Jörg and Martina, on the BMW R80GS. From September 22 to 29, 2006. Total: 8 days, 2000 km.
We started rather late - about 10 o'clock - near Lausanne and took the rather direct way to the south, via Martigny to the Col du Grand St-Bernard where we had our first rest. After some delicious soup and sandwiches at the top of the col, we continued down to Aosta. Since we wanted to advance rather quickly, we simply hit the highway towards the south. While most of that road is relatively boring to ride, we were lucky and did not run into too much traffic either.
It was an easy ride and in particular the last section towards Ronco Scrivia offers very nice curves for an autostrada! Taking said exit north of Genoa, we strolled via little roads down to Genoa. Due to an error in the GPS map ;-) at the eastern end of the city, we climbed up into the mountains again and finally ended up on the 333 towards the coast again. An impressive road, with hundreds and hundreds of never-ending curves that lead towards the coast and bus drivers that take the corners as if there would be no tomorrow.
We started looking for a hotel in Camogli (which is a really nice place), but learned that during the week-end, this region is not only invaded by Germans ... but also by Italians that are spending the week-end at the coast, so you're better off reserving your hotel in advance! After a number of trial-and-error searches we finally found a nice one-star hotel in Santa Margherita Ligure, which had one last double room free. Saved!
The hotel does not have its own parking and is located on a steep road, so the bike was parked at the next central place of the village - I was a bit worried, but it was still there on the next morning ;-). The evening was spent walking through the city, taking lots of photos and having a good dinner.
... ah, yes and we learned quickly from the problem above: Consolidating a list of the places for the next days, we started to book the hotels in advance. Instead of the originally planned "we'll see where we will be this evening", now we knew where we would sleep tomorrow: Pisa.
Santa Margherita Ligure is located next to Portofino and judging by the location on the map, this had to be a nice place. Thus, after a good breakfast in the hotel (not too astonishing, once you know that the landlord is a charming German lady that came to Italy many, many years ago.), we packed the bike and headed for Portofino first.
The beautiful sight of all those little (and not-so-little!) ships, the harbours and the houses are absolutely worth the visit. However, in terms of people there seems to be quite some "jet-set" - not really the place where I would start to look for a cheap hotel in the middle of the night ;-)
Returning to Santa Margherita, we took the coastal road - the famous Via Aurelia - and headed for the southeast. The ride as such was pretty boring, but the houses and the scenery are truly nice. Just like a "compensation", the stretch of the SP1 that you reach east of Sestri Levante heads into the mountains and a beautiful twisty road leads from sea level to more that 500 m and into the region of Cinque Terre. Since our holidays were shortened by one week, we did not descent to visit these villages, but continued towards La Spezia.
Already on the very first hill of La Spezia, just upon entering the western outskirts of the city, we took a little road into the forest. From the map I had expected something bigger, but the GPSr indeed indicated that we were on the right way ... and since we were on holidays and knew already where we would sleep this evening, we took our time to explore this path. The narrow road continued for quite some time through a light forest with spectacular views, then reached a crossing at the Colle del Telegrafo, which is located at the south-eastern edge of the Parque Nazionale delle Cinque Terre. A restaurant is situated at the Colle, just at the right time and with good food. We had a good lunch, took the time to relax and I filled up the oil level of the GS. She had consumed about 0.5 l of oil over the last 500 km - yes, most of this was on the highway, but time for a head revision anyway ;-)
Back on the bike, we headed briefly towards La Spezia, but then decided to take the round trip to Portovenere anyway. Just like Portofino in the morning, this is a rather isolated village, but due to the proximity of the famous Grotta Azzurra it is very much taken by tourists - indeed we would have had trouble parking the bike somewhere! Martina was in favour of a boat trip to the Grotta Azzurra, but since we had all of our luggage on the bike and were still far from Pisa I pressed on.
The La Spezia bay is quite an interesting sight since it had always been used as a military harbour. You can get a nice overview from the mountains in the south, but the whole harbour area is surrounded by a huge wall - thus, no chance of capturing a few close-up scenes of the huge battleships that you can see from the distance.
