Into The Great Big Open

Around the planet by motorcycle

My introduction to France was clean, curving tarmac through snowy crags, descending through tunnels and graceful bends to arrive at a quaint Alpine village. Shops renting skiing and mountaineering equipment were bolstered by a few cafes and wine shops, topped off with  a tourism kiosk sporting maps and local hiking guides. I picked a random cafe and did my best to order the daily lunch special, my tongue taking a battle axe to that fair language. (As elsewhere, an honest attempt at the local language usually yields an appreciative smile and patient translation.)

If the first motorcycling roads in France made a positive impression, my first French meal spoiled me for the rest of Europe. A salad of fresh greens and delicate citrus sauce was followed by a mound of gaping steamed mussels in wine sauce and fried potato sticks (in the US, these are the ubiquitous ‘French fries’). Accompanied by a glass of white wine, and followed by a fruit tart and espresso, with the mountain breeze carrying snippets of conversations past my ears and the classically Alpine backdrop, I was in gastronomic heaven. (And although it is a foul and deadly habit that I’ve since given up, the post-meal cigarette capped it off perfectly. You former and current smokers know the deal.)

My plan for France was to stay in the south, avoiding the fast toll highways while making a fairly direct route for Andorra in the Pyrenees. I was not disappointed with the results! Good paved roads meander through mountains, low hills and rolling pastoral country, interrupted only by small towns and villages where even the most humble roadside cafes offered delicious food and pleasant atmosphere. The motorcyling culture I experienced over the next few days was another unexpected treat. Other motorcyclists would wave or nod. Car drivers would scoot over even in no-passing zones to allow a brisk overtake, and at stoplights would move over to allow lane-splitting to the front of the line. Motorcyclists would raise a boot from a footpeg as a show of thanks. What a change from the ‘road warrior’ traffic mindset of Asia and the Middle East!

Time for a photo.

From Perpignan I turned west for Andorra, and the blue skies quickly turned to clouds and chilly mist.. I regret the dearth of photos from the rest of France.

 

Higher still in the Pyrenees.

The roads in the French Pyrenees were some of the finest I’d ever ridden. I was too busy grinning like an idiot to stop for a few photos, so here are someone else’s.

Although tiny, Andorra is a scenic nation high up in the eastern Pyrenees. Or so I’m told! For the three hours I spent riding through the country, most of the time was spent nervously navigating through pea soup fog on wet, twisting roads. The few vistas that were clear afforded views of towering mountains, tall slender evergreens, and empty ski lodges of stone and dark stained wood. I breezed through the border with Spain, descending to rolling pastureland, stopping for the night at Coll de Nargó.

Coll de Nargó, northern Spain.

I continued on a westerly course through rolling landscape reminiscent of the high desert of New Mexico, with low pine trees dotting the undulating grassy countryside. In the distance I spotted a walled old town, flipped a coin in my head and decided to have a look.

Burgo de Osma from the highway, on the banks of the Rio Ucero.

I quickly found a friendly, 3-star hotel with underground parking, and spend the late afternoon strolling the cobblestone streets.

Streets of the old city of Burgo de Osma.

I found the city very enjoyable and the locals friendly, so I stayed for two nights, resting my rear and throttle hand, catching up on laundry and emails.

Cathedral of Burgo de Osma, begun in 1232, completed in 1784. Statue of Pedro de Bourges (San pedro de Osma).

Another view of the fine cathedral. Lots of "local" tourists were spending a lazy afternoon sipping wine and chatting on the plaza.

Even the smallest architectural details such as this downspout were given an artistic touch.

While in Burgos I’d made contact with a shipping company to see about air freighting the bike from Madrid, only a few hours to the south. They told me it would be a few days before they could work up a quote, so I made my way to Madrid, landing in an overpriced, sprawling hotel near the airport (with the aim of expediting the shipping process). I passed the next few days in the malaise I’d felt in Aswan: no urge to see the sights, weary of being in the thick of the tourist trade, and getting cranky about being in a holding pattern. Finally, after several days, the shipping company emailed me a quote…for sea freight! I was really fuming at this point, a combination of wasting money waiting for a useless shipping quote and beat from traveling for 9 months.

