‘If I hadn’t seen such riches, I could live with being poor’ – James
Room with a View, iPhone
Crossing into Italy over the high road was stunning – the ocean to my right, mountains to the left and warm air flowing over me as the bike surged ever forward. Traffic leaving the Monaco area had been heavy but it had thinned and as I pulled off to take the side roads to Ventimiglia, it all but disappeared. No SatNav for the place I was staying at – just GPS co-ordinates and a warning from the owner that the track was dangerous and to take care. Up a narrow road, switch backs, hemmed in by trees overgrowing the road from both sides and impossibly blind bends no wider than a small car. The ascent was steep which made tackling bends a balance between keeping the bike upright in first gear, pipping the horn and edging around slow enough to avert any local traffic coming downhill. I only put my foot down once as a car came round one bend and I had nowhere to go. When you’re on a steep incline on a rough road it is not easy to paddle the bike backwards or even manhandle it 60 feet backwards to a place where you can nestle her in against the tree-line to allow the car to pass. The final portion of the track was rough as hell with no visibility to the sides because of trees and none ahead because of numerous blind corners. As I pulled up at the house I felt sweat running down my head and back after the exertion of the ride.
It was at this point that I realised just how high up I was as I removed my helmet and took in the view. Just wow. The low sun was glinting across the valleys below and bathing the whole vista in a warm glow. No noise other than the occasional bird, no movement other than me. I felt like I had left the planet. There was no answer at the house and no mobile reception so I settled down on the edge of the road and threw my jacket and trousers off determined to make the most of the moment. Alternating between having my eyes closed and angling my head to catch the warm rays on my face through to slowly scanning the valleys below, I completely lost track of time. I’m not even sure time has meaning in places like that – the only constants being sunrise and sunset. I heard a bike making its way steadily down the mountain and as it approached, the rider gave a wave and pulled in next to me, opening his ‘dropbox’ and letting his dog out for a run.
Now thats a bike, iPhone
Stefan was in his late 40’s, a well built chap with an infectious smile and a tan that looked like he been living here for years. He introduced himself and we finished talking over an hour later, sat on the side of that mountain. This was one of those moments where you meet a kindred spirit. Stefan had suffered a heart attack a few years before caused by the stresses of his job and a messy divorce. He had left his life behind to travel by bike and had eventually set up base in Ventimiglia, renting a small room in a nearby farmhouse. He spoke of his disillusionment with modern life, the beauty of the open road and his love of bikes. Occasionally he would jump up and start tinkering with his own bike – adjusting the valves and giving the occasional tap to the engine. He spoke about the purpose of life and the fact he would have to return to Stuttgart to his girlfriend shortly. He had been on the road a lot longer than he had first planned – unable to make that journey back ‘home’. He spoke longingly of a simple life, tinkering with his bike and enjoying the local scenery and pace of life.
Stefan’s bike, iPhone
An hour passed quickly, the sun was touching the top of the mountain and I was suddenly aware that I still had to get into this house somehow! He said he knew the owner – a local sommelier who worked away in the week – and would call him when he got to a phone. As he pulled away, still fiddling with the valves, I settled back down to watch the sundissapear ever lower behind the valley tops.
It was only 30 minutes later that an elderly lady arrived and greeted me with a big smile and a broken ‘hello’. No Italian from me, no English from her. She let me in to the house and I was just stunned – it was a very old building with uneven floors built into the side of the mountain. Fruit and vegetables were growing on the large sloping garden and the bedroom faced down the valley with a jaw dropping view. It’s fair to say that the house had no modern parts to it with the exception of a small electric shower which had been shoe horned into the old bathroom. Just fantastic. I mimed to her that I had no food and after a few different attempts I finally got my point over.
Relax in the oranges, iPhone
She looked puzzled for a moment and then took me out to the garden and pointed to a house about a mile away on the hill past the Church. Tapping at her watch she indicated 8pm. I nodded and gave a thumbs up, she smiled. I didn’t even bother unpacking – I was relaxed to the point of being horizontal. Throwing the panniers in the kitchen area, I sat outside for an hour watching nothing but the trees sway gently in the breeze and watching the lights slowly flicker into life way down in the valley below. It was the first (but not the last) time I felt fully relaxed on the trip. More importantly it was the most I had relaxed in a decade. If there is a distinction between ‘tourist’ and ‘traveller’ then this was the moment it happened to me as I realised I had spent several hours sitting on a track without worrying about how (or if) I would get into the house or get some food.
The shower was a dribble and despite my best efforts, the drain pan was woefully undersized and more water went on the floor than me. I didn’t care and as I closed the door to the house I realised there was no lock. That caused me a moment of concern with all my gear piled in the kitchen but then reality kicked in – I wasn’t in Kansas anymore.
The walk up the hill, past the old Church was wonderful. Warm evening air, the last rays of light flickering through the trees and that fresh scents of summer filling my nostrils. I arrived at the house, out of breath and sweaty since the last 400 yards is up a very steep slope.
How do I even begin to describe that evening? The food, the wine and the amazing hospitality. With fresh pasta, rabbit caught that day and sauces made from the local crops along with local wine sourced by her son who is a sommelier it was mind blowing. Home cooked food is always the best but when everything is sourced outside your back door and it’s local recipes handed down through the generations, well….its sublime. I used google translate on my phone to thank her for the meal which caused laughter at first as I stumbled over the words and punctuation but then turned to a small tear as I told her it was the finest Italian meal I had ever had.