Being somewhat deceived, we followed the directions to Lerici, then the small SP28 towards Tellaro. Our idea of a little stop in one of these villages, having a coffee and some dolce in a café with a view was wiped out by the fact that most of these villages are closed to the traffic - and since it was hot, we were not really in the mood to have a long walk in the burning sun. Thus, we headed further to Ameglia and shortly afterwards we were on the highway for Pisa.
Approaching the city, it is apparent that Pisa was a former harbour ... the grounds of the city are completely flat, there is not a single hill and the famous Campanile is visible from quite a distance. The GPS lead us straight to the hotel and it turned out that the hotel was situated halfway between the Campo dei miracoli and the old center of the city near the river Arno. Thus, a perfect location for the next two days.
The only downside was that we were, again, in the very last room that was free. The guide from Michelin that I had bought just before the trip recommended this hotel, but since we ended up in a room under the roof - with no view at all, just a "hole in the ceiling" - it was a bit deceiving. The second problem was that it was not sure if we could stay for another night - we had forgotten to specify early enough that we wanted to stay two nights. Oops.
Fortunately the Amalfitana is not the only hotel in that street ... two houses further was the hotel Cecile, where we immediately booked a room for the next night. And just across the street is the botanical garden - what we could see through the gates was amazing, but unfortunately the area is closed during week-ends ...
... so we went a few steps further to the north and reached the famous Campo dei miracoli. Enjoy the pictures!
The day started with a rich, good breakfast at the hotel Amalfitana. Since we were obliged to move to another hotel (waiting for an "eventually free" room was not exactly acceptable for us), we packed our luggage and went to the checkin desk to pay. That is where we perfectly understood Michelin's recommendation: not only they were very friendly and understanding, but they also reduced the fee for the room once Martina made a remark about the price in the guide (the room was more expensive than indicated in the guide, albeit both were from 2006). What a good surprise! Nice place, very friendly people, good breakfast, we'll come back :-)
Then we moved the 20 m down the road, to the hotel Cecile. I pushed the GS from the street into the Hotel parking. The receptionist was not overly friendly (since he wanted me to park the bike elsewhere, but I wanted a parking where it was "hidden"), but anyway - we left our luggage under the supervision of the receptionist and walked towards the center of Pisa.
Pisa is an old city, but its heart is young - the huge number of studenty and young tourists make the atmosphere quite charming and even the restaurants have reasonable prices for their menus. We took our time to stroll along the river Arno, admire the old houses and churches. A boat trip came to mind - we had read about it, the schedule fit perfectly to our arrival at the site, but no boat turned up whatsoever. Not a problem, there were great churches and wonderful streets nearby:
The Piazza dei Cavalieri that we see today is the result of the political, artistic and cultural strategies adopted by the Medici family when Tuscany was unified under Florentine power. By the time the Medici had finished their interventions - more than a century long - in the square, the area was completely "redesigned". Of the seven roads which originally arrived there, three (one in the area of the Canonica, one in the area of the Palazzo dei Priori, and one between the Palazzo della Carovana and the Palazzo dell'Orologio) no longer existed, but the square now had an aspect of ideal unity. This was achieved through the application of a coherent artistic plan to buildings with varying uses and through the effects of symmetry and modularity produced on the façades, where decorations contribute to the illusion of regularity. (source: somewhere from the web)
Back to the hotel, we moved into the room - this time we had a window, albeit it pointed to the street. This meant that it would be noisy, but at least it was a real window ;-)
The Vespas in the streets of Pisa start early, so our night was short. Add to that the mosquitos and you will understand that the night was even shorter. The breakfast was a joke, too - a coffee served by a grumpy receptionist and a lousy kind of croissant. To complete the package, it started to rain.
I love packing the motorcycle in the rain. Oh yeah.
We rode out of Pisa and towards the south. The weather did not improve, so instead of taking little back roads we changed our plan and headed directly towards Volterra.
