Road Trip 2015 – Part Three




ROAD TRIP 2015 – PART THREE.

Pompeii and the Amalfi Coast.

I had ate breakfast early at the Hotel Picchio, which was probably just as well. After collecting my gear from my room and calling to reception to check out, the small breakfast room that had been empty a short while earlier was now full and bustling with mostly Japanese tourists – there wasn’t an empty table in sight.

It felt like a great morning to be on the road and once again the weather looked set to be wonderful with a bright and clear blue-sky overhead.

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The roads out of Orvieto were first class and the air temperature was a glorious 33C by 11.00am. Not for the first time on this trip I was struck by the amount of space and the richness of the colours that surrounded me.

The empty and well-surfaced road I had taken, dropped me down to the town of Bolsena located on the eastern side of the lake (with the same name) in northern Lazio.

A miracle was said to have happened there in the 13th century, which later led to the cathedral that I had seen in Orvieto (referred to in Part Two of this write up)  being built to commemorate it. I stopped for a while to enjoy the tranquility and to look down on the stunning views of the lake surrounded by the fairly low lying hills.

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I carried on and then stopped again at Viterbo, the home of the Italian gold reserves and then made by way onward and towards Pompeii.

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It was going to be a long day and I decided that I would rack of a few miles on the Autostrada, which wasn’t as bad as it might sound.

The lining had been out of my textile jacket for a few days and I was able to get some slight relief from the heat, but my forward motion wasn’t generating cold air just an inward rush of warm air but it was helpful nevertheless.

In truth I made something of a mistake, as I had not planned carefully enough to give Rome as wide a berth as I ought. The upshot of this was that I had a hot and messy journey through the outskirts of Rome, which seemed to take me ages and which was something of a challenge to survive intact. As much as I think central Rome, and especially the historic area are truly deserving of being referred to as the eternal city, I had no interest in visiting Rome on this trip as I had been there a couple of times in the past.

I’ve also been to (and driven in) Naples before and knew only too well that central Naples was to be avoided at all costs.

I’m not sure what road I was on as I continued to make my way towards Pompeii, but at one point I recall being pretty surprised at the amount of open soliciting/prostitution. I don’t mean surprised from any sort of judgemental perspective, after all it’s a fact of life and who am I to make judgements, but I was sort of shocked at what I saw.

There were prostitutes probably every 100 yards or so, sat on or stood by (mostly) tired looking plastic garden chairs, many under parasols faded by the sun. This scene stretched for probably half a dozen miles. At times these women who were plying their trade provided a stark contrast to the street advertisements that lined the road. Many of them stood below or in close proximity to these large advertising hoardings – many of which were selling someone else’s aspirational dream of traditional white weddings and bridal wear along with the other things that go with someone else’s view of what your money should be spent on. Whilst I tried not to make judgements I couldn’t help but think that this was a more simple case of needing to earn cash rather than a preferred lifestyle choice.

A short while later I needed to stop for fuel and it was at this point that I had the only occasion of the trip when I felt a little uncomfortable.

It’s quite common practice at Italian garages that an attendant will be on the forecourt to operate the pump, some take your payment on the forecourt (cash or card) and others direct you into the shop or forecourt booth to make your payment.

There were three men on the forecourt and no sooner had I taken my gloves off and pushed them under the handles of the panniers then they all moved over to where I was and one of them said no cards only cash – now it may well have been me being over anxious but it didn’t feel quite right so I just got on my bike and went, gloves still tucked in the pannier handles. I stopped a few hundred yards down the main road, put my gloves on and continued on to the next petrol station and filled up as normal. Maybe I misread the situation – who knows?

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By the time I arrived in Pompeii the weather was very very hot and the temperature felt stifling. I had no trouble finding my accommodation at the Villa Flora, which in fact was only a 100m or so from the main entrance to the ruins. In fact the main road that my accommodation was on felt instantly familiar to me as I had walked down there a few years back when Pat and I had took the train from Sorrento to Pompeii where we did the tourist thing around the ruins.

My room was of decent proportions and although the accommodation didn’t provide breakfast the room did have a hob with two rings, a fridge and tea and coffee making facilities, which were ample for self-catering. After grabbing a shower I set out for a walk and decided that rather than eat out again I would call to a local Carrefour supermarket, get something to eat and drink for that evening as well as for breakfast the following couple of days.

There’s nothing much to say about shopping at Carrefour after all one supermarket is much like another really, but it was cheap and I was able to buy enough food for two evening meals, two breakfasts as well as a bottle of wine and a couple of cans of beer for about £14.

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The Villa Flora provided good and acceptable  accommodation as well as secure parking for the bike, and at around £58 for two nights provided good value as well, the only drawback being that my room at the front of the hotel was noisy as there seemed to be traffic passing all through the night, which in turn meant that I didn’t sleep as well as I would have liked to.

