Orson’s Travel Blog

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Posts Tagged ‘Mediterranean

2004 Portugal To Croatia

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Starting out at my friend’s house near Porto, Portugal where my bike spent the winter months, I traversed southern Europe to reach the fortress city of Dubrovnik, Croatia. Whatta trip! 5600 miles / 9000 kilometers. 26 riding days, 3 rest days. I left Porto & headed east following the Duoro River. The road hugs the river & meanders through Portugal’s famous port wine growing region. It reminds me a lot of the road along the Mossel River in Germany. It definitely merits mentioning as one of the most scenic drives in Europe. I followed the river as far east as possible, almost to the Spanish border before turning south to check out the Sierra de Gredo. A smallish mountain range near Madrid.

Along the Duoro…

Duoro

From the Sierra de Gredos, I turned north, towards los Picos De Europa. Across the Principality of Leon, the land turns flat & featureless. This terrain along the Duero was where the border between the Moors & the Christians stabilized for about 100 years. As such, the region is chock full of castles & fortresses as both sides sought to fortify their positions. After passing through the city of Leon, the terrain started getting interesting again as I approached los Picos De Europa. I enjoyed Los Picos so much, I ended up staying a couple days in Riano.

Approaching Riano

Riano

Another shot of the tasty asphalt in the Picos De Europa

Picos de Europa

Whereas last year, I enjoyed picture perfect weather, this year was spent under the threat of rain. While I probably actually rode in the rain less than 10% of the trip, the ominous presence of dark clouds cast it’s shadow over the first 2 weeks. Here is another shot of threatening skies in los Picos.

Rain

Rainy

From Los Picos De Europa, I hugged the coastline along the Costa Verde towards the Pyrennes. I see what they mean by Costa Verde. I saw some spots greener than green. Every tree, shrub, bush & blade of grass was the exact same hue of green creating a “green out” effect. I crossed the Pyrennes at the Col du Somport. The weather was damp & foggy so…sorry, no pictures of the Pyrennes this time

I crossed the south of France using all the back roads. I saw one road on the map that followed a river so, it seemed like a good choice. It ran between Montauban & Rodez. I’ve mentioned before that I believe the French have some of the best motorcycling roads around. This road had some sweepers like I’ve never seen before. Lean right for 20 seconds, lean left for 20 seconds & on & on. It seemed surreal. I exited that section just shaking my head.

The French road engineers are true artisans. Here is another picture from the south of France. Mind blowing billiard table smooth constant radius 3rd & 4th gear sweepers. Just take this picture & multiply it by miles & miles. You get the idea.

French Roads

Continuing to work my way across southern France was hard work!

Work

Approaching the Maritime Alps on the French Italian border

Alps

When I got near Italy, I felt I had to choose between the Alps or Croatia. I sat at the fork in the road for about 20 minutes studying the map, pondering my options & arguing with myself I finally chose Croatia. Years ago, I had read an article in a car magazine that likened the coastal road in Croatia to California’s Highway 1. Seeing that Highway 1 is my all time favorite road, I was keen to sample the comparison. I blasted across northern Italy via the Autostrada in a bid to save some time but, after a half day of droning, I’d had enough. I veered north towards the Dolomites. In Merano, I took a well deserved day off to plan my attack of the Balkans.

I crossed over into Austria briefly before entering Slovenia via the Wurzenpass through the Julian Alps. Slovenia is a wonderful little country totally covered with mountains & with friendly people. The women seem to be an exquisite blend of German & Italian. The men…well, they looked like men to me 😀

The Wurzenpass.

Alp

The Julian Alps near the town of Bovec, Slovenia

Julien Alps

I entered Croatia after a cursory passport check. No problems getting in. Croatia lies but 15 hours from Germany so, they are used to German bikers vacationing there. I had to make do with a cell phone advertisement for my “Welcome To Croatia” sign 😀

Welcome

Making my way down the coast, the clouds seemed to be following me so, this clouded my perception of any comparisons with Highway 1. Here is a shot of the town of Rogoznica, totally covering a tiny peninsula. Lots of towns with strange sounding names like Zog seem to be places that might be ruled by Ming the Merciless.