Approaching Volterra in the rain and fog is quite an impressing ride: not only that you climb a rather steep mountain that is visible far from the distance, but also the strong crosswinds and the harsh drops at the sides of the road call for a careful riding style. - It was late morning when we arrived at our hotel, the Sole, which is a recent installation on the south ramp of the hill. A certain lack of charme of the new building is more than compensated for by the kindness of the ladies and the large rooms and the private parking are very convenient.
We merely dropped our luggage in the room, then went off to visit the famous site of San Gimignano!
In Italian medieval walled towns, rich families competed in the erection of high towers that served as lodgings, fortresses and prestige symbols. While in other cities like Bologna or Florence, most or all of the towers have been brought down due to wars, catastrophes or urban renewal, San Gimignano managed to conserve 13 towers of varying height which are its international symbol. (from wikipedia.org)
"San Jimmy" is situated just a few kilometers east of Volterra. As we arrived there the rain was still pouring down, but that did not stop thousands of tourists from visiting the site, too. We packed the GS onto a car parking (the motorcycle places were full!) and went for a visit. Keeping the helmets on kept us dry and made sure that we got lots of looks from the other people - mostly amused by the ladies, and somehow intrigued looks by most of the men.
That did not stop us from enjoying the visit. It would certainly have been more fun in a "dry state", but we even asked the waiter in the restaurant if he had some plastic covers ... to avoid that we'd soak his chairs. Ah yes and this was my first encounter with Pan forte, too - it looks like chocolate cake, but it is a rather compact matter with lots of taste :-)
Later on, the rain stopped and for the second part of our visit we could take the helmets off.
The only bad surprise was the parking ticket; a full 6 EUR for three hours is quite a lot - the same price as for a car, and fiercely confirmed by the, uhm, dragon at the information. Note to self: next time, take one of the other parkings, e.g. at the other end of the village.
Back to Volterra, we took a shower and some rest. In the evening we walked a bit uphill to visit the old part of Volterra. Being an old etruscian city, Volterra is surrounded by a huge wall, but since the rain started again it looked rather menacing. Strolling through the roads of the city we discovered a number of beautiful places and after a visit to a shop (many beautiful things!) we ended up in the restaurant Etruria ... quite a culinary "accident", since this turned out a perfect occasion to warm up after such a rainy day. The restaurant is apparently well-known in the region (at least) and its interior indicated that it exists since the 1970s (at least). It was delicious!
After a good night, we woke up to a clouded sky. We had an excellent breakfast, then packed our things and cleared the room. In agreement with the reception we still left alll the material at the hotel, though, since we made another attempt to see Volterra at daylight.
Half of the visit went well (in terms of the weather), we even saw some sun, but then the rain came back, accompanied by stormy weather, and we decided to leave. Back at the hotel we changed into our motorcycle gear, then left for a "scenic riding day" towards Pienza, where we had reserved the next hotel room.
Finally the weather was with us, since the rain ended and the view cleared. On the way we stopped at San Galgano, a beautiful site:
A chapel at Monte Siepi once was the home of a knight; it was built at the end of the twelfth century to consecrate the home of the young hermit Galgano Guidotti, who died in 1181 and was canonized in 1185. A few steps further, the abbey of San Galgano was erected soon after his death, but somewhere in the 16th century the lead of the roof was dismounted and sold - leading to as collapse of the roof. The walls are still standing and Galgano's sword is still in the stone where he drove it when he turned away from knightship. The calm and piece that hovers over the place, together with the roofless yet intact abbey, make this place hauntingly beautiful.
Since the weather was dry, we prolonged our stay there a while and turned towards the little restaurant/bar that is held by a young couple in the last bend of the road that leads to the chapel. We had a nice lunch accompanied by the local cats and then headed for Pienza.
Pienza is yet another of the Tuscany sites that I would classify as a "must see". Indeed it is an artificial city, built by a pope from scratch in a few years, according to a model of ideal living and governing and representing one of the best-planned Renaissance towns. Its location on a hill in the middle of Val d'Orcia gives the site a beautiful, majestic touch. Even the street names reflect the joys of life.
