And we’re off!!!

April 26th, 2010

(by James) Well, we managed to prove the old adage about never really being ready to leave for a trip like this to be true by being up packing (and repacking) until 3am before rising at 7am to get ready for a planned 9:15 departure which eventually happened at 9:50! It probably wasn’t a bad thing in the end as we really didn’t have time for everyone to get too emotional!

By the time we left it was looking highly unlikely that we would make our 11:20 deadline for the Eurotunnel but we made good progress on the now post rush hour roads and were the last people to sneak on the train.

After a hour blitz on the autoroute to escape Calais we stopped for lunch in Arras where Em was able to get her hands on a kilo of Moules Marinere which made her morning’s stress somehow worth it – she had never ridden on motorways until this morning and was now having to ride on the right hand side!

After lunch we continued south, finally taking to the b-roads. Our normal practice of having no real plan and just heading in the general direction we want to go left Matthew a tad bemused, and to be fair, it wasn’t looking good when we had only spotted two campsite signs all day. However, fortune favours the brave, and the French obsession with camping didn’t let us down. We pitched in a little place in the back of beyond, munched on sarnies made by Em’s mum that morning, and were soon snoring away…

Day two – our first full day on the road in northern France

April 27th, 2010

(by James) We awoke after a freezing cold first night to the welcome sight of Matthew making porridge (probably the only thing that would have got us out of our sleeping bags!) Spent longer that we expected packing up the bikes – something that we no doubt will become more proficient at over the coming weeks and months. It was a beautiful day and we were soon enjoying empty roads as we wound our way through the heart of the Champagne region. Our modifications to the bikes proved their worth when Em dropped hers trying to do a three point turn on a steep cambered side road. Both bike and Em, who effortlessly stepped away as it dropped, were fine. That incident may have knocked the confidence of a lesser person, but Em is clearly made of tougher stuff and was soon back on the road as if nothing had happened.

Stopped for a picnic lunch by the side of a lovely river in the sunshine and had to drag ourselves back onto the bikes before we fell asleep! Continued south into the Burgundy region and found a superb municipal campsite in the tiny village of Precy-sur-Til. Again, we were the only people there and enjoyed hot showers, free electricity, and a pitch for two tents and three motorbikes for the grand total of 11 euros!!! Cooked up a hearty sausage and tomato pilaf washed down with a well-deserved bottle of local red wine and watched the moon rise. Perfect!

Into Switzerland…

April 28th, 2010

(Emily) Another beautiful day saw us continue down through Burgundy, passing Dijon, and then take a south-easterly direction towards Switzerland, our goal for the evening.  As the day wore on, the landscape become more hilly as we built up to the foothills of the Alps and I got to experience my first tight turns which acted as ‘nursery slopes’ before the inevitable mountain passes. By late afternoon we had reached the Swiss border and got our first sign of snow-covered peaks. Relief at finding a campsite in Moudon (having passed no signs in Switzerland thus far) was almost thwarted by ‘moto interdit’ (motorcycles forbidden!) at the entrance, but James soon sweet-talked them round and we were pitched up by the river in no time. Another tasty treat of meatballs and taglietelle cooked up by James, with Matthew’s customary cup of tea to follow. We love camping when it’s warm!!

First few days

April 29th, 2010

(by Emily) Having left in a state of organised chaos and nearly missing our Eurotunnel train, we then had a fantastically smooth first few days riding down through France; beautiful weather; courteous road users; great camp sites. The perfect start for me as a novice rider and great for Matthew, who had taken some time off work to join us on our first leg.

Heading towards the Alps, I was slightly apprehensive about tackling the passes, having been pillion over the world famous Stelvio Pass last summer and thinking ‘there’s no way I could ever do this myself’… Luckily for me, most of them were closed so we had to go by way of the Gotthard tunnel. However, this was not before hitting the Juan Pass – hairpintastic!!! Am certainly experiencing a steep learning curve…

Italy bound!

