ITALY

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24,000 km to our Rome arrival, 5 months from London via the Middle East.

Doubled back to Italy (from Middle East) for Christmas, a significant two-month, half-the-Med detour – otherwise would have kept going in warmer climes towards the Orient.

As a gift to Joseph, Thao's teen brother, we'd bought him a ticket to Rome, months ago. Shoulda been a ticket to Egypt, smacking own forehead with the wisdom of hindsight; but Joe wanted Italy, we didn't know where we'd be.

Hence it's Italy in routing illogic and sub-optimal timing/weather.

Italy is lots more costly than remembered pre-Euro. But worth it, trite perhaps to say, it's so stunning, scenically, culturally. Amazing driving, civilized sport driving, especially on the western coast. Wonderful people. And the food.

Winter isn't the best time to tour Italy by bike. Far from untenable, but often 9˚-14˚C and wet. Fortunately we did Tuscany by car, which would have been too cold. Far less tourists is the major bonus in winter travels of Italia.

Landed by ferry in Brindisi Italy (from Patra Greece) on a nice, fairly-priced overnight trip, $150 if memory serves. Spent not even a night in Greece; we were frankly pissed with Greek officialdom in Piraeus, next to Athens, just a hundred bucks rip-off (post-haggle, he wanted 50% more) by a customs clearance lowlife pushed upon us by the shipping company, a byzantine Greek bureaucracy (you said what? ... parking fees? for unloading the bike and driving it away immediately?) We found it altogether annoying, badly-run, sleazy, plus they were rioting in Athens over a shot student; not being in the mood for this stuff, we made an Italy ferry with 15 minutes to spare. It's nice when you're annoyed and have options.

Toured Italy's 'boot-heel' for a day; Lecce is a lovely city, evidently second to Florence in architecture, but we were more anxious to do the Amalfi coast and get to Rome. The boot-heel didn't yield great riding scenery outside Lecce, so hit the freeways and some great twisties for a few hours cross-over. [map]

The Amalfi Coast [map] is quite another matter, it gets a 9-10 rating. If you haven't seen it, driving a small car or bike is necessary, forget bus tour alternatives. It runs about 30 km north & south of the town of Amalfi, non-stop twisties at 20-40 k/hr, as beautiful and charming old-Europe Med as driving gets.

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In this part of the country (driving habits seems to vary by region), Italian drivers are the most aggressive death-defying optimists with their own rules: Double solid lines, totally blind corners, stop signs, your lane versus the oncoming one, mean literally nothing. Tailgating is a national pastime, as is playing chicken with oncoming. That lane-splitting Vespa weaving at 50, while on a cell phone with his left hand ...

Even at my most careful, I kissed mirrors with a guy cutting across to my side and parking in wrong direction. Many/most drive with outside mirrors folded in, thus do not look behind or beside. The assumption being, that the other guy doesn't want to die either, so he'll move over ...

Amalfi in summer has to be hot and really crowded; winter was perfect, as ours was the only foreign plate in sight, traffic relatively light, weather was in the teens.

Gorgeous houses, small castles, hotels, gardens, magically glued to the cliffs – a testament to great Italian construction, a few thousand years' practice helps. Often I wondered how they even got materials up there, without shutting down the entire road. And what the hell holds those cliffhanger building foundations in place, for centuries?

In the cliffhangers category, we lucked upon a nice €50 recommended B&B, in perfect and charming Agropoli; La Sciabica [map] we used as a two-night base to drive the Amalfi coast twice. (Riding light without luggage is way more fun on the edge of cliffs.) Below is a view from our balcony; We liked it so much we came back on our way south. Dec 22, yachts are still in the water, nice views of the Med, lotsa seafood pasta, how they suffer huh?


Sorrento [map] is a pittoresque tourist town with an historic harbor area, old Europe feeling and major shopping streets, we're talking a couple kilometers of one-ways, lovely shops shoulder to shoulder, serious Christmas lights cascades the entire strips, looked as we rode thru as a possible shopaholic's nirvana.

