‘If, then, I were asked for the most important advice I could give, that which I considered to be the most useful to the men of our century, I should simply say: in the name of God, stop a moment, cease your work, look around you’ – Tolstoy
Tuscany, Canon 5d2, 16-35L
I’d had a stroke of luck – the receptionist at the campsite was a biker and having mentioned I wanted to see San Gimignano she pulled out local maps and showed me the best roads to get me there and also pointed out some other places to stop and see. With the temperature rising and feeling refreshed after a couple of days off from riding, I pulled out of the campsite, visor up and grinning. Tuscany and San Gimignano had been a place I had always wanted to see – people had always raved about Tuscany and I wanted to see if it lived up to its reputation.
Route for the day, the ‘B’ roads of Tuscany, Canon 5d2
Taking the deserted backroads from Montopoli to Palia was heavenly. Narrow twisty roads that rose and then fell away with the occasional small village. It’s similar to riding on English or Irish ‘B’ roads but with the fields of Tuscany stretched around you. The warmth of the air, the smell of cut grass and the incessant grumble of the engine as I flew round bend after bend. I don’t recall the name of the village where I stopped but as I stood there looking at the view I felt myself relax noticeably. I’d been enjoying the bends and the empty roads but I wasn’t taking the scenery in as much as I could. Time to slow it down and appreciate the beauty of it all. No rush, no bother.
Tuscany, South of Palia, Canon 5d2, 16-35L
There is something inexplicably relaxing about the Tuscan countryside. It’s very hard to pin down a single reason and I imagine it’s the heady mix of a warm sun, golden fields and the never ending rolling hills. You have no choice but to relax. When we are all wrapped up in work and homes, we sometimes forget that it isn’t what life is about. I told someone once to stop and smell the flowers. I’m good at advice – just never take it myself. Today I did.I spent the rest of the day in a very ‘chilled’ state, riding gently, stopping frequently and just letting it all wash over me.
View of San Gimignano, Canon 5d2, 16-35L
You can see San Gimignano from quite some distance away since its towers dominate the horizon. As you slowly wind towards the town the sense of anticipation builds – it looks great from afar and you feel that it is going to be something quite special. It is.
Parking was straightforward with multiple car parks and I was relieved to find a small roadside petrol station – one of those old types with just a single pump and the attendant and cash only. San Gimignano is old but remarkably preserved and with he sun beating down, I climbed the cobbled streets into the main square, deftly avoiding the packs of tourists offloading from coaches.
Streets of SG, Canon 5d2, 16-35L
The main squares are fantastic in their own right with the towers stretching skyward but the back streets are equally impressive. With few tourists straying from the main route, I disappeared into these streets and wandered aimlessly. As you walk down the paths you can see the countryside rolling away beyond the old walls. With my skin warm to the touch, just the sound of birds swooping and chirruping overhead and a light breeze on my legs and face, it was about as perfect as it gets.
Pig, I surpass myself with descriptions sometimes, Canon 5d2, 16-35L
It was market day and one of the squares was filled with fruit, veg and meat stalls. I bought some potatoes, garlic and carrots – wonderfully fresh with dried earth still on them. That was tea sorted. An unexpected treat in the town was an exhibition by Robert Capa – a renowned war photographer – in one of the museums. I spent a good hour in there, looking at his original prints from the ‘Liberation of Italy’. There are times when I look at my photography and feel pleased. The I see the work of people like Capa, Nachtwey, McCullin and realise I have a long way to go. If you ever get a chance to see any of their exhibitions then please take the chance, they are not photos, they are moments in time captured for eternity that reach out and talk to you. Amazing.
Main Square, SG, Canon 5d2, 16-35L
Time was marching on and I decided that I was going to stay longer rather than moving on. With a place this perfect, why hurry to leave? I settled down for lunch in the backstreets having eyed up a small place frequented by locals. A small table, a glass of Vernaccia de San Gimignano ( a wine that is made from the grapes surrounding the town) and delicious bruschetta with olives, artichoke, mushrooms and tomatoes. A real treat. I can still taste it now! The wine was (as you might expect) perfect. I am not a big wine drinker but I could tell this was something a little special and, indeed, a little bit cheeky. The restaurant was an eclectic mix of guys in overalls on their lunch break, ladies who were lunching and a group of teenagers celebrating a birthday. With the obligatory old man at the bar nursing a coffee and a highly animated chef, I closed my eyes and opened them slowly, preserving that memory and storing it for rainy days back in the UK.