April 29th, 2010

(by James) The only worry we’d had on the weather front before leaving the UK was that no matter how nice the weather was forecasted to be (vital for Em to get as much practice and confidence!) the Alps can be unpredictable so to say we were relieved to awake to a perfect alpine morning with not a cloud in the sky is an understatement! We spent the morning heading south-east and getting ever closer to the first alpine passes… something that Em was getting increasingly nervous about, although she was slightly distracted by the fact that we were passing through Gruyere country (her cheese obsession knows no bounds!!) At lunchtime, we finally turned up towards the Juan Pass and via the intercom (bought at the last minute following generous wedding gift from my dad and clear instructions for what it should go towards!!) I was able to talk a very nervous Em through her first tight alpine hairpins. It wasn’t long before she was executing perfect lines out of every corner and looked for all the world like someone who had been doing it all her life (although her true thoughts were coming through loud and clear on my earpiece!!) Matthew, meanwhile, was loving putting his ‘bus’ through its paces, something that became clear when we stopped at the top with snow on the side of the road when, wide-eyed and grinning, his first words were, “You could ride your entire life and not come across roads like that!”

After dropping off the other side of the pass, we headed east towards Interlaken along the shores of Lakes Thuner and Brienzer (the latter the result of a slight navigational mishap by Matthew,(aka ‘the bloodhound’!) As we got to southern Switzerland, we discovered that sadly the vast majority of the high alpine passes were still closed for winter… a sadness that was not shared by Emily! This meant that our route to Italy (and country number four) would be via the 11 mile long Gotthard Tunnel. At our last petrol stop before the tunnel at around 5pm, we contacted Jack (Em’s brother) who informed us that we were booked for dinner with friends for 8.30 pm in Lisanza (the village he lives in) on the shore of Lake Maggiore) so we had to hit the road. Our joy at reaching the Gotthard tunnel was short lived as it quickly became apparent that no matter how much effort is put into ventilation you simply cannot aerate  an 16 km tunnel sufficiently, something you can only really vouch for on a motorbike – as the temperature quickly rose to what a car river later told us was 37 degrees of fume-filled road! Suffice to say we were very happy to reach the south end of the tunnel after a seemingly endless, but in reality 20 sweaty minutes of real discomfort, our only consolation being that we were just 30 kms from the Locarno and the northern shores of Lake Maggiore. Although the northern shores of Lake Maggiore are technically in Switzerland, culturally you are to all intents and purposes in Italy, and we all felt a great sense of relief and satisfaction as we ambled through the stunning villages and villas that hug the shores of the Italian lakes breathing in a warm evening air and an unmistakeable smell of Bourgainvilla that told us all that we had arrived in southern Europe. We arrived at Jack’s at 7:45 having covered 909 miles (it’s worth bearing in mind Em had ridden for less than 100 miles before we left!) in 4 brilliant days – just in time for a much needed shower before dinner – and then straight to Jack’s local (and very good!) restaurant where we met up with our friends Alessandro and Massimo from the local KTM garage (Moto Varese) who had brought along their mechanic Ivan and Russell – the team racer who is currently competing (very successfully) in the Italian superstock racing series in order to get himself back into the world championship series (ie. he’s very fast!) and Jack’s old flat mate, Chris.  Anyway, to cut a long story short – a great time was had by all and we all woke the next morning feeling a little delicate!

Casa di Jackson

May 1st, 2010

(by Emily) Arrived at Jack’s, my brother, at 7.45 on Thursday evening – dinner booked for 8.30 pm: perfect timing!! Had a great meal out with the MotoVarese guys (see links) in Jackson’s new hometown, Lisanza, on the east coast of Lake Maggiore, and spent most of Friday in Varese trying, and failing, to do some admin at an internet cafe. Alex and Massimo at MotoVarese were absolute stars and sorted out a problem with my bike I didn’t even know I had!!