The walk back was scary – through tracks and woods with no light at all. To add to this ambience, the Church had a window which seemed to have a ghostly figure in it. Trick of the moonlight I’m sure but at the time I don’t mind admitting I was anxious! Settled down into bed and all I could hear was the soft creak of the wood moving as it cooled. With thoughts of serial killers, demons from the basement and ghostly apparitions from the church all out to get me, I took a while to get to sleep.
Church of Ventimiglia, iPhone
My eyes opened slowly the following morning to see the first rays of sun bathing the valley and church in a sea of orange and red. I made a black coffee with some granules I had found in a plastic bag in a cupboard and wandered out to the terrace in my pants. You can take a moment to savour that image if you wish.
I was fitting the panniers back on to the bike when the owner arrived – he had brought some fresh coffee and cakes for breakfast. Stefan arrived soon after with his girlfriend who had flown in from Stuttgart the previous evening to see him. We talked about the Grand prix – he was planning to take her to see it on the bike. He told me about a previous time he had been and some bikers had asked him about his bike and it’s top speed. ‘Just 65mph’ he said, ‘downhill with a wind’. After a pause he continued ‘But with this scenery, why would you even want to go that fast?’ We all grinned.
Back door, iPhone
Stefan left for a few moments and his girlfriend asked me about my trip and plans for the coming weeks. After a few moments she looked me dead in the eyes and said that she wanted Stefan to return home. It was hard for her to look after her 3 kids on her own and here he was gallivanting around in the sun. She laughed but it was mixed with sadness and frustration. A thousand responses flashed through my head but I realised none of them would help. I smiled, nodded and told her that he had talked of her the previous day and it was obvious to me that he loved her and he would find his way back to her. A soft smile followed by ‘but when?’ I was glad that Stefan walked back in. How do you reconcile the love for someone with their passion to live life outside the norm? I was reminded of the quote ‘If you think adventure is dangerous, try routine – it’s lethal’
I bid my farewells to everyone, took one last walk in the garden to admire the view and then hit the road. Returning from Heaven to Earth would be the best way to describe it.
My next location was a campsite between Pisa and Firenzi. Any form of accommodation with a roof on it was hopelessly out of budget in that area and the weather had warmed significantly for me to camp in some degree of comfort. The first and last parts of the journey were uneventful and uninspiring – just a slog of miles to get there. The middle bit, the Genoa bit, was horrendous.
There are a series of several dozen tunnels beginning at Genoa which allow the A10/A12 motorways to cut through the hills and mountains. This wouldn’t be as bad but there are no pull offs for about 20-30 miles South of Genoa. Once you start that first tunnel, you are locked in to a heavy stream of traffic for the next 30-40 minutes. Traffic that is moving at 60-80mph, nose to tail through darkened tunnels and with drivers that have no issue with taking any manoeuvre that may get them 1 foot farther forward. After the first few miles of coming out of the dark tunnel into blinding light then back into tunnels again, I decided that all I could do was to keep a constant speed, middle of the lane and just try to hold my ground. Lorries just feet from my rear tyre, cars cutting in and forcing me to swerve. I was, to be quite honest, terrified. I don’t think I have ever been so focussed in my life, my eyes straining and my neck feeling like it was on elastic as I shoulder checked every few seconds.
As you might expect, the speed of the traffic changes continuously as people lose their nerve and brake. This doesn’t stop the motorbike and moped riders though. Filtering in a dark tunnel at 60mph is quite a thing to watch. With sunglasses, an open face helmet, shorts and trainers they are prepared for every eventuality. I caught myself shaking my head in disbelief at their nerve. Instead of nerve you could substitute stupidity of course. Whatever my view, it had to be admired. I kept the bike straight, throttle steady and hunkered down – desperately looking for a pull in to catch my breath and take a drink.
Having a lorry at 60 mph on your rear tyre sharpens the mind. Having a lorry on your rear wheel while mopeds and bikes undertake you in a tunnel is mind blowing. One mistake by anyone in that stream of traffic would mean a huge pile up – no doubt about it.
So there I was head down, eyes focussed forward and flicking every few seconds to the mirrors, fingers cradling the front brake and generally scared for my life. We were in a tunnel – dark with strip lights and a slow right hand curve, lorry on my rear, car in front doing just under 60mph and then I sensed someone to my right undertaking me. Quick shoulder check right and theres a bike. Jeez. I hold my position, he comes alongside, shorts, t-shirt sunglasses with head tucked down. Crazy. As he pulls level and then ahead of me I see his passenger. Lovely lass with a floaty dress and helmet on. Wow, I am gobsmacked. I feel my mouth drop a little. My mouth then hit the floor when I saw she was holding a dog who was nestled into her lap. Time stopped in that moment, I can still see it now. I must have done a triple take and I’m sure I mouthed ‘You are taking the pi….’
20 minutes later and finally a pull in – a set of services. Lots of people in that service station. Most of them with drained faces, many of them standing in quiet contemplation, majority of them chain smoking. A French couple were by me riding 2 up on a Tiger. I said ‘wow, those tunnels eh?’. They both looked at me and shook their heads slowly in disbelief. No words needed. I sat on the grass at that services for quite some time.
At 5pm I pulled into the campsite – my base for the next 4 nights so that I could ride through Tuscany and see Pisa, Firenzi and San Gimignano.
Campsite, Tuscany, iPhone