Autostrada

Day 34 – Wednesday 31st August – From Brindisi to Civitavecchia (660km)

The ferry reached Brindisi at 6:00, just as the sun was rising behind the huge cranes of the dock. I rolled out of its belly, parked by the exit and offered everyone who was driving off the ferry a strip-tease show as I took off the clothes I had worn for the voyage and put on the riding gear.

img_1370I had to be in Civitavecchia by 20:00 at the latest in order to get the tickets and board the 22:00 ferry to Barcelona, but after my experience in the Igoumenitsa port terminal I preferred to get there earlier than that, so I had decided that for the first and only time in the whole trip, today was going to be an all motorway day.

img_1369I rode out of the dock, quickly left behind the always ugly area around a port and soon was on the motorway. I was starting the day already tired – had not slept much on the ferry, it was too hot and noisy, so I decided to stop often and take it easy.

Compared to the roads and motorways I had used in Greece, this autostrada made Italy look like Switzerland – perfect tarmac, civilised drivers (yes, in the south of Italy), free Wi-Fi in all petrol stations and rest areas… The landscape was not bad either, particularly in the central part of my journey, when the motorway crossed between two natural parks, the Parco Regionale di Monti Picentini and the Parco Nazionale di Cilento Vallo di Diano. From there it went down to Naples, around it and all the way to Rome.

I stopped very often to rest, eat, read a bit of the book I was carrying and at first at least, refuel. But petrol is rather expensive in Italy, so I decided to test how far I could get with one tank on this new motorbike. Theoretically, it should be able to reach 400km, but I had never seen such good fuel consumption figures in real life. I was riding on mostly flat motorway, however, and was in no particular hurry. I was about 380km from the port in Civitavecchia the second time I filled the tank, so I set myself the challenge to refuel next in Barcelona. I filled the tank to the brim and set off for the reminder of the journey trying to apply everything I knew about economy driving. I say ‘driving’ because I learnt that in the car, I have never applied such style to the motorbike…

img_1371I kept a steady 100km/h, without accelerating hard to overtake slower vehicles, letting the bike coast downhill with very small throttle openings, anticipating other driver’s manoeuvers to avoid braking, etc.

It was boring as hell, but riding on the motorway always is, so going faster or riding more aggressively was not going to make much of a difference. Anyway, at about 19:00 I was just two kilometres away from Civitavecchia when the reserve warning light came on. On normal use this usually happened between 270 and 300km. This time it was at 383km. I had achieved an indicated 4.4l/100km average consumption, and according to the on board computer estimate, I could still go on another 66km, although that number tends to be rather optimistic.

The terminal building in Civitavecchia was much quieter than in Igoumenitsa, there were no queues, the Grimaldi offices were clearly indicated, there were seats everywhere, and there was free Wi-Fi. Well, for the first 15 minute. I got the tickets and waited around for about an hour, when boarding began.

Again, the motorbikes where first to get on board, so I managed to get a good spot with a power socket and settled down to watch a film and spend the night. Tomorrow afternoon I would see Barcelona again.

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The Stelvio

Day 66 – Thursday 29th of August – Cortina d’Ampezzo to Sta. Maria (237km)

Those of you who are Top Gear fans will remember that Clarkson and company declared the Stelvio pass the best road ‘in the wooooorld’ until they discovered the Transfagarasan road on their visit to Romania. I had the privilege of riding that road almost two months ago and I completely agree with them – it is an amazing ride and a must for any bikers riding Europe. Today, however, our route back home was going to take us across the Stelvio and I was eager to see how it compared with the Transfagarasan and whether it deserved that second place.

I was very excited at the prospect of riding another legendary road, what I did not know was that the two days it would take us to get to Interlaken were going to be a feast of absolutely marvelous mountain passes that would make it very difficult to come to a conclusion and chose the best one.

I had bought a good old paper map of the Alps in Slovenia which had a lovely level of detail, and we were going to use that to navigate for the next few days, using the GPS only as extra help to get from one waypoint to the other and programming it on the way, as I did not want to depend on whatever route it might decide from A to B and miss on some great roads.

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We rode out of Cortina under a glorious blue sky, my allergy all but gone, and were soon climbing a pass called Di Sella. The tarmac was in excellent condition, there was not much traffic aside from other bikes and the road wound its way up the pass through lush fields of green, a combination of fast corners at the bottom and hairpins at the top. It was here that I saw for the first time that Italians number the corners on their mountain passes, so can count how many you have to go.

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We stopped at the top of the pass, where there were hundreds of cars parked. It was clear that it was the starting point of many hiking and climbing routes, and the place was crowded. Luckily, we were able to just park the bike next to a couple of GSs right by the road and decided to take a short walk up the mountain to enjoy the views. Nat was feeling a bit cold after the ride in the morning air, but a brisk hike up a mountain trail dressed in bike gear soon warmed us up.

