AVIGNON-NICE-GENOA-CINQUE TERRE-PISA FEBRUARY 22-24
With Nicole comfortable on the back we head off for Nice. It is the first time that I have had a pillion plus gear on the back of the bike. We are really pushing the bike at about 75% of it's recommended max weight capacity and the handling suffers noticibly. We settle into the road and chat on the intercom. Not wanting to pay for toll roads or pass by the scenery at a pace I set the GPS to avoid tolls. Using google the night before I had checked where a 'no tolls' route would take us. It was up through the mountains going over 1100 metres elevation. After checking the temperature forecast along the way I decided the mountains would be ok so long as we got through in the peak of the day.
We head towards Apt through vineyards and rustic farm houses. The sun shines golden on everything that is dry and brown from winter. A sense of warmth and optimism is created by the colours, overpowering the 8 degree air that blows through us. Rows of trees line the roads as is typical in this area and the sun flashes through them as we ride by. A beautiful but dangerous custom for motorcyclists.
We stop in Apt to pick up some fruit, olives, fromage and baguette. Nicole is fluent in French which makes everything in France a lot easier.
There are countless opportunities to pull over and take photos but we have to stay disciplined to make it through the mountains. Sometimes you pull the camera out to early and waste your battery then later on in the day when it really gets put on for you, no battery. I don't want that to happen.
A small side road is perfect for us to stop and eat some food. The temperature has risen and it is about 15 degrees so the layers come off and we soak up the sun. It is a perfect day, we are both full of enthusiasm for the weeks ahead. The local produce is rewarding, cheese, olives and wine are so good in this part of the world and a pinch of the cost that we would pay back home so we take the opportunity to dig in.
Back on the bike we head towards the snow capped mountains.
Every time we think the scenery can't get any better it astonishes us again. We are both beaming smiles, every third word is "wow", "woah", "look.. at.. that!". The tarmac is perfectly smooth, maintained and massive rock faces rise up on either side of the road. We follows a river that carves it's way through thick snow and to my surprise the temperature remains above 12 degrees despite the 100's of metres we gain in elevation.
We stop at an old train station that looks as though it may still get some use. There is a huge pile of snow and after a photo with the bike I can't resist spinning up the rear.
Up we climb and the road starts to carve into the cliff face, dropping off a hundred metres to one side. I am really enjoying the turns and the bike still has plenty of power despite the 175kg load. We pass through a giant hole cut out of the mountain face as we reach the top of the range at about 1000m.
We realise how lucky we are to be seeing this spectacle at this height. 2 weeks ago the temperature would have forbid us coming even close when temperatures were -10c. Today the temperature is perfect. In another 2 weeks all this snow will melt and the landscape won't be the winter wonderland it is today.
After riding past snow fields we decent around 20 hairpin turns to Castellane. The whole time we can see this church on the edge of a cliff overlooking the city. Nicole is eager to stop to get photos.
We climb again to elevation and have the choice between a route to Cannes or direct to Nice, our destination for the evening. Cannes it is. Our whole afternoon is winding roads up and down, around through the mountain range until late afternoon we finally peak through and can see the meditteranean for the first time. Like someone had flicked a switch the vegetation went from alpine to tropical. Palm trees line the roads. The houses are painted the typical meditteranean colours, ochres, madarins, maroons.
In Cannes we stop for a snack, crepes with nutella, as we watch old men play bocce in the park.
It is just after 5ish and the sun is starting to set, we pull over to take photos. It is up there with one of the best sunsets I have seen.
Carnavale is on and what was meant to be about an hour drive to Nice takes two. Finally we arrive, find a hostel and a safe place to chain up the bike before getting some cheap chinese food and pastries.
In the morning we say goodbye to Nice and head towards Italy. The sun is shining bright and warm. As we leave the city we climb up a hill to the east that gives us a pretty stunning view.
