Right. This is going to be a huge, rambling post. I’ve been trying to keep notes as I go along, but I was all out of data so I’ve saved it all up for a monster post. I expect that literally nobody will read this in its entirety. I’ll start in the North, now I’m roughly parallel with Rome. TL:DR just look at the pics!
Trying to follow the routes I had through the foothills of the Alps was getting pretty tricky. Lots of questionably legal, less than legal and otherwise problematic trails causing diverse diversions, drops, delays and disasters. I don’t have unlimited time and both routes I had in mind swung all the way East towards Venice before turning South. After three days of not all that much progress – and too much cloud cover to see anything – It was time to cut the corner of Italy and start South.
The changes as you move around this country are truly remarkable. The alpine terrain I started in, and know well, is harsh and isolated. Also beautiful and spectacularly photogenic. The flatlands, when you get, to them, are so flat it’s hard to believe you’re still in the same country. Then you come to rolling hills, akin to Tolkien’s Shire. Then you’re on the set of Gladiator, or any number of Roman epics – large stone farmhouses set on hilltops, silhouetting their tree lined access roads against the horizon. It’s exactly that same Roman countryside that’s embedded in my imagination and – to the history fan in me – helps explain how that city rose to take control of this peninsula and a good chunk of the world. This land is like a gift from the gods.
The thermal springs at Petriolo are a beautiful place. The opportunistic, tourist-skimming “spa” that’s little more than a swimming pool is, fortunately, impossible to see from the real “natural” springs that seem to be maintained by a community of homeless, or at the very least highly alternative, shampoo-challenged, people who live there. The water is hot as hell and while I could have slept there, I arrived late Friday night and between the sounds of conversation, the Indian-esque music from the mobile phones of a group of refugees that seem to live there and the beautiful sounds of the local gay community getting their Friday night thrills I thought I’d maybe set up camp somewhere else and come back in the morning.
Glad I did. In the morning there was barely a soul there. Those who were there were a pleasure to chat with and I had a delightful few hours getting clean and having the aches pounded out of my shoulders by hot water from on high. Putting fresh clothes on a clean body for the first time in a sweaty, dusty week is an indescribable pleasure. Petriolo is an unconventional place, but don’t be put off by it’s curiosities. I left my bike there, wholly unattended, for hours and nothing was touched. Some of the people are strange, for sure, but they’re good people.
As the sun, and thus more of humanity, started to arrive it was time to reluctantly leave. The first time I’d seen attractive females of the species in a week was, I’ll admit, hard to drag myself away from – especially considering the minimal attire. But I was headed to the next spring and San Filippo Terme didn’t disappoint, although I did nearly miss it. Coming down towards the baths I was slapped in the face by the mass tourist traffic of people struggling to find a space to park to go and enjoy the big baths there, the White Whale. I rode on. Too many people, no matter how glorious this whale might be, no matter how pretty the girls, I couldn’t be bothered with that. The town is right on the ACT, which is really why I was there. I was going to use the Big Bike Trails to connect with other trails heading south though Umbria. So I loaded the GPX, set course for the ACT and found myself in a strange, scruffy, parking place just above the main town from which I glimpsed the small, community maintained, baths I’d been looking for the first time round.
These have been built by local people in an old mine. They’re will worth a visit, the mineral content is so extreme that they’ve handcrafted the pools out of the pure white dust that flows at the water out of the old mine. Again, this is where the oddballs, rejects and curiosities go. It’s where I’m at home. I spent a pleasant few hours there, at least until the most curious of the crowd chased me away with her spectacularly weird, stupendously boring chat. But the sun was intense and it was time to get going anyway. I am Scottish, I’d have turned Ducati Red in no time!
Following the Adventure Country Tracks I landed deep in tourismland. Towns where the price of coffee doubled, the value of the fashion and cars tripled and my desire to get back to the countryside quadrupled. Could never have predicted that the tracks made for the GS crowd would take me to such places… reminded me of my very brief career as a BMW tour guide. Ride the trails on your 25,000eur pig during the day. Sleep in your 250eur hotel room at night. Adventure, baby.
But, the ACT is just a line on a map and I’m particularly prickly about busy tourist hellholes full of pretentious cunts. I’ve nothing against lines on maps and, to be fair, the time I spent following it was truly stunning. This really is Gladiator territory. Hilltop villas, flowing hills and some genuinely nice tracks. Includy one that I’m sure should be illegal, but wasn’t signposted as such. I had great fun charging up a steep, rutted climb on my ugly Mad Max Machine while the collected masses photographed me and my dust cloud. Felt like a real Dakar pro!
I joined my planned route south after two days on the ACT and… yeah. Whoever rode this before me is a braver soul than I am.
The first day southbound was pretty good. A mostly comfortable mix of road, wide trails and a bit of single track. Challenging, but passable on my little DR. But the next morning the route called me, the conversation went a little like this.
“Sir”, said the route “how would you like your trails today?”
“Occasionally challenging, but making steady progress with little risk to life and limb please.” said I.
“Risk to life and limb. Certainly sir. Coming right up.” said the route.
I’m not particularly experienced, or comfortable, with single track. I’ve just not encountered all that much of it. I don’t like the feeling that I’m on that path and have no significant option to go left or right. My fear of heights also plays in to this, if it’s single track you’re usually right by the the drop to one side or the other. I can deal with that, but when you compound it with lots of rocks, or super loose terrain… I just don’t have the balls for it, I guess. I’m worried either the bike or I will end up broken. I want to finish the trip, not go home in the air ambulance or at the pleasure of ADAC.
Adding castration to the emasculation, just after beating a hasty retreat from a particularly nasty single track, steep, loose and rocky climb I met three sport-enduro guys coming the other way. Towards the obstacle that defeated me. We had a chat. I tried to justify my total lack of cajones with simpering excuses about tyres, luggage and being alone. They rode on and I heard the notes of their motors as they effortlessly made the climb. Well, shit, just call me Mr Eunuch.
That night, with the help of Alex the Stoned Albanian, I got the bike up on a bench and popped some new brake pads in. The caliper is sticking DVD burning up pads. No big deal though, these ones will last. Nice to be able to use both brakes without feeling like I need to save the last few millimetres of one or the other end.
The rest of the trail south has taken me two days. There’s been a fair bit of street, but when I’ve had something other than tarmac under my wheels I’ve been in heaven. Two stretches here in Umbria, Marche and Abruzzo have been exactly what I ride trails for. High altitude, spectacular vistas, animals, the right mix of flow and a little bit of challenge to keep you on your toes. Nobody and no signs of civilization for miles around. I’ve been in trail riding heaven, even if I did have to race the sunset. Absolute, unequivocal trail perfection.
I’m finishing these notes while I again swing between two trees with the stars visible above my open hammock. The weather has been very kind, as have the people. Just tonight, once I’d finished my pizza, the chef popped out of the kitchen with a big handful of wet paper towels for me. “Clean Suzuki. Clean light and mirror. You should clean Suzuki more.” So clean Suzuki I did. Goodnight everyone!