Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Italy Motorcycle Diary: 11. Paestum

             Paul took off early in the morning for an epic hike up the hill on Sentiero degli dei, the Path of the Gods, and across to Positano. Wisely, he took some wine and had a much-needed break at a lonely picnic table. Later traipsing up one nasty section of trail, he noticed a sign pointing down the same way that read, “Complete Danger.”
                I had intended to gorge on the free room-service colazione that the Dona Giulia offered. But an hour before it was to come, I decided to leave right away and packed up. After loading the Givi cases and pulling out of the Luna Rossa garage, I stopped to look back at beautiful Amalfi and take one more photo. Most of the town’s lights were still on as dawn began to show on the mountaintops. I could have used that fabulous breakfast, but leaving at that time turned out for the best. Traffic was nearly nonexistent and for the first time on the trip, except for the occasional highway tunnel, I was motoring through blessedly cool air.
                I’d ride the SS163 every day if I could. The scenery and curves were glorious. At times, the hairpin turns required me to slow down nearly to a stop. A couple of cars passed me, and I soon returned the favor when they were unable to pass slower vehicles.
                I stopped at a small, roadside coffee bar. A friendly woman in her 50s who served me didn’t speak any English. We talked about the weather – how nice it was at that moment, and how hot it had been. I had crammed a lot before the trip; I could not have had the same conversation even a month after. I downed my usual espresso shot and bottle of semi-cold water, and ate a croissant with lemon filling before returning to the road.
                Salerno is bigger and grungier than the rich coastal towns. A panhandler tried to sell me cheap socks when I stopped to take in the ocean view on Lungomare Trieste, but I had already bought some off the street in Naples. I motored into town, not worrying about directions for the moment and just exploring. I found some parts very similar to middle-class areas in large U.S. cities or Paris, with many three- for four-story apartment buildings and shops on the ground floor. My light breakfast had been more than an hour ago, so I parked and went into a small coffee bar for another espresso and food. I talked briefly with a 20-something girl behind the counter. She acted interested in me and my motorcycle gear and asked where I was from. I gave my standard answer, “Stati Uniti.”
                “You’re lucky,” she said flatly.
                The drive to Paestum was a blast of adrenaline in a different way. Lines of cars packed the roads as I passed a seemingly endless stretch of beach towns and camping grounds. The cars fell quickly behind the R1200RS. My destination was so far south, I began to wonder if I wasn’t making a mistake, since that afternoon I had to run all the way back up to Santa Maria Capua Vetere, north of Naples. I had begun to suffer from an awful fatigue, the lack of sleep and jet lag slamming me again.
                I perked up upon arriving in Paestum after seeing one of its magnificent Greek temples. But I didn’t feel like walking too far, so I cruised around for a few minutes, searching for moto parking. The area was punctuated by large overhead signs and cameras indicating a restricted zone that seemed serious. The signs warned that anyone driving on the road next to the temples would be fined. I ignored it and backed the motorcycle past a gate, parking directly next to the ticket office.
                I had finally found the limit of moto parking. I tall man emerged at once from the office and told me firmly in Italian that I could not park there and that the entire area was restricted. I didn’t understand a word he said – just the meaning. Embarrassed, I pulled out and went to one of the public lots that were a short walk from the entrance. The attendant directed me to park near a tree and told me I didn’t have to pay. I gave him a few euros as a tip.
I changed into my walking shoes and explored the area, which was sprawling and stupendous, similar to Pompeii. But it was terribly hot by then, about 10:30 a.m., and I was seriously sleepy. After walking around the ruins for an hour, I meandered toward a shade tree, intent on taking a nap. As soon as I laid down on the grass, a man – an Italian who was wearing a Harley-Davidson T-shirt that I had complimented him on earlier – walked toward me, saying, “sir, sir, phone, phone.” In my groggy state, I had no idea what he meant. Was I getting a phone call? He pointed toward some stone blocks where I had been sitting a few minutes before. I had left my iPhone, attached to a selfie stick, on one of the blocks. That was a close one!
                I dragged myself back to the tree and slept in short bursts for 20 minutes, bothered by the ants and the heat, and paranoid about leaving enough time for the long day still to come. I roused myself, left the main archaeology park, bought a coke from a machine, and I entered the excellent little Paestum museum that housed the Tomb of the Diver, Zeus statute and other high-quality artifacts. Plagued by sleepiness, I downed two espressos while eating lunch at the Pizzeria Oasi.
                Then it was back on the moto, and back on the highway. Moving at high speeds kept me awake, but I grew bored. Each little town I passed looked similar to the others. The road was busy with high-speed traffic, so I didn’t bother to do much passing. Fully complacent and comfortable as the miles ticked by, this was where I had the scariest moment of the entire trip.
                I was cruising right of the centerline, on SS18 between Papaleone and Corno Doro, slowly passing cars at 60 mph. Then — whoom! A sudden onrush of sound: a loud whine, an ear-splitting scream. I had the sensation that lightning had struck next to me. At nearly the instant I heard the sound, a Ducati-style motorcycle blew by at about 150 mph, two feet to my left. The motorcyclist’s black T-shirt rode flapped madly halfway up his back, exposing the skin above his jeans. Then he was nothing but a black stripe in the distance, fading even as my shocked mind was trying to adjust to his presence. I flinched badly and my motorcycle wavered. The experience had last all of three seconds but took a few minutes to wear off, like the afterglow of a hard slap to the face. Had I moved unexpectedly to the left even a little, he would have hit me, and the impact would have been like a bomb going off.

Next: Music Amid the Ruins

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