Lake Como, Italy


Rich folks

Money isn’t everything…
Words & photos: The Bear

“Moto Guzzi dealers don’t become rich in money,” said Alis Agostini over lunch, “but in relationships.”

We were sharing a huge plate of the local speciality casserole at the Ristorante Cacciatori in the little village of Esino Lario high above Varenna on Lake Como, where she and her Australian husband, Peter, have a summer house. For most of the year they live down by the lake, not far from Agostini srl, the best-known (and quite possibly the best) Moto Guzzi shop in the world. Alis inherited it from her famous racer father Duilio – yes, the Agostinis are a talented family.

Over the casserole with its four (I think) kinds of meat and even more different vegetables, we agreed that neither selling nor writing about motorcycles would ever make any of us rich but the relationships made it worthwhile. Especially when they led to lunches like this in superb little restaurants like the Cacciatori, a place I would never have found by myself but which is Alis’ and Peter’s local when they’re in the mountains.

I had driven up to the house with them because it was bucketing down with rain by the lake and I’d had enough for a little while. My borrowed Moto Guzzi V7 Classic was drying off in my hotel’s garage. Moto Guzzi’s PR manager had delivered it personally a couple of days earlier. Being a tough Australian, I had spent a day riding part of the way around the lake in the cold rain before catching the ferry back and dropping in to see Alis and Peter. At least my route had meant I stayed below the snow line. Just, mind you.

I had lunch at the ferry wharf in Bellagio. The (Italian) waiter had met his (Italian) wife in The Rocks, in Sydney. I assume his marriage was a happy one because he seemed pleased when he told me the story. A lot of serving staff in Italy are men, partly because it is a proper job and a career. There are still many females, of course. In Australia, most of the really good-looking women work in fashion or publishing. There are too many in Italy for that, so they waitress as well.

When I rolled aboard the ferry it was discovered that I didn’t have a ticket. Much shrugging propelled me back to the kiosk ashore where a very pleasant young lady sold me one and then picked up a microphone to bellow at the ferry to wait for the “moto”. Great. I was tempted to give her a tip, but the ferry showed every sign of leaving anyway if I didn’t get a move on. The deckhands, who had clearly retired from playing bit parts in Fellini movies, were rattling the chains in a suggestive way.

The V7 is an absolute joy on these roads. That’s natural enough, I suppose, seeing that this is where it was developed. There’s power just about anywhere you want it, with lots of torque to go with it even from the fairly small Breva 750 motor. And, of course, the whole package is very light – even with me on board.

The cornering clearance is outstanding and the relatively narrow tyres allow you to make the most of it even on the wet and leaf-covered roads above the lake. There are plenty of corners to practice on and a few straights to wind the motor out a little.

Down by the lake the most important talent a bike can have is the ability to go from dead slow to Warp 5 almost instantly. This is because you need to overtake all the time, Italians being consistently fast drivers who are hampered by the fact that some of their cars only have 500ccs, while others are not cars at all but three-wheeled, two-stroke 50cc Vespa Ape delivery “trucks” that have no power, less torque and a brusque way with their entitlement to road space. As a result many Italians are fast drivers trapped in slow cars, or Apes as the case may be. This is not a happy situation.

Get around them and get away is the answer. There are speed traps but the only people who seem to care are German tourists. Riding on the right appears to be more a pleasant convention than a road rule. Several times during the day, riders on big sports bikes passed me and the frantic but still slow vehicles I was struggling with, in the left hand lane – straight into oncoming traffic. Room was always made for them.

I was impressed, but not really tempted to imitate them. Maybe it would happen after a few more days of frustration in the traffic.

Agostini’s is the most remarkable place. The parts store upstairs is a bit like that government warehouse in Raiders of the Lost Ark, going on further than seems really possible. I would not be at all surprised if Agostini’s has more parts and a greater variety than the factory. Bikes for sale and for rent take up the ground floor. I love it. The company used to handle the European delivery program for Moto Guzzi and started rentals when that fell over because of changes in the tax regime.

Alis is a Dave Brubeck fan, which just confirms (if it needed confirming) her impeccable style. Take Five was playing in the background while we talked in her office. She is also refreshingly honest. Yes, Piaggio is spending a great deal of government money on the Moto Guzzi factory but it is unlikely it will return to being a complete motorcycle factory. The best outcome, for the locals and the brand, would probably be a combination of an assembly facility and a tourist attraction.

She is highly optimistic about the Moto Guzzi brand, thanks to the owners and the workers and not least to the dealers. Management lacks passion, the one thing that motorcycling absolutely needs, she shrugs.

The phone rang while we were talking in her office. It was Moto Guzzi specials builder and tuner Ghezzi & Brian. Its new bike would not be ready for the Milan motorcycle show and anyway the show was too expensive. Would Alis like to display it at the shop during the celebrations at the weekend? Of course she would.

“One hundred and eighty people will see it,” she said, managing to convey the idea that these will be a very useful 180 people.

It has been hard being a woman in the motorcycle business, which is very much a man’s world in Italy. “I managed,” she says and shrugs again. As I was writing this story I found out that she’s sold the business to a long-time friend who will keep it up the way her father would have liked. She’ll stay on for a year, then she and Peter will do something else.

