The King of Every Kingdom Around the world on a very small motorcycle
With J. Peter “The Bear” Thoeming
One definite advantage of travelling in Italy is that you can buy wine in bulk. We bought a five litre plastic container for ours.
Northern Sicily is a rugged place, with awe-inspiring cliffs sheltering long ranges of hills like overstuffed pillows, with a fine needlework of vineyards embroidered on them.
Despite the drizzle, we had an enjoyable few days exploring. Every now and then the padrone back at camp would get worried about us and offer us alternative accommodation – first it was a little wooden house, then a caravan. All free of charge. He couldn’t understand that we were quite happy in our tent.
As the skies looked clearer to the south, we finally packed, had a last cup of coffee in our little bar on the harbour and headed across the island to Selinunte. We rode through seemingly endless fields of yellow flowers and discovered a peculiar system of motorways.
These roads weren’t on our map, and seemed almost like miniatures – a proper motorway scaled down to Fiat 500 size. Altogether in poor repair, the system didn’t seem to lead anywhere. I had some vague memory of the fascists undertaking construction programs in economically depressed parts of Sicily; this could well have been one of them. Later we were told that the Mafia had had the contract.
A chap we met along the way showed us a rather eerie place to have our picnic lunch – the main square of Gibellina, a town destroyed by an earthquake in 1968 and never rebuilt. We were stopped by the police a little later, but our total inability to speak Italian foiled them and they let us go. I’ve found that ignorance is generally bliss when talking to cops.
The Greek temple at Selinunte was in better condition than most of the ones in Greece itself, but the campsite that had been recommended to us there didn’t seem to exist. We carried on to camp at Sciacca, after endless rows of holiday houses in various stages of incompletion and invariable poor taste. The sun came out, and in the morning we were served excellent Espresso coffee right at our tent. A great institution, the waiter-service campsite.
As Caltanisetta’s bypass road wasn’t quite finished, we had to go through the town itself. This is the one environment in which a heavily loaded XS1100 really doesn’t shine. The narrow, cobbled streets with their sharp corners gave me quite a bit to do.
An additional problem is that you can’t get yourself out of trouble with the throttle – there’s nowhere for the bike to go if you accelerate. We were caught in a Communist Party march as well, which slowed us down even more. Caltanisetta had good ice-cream, though.
Down past Enna, we took the spectacular autostrada, which just ignores the lie of the land. When it isn’t swinging itself over the valleys on a ‘viadotto’ it’s drilling through the hills in a tunnel. It must have cost an absolute fortune to build.
On the coast once again, this time the eastern one, we found a supposedly closed campground called ‘Bahia del Silenzio’ at Brucoli, which opened just for us. With typical kindness, the people offered us a small bungalow, but we stuck with the old tent. We’d finally woken up to the most economical way to supply ourselves with wine, and bought a five litre plastic container which we regularly refilled with the local vintage just like the Italians do.
After a quick look at Neapolis with its amphitheatre, near Syracuse, we turned north once more, to Catania. The inland road looked good on the map and turned out to be quite exciting, with steep hills and ridgetop runs, but on the way back down it became a little too exciting when we hit a sizeable patch of diesel and went sideways for a little while. No damage, but a bit of heavy breathing and cursing resulted.
A very thorough tour of Catania then, helped by the motorway signs, which pointed around in a large circle taking in most of the town. We both got really annoyed with this and rode around swearing at the tops of our voices until at last the autostrada entry ramp came into view. Fortunately, the Italian motorway cafes serve excellent coffee. We recovered our composure over cappuccino.
Camp was at Acireale, just north of Catania, in a clifftop campsite that had a lift running down to the beach. Talk about luxury. Another sort-out left us with quite a bit of gear to mail home, and we parcelled it all up neatly and took it up to the post office. It wasn’t to be that simple, though.
First of all, I hadn’t left enough loose string for them to put their metal seal on. They retied the parcel for me. Then, I hadn’t put a return address on it. I tried to tell them that I certainly didn’t want the parcel returned to the campsite, but it seemed that a return address was required by law.
