Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Italy Motorcycle Diary:15. Kayaking in Venice

 Showered and feeling human again, I headed to the Duomo plaza and met Paul and Dusty. We sat at an outdoor cafĂ©, where I ordered a liter of beer, which is really quite unlike me. I caught up on Dusty’s Swiss adventure, listened  to Paul’s tales of Sorrento and Capri. I got a serious buzz and was full of pomp and swear words.
                “I think you’re annoying the people next to us,” Paul told me.
                “I don’t care what anyone thinks,” I said, peppering my answer with more cursing. “They have no idea what I’m saying, anyway.”
                But I knew Americans were sitting at the table next to us. One of the women in the group kept looking back at me, clearly ticked off.
                My buzz wore off after we ate, and we walked around. We went inside one of the two Medici Chapels, the Sagrestia Nuova, which features several stunning Michelangelo sculptures. We strolled through the outdoor markets. Dusty insisted we go to the food mall for dinner. The mussels were tasty, and the birra inexpensive. The next day we boarded a train for Venice.
                That day went by fast. Walking out to the main canal after disembarking from the train, the weather seemed more tolerable at first. Then came the long walk with our luggage to the hotel. I was a steaming mess when we arrived. But the hotel, the Pension Guerrero, turned out to be a cozy and convenient resting house. It was a Rick Steve’s special. Apparently it was near a bunch of cool restaurants with discounted pricing. But when it came time to eat dinner, we ended up walking around for an hour while trying to find a place. It was insane. We walked everywhere except for that discount zone. Paul discovered the zone later that night, when we went out for more beer after Dusty and I had zonked out. Not that I disliked my dinner — I enjoyed it very much, knowing that it would be one of my last in Italy on the trip.
                The Guerrero’s breakfast was another beautiful thing. Then, swimsuits on, we were off to kayak in the canals. We used the services of Venice by Water, located in a courtyard that — like everything else in Venice — was centuries old. An employee led us through a door into the shop, and we donned gloves and life vests. It was tricky to step off the platform at the back end of shop into the kayak waiting in the green water, but I didn’t take a plunge, and neither did Paul and Dusty.
                We toured block after block with two trusty guides, one in front, and one bringing up the rear. Some of the lanes were congested, and we were forced to grip the walls on one side or another to let traffic pass. All other vehicles had the right away, and we spent half the time dodging gondolas, water taxis, personal skiffs, and cargo-laden barges. But we found quietude in several of the older, more posh canalways that bordered both buildings and the high, concrete walls of 16th or 17th-century courtyards decorated with vines and flowers. Crossing the Grand Canal was a thrill, because we had to time it just right to avoid the fast-moving commercial boats. The sun had been covered by gray clouds for most of our trip — a blessing. Rain poured down as we began our fast paddle across the Grand Canal.
                It felt good to shower off the canal water back at the hotel room. Depressed, I packed my bags. We had time for one more beer session and snack. As we stood in an arcade, the sky opened up. Terrific cracks of thunder were followed by gale-force winds and sheets of rain. The plazas cleared out and a cool breeze wafted in along with the rain. We chatted with a couple of English-speaking German guys.
And the time came to leave the brothers, and Venice. And Italy.
                I caught a late train to Rome, arriving at 11 p.m., and checked into the Best Western Art Deco near the Termini. A big day of travel awaited, and the return to my home and family in the American Southwest. Nothing was open around the Best Western except for a convenience store; I bought some peanuts and a sports drink. But the kindly hotel clerk smiled when I asked him for one last request before bed, and brought me a bowl full of cubettos di ghiacchio.