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After taking a few pictures we got back on the bike and rode down the other side, which turned out to be even better.

Rides like this put all other roads in perspective, and once we were down from the mountain pass and going to Bolzano, what might have been a decent road felt like the dullest thing in the world. We went past the city, took a short stretch of free motorway to Merano and then got back on a B-road again, heading for the Stelvio. There were about 50km to the point where the road leading up the pass started, and the traffic was quite heavy. To make matters worse, there were not many overtaking opportunities, at least not legal overtaking, so I was starting to worry. We passed several trucks easily, but what I did not like was the fact that there were quite a lot of motorhomes on the road. I assumed that trucks had no reason to take the Stelvio, but I was afraid that the tourists crawling along on their motorhomes might want to visit it, thus completely ruining the experience for all the enthusiasts riding bikes or driving sports cars that might end up stuck behind them, chugging up the road at 20km/h.

Overtaking as many as I could on those last 50km before the Stelvio, I could not help but to agree with Mr. Clarkson. A truck might be slow, but at least it is performing a service to society, a caravan is just a moving obstacle on the road driven by someone who is too good to sleep on a tent but too mean to pay for a hotel. And not even that, those things, especially motorhomes are expensive, why not just buy a decent car, enjoy a good drive and spend the difference in a hotel!?

Anyway, by the time we got to the junction, we had left all of them behind, and we had a clear road ahead of us. After passing a couple of towns I was very pleased to see signs limiting the length and weight of the vehicles allowed up the pass, which meant that there would be no caravans, motorhomes or tourist coaches blocking our way. Great! I dropped a couple of gears and leaped for the first serious corner.

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What a ride! This was a very different place from the Transfagarasan – one hairpin after the other, I had to take them in first gear, using the whole width of the road to carry enough inertia to keep the bike from falling over or stalling. Remember, this was no sports bike, but a fully loaded adventure tourer with two people on it. In spite of that, it performed admirably, roaring its way up the road and, surprisingly, keeping up with much more powerful machinery.

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Nat did a beautiful co-piloting job, looking up the road as we approached each corner and letting me know if the way was clear for me to use all the available tarmac, and the odd slow car was quickly overtaken between hairpins. Oh, and talking about slow cars, I felt really, really sorry for a convoy of gorgeous Lotus Elises that spent the last part of the way up helplessly stuck behind a RAV4 driven at 10km/h by a family of tourists who looked absolutely terrified at the corners.

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There were hundreds of bikers at the top of the pass, and while the GS seemed to be the machine of choice (there are thousands of these things everywhere!) people had ridden up here in all kinds of things, including an old woman on a classic Vespa.

I bought a Stelvio pass sticker to put on the bike and then sat down to have a rest and ponder whether this was better than the Transfagarasan or not.

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The landscape was no doubt amazing, high rocky mountains covered in snow, deep valleys, lush pine forests at the bottom… but the corners were too tight for my taste, at least on the eastern side, which meant that the riding was less enjoyable than in the Romanian road, which had faster corners. This was all first and second gear. Of course the Stelvio is a well-known name for riders in Europe, and there is something magic to it, but that fame has a price, which brings me to the second reason why I prefer the Transfagarasan. Unlike the Transfagarasan, the Stelvio attracts a lot of people, which is OK as far as bikes and sports cars go, but there are also a lot of people driving very slowly on it, which spoils the experience if you are stuck behind one of them for a while. Finally it also suffers from the same problem that affects all great driving roads in Western Europe – cyclists. Hundreds of them, fantasizing they are wearing the maglia azzurra in the Giro. There is virtually no traffic on the Transfagarasan other than a few enthusiasts, and that is reason enough for me to agree with the boys from Top Gear and rate it above the Stelvio.

Which does not mean I think it is the greatest road ever…

To be completely fair, I have to confess that we did not ride down the other side of the Stelvio, so my impressions might be incomplete. We were heading for the Davos area, so once at the top, we took a smaller road that went down the northern side. It was great – no traffic, faster corners, beautiful scenery, and it even had a bit of adventure riding factor, as halfway down the tarmac disappeared and it became a dirt track for the rest of the ride. It was quite funny to see the faces of some guys on sports bikes and a couple on a Porsche trying to make their way up the pass!

Once in the valley we started looking for a campsite, but there was only one in the area and it did not look very nice. Add to that that the night was going to be quite cold up there and we decided to ride to the next town and try to find a room to rent or some kind of B&B.