Lunch, Backstreet of SG, iPhone
SG, View from the Church, Canon 5d2, 16-35L
Needing time for the alcohol to wear off, I walked the high walls pausing now and then to sit on the dusty brickwork and close my eyes and turn my face to the sun. It’s quite an amazing moment when you open your eyes again and see the countryside stretched out before you in all of its tranquil glory. Your body just says ‘no, stay just one moment more’. I’m not sure if stress can be measured but if they ever need a place to establish ‘zero’ then this is it. It was time for me to move on however and as I walked out of the main gate I took one last look over my shoulder. It felt like the lingering gaze as lovers reluctantly leave each other’s arms
I don’t think I have ever been so relaxed on a bike as I was after leaving SG. Heading West towards Voltaire, I bimbled along, singing, humming and tapping the tank. Bikes went roaring past me, enjoying the bends no doubt. I was in a different place though, every bend was to be savoured for the view that lay beyond it. I didn’t want to feast on the journey, I wanted to savour every morsel.
I passed through Voltaire and the traffic immediately lessened. A few miles later and I had the roads to myself again. Standing up on the pegs for air to cool down, frequent stops just for the hell of it with my back against the bike just watching the rhythmic movement of wind in the trees and the waxing and waning of the chirrups of the crickets. Taking small lanes off the planned route, I got lost several times but ended up back on the road more by good fortune that anything else. I’m not sure ‘lost’ is the right term – how can you get lost when everywhere is just stunning? I remember one particular gentle climb up a tree lined road. With the sun setting to my right, rays of flickering orange light broke through the gaps in the trees. Difficult to see the road but a breathtaking experience.
I wish I had the words to fully express my feelings about Tuscany. Watching the sun dance on the fields and the rolling jade green hills, the vinyards in the dusty earth, the olive groves and the terracotta buildings , the scenery was never a one off hit but a slow and continuous drip of the beauty of nature. Tuscany is a thousand paintings waiting to be brought to life by artists
I am glad I saw the real Tuscany – it surpassed any expectations I had of it. I mentioned before that Sevilla is a place to fall in love. Tuscany is for the filling of the soul. It will be hard to beat the sheer beauty and calm of this day in my life.
I headed for the bar when I arrived back at camp. My Romanian friends and a Dutch couple I had met the previous evening were there. They asked me about the day and I just didn’t have the words. They smiled. I’m guessing they already knew.
My plans when I left the UK were to have arrived here having already ridden the Alps. However, when I left the South of France, most of the Alpine passes were still closed and still were. This meant that my planned route was now in disarray as my next stage was to ride across Italy to Venice and then head for the Balkans. After a fevered google maps session, I had decided on diverting to take in Corsica, Sardinia and Sicily. Partly because it would give time for the Alps to open and more importantly because no one I knew had ever been to them so they were a real unknown. I had booked a ferry from Livorno to Bastia (Corsica) the following morning but it was a 5am check in which meant leaving the campsite at 4am latest. I’ve no problem with early starts but couldn’t work out how to pack up camp at 3am in the dark. So I packed up camp immediately, loaded the bike and rode her up to the bar area.
The rough plan, Corsica – Sardinia – Sicily then back to Genoa
I spent the evening with the Dutch and Romanians. They all knew each other really well and they both spoke both languages fluently. Shifting between Dutch and Romanian with me listening in English was not easy. The beer flowed, much laughter and the occasional translation service provided by one or other of them. As I sat there listening intently, I worked out that one of the girls had just said something about the old lady making a fish pizza. I cocked my head from side to side, trying to work out what that might be in relation to. They asked me what I was thinking about. I told them. I don’t think they stopped laughing for over a minute with the Dutch guy crying into his beer and gasping for breath. I really do need to learn a second language. Never did find out exactly what they were saying. I don’t think it matters, the laughter was enough. People drifted back to their camper vans and the staff left for home after a final shot of Jaegermeister. I pulled my sleeping bag out of the pannier and settled down on the floor of the bar for 2 hours of sleep. Not very comfortable at all as you might expect – I was glad when the alarm on my phone went off at 4am.
