I’ve been chasing an Italian man riding a GS Wasserboxer for the last six days through Lazio, Tuscany, and Umbria. Tomorrow we’ll be back to Rome, where the entire adventure began. My husband fully approves. We have an understanding.
Rome Traffic and the Social Contract
On the first day of my riding adventure, Wasserboxer Man wants me to learn Italian traffic conventions. I follow his lead through Rome’s notorious traffic, shooting through gaps so narrow that I tilt my handlebars to avoid the mirrors of the vehicles on either side of me. Maybe that’s unnecessary, but I feel more confident doing it. Eventually I learn not to overthink it.
When we come to a stop-light, we navigate to the front of the line of vehicles. Nobody cares, in fact they have left room for us. Moving to the shoulder, I stand on the pegs to make riding over tree roots beneath the pavement more comfortable. No reaction from the drivers I pass.
I’m having my way with this traffic— splitting to the right and left of cars—with impunity. When you split a lane into oncoming traffic, drivers don’t rush toward the center line in a game of “chicken” efficient. designed to put you in your place—instead, they edge over to the shoulder a bit so you can make an efficient pass. Mutual respect is a beautiful thing in society.
Astride my rented G650 GS, I learn that traffic in Rome is less governed by laws, lanes and speed limits than by an implicit social contract that values efficiency above all else. Yep, I just used the words “Italian” and “efficiency” in the same sentence with no implied irony. Let’s all get where we need to go efficiently seems to be the guiding principle when driving in Italy. Italian motorists respect motorcyclists. They know that allowing scooters and motorcycles to the front of the line at traffic lights is efficient.
Nobody opens a car door to see if they can take you out—that would be highly inefficient and disrespectful. Yes, Rome traffic is hectic, yet manageable. I did it, so you can too.
By the time we reach Rome’s beach, Ostia Lido, I’m exhilarated. Heading to the water’s edge in my motorcycle pants and boots, I collect seashells from the Tyrrhenian Sea as a trophy of my accomplishment. I’m warmed up now, Wasserboxer Man. Let’s go.
Wasserboxer Man has other concerns right now, namely the other people in his care. He is Enrico Grassi, owner of Hear The Road Motorcycle Tours Italy and host to a group of Americans on his “Ladies First” tour. We’re from Pennsylvania, Louisiana, Missouri, California, Texas, and North Carolina (me), and not all women— Dan and Derek accompany their mates.
You can never know how a group ride is going to work; after all, one bad rider or bad attitude can turn the experience into a living hell. That’s one thing back home, but in a foreign country you’re not going to peel away from a tour with a breezy “arrivederci” My friend Bill Kniegge of Blue Strada Tours convinced me I should give it a try and put me in touch with Enrico.
My concerns are allayed after our warm- up ride to the Tyrrhenian Sea. Riding BMW, Moto Guzzi and Harley-Davidson bikes, we sorted ourselves into a riding order that held naturally for the remainder of the tour. I would know Christin’s Moto Guzzi V7 headlight anywhere after watching for it in my mirrors for six days in formation.
Off the bikes, we laugh and tease each other like old friends. The couple from Pennsylvania, Jo and Dan, share stories of her father, Giovanni, whom they agree that Enrico reminds them of. Both Giovanni and Enrico are Roman and hold staunch views that there are certain foods to eat and certain ways to eat them.
Enrico will indoctrinate us in Italian gastronomy with each meal: how the animal is raised and butchered, when the plant is harvested, how to keep pasta from sticking, and the fact that pork jowl (“guanciale”) not only tastes better than “pancetta,” which comes from its belly, it is also the only pork allowed in “amatriciana” (a staple pasta dish that also includes pecorino cheese, white wine, tomatoes from San Marzano, pepper and chili).
Bread becomes an ongoing joke among us, especially between Enrico and Dan— the bread lover in our group. “Don’t touch the bread!” Enrico says each time it’s brought to the table. “Eat first, then use the bread to soak up the sauce.” I tell Enrico, “Sometimes we say ‘sop up the sauce,’” because I know he loves adding to his lexicon.
Jo and Dan exchange knowing looks, because Enrico’s admonition recalls a memory from when they were dating some 40 years ago and Dan was invited to family meals. He always wanted butter on his bread but Giovanni wouldn’t stand for it. Eventually Jo’s mother would take pity and bring him some, inviting her husband’s scorn. Another transgression of young Dan’s was asking for garlic bread with spaghetti, an American tradition, only to learn that this made him a Philistine in Giovanni’s eyes. It’s a wonder they got permission to marry!
