June 2010

Part 1: Roca San Casciano - Pontremoli - Torino

Quitting a well paid secure job and start touring countries on a motorcycle still sounds kinda crazy. Doing so late May in the (semi bankrupted) Hellas of 2010 was considered total nuts. However, this wasn't even a dilemma for me but that's another story - I'm here to offer you a chance to follow the rides that changed my life. If you want more details on how/why then contact me.

Even when you know more or less when you're gonna come back home from your trip, not booking a return ticket tastes better. I decide to do so on this one and in case you wonder how a ticket is involved in a bike trip, that's cause it takes a ferry to get to Italy straight from Greece, in my case from Patra to Ancona. I have no strict plans about the route itself. Just a general idea of tripping around the beautiful mountains of central Italy then head for Torino to meet some friends and later on cross South France to go as west as my zero sponsoring allows me. Speaking of sponsors, I think the best one is the motivation you can get from your "just do it" spirit... obviously only in case in case you have one. In a funny mood I name this trip “REHUMANIZE THE P.I.G.S.” a joke on the (back in the day notorious) financial pigs of South Europe that I was about to visit on my way.

I start on 15/6 from Athens to Patra on such a hot day that riding a bike literally feels like having tens of hairdryers aiming at me all the way. I ride wearing only my summer jacket on top without any t-shirt inside but still I suffer. I chose to take the non toll road to Patra, an old scenic coastal route. since I was in no hurry and excluding some spots with lots of traffic it wasn't a bad idea. Part of this route is quite nice with a lot of attractive beaches on the way but if you're not familiar with the area you might seek for some help from your GPS at some points as there are not enough signs around. If you drive a car just DON'T do so. Take the toll road otherwise this narrow one combined with the heavy summer traffic will soon make you regret it.

The Adriatic sea is again calm as a pool, same like one year ago when I was going to Venice around the same time of the year and this resulted in a very relaxing and comfortable trip.

Soothing Adriatic sea

As I enjoy this beauty from the deck of the ferry a Greek guy approaches me asking for a lighter in English. I respond also in English as I wanted to avoid talking about the Greek troubles. This guy just took his car to make it to Italy with an empty wallet intending to sleep in his car till... who knows when. I wish him all the luck impressed that I experience in front of my very eyes the unthinkable moment of the first financial immigration from Greece in the last 50 years. A chat with a German professor later was more interesting. He had concerns about the radical Left in Greece taking advantage of this turmoil and growing in power, eventually blocking the required reformations. I say "yes they'd love to but they're too stupid to convince enough people to trust them". (I was half right - they did find enough people).

The arrival at Ancona was not as relaxing and comfortable as the trip was. The ferry had a delay of one hour and it took us another one to escape from the vessel while some guys had the great idea to move my bike in the garage during the trip without informing me at all and I went pale till I managed to find it later hidden behind some trucks. I'd better not comment this further.

Weather at Ancona is just perfect. First kilometres on the way to Pesaro are not that impressive except some pleasant parts with low traffic. The route becomes much more interesting as I start making my deviation to visit San Marino. Small and beautiful, this state won't make you regret a visit up there.

Heading Northwest after San Marino the route is beautiful in general but the really fantastic part lies between Predappio and Rocca San Casciano. Tight curves in a full green mountain on a road covered by trees. Let's mention that Predappio is the birthplace of Mussolini and fortunately the events on his memorial are fading away year after year. In the past when his fans were younger and more active, they used to have a guard on his grave for all 24 hours of his memorial. The Right part of stupidity this time...

I arrive at San Casciano and as I try to find my way to the place I have booked there (pre smartphone era, I travel without GPS) I find a super friendly couple of cyclists sitting on a bench. I try to explain them what I was looking for (almost no English in Italy and me no Italian) and fortunately it happens that they are friends with the owner so they understand what I'm talking about. The guy leaves his partner and offers to show me the way on his bicycle. How sweet. Especially considering that it would be all uphill on his way back. I find the place, a very hospitable Agrotouristic business of the Mini family and my host Silvio welcomes me with a full smile. His place turned out to be one of the most VFM I have ever rented.

A whole house for myself:

Lovely BnB of the Mini family at Roca San Casciano

After a good sleep with a beautiful day dawning I soon find myself on my bike eager to explore Florence. All 80 km on the SS67 are pure driving joy in this forest passing through Passo del Muraglione at 907m. Pass signs are covered by all shorts of stickers and this one is no exception. Funny how they try to leave the letters uncovered:

Passo del Muraglione 907m

I guess you don't expect me to tell you Florence is not beautiful, it obviously is.

As I enter the city I jump off the bike to take my first picture:

Effortlessly gorgeous Florence

Do you see these dark clouds in the background? Yes... they're full of water. Just a minute after the above shot it started raining dogs and cats. Something like the annual precipitation all gathered in the same moment, hail included. I find shelter at the entrance of a library and watch the madness. You can guess I didn't have the chance to enjoy Firenze as much as I should but this could be my penalty for the joy I had on my way to the city. Same conditions followed me during all my way back to Rocca San Casciano converting my boots to water tanks.

Fortunately next day was much more pleasant than last afternoon so I continued my trip in great weather. Heading North East this time the SP21 is a nice mountainous road as well as SP81. Via SS9 I reach the area outside Parma without any special experiences. The same goes for the first kilometres on SS62 heading South for Tuscany. After Rocci though, the road going up the mountain is really a joy. Countless corners, great view, no traffic. What else can you ask for?