The journey to the port at Livorno was cold. Nursing a hangover through the clutches of dark chilly air wasn’t a pleasant experience but it was only a short ride of an hour and was soon despatched. Even though I arrived early, there was already a lengthy queue for the Ferry. So I filtered past all of it right up to the head of the queue. To say there was no organisation would be an understatement. As I showed my ticket to the single member of staff she said ‘Corsica?’, I nodded. She pointed to the right and then said ‘left, left’ and then walked off to the next car. I looked back, saw hundreds of cars and camper vans amassed like the hordes of hell and thought better of getting off the bike and asking her if it was right or left. I went right figuring a 50/50 chance of being right. Turns out I was right.
There I sat in 5 lanes of ferry queue, full of monstrous camper vans and lorries. Stretching my legs and taking some water, I could hear the commotion before I saw it. Two staff members were walking up the queues, arms waving. Heated exchanges , people holding their hands above their heads in animated despair. What followed was a strange ritualistic dance of camper vans and lorries trying to reverse out of the boarding area and everyone else having to make a gap so that they could do so. Looks like left had been right for some people and they were waiting for the wrong boat. They wanted Sardinia, this was Corsica. The two guys approached me, one scanned my ticket, the other stood to his left and watched him scan my ticket. I can only presume to ensure he was scanning it right.
All the gear, all the time ‘bro, iPhone
Boarding was scary. In stark contrast to every other ferry operator, they boarded motorbikes last. This meant that we were 2 decks up and had to negotiate the metal ramps. It’s not too bad to do this but the ‘Its a Knockout’ team had been in and played their joker. The decks were swimming in water and oil. With traction control lit up and tyres spinning everywhere it was an exceptionally nervous few minutes. I breathed a huge sigh of relief as I got off the bike and put the stand down. My feet were slipping as I did this and I had to steady myself with the railing. No ratchet straps either on this boat, just frayed pieces of old rope. Compressing the front shocks I tied down the front and then the rear. I’m no sailor so when I saw a deckhand, I motioned him over and asked him about the knots figuring he would know how to tie a double looped sheepshank or some such super knot. He stared at me, rubbing the stubble on his face, paused and then scowled at me ‘me Italy, Italy, no English, Italy’. I responded with ‘scuse, scuse’ and then pointed to the knots. He looked even more annoyed and scowled again ‘Italy boat, not English’. I shrugged, he shrugged and then wandered off. I think the irony of being on a German boat, carrying an English biker to a French island was lost on him. The European dream was perhaps not alive and well below decks on the ferry.
I like ferries and I travelled on a lot during this trip. Some of my most memorable times on this tour were on ferries. Usually for the wrong reasons like being attacked and sliding the bike down the loading ramp but those are stories for later blogs. This ferry ride was glorious – 4 hours to cross from Livorno to Bastia and given my lack of sleep the previous night, I crashed out in the main cabin, my head rolling around on my chest in that semi asleep state where as you nod, you half wake yourself up. I’m not sure how long I had been asleep but my eyes slowly opened to find two drop dead gorgeous women walking down the aisle towards me. With glassy eyes, I raised my head, adjusted my feet by dragging my boots forward and straightened up slightly. One of them smiled at me whilst the other let out a small giggle. I smiled back. Now, life is full of ups and downs and this was certainly an up! They passed me by, I strolled to the toilet, slightly pigeon chested. Then came the down. As I looked into the mirror in the toilets, there it was. Dribble all the way down my t-shirt. Ah well, I reasoned, their loss.
Buying a coffee was an experience. In my best Italian accent (I’d been in Italy almost 5 days so I was feeling at advanced level by this point) I asked for a latte. The guy said 2 euros, I pay. He gives me a ticket. I look at the ticket and then look back at him. He points to his colleague who is standing right next to him and motions for me to give him the ticket. In a very slow and confused motion I pass the other guy the ticket. He took the ticket, I smiled. He then turned back to the guy I had originally paid and nodded. The original guy then made my coffee. I was still trying to work it out as I staggered back to my seat with the latte.
Four glorious hours later and we arrived in Bastia. No idea what to expect, just a set of GPS co-ordinates to a remote camp site on the far side of the island. All I had to do was get 350Kg of bike off the oil and water ridden deck.
Corsica Bound, View after departing Livorno, Canon 5d2, 16-35L