Thursday, 16 May 2013

The start..

It started so simply, a conversation with my wife Debbie over a glass of fizz one Saturday night, when I said 
"How about a fortnight in Italy on the bike?"  
Debs thought this was a great idea but added that she loved Greece, and it was only a ferry ride across from Italy. She then mentioned she had friends in Austria and I remembered a mate in Montenegro, so on it went gathering momentum and time away until..

Here we are eight months later with only six hours to go before we set off for a grand five week tour of Europe, my innocent idea of two weeks basking in the Italian summer and sipping a glass of cool white wine has long gone in the welter of preparation for a five week play from Holland to Germany, except it's going to be the long way round via eight other countries. 

We've spent £'s on travel books and many hours on the internet researching areas and hotels that may be suitable for us, both in price and the all-important secure parking! 
Debs initially didn't appreciate the amount of time that all of the preparation would take, but when we got to Christmas the enormity of the task suddenly hit her and then every spare minute was spent pouring over maps, Trip Advisor, ferry booking lists and even a calculator to work out our finances.  

The most common reaction when we told non-biking friends of our trip was "How will you carry all of your clothes?"    

 The answer was vacuum bags - a wonderful invention and you can pack so much more in a pannier, although I smiled a little apprehensively when I read Honda's maximum recommended weight limit for the panniers, fat chance, just wind up the suspension!

Well, the final day before we set off is finally here, Passports and all bike documents packed (plus copied onto a USB stick), money, tickets and hotel bookings are in the tank bag and routes logged into the sat-nav. Locks, phone chargers, spare keys and ID bracelets ready, everything is loaded on the bike and we're ready to get into our kit and away at 2am... I think (hope).

Off to bed early we said - and it's now 11pm, the weather is foul with heavy rain and high winds and we're meant to be up in a couple of hours. I'm panicking as to whether the bike will start, have a flat tyre or if some other unforeseen disaster will befall us.. time will tell.

Just need it to stop raining now... Please? 

                               8th June 2012

Debs:   The alarms went off at 1.15am, and having gone to sleep at 11pm to the sound of wind and driving rain we had fortified ourselves that the weather report had said it would be dry between midnight and 3am. Unfortunately no-one had thought to advise the Weather Gods, so when I leapt out of bed and threw back the curtains I saw the rain, laughed and then scampered downstairs for breakfast.

We finally set off at 2.15am booted, spurred and fully enveloped in our new and untested waterproofs. Steve had given the bike a really good polish the day before and then packed so we’d be all ready for leaving, he could have saved himself the trouble because I think the shine  lasted about 30 yards in the rain!

Loaded and ready to go!

Steve:  The two hour ride that took us to the Eurotunnel  was strangely pleasant with little traffic and well-washed roads, so thoroughly relaxed and dry we arrived at the station at 4.20am.. about an hour before we needed to (blame my Mum, it’s the way she put my hat on!)
Those who have been on the ’Chunnel’ would agree that whilst speedy and fairly cheap, it’s also pretty basic with no seating, I wonder if it‘s the same for cars? There were about 9 other bikes on the train but everyone appeared either too sleepy or shocked by the hour so conversation was minimal.

On arrival in Calais at 7.25am we pottered off on the 3 hour ride to Den Bosch to get our sleeper train, the delightfully named ‘Autoslaap’ service. The journey was uneventful with long, straight motorways for the majority of the trip, but it did at least allow Debs an hours snooze on the back of the bike!

 It’s the first time that we’ve taken the bike on the Autoslaap but had read on the internet of the unique loading process that was obviously designed with cars in mind, for with a bike you ride almost folded over the tank in order to traverse the unique ‘switchback’ layout of the open-sided transporter whilst trying to avoid smacking your head into the very low roof.

Steve unloading the bags before riding the bike onto the train, note the jazzy new waterproofs.