I was up early, made a good breakfast from the stuff that I had bought the night before and was away from my accommodation for 08.30. I turned left to make my way past the entrance to the Pompeii ruins and riding on a road that seemed to be made out of large rectangular cobbles made me think that my bike would be in ruins as well by the time I got to the end of it.

It took me a while to get out of Pompeii; the roads were packed with folk on their way to work. What did strike me that morning and then later in the day when I returned via Salerno, was what a full on mess Pompeii is once you are away from the main drag and the pretty central square. The back roads were rough, strewn with bags of rubbish and the place seemed to be in real stark contrast to what I had seen of Italy on this and previous trips.

In many ways the prospect of my ride today along the Sorrento coast road to Amalfi had been a key part of what first got me thinking about this trip.

A few years ago my wife and I had flown to Naples via Milan, hired a car and drove round the Bay of Naples to stay in the Grand Hotel Aminta in Sorrento. We had a wonderful stay, and I suppose we did the things that many tourists do: Pompeii, Vesuvius etc.

We also wandered to the public bus station in Sorrento and bought return tickets on the local bus service to Amalfi. It was March time of year when we were there and the stunning coastal road was pretty empty, on the way back I recall seeing a couple of bikes weaving their way up the coast road behind us until eventually they passed the bus we were on … from that moment on I had determined that at some point I had would go back and do that road on a bike.

The question of course would be whether or not what lay ahead would live up to my hopes and expectations or whether I would be left disappointed.

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I’m not quite sure which road I took but I headed up into the hills and found myself passing a restaurant/bar that had views that looked more than inviting.

It was an ideal place to stop for what had now become my regular roadside order – a coffee and a glass of coke and I sat in splendid isolation for a while looking out to the Tyrrhenian Sea and the island of Capri. It really was pretty much perfect and I took a moment to drop Pat a text to let her know where I was and to thank her as well, it wasn’t so much that I needed to thank her but I didn’t want her to think that I took this (or any of my trips for granted).

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Refreshed from my drinks and the most perfect of vistas I headed down the mountain to pick up the road into Sorrento. Not surprisingly Sorrento itself was busy and sparked a few memories as I passed the orange trees that we had walked under some years previously as well as seeing the road that led up to the Hotel Aminta.

It became apparent to me as I rode out of Sorrento – initially on the SS145 towards San Pietro and then the SS163 into Amalfi – that I was not going to disappointed. I was in my element – a simple mixture of being excited and challenged by the road.

If you follow this link you it will take you to a short video from my GoPro on the Sorrento/Amalfi roadclick here

Traffic was mixed really, in some stretches there was plenty, in other stretches there was none to interrupt the flow. The views rank right up there, it really is stunning I’ve read in the past that it has been rated as one of the ten most beautiful roads in the world and whilst I cant validate that that one way or another it is unquestionably astounding and to be honest I would rate it as a ‘must see/must do’ sort of a road. It’s not without its risks and the nature of the road means that the buses and tour coaches can at times take the full width of the road as the drivers skilfully navigate the route.

Every corner seemed to provide another breath-taking view and a real benefit of being on a bike as opposed to being in a car or coach is that there are plenty of places where you can pull up and take photo’s. There were a few times though where I stopped simply to take in the views.

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Amalfi itself was rammed, as was the last mile or so into it and from a biking perspective was as joyless as it was pointless, but I carried on from Amalfi towards San Cosma, Minori and Ercha and onto Salerno. The decision to carry on was the right one as it was more of the same road (SS163) but on this section there was next to no traffic.

I had filled my boots and had only two ‘moments’ one when the front wheel had locked (my own carelessness) and another when the rear tyre lost traction and slipped, my increased heartbeat and bowel clenching were only momentary as the tyre gripped – but I must admit I did temper my speed for the next few corners.

I wasn’t interested in sightseeing in Salerno – I’d come here to ride, but I did need a cold drink – rather than head into the city I dropped off into the docks and stopped at the equivalent of a greasy spoon for dock workers – and had my coffee and coke for just a couple of euros.

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My journey back to Pompeii from Salerno was dull by comparison to my journey there but it was sort of interesting to see another part of that area – but as with my outward journey, when I got back to the outskirts and then the back streets of Pompeii it was nothing to write home about and as I have already said a real contrast to so many other parts of Italy that I had seen on this and previous occasions.

Back at the Vila Flora I had Facetime with my wife and then later my daughter and grandchildren, before taking a shower to freshen up from the exertions of the day.

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Later I walked into Pompeii, called to Carrefour for some anti Mosquito stuff as I had been ‘attacked’ on several occasions on this trip and then called at a bar for a large beer and a decent cup of coffee.

