Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Italy Motorcycle Diary: 9. Herculaneum and Positano

We had colazione at the Rex the next morning and parted ways again. We both were going to Herculaneum. But as he headed to the train station, I walked down the street with my luggage toward the garage. Before I could go anywhere, I had to get the BMW out of that narrow passage between the concrete pillar, a car, and whatever else inhabited the space next to the bike now. I had thought about it a few times at night and a few more in the morning, imagining 500 pounds of machine crashing to the ground and all the debris and dents that would result.
In my jacket, jeans, and boots, I walked down the steep ramp to the underground parking lot. The bike was still there – that was a good start. But there was another bike next to it now, seemingly cutting off any chance of getting mine out without contacting something. There was imply no room to maneuver. I tried doing it while sitting on the bike, but I couldn’t get enough traction with my feet to back it out. I was pushing against a slight incline, I now saw. As I worked it halfway out of the space, the bike wobbled and nearly went down.
I probably should have asked for help. A parking attendant had mercy on me, and in a few minutes we had the damned thing out of the space and turned around. I thanked the man profusely, and he refused a tip.
The day’s ride hadn’t even begun and my fresh clothes were already saturated with sweat. It was a great relief to escape the garage.
I zoomed fairly quiet streets toward the freeway, got on, then took a wrong turn and exited the freeway accidentally. The GPS failed me as I failed it. Trying to get me back on the freeway, it steered me to a freeway overpass that had no ramps, telling me incorrectly I could make a right turn through a fence to get to a frontage road. I was trapped in an industrial wharf area near the ocean, a rough-looking area with trash and long grass on the sides of the roads. It kind of reminded me of my old ‘hood in Queens, the age of the place showing.
Frustrated, I tried following a different line toward Ercolano. I found myself going down a long, one-way stretch of road bounded on both sides by concrete barriers. After a quarter-mile or so, I came up behind a semi-truck parked in front of me, seemingly blocking the whole lane. There was no way to turn the bike around, and apparently not enough room on either side of the truck to slip by. I slowed down as I approached it, not seeing anyone in the vicinity. Maybe I’d be stuck here until someone could move the truck, I thought. I inched my way in, threading the needle. So far, so good. Just before I cleared it, I saw that the asphalt on the side of the road buckled where it met the concrete barrier, a half-shorn bubble of road rising a good eight inches directly in my path. I braced for impact, figuring the more confidently I attacked it, the better off I’d be. My handlebars suddenly felt like someone had grabbed one side and yanked. The whole bike gave a great wobble. Somehow I held on and wrenched the handlebars back into position. It was over in a second. My heart raced. Damage deposit saved again!
Following the GPS instructions toward the general direction of Ercolano, I found myself on a cobblestone road with stores, apartments, and hotels on either side. I saw three or four obvious tourists walking on the sidewalks with tall backpacks. Other people were loading or unloading trucks, walking to work, cleaning their storefronts. A long, bright stream of water caught my eye high on the right side of the street – was it an historic fountain? No – it was someone hosing off their third-story balcony, the dirty water tumbling onto the sidewalk below. As usual for Naples, all windows above the first floor seemed to be sprouting clothes to dry. The wharf area was quaint and homey and smelled of the sea. But there was little pleasure in running the BMW over the cobblestones, many of which felt loose, and all of which felt slippery. Besides giving a jarring ride, I felt like any sudden turn of the front wheel might cause me to hit the ground.
I kept going on that road, called Corso San Giovanni in part, because the GPS indicated it would take me straight to Ercolano and I didn’t want to waste more time on wrong turns.  After a while I began seeing signs for the Herculaneum archaeological park, and then located its large parking lot.
Though the lot was virtually empty, an elderly attendant bid me to park on the far end and walked over with me. This was another cool encounter with an Italian who liked the fact that I was an American touring his country by moto, and who seemed to enjoy my barbaric attempts to speak his language. He stood by as I changed into walking shoes and a baseball cap, put on sunscreen, and donned my daypack. He said I could put my motorcycle jacket, boots, and helmet in his office, and as we walked there I texted Paul to let him know I had arrived. He was already in the park. I put coins in a machine for the parking fee and hit up one of the refreshment stands at the park entrance for a bottle of water and an espresso.

Herculaneum was everything I’d wanted it to be. I loved the carbonized wood beams, the artistic masterpieces on the walls, the boathouses with skeletons – and how peaceful Vesuvius looked in the distance. Meanwhile, the unobstructed sun poured down lava.
Paul and I said arrivederci once again after grabbing drinks at the snack bar. I knocked on the door of the administration office and went inside to retrieve my things. “Minuto,” said my friend, the old man, and went into a back room. I put on my boots. He came out with a steaming cup of espresso.
Mille grazie!” I said, very appreciative.
Paul was headed to Salerno by train so he could catch a ferry to Amalfi, and I got back on the moto, excited for the drive to Sorrento and SS163, the Amalfi Coast road.
“Paul and I done with Ercolano, split up, meeting in Amalfi (we hope!!)” I texted.
An hour-fifteen later, after no debacles or wrong turns, I stopped to take a photo, stunned at what I was looking at. Below me was the Tyrrhenian Sea – how many times had I seen it on a map or globe? Off the roadside was a stunning vista with historic buildings and their red-tiled roofs. I had gained more altitude than I’d realized. The temperature was a few degrees lower here and almost tolerable. I was on top of the world in spirit, and apparently in reality.
“Getting close to Sorrento – this is what motorcycling is all about,” I texted the boys.
The road grew more and more beautiful. Near Vico Esquense I stopped again briefly at a lookout and bought a water bottle from a guy with a fruit truck. I pulled off my helmet for a few minutes to cool my head and shot some more photos.
Riding SS 145, and then SS 163 past Meta, was like making my own Disneyland. The two-lane road was smooth and twisty. I was on the outside lane – the one with the cliff. No place I’d rather be. Surprises could be around any corner – a tour bus half in my lane, perhaps, or pedestrians. When possible, I always took the chance to pass traffic along the centerline or in the opposing lane, being careful to plan ahead and see where I’d cut back into my lane when the oncoming traffic got too close. If that traffic was a scooter, though, I could stay in his lane. Sometimes I’d be in the middle or right side of my lane and a scooter going the opposite direction would scream by in the lane. As crazy as this sounds, it’s standard procedure on the Amalfi coast.
I thrived in this environment. The Porsches and Mercedes Benzes couldn’t keep up because they were usually struck in traffic, unable to play the centerline passing game. For whatever reason, I saw few full-size motos like the BMW on the roads I took in southern Italy, and that meant I wasn’t often passed by anyone. But I did get passed by many brave scooter pilots, some with riders on the back, They were willing to ride within inches of oncoming cars and take other risks I found too hairball to consider.
I changed my mind about going to Sorrento, texting the boys that I had passed it.
“Having too much fun driving bike on coast road,” I told them. “It’s better than I dreamed it would be! Stopped for lunch now in Positano. Will likely arrive in Amalfi 3 or 3:30. Traffic not bad at all and what there is can be passed easily.”
View from lunch spot at Positano
The motorcycle also made parking a cinch. Before lunch, as the colorful, hillside town of Positano drew closer, I could see lines of parked cars on the side of the road, in the rare wide spots where parking was possible. Families and couples appeared frequently on the side of the road, or sometimes in the middle of the road, lugging coolers or beach chairs on the long hike from their vehicles to the beach. When I entered Positano and saw a restaurant with a sweet-looking outdoor patio overlooking the sea, I was able to park right next to it.
On two wheels is the only way to travel in Italy.

Next: Mary of the Snow Day

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