For anyone who contemplates the Autoslaap please be aware that it is notoriously tardy, however, putting aside their ‘continental timekeeping’ the service was superb, and our compact sleeping cabins were very well designed and comfortable.

We had chosen to pre-book an evening meal in the restaurant, and two hours of nice food whilst rolling alongside the rain-lashed but picturesque River Rhine was an excellent conclusion to a long and busy day.

                               9th June 2012

 Debs: Our arrival at Alessandra was delayed from 9.50am by about 5 hours so after retrieving our bike our hazy plans of a little Italian breakfast soon became a ‘possibly lunch‘ and was eventually relegated to a panini on the motorway at 4pm!

It was a little worrying setting off in rush hour traffic after all that I'd read of the Italian driving style, but to be honest grid-lock traffic is much the same anywhere I guess.. whatever, we had a relaxed ride as we weren’t in a hurry, the sun was now shining and we set off from Alessandra two very happy people!   It was great to be on the bike again, the motorway towards Livorno and on to Firenze (Florence) was a stunner -  like a good Sunday ride-out with loads of winding bends and tunnels combined with fabulous views that made the whole trip an absolute hoot, and we eventually arrived in Firenze at 6pm.

No trouble finding the Hotel Ibis thanks to Dolly the sat-nav who directed us right to the door. At first sight I was a bit disappointed as we were only a stones throw from the motorway and Firenze was nowhere in sight.  Where was that magical view over the top of the red terracotta roofs towards the Duomo?  I later found out it was because we were 11 kilometers away!

Ho-hum, on the upside we were in front of a huge shopping Mall and supermarket so food and good inexpensive coffee were on hand.. a nice meal, a couple of drinks and off to bed.. Florence tomorrow!

                              10th June 2012

Debs: Up early today after a good sleep, we enjoyed a delicious breakfast before asking the bloke at Reception if it was possible to get a bus into Town. No problemo it seemed (notice how I just drop into Italian) just cross the road and take the bus into the middle of the city .
What the nice receptionist failed to tell us (and we had forgotten such things) was that one should buy a ticket from a tabac(conists), so we got on the bus without our tickets and tried to buy them from the driver, but he was totally uninterested and just ignored us. Rather bemused we sat down and waited until the end of the journey where he still didn‘t want to know, so we got off the bus and went about our sightseeing, assuming that bus travel must be free for British bike tourists… but like good Christians we bought tickets for the return journey.

imageFirenze was beautiful but unfortunately being both June and a Sunday it was packed to the gunnels with people. Hundreds of tourists (and us) wandering around trying to capture the magnificence of the building into our tiny camera viewfinders!

The Duomo and the Ponte Vecchio proved to be as wonderful as I had hoped, but  Steve just couldn't get over how the extra room was 'tacked on' at the back..They must have done a good job 'cos they're still there!

The city was incredible...  as was the lunchtime meal that we enjoyed at a little tucked-away local bar, we loved the notice on the wall too

We had a great day wandering around the city but to be honest it's too much for one day.. We made our way back to the hotel for a great dinner and a relaxing drink before dropping into bed.

Off to Urbino tomorrow, and Valentino Rossi's cafe the day after..


11th June 2012

After a great nights sleep we were up and packed for an 8.30 departure. Not so many miles to cover today. A little delayed due to the attention that was needed to the new set of matching mozzy bites we had acquired over night..Grrrrr!    It had rained quite heavily so we thought it a good idea to wear waterproofs if only that it would keep us clean with all the spray on the roads.

As we left Firenze and headed up into the mountains we were aware of just how dark it was becoming, and sure enough within 10 minutes we were riding through the torrential rain.  An hour later when we decided to stop for a late brekkie the sun had come out and the temperature had risen from 9 degrees to 26.     Phew -  time to shed a layer!

They have a the most amazing eats in the motorway cafés, so each time we try something different. Today’s was a kind of very thin pita bread with ham and mozzarella which is melted on a griddle, gooey and soooo yummy, and yet more excellent coffee of course.

Our destination today was the medieval hilltop walled city of Urbino, and it was wonderful to leave the motorway at last and head into the hills where we were treated to miles of spectacular views.

On our arrival at the hotel (which this time was within walking distance of the old city) we were greeted like royalty, and immediately given an upgrade to a superior room with amazing views over the valley, free internet, then after unpacking we were offered a ‘Welcome drink’ so we settled for a cooling drink, very similar to Pimms, and finally offered a 10% discount on booking dinner - we certainly like this Hotel!

It may be worth mentioning that tomorrow we were off to visit the local hangout of Valentino Rossi (to those of you not into MotoGP he is a 9 times World Champion and born in Urbino) and the whole point of Steve wanting to come to Italy.

In the meanwhile we spent the afternoon wandering around the old city which was stunning and happily devoid of people.

There were just so many narrow winding streets that all seem to open out onto beautiful piazzas, where we frequently sought a bracing glass of vino before continuing our explorations. The Cathedral was particularly beautiful, bright and cool - unlike the usual dark  ‘over gilded” churches we had seen in the past.

Eventually we succumbed to the call of our evening rituals where a refreshing drink, food and crashing out were duly observed.. Rossi tomorrow!!

                              12th June 2012 

Debs:  After a good breakfast, which included our first cup of tea in 4 days, we got booted and suited ready to head for Valentino Rossi’s café in Tavullia. Unfortunately it began to rain, and when I say rain I mean serious cats and dogs stuff, and if that  wasn’t enough the thunder and lightening decided to join in too.. but undeterred, and after checking with Steve that he had ridden before in such conditions and wasn’t concerned, I climbed aboard and off we went.
However I wasn’t aware that after a few hundred yards the rain had got inside Steves’ visor, and so we missed a turn and ended up going down a 1 in 3 cobbled street!
Oh, did we mention that there were 3 of us on this trip? Steve, Debs and ‘Dolly sat-nav‘.. and there is always one that has to have a sulk and throw their toys out of the pram, well it wasn’t me or Steve -
 Moving very steadily through the rain and relying on Dolly we set off along the rain lashed narrow streets for Tavullia.
'TURN LEFT'  she said as we were actually alongside the junction we needed, we turned around and went left along a fairly steep and very narrow winding road for about a mile.
'TURN AROUND WHEN POSSIBLE'  she then said, Steve muttered but we stopped and with difficulty obeyed.
'TURN AROUND WHEN POSSIBLE'  she said again, Steve muttered a rude word about Dolly but again we stopped and turned.
Then suddenly she repeated a dozen times 'TURN LEFT..TURN LEFT..TURN LEFT' At this point I was aware of Steve rapidly losing his sense of humour and I was about to go into hysterical laughter, not a good idea, so had to bite my tongue!!

We set off again with only a vague idea of which direction to take when suddenly she announced once more that we needed to turn around.. this time I heard exactly what Steve called her as he switched her off!  Such was the downpour that it had got into our ‘waterproof’ sat-nav, the first time in 4 years..

Eventually we rode out of the rain and along some quiet back roads towards Tavullia passing by a beautiful walled village en route.
I couldn't resist taking a few snapshots.

It didn't take much of an effort to work out just where we were when we entered Tavullia and took Dolly into the warm dry café to cheer her up before the next leg of our journey.


Steve:  The sat-nav may have thrown a sulk, we were toasting in the wet weather gear and the road conditions had been foul, but it was worth it just to get to ‘The Doctors’ Headquarters. We dripped our way into the Official Fan Club building where Debs posed with a life-size(?) cardboard cut-out of Valentino, if it’s really life-size he’s a tall lad!


His leathers, helmets and gloves were on display together with huge photos of his more dashing moments, I particularly enjoyed a great shot of him overtaking Casey Stoner at Leguna Seca in the middle of the corkscrew on the dirt.. even though Casey was wearing a black visor you can see the surprise in his body language!