So I put the same address on the parcel twice, which made them very unhappy, but they took it. Losing a little weight made the bike look much neater.
We rode up around Mount Etna, through hazelnut plantations and past pretty little towns balanced on hilltops, and on north through a national park and a vast hunting reserve. Lovely country up here, with some excellent road over the passes that took us to Milazzo and a German-run campsite called, inexplicably, ‘Sayonara’.
The weather was pleasant but the locals still seemed to find it wintry. At a petrol stop on the way to Messina, the attendant came out of his office shaking his head, pointing to the bike and crying ‘Freddo! Freddo!’, which I took to mean ‘cold’ in Italian. Either that or he’d mistaken the bike for a friend of his called Fred; unlikely under the circumstances.
The ferry to San Giovanni on the toe of Italy was quick and cheap. They once again had excellent coffee on the ferry, and nice pastries, but the signposting out of San Giovanni reminded us unpleasantly of Catania.
When we finally made it out of town, we rode up the coast through Scylla (Charybdis must have given up monstering, it wasn’t to be seen) and on north. People seemed rather offhand and not particularly friendly, even suspicious. When we tried to change some money at an airport, the teller regretted that the bank had run out of money. Fruit and vegetables didn’t seem as fresh as those in Sicily, and the roads were worse.
We really didn’t think much of southern Italy. There was a lovely campsite in an olive grove at Lamezia Terme, admittedly. We took to the autostrada to get us north – it’s free as far as Salerno as some kind of odd economic boost for the south – and we followed it up through the southern mountains, past occasional snow patches, with our warm clothes, heated handlebar grips and GloGloves on. The hills were lovely, with only a few factories polluting the air.
Naples welcomed us with its expensive but invaluable ‘tangentiale’ ring road, which introduced us to a new and, as far as I know, unique hazard. I was used to buzzing up between stationary lanes of traffic, such as the ones queuing to pay toll on the ring road.
Even with the rather wide Yamaha that had always worked. Not in Naples. None of the tiny Fiats I was trying to pass had air conditioning, so when they stopped in the queue they would throw open their doors. Oops! We weren’t going to get through that!
We nevertheless followed the ring road to its western end in Pozzuoli and a campground that had been highly praised. The site featured a swimming pool fed by a hot spring, and we spent as much time in the water as possible. Pozzuoli is famous for two things: it is the most earthquake-prone place in Italy, and it is the birthplace of Sophia Loren.
We did feel some ‘trembles’ but Sophia didn’t seem to be home. I met her many years later at an Italian motorcycle industry dinner. She must have been in her mid-80s, and she looked stunning. Where was I?
Ah yes. Naples itself was a disappointment. It seemed to be little more than a permanent traffic jam; we were glad to get out. Pompeii was the real attraction and we spent some satisfying hours there. With a little imagination, the town comes alive just as it was before the ashes of Vesuvius swallowed it.
Annie and I also looked through the creepy underground ruins at Cumae, with their huge trapezoidal tunnels. On a lighter note, we bought a little chess set and I discovered to my delight that I could actually beat Annie. Only because she hadn’t played before…
Neil and Millie were there, too, both looking well. They had had a little trouble with the GS in the desert when one of the carburetors had jammed and drained the petrol tank in less than 40 miles, without their noticing. The locals had helped them.
We rode up to Rome in bright sunshine by way of Cassino and the Via Appia, picked up our mail and found the ‘Roma’ campsite without any trouble. Along the way, we discovered that the intricate Rome one way system doesn’t apply to bikes. You can ride anywhere you like, in any direction. At one point we scattered the crowds around the Trevi fountain.
Misbehaving in Rome is all very well, but there was still a chilly winter Italy out there to traverse.
After years spent faffing around with old Harleys, The Bear rode a Honda XL250 around the world and then decided he might as well keep writing about bikes. Three books and endless magazines later he now spends his time looking for those special bike roads.
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