Our "hotel" basically had only one room that was already occupied, but - as agreed on the phone - we were lead to a cute appartementino in the city where we stayed for the next two nights. A small but nice place, directly situated on the outer wall of the city and with an outstanding view over the countryside - sunrise to the left, sunset to the right, and Tuscany landscape straigh in front. Which means south.
There is a downsite, though. The "day visitor" does not really recognize it, but when you spent a day or two in these walls it becomes apparent that the beauty is a bit bored by herself. In the evening, the shops and cafés close early, not many people are in the streets (especially no young ones) and once the restaurant is full they will not bother about reserving a table for you an hour later ("the kitchen will close at 9 o'clock"). Thus, if you plan to eat here in the evening, you're better off either reserving a table early ... or you're left with the restaurant at the western end, just outside the city wall.
Don't forget to try their ice cream, anyway!
Since we were not in a hotel but an appartementino, we took our breakfast a few meters further, on a small bar located at the wall. After taking a few more pictures of the Duomo and its surroundings, we headed off for a motorcyle round-trip around Pienza.
We started towards the north, soon reaching the famous Crête that offers so many of the "typical tuscany views". On most photos this landscape looks sooo mooth and sooo pieceful, yet some of the road's slopes are truly steep and the wind can blow quite strong here. Indeed I admired the people that take this road with the bicycles...
Soon we reached out first stop, the Abbazia di Monte Olivetto. The Congregation was founded in 1313 by John Tolomei along with two of his friends. The community accepted the Rule of St.Benedict and was recognised by Pope Clement VI in 1344. The building of the monastery began in 1319 and the monastery took the name of Monte Oliveto Maggiore (Major) so as to distinguish it from successive foundations (Florence, S.Giminiano, Naples, etc.).
The buildings have some particular opening hours and as we arrived there just about lunchtime we started with a picknick under the trees in the park. After that, we strolled in for a visit. A tower with a drawbridge marks the entrance to the monastery site, while the abbey "as such" is located a few hundred meters further down the hill (view on Google maps). Since the building was closed - as I said, the opening hours ... - , we limited the visit to a glance from the outside.
The next stop was Montalcino - especially since the city is known as the center of the production of the famous Brunello di Montalcino. However, since it was pretty hot we were not really in the mood for wine but more for some icecream. It turned out that you can taste and buy wine virtually on every single street, but there was not a single gelateria open!
After that good rest, both of us were feeling much better and we went back to the bike. We wanted to visit Abbazia di Sant'Antimo and the road led us out of Montalcino and towards the south-west, where a small sign almost on top of a hill directed us to the left. The following dust road crosses a nice landscape and after Villa a Tolli we indeed found the road that, according to the map from Kümmerli & Frey, should direct us to the Abbey. The coarse direction was correct and I already had see the position of the abbey visible on my GPSr.p>
However, after a few curves we came onto a truck that blocked the road and there were three men occupied with repairing the surface.
Well, we walked around the truck and kindly asked if it was possible to pass. They looked a bit astonished and asked where we wanted to go and when we said "Sant'Antimo" they shook their heads, waved their hands and explained that the road was absolutely not rideable. Hmm.
Martina translated (she was doing all the Italian conversation on the trip, since unfortunately I do not understand much if that beautiful language). One of the three workers heard us talk to each other in German, and then he spoke to us in the broadest Bavarian (!) accent, explaining the way around the "obstacle". We chatted a bit, had a good laugh with him about the completely unexpected Bavarian accent here in Tuscany and headed off the way they had indicated. The path was a little bit rough; some more or less deep and steep downhill tracks with solid edges required a careful riding style. I would not exactly recommend this part of the track when it's raining, but since it was dry it was perfectly feasible.
After a few minutes we arrived at the Abbazia di Sant'Antimo. Founded around the year 750, the site was propsperous for quite a while, but its decline started during the 14th century and it was officially closed in 1462. It was not before 1978 that a few monks came back to this site to live there and today the abbey is a rather "basic", but well-maintained and charming place. Definitively worth the visit!
