Riding the southern Alps


Quantum of Garda

Shaken and stirred

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a master criminal or secret agent, but by the time the third Land Rover painted in the glossy, intimidating black of the Guardia Financial had passed me — on a road with literally no other traffic — I was beginning to get worried. Was there some kind of action going on that would end with me being spreadeagled against the slabby side of a Defender, being searched by officers of the most feared and, by all reports, most ferocious of Italy’s many police forces?

I probably did look a bit like a shady character on my (flat) black Gilera Fuoco, I thought — and I was wearing one of BMW’s remarkably stealth-looking black riding suits.

A completely blacked-out Alfa of the model the police use whipped past me and that’s when the helicopter took off just over the next ridge and clattered away overhead. I only caught a glimpse of it, but it was glossy black too…

What could the financial police be doing here, high on the Passo di Rolle in the southern Dolomites? I was tempted to ask when I came on the roadblock just above Falcade, yet another black Defender, but I thought better of it. I never did find out what had been going down up there in the mountains, but then you don’t in Italy. The place may have a general comic opera air about it, but those submachine guns the Carabinieri carry are the real thing.

Mind you, the Polizia Locale get around on electrically assisted bicycles, which gives you an idea where they are in the pecking order. But even they wear guns, compact little 9mm automatics that James Bond would like.

Talking of Bond, have you seen the most recent film, Quantum of Solace? I’ve ridden that galleried road right at the beginning of the film and I’ve taken the turnoff that takes Bond up to the quarry where he kills, what, half a dozen or more of his pursuers. It’s just south of Riva on Lake Garda, in the foothills of the Alps.

There is no quarry on that road in reality, but there is an amazing canyon with a road running through and over it and, of course, a restaurant. There are also more corners than you’ve ever dreamed of and the view down the steep-sided valleys and across the lake is to kill for. Literally, I suppose, if you’re James Bond.

I had borrowed the Fuoco to take me to a few of the more interesting roads around Lake Garda and had booked a room in a small hotel (Hotel Vittoria, www.hotelvittoriariva.it, hotelvittoriasnc@virgilio.it) above a Bavarian beer keller. A win-win, I thought; if the weather was good I could explore and if it was bad I could just drink.

It all worked out very well — well, except for the fact that I didn’t get a lot of drinking done. Despite it being the end of October, the weather was good to me — except for the ride up to the famous Stelvio Pass, less than two hours from Riva and at 2758 metres one of the highest of the great motorcycle passes. I checked the web cams up at the pass on the morning of my ride and quickly decided there wasn’t going to be one; the snow was two feet deep up on the pass and still falling. Well, falling in a way — it was blowing past horizontally.

The accompanying weather report is worth quoting, in part: “A heavy fall of snow … temperatures below freezing (max –2 degrees, min –12 degrees) … near gales from the SSE.”

Another Weihenstephan, please, waiter.

But the weather around the lake wasn’t bad even then and the precipitous roads above Brenzone, on the eastern side of the lake, were beckoning. In places, the road looks like it’s literally riveted to the side of the cliff, and the rivets are slowly rusting away.

This is not turning into a terribly well-organised story, but then it wasn’t an organised trip. I had a few days before the giant Milan motorcycle show EICMA began, so I booked my hotel, borrowed the little three-wheeler and took off. I did ask Ross Naylor, who runs European Motorcycle Adventures (www. europeanmotorcycleadventures.com) and knows the area well, for some tips. It was his suggestion that took me up to the Passo di Rolle with the police, but it was also his advice that took me over the Passo Manghen, a truly amazing (I do not use this word lightly) 2047-metre-high road narrower than the average Sydney footpath. Trucks are actually banned from the northern, and narrower, side.

Thank you for the advice, Ross, and I will be very tempted to take one of your tours next time.

I came to Lake Garda out of the usual poisonous fog of the Po Valley and got my first view of the vertical sides of the upper lake at around Salo, where the sun came out. Lake Garda was carved by glaciers, and the cliff faces are easily a thousand metres high. They also drop straight into the lake, which is why the road needs to be carved into the side of and often literally inside the mountains — which is when you get those James Bond galleries.

