Orson’s Travel Blog

Moto-travels

2007 Mediterranean Island Hop

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As I had never been to southern Italy, I decided to remedy that situation by sending team orson on an all-encompassing trip of Italy. Originally, I had planned on heading south through the boot of Italy then across to Sicily and up through Sardinia. However, I began to think that I might get caught out by convoluted ferry schedules so I decided to take the islands first.

I arrived in Parma, collected my trusty steed and loaded up the luggage. Heading out, I made my way south along the autostrada to Modena before turning southwest across the Appenines. I stopped for a quick picture in the pretty spa town of Bagni di Lucca.

Reaching Livorno on the coast, I purchased a ticket for the next mornings ferry to Corsica then found myself a hotel room. The sea was calm and the crossing to Corsica was uneventful, arriving in Bastia at around lunchtime. I headed west along the northern coast along the Gulf de St. Florent.

Corsica is nothing but a huge mountain range jutting out of the Mediterranean. As you can imagine, this means there are some excellent, twisty two-lanes for two-wheeled entertainment. Northern European riders flood into Corsica in droves to enjoy the great twisties. Mostly Germans & Austrians with a smattering of Swiss & Dutch riders. In all my years of touring, I’ve never felt like a sheeple but that changed on Corsica. Where normally I might see 1 or 2 other touring riders in a day, on Corsica I saw maybe 30 to 40 riders a day! There were armadas of touring riders travelling in packs of up to 10. Very seldom did I see anyone else travelling alone. The Honda Trans-Alp, Beemer GS has a sizeable following with almost as many riding sport bikes. Full dressers and Harleys were rare on this trip.

If you planted Big Bend National Park in the middle of the Mediterranean, you’d have Corsica. That’s the best way I can describe it. Here’s a couple of pictures of the impressive central mountain range.

My plan was to find a hotel up in the mountains where the temperatures were nice and cool. That plan didn’t work out as every hotel I stopped at was full! I continued southwards, dropping down from the mountains to the capital city of Ajaccio. I thought for sure that I would find a room in such a large city but, alas, everything was full. I found out that I had arrived on Corsica on a Friday in the midst of a three day French holiday weekend…D’oh! I was finally able to grab the last room at an upscale resort south of Ajaccio.

Here is the view from my room. I had been hoping for the cool mountains but, if I had to settle for the coast, I guess this would do!

Since I had been to Corsica a couple years ago, I decided not to fight the French crowds and make tracks for Sardinia. The next morning, I made my way south along the twisty, coastal road to the port of Bonaficio for the 1 hour ferry to Sardinia.

Parked up and waiting to board for the 3 P.M. sailing.

The impressive coastal fortifications around Bonaficio.

We disembarked at Santa Teresa on the northern tip of Sardinia just after 4 P.M. so, I made my way down the eastern coast of the island in search of a hotel room. After yesterday’s foibles in Corsica, I was relieved to find a vacancy at the first hotel I stopped at near Olbia. The next day, I set off exploring in a southerly direction. My immediate impression of Sardinia was that it was a little more arid than Corsica. In some places it resembled the Texas Hill Country or New Mexico and in other places it reminded me of Arizona or Southern California.

I couldn’t get over how little traffic there was! It was if someone had set off a neutron bomb. I might encounter 1 car every 15 minutes. Quite a change from the chaotic traffic on the Italian mainland! Roads didn’t seem to last for very long before they merged into other roads. It seemed like I had to stop every 5 km to check the map. Lots of head scratching.

The roads on Sardinia were generally in good to excellent condition. I had been expecting Corsica to have better roads what with the French government’s penchant for building excellent roads but I was pleasantly surprised to find that Sardinia was no slouch in the asphalt department.

The twisties seemed to go on forever! Entire tanks of gas were ridden in third gear, that magical, catch all gear that seems a perfect combination of speed and torque. Every now and then I’d have to engage 4th gear to punctuate a short straight or dab down into 2nd for a tight switchback. The rest of the time, 3rd gear was more than willing to take on the brunt of the load. Two-lane twisties for as far as you could see. Hard left followed by hard right and on and on…

Now, I love twisties as much as the next guy but, I began to wonder if a few straights every now and then might bring some relief! The curves came literally one right after the other, mile after mile. With the temperatures reaching the upper 80’s, I began to feel the fatigue of the endless curves…a predicament I had never faced before. I guess I must be aging disgracefully.

