You’ve probably heard that Italy is a fascinating country filled with architecture, history, art, and beautiful scenery in every direction. And you’ve no doubt heard of “La Dolce Vita”, (the phrase and also the Fellini film) which literally means “the sweet life”, and serves as the mantra in which Italians seem to embrace in their daily lives. It quickly becomes apparent that this heritage and national pride of the former has a direct correlation to the latter.
Italians highly value their culture and family and are very passionate, some might say over-emphatically so, in politics, football (soccer), food and of course, wine. It is a spectacle to behold watching several Italians talking over each other and gesturing during what some might see as a heated discussion, or to participate in a multi-course vino-and-cigarette-fueled 3-hour dinner.
I had been fortunate enough to visit Italy several times since my initial post-college backpacking and train-hopping tour of Europe, some 20-odd years ago. Today, amusingly reflecting on this providence while I scribe this narrative, I find myself coming back annually to visit the family of my Italian-born wife.
My quest to find a Harley to ride while visiting Italy didn’t start until I arrived with my wife and kiddies during the summer to visit my in-laws, who reside on the northern coast of Toscana (Tuscany). On prior visits I had seen a few Milwaukee tractors around and there was even an authorized H-D dealer in the town I was staying, but they unfortunately did not have rentals.
The Harley and custom scene in Italy has seen a huge upswing in recent years, and I intently grab all the Italian language motorcycle magazines I can from the newsstand, including several excellent H-D custom and lifestyle magazines such as LowRide and Bikers Life. It is here that I saw an amazing machine built by a custom bike builder named Marco Cinquini. His shop, Garage 65, is based in Viareggio, a city on the coast of Tuscany famous for yacht building, and rather close in proximity to where I was staying with my family in Marina di Carrara. I sent an email requesting to visit his shop and meet him, more or less as an ambassador and fellow biker from America, but also as a staffer of Baggers and sister publications, Street Chopper and Hot Bike. At the very least, perhaps I’d get the scoop on his custom works not yet known in the U.S.
Marco had kindly accepted to meet me and my translator (my lovely wife) to visit his storefront accessories shop in Viareggio, where he sells everything from helmets and handlebars, to air cleaners and t-shirts. He then invited us to follow him a few kilometers to his Garage 65 headquarters/museum, where his bikes are built and is surely inspired by the meticulous wall displays hung with vintage H-D parts and other classic Americana of all sorts, including a built-in Coca-Cola bar. Little did I expect my timing in meeting Marco, and seeing his extraterrestrial-looking and AMD European Championship winning build, named Kosmo Drive, would soon be destined for the first-ever qualified Italian entry at the AMD Championship in Sturgis the following month. (He went on to win 4th place in the Freestyle class).
Marco’s Inglese (English) is as limited as my Italiano (Italian), so it was great to have my better half understand his invitation to his weekly gathering of biker friends and H.O.G. members at his open-air compound adjacent to his shop the Wednesday of that week. Replete with birra alla spina (beer on tap), classic biker movies projected on a wall, billiard table, ping-pong, foosball, and a huge stage (no band that night), it reminded me of a mini Buffalo Chip that we’d all like to have in our own backyard to entertain friends.
I left the party at Garage 65 that night impressed by the showing of 40 or so friends and their bikes, as well as the enthusiastic discussion and passion these guys have for their American freedom machines. And, astounded by the generosity of Marco Cinquini, who called us the following day offering his CVO Electra Glide for us to ride and keep for a couple of days of touring!
Toscana is the heart of Italia. All of Italy is beautiful and its regioni (regions) are as diversified as the United States’, but Toscana surpasses all other Italian states in natural beauty boasting over one hundred nature preserves. With Firenze (Florence) as the center, Toscana extends west over mountains verdant with beech and fir woods, south to the unpolluted Tyrrhenian Sea, the area of the Mediterranean named by the Greeks for the Etruscans, and the Ligurian Sea to the north.
The Etruscans were among the earliest inhabitants of Europe, and Tuscany has been the beneficiary of both Etruscan and Italian architecture, art, history, and civilization. Tuscany was the birthplace of the Renaissance, and as such, is home to amazing villages, towns and cities that provided the linkage between medieval and modern man.
Connecting the myriad villages and towns are smaller narrow roads usually busy with traffic that will drive you nuts after a while. Luckily, Italians know how to drive and have always shared the road with two-wheelers. Bicycles, Vespas, and motorcycles are everywhere, so lane sharing on these small roads and in the city is a part of life.
The smaller winding roads are not for the novice rider or faint of heart. Many roads leading up to the hill towns are typically one lane with hairpin turns and switchbacks. A heavy cruiser is not exactly ideal for these roads, and absolutely not for the inexperienced.