The way from Sant'Antimo towards Bagno Vignoni led us along Castoglione d'Orcia, with its impressive Rocca d'Orcia. Bagno Vignoni is located just "at the other side" of the valley that is overlooked by this fortress.
It was well past 16 h and Martina was really looking forward to get into the public bath that I had read so much about: One characteristic piece of Bagno Vigoni is a thermal water basin right in the main square of the village. Yet ... we soon had to find out that there is no way to access this "pool" directly: The only access would be via the thermal bath, which in turn is not a public bath but a medical institution, with the corresponding access times and big prices. Frustrating.
We had a cappuccino and Martina found some new hope by asking: Some publicly accessible bath should be at the southern end of the village. It turned out that this pool belongs to a hotel and the entrance fee for the remaining hour would be rather expensive, too. Grmbl. I had read so much about natural thermal springs and seen photos of happy people sitting in warm water in natural chalk basins ... where were they?
When we just left the village again, a part of the mystery was solved: There were many people sitting just outside the city walls, with their feet in some channel. This is where the hot water was diverted after use! We joyfully joined the people there, put our hot feet in the water and enjoyed the refrehment (yes, albeit the water is warm it is clearly a refreshment). From a nearby discussion we learned that this water had been much warmer in the past and that the commercial (ab)use was increasing - not really in agreement with the desires of the locals.
These channels led to some roman installations at the very the edge of the rock and when we followed the flow of the water we noticed that there were children playing in a huge natural water basin right at the foot of the hill. This was the place that we had been looking for!
We got dressed again and rode to that place (which is, by the way, not indicated in any particular way). It turned out that the water was almost cold, but the mere gesture of walking around in this soft water (very rich in calcium sulfate; the bottom of the basin was covered with its soft mud) in the mild sunlight of a late summer afternoon has a very relaxing effect!
It was around 18 h when we finally headed back towards Pienza. Taking some more of the easy-to-ride dust roads, the light near sunset is just beautiful. We arrived at our place, has a shower and a rest and then headed for a restaurant.
This time we got up early.
So early that yesterday's bar was not yet open.
We strolled along the central road to find a place for breakfast and found it a few steps from our house. Both coffee and croissants turned out to be not only better but even cheaper that in the bar that was on the wall. Apparently we had found the place where the villagers take their breakfast ;-)
We packed our luggage, then carried it to the motorcycle. Since the GS had to stay outside of the city walls, I am always a bit worried of parking her unguarded, but nothing bad ever happened during the trip.
From Pienza we went towards the north, not exactly the same road we took yesterday but nevertheless passing via the Abbazio di Monte Olivetto and through Asciano again. From there, we ran along the Corniche that leads towards the north, and that offers "the typical Tuscany views". Further north, the SS222 turned out to be perfect for "riding the twisties" ... and indeed there were lots of hayballs and tires installed on the corners?! It turned out that the road was just being prepared for some mountain race that was apparently taking place on the coming weekend.
We avoided Siena completely by taking the city highway around the south-west of the city, then headed to the north. This region is famous for its Chianti vineyards and indeed the little roads led us to Vinci.
Yes, the Vinci. The one in "Leonardo da Vinci".
A short stop at the central place and a look into our guide book told us that there are at least two museums that are dedicated to the life and work of Leonardo da Vinci. Since the day was hot (and our holidays a bit short ... did I mention this already? ;-), we were not really in the mood for extensive museum visit and instead we went on. A few km north of Vinci we took the road that lead to Leonardo's birthplace, an old farm house in the green hills. We stopped and while the little museum on that site is not particularly impressing, the house itself as well as its surroundings are beautiful and calm.
Moving further to the north on secondary roads, we approached Pistoia. We intended to arrive at our hotel (situated slightly north of Pistoia) rapidly, then go back to Pistoia again and do some shopping. Well ... this was the plan.