For such an arid land, there were lots of things growing as my sinuses began to inform me. The air was flush with fragrant scents of mint leaves and other flora.

There were cacti growing everywhere further adding to that American southwest feeling.

At a gas stop in the town of Aritzo in the mountainous Monti del Gennargentu region, tragedy struck my tank bag. As I was filling up, the tank bag fell off to the side of the bike, snapping off one of the straps 😦 I managed to rig the remaining strap so that I could continue to ride, but it would be better if I could get it fixed. At that night’s hotel, I asked if there was a cobbler in town. After getting directions through a labrynth of streets (asking two more times) I finally managed to find a tiny shop the size of a small closet.

I showed the old man the problem and he immediately set about fixing it. Within 5 minutes, he had expertly stitched the strap back on. Good as new! What had looked like a dire situation 12 hours earlier, evaporated in the clear morning sunlight! He suggested 1 Euro as compensation. I gave him 10 Euros. I almost had to force him to take it. I probably doubled his weekly income.

Old world craftmanship…

In just about every small town I passed through, I would notice murals depicting everyday life. They were quite well drawn and evocative.

I finally began to encounter some straight-ish roads the farther south I got. Relief!

By the time I had reached the southern portion of the island, its endlessly curvey roads had done a number on my rear tire. There are those people who suggest that a Moto Guzzi is simply incapable of shredding roads. Those people might be wrong 🙂

That’s one rear tire seen off by Sardinia 🙂

After 5 days on Sardinia, I reached the capital city of Cagliari at the south end of the island. Kudos to the Kawasaki ZX-10R riding local who showed me where I could get a new tire fitted. Within one hour, I had a fresh, new rear tire. I wish things always worked out so smoothly.

I came away extremely impressed with Sardinia. While the roads in Corsica might have been tighter, Sardinia’s roads were no pushovers. I reckon Corsica would be Deal’s Gap to Sardinia’s Cherahola Skyway. All that with hardly any traffic!

With a new tire, I had a few hours to kill before the overnight ferry to Sicily so I explored Cagliari’s harbor.

This shot looks like the LP cover of some 70’s crooner 🙂 An elderly woman looking out over the harbor.

I arrived at the dock at 6 P.M. for the 7 P.M. sailing. I saw an orderly line waiting to board a ferry and fell in. When I got to the ticket taker he informed me that this was the wrong ferry. My ferry was further down the dock. I rode down the dock and into utter bedlam. What had been a nice orderly scene at the first ferry, degenerated into unrestrained chaos. There seemed to be about 10 different people in charge, all shouting out instructions. By some miracle, everything was loaded in time and the ferry departed exactly as it was scheduled. Italy is funny that way 🙂

Bedlam unfolds before boarding the ferry to Sicily…

I made my way to my cabin and after watching Sardinia slip off the boat’s stern, I had a small supper and settled into bed. When I awoke the next morning, we would be approaching the island of Sicily.

I awoke the next morning about 1 hour from Palermo. I made my way to the coffee shop & received my daily dosage of capuccinos before preparing to disembark. The weather had turned to overcast skies. While the clouds offered some relief from the heat, it also made photo opportunities a bit more difficult. After getting off the ferry, my first mission was to buy a map of Sicily. Easier said than done it seems. The first 6 gas stations I stopped at had no maps. At each stop, I was given a look that said,”This is a gas station. Why would we sell maps?” I was finally able to find a book store that had a map of Sicily.

Palermo.

Riding in Italy is a study of patience. Where as in the U.S. everything is based on fast, speedy service, fast food, quick bank loans, instant gratification, in Italy, time ceases to have meaning. Stopping for a meal, takes at least one hour as your meals are usually 3 course affairs followed by an espresso, all consumed at a relaxed rate. Whereas in the states, you can make a stop at a convenience store, fill up your tank, grab a cold drink or a bite to eat, that’s not the way things work in Italy. In Italy, you go to the gas station for gas. There won’t even be a coke machine in sight. If you want to have a drink, you have to go to the bar/tabacceria, order a drink, then have a seat. If you want to eat, you go to a restaurant.

At first, this can be a bit frustrating for someone used to the conveniences of the states, but after a short time, you begin to be assimilated into the ways of Italian life. Everything must be slowed down so that each moment can be savored. Meals are consumed at a languid pace with sips of wine between each bite of food. There is nowhere to go and no hurry to get there.

