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THE ITALIAN JOB

  
We both pass the ferry port at Portsmouth 5 days a week to get to and from work and have been tempted SO many times to just jump on the bikes, board a ferry on a Friday night and see how far we can get over the weekend.  We’d also fancied going on a longer bike trip than the annual SAM long weekend on the “other side”.
I acquired a new bike at the end of July – the new Yamaha FZ6, or Fazer 600, complete with Givi panniers. Tried out loading the panniers with heavy books to see how it affected the handling – it didn’t appear to affect it at all, the bike still went round corners as though it was on rails.  Quite a different feel to the Harley……and I was really confident about taking it on a longer trip.
Active ImageSo we put a bit of time aside to make a rough plan for a two week riding holiday.  As I’d never been to Italy, we decided to aim for Florence in Tuscany – and so it became “The Italian Job”.   We didn’t really want to be riding in ridiculously hot temperatures, so we opted for the beginning of September (after the tourist season in the south of France and northern Italy), and hopefully before the rainy season.
We caught the late night LD Lines ferry from Portsmouth, booked sleeper seats, which were brilliant, and arrived bright eyed and bushy tailed in Le Havre at 8am the next morning.  We planned to travel down the Loire Valley, across to Grenoble and then drop down to the French Riviera in three days.  We booked hotels with secure parking for bikes for the entire journey to Italy.  We knew we’d be doing some serious miles each day and wanted to avoid arriving late at our destination and then having the pressure to find accommodation.  It worked wonderfully.  We’d also planned to take a break on the fourth day – this trip wasn’t to be purely about doing miles, we wanted to enjoy the journey.
We had kitted ourselves out with bike to bike radios prior to leaving, and had tested them out a few times to make sure that they worked.  Jon was still having difficulty hearing me and I’d been given instructions to have the microphone touching my lips and to speak with my mouth puckered up like a dog’s bottom, to project my voice – oh, and could I talk in a deeper voice?  You’ve got the picture……….not a pretty sight.  During the course of the journey the radios worked really well at times, on some occasions Jon couldn’t hear me (or so he said), and sometimes they just refused to work at all.
The first day in France was as expected – we’d done some of these roads before and knew that the scenery wasn’t very exciting. We did stop for lunch outside Orleans at a trucker’s café where Madame was serving Kir, Pression, and Ricard to the truckers before issuing them with a ticket for a set 3 course meal, including wine, having consumed which, they were back in their trucks and on the road. Civilised/bonkers? We were about to be out on the road with these people!
We had booked a hotel in Nevers for the first night and, unfortunately, made a detour of around 40 miles after lunch and encountered rather a heavy downpour in the midst of it all.  Arrived later than intended and very tired.  I began to wonder about the mileage targets we had set ourselves….
Day 2 dawned bright and sunny.  The roads were lovely, especially on the approach to Grenoble when the mountains came into view.  Some steepish downhill bends that required some concentration, which was hard when the views were so fantastic. Busy traffic in Grenoble because we arrived at around 5ish.
Active ImageDay 3 and we were heading for Juan les Pins.  We knew this was going to be an interesting day because we planned to take the “Route Napoleon”.  Fortunately, the weather was fantastic – dry and sunny.  Some really good roads and brilliant scenery but it took much longer than anticipated (partly due to me being a bit “cautious” on my new bike - still expecting to go round corners Harley-style, and partly due to wanting to take in the scenery).  Stopped for lunch in Gap where the temperature suddenly dropped (apparently this happens). The roads from Gap to Sisteron had some wonderful sweeping sections.  Sisteron is worth the detour – lots of bikes visiting this very pretty town – maybe a bit touristy but not spoilt by it. We had been advised not to take the N85 all the way to Grasse – VERY twisty, apparently, and best done whilst still fresh and alert (we’ll go back and do that some other time). So we turned off at Digne les Bains and took another route, which was still testing and slow and tiring.  The N202 took us along the river Var by the train line through the mountains.  Came across the huge and very blue Lake of Sainte-Croix-de-Verdon.  Then the D6202 to Nice and on to Antibes. 