I made a beeline for Lisbon, making it in two easy days, and from there sent emails to several freighting companies inquiring about shipping to the east coast of the US. The next day I had a reply from an agent who was himself a motorcyclist. Like nearly every other Portuguese person I met, he was friendly and helpful, and spoke very good English, sparing me the embarrassment of fumbling their language. In the intervening evenings I took to walking the portion of the city within a few dozen blocks of the hotel, finding small cafes to lurk in, and with a small victory dance discovered a sushi joint offering good variety and quality at a decent price.

On the appointed day I rode to the freighter’s warehouse in the industrial district, peeled off my riding gear and left it all in a pile near the bike. They promised to box it up and include it in the crate. I took a last look at my trusty, dirty bike, parked next to blue drums destined for Angola. It was hard (and a little sad) to believe that the next pavement that the tires would touch would be in the USA.

 

 

Italy

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I don’t like to admit it, but by the time I left Aswan, travel was starting to lose its appeal. Waiting three weeks in vain for the Sudan visa, I had lost much of my travel momentum, which is so important during long-term, solo overlanding. So the otherwise charming or exotic aspects of day to day life in Egypt had become tiresome: the noise, dust, litter, rip-offs, and mad traffic were wearing me down. So when I boarded the Visemar One bound for Venice, I exhaled a small sigh of relief, still far from home but happy to be in surroundings that were more familiar.

While docked, opera arias poured tinny out of the ship’s loudspeakers, broken occasionally by announcements made in four languages. After sundown we pulled away from Alexandria and began the 60 hour transit to Venice.

Aboard the Visemar One. I found a kindred spirit in Jamie from the UK. He’d been driving his Land Rover around Europe and Asia for months, and we were both at the same level of travel burnout.

Approaching Venice, we followed a sea highway to the port.

Back on land in Venice. I was traveling without European “green card” insurance and a forged motorcycle registration, which had expired back in February.

Entry into Italy was supposed to be an easy process, but I had two items weighing on my mind. First, I hadn’t had a chance to print out a copy of my “green card” insurance policy, which is the liability insurance  required for driving in Europe. Second, the motorcycle’s registration had expired in February. In the Middle East, this wasn’t noticed, and if it was, a small “fee” could make the problem go away. I was sure the bureaucracy in Italy would be more efficient. Fortunately, after having my passport stamped, the customs officer waved me through the barrier, assuming I’d already talked with the traffic police. Jason Bourne I’m not, but slipping past uniformed and armed officials carries a small thrill, even for something as mundane as missing/expired vehicle documents.

I found a campground in Fusina and spent the rest of the day on laundry and motorcycle maintenance.

Camping in Fusina, near Venice.

The next day I took the ferry into Venice and spent a day gawking at the beautiful city.

Grand Canal.

Beautiful sculpture could be found adorning most buildings.

Picturesque canals are the main thoroughfares.

From Venice I headed southeast along the coast before turning inland at Ancona, aiming for the Apennines. Riding in Italy was sheer pleasure after the chaos of Asia and the Middle East. Pedestrian crosswalks are respected, lane markings are observed, and there is a modicum of respect between road users. Manhole covers are in place.

Enjoying the scenery and twisty roads of the Apennines. Near Monte Sibillini.

Noticing a herd of motorcycles gathered in the parking lot of a hotel/restaurant, I pulled a u-turn to investigate. I parked my dirty billygoat among clean, purebred BMWs, Ducatis and Guzzis and had a walk around. Eventually I was grabbed and brought into the restaurant for a shot of grappa.

Friendly motorcyclists abound in Italy.

This fellow also sent me on my way with two doggie-bags stuffed with leftover grilled meats and vegetables. The gathered bikers were super friendly, and their warm welcome made me even happier not only to be in Europe, but also around others who share the love of two-wheeled travel.