As the tour proceeds and more stories of Giovanni are revealed, we all begin to think of him as the tenth person at the table. This right here is group touring at its best. I count my blessings.
I awake in a 17th-century country house on an olive farm overlooking Siena’s skyline. My bedroom walls are plaster, and the ceilings are rough-hewn boards crossed with tree boughs. The fresh coat of yellow paint on the walls is perfect for the weak early morning light. It occurs to me that human beings have been conceived, born, lived, and died in this very room for over 400 years.
I move to my closet door—likely 200 years old, since its boards are held together by handcrafted nails—and pull out a wrap for my shoulders as I head toward the win- dow over my writing desk. I left it open all night to soak up the fresh, cool country air. Poking my head outside I see another guest walking her standard poodle toward a gravel lane between the olive groves. A rooster crows.
At the risk of sounding trite, I want to pinch myself. The tranquility and beauty surrounding me are unlike anything I’ve experienced elsewhere. Architects, designers, and Disney Imagineers spend their careers attempting to replicate the simple and timeless elegance that proprietor Letizia Nuti achieved here. Named “Podere La Strega” (“farm of the witch” because it’s a bewitching place), the modernized house, infinity pool, gardens and views are perfect in minute detail.
I pull on my riding pants and boots, then head down for breakfast. Our group’s official early risers, Dan and Jo, are on their second cup of coffee, laughing with Enrico about last night’s meal, which would have met with Giovanni’s approval.
The temperate late-September weather means we eat all of our meals outside, either under a portico off the side of the house or across the lawn at a long table in a summer dining room with adjoining kitchen. For our arrival the night before, we feasted under the portico on fried squash blossoms, sage, and porcini mush- rooms covered in a tempura-like batter— Letizia’s own recipe—as we watched the city lights of Siena intensify against a darkening horizon. We later moved to the dining room for regional pasta, pork, and vegetable dishes, also prepared by Letizia. And bread. There’s always bread. Bread, no butter. The Italian way.
We won’t go into Sienna proper until the next day. Today we ride “The Chianti Loop” that will take us to Castellina in Chianti then San Gimignano in the morn- ing, and Greve in Chianti in the afternoon.
Greve in Chianti
At dinner the previous night, Enrico previewed the day ahead, asking who knew Giovanni da Verrazzano. Our group’s Italian-American Jo is the only one who answered the quiz question correctly: he charted the Atlantic coast of North America between the Carolinas and Newfound- land, including New York Harbor, in 1524. New York’s Verrazano–Narrows Bridge was named for him. Giovanni would have been proud of his girl. Greve in Chianti is Verrazzano’s birthplace.
After parking the bikes we head toward the piazza. I spy a yarn shop and tell the others not to wait. Inside are all manner of knitted and crocheted hats, scarves, shawls and ponchos. I’ve been waiting for this moment for some months, not knowing when it would arrive. I want yarn that I can take home to knit into my own souvenir. The bespectacled shopkeeper smiles broadly and says, “Buongiorno,” in greeting. I see some bulk yarn in blue, black and tan wrapped around spools and tucked under a bench. I quickly realize that both my language skills and hers are inadequate to this transaction. Whipping out my phone, I hold up a finger to this woman in the universal gesture of “hold on just a minute” as I fire up the Google Translate app. We are able to communicate fairly well by typing phrases into the app, making exaggerated hand gestures and smiling a lot. We DO have one language in common: wool. After coming to terms we shoot a selfie together, and I am on my way, feeling pretty resourceful.
Awake once more in my 400-year-old room, I’m eager to get into Siena. The shimmering city on three hills that has been enticing us from the infinity pool at Podere la Strega is now on our agenda. Enrico will lead an optional ride in the afternoon, but we are free to skip it and spend the day as we please. The cathedral is my must-see of the day. Its white marble facade and the grey and white-striped bell tower (“campa- nile”) contrast with every other “sienna- colored” structure in the city. I’ll leave the architectural and art critiques to those qualified to opine; to my unschooled eye it is both breathtaking and overwhelming. By the end of the day I can’t look at another Madonna, crucifix or nativity scene, even those fashioned by Donatello and Michelangelo.