Passo dela Cisa gives a chance for nice pit stop pictures:

As it starts raining again I start looking for a place to stay. In a village I find an attractive BnB covered by tall trees, I park my bike under one of them to skip some rain and step in looking for vital signs. I find none except a barking dog. Looked to me like it was calling the owner so I waited a little while till a lady appears. She's French with bad English (no surprise) and tells me they're overbooked - proposes me another one at the next village. I drive in light rain, can't find the place she told me and I end up at Pontremoli 10km later, decided to find a place to stay there. The locals lead me to a BnB outside the town's center and as I arrive there I find the couple in charge accidentally at the entrance. Geoff Chamberlain and his wife Serena. Geoff is relative of Neville Chamberlain, ex Prime Minister of England and looks a lot like him. Tall and slim with kind manners. Serena is Armenian-Italian born in Libya. Yes, this could be a movie but it's true story.

They had rooms for me but a bit pricey for my budget so they kindly offer to call the owner and ask the best price for me and we have a deal. Geoff later offers to escort me for a walk around the town which obviously I didn't reject.

I soon take my first images of Pontremoli:

I couldn't have a better guide than Geoff. Finally I can speak English instead of struggling with my almost zero Italian and most importantly he is a cultivated knowledgeable person peppered with (surprise surprise) British humour. This made our chat effortlessly pleasant. Geoff tells me that the name of this town probably comes from the earthquakes that occur there making the bridges shake (Pont-tremo-li). Sounds convincing to me.

Back at their BnB later, this lovely couple invites me for dinner to try Serena's cooking abilities. Delicious it is and we chat over some red wine till Geoff turns to Serena and says "shall we invite Orestis to the surprise as well?" Serena agrees instantly and says "Let's turn off the lights". At this point I started thinking how I would deny a surprise that could be a bit too kinky. They both stand up and tell me "follow us". We all go outside and... countless fireflies took over the lighting! The combination of this view with the sound of River Marga was really a unique experience that can only be found in fairy tales. Some scenes can't be captured by a camera – you have to experience them. And I can't thank these guys enough for this one.

Next day' I wake up early to start packing and loading my bike while Serena was preparing breakfast. As I step outside with my luggage I see a ramp making a shortcut to my bike with a chain preventing access for a not so obvious reason to me. I decide to step in anyway and find myself crashing down instantly. Zero friction from an overnight's humidity. I also broke the chain from falling with all this weight in my hands. Luckily I didn't break anything on me. Actually, funny as it may sound, my back felt better after that. I guess that crash unblocked some tight spots in my spine. If only I could repeat it at times I need it.

As I am about to leave, a friend of Geoff and Serena comes, a chubby smiley middle aged Italian and as soon as they tell him I am Greek he goes "Oh! I know Socratis!". As I start thinking how I would express my appreciation for his concern about the Ancient Hellenic heritage he adds "Socratis Papastathopoulos". Yep, back in the day this fine footballer was playing in Cambionato... instead, the philosopher Socratis was probably up above laughing at us. I thank this lovely bunch of people and depart for my next destination: Torino.

Rainy and unpredictable weather. Heading back North to Passo della Cisa I drive for a while inside a cloud with limited visibility due to rain and fog. Weather on the other side of the mountain was better but not for long and the rest part of my trip to Torino was terrible driving for hours under heavy rain. Extra heavy at times. Not that much of joy as it felt like I was chased by a heavy storm for the second half of my route. A few km South of Torino I stop at a gas station to drain the water from my boots.

When I finally arrive at Torino at Antonello's house I see his smile coming from his window as soon as he listens to my engine. Being an experienced biker he knew what I've been through. I couldn't have better hosts than him and his wife Deborah there. Fantastic people, we get to know each other via a bikers forum but stayed good friends ever since. They both admitt that I was unlucky as this is the worst June they ever remember. However, the fact is that in a beautiful city like Torino, with a good company like theirs, and nice food (don't forget I'm still in Italy) you can easily forget any bad weather conditions. From the very first night walking around the center I am impressed by those massive old buildings:

Turin's University library

Royal palace of Turin

Next day's walk allowed me to enjoy this grace in daylight:

Palazzo Civico & drooling food market

Monument of Emmanuel Philibert

Piazza San Carlo

Teatro Carignano

As you can see Torino has lots of beauty to offer, a fact that might surprise the ones who focus on its industrial heritage. Besides, don't forget that it was the first Capital of Italy.

Well, it was time for a setback to happen and as I move my bike to park it outside Antonello's apartment an obstacle on the sidewalk closes my side stand, I don't notice it and boom - my bike lies down. Not much damage though except a broken gear shifter. The latter couldn't be found on a Sunday and the following Monday dealers were also closed. However, you can skip Murphy's law with good friends like Antonello. Next day we pay a visit to his friend Julio's metal workshop with the shifter in hand. The plan is to drill it and put a bolt to act as the missing part.

Done in minutes:

Julio fabricating a bolt for my shifter


Another impressive thing about Torino is its water resources. That is due to the numerous rivers running through the city. Here's one of them:

There's hundreds of water springs around the city - I've never seen anything like this elsewhere. Also, to be fair about Torino, don't forget that it's got one of the largest urban parks where I had nice cycling moments.

Now that my bike was fixed me and Antonello take our bikes on a route to Lake Malciaussia Northwest of Torino. This route is what you can call “Biker's Heaven”. Endless curves including super tight switchbacks in a very beautiful forest, lead you up in the mountain where there's still snow at its picks. At 1800 meters altitude lies the lake where the view is unimaginable.

Have a look:

Keep in mind that you can return to Torino following another route, just in case you might feel bored enough to do the same gorgeous route back :).

On the next day I would be leaving Italy behind with really a lot of nice experiences to digest on my way to France. The food, the landscape, the routes, the cities of Italy, everything is designed to satisfy all senses and even though I speak no Italian I managed to communicate somehow. It might be my partially Italian blood (long story, contact me if you're curious to know).

Click below to continue: