As we live on the beach all year – and frequently avoid it in the high summer anyway – the Italian Alps and particularly the jagged teeth of the Dolomites seemed an attractive alternative, as well as somewhere I’ve always wanted to visit – and I adore road trips!
So it was that I escaped from the incoming hoards on the Alcudia – Toulon ferry for a 2000+ kilometre trip on the motorbike, via some notable landmarks and even more dramatic scenery.
Meeting my mate Paul in Nice, who’d flown down from the UK and hired a truly corpulent BMW K1600 as the only option they had, we set off for the first and only night where we’d actually booked a hotel in advance – the amazing MH Lingotto Hotel in the heart of Turin, otherwise better known as the Lingotto Fiat Factory and location for the rooftop sequence in the 1969 film The Italian Job, when the cool Minis were chased around its banked hairpins by some rather lame and accident prone police-driven Lancias. The factory was the biggest automotive production facility in the world when it was built in 1923 and created the model on which many future car factories were constructed.
A hundred years on, it’s all still there – the interior of the factory converted into a shopping mall, conference centre, eating hall, the MH hotel and a small Fiat Museum, where sits the first wooden buck from which steel panels were hammered out for the original tiny and iconic Fiat ‘Cinquecento’ – the 500. The interior is book-ended by the stunning ramps upon which 1000s of Fiats made their way through the various production floors to the top.
The rooftop test track and banked corners remain, although the track itself is converted mostly into a stunning garden above which an art gallery has been created to house just some of the collection belonging to the late Italian industrialist and principal shareholder of Fiat, Gianni Agnelli – on every wall were the works of Picasso, Matisse, Canaletto, et al.. At one time, he alone controlled 4.5% of Italy’s entire GDP.
Moving on from Turin, we headed north to Lake Como – and an ice cream with George Clooney – via the Royal Park at Monza, home for many decades to the Italian Grand Prix. We climbed the historic banking at the precise point that Yves Montand crashed and burned in his Ferrari as the final scene unfolded in John Frankenheimer’s 1966 Oscar-winning film, much to Eve Marie Saint’s disappointment, she playing the role of the scarlet lady losing her lover in a flaming Ferrari in the last laps of the race. Could there be a more romantic path to the hereafter?
After booking the first night – and only because we specifically wished to stay at Lingotto – we would generally arrive somewhere typically beautiful, order a large gin & tonic and find somewhere to stay. This also meant that we would not be forced to ride in crap weather just because we had a hotel booking somewhere. It also meant endless variety, adding to the adventure and the discovery of little gems – warm welcoming family-run hotels, fabulous food and stunning views.
From Lake Como, we headed up the beautiful western shore and off the northern point of the lake for the pretty long motorway slog east to Bormio, host to the annual Alpine Ski World Championships and at the foot of the Stelvio Pass, over which we would enter into the Dolomites.
The Stelvio Pass is one of the best-known and most picturesque mountain passes in Europe, with 75 hairpin bends in total – 48 of them on the more-photographed eastern face – and is the second-highest pass in the entire Alpine range at 2757m. It is the backdrop of many a Top Gear photo shoot, as well as iconic shoot-outs in the Giro Italia – one of cycling’s three Grand Tour events alongside the Tour de France and Vuelta a Espana.
It was blissful on the nimble Honda, although less so for Paul on his BMW two-wheeled waterbed, so I met him in the snow at the top and breathed in the cool mountain air. There is something special about the Alps in summer – the novelty of snow when one is otherwise sweltering in June, the fellowship and camaraderie of 1000s of bikers and the shared love of motorcycling that draws so many to this particular spot. It was rammed but wonderful.
From Stelvio for lunch, we headed to Santa Magdelena in the Valle Funes for dinner, only finding a couple of very basic but comfortable rooms in a pine hut alongside what felt like a very Austrian watering hole. With the demise of the Austro-Hungarian empire, this bit of the Alps became part of Italy, although little has changed in the mountains and valleys regardless of whatever national flag may be flying overhead. The local patois meant we had no idea at all what anyone was saying. Our only inclement weather of the entire trip arrived here, with a tremendous lightning flash and thunderous bang in the morning – heavy hail leaving everywhere a drenching white, but providing an option for a long and mountainous breakfast, whilst cheerful rosy-faced trekkers ran in from outside to shelter.
The backdrop of Santa Magdelena is the Odle Mountains – perhaps the most dramatic mountainscape in the entire Alps – sharks’ teeth searing into the sky behind this idyllic Alpine village.
From Santa Magdelena, it was finally time to turn south and west, with a slight detour over the Passo de Sella and down to Lake Garda and the western shore – the sheer number of kite surfers appearing like colourful insects flitting across the water. The topography of this area creates a wind that roars down the lake in the morning, the Peler – and roars back up in the evening, the Ora – and blows every day that there is a demonstrable temperature difference between the warm air around the lake and the cool air in the high mountains to the north. The town of Riva del Garda was vibrant and noisy – and served yet more excellent ice cream…
We didn’t really have any advanced knowledge of the best route south, back to the Mediterranean coast and our return journey. Finding a wiggly-looking route on the map, we headed for the small town of Bobbio in the province of Emilio-Romagna in the northern reaches of the Appenine Mountains. Its monastery is in part the model for the monastery in Umberto Eco’s The Name Of The Rose and its Roman bridge – known as the ‘Hunchback Bridge’ due to its 11 wholly uneven arches, spans across the Trebbia river to nothing more obvious on the other side other than a restaurant. Nonetheless, the arches gave some welcome shade after a very hot day on the bikes, while many of the town’s population seemed to be swimming at the foot of the bridge’s adjacent weir – a beautiful peaceful scene.
Quite by accident, we also discovered that the route from Bobbio going south along the Valle Trebbia – described by Ernest Hemingway as the most beautiful valley in the world – is a motorcycling nirvana. After a quick ascent of the Penice Pass (pronounced ‘penny-chay’ in case you were wondering…), the hour and a half that it took to ride from Bobbio to Bargagli is quite simply the best I have ever spent on a motorcycle.
Our final day took us to Monaco, where it was nice to pop into the Casino for a pee, and then do a lap of the circuit as all petrol heads do whenever they visit the area around Port Hercule, forming the waterside section of the Grand Prix circuit.
After the heroics of impossible mountain passes without incident, it was the one place where Paul finally dropped the mighty BMW, needing him and three Monegasque policemen to pick it up again…
It was an epic and ambitious trip of well over 200km each day – perhaps we should have taken longer – but elated and exhausted, it was time to head home.