August 2017

Italy Motorcycle Diary: 14. Tuscany and Pisa

For breakfast I cut up fresh strawberries in the room and put them in yogurt, having gone to a grocery store after dinner. There was no dryer, and I’d splayed my clothes out over chairs and near the bathroom window. It was mostly dried by morning. I got an early start and was soon cruising through the Colle di Valle of Elsa and classic Tuscany scenery of farmhouses and Cyprus trees. Many farms were yellowed squares, and I assumed the drought had made everything appear drier than normal. But overall I had the impression of driving through a movie set or painting.
My new destination was Volterra. Beyond that, I wasn’t sure. Florence and the end of the R1200RS and the joys of the road were growing closer. I should have planned the last day better. Volterra was a treat, but I was concerned about the time and wanted to eke out a few more miles, so I didn’t enter the town’s interior. I bought a few souvenirs in an onyx shop and hit the road again.
In Volterra, I saw a multitude of well-dressed motorcyclists, and by that I mean expensive, cool-looking leather-wear. I’d seen a few other motorcycle tourists on the road the day before. Most of the smart ones were staying well north, I thought. Dusty had seen packs of motorcycles in Switzerland, where the weather was reasonable, (mentioning, however, that, they seemed “harried” on the twisties when the rain began falling.) One neat thing about seeing any fellow bikers, though, was that they often waved. They even held out two fingers to one side, just like they do in Arizona.
I chose smaller, slower roads out of Volterra, deciding to go through the small town of Il Castagno on the way to Florence. Forests and farms, twisting roads, not too much traffic. Pleasant, but I no longer felt like I had a purpose. I was simply killing time. Not that this leg of the journey was without a few surprises. A few miles out of Volterra, for instance, I came around one corner to find a small car stopped in front of me, in the middle of my lane. I slowed and went over the centerline to his left, peering into the driver’s-side window, which was rolled down. The senior citizen driver was looking at a paper map on his steering wheel, oblivious to me as I passed.
Desperate to maximize these last few hours, I took another look at my phone map — while safely pulled over, of course — and inspiration struck. Pisa was roughly equidistant from Florence now, each being slightly more than an hour away. And it was only eleven. It was even getting cooler, or rather, slightly less hot. I zoomed there, watching the estimated time of the arrival on the GPS roll backward as I exceeded the posted speed limit for mile after mile.
The GPS guided me right in, and I made no wrong turns for once. I had gotten much better at navigation by the last day on the bike. As I drew closer to the Piazza del Duomo, I saw people parking a mile out. I had no worries. Sure enough, I pulled through one of the gates of the old wall and found the scooter and moto parking on Via Rainierino. I put on my sneakers, walked around a corner, and there it was — the Leaning Tower of Pisa, just like in the small souvenir ash tray my dad had brought back from his time in the Navy stationed in Naples in 1962. The tower was more magnificent than I had realized. Yet my greatest momentary joy upon getting there was the sublime snack stand with cold water — a bottle of actual, freezing-cold, thirst-quenching water, quite unlike every other bottle I’d purchased in Italy up to that time.
Inside the Duomo complex, I heard a strangely familiar language. It took me a second to realize it was a girl speaking American English, I had heard so little of it in the last few days. Virtually all the other tourists Paul and I had seen in southern Italy were European.
Unfortunately, it was too late to climb the stairs to the top of tower. I got in a long line, but an American man told me I needed an advance ticket and that they had bought theirs hours ago. I went into the office past the Fallen Angel sculpture on the lawn and saw that the next available slot was 4:30 p.m. It was 12:30 p.m., so I abandoned the idea of the tower climb and walked around the piazza. I got a cup of chocolate gelato, sat in a thin patch of shade next to a building, and read about the history of the tower on my iPhone. The place was crowded, and at any given moment I could see five or more people posing for photos while putting their hand out to give the illusion they were preventing the leaning tower from falling. I couldn’t help but snap a selfie version.
I didn’t want the moto trip to end, but I felt great as I sped to Florence, excited that I had a few more days ahead and would soon be seeing Dusty and Paul.
                Scooter-and-car-mania began again the second I got off the freeway. My stress level shot up as I tried to keep one eye on the GPS screen and two or three eyes on the road. The intersections were wide, the streets were wide, with multiple medians, and traffic was heavy. At the slightest sign of hesitation or weakness on my part brought scooters all around me, filling in the spots between cars that I wanted to take. Like in Naples, I had to focus more on the driving and less on the navigation, resulting in a couple of quick stops for new bearings, utilizing my iPhone maps as well as the GPS, and making a couple of u-turns.
                Still, it wasn’t long before I found the address for CIMT. I coasted down a ramp into an open courtyard near a large, open garage door. CIMT rented part of a larger garage operation here, as in Rome. A man who appeared to be in his 70s shuffled out, asking me Italian what I needed, (or so I gathered.) He wore dress slacks and shoes, and a polo shirt. He spoke little English and communication was difficult, especially since I thought he would understand right away why I was there. Finally, he smiled and said, “Chee-mat, chee-mat!” No one from CIMT was there, but I called the company’s Rome office and Riccardo picked up the phone. He said to leave the bike there, as scheduled. Two other garage employees showed up and asked me where I was staying, then offered to give me a ride to the hotel, saving me an Uber trip.
                I changed into shorts and a fresh T-shirt, unpacked the Givis for the last time, stowed my motorcycle gear in my bags with the rest of my stuff, and took one last look at the R1200RS. Soon I was in the lobby of the FH Hotel Calzaiuoli, which Dusty had booked. The clerk was speaking perfect English to an irritating, middle-aged American in a Hawaiian shirt who was giving the clerk crap over the size of his room and demanding a new one. The guy looked over at me and, pegging me as another American, winked at me as if to say, “This is how you do it.” The clerk, stealing the chance to ignore the man for a moment, turned and politely asked me what I needed. I told him in my best Italian that my friends had made a reservation and I needed the key to Room 405. I glanced over at the white dude and to my satisfaction he brow furrowed in confusion, thinking maybe I wasn’t his paisano after all. The clerk beamed at me and handed me the correct key.