After another sumptuous al fresco meal cooked in the outdoor kitchen, our merry band of motorcyclists feels bitter- sweet about moving on to Orvieto in the morning. But move we must. Funny factoid about the phrase “al fresco:” While it originated in Italian, they prefer to say “fuori” or “all’aperto” when describing an outdoor meal. The expression “al fresco” usually refers to spending time in jail. Who knew?
There’s nothing like a few days in Italy to turn even a fast-food junkie into a foodie. Italians are proud of their culinary heritage and my tour guide, Enrico Grassi of Hear The Road Motorcycle Tours Italy is a good- will ambassador of all things cultural and gastronomical in the boot-shaped country.
Even scenic pullovers are an opportunity for Enrico to give us a lesson in Italian cuisine. At Tuscany’s Crete Senesi, which was formed by sediments of the 2.5-4 million year-old Pliocene Sea, we behold a remarkable lunar-like landscape. Enrico explains that all kinds of edibles are rooted in its grey clay. Sheep milk from this region owes its unique flavor to the scented bushes and herbs of the Crete region the sheep eat, and that is why pecorino cheese is the local specialty.
When we pull into Pienza for lunch, I notice that nearly every shop boasts il miglior pecorino (the finest pecorino) and an offer of international shipping.
A Pienza Dance Party
Entering the city, an accordion player and percussionist are singing and playing in the Piazza Martiri della Liberta, and I am delighted when a dance party breaks out. Two slim bicyclists in their 60s or 70s and wearing yellow hiviz riding gear steal the show with their flamboyant moves while an American woman in dark sunglasses dances and twirls, holding the ten-euro bill she intends to place in the buskers’ suitcase.
The players call themselves “Chorobodo” and specialize in Brazilian-Italian peasant songs. Brilliantly so. Here I am living la dolce vita. No electricity, lights or backstage passes required. Simple living, simple instruments, simple pleasures.
The American Stomach
The day ends at the fabulous Altarocca Wine Resort in Orvieto. Our Siena country house, Podere la Strega, oozes Old-World charm while Altarocca is all about modern decadence. Orvieto sits on the top of a rock plateau made of consolidated volcanic ash that we call “tuff” in English. Altarocca’s buildings are made of this tuff rock, as is most everything else in the area. .
My room has a wraparound patio look- ing down over the fertile valley 1000 feet below that is pinstriped by vineyards. I put my motorcycle boots outside to air out for the night before unpacking and getting ready for dinner, which will be the restaurant’s tasting menu. The wait staff makes the “mistake” of bringing bread to the table before our meal. As an advocate for the “right” way to eat Italian food, Enrico is firmly on record not to touch the bread before the meal arrives.
Although we’ve been in Italy for nearly a week now, our stomachs are still not on Italian time. An 8:00 meal feels like midnight to me and no doubt like the middle of the night to Christin from Los Angeles.
Dan bravely makes his move on the bread basket, and as Enrico begins chiding him, we all stealthily grab a slice. Bravely, Denean asks the waiter for butter—it’s been five days since we’ve had any. When it arrives, we all ask her to pass it along.
Yes, we “know better” by now. Like an indulgent grandfather, Enrico pretends not to notice our “English” behavior—that’s how he thinks of butter on bread, as an English peccadillo. He would prefer that we use our bread to sop up the sauce and guide stray morsels onto our forks—the Italian way.
When he and the other smokers go out- side for a lungful, the rest of us brainstorm ideas for a thank-you present for Enrico, whom we have come to love despite—or perhaps because of—his staunch upholding of the Italian gastronomic tradition. We decide that the gift must have something to do with bread. A fancy bread basket? A butter dish?
Rich food late at night is not the best recipe for early rising, but the morning air is crisp and invigorating as usual. We make the brief journey to Orvieto proper.
Orvieto is rich in Etruscan history, and we begin our day with a fascinating tour from an archeologist under a church with Etruscan and Roman ruins underground that are older than any architectural remains in the States. We spend the rest of the morning strolling through the city and scanning the shops for Enrico’s thank-you gift.
Several of us are with him when he gets the bright idea to buy meat and cheese for a picnic on our way to Rome tomorrow. He ducks into Norcineria Dai Fratelli—technically a butcher (norcineria) but in fact we would call it a gourmet shop, specializing in foods from the region. He selects sausage and cheese with the enthusiasm and expertise of a proverbial kid in a candy shop.