An elegant-looking stranger on the street offered a dining suggestion, we were directed to Kambusa on Porto di Sorrento – right on the harbor, wind down the cobblestones next to the old fortress wall, phone 081-877-39-20. The snack bar sign out front is deceptive (and I challenged the head waiter on this point, it badly under-sells the place); superb pasta con olio mussels/clams and I speak here as a competitive chef of this item; the prize-winning dessert of the trip so far was a lemon cream cake with raspberry coulis, drool. Nice English-speaking head waiter, €40 with half bottle wine.

We had graced Napoli [map] with a miss, setting aside its being the origin home of both pizza and Sophia Loren. Truck drivers on the ferry from Greece admiring Black Bike cautioned me no-joking that "If a guy approaches you in Napoli and demands your bike, just give it to him or he'll kill you, and they will want your bike." Fingers were shaken at me to emphasize. Apparently it's rough, plenty of chop shops, car/bike nappings, the most crazy driving in all Italy, the #2 organized crime town. So we just drove by, again we had options, why bother?

Christmas Eve, after driving the underwhelming (in some parts downright ugly, lady-of-the-night and unemployed-African-immigrant-youth-lined) coast northwards [map]; we were in Gaeta, a charming town with a big power yacht yard that was unfortunately closed, was itching to inspect famed Italy boatbuilding. Not an eatery was open, they take Christmas and eating at home en famille seriously here! But, finally, a couple hours' driving later, down a walking side street we found the only open eatery; actually the back of a bar run by a fun Dutch woman & Italian hubby. No roast turkey alas, and we did feel homesick for the traditions; but we got some good sausage, potatoes, spaghetti, and enough red wine; our humble Christmas party. Sob, sniff.

The only other customers were a table of eight friendly US Navy sailors (one a female) from the US communications flagship we saw in harbor – Gaeta is evidently the main US port in this part of the world, a great posting for Navy guys they proudly admit. One of them had been posted in Iraq not long ago, saying it's not nearly as bad as the news suggests; but then again, he's in the Navy, maybe he missed the 'best' stuff?

Next day, Dec 25, we drove the coast to Rome on the ancient Appian Way [map] – super-empty, pretty, so straight, manicured tree-lined. We owned it for a day, from a bike saddle trying to imagine the Roman legions that preceded us.

2,000 year old road into Rome on Christmas day.
Rome like any big city, is quite amazing when it's empty on holidays. There's not much to say about one of the planet's greatest cities, that hasn't been better written/photographed elsewhere, so we'll just skip over it. Of course we did the must-sees and much walking.

Joe, the impressed look.
Hotel-wise, the 3-star €60 Select Garden Hotel www.hotelselectgarden.com is recommended; smallish nice rooms, good breakfasts and super-nice staff, good location near the train station – but no web access, a frequent problem in Italy. Internet cafés get old and can be a pain.
World's smallest car? One-seater with cram-in room behind.
Choose between groceries or your wife.
A few days of Rome-ing (along with Thao's sister Diem and hubby Mark who came over too, but then they took off on their own exploring.) We rented a car so Joseph didn't have to jog behind the bike; three of us did Tuscany for 9 days.

The best car rental deal was Rome Travelcar at the central train station, got a very decent Kia Picante [link] (good suspension/steering, teensy motor) for €45/day, way less than the big brands next door; book ahead, they sometimes have cars for €22 www.travelcar.it

Again Tuscany [our approx map route] has been so well written up, will not dwell. Medieval Siena; artistically mind-blowing Florence (regional capital) and its Medicis, Michelango, Duomo, never cease to boggle my tiny mind; beyond words Venice [map]; those many towns with their own competitions, annual races, crafts some of which are stunning; nine days wandering by foot and car. Even on my second driving visit, it is among my favorite areas of the world; culturally, artistically, geographically non plus ultra. New discoveries this time, re-soaked in old ones; crowd-avoidance is the flip side of one of the word's most lovely regions.

