Wednesday, July 4, 2018

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

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