You’ll know Dai Fratelli’s shop by the mounted boar head to the right of the entryway. Inside is a now-familiar sight: wild boar sausage hams hang from the ceil- ing, a nub of femur bone staring at you, and hide with fur intact—not only is it a reminder of where “real food” comes from, it contrasts to the styrofoam and plastic trays that disguise food origins in the States.
Lake Corbara towns
Other than the hectic Autostrada, every Italian road was a pleasure to ride. Yes, the roundabouts took some getting used to, but when I returned home to the States I missed their efficiency. Factoid: Italy was the first country in the world to build motorways.
Leaving Orvieto we ride what Italian motorcyclists call La Strada delle Mille Curve (“Road of a thousand curves”) toward Todi. Now, the Italian claim of a thousand curves here is no more hyperbolic than boasting 318 curves in 11 miles—looking at you, Tail of the Dragon— but I think we all enjoy La Strada delle Mille Curve much more.
After consulting the group to verify we don’t mind a couple of miles on a hard pack gravel road, Enrico takes us to Titignano, a former castle where we gaze at Lake Corbara in its glory from high above. The late afternoon sun glistens on the water’s surface as we enjoy the quiet interlude and raise our faces almost in unison for a moment of sunbathing.
When we arrive back at Altarocca, we spend a couple of hours as a group laughing and talking in the warm waters of its spa. We have truly come to enjoy each other’s’ company and begin talking about rallies in coming years where we might rendezvous. In the morning, we’re for Rome.
En route to Roma
Our final day on the road begins in Civita di Bagnoregio. Founded by Etruscans more than 2,500 years ago, it is now known to Italians as il paese che muore (“the town that is dying”).
The town is dying in the most tourist- friendly way. Civita is an inland island, sur- rounded by a valley of grey-white clay that is eroding beneath the volcanic stone, reminding me somewhat of the Dakota Badlands. What isn’t eroding has been shaken away by earthquakes, the strongest of which was in 1794. It destroyed the natu- ral bridge that linked Civita to the bigger nearby town of Bagnoregio, and a foot- bridge is now the only way to reach the Civita.
Edging closer to Rome, we stop for our picnic lunch of the meats, cheeses and breads that Enrico bought for us in Orvieto while perched atop a fallen tree in Faggeta del Monte Cimino (“Beech Forest of Mount Cimino”). The serenity of the forest reminds me of the California Redwoods.
A couple of days earlier Derek, a motorcycle mechanic and Millennial MacGyver, did a field repair on Christin’s Guzzi exhaust pipe using a piece of cellophane cigarette box wrapper as loctite. Little did he know that his best moment was yet to come in our last stop, Civita Castellana. This stop isn’t on the tour, but as we have seen time and again, Enrico supplements the standard itinerary with things he knows will delight his guests.
Enrico is a master at understatement, telling us that a friend of his has “a little motorcycle museum we will enjoy.” Parking our bikes in a cluster at Piazza Guglielmo Marconi we spy a gray, three-story building with a green garage door labeled “GARAGE” in contrasting yellow capital letters. Inside is a motorcyclist’s equivalent of Ali Baba’s cave.
Retired mathematics teacher Costante Costantini restores and displays a fine collection of Italian motorcycles and scooters inside. We all oooh and ahhh, but Derek is ecstatic as he lovingly photographs Costante’s latest project: boosting an old Italian Motobi motorcycle’s engine by adding another one.
The garage is chockablock with not only bikes, but also the bric a brac of Costante’s life. I laugh at an old Mussolini poster and a 2007 wall calendar featuring the executed fascist dictator on the wall of a cubbyhole for scooters from the late 1950’s. Costante comes over to start one of them for me, and I think to myself that the folks at Barber Motorsports Museum would love an introduction to him.
After returning our bikes in Rome and cleaning up for dinner, we walk to a little cafe for our farewell dinner. Between the main course and dessert Jo surprises Enrico with our gift: a wrapped butter dish, stocked with pats of butter, (burro). At first he is surprised. “Why do you want me to have a butter dish? I do not eat the butter.” And then it dawns on him. We all share a belly laugh.
Arrivederci, Enrico and my fellow Americans. Each of you brought me moments of joy and laughter. Grazie.
Tamela Rich began her love affair with the open road in the 1970’s, traveling old Route 66 from the midwest to California for family reunions. Her G 650 GS is a definite improvement on the Vista Cruiser station wagon, with its vinyl seats and underpowered air conditioner! Tamela shares more of this story and others at www.TamelaRich.com. You can also find her on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, or somewhere down the road.