I know you can hardly tell the difference can you?

I’m now an official and fully paid-up Valentino Rossi Fan Club member, but I still have no idea where the hell I’m going to put the T-shirt and cap among our well packed luggage..

Excellent, inexpensive coffee and pastries from his café completed our visit.. Worth it in diamonds!

Debs: By the time we left the café the sun was out and the temperature had risen from 17 degrees to 25, so off came the waterproofs and the soggy gloves (which we had to wring out) and off we went in the direction of the Abruzzo National Park, a mere 4 hours away, and as we turned onto the motorway and we found ourselves riding alongside the Adriatic sea, some lovely views to make up for the earlier weather.

Steve: I appreciate that motorway riding is not the best way of viewing the countryside, but Italy has a lot of hills and mountains and the option to the 4 hour motorway ride was a 17 hour jolly through the mountains, and with the intermittent high winds and torrential rain I settled for boredom!
The weather was all over the show, and during the journey we must have put our waterproofs on and off another 4 times and witnessed temperature variations between a chilly 17 to a barmy 34 degrees. Another feature was a display of true Italian driving.. The speed limit on one stretch was 90km/hr, but I was doing 130 in a procession of vehicles (any slower and they would have run over me) when we came upon a series of bends through tunnels - no view, ‘no overtaking’ signs everywhere, and they’re jostling for position 12’ behind each other at 90mph and overtaking each other through blind bends and getting flashed by oncoming vehicles swerving to avoid them! Crazy.. I was happy to get to the overnight stay.

Debs: The “farm stay” is not quite as we were expecting. Our room is about a mile away from the rest of the accommodation and the main house. It appears they have all sorts of animals, butcher their own meat, make their own wine (4 Euro a litre) and arrange all sorts of activities. One suggestion was a display of goat cheese making, which meant being ready to go meet the shepherd at 5am (not today thank you!) or horse riding, which did sound like good fun but not for us, so we opted to do our own thing… for the day.  Dinner that evening was offered at  a very reasonable rate so we joined the other 10 guests and had a really lovely evening swapping travel stories.

At about 11pm they all went off to their rooms and we set off in the pitch dark to find our way back up the hillside to our accommodation at the edge of the village. As we walked along the lanes we decided that we actually had the better deal, and spent ages looking up into an unpolluted night sky filled with so many stars that they all seemed to be jostling for space. We then noticed that the bushes and trees near us seemed to have their own stars, hundreds of tiny lights flashing wildly as the fire-flies performed their own starburst -  just an incredible sight.

A very busy day, so a cuppa and bed was in order please!

                              13th June 2012

Steve:  Today is a ‘rest day’ as it was known in my previous career, in other words a do nothing, chill out day.. It’s also our third Wedding Anniversary!
So we laid in bed sorting out photos from this trip before they got out of order, and finishing off the blog that Debs did last night… but the sun was shining and a jolly run out on the bike called for, and before long we’re totally lost!
We’d wandered off the beaten track and had a giggle on some seriously winding roads and then found our way back to the town and thought we'd be OK-ish..
However, the Dolly (sat-nav) decided that she didn’t know the way back to our accommodation and we were left to Debs awesome memory for roads, no good relying on me ‘cos I get lost getting out of the lift.. But we made it back and sat on the patio drinking cold beer - what better way to enjoy an Anniversary?

We’re also joined by a stray and adopted dog called ‘Neve’ (the Italian is for snow), she’s a bit shy but so eager to be friends..  She had been found by a friend of Antonello (our temp landlord) frozen in the snow in February, and had obviously been mistreated by a man ‘cos she’s very cautious with me. A lovely dog, how can they do this?

Dinner is scheduled with the rest of the happy campers at 8pm, then off for a relatively early night before getting off as soon as possible in the morning.

Tomorrow is a short ride across to a posh hotel on the Amalfi coast as a delayed Anniversary treat from our friend Diane. Let’s see how we go - more tomorrow.