On weekends and during the season — spring, summer and autumn — these roads are packed with holidaying Italians and other Europeans, their cars mainly on the right side of the road and being overtaken by hundreds of motorcycles mainly on the wrong side of the road. European riders, especially sports bike riders, are essentially maniacs who work out their frustration at the various systems society uses to control its members by going ape on their bikes.

In my humble opinion.

But whatever your opinion might be — stay out of their way. This lack of traffic was one reason why I was here at the beginning of winter, well outside the season. Roads nearly empty, many restaurants and hotels shut, admittedly, but the open ones never crowded and always welcoming.

Riva is surrounded by great riding — the edges of the lake itself, the high country to the east and west, and the Dolomites to the northeast. Northwest is where the Stelvio is, along with the 2621-metre Passo di Gavia and all the high passes of eastern Switzerland. You don’t need to go far in any direction to find eye-popping roads and scenery.

And it’s not just the scenery that’s wonderful. I arrived in Milan at the appallingly early hour so many airlines choose to land in the cities I like to go to, and caught the train into town. At Cadorna railway station I staggered into the small cafe next to the main entrance and breakfasted on possibly the most superb pastry I will ever taste in my (hopefully) long life.

Why is this possible?

Why can a nondescript little cafe catering to commuters in a working-class area of Milan produce wonderful baked goods when a danish at Sydney’s international airport feels like cold pizza and tastes like sugared cardboard?

I’ll tell you why. It’s because we put up with it. If you gave an Italian workman one of KSA’s danishes he would spit on your foot and jam it up your nose. The danish, or your foot. Or possibly both.

Oh dear, is it time for my tablets already?

Riding a three-wheeler on roads like this has two major advantages. One, it doesn’t matter as much that the surface is sometimes… unpredictable. The two front wheels handle even loose gravel really well. Two, you’re not tempted to go for it quite so much and therefore have an opportunity to take in the scenery. And it is staggering, truly. A big cruiser would be almost as good; it would only have one front wheel, true, but it would also be conducive to relaxed riding.

You can hire Moto Guzzi cruisers across to the west in Mandello on Lake Como — contact Agostini srl, www.guzzirent.it or ring +39 0341 735448. Alis and Peter are good friends of mine and will quickly become good friends of yours. Ask them where to ride!

You must take the back roads in Italy if you want to enjoy your riding. Forget A roads completely. On the motorway you’ll have a car screaming up behind you at some insane speed and, as it overtakes inches away from your foot, fishtailing as it fights for traction,  you’ll discover it’s a Toyota Yaris being driven by a nun. You’ll find that even some roads with three-digit numbers are overcrowded. But get off those and you’re in paradise. Except on weekends, when you’re best off in a Bavarian beer keller, not on the road.

Waiter, another Weihenstephan per favore. Si, a large one.

On these trips you need as much versatility in your gear as you can get. I wore BMW’s ComfortShell suit with the “intelligent” c_change membrane because I didn’t know what range of temperature and conditions I’d encounter. The suit’s outer layer adapts to the ambient temperature and regulates the breathing activity of the clothing. This means the ComfortShell suit can be cool in summer and warm in winter, no mean feat. BMW also claims it is windproof and watertight.

I’m happy to tell you it works. In case of a slip-up, it also has high-quality NP protectors for shoulders, elbows, back, hips and knees.

The suits are available in men’s and ladies’ sizes and cost $1100 for the jacket and $750 for the trousers. Good value — and it doesn’t look out of place on a cruiser. Just makes you look a bit like James Bond.

How did the Italians manage to build roads in these conditions before concrete? They probably didn’t, I guess. Some of the inclines are one in five, like the road down into Porto di Brenzone, which I suspect would have Australian road engineers pulling their hair out.

Leaving Riva was hard, although it was helped along by the cold, intermittent rain on my last day. Would I recommend a break here? Well, maybe I shouldn’t and keep it to myself … but no, I have to share.

Watch out for those black Land Rovers, though.

Waiter … oh, Weihenstephan finito? Well, what about a Campari and soda? Shaken, not stirred. Grazie.