Next: Kayaking in Venice

Italy Motorcycle Diary: 13. Viterbo and Siena

On this stage there were several autogrill visits during two-and-a-half hours on E35/A1, a.k.a. Boring Freeway. I entered Viterbo well before noon, figuring I could relax and enjoy it for a while. I stripped off my jacket and bungeed it to the backseat. After slathering on sunblock, wearing a T-shirt without the jacket, I almost felt comfortable. I drove through a gate of the walled part of the city, ignoring the “restricted zone” sign. I rolled aimlessly through the town until I felt good and lost.
The old part of the city would have looked nearly the same in any epoch, except for the cars. The cobblestones were slippery, often loose or spaced widely, and seemed more authentic than the ones I’d encountered in Naples. Some of the streets were exceptionally narrow, one-way-only, with a steep grade – or featured all three of those things. Anxiety about dipping into that damage deposit grew. I programmed the GPS to take me back to the gate where I’d come in, but the device was even more confused than I was. It told me to drive into a construction zone, then take a detour, around the block, and back into the zone. After doing the full circle once, I decided to forget the silly box and find my own way.  That didn’t work, either, and I found myself descending a short, steep street to a stop sign at a tiny intersection. With me and the bike canted forward on the hill, I decided visibility was too low and I needed to make a full stop, then inch out to look for traffic on the cross-street. I put my right foot down for balance – and found only air. It took a half-second of panic and a weight-shifting maneuver to get the bike’s lean to go from right to left. When I felt the bike would remain upright, I looked down on the right to see what had happened: The cobblestone my foot should have touched was missing.
Shaken once more, I used the GPS to find a lunch spot and soon arrived in Plaza Plebisito. At a small eatery, I asked the proprietor in my best Italian if SR2 to Siena would be a good choice for a motorcycle ride. But no matter how I phrased it, I could not make the woman understand me. She was even more frustrated than I, and went on a hunt to find someone who could speak English, hell-bent on helping me. Fifteen minutes later, she dragged the owner of a nearby shop inside and bid me to repeat my question. When the two women finally figured out what I had asked, they acted supremely disappointed. Their expressions seemed to say, “Duh! Of course SR2 is a good road!”
I decided to keep riding without my jacket after leaving the slower-paced walled city and traveling on Viterbo’s main thoroughfares, back in the passing game. But the faster I went, the less heat, so I chose to risk it.
The freeway was a distant memory as I cruised on SR2. How could I have doubted that this would be a fantastic road for motos? The speed limit was slow, the photo enforcement units unresponsive, the scenery bucolic, and traffic like a Sunday morning. It was also a relatively narrow highway, with a lot of tight curves — fun as hell, but attento, attento. Once I came around a curve and a semi-truck was dead ahead, coming my way and driving in both lanes. I had already learned to stay well right on the curves. I edged over more to the right and kept up my pace, passing him with the feeling that I had plenty of room, trying to convince myself it wasn’t that exciting.
I motored past Lake Bolsena and its surrounding forests and agritourism resorts. I thought about stopping but had decided to go to Siena, and time was flying. I took a half-hour rest in Buon Convento, which I loved. Each of the towns I drove through or stopped at had their own Italian charm. There was always an ancient wall, or a castle, or super-old buildings that looked like they could have been there since Caesar’s day. I doubled back occasionally for a better look at things, always feelings the gnawing advance of the clock.
It was a thrill to arrive in Siena, riding alongside its imposing and very long medieval wall, trying to watch the road and the beautiful collection of historic buildings and their pink-tiled roofs rising on a gentle hill. I zipped through much of the town on SR2, past the Porta Ovile, one of the city’s main gates, to where the town began to look more modern, then turned around and went all the way to the start again.
On the way back, scouting for hotels, I randomly chose the Porta Pispini Residence. It appeared to have been built in the 1980s. Oddly, the man behind the counter said he was sorry they had one room to choose from, but he could give it to me for 50 euros. I had no idea what he was sorry about. The price was less than half the rate for any other hotel on the trip, and when I opened the door to the room, I was stunned. It was a large studio apartment with the amenity I needed sorely at that point – a washing machine. I learned later on the internet that the hotel next door had a swimming pool, and felt mild regret. Luxuriating in a pool would have been phenomenal. But this was serendipity: I had been stressing for the last couple of days that I would run out of clean clothes, and was sure I’d have to waste precious time at a laundromat. I threw the laundry in and started the washer after unpacking, then ventured out for sightseeing and dinner.
After walking for a while, I found a table at one of the outdoor restaurants in the Piazza de Campo, the main square that’s dominated by a 300-foot-tall clock tower, Torre del Mangia. It’s also the site each year of the city’s legendary, no-holds-barred, medieval horse race, the Palio. Dusty, who was lucky enough to visit Italy twice that summer, had witnessed the race a few weeks before, boldly cramming in with the mass of spectators in the center of the square.
As the sunset bathed the clock tower in orange light and the TV screens in the bars replayed scenes of the Palio, I struggled to picture the now-quiet, cobblestoned piazza with strollers and couples holding hands transformed into a dirt racetrack surrounded by twenty thousand frenzied fans. After dinner, sipping a beer, I alleviated some of the boredom by texting the boys.
The day before, Paul had completed his hike and stopped over in Capri on his way to Sorrento. He stayed until closing time at one bar, then another one, the drunken Italian vacationers ending the night with renditions of “Country Roads” and Bowie’s “Starman.” Dusty dealt with rain most of the day in Andermatt. Kent hiked up 5,000 feet to the Dom hut and readied for a 2:30 a.m. start to his solo ascent. As I drove to Siena, Paul hoofed the circumference trail in Orvieto, Dusty completed a killer bicycle ride up the Furkapass, and Kent climbed the Dom but was decided to turn around before reaching the summit.
“Little voices said back off,” he texted. “Not really a well suited climb for soloing… It was easy but loose rock. Got tagged in the helmet by a pretty good one that left a dent in my hard shell! Rang my bell.”

Next: Tuscany and Pisa