Whilst I sat outside I jotted down a few general observations, and have retrieved them from an email that I sent home. , and they were:

  • Fiat 500 cars look just right on Italian streets in a way they don’t at home;
  • Italian people must be some of the most expressive with the use of their body language when talking (shouting) with each other;
  • much of the impatience expressed seems to me more because it’s what they do than with any real impatience, throw hands up, beep horn, shake head etc;
  • the law on the use of mobile phones whilst driving is flouted beyond belief that makes the UK look compliant – frankly it’s more than alarming. People text and read their mobile ‘phones even on their scooters. The police openly ignore it, which makes me think it’s openly condoned;
  • Its ok to smoke when riding a motorbike or scooter – odd but OK;
  • Italians are cool and have style in the most understated way. Men on scooters in suits with daft crash helmets seem to pull it off. Young women on scooters seem impossibly chic and stylish. An old man in full wedding suit including carnation buttonhole hurtling through traffic on his scooter in Pompeii didn’t look at all out of place;
  • there seems a full on sense of chaos but everyone seems to know how they fit into that chaos;
  • Italians use their car horns because they have them;
  • Pompeii is not an attractive place once off the main drag nor is the 10 miles or so of the Route National from Salerno back into Pompeii streets. It’s piled high with rubbish, the most remarkable levels of fly tipping but they do pick up dog muck.
  • much of the back street areas are more like a shanty town in this part of Italy;
  • driving is risky in the towns;
  • the seatbelt law is widely flouted
  • children were frequently sat in the front on the knees of adults;
  • three on a scooter (mum dad and child) is common place;
  • a frequently signed rule on the Sorrento/Amalfi coast road is to ‘give way to overtaking traffic‘;
  • coach drivers are pretty good with bikers waving you past when they know you want to get a shift on;
  • coming round bends on the wrong side of the road seemed to be commonplace.
  • petrol station’s are satisfyingly inefficient with the number of people employed (even though I can actually put my own petrol in) … but I like the fact that it must be giving people jobs;
  • the south of Italy seems relatively poor – sweeping generalization I know but …
  • Italy is the most wonderful of places.

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After jotting down my observations I ambled back to the hotel and fell asleep listening to some Tracey Chapman music.

The following morning (Saturday) I had resolved to make an early start and I was on the road for just after 8.00am. Another hot day was forecast and there were cloudless blue skies. Getting out of Pompeii was awful and unfortunately it wasn’t without incident.

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Weaving through the small streets was demanding and even though it was fairly early and there was less traffic on the road than the previous couple of days the standards seemed just as loose. My approach whether around Rome, Florence, Sienna and now Pompeii had been to make a point of keeping my dark visor up and open so that I could make eye contact with drivers, this worked reasonably well but it gave no certainty of safety.

It was as I was slowly and carefully making my way through the back streets that a transit type van hurtled around a corner (T junction), the driver had both arms resting on the top of the steering wheel and using his mobile phone with both hands … it looked to me that he was going to hit me, he certainly hadn’t seen me and was oblivious to his surroundings. I braked full on brought the bike to a near stop but couldn’t hold the weight as the bike slid slightly on the Pompeii slab like surface I toppled over onto my left hand side thankfully this was at a low speed but nevertheless the bike was on top of me.

An Italian couple in the car behind seemed to get out immediately and helped me lift the bike up; it took a moment to find level ground to get the footrest down such was the unevenness of the street surface. I was fine, they cussed in that typical Italian way and seemed to be cursing the driver, the word idiot along with plenty of demonstrative gestures were hurled at the driver of the van who carried on blissfully unaware. As it had a been a low speed topple the mirror had folded in and was undamaged, the left hand indicator had come off its rubber mounting and popped in but other than that the bike was intact other than a small scratch (about one cm long) on the lower faring.

I was left pretty uncomfortable for the afternoon and evening from having the weight of the bike on top of me but that was about it. Other than stopping near a wonderful triple layered bridge to make a temporary repair to ensure the indicator wasn’t going to work loose I carried on my way.

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I had another superb day and once I had cleared Pompeii it was a climb into the hills through areas that reminded me of Swiss alpine towns and then through open stretches that reminded me of some of the plains of northern Spain.

I headed towards Campobasso and the roads were superb, then after Campobasso the roads of the Apennine Mountains were largely empty with the tarmac twisting and shimmering. It was pretty much pretty perfect.

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I headed for Termoli on the Adriatic coast which was about five miles or so from where I planned to stay on Saturday night. Termoli used to be a fishing port but is now much more of a holiday destination popular with Italians.

I stopped for some time to enjoy the sunshine and the views of the Adriatic and took a few pictures of my bike with blue waters of the Adriatic as a pleasant backdrop.

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Eventually I made my way to my overnight accommodation in the hill top town of Campomarino. My accommodation at the Residenza Glave was excellent and my host welcoming, in fact it was superb. My bike was soon safely put away in a huge garage and I wasted no time in getting a shower. I went for a wander around the small streets richly decorated with murals and then took a beer at a small bar and just sat outside whiling away the time with the simple enjoyment of people watching in the warmth of the evening sun (it was still 31C).

Later I ate well at a superb restaurant just a few minutes walk from where I was staying.

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I was in bed and asleep for 9.30pm, way too tired to look at maps or think about the following days ride, which I had decided would be to Slovenia for a couple of days.