The town was called Santa Maria, and it did have a hotel and a youth hostel, but to our dismay the hostel was booked full and the hotel was way too expensive. We were standing by the bike in the center of the town, tired and cold, not very happy at the prospect of having to spend all evening trying to find accommodation when a huge truck came along and started to very slowly negotiate the narrow space between two old buildings. Its flanks were literally only a couple of inches from the walls on each side, and as we were watching the show I hear a voice say ‘cool, uh?’ We turned around and saw a woman contemplating the scene next to us. We got chatting about it and she told us that it was a daily thing, there were big truck passing through the old town quite often. She then saw the bike and asked ‘are you looking for a room?’

It turned out she lived in a big old house round the corner and she had done up a room in the ground floor to rent to tourists. She made us a very good deal, so we parked the bike in her garden and spent the night there. It was much, much better than we could have hoped for. The room was big and cosy, the bathroom was almost as big as the room and best of all… the floor was heated. It was better than many hotels I have stayed in.

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A Spritz in Cortina

Day 65 – Wednesday 28th of August – Ljubljana to Cortina d’Ampezzo (296km)

I was very excited to be riding back to Alps and the prospect of spending a bit longer there riding some of the best roads in Europe, since my first taste on the way east had been all too short, but I felt a pang of regret as we rode out of Ljubljana. Slovenia is a beautiful country and there are lots of things we were leaving behind undiscovered – Predjama castle and its cave, the Triglav mountains, Ljubljana itself, where I could easily have spent a couple more days… It is definitely a place where I could spend my entire holidays. My biggest regret, however, was not having had the chance to meet Metka and Franci again, my hosts on my first visit to the city. Our improvised travel schedule meant that we were not sure when we would be in the there, and it had been very difficult to find and internet connection on the days leading up to our arrival in the city, so I could not get in touch in time to confirm whether they would be there or on holidays, and on top of that we only spent a night before moving on.

On the way to the border we stopped to visit Bled castle, built on a cliff overlooking the lake that bears the same name. It was a wonderful place, it is a shame that we lost too much time trying to get in and out of the town because of the traffic jams caused by the huge trucks trying to make their way through the old center.

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My first language is Catalan, and as Nat and I had been following a route that took us away from Europe’s main tourist centers, we had grown used to being able to have conversations about pretty much anything without having to worry about the people around us understanding what we were talking about, since there was very little chance of bumping into fellow countrymen. However, walking down the path that lead from the castle door back to the car park, we were having a lively chat over a, let’s call it “interesting topic”, when we came across a group of tourists on their way up. Right in the climax of the conversation, one of them said ‘bon dia!’ in a jokingly tone and we both stopped talking abruptly before bursting into laughter. Well, it goes to show that we are everywhere indeed.

We rejoined the motorway for a while before turning left into a smaller road following the Belca river in order to avoid paying again to use Austrian roads. It would take a little longer to get to the Italian border, but it was worth it – we rode around the north face of the Triglav mountains and the scenery was breathtaking. Unfortunately the rain caught up with us right on the border, so we had to make an emergency stop to put on the waterproof gear.

Once in Italy though, the rain stopped quickly, so we decided to take the chance to stop for a lunch and a rest just in case the weather turned nasty again later.

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Fortunately, it did not, and we enjoyed the ride along the river Fella; there was a motorway, but we had time to spare and decided to take the SS13, which was much nicer. As we got closer to Tolmezzo things turned rather boring, we went through an industrial area and then took a stretch of rather dull road, but soon enough we got to the Dolomiti area and took much nicer roads leading to Cortina.

The scenery in this area was simply breathtaking. I could have spent weeks just riding this roads again and again, not to mention climbing on the numerous via ferrata there are everywhere here or just hiking. It is a wonderful place and I am a hundred per cent sure that sometime in the future I will be back here.

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We got to Cortina and started looking for a place to sleep. Since hotels were horribly expensive and there were no hostels, we decided to look for a campsite. However, I was rather tired – the last bit on the mountain roads had been fun but exhausting- the whole trying to find a place to sleep was getting frustrating and on top of that I suddenly had a bad case of hay fever that left me sneezing like crazy and unable to think clearly.

We found a couple of campsites, but they were not exactly cheap, I needed a good rest and a hot shower and Nat was feeling quite cold after crossing the mountains. In the end, given the small difference in price between getting a plot to set up the tent and renting the small room in the reception building and enjoying a proper bed and a shower, we decided to go for the second option. Once we had already paid for it and were waiting to get the keys, the guy told us that his sister had already rented the room and had not updated that into the system, so he made a couple of phone calls and pointed us in the direction of a nice little house halfway up a grassy hill where an old lady rented a room, and told us he had arranged for us to stay there for the same price.

Once we had settled down at Ms. Maria’s place, I had a quick shower and we went out to finish the day with a Spritz in a nice bar in the center of Cortina.

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