Following the coastline we take the scenic route. The road winds along the mountains that run into the ocean. It is busy with scooters constantly flying past and road works along the route. We are not making very good time but it doesn't really matter. Today is going to be a big day with about 5-6 hours riding on the bike. We got away from Nice around 10am and so hoping to get to Genoa by about 6:30pm.
Monaco is along the way and I have always wanted to see it so we stop through for a coffee at a little cafe called le Bambi. A lot of super yachts dock here. I have heard my friend Renee back home talk about working on the super yachts. Apparently it is a pretty good gig. There are 4 mid twenties sitting at a table next to us. A couple of british and maybe some Americans. One struggles with a "sil vous plait, one coffee please" to the waiter who responds in perfect english "One coffee for you." They are talking about what I can only assume is the owner of the yacht, who by the conversation, had a huge party the night before, leaving the yacht a mess and they had to clean it all up.
Not long after and we are at the border to Italy.
WE'RE IN ITALY!
There is a marked difference between ether side of the border. Immediately everything looks more disorganised, rustic, random, rough. I like it. I wait for the driving to get worse. Reportedly the Italians care very little for rules on the road.
The first thing I notice about the roads is the scooters. They are everywhere. I mean, they were there in France but here they are in droves, everywhere... they fly around the traffic, weaving in and out. You have to shoulder check every time you reposition the bike to make sure a scooter isn't about to fly past you.
Cars are not indicating, everyone is trying to cut corners to get ahead but somehow it works and I find my groove.
We stop for lunch on the beach. It is quiet apart from a man reading a book near us.
Half way through our lunch a plane flies low, directly over our heads.
We watch as it lands in the water.
5 minutes later the same plane goes past again.
It takes us a few times to realise that the plane is picking up seawater and flying it to a bush fire in the hills behind us. We notice two planes and a helicopter all working on the fire. People start to leave their houses to watch and the street gets busier.
We look fairly conspicuous and have bee getting our fair share of stares and attention. You can see in this photo the hand out the window on the left giving us the wave. They beeped and carried on when they went past us.
The night before we wrote down a few possible places to stay in Genoa. I am trying to preserve cash and I have suggested that we camp along the way. There are a lot of campsites on the maps and we have already passed many since leaving Nice. It is starting to get dark and we have been on the road a few hours since lunch. We see a campsite about half an hour from Genoa and stop in to enquire. Nicole hops off the bike to ask and I can hear her try to struggle a conversation in Italian. She comes back to the bike. They want 25 euros for us, the bike and the tent - each item gets a separate charge. I am used to paying maybe 5 euros a night for camping back in Australia. Cosidering we can stay in a hostel for 16 euros each, making it only 7 euro more expensive - we opt for the hostel.
It is completely dark by the time we near Genoa. I have the hostel address punched into the gps. Traffic is hectic and I am weaving and avoiding the whole way. We pass shipping yards and a port. They must run a lot of ferries into the mediterranean out of here. Completely slave to the GPS we start weaving back and forth up a hill. I come around a hairpin corner and a bus is coming straight for us. My instict pulls the bike to the left, to where the left lane would be and I have to fight it and pull quickly back to the right. The bus beeps and my stomach turns as our margin for error was very thin.
We get to the hostel at the top of the hill. It's an old school looking building with a view over the whole city. The Hostel is part of the 'Hostelling international' chain. It was my first experience with the chain and I wasn't impressed. First thing we were told that there were no shared dorms and that we would have to sleep in separate dorm rooms on different floors. It is handy being in the same room, you can watch over eachothers stuff while the other person showers etc. They also charged us 3 euro extra to buy a membership card for 'hostelling international', which is a bit of a sham as this is compulsory but not advertised online. In all the place was overpriced and felt like a hospital. Not much we could do though as it was the only hostel in the city. In retrospect, and for those ever in Genoa looking for cheap accommodation you would be better off paying the extra 5 euro and staying in a b&b. This Hostelling International comes from a time when YHA's and so forth required membership and were run like glorified school camps. Hostels have changed a lot since then except where competition is scarce. Enough whinging, back to the good stuff.
