve me a bottle of beer and explained it wasn’t actually open again until 9pm.

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The other thing that struck me was that it seemed that almost every residence had a dog of some description that barked like crazy as I went past – and in fact my hosts had just acquired a new dog a week or so before I arrived there – and although I think he was from some sort of dogs home he seemed happy enough and I couldn’t help but think he was fortunate to have been adopted by such a decent person.

After enjoying the taste of the crisp cold beer I ambled back to my accommodation and bought a slice of pizza and a bottle of beer from the only store in the village. When I got back in, Michaela couldn’t have been more helpful and offered to make me something to eat or drink but I was fine with what I had and my slice of pizza proved to be a more than adequate evening meal.

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My breakfast the following morning was good, although my host was very apologetic about a delay in getting fresh bread to me. She explained that there was no longer a baker in the village and she had to wait for it to be delivered – with this in mind she was thinking about learning how to bake bread so as to overcome this issue.

The breakfast was ample with ham, salami, a decent range of cheeses, some fruit juice, a couple of cups of coffee, and Michaela did indeed nip out to get me some fresh bread rolls.

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After breakfast and after packing up we both wandered around the garden where she showed me the tortoises and also her fathers 35 year old moped. She also told me she had taken a picture of my bike as her father had ‘phoned to ask “what bike the Englishman was riding”

After wandering to the end of the garden and anticipating my curiosity, she then opened one of the barn doors and took the covers off an old Vespa and although I cant claim to be any sort of knowledge on old scooters this one did indeed look something of a rarity with two separate seats, almost like the sort of seats that you might find on a pedal cycle. I think this scooter had also belonged to her father but was in need of some restoration, which in the longer term is in the plans, but for now was a task that had to wait.

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We chatted for a while and Michaela said she thought she had let me down as she had wanted to give me beer or sandwiches but explained that I had been so quiet when I came in … I tend to sleep easily after a full days riding my bike which I guess was the explanation for my quietness, I’m hardly an all night clubber at the best of times – but I did accept a bottle of water to take with me for my journey.

We continued to talk in general and I told her that my wife and I had been in Italy a few months previously (you can read about that road trip here Part 1; Part 2; Part 3 ) and she added that if I return with Pat she will make up for not providing me with beer and sandwiches by giving us wine in the garden– a generous offer that she really had no need to make, perhaps we will take her up on that.

She also told me about their plans for the country house and it all sounded fabulous, she was undoubtedly the perfect host and I would have no hesitation in recommending Casa Mortarino as a place to stay.

I was on the road for a little after 09.00am and headed south into Tuscany and a place called Carmignano in the Italian province of Prato.

Carmignano seemed to be a good enough location for an overnight stay, its not a big place and has a population of around 15,000 not only that, but it is only some 10km or so from Florence which I intended to visit

I planned my route to take in a road called the SS 45, as it was one that Rich had recommend to me in a text message the previous evening

Well what a recommendation it was – a wonderful road that more than ticked all the riding boxes, added to that was the glorious weather, which by midday was around 32 degrees. This route has set me towards Genoa, but as I wanted to go to Pisa en route to my overnight stay I didn’t go down as far as Genoa but took some roads that took me back into the hills and the tranquility of this wonderful area.

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When I did get to Pisa I did the tourist thing and parked up in sight of the leaning tower and not surprisingly got a couple of it … well come on what did you expect me to do?

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The day had been full of decent roads, which I had really enjoyed but it had been a long day, I was hot, sweaty and more than ready for a shower as I made my way to what I thought was the place I had booked.

It actually took me a little while longer (well much longer really) than I would have hoped for me to find my accommodation. I arrived in a small village that had a very similar postal address but was actually about a dozen or so miles from where I needed to get to.

In fact when I arrived at the place that I thought was my accommodation I took my bike down to what I thought was the car park before realizing it wasn’t a car park at all, which then gave me the difficult task of turning my bike round on a steep slope with a difficult camber. The whole effort of getting the bike turned around left me in an even warmer state than I had been and in desperate need of a cold drink.

An elderly lady and a young fellow, who seemed to be one of the workers at the place that I had wrongly thought was my overnight stop watched me struggle with some bemusement. When I eventually got my bike back up the road and onto level ground they were helpful in giving me advice as to where I needed to go and at least if they thought I was a foolish traveler they had the good grace not to show it whilst I was there.