Further down the road I stopped at Sarnano for the night.

I spent a day exploring the narrow streets and sequestered courtyards of Sarnano.

Later I stopped at a random roadside restaurant near L’Aquila. As luck would have it, the place was run by avid motorcyclists; they very kindly paid for my lunch and offered me their computer for checking my email. [It’s worth mentioning that I had received free food and/or drink in every country since Korea! People are kind.]

Kind bikers near L’Aquila.

From L’Aquila, I laid a meandering route to Sulmona, passing trhrough the cloudy, remote highlands of the Abruzzo.

Misty mountains of the Abruzzo.

Sulmona’s picturesque setting among dark hills, with narrow cobblestone streets, lively piazzas and friendly denizens convinced me to enjoy two days there. Sulmona is the birthplace of Ovid, and the origin of candy-coated almonds.

Palazzo SS. Annunziata

Statue of Ovid in in Piazza XX Settembre.

From Sulmona I made a beeline for Isernia, which has the distinction of being the earliest site where humans are known to have used fire (ca. 700,000 years ago). From the outskirts of the city I found the signs pointing me to the museum, and followed them with growing anticipation, only to find the site and museum locked and empty. Under the shade of a nearby tree I flattened out the map and searched it for a new interesting destination. The name “Assisi” jumped out at me, so I formulated a route that kept me off the Autostrades. Two easy riding days brought me to that scenic village, set on a hilltop among lush green fields and sparse forests. I happily set up my tent at Fontemaggio and spent two days catching up on laundry and motorcycle maintenance chores, exploring the sights of Assisi, and listening to the birds singing around the peaceful camping area.

Basilica of St Francis of Assisi

The basilica contains upper and lower churches, both with splendid frescoes and impressive vaulted ceilings. Photography was verboten within the structure itself, so here is a link to detailed history and illicit photographs!

My next destination would be Lake Como and the Moto Guzzi factory and museum. From Assisi I rode north to Cesena, then northwest through the cities of Bologna, Modena, Parma and Milan. I was dumbfounded by the number of scantily clad, nubile African ladies waiting at the bus stops at the outskirts of the cities, before I realized they were not waiting for the bus, but a ride of a different sort.

I finally arrived at the Moto Guzzi factory, a sort of homecoming.

Moto Guzzi factory at Mandello del Lario, northern Italy.

My first motorcycle was a Moto Guzzi, way back in the mists of time (ca. Spring of 2002). Little did I know then, during those first uncertain, wobbly miles that I would one day ride to the factory, from the east! It was a happy moment for your humble author, and I may have become a bit misty-eyed, but there were no witnesses to confirm or deny.

Moto Guzzi’s history goes back to 1921, and in addition to numerous firsts in motorcycle innovation (linked brakes, rear swingarm suspension, first wind tunnel used by a motorcycle manufacturer), they also developed farm machinery, a three-wheeled, 3-wheel drive military machine, and a DOHC v8 racer. Good reading can be found at the wikipedia entry.  The museum is open for 1 hour per day, and I burned the entire hour admiring the museum’s offerings, especially the vintage single-cylinder models that were popular before the present-day v-twins.  After being shooed out by the museum’s curator, I spent more then a few minutes chatting with the staff in the souvenir shop. I bought a few gifts for friends, and they threw in a free key fob for my troubles.

Moto Guzzi museum interior. Not my photo.

I also stopped at nearby Guzzi dealer Agostini, where they gave me a Guzzi hat! Much love from the Guzzi crowd, even though I wasn’t on a Guzzi for this ride. I set up camp at the Camping Continental on Via Statale, north of the downtown area, and stayed there for three wonderful days and nights. Mandello itself is a beautiful, walkable town with a beautiful view of Lecco (a leg of Lake Como) and looming mountains that plunge dramatically to the water.

From Mandello I rode southwest through Torino (Turin) and Cuneo, and crossed into France at a snowy pass.