Our plan for today is to see the Cinque Terre and then make it to Pisa where we found a very cheap hostel online with good reviews.
Our route takes us straight back down the hill that we came up the night before. Genoa has a very industrial feel to it with everything built up the sides of the mountains by the sea. Massive viaducts cross overhead, it is the autoroute. The beamer display is telling me I only have 12 miles to go until I need to refill the bike and we are heading through the mountains. I search for fuel stops in the GPS and fine one about 20 k's away. This is becoming a habit for me as the range on the bike is only about 300k's and I keep trying to push it to the end each time to reduce the number of fuel stops we have to make. With only a couple of miles left on the hud we fill up with gas.
The woman at the hostel had told us that we would be able to ride into Riomaggiore from the north and the road was open. In october last year there was devastating flood through the area which destroyed a lot of buildings and roads in the cinque terre. You can see some pretty insan footage here Cinque Terre flood: Vernazza - YouTube
It was hard to get reliable up to date news about what parts of the area were open so our plan was just to go there and find out.
We ride through the mountains which follow the coastline. It's a touch cold as we climb high but the sun is shining bright and the views straight out to the ocean are brilliant.
After a stop for some food we reach a fork in the road and a sign that says Strada Chiusa.
We knew that Strada meant road, but what the **** does Chiusa mean?
Logic and the interpretation of a red circle crossed in the middle planted right in the middle of the road would suggest it means closed. However our unbridled optimism and eagerness to see Cinque Terre has us searching our Italian travel phrase book for the word chiusa. A little 3 wheel piaggio comes past us with an old couple inside. We struggle a few phrases but the basic gist is that we have to go all the way around to La Spezia and come in the back way to get to Riomaggiore.
Just a sidenote on the 3 wheel Piaggios, these things are everywhere in Italy. A lot of farmers, builders and labourers in general use them to move their goods around. Originally they were just vespas with an extra wheel on the back and a tray but they have evolved into these things today. Unfortunately I didn't get a photo at the time and can't really see where to find any online. Either way, here is what they look like courtesy of wikipedia.
I play with the GPS to find the route we need to go consulting with Nicole. It is going to mean we won't get into Pisa until 7:30-8:00ish. We agree it's fine and we take a back road which is a little worse for wear and hasn't been repaired since the flooding.
We arrive at Riomaggiore and start the walk along the Cinque Terre, we are going to try and see 3 of the 5 towns in the day.
I am going to put in a fair few photos that Nicole took here because I think they are all great.
This must be a very 'romantic' thing to do. All along the walk couples have scrawled their names and initials on any possible surface. Even on plant leaves.
I think the idea here, which is becoming overdone in a lot of places, is to put your initials on a padlock and those of your partner. You lock the padlock somewhere and throw away the key. I had seen this on a bridge in Cologne 3 months prior. I read an article that in Dublin they had to remove them from the halfpenny bridge because so many had accumulated and were putting the structural integrity of the bridge at risk from the extra weight. The trend is everywhere over Europe and in Italy is gaining popularity here.
We get to Manarola where they are rebuilding still after the floods but most of it is back to normal. We stop for what is, brilliant and cheap coffee with tourist-priced gelati.
On the way back it must be that time of the day and all the older Cinque Terrians are out and about going for walks and sitting watching the sea. The women are knitting and then men are chatting and smoking.
As we are riding to Pisa the GPS takes us all the way to the end of a peninsula thinking that we can cross a bridge back to the mainland. The bridge is closed. It takes us another 45 minutes to get back around and so by the time we get through Viareggio and on to Pisa it is dark and cold. It drops down to 6 degrees and I have less warm gear on than normal. Nicole has her arms wrapped tightly around me though, keeping me warm and our conversation distracts me from how bloody cold it is. We finally make it into Pisa about half 8 and settle into our hostel for the night.