Here's a fun [link] to excellent Boston Globe photos
of Venice flooded in Dec 2008.
(Link sent by old friend Mark Borkowski)
The Duomo Basilica facade Florence is déjà vu to most, but seeing it again ...
Click to enlarge and look at the phenomenal detail work.
I am transfixed every time. [Link to big panorama shot]

New Year's in Florence [map] is major though, Joseph said he's come back just to repeat the experience. The huge everywhere street party; the smashing of zillions of bubbly bottles on the street; spraying everyone around with bubbly at midnight; drunken stranger-kissing; small-bomb (really big, would be illegal at home) firecrackers; wild, let-loose fun, nutsness like we never see. Memorably wonderful. And the enormous street mess that got somehow cleaned up spotlessly overnight ...

What also impressed us, was in one of the main squares of Florence, Piazza della Signoria [photos] with a packed crowd of thousands of seriously boozed revelers, the beautiful statues/fountains were totally untouched, they respect their great art even when blotted. The many carabinieri present just stood by smiling, people knew the limits.

Joe is a drummer,
brought his sticks and practiced nightly on hotel beds.

Hotels were hard to find in a very booked town for Florence on New Years, again optimistic non-planning, but after a hunt we lucked onto a great 3-4 star, with superb staff and internet (even parking which is not to be assumed): A comfy class joint we'd go back to any time and suggest you do too. Hotel Palazzo Benci www.palazzobenci.com.

Most highly recommended (9-10 rating even in a drizzle) is a breathtaking area that many do not know about, but ought to: Cinque Terre National Park, see this NY Times article for starters, and here's some photos. Our approximate route [road map] although not sure about every town, we just drove and drove ... take a minute to zoom in on the [terrain map] and you'll get an idea of the amazing driving/scenery! Nonstop beauty, I only wish we had the bike with us – there will be a next time. It is five villages connected by the most amazing roads network in mountains, ocean and forests, with charming reasonably priced inns en route. Rent a little car or go by bike, but do it!
Contrary to rumor it doesn't lean. The ground is sloped.

Our approximate route back to Rome via the compulsory Pisa visit which actually is a nice town [map]. January 9th we put bro' Joe on a plane to Toronto, got back on Black Bike and headed south looking for warmth. Sicily.

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En route south to Sicily, [map] some of the west coast stretches – another 9-drive rating. So lucky to be on a bike and experience this.
- Sapri –> Paola, the coastal road is beautiful driving, twisty winding non-stop wonderful.
- Gioia Tauro –> Reggio di Calabria, challenges the Amalfi for raw natural beauty although is poorer, hence less developed, which in many ways is a good thing.
- Just wow after beautiful wow; Italy is just so, well ... damn beautiful.
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Had always wanted to tour Sicily. In my quest for Goldwing GPS maps while still in Canada, encountered Daniele Berrafato in a chatroom, we swapped some tech info and mutual GL1800 love; he lives in Siracusa Sicily on the west side; he invited us to pay him a visit.

So we crossed over by ferry from mainland to Messina [map] and rode the coastal route south. In bloody miserable pouring rain. Gorgeous scenery, but it's no fun when you are cold/wet. We stopped in a bad hotel en route south of Catania, [map] called Hotel Eliseo, simply because it was open and most were not – no web site found but avoid the name.

Biking in Sicily in winter is of questionable wisdom – much rain is seasonally normal. But we were here, and Siracusa [map] is a true old-Sicily destination city, probably the best or #2 to visit on the island. Hotel Mediterraneo www.hotel-siracusa.com gets our highest rating in all of our 6 weeks in Italy; we ended up staying a week and loved it. Big well-decorated rooms, fine breakfasts, wireless internet, excellent location close to Ortigia the old city, the staff, it deserves 4 stars. Price of €64 is a good deal.

Daniele speaks excellent English, is a very skilled (pretty fast) rider, has raced bikes and owns a new very red GL1800. His career is design/running the monitoring systems at local power plants. Luisa, his lovely French-but-not-English-speaking lady is both an MD and a dentist (!)