It was a bit tricky to find the hotel, but the indication in the Michelin guide as well as the signs at the roadside helped indeed. The final section of the road before arrival at the hotel runs through a light yet dense green forest, giving a first glance of the green oasis that awaited us. Indeed Villa Vannini (aka La Volpe e l'Uva; (view on Google maps) is situated on the flank of the mountain. It is an old, completely renovated guesthouse, surrounded by a beautiful park with huge, old trees and enjoying the tranquillity of a toscan countryside.
Villa Vannini was built in 1780 as a summer residence for the nobles of Pistoia and Florence. In 1948 it became part of the Vannini family estate and in 1982, Maria Rosa turned it into a country house after meticulously restoring all the original archictectural details and furnishings. The eight rooms are spacious and are decorated in country house style with original antiques. Some rooms are ensuite and some have a private bathroom across the hallway from the bedroom.
A particularity is that the building was renovated with a lot of love for the little details. As an example, the eight bedrooms are equipped with ancient furniture and there is neither TV nor telephone in the room. The main room near the restaurant welcomes you like your own living room, the bar works as self-service with a notepad and the motorcycle was allowed to park right near the main entrance. Add to the the charming welcome, the giant garden terrace and the cat - and it was obvious that we would no longer consider going back to Pistoia that day!
Indeed we spent a very relaxed afternoon in the garden, writing the last postcards, reading, playing with the cat, or just dozing. After that came an delicious, very well-prepared tuscany menu with the appropriate bottle of wine and off we were to sleep ;-)
After the truly relaxed evening, a quiet night and an excellent breakfast, it was time to leave. We packed our luggage, said goodbye to the cat (and the ladies of the house) and hit the road. We had planned a quick visit to the Grotta del Vento and the marble caves in Carrara, then we would take the highway and head home.
Well, this was at least the plan ... sounds familiar? ;-)
The day started slowly ... already the minuscule road that leads from Piteccio to the north (towards Pontepetri) was extremely narrow, and it took quite some time to arrive at the next stop. Campo Tizzoro had not only a post office (for the postcards ;-), but also the baker shop right on the other side of the road provided us with perfect Cantucci.
Via San Marcello we joined the SS12, which leads in many curves down to Bagni du Lucca. Shortly afterwards, we turned to the north towards Gallicano and from there on a small road to the Grotta del Vento.
It is a spectacular cave that is open to visits (of 1, 2 or 3 hours) and we took the opportunity for a guided 1-h visit that was worth every minute of it! I let the pictures talk here ...
After a lunch in the nearby restaurant (which is situated about 500 m below the parking area of the cave and a nice place - not a "tourist trap" at all!), we were in the saddle again. The map from Kümmerli & Frey indicates a road from the Grotta del Vento towards the west, but we had to learn that this is a recurring error in this map: Indeed we had to ride the 12 km back to Gallicano, and from there to Castelnuovo.
The road from Castelnuovo to the west is quite spectacular: Passing places like Isola Santa, it climbs up into the mountains and after sections with forest we were suddenly greeted with an alpine, rocky landscape that was already showing signs of abandoned marble production sites (the same site on Google maps).
After the long but scenic - or should I say: "scenic but long" ;-) - descent towards Massa and some erring in the roads of this city, we went to Carrara and had a look at the marble production. While this is easy to find (just follow the signs "cava del marmo"), we were a bit overwhelmed by the size of the many production sites. It seems that somewhere in there is a "visitor center" (which I wanted to visit), but since it was already past 17 h on a friday afternoon, we decided to come back some other day and headed for the city. Filled up gas, has some excellent dolci in the center of the city, then we hit the highway.
The trip back was uneventful: Dense traffic until Genoa, then a night ride until Aosta ... which I found less boring at night than in the day. The reason is that there are many historical sites along the highway that are nicely illuminated! - Arriving in Aosta, we did not ride the Col du Grand St-Bernard at night due to the rather fresh temperatures, but took the tunnel. Highway again in Martigny and on the last kilometers just before reaching the house it even started to drizzle.
It turned out that riding home that night was the right decision: Following our arrival, the whole week-end was rainy!