Again we arrived at rush hour – the traffic was horrendous and we ended up lost, and separated, in Juan les Pins.  The radios weren’t working and my mobile phone had died.  Aaaaggghhh.  Fortunately, we found each other and the hotel.  By now we were sweating cobs – we were tired, hot, and not in the best of tempers.  Imagine our joy to find that our hotel room was on the 4th floor and there was no lift…………  Madame Patrice (the hotel owner) and her daughter helped us with our bags and when we’d parked the bikes in the underground secure car park, unpacked and showered, we surfaced to find she’d left us a map of Juan les Pins and a small handwritten map of “somewhere to eat” and “The Promenade”.  God bless her. A couple of beers, a good meal and a bottle of wine later, it all seemed worthwhile.  Oh, and the view from our 4th floor hotel window across the sea to Cannes to the right and Antibes to the left was pretty awesome.  Not sure how we got up all those stairs to bed but we slept extremely well.
NOTE:  NEVER under estimate how long it will take to get there.  Don’t wear your biking gear for TOO long.  Take breaks regularly and DON’T get too tired to ride!
Day 4 was spent in Juan les Pins, on foot, on the beach, in the sea, eating fantastic food, drinking some alcohol.  No bikes.
We were torn between taking the coast road and the autoroute across the French/Italian border.  After our 3 days of high mileage and some testing roads, we went for the easy option.  What a brilliant choice – good speeds on a lovely road.  As we moved along the coast the drop to the sea became steeper.  This road takes you through mountain tunnels and across incredibly high viaducts, the wind catching you as you emerge from every tunnel, but with spectacular views on either side. I have nothing but admiration for the engineers who built these roads but it’s not a road for anyone who doesn’t like heights or tunnels……..We stopped briefly to take in the view over Monaco.  We made really good progress because the traffic was moving so well – lorries and vans actually doing some hideous speeds.  It became busier as we approached Genoa and the tunnels were filled with fumes.  We’d booked a room in the Villa Bonera on the coast at Nervi – can’t recommend this enough.  Beautiful little harbour and a wonderful first taste of Italy. 
Leaving Nervi the next morning, we took the coast road to Rapallo and joined the A12 Autostrada past La Spezia towards Viareggio before turning towards Florence.  Beautiful scenery and excellent sweeping roads that begged to be taken at “healthy” speeds?!  Again there were tunnels and viaducts transporting us through the landscape with snow on the mountains to our left and lush green hills to our right.  Our choice of villa, with swimming pool, in Tavarnelle, south of Florence, was a good one. 
Active ImageFrom here, for the next couple of days, we could venture out on the Blade without luggage, and see the sights.  It was a lightning stop tour but we squeezed in Florence, Siena, Monteriggianni and San Gimignano as well as some R&R, delicious food, and we now think we know how Rossi developed his cornering skills.  There are some unbelievable roads in this area – long sweeping bends with a view ahead so you can see what is, or isn’t, coming.  Fantastic.  The countryside is just beautiful – cypress trees, vines, olive groves, and everything so lush and green.
We hadn’t made a definite plan for the return journey – but we agreed that we wouldn’t push ourselves with silly mileages and we hadn’t booked any accommodation so we just set off in the direction of Mont Blanc.  We headed back towards Genoa and then took the A7 north towards Milan, turning off towards Alessandria.  Not recommended – the road became very straight on high level ground – very boring.
Stopped for the night at a Motel out in the middle of nowhere.  Turned out to be rather strange – facilities were good but the only human we saw was the receptionist behind very thick security glass.  Breakfast was served through a sliding door in a cupboard in the room.  Our only clue to the usual clientele was the TV where the emphasis seemed to be on “hard video”….
Active ImageMoving on swiftly, the next morning the weather was overcast initially, which was quite a relief because we had been suffering in our leathers in the heat.  After Turin the traffic became lighter and approaching Aosta the scenery became more mountainous with more tunnels, now quite chilly, and more spectacular views as we emerged from each one.  And finally the big one – the Mont Blanc tunnel.  We couldn’t ride together because they try to break up a string of lorries with a car and/or bike in between.  This 11km tunnel is hot, unlike the others, with huge fans blowing and with blue flashing lights every 150m – vehicles must stay 150m apart.  If you get too close or go too fast, you are flashed.  Oops!  Lorries slow down going up hill, don’t they?  The road surface is rough and, obviously, wet in places.  It seems never-ending at a max of 70km/hr but eventually we emerged into bright sunshine and the most incredible view of the Mont.