We arrived back at Jack’s just in time to meet Jessie, my sister, who had flown in from Gatwick. Despite our original plans to head out of Italy pronto and spend time in Croatia, an incoming weather front got us thinking… soon, a new plan was devised, and as a result we have decided to head south to warmer climes… (hopefully!)

The Fellowship sets out…

May 2nd, 2010

(Emily) After much debate, a decision was made to ride south to avoid the bad weather front that was about to sweep across northern Italy and Croatia; the plan being to go down the west coast via Florence, Sienna and possibly Rome, cutting across to Bari in the south-east from which point we could get a ferry to Croatia. This meant that Matthew could ride with us for a few more days and Jack would have the option of coming across to Dubrovnik with us or riding back up Italy to get home. We also hoped it would give Jessie some dry riding experience…

Progress down towards Bologna was slower than anticipated, so we ended up burning it on the autostrada for a while. Some great roads south from Bologna though; Jack and (by default) Jessie went tearing off, waiting for us when they got to junctions, whereas we took a more leisurely pace. Poor Jessie was all too soon experiencing the ‘numb bum’ situation so it was suggested she go with Matt for a while (far comfier, and frankly, a more sedate experience!) We were all well aware of the ominous dark clouds gathering but being camping ‘veterans’ by now, Matthew, James and I were not to be deterred from finding a site for the night. Jack’s map was great, showing scenic routes in green and also the locations of campsites so his “my sat nav is showing lots of hotels in this area…” didn’t wash. (I have to admit though, as it started to get dark and there was still no sign of the alleged campsite we were heading for, resolve did start to weaken). Nevertheless, we came upon salvation in the nick of time and of course it just had to involve a dirt track and steep grassy knoll up to where we could pitch. Not ideal for me and Matt (him because his bike is very heavy and not suited to rough terrain, me because I’m still a novice and thus still a wuss!!) Cue bike drop number two for me, from stationary though so no biggie.

It’s debatable whether this campsite was ever considered for tents (it seemed to be at the top of a mountain and had lots of permenant set up caravans, though all were abandoned at this time). Pitching up in the dark and wind was interesting, especially as for Jessie it was the first time with her Tesco value £7 jobbie, and Jack had only ever used his at a festival thus has never seen it erected sober! Good thing James and I had four torches between us so could lend them our head torches… Matt’s mallet also came in handy as the ground was rock solid and we didn’t want to risk not using pegs for fear of blowing away in the middle of the night (there was a storm brewing to be sure)!!! By 9.45 pm we were all set up but hadn’t had anything to eat since our service station stop at lunchtime. And we were in the middle of nowhere. I was not up for tackling the dirt track in the now pitch black, and Matt was worried that if he took his bike off our knoll, he wouldn’t get it back up again, so we mixed it up a bit: Jack on his bike with Jessie as pillion; Matt on James’ bike; James on mine with me as pillion. Found a great little trattoria, still in full swing despite the late hour, and enjoyed a feast of antipasti, pasta and grilled meat.

Made it back (we were all quite concerned we wouldn’t remember the way) and fell into tents, exhausted. Didn’t sleep well though – I was so convinced rain was on its way, I found myself listening out for it all night…

Riding in the clouds

May 3rd, 2010

(Emily) Weather didn’t look too bad when we got up… then we saw a motorcyclist at our first petrol stop who was absolutely drenched and he had come from the direction we were heading in. He didn’t speak much English but ‘tanti dell’aqua’ said it all! We were soon riding in thick fog, which we then realised was actually the cloud! At times, I could hardly see James who was riding just a few feet in front of me. In the end, we opted for the autostrada in an attempt to lose some altitude, come out of the clouds and make progress (it was also probably not the safest riding environment when visibility was so poor…), such a shame, as Jack had spent time planning a route down scenic green roads. Made it into Florence by mid-afternoon – still drizzling, but what a beautiful city. Jack went off to source some accommodation (as the Italian speaker with the iphone and satnav, it was a no-brainer!) and managed to get us rooms in a cute little apartment-style hotel right near the Duomo. A great location with one small drawback – it was in a pedestrianised area!! The only solution was to walk our bikes: pure comedy as we struggled down the cobbled lanes and across the piazza in front of the Dumo through hordes of tourists, Matt cursing as he inched his beast (a third of a ton!) along, in order to unload our heavy baggage at the hotel, and even then the Carabinieri were none too pleased and kept coming over to move us on.