Sicily holds a central location in the Mediterranean and therefore has seen many conquerors come and go from the Greeks, the Carthiginians, the Romans, the Arabs, the Spanish and even the Germans. Because of this, Sicily has many influences in its architecture and culture. The western part of Sicily sees more Arabic influences, while the eastern half sees a lot of influence from the Greeks. There are even a few Albanian villages in the mountains where the secluded inhabitants still speak Albanian. Arabic influences are seen in the delectable variety of sweets in Sicily. Sicilians have a real sweet tooth with sweets made from ricotta and sugar and almond pastes.

With newly purchased map in hand, I head out from Palermo towards the west coast, passing by San Vito lo Capo.

The roads seemed tighter and less maintained than those on Sardinia so, the quality of riding deteriorated. Still, it was nice to see all the ancient history. Sicily seemed a lot more hardscrabble and rugged than Sardinia.

I followed the coast southward until it turned towards the east.

If you’re a history buff, Sicily is a treasure trove with history seemingly at every turn. I’d be rolling along when suddenly, ancient Greek temples appeared off in the distance, standing as they have since the 5th century BC

The Temple of Concord near Agrigento.

These bad boys were seen all over southern Italy. The Fiat 500 is a classic known as a fun drive. It’s said that former world champion Michael Schumaker even owns one.

In Vittoria, I stopped at a Ducati dealer to have a new front tire mounted. They had a Hypermotard on display. I hadn’t even realized they were out on the market yet. Here you can see its compact size in comparison to a Multistrada.

Heading inland, I Had to watch my gas gauge and my watch as there didn’t seem to be many hotels inland. I had to try to time it to be near the coast at night. The backroads were tight and more conducive to touring than to sport touring.

Approaching Mount Etna, she remained cloaked in a veil of clouds perhaps intimidated by the rumble of the mighty Guzzi’s v twin. Finally, around 10 A.M. she made her grand entrance. On the slopes of Mount Etna, I had to put on my fleece for the first time since leaving the mainland to ward off the high altitude chill.

It wasn’t long though before the clouds descended again…

Everywhere I went in southern Italy, I saw abandoned homes, perhaps people who left for America or people who gave up on a plot of land, whatever the reasons it seemed a testament to a hard life.

I must have passed through a thousand small towns with narrow winding streets. Sometimes I’d arrive at a 5 way intersection with no sign as to which way I was supposed to go. Nothing to do but pick one and see where it took me.

Rule # 98 of travelling in Italy. Ask directions from old men. They seemed grateful that someone values their opinion. So much so that sometimes they wouldn’t stop talking! 🙂

After 5 days in Sicily, I made it to the port city of Messina to catch a ferry back to the mainland. There’s talk of building a bridge across the Straights of Messina. As you can see from the photograph, you can almost throw a stone across it.

After a short 20 minute ferry ride, I was back on the Italian mainland in the boot tip. I rode through the Aspromonte National Park with its dark forest roads that reminded me a bit of Northern California. I later found out that this is where the Mafia goes to dispose of their dirty business.

The road signs in this part of Italy are terrible and with me being a card carrying Luddite without a GPS, I was left to fend for myself. Eventually, I found my way and made it across the central mountain range to the souther side of the “toe”.

The town of Stilo, like many Italian towns occupies a strategic spot atop a hill with a church usually occupying the highest place.

After pottering about in the south, I became concious of time running out on my vacation so I made the decision to put in some miles on the autostrada. Normally, freeways are meant to make time and not very scenic however, that’s not the case with the A3. Cutting through beautiful mountains, the A3 offers visual delights with enough sweeping bends to keep things interesting. As freeways go, you could do a lot worse than the A3.

After a day on the autostrada, I had reached the famed Amalfi coast. I had an interest in Amalfi since my father spent time there during World War II. My father fought in the war as a member of the Royal Canadian Artillery that was involved in the forgotten Italian campaign. After being wounded, he was sent to recover in Amalfi at a convent that had been converted into a military hospital. I remember my father waxing nostalgic about the beautiful town.

While in Amalfi, I took the time to visit the nearby ruins of Pompeii. Pompeii is said to have an effect on some people. Unfortunately, I wasn’t one of them. Although I’m a history buff, the ruins didn’t really overwhelm me in that way but it was an interesting stop all the same. One exception were the plaster casts of the victims who died in the eruption. Some seemed to have sat down and surrendered to their inevitable fate. It was very dramatic to see them as they were in their last moments alive.

Fresco in a Roman noble’s home.

All the while, Mount Vesuvius watched over the proceedings

From Pompeii, I returned to Amalfi along the famous Amalfi Coast road, said by some to be the most beautiful road in the world. As it was a weekend, the road was clogged with four-wheeled tourist traffic. This isn’t a problem in Italy on a motorcycle as you simply straddle the center line, select the appropriate gear…and motivate 😀 I must have passed a thousand cars stuck in traffic…two wheels are the only way to go!

While the road is undoubtedly beautiful, I still regard California’s Pacific Coast Highway as the top motorcycle road in the universe.

Private homes dot the landscape nestled on precarious perchs above the sea.

The city of Salerno, south of Naples clings to the side of a cliff like no city its size I’ve ever seen.

Back in Amalfi, I took the time walking the town’s streets, trying to imagine the places my father had been. It must have been a special place back then before tourism transformed it. I believe this structure on the hillside may have been the convent where my father convalesced.

A shot of the hotel where I stayed while on the Amalfi coast.

There was one more place I wanted to see while here. Like many veterans of the war, my father seldom spoke of his wartime experiences. One of the few times he did was to mention the destruction of the abbey atop Monte Cassino during the Battle of Monte Cassino. The Germans were reportedly using the abbey as an observation post and Allied command ordered it to be bombed. He spoke ruefully of the destruction of the beautiful abbey. I’m sure my father would be pleased to learn that the abbey has since been rebuilt to its former glory with its fantastic views.

The Abbey on Monte Cassino.

Unlike Pompeii, this place did move me…perhaps because of my personal connection or perhaps reflecting on the lives that were lost in this bloody chapter of the war.

Unfortunately, this would be my last picture as my camera’s battery bit the dust three days from the end of the trip. Unfortunate also because the Umbria and Tuscany regions I passed through are perhaps the most beautiful regions of Italy.

North of Rome, the roads started improving and I was able to resume sport touring as opposed to just touring. Afterall, that’s the reason we are here 😀

I spent the last three days zig-zagging through Umbria and Tuscany. These places really live up to their billing with picturesque hilltop towns and countryside. In my opinion, Tuscany and Umbria should rank alongside the Alps as prime motorcycling destinations. They may not have the majestic mountains of the Alps but the region is dotted with great places to stay, wonderful places to eat and great motorcycling roads.

The last three days was also a study in rain avoidance as I somehow managed to skirt around thunderstorms with only an occasional sprinkle. On the last day of the trip, I cut up the coast to La Spezia before cutting across the Appenines to Parma over the Paso de Cisa. Ironically, this was the first road I travelled after purchasing my Guzzi in 2002 so it seemed a fitting way to complete a circle and reaching 60,000 kilometers on the Guzzi’s clock.

Distance: 6300 km / 3915 miles
Days: 21 travel days / 2 rest days
Puckers: 1
Police interaction: 1
Deer encounters: 1
Bee stings: 1

Second guessings: I may have gone along the more mountainous northern coast of Sicily rather than the south coast. I should have dove in to Napoli for a taste of real Neopolitan pizza. I probably bit off more than I could chew. Sardinia itself could have taken 3 weeks to explore. I covered a lot of ground but didn’t get to see everything such as the “heel” of Italy.

Maps:

Corsica

Sardinia

Sicily

Southern Italy

Central Italy

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2 Responses

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  1. Fantastic article, and beautiful pictures!

    I spent a month in Italy in Sep/Oct ’08, and loved every minute of it. Stayed in Lucca for a week, and cycled all through the area, including up to Bagni di Lucca. Also spent a week on the Amalfi coast – a little south of where you were, in Minori. Your story of the cobbler was almost word for word the same as an experience we had in Minori when my wife’s shoe needed fixing.

    Thanks for posting this up! Very nice.

    spotcom

    March 2, 2009 at 5:19 am

  2. There is no way to pick a favorite trip report here but Mediterranean Island Hop is a ride I dream of duplicating. Fantastic!

    supermotosuperblog

    March 2, 2009 at 1:22 pm


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