Why should you tour Italy on a motorcycle? With the Alps in the north, the Apennine Mountains running down the middle and nearly 5,000 miles of rugged coastline, Italy will spoil you with its maze of sinuous roads. As the heart of one of history’s largest empires and home of the Roman Catholic Church, Italy will impress you with ancient ruins, medieval villages, massive cathedrals and museums packed with art and antiquities (Italy has 51 Unesco World Heritage Sites, more than any other country). And Italy will indulge you with its cuisine—pasta, pizza, cheese, seafood, wine, espresso, gelato and other delights that make Italian food a global favorite.
And now there’s another reason: Riding a shiny red Ducati on a world-famous racetrack.
Last June, six other riders and I went on Leod Motorcycle Escapes’ inaugural “Mugello & Italian Backroads” tour, a 6-day moto-romp through central Italy that included the Ducati Riding Experience, a full day of track riding and instruction on 899 Panigale sportbikes at Autodromo del Mugello, the 3.26-mile, 15-turn circuit nestled in the hills of Tuscany that hosts one of the two Italian rounds of MotoGP racing. We skimmed our knee pucks on the same Italian flag-colored curbing that Valentino Rossi and other GP stars have, and we’ve got the certificates and photos to prove it.
Leod Motorcycle Escapes is run by the husband-and-wife team of Cat and Nancy (aka Maus) MacLeod, whose mission is to give their clients authentic, one-of-a-kind experiences. Tour groups are small, guides are locals and hotels and restaurants are hidden gems. Leod ran its first “Track & Tour” in 2013, and the original “Sachsenring & Italian Alps” tour is still one of its most popular. Leod runs an Australia tour with track time at Phillip Island, and in 2016 there will be a new “Isle of Man TT Escape.” Leod also offers guided and self-guided tours throughout Northern California.
Our tour began and ended in Rome, a major tourist destination that’s easy to fly into. Most of our group flew in a few days early to adjust to the time difference and take in some sights before we hit the road. Leod’s Italian tour guide was Enrico Grassi, a long-time resident of Rome who runs Hear the Road Motorcycle Tours and is fluent in English, and his pal Franco drove the luggage van. Except for me, this was everyone’s first overseas motorcycle tour, and Enrico put us all at ease with his energetic humor, enthusiasm and insider tips. Thanks to him, we knew to order bucatini all’amatriciana in Rome, tortellini in Bologna and to never, under any circumstances, order pizza and pasta.
Upon arriving in Rome, we received temporary cellphones with local numbers, a large map, a detailed tour book with daily maps and itineraries (plus recipes for classic Italian dishes) and a tour-themed athletic shirt with our last name on the back (which gave us team spirit at Mugello and a unique souvenir to take home). We picked up our rental BMWs near the hotel, and then took taxis to an off-the-tourist-radar family-style restaurant for our welcome dinner. As our group—five from California, two from New York—got acquainted, Cat and Enrico gave us an overview of the tour and helpful advice for riding on Italian roads. Having vowed to eat gelato every day on this tour, I was delighted when, after dinner, Enrico led us to Piazza Navona and introduced us to Il Tartufo (“The Truffle”), a decadent scoop of dark chocolate gelato coated in chunks of dark chocolate.
Although the track day at Mugello set the hook for this tour, it was just one of six full days of riding. By the time we returned to Rome, we had covered nearly 1,000 miles on mostly small, twisty, out-of-the-way roads, and each day brought new highlights and unique experiences. On our first day we stopped for lunch at Civita di Bagnoregio, a tiny village founded 2,500 years ago that sits atop a crumbling plateau of volcanic rock and is reached by a pedestrian bridge. That afternoon we walked around Pienza, a town recognized by Unesco as the birthplace of Renaissance urban planning and architecture. And we spent our first night at Podere La Strega, an old farmhouse overlooking Siena that has been converted into an inn, with an outdoor pool for cooling off after long day of riding and delicious farm-to-table food and local wine served on a private patio.
On our second day, after riding through the lush green hills and vineyards of Chianti and waiting out a rainstorm under a gelateria’s umbrellas in Vinci, we stopped at a bar in a small village called Cireglio Pistoia. Enrico fired up his laptop, tapped into the town’s free wi-fi network and live-streamed the Catalunya round of MotoGP. With no TV in the bar, local patrons huddled around with us to watch the action on the small screen. The bartender plied us with complimentary bowls of fresh cherries and cups of espresso, and she yelled “Vale! Vale!” every time Valentino Rossi came on the screen. After the race we bid our new friends arrivederci and rode through a misty, enchanted forest on our way to up to Abetone Pass.
After another festive, family-style dinner in Bologna and a nighttime stroll around the historic city center, we spent the next morning touring the Ducati factory and museum. We bagged Raticosa Pass and Ruta Pass on our way to Borgo San Lorenzo, where we stayed in a charming eight-room inn in the heart of town. My rented liquid-cooled BMW R 1200 GS, with its generous torque and dynamic suspension, took every cobblestone street, first-gear hairpin and fast sweeper in stride. For me, one of the best parts of this tour was the route, mostly strada panoramica—scenic two-lane roads that slither around lakes, along rivers, through fertile farmland and over densely forested mountains. Gray skies and occasional rain added moody overtones to the ride during our first few days, but the clouds parted and the sun shone brilliantly during our day at Mugello.
For the Ducati Riding Experience, track experience is helpful but isn’t necessary. One member of our group that hadn’t ridden on a track joined the Precision group for parking lot instruction (on more street-oriented Monsters and Hyperstradas), followed by a track session at the end of the day. The rest of us were assigned to Track Evo groups, no more than five per instructor, and we got five 20-minute sessions on the fast, flowing track. Carlos Checa, 2011 World Superbike champion, was a guest instructor, and it was an honor to be passed by him like I was parked. Riding Ducatis around a legendary MotoGP track was a bucket-list experience for all of us, and we celebrated that night with a dinner of thick steaks and red wine, followed by cigars, grappa and whiskey.
The final two days of riding to get back to Rome included some of the best roads and scenery of the tour, with plenty of mountain passes, switchbacks, national parks, charming villages and delicious meals along the way. After spending a luxurious night at Altarocca Wine Resort near Orvieto, we tackled SP79, known by locals as the “Road of 1,000 Curves,” which gives the Tail of the Dragon a run for its money.
Cat MacLeod says he “wants to change the world one tour at a time, to have fellow riders return home with lasting memories and fresh perspectives.” After six full days of riding, exploring, eating and drinking our way around central Italy, we did just that.
Leod Motorcycle Escapes’ next “Mugello & Italian Backroads” tour is scheduled for June 2016, and the itinerary has been expanded to include a rest day in Orvieto. For more information, visit leodescapes.com.
Those who would like to go on an authentic Italian motorcycle tour without the track time, contact Enrico Grassi at Hear the Road Motorcycle Tours: motorcycletoursitaly.com.