Spirits were high once we were showered and dry, and we went off for a little walk around Florence with our tour guide, Jack (armed with the Lonely Planet). However, you can only walk around in the pouring rain for so long, even in a city as beautiful as Florence, so we retired to the hotel where James fixed us up an amazing risotto which we enjoyed with Prosecco and red wine. Rounded off the evening with a game of Whist; a revelation to Jessica and me who had never played it.  Perfetto!

Arrivederci Matthew, buongiorno Siena!

May 5th, 2010

(Emily) Having been out for a morning recce, Jackson greeted us with the ominous words: “The good news is the bikes are still there….” The bad news was that in all the palaver of walking the bikes around town then finding a side street not too far away to park them up, Jack had left his helmet on his bike and it was subsequently no longer.  He took it remarkably well, despite the inconvenience, cost and the fact that all his auto-communications stuff was still attached inside, and promptly went off to seek out a new one. Returning with a stop-gap open face number (only 30 euros), Jack (“I always look for something to climb”) convinced us that we’d have plenty of time to ascend the tower of the Duomo before check out so off we went – seeing as it was only a hundred metres from the hotel, we could hardly miss it out (well, Matthew could; he’s not a heights man)! The sun was shining, hurrah, and the view from the top of the tower was awesome. Well worth the calf-killing 450+ steps!

Turns out we didn’t have quite so much time and it was a bit of a sweaty stress bringing the bikes back round to the hotel and lugging all our stuff back down the stairs. Although a bit a annoyed with our tardiness, the hotel proprietor took pity on us and even brought out some free cold drinks. The carabinieri, meanwhile, were not impressed!

Matthew was due to leave for home that morning but we had convinced him to ride with us for just a while longer, up until lunchtime. Something he may have started to regret once Jack led us down multiple twisties, steeper than steep hills and tried to get us to go up a gravelly dirt track… All was forgotten though, over lunch at a fantastically rustic taverna in a pretty Tuscan hill top village (whenever we commented on how good something tasted – the wine, the olives, the meat etc – the owner pointed out the window to indicate it came from ‘just over there’). Jack certainly does know how to seek out the best places. All too soon, the time came for Matthew to go his separate way and make the long ride home back to the UK, via Antwerp where he was meeting up with a friend. We’d had an amazing week with Matt and it was all far more emotional to say goodbye than anyone had expected. Having watched Matthew ride off, we continued on our way but it was very strange not to see him in my mirrors (it had always been very reassuring to have such a careful and accomplished motorcyclist with us) and we were all a little sombre to have lost one of ‘the fellowship’.

That evening, we arrived in Sienna at about 5.30pm on what looked like was going to be a beautiful evening. True to form, Jack led us right into the pedestrianised heart of the city where we parked up. James guarded the bikes, Jack went off to the tourist information and Jessie and I went in search of icecream. We eventually settled on a youth hostel on the outskirts of town and once sorted there, took a bus straight back into Sienna as the sun went down. We sat in the piazza soaking up the atmosphere of a balmy evening in a beautiful city before finding somewhere to eat. Turned out to be a funny place – the owner was a complete oddball who wouldn’t look women in the eye and refused to serve anything he didn’t deem suitable (i.e. Jess and I weren’t allowed tonic with our Martini/Amaretto; in fact, when he thought we were going to have them with food, he wasn’t going to serve us spirits at all!) He warmed to us by the end though and he told us all about the Paleo.