Conversation was in 2-3 languages but friendship developed quickly and we ended up having a gourmet dinner together almost every night – Daniele knows his food and where to get it! Sicily has its own cuisine(s) and we ate, and ate. The best food we experienced in Italy. The kind of restaurants you have to live there in order to find, none for tourists. What a treat, on many levels. (I'll ask Daniele by email for some names an inset them here later....)

Went riding the magnificent countryside for a day [approx route map]with fellow (and charmingly nuts) Winger Ezio Losanno. Below Luisa, Daniele, Ezio, Peter. We rode together through winding country roads and highways, to Taormina [link] [map], a historic tourist city, nice restaurants, charming old walking streets.

Gourmet news: In Siracusa, Daniele took us to the very best ice cream place – truly the very best Thao or I have ever tasted. We ended up going back next day for more tastings, even in the cold weather, it was that good. Sicily is famed for ice cream, this is apparently the top one in town, even busy even in January. All is made on premises of fresh produce. The owner (who didn't let us pay first time, as visitors) is willing to teach – he went to Australia to set someone up in business, so, if you or a friend is interested in an upscale ice cream chain, contact me!

Daniele in front of one of the counters. Ice cream art.

Famed Mount Etna, [an active volcano link], we saw one side on our ride.
Riding with our Italian Wing friends along coast,
Bob Dylan on iPod, heaven on two wheels.
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Biking boo-boo; my first, luckily minor, 'riding ouch' on this trip. On some great twisties with our Wing friends, in a peg-scraping right turn, my toe was obviously too low. It got grabbed by the pavement, my foot was shoved back and jammed hard under the exhaust. Damn did it hurt! Luisa, an MD, checked and said correctly it wasn't broken. But it swelled so much I couldn't wear boots, or walk properly for a few days. (And was I ever embarrassed by the mistake!) Lesson: Keep foot back on the peg and toes up in turns!

How did I make two dents at the same time?
It happened so fast, cannot say. But it sure hurt!

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En route to Palermo, [map] do not bother stopping in Termini Imerese, nothing there to see – and ignore Michelin's bad recommendation, do not set foot in the worst hotel we encountered, probably in all of Europe: Hotel Il Gabbiano www.hotelgabbiano.it – every single staff member is literally a con with attitude; amazing harmony in that aspect, must be a special training course. The crummy resto's waiter tried to double-charge for a single meal; 3-star rates for barely a one-star room; they boldly lie about prices in the area; they close breakfast early, so at 9:05 they charge extra. Etc. Horrid experience non-stop. Keep going to Palermo even in the rain, as we should have done.

Palermo (city guide link) on the other hand is a destination worthy of visit. A 2700 year old, 1.2 million population, multi-cultural city, lots of north Africans. Cool markets. A little rougher and dirtier. But worth seeing. And a major cuisine of its own. Also the world Mafia headquarters although we saw no evidence of that. (The Italian police/government are apparently seriously applying pressure on organized crime, or so many told us; internet restrictions almost everywhere are a due to that, or so we were told.)

Recognize this? The Palermo Opera House.
Sofia Coppola was shot here (horrid acting) in Godfather III
Unfortunately it was raining almost the whole time we were there, a major storm front was moving in, so we did not get to see as much as we'd have liked. Also our boat was leaving to Tunisia. So our visit was sub-optimal – but none of that is Palermo's fault.

On the boat from Palermo to Tunisia: Many Tunisians do this, they buy a junker in Italy and pack every cubic inch inside and on top with stuff to take home and sell; an example I saw on the ferry, just barely room for the driver inside. Suspension was bottomed out with the load.

On the trip across we had gale-force winds (120 km/hr evidently) so our boat turned back after a couple hours. An overnight trip ended up being 36 hours in total – we just stayed aboard.

Pleasant enough cabin, decent food aboard, the price was reasonable, but do not recall, besides it varies by season.

We were among very few non-Tunisians aboard, most were Tunisian laborers who work in Italy under a farm labour agreement (one told me he makes €50 a week picking tomatoes, but no way to verify this.) But they take home their savings to waiting family. Tunisia is smart in its European outreach and calculated cross-cultural exposure.








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