Something else to consider for your safety is that larger cruiser type bikes are rare, so the slow and sometimes casual pace we enjoy while soaking in the scenery is not how most Italians and Europeans drive their sportier two-wheelers and small scooters. It often seems like a race and jockey for pole-position at any traffic light, but with the roundabouts (traffic circles) this fast pace works well most of the time. But not looking ahead for traffic or obstacles can get you in a mess real quick. Like anywhere, you will come across the occasional asinine or octogenarian driver, so heightened awareness is a must. It’s also advisable to familiarize yourself with traffic signs and laws. For instance, you cannot make a right turn on a red light.
The Autostrada is the modern main highway system, much like highways in the U.S., and is the fastest way around Italy between larger towns and cities. A private company operates the Autostrada system and you pay tolls to use it. On some parts of the Autostrada you get a ticket when you enter and pay when you exit (you pay for the distance you drive). In other parts you pay set amounts at toll booths. Be sure to have cash before entering the Autostrada.
When you’re in a town and are looking for the Autostrada, look for green signs. They will show the town names for the destination of the Autostrada. Remember that that direction signs have the town names in Italian, so Rome is Roma and Florence is Firenze.
The signs on the roads and the Autostrada are similar to what we are used to in the U.S., but again, the words are in Italian. Here are a few words you should know:
Uscita means Exit
Entrata means Entrance_
Tangenziale_ means tangential (or peripheral), usually a ring road around a large town
When you come to an Autostrada toll entrance you will see a toll plaza with one or more drive-in gates. Always go to a gate marked Biglietto (ticket) or drive to an unmarked gate. Do NOT enter gates marked only Viacard or Telepass. Take a card from the automated machine at the entry gate.
After you pass through the toll plaza you will see signs directing you to the possible destinations for the Autostrada. Always know which larger city you are heading towards (e.g. Roma or Firenze).
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)
And if you happen to stop by anywhere in Italy around lunchtime, you may be disappointed to find shops, and even museums, chiuso (closed) for several hours in the early afternoon. It is this ‘siesta’ concept that warmer European countries embrace, as lunch is typically the largest meal of the day. And what is a better remedy to beat the heat and cure food-coma than a sweet afternoon nap?
You may even find some restaurants closed or closing early during these hours, but less so in tourist areas. A good idea is to plan ahead and grab some Panini (sandwiches) and enjoy a few hours downtime in the park and walk the wide path along the top of the Lucca’s encircling wall. Shops generally open at 16:00-17:00 (4-5 pm) and stay open late for evenings. Italians also eat dinner late, so don’t be discouraged if you arrive at a restaurant at 19:00 (7 pm) to find it empty, the food is undoubtedly good. You literally can’t go wrong with gastronomy anywhere in Italy, it is a matter of national pride!
Leaving Pisa or Lucca, the Autostrada A12 runs north along the Tuscany coast to Carrara. This section, known as Versilia, extends along the coastline at the foot of the Alpi Apuani (Apuan Alps) and is known for fashionable Riviera resorts.
From this vantage point on the Autostrada, numerous hilltop villages and castles dot the foothills. Many folks make the mistake of wondering why there is snow on the higher mountains in the middle of summer. It’s actually exposed marmi (marble), white Carrara marble, and the abundant open-air quarries dating back to Roman times.
"The Experience of this Sweet Life."
- Dante Alighieri
As an alternative route, there is a coastal road that runs north from Viareggio past several coastal towns and hundreds of beach resorts. During the warmer seasons, this can be a slow route with a lot of traffic, pedestrians, and loads of bikini-induced distractions. The advantage is that you have various options to stop for a break and take in the vista sul mare (view of the sea).
Forte dei Marmi, is one of the most prestigious seaside towns in Italy. With über-chic shopping, it is the Beverly Hills and Rodeo Drive of Italy’s west coast. You can easily find a reasonable slice of pizza or cappuccino and relax at a street-side table to people watch and observe the incredible fashion-sense strolling before your eyes. It’s conspicuous the amount of privileged beautiful ladies who ride bicycles around town. No doubt they’re just a few blocks from their summer villa, with notable neighbors, Giorgio Armani and Andrea Bocelli. If you hang around for the evening, and resist buying that Gucci leather motorcycle jacket or that 20,000 euro timepiece, you might have enough scratch to party at the popular night spots and beach clubs. One of the most famous is La Capannina, which has been serving the scene since 1929.
Continuing north, Marina di Massa and Marina di Carrara are the beach towns of their counterpart city located up the hill. These towns are the epicenter of the global Carrara marble trade.
In the next issue (part 2), we’ll get our James Bond-on and visit the quarries and marble caves where the opening scene from Quantum of Solace was filmed, drop in on some castles, and explore some WWII history on our way to the Cinque Terre.
Ciao a presto! (Goodbye for now)