I rode back warily to my hotel in Lecco through the rain. Nobody slows down for the sheets of water that often cover the road and that can be interesting.

The Pescarenico is the oldest part of Lecco. In the fifth century it was already a recognised and thriving village, living off the rich fisheries in Lakes Garlate and Lecco, both more or less arms of Lake Como. The “streets” of the village proper are so narrow you can touch the walls of the houses on both sides with your outstretched hands. Sharp corners make it impossible to drive cars into the village, even super-narrow Fiat Bambinos, but it’s ideal for bikes. Apparently it also made it difficult for cavalry during the occasional disagreements between the fisher folk and the government of the time.

I manoeuvred the V7 around with no problem at all, albeit slowly. The alleys are not only narrow, they are also slippery.

I dined in style at soqquadro, a painfully trendy restaurant right next to the Hotel Abbondio, which still managed to provide the most wonderful tronchetto, a kind of “over easy” pizza with a very thin base. It was filled with mozzarella and covered with prosciutto crudo – ah! This is why I go to Italy. Well, one of the reasons.

Another reason is places like the Oasis Music Bar, just around the corner from the hotel in the downmarket direction. This place is a real find. Roughly the size of the average living room, it holds homages to various heroes of the barkeep’s, mainly Valentino Rossi and Che Guevara but also occasional bullfighters. He announced that it is a “museo”, a museum, but a bar as well.

“You are a fan of the dottore?” I asked him in my nearly invisible Italian and got a shrug. Yes, of course.

“I am Australian,” I added.

“Ah!” with a big smile. “Stonair!” I shrugged back. Of course. We were obviously going to be friends.

Likewise with the only other patron. He had been a rugby player a decade ago. I tried to explain league to him, which I in turn had played four decades ago, but didn’t get far. It didn’t matter.

We agreed that “futbol”, on the other hand, was rubbish. The oval ball was vastly superior, obviously. Clearly. What I’m telling you here, is… whatever. Hah. I must say that I’ve never found ignorance of a language a hindrance to conversation, especially when I’d been drinking. The people I was conversing with may disagree.

Another glass of wine? Of course. On me. And some of… those. Aargh. They are spicy, yes? But not too spicy! Not for an Australian! A countryman of the mighty Stonair!

I did wonder for a little while just how strong this local wine was, but eventually forgot about it. It couldn’t have been too bad; I managed to walk – well, maybe not “walk” in the literal sense of the word – the several metres back to my hotel, find my room and get undressed. I even woke up in bed in the morning. There was evidence that I had gone so far as to brush my teeth, in the form of the toothbrush in my water glass on the bedside table.

The padrone took one look at me when I came down for breakfast and actually offered to make me a cappuccino. This was a man who could make a fortune playing Hoppy Uniatz if they ever get around to filming the “Saint” books of Leslie Charteris properly. He was spot on, right down to the too-tight suit, although I’m not sure that he chug-a-lugs bottles of Vat 69. On the other hand he certainly knew a hangover when he saw one and how to deal with it.

My last day at Lake Como wasn’t actually sunny or anything, but neither was it rainy – not 100 per cent of the time, anyway. I made the most of it, exploring just about every road on the peninsula that has Bellagio at its tip and a chain of lakes oddly reminiscent of tear-along-the-line perforations at its base. Below the summit of the 1882 metre Monte S. Primo I reached the snow line. This was good – the road was more or less dry up that far, which was a pleasant change.

Like most of these roads in Italy, it led to a parking lot. The actual summit or lookout is accessible only on foot. That means it’s important to have both a way of locking the bike and of locking stuff such as your helmet to the bike. Alis told me about a couple who rented a bike from her who had both of their new BMW Systems helmets stolen off the bike. Consider something like PacSafe’s helmet bag.

The old bloke who appeared to be trying to sweep the entire parking lot nodded gloomily while I fussed. He blamed the gypsies, a common enough sentiment, although what gypsies would do with BMW Systems helmets isn’t entirely clear.

On the way back I caught the ferry again and then stopped to photograph the Fiumelatte, or Milk River, supposedly the world’s shortest river. It is named appropriately; the waters are so churned up they do look like milk.

Then I had to leave the V7 at the hotel for Moto Guzzi to collect; the bike show in Milan was calling. But I’d formed a few terrific new relationships, not least with the V7 Classic and that was great. I was one of the rich folks, really.

Leslie Charteris, born Leslie Charles Bowyer-Yin, was the half-Chinese, half-English author of the adventures of Simon Templar, alias “The Saint”, who was so badly traduced by Roger Moore in the TV series. Try reading the books, they’re far better than any James Bond.

Where it’s at

Agostini srl
Via Statale, 60
Mandello del Lario
Tel 0341735448

Hotel Don Abbondio
Piazza Era, 10
Pescarenico, Lecco.
Tel 0341366315

Alberge Ristorante Cacciatori
Loc. Ortanella, via Roccolo, 1
Esino Lario
Tel 0341860219

Oasis Music Bar
via Pescatori, 35A
Pescarenico, Lecco
Tel 3479660427

Soqquadro ristorante & tapas bar
Piazza Era
Pescarenico, Lecco
Tel 0341 284893