The Autoroute Blanc down from Mont Blanc is fabulous.  Hard to concentrate on the road because the views are out of this world – the waterfalls really are ice blue. You have to ride this road at some time in your life.  Past Geneva, we left the autoroute and found a swiss cottage of a hotel, “Le Fartoret” in a sleepy little place called Elouise. It looked like a ski lodge situated in idyllic surroundings and with the most incredible views.  Fresh air, the smell of pines, and even a cow bell or two. A biking couple from Zurich who were staying at the hotel recommended a couple of roads in the area and told us that Macon was worth visiting.
We woke the next day to a crisp, bright morning with the promise of a warm day ahead.  Headed towards Bourg-en-Bresse on the D979 – green route – oh yes!  Fantastic twisting curves – absolutely lovely road.  Descended to Nantua and its beautiful lake, and then up again into the hills.  Very picturesque roads between Bourg-en-Bresse and Macon, where we stopped for lunch.  Our timing was getting better – arriving before the main rush and then moving on whilst everyone else was lunching the French way.  We took the back roads towards Moulins.  When it came to finding accommodation, it wasn’t so easy away from the larger towns but we did find a rather quaint “Hotel des Voyageurs” at Cronat where we secured ourselves a room for just 35 Euros.  Our room overlooked a bend in the main street and it wasn’t long before we realised that we were on the route to Magny Cours and the Bol D’Or – we lost count of how many bikes went past.
The scenery here is very noticeably different to Italy with fields of corn and sunflowers replacing the olives.  Do people driving cars miss all the wonderful smells we get riding a bike?
From Cronat we made for Decizes on the D974.  We turned to ride along the banks of the Loire and the Canal on the N81.  The canal was above the road at times and it seemed very strange to look up and see boats alongside us on a higher level.  We stopped at Gien to take photos of the river and the lovely chateau, then on to Chateauneuf sur Loire and accommodation for the night.
The next day we took the D955 past Orleans towards Chateaudun.  A very long straight road where the countryside becomes very flat and boring – not our favourite but we managed to find a really good Karting Circuit and stopped there for refreshment and to take the sun.  The chateau at Chateaudun is incredible – looks like something out of a Dracula movie.  We were so near home now that we had to stop ourselves getting to Le Havre too quickly, so we made a bit of a tour of the forest area around Senonches.  Unfortunately, accommodation was not that easy to find because it was the weekend, and busy.  In Verneuil we found the Hotel de la Gare which was run by an English chap very into bikes – bikes inside and outside the bar – but, sadly, no rooms.  He said to take the D51 to Evreux – oh boy, what a FANTASTIC road.  You’ll have to go to find out.  Getting late now, so we opted for the first hotel we found – the Formule at 29 Euros for the night.  Hmmmmm.  If you’re REALLY desperate and need a bed for the night, it’s cheap and clean.  But chaps, don’t take anyone you love for a night away to one of these.  You have been told………..
Last day of the adventure dawned.  Not very far to Le Havre now so we took it leisurely.  Took the N13 west towards Lisieux.  More straight roads but we saw innumerable Harleys going in the opposite direction, obviously heading for the Harley rally in Evreux.  Had a relaxed lunch in Pont L’Eveque, watching the local gendarmerie  prowling and pouncing on motorists who didn’t negotiate the mini roundabout correctly.  Very amusing.
 Time to head for Le Havre – the Pont de Tancarville is truly amazing and the approach to the Ferry Port very well signposted from a long way out. We took first place at the head of the motorcycle queue and had time to eat icecreams and chat to other bikers as they arrived – including two SAM members, Dave and Pam, hot and dusty from their hols en France.  A lovely smooth crossing to Portsmouth and after two weeks of sunshine, 2233 miles of brilliant roads, quite a few thrills and, happily, no spills, we have vowed to do something similar again very soon.
If you’ve ever wondered about taking a trip like this and not done it yet, DO IT !!!
A few tips –
  • Hard, lockable, removable luggage is the best – honestly.
  • If you can find a waterproof fabric jacket with armour that you’re comfortable in, buy it.
  • Do take regular breaks and carry water with you. 
  • It isn’t worth pushing yourself to get somewhere by a certain time – better arrive late and safe.
  • Be honest with yourself about how many miles you’re prepared to do in a day.
  • Try NOT to have a tiff whilst out on bikes – it doesn’t make for safe riding………
  • Radios can be a bonus, but they’re not essential.

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