Mototouring is the Milano, Italy-based outfit that has been delighting novelty-seeking riders in places like South Africa, Vietnam and all over Europe since 1994. It is the creation of Eligio Arturi, a roguish, rumpled Milanese with a taste for good cigars, aged Grappa, great Italian roads and vintage Italian motorcycles.
I meet Eligio, Italian guides Ricciardo and Davide, and my new tourmates, Aussies Mike and Yvonne, Floridians Dan and Veronica, and solo Virginian Bobby after the short walk from our hotel to Mototouring World Headquarters.
It’s a truism that you can’t have a bad meal in Italy, but Eligio doesn’t take chances. We had our welcome dinner at a boisterous seafood ristorante in the heart of Milano, where I came to appreciate polipetti al limone (octopus in lemon and olive oil) and Eligio’s taste in wine.
By Ducati, Out of Ferrari
I could feel the lakes and peaks pulling me north, but our first riding day began heading east—an autostrada shot to Maranello, the home of an Italian car company called Ferrari. One exhibit in the Museo Enzo Ferrari in nearby Modena revealed that even Ferrari people love motorcycles. It’s a celebration, complete with Yamaha and Ducati MotoGP bikes, of the battle between Valentino Rossi and Ducati’s Casey Stoner in the 2008 Laguna Seca MotoGP, where Rossi showed the Aussie a thing or two about passing in the Corkscrew.
After escaping Modena, we headed south down the Passo della Futa into the Appenines, to our night’s stay in a rustic albergo in Pievepelago, a tiny ski village near Abetone.
Ricciardo Vismara, our earringed tour leader and Captain Jack Sparrow lookalike, rides his own hand-built, post-apocalyptic machine. Named ReCycle, it’s a cross between a BMW R 1200 GS and what you would get if you dragged a magnet through a motorcycle graveyard. A friend bet him he couldn’t build a running GS for fewer than 1,000 Euros, and by the looks of it he had enough budget left over for a dinner of stewed venison and an excellent Valpolicella.
One thing I always enjoy about an organized tour is the feeling of freedom I get when I ditch the guides, ignore the planned route and strike out alone. Give me a GPS, a good map and an ATM card, and I’ll probably see you at dinner.
Riding with another person—or, gasp, a whole group—makes the ride about the other person(s). Which road does he want to take? Did she see that squirrel? Am I faster? Is she faster? Should I go ahead? Stop and wait? On my own, I can get on with the serious business of velocity therapy. Just me, the bike, Italy and Sir Isaac Newton.
The Road to LeonardoWhile the others rode into Florence to see old churches, I headed west to Tuscany. South of Pistoia I spotted a vertical snake, SP9, a smooth bobsled run to the village of Vinci. Could it be that Vinci? Yes, it could. Where else can you be carving road porn with your prefrontal cortex on standby, look up, and find yourself in the birthplace of Leonardo?
I rejoined the group in Greve in Chianti, after a hot run up my latest best road ever, SS429 from Poggiponsi to Castellina. Then a jog up into the hills and a little gravel road to our remote hilltop hotel, Villa San Michelle in Lucolena.
I was alone again on Tuesday, with an appointment to regroup in Pesaro on the western Adriatic coast. Il Passo del Muraglione is a sportbike racer road from Tuscany to Emilio Romagna, an old mule trail carved into the green hills that was paved in 1836 and named after the stone wall in San Godenzo that protects travelers from the ripping wind.
Mantenere la Distanza
I grit my teeth for Wednesday’s autostrada mission to Bologna. Italian drivers are sharp, but they drive eight inches behind your license plate. Electronic signs ask that they Mantenere la Distanza di Sicurezza—keep a safe distance—but you might as well ask Vale Rossi to let you pass him in the Corkscrew.
The Ducati Museum is lovely. The factory is, well, a factory. It’s the old sausage conundrum: I love the product, but watching it being assembled by bored young Bolognese harshes the buzz. My BMW is banned from the Ducati motorcycle parking lot; I’m forced to wedge it between two Fiats, out on the gray street.
It’s a long day. The rain catches us in the night near Bassano del Grappa, an ancient town named after the battles of Monte Grappa in World War I. Ernest Hemingway was stationed near Bassano in his first assignment as an Italian ambulance driver. In the morning I ride SP148 up the mountain to the Sacrario del Monte Grappa, a somber, spectacular monument to the tens of thousands who died there in the war to end all wars.
The Feel of Beauty
The Alpi Dolomiti drew me up like a ski lift. Riding through these mountains is both visual and visceral. With each brooding, soaring peak, each violent green meadow, each ancient stone shepherd’s hut, I feel a rush of beauty brush across my chest.
Before dinner in Canazei, I take a hot lap of one of the world’s most gorgeous racetracks. I climb east up the Passo Pordoi, zig north up the Passo di Campolongo, wing west on the Passo di Gardena and zag south on the Passo di Sella. The F 700 GS and I are now welded together. I can feel every stone in the pavement, every tooth in the gearbox.
In the morning, I head southeast over the Passo di Giau to the ski town of Cortina d’Ampezzo, another Hemingway hangout, and circle northwest on the Passo di Falzarego.
The F 700 rolls west, aiming for the north end of windswept Lago di Garda, where the Dolomites plunge into the water like cliff divers. The forbidding mountains northwest of Garda have always thrilled and frightened me: like Valhalla, the resting place of Norse warriors, they look like they’d be great to visit if you didn’t have to die first.
On the Rocks, in the Clouds
I circle through the Val di Ledro and climb up the mountains back to an unpaved trace: Passo di Tremalzo. The road becomes a gravel goat path. I’m wet and utterly alone, inside a cloud, on switchbacks carved into a cliff. Rocks clang against my skid plate. The sound of my heart and lungs is louder.
The pass drops through ink-dark tunnels. The road finally turns solid—I’ve never been so glad to get back on wet, slimy asphalt. It’s cold and dark when I find the Hotel Panaramico, high above Lago de Iseo. The sun pours through my window in the morning, mirrored by the lake a thousand meters below.
The Next One
I love the local roads that traverse the green mountains between Lago di Iseo and Lago di Como, the classic lake made famous by Maxfield Parish, Anakin Skywalker and George Clooney. My tires are good, but I’m slowly deflating. This trip can only last so long. The bike and I slalom the forested hills and down the last set of switchbacks into Varenna, across Lake Como from Bellagio. Now it’s just a downhill run along the lakeside, back toward the big city.
As I join the current of weekenders streaming back on the autostrada into Milano, I realize that half the vehicles around me are motorcycles, from the latest Ducatis to perfectly restored Honda CB750s. If there’s a place in the world with better roads, better motorcycles, better food, better drink or nicer people, I have no idea where it might be.
Which is the best road in Italy? The next one, my friend. The next one.
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(This article Mozzafiato: Simply Breathtaking was published in the March 2015 issue of Rider magazine.)