Although my accommodation was only a dozen or so miles on I decided to head back the way I had come to a bar that I had seen so that I could get myself a cold drink, and although hot and tired it wasn’t really a chore as the road was a bit of a gem so it was no effort at all to do a few more miles. One ice cold coke and a bar of chocolate later I made my way to my accommodation at Affittacamere Donati Nada which was actually a little further out of the wine growing town of Carmignano than I thought.

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After grabbing a shower and getting changed I made the three mile round trip into town on foot and bought some produce from one of the local stores (including some sort of bread with grapes in) and then made my way back to my room. Although my room could only really be described as adequate it did have a decent WiFi connection and so later that evening I had FaceTime on my Ipad to chat first with my wife and then later with my Mum and Dad.

I slept well and until my alarm woke me at 07.00am and got on with looking at the maps and planning my route for the day

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Breakfast was as basic as my room and in truth wasn’t the best, but it was balanced out and compensated for by the friendliness and simple honesty of my hosts so no complaints from me.

I was on my way before 09.00am and headed for Florence and then onto Siena. My plan was to end up in Orvieto.

This day would probably be one of the shorter riding days in terms of miles covered but it would allow me to amble along and spend some time exploring the walled city in Umbria.

My visits to Florence and Sienna were only cursory visits really as they are far too special for me to visit without Pat and although we have not settled what we will do next year we have an expectation that we will probably be together in Italy for around three weeks or so and we may well spend some time in Tuscany and if that works out then Florence and Sienna are sure to be on our list as they looked to be the most beautiful of places.

My journey down to Orvieto was relaxing and easy. The weather was hot and up around the 30c mark. Once out of Siena it was easy traveling on the Tuscan roads under blue skies and hot sun.

The roads were all but empty and I traveled a large stretch of my journey on a road called Casia, at times it reminded me of parts of Spain that I ridden back in 2010 but just with more colour, rather than the more parched and arid landscapes of Spain.

The Tarmac shimmered in the daytime heat and the roads just rolled off into the distance and really did provide for some pretty relaxed riding. I had a very pleasurable and lazy stop at a roadside bar where I sat for what seemed like an age sipping coffee and coke and just enjoying the glorious sunshine and landscape.

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The road (Casia) is of some historical significance and importance and leads north from Rome. It has a history that can be traced back to the second century BC and was originally named after a Roman Consul (and so was known as a consular road).

Not for the first time (or the last) on this trip did I find my way somewhat indirectly to my accommodation. I had headed for Orvieto when I ought really have headed to Orvieto Scalla.

But making the mistake of heading for the old town proved to be something of a bonus as I made my way up to what is truly a dramatic location set on top of volcanic stone about a thousand or so feet above the floor of the valley.

When up there, the views across Umbria are just splendid. Its incredible cathedral must be among the most impressive I have ever seen with its outside walls really being something to behold.

I rode slowly around the narrow streets long after I had realized that I was in the wrong place. It seemed to be almost traffic free and I wasn’t at all sure whether or not I should have been there on my bike but I just thought that I would make the most of it in any case. Eventually I made my way down and away from the old medieval walled town to Orvieto Scala.

The actual ‘new’ town is nothing special (its actually quite dull really) and I soon found my accommodation at the Hotel Piccio. I checked in put my bike in the underground car park, got showered, changed into tee shirt and shorts, went for a refreshing cold beer in the hotel bar and then set off to walk the short distance to the funicular railway.

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I took the train back up to the walled city (I think it cost me about €2 return) and was soon up at the top doing the full tourist experience – wandering round, snapping pictures and even enjoying an ice cream cone.

Once I had had my fill of the old town I made the short journey back down the funicular railway and decided it was time to get a bite to eat.

I had my choice of a number of pizzerias, all of which looked pretty ordinary – I opted for one for reasons that I cant recall and sat down in splendid isolation. The service was good and I soon had a pizza cooked on a wood burning oven along with a half litre of (acceptable) house wine and watched part of the Monaco v PSG football game that was being shown on the TV.

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My evening meal and drink including tip cost me only €10, once again the location along with the favorable exchange rate were making for pretty low cost meals.

Back in my room I used the Ipad again to have a FaceTime conversation with Pat, but I was more than tired and shortly after our FaceTime conversation I was soundly asleep.

Breakfast at the Hotel Pichio was nice enough but I was keen to get going as my next stop would be Pompeii where I had decided to stay for a couple of nights as this was where I had decided to base myself so that I would be well set for the Amalfi Coast. It also meant that I was another day closer to the undeniable pleasure of a clean pair of riding socks …

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