Oh yah, the Goose sits in the foreground impatiently sitting through another photo session. Does this look like a bike that likes to sit around all day? No siree, Bob. She’s straining at the bit, raring to get going :naughty:

Coast

Right after this picture was taken, I suffered my biggest scare of the trip. A baseball sized rock materialized before me as I was waiting to pass a car. It glanced off my front tire & whacked my oil pan. I pulled over to check the damage. To my horror, the oil pan had a big chunk knocked out of it & it was dripping oil on the ground. I had remembered seeing an Aprilia sign a few miles back so, I turned around & headed back. The Aprilia shop couldn’t help me but, they knew a mechanic who could. I left the bike with him & took a hotel room. The next morning, he came & picked me up & took me back to the shop. He’d done a good job & patched the Tenni back up. Total lost time- 24 hours. Not bad. The roads in Croatia were pretty rough & uneven. My arm/shoulder sockets ached so bad by the time I got to Dubrovnik, I had trouble sleeping one night. All in all though, I’m glad I went.

I thought it would take about 5 days to reach Dubrovnik. It only took 2. Ooops…so much for good planning. Oh well, this provided me with more time to explore the coastal island chain.

Dubrovnik was shelled by the Serbians during the recent war but, the Croatians have done a great job repairing the damage. The place was full of vacationing Europeans. I saw buses from Poland, Hungary, Estonia and about a bazillion Germans. It seems the Croatia is the next south of Spain. The coastline is still wonderfully undeveloped. The Croatians are sitting on a gold mine. I just hope they plan well & don’t end up ruining it as they have the south of Spain.

The mighty mighty goose surveys the fortress city of Dubrovnik

Dubrovnik

Fortress

An abandoned section of the old Adriatic coast highway just south of Dubrovnik

Coast Highway

Heading back north, I began island hopping along the chain of coastal islands. The coastal islands are served by a whole fleet of ferrys making it easy to go from one island to the next. My favorite was the Island of Brac. A little gem of a rock full of sleepy little fishing villages. Oh…and great twisty roads made it seem like my own little Isle of Man…uhm until the local gendarme flashed his blue lights at me. oopsie

Here is a pic from Brac overlooking the little village of Povlja.

Povlja

Overlooking another village on the Isle of Brac.

Brac

The fishing village of Milsa on Brac where I had a nice lunch of risotto dyed blue with octopus ink

Milsa

Turquoise blue Adriatic off the southern end of the Isle of Cres

Cres

From Cres, I rejoined the mainland on the Istrian Peninsula, prized by the Romans for the quality of their olive oil. On the southern tip of the peninsula lies the town of Pula. The Roman amphitheatre at Pula is the sixth largest surviving Roman arena.

Pula

Heading north from Pula along the west side of the peninsula, I ran into tourist trap hell & the traffic that goes with it. I gave up on following the coast & headed inland. Much nicer. This is a fertile peninsula and was dotted with scenic farms.

I re-entered Slovenia, spent a couple days in the Julian Alps. I found that I still had 4 days left so, that left me a few days to play in the Italian Dolomites. I couldn’t believe how many bikes I saw in the Dolomites considering it was the middle of the week. The place was crawling with German & Austrian bikers.

On my second to last day, I spent rampaging through the passes around Cortina de Ampezzo. At around 4 P.M. I was passing through the town of Corvara when I felt a sudden shudder from the rear end. My first thought was that I had a rear flat. Upon dismounting, I found the tire to be fine. Hmmm. Seems the rampaging through all the passes had wasted my rear wheel bearing I made a call to my bike shop in Parma & we devised a plan. I would leave my bike at one of his friend’s house nearby then catch a train to Milan to catch my flight to Saudi. He would drive up later & pick it up. soooo, I wuz robbed of my last day of riding. I really can’t complain though. After a month on the road, I was well & truly spent. I was extremely fortunate the bearings gave out while I was going thru a town. It would have sucked to have broken down high up a mountain pass as the sun was going down.

This was my second rear wheel bearing failure. Both going out at about the 17,000 kilometer mark. Other than that, the Guzzi performed like an Abrahams M1 tank. Never missing a beat during the whole adventure.

Here’s a shot from the last day in the Dolomites.

Dolomiten

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