Be aware, the exit and entrance ramps for the Autostrada frequently have very tight curves. The guardrail and oncoming traffic will not be very friendly to you if you miscalculate the turn. When getting on the Autostrada, you may find that the entrance lane is short and you are merging with fast-moving traffic. Make sure there is room to enter the highway before you merge from the entry lane and once on the road, get up to speed up quickly. Do not do the minute-long minivan merge, but continue in the entry lane until you see enough space in the traffic to safely join the highway. When you pass an entrance along the Autostrada, be mindful of people entering on the right and be prepared to give way.
Most Autostrade are two lanes in each direction with dividers down the middle. The left lane is the passing lane, and only for passing. Be cautious, because that Mercedes in the far distance will be coming up behind you in seconds. They’ll typically flash their lights to let you know they’re approaching. Once you have passed, immediately pull back into the right lane. I wish drivers in the U.S. respected this concept more than they do.
You will find rest areas every 30 to 50 kilometers along the Autostrada. Many of these have full services including gas and restaurants. Not every stop has a restaurant; they are marked along the highway with signs - fork and knife for a restaurant, coffee cup for a bar. (Note: the plentiful “Bar” signs in every town are actually a snack and espresso bar, not an adult drinking establishment)
There are a few different brands of rest area, Autogrill being one of them. They have restrooms, good coffee, newspapers, great maps, and sometimes a cafeteria-style restaurant where they cook pretty good food at a reasonable price for a highway stop. You will see stations set up that follow the typical Italian menu - a cold buffet for your antipasto, a place where you order hot pasta for a primo, a place for vegetables and grilled meat for secondo, and of course dolce, (dessert) area.
You might also pick up a Viacard here for toll booth payment, instead of fumbling for Euros at the toll plaza.
Getting benzina (gasoline) while here is a good idea, but you will find many self-service and some full service gas stations in Italy. They are usually open all day, even during the midday closing hours. You put a Euro bill into the machine and tell it which pump you are at. You do not get change. Senza piombo (unleaded) or benzina verde (green gas) is what you want; just don’t mistakenly use gasolio (diesel). If you get a full service station, ask the attendant for “il pieno, per favore” (fill it, please).
Beauty Awakens the Sould to Act
- Dante Alighieri
Time To Ride
After picking up the loaner-Glide in Viareggio, it was an easy jaunt south to Pisa and its infamous leaning tower. This, being one of the most recognized landmarks in the world, be prepared for tourist-overload on the scale of Disneyland. While perhaps not as bad as Venice, the fact it’s so close makes it a great stop to check off the list if you’ve never been there.
Pisa is a walled city, and parking is on the outside of this fortification commonly used by most former city-states. Be sure to find a legitimate parking spot so you don’t get towed (much easier on a motorcycle) and lock everything down or carry it with you (great advice wherever you go in Italy).
Construction of La Torre di Pisa (Tower of Pisa) began in 1173, and went on more or less for 200 years. It began to lean before it was completed and the builders even tried to compensate with the design with the yet unfinished tower. The base has been reinforced in recent years and visitors can go inside. If this is your yearning, be sure to head straight to the ticket booth and if you’re lucky enough to get a ticket, be prepared to wait hours before your ticket number is up. It is recommended that you plan well in advance and buy tickets online. After climbing 300 steps at a lean, try not to be near the bells as they toll or you just might get startled over the railing and find yourself proof of Galileo’s famous experiments here. Or, you can just visit the cathedral and grounds, and take the requisite photo of you in the foreground propping up the bell tower in the distance like the hundreds of other tourists.
If you prefer a quintessential and sophisticated walled-city experience, Lucca, less than 20km northeast of Pisa, was the second largest city-state after Venice and remained an independent republic for almost 500 years.
Founded by the Etruscans, it became a Roman colony in 180 BC. Over the centuries, it was besieged, plundered and occupied by many kings and dukes you’ve never heard of. Dante, a Renaissance outlaw and father of the Italian language, stayed here during his exile and his Divine Comedy referenced much of the turmoil here during feudal times. Oh, and Napoleon stopped by in 1805 to conquer Lucca, and installed his sister as Queen. Seriously, buy a guidebook if you must know all the details.
Curious to see some of the latest rebel-action in Lucca, I coordinated to meet Marco and see his new Garage 65 boutique located along a narrow cobblestone walking-street. There is limited parking within the walls of the city, again, easier with a bike. The narrow medieval streets are for strolling and loaded with shops and restaurants. You will find Garage 65 on a flatiron corner location in a former macelleria (butcher shop). Marco kept the original sign over the entrance, so if you happen by Lucca, keep an eye out for the blue Kosmo Drive bike in the window. (via Fillungo, 136)