(by James – anorak moment!) The Paleo is a bi-annual horse race, consisting of three laps of the piazza and is totally unique to Sienna. The race itself only lasts little more than a minute and has only one rule: you cannot take the reins from another jockey’s hands. Other than that, anything goes, including hitting each other with your whips and running other riders into the walls on the sharp turns (and thus into the crowd!) Each rider represents one of ten city wards within the town and historically was used to avoid bloodshed between feuding factions. The riders themselves are paid for by the communities of each participating ward, and true to form for a politically charged, no holds barred race, each ward can pay the riders what they like to ensure they get the man they want, and are also known to pay off other jockeys to not win. That said, the jockeys, despite wearing the ward colours, are fairly irrelevant and are viewed as ‘prostitutes’ by the Sienese; it is the horses who are the true heroes, and a riderless horse can achieve victory as long as it still bears the ward colours on its head. Every person born in Sienna is automatically a member of one the district, which district depends on where in the town they are born so often the husband, wife and children of a family will each belong to a different district and remains loyal to it for life. So seriously is this taken, a boss who has employees belonging to the winning district will all too likely take the week off in order to avoid the ruthless ribbing he will receive from his workers. Each district has its own cathedral-like church decorated throughout with its colours and emblems and dedicated to its own saint, and upon victory, its members flock to the church for a thanks-giving mass before organising countless festivities for the following couple of weeks (members only!!)

On Tuesday we took advantage of a full day on foot to explore the city, having lucked out when a passing tourist gave us four passes to local attractions that they didn’t have time to use. Went into the Duomo, and saw some frescoes from the 14th and 15th centuries in what used to be the hospital. Some fantastic architecture and historial art work on show but we were all a bit ‘churched out’ in the end, and getting fed up of walking round in drizzle, so settled in to a bar for the night to play whist and drink wine. Very cultured!!

Ah, Tuscany

May 6th, 2010

(Emily) Can’t say we sorry to leave the hostel in Siena – it had served its purpose but was pretty dire! Left in fog (here we go again) but it lifted enough for us to admire the absolutely stunning Tuscan hills we were riding through. Even the inevitable rain didn’t put us off, though it probably helped to know that we were on our way to an Agriturismo (farm based accommodation with local produce) for a couple of nights, courtesy of Jack for our wedding present!!

It was just drying up went we stopped in at Montepulciano (a town I had heard of – we often get that wine at Pizza Express!!!) which, despite me having a few hairy moments on the wet cobbles, was a gorgeously characterful maze of steep winding streets culminating in a faded grand square (that looked quite wild west – think Butch Cassidy, or so James thought.) Turns out they had done some filming of the Twilight movie here so Jessica was suitably excited! We took a lot of photos from the church tower (if there’s a tower, Jack’s going up it!) – there were dramatic scenes as sun lit up the building facades whilst ominous black clouds loomed overhead.

Inexplicably, the storm clouds disappeared that afternoon and we wound our way through the hills to the Agriturismo in sunshine – quite a novelty for Jess! We turned up in time to have a glass of wine on the terrace in the glow of the setting sun (much needed after negotiating the steep gravel drive to the house). The place was owned and run by the charming Caterina, a beautiful young Italian woman, whose capabilities also stretched to the kitchen – she cooked us up an absolute treat that evening, accompanied with fantastic wine they produced themselves. Thank you, Jackson!!!

On Thursday we just made a short trip to the small town of Orvieto (often cited in Italy guidebooks as a must-see) which boasted a stunning cathedral, outside of which Jack demanded the obligatory jumping photo; quite a spectacle for onlookers as it took about ten attempts on the self-timer… Jack had ambitious ideas to go further afield but the forecast wasn’t great (and let’s face it, the agriturismo was not a bad place to hang out) so we headed home in the rain to cosy up, play more whist (something of an addiction developing there!) and enjoy another fantastic meal. Hard times!