In Praise of Road Maps (on my italian motorcycle tours I still love to use them!)

It has been said many a time, but there’s no hard repeating it: we live in a technological era. Tablets, smartphones, computers are all part of our lives. At home, and at work our portable screens are always with us, to find a cinema or a restaurant, to let a friend know we are on our way or tell a colleague we’ll be late. Not to mention keeping track of our social media. Motorcycles are part of this new era: super-technological, regulated by electronics. And for travelling the GPS devices used by bikers more and more.

Road maps vs navigation devices

But using a GPS to find the right road takes away one of the best elements that any trip requires: the road map. Sure, navigating devices are very useful: they allow us to get anywhere quickly, they take us to places that are hard to find. A while ago, coming back from the North Cape on my motorcycle I took a ferry from Helsinki, Finland, to Rostock, Germany, which got into port well beyond midnight. I had booked a hotel together with a group of Italian bikers who, like myself, were heading home. The port of Rostock, being both catering for both commercial and tourist commerce, is an enormous place, and extremely difficult to find one’s way around, especially if it’s late at night and pouring with rian! The Town centre is 15 km away, and the road to get there a typical highway with endless junctions and dozens of exits. Luckily one of the bikers had a navigating device: he typed in the name of our hotel and within half an hour we were in our rooms. On our way to the hotel the guy with the GPS burnt out one of his a head-lights. The next morning when we met to say good-bye I gave him one of my spare bulbs: it was the least I could do. If it weren’t for his GPS I’d still be wondering round the port in Rostock!

I wanted to tell this story to show how at times technology can be truly useful. But I am a road map fan. I love them. When I travel abroad I buy maps at gas-stations and in bookshops, even if I don’t need them.

Road maps are essential to planning a tour. In the wintertime when the days grow short and it’s cold outside, I make space on the table in my studio and unfold the maps. My finger follows the roads, tracing the path of the next holiday to offer to my clients/friends, might run along, and then, going back to the beginning of the trip I start over, occasionally changing course: choosing a bendy road rather than a straight one, or perhaps a scenic route (the green roads on the European Maps), where  – sure – I might be adding a few miles to the trip, but it’ll be well worth it.

Maps are not only useful to planning, they’re great for improvising as well. When I took my first trip in the Dolomites (Italy), I started off without any precise destination in mind, I hadn’t drawn-up an itinerary. I had a week to tour as best I liked. It took a day to get from Rome to Udine a town at the foot of the mountains, straight up the highway. The next morning I opened my map and started following the road it silently, but surely, suggested. I had a great time, up and down the Dolomites. If the map said head North, North I’d go; if it said cross that pass, I’d cross it. And the great thing is that the map never got it wrong! I didn’t have to turn back once, and I got to see at least 30 different Alpine passes. And it also said: “Wow! you made it here as well… yes the Stelvio pass isn’t in the Dolomites, but hey! It’s well worth the extra mile or two!” Mile or two?! I went all the way up to the Stelvio pass coming from Bormio, then I went down the other side towards the Val Venosta and once I got there I made a U-turn and went back up, doing all of the famous 48 hairpin turns!

We ride our bikes to enjoy the ride, looping round one, two, three bends in a row, climbing all the way up Alpine passes and cruising down challenging slopes, stopping along the way for great local food, a glass of real wine, made with sweet Italian grape, filling our eyes with Nature’s beauty or man-made wonders, pausing for a walk  through the heart of tiny villages, on ancient, cobbled stones, along lanes flanked with old brick houses..

And this is what maps are all about. They are real, concrete, human, romantic, poetic. Maps are in the true bikers’ DNA, both while we plan and while we enjoy our rides.

 

 

Road maps in Italy

In Italy the best maps are the ones published by the Touring Club Italiano (TCI). The regional maps have a 1:200.000 scale and the graphics are great, clear, easily readable: a true invitation to follow the roads printed on them.

Toll Highways (Autostrada) are marked in black (I myself never ride on them except on very rare occasions), State roads (SS) are in red and Provincial ones (SP) in yellow, while minor roads are in white. A green line next to any one road means it is a scenic route.

So bikers, by all means keep your GPS with you, but, believe me: you can turn them off for days at a time… Allow yourself the luxury to sit at a road side bar, a cup of espresso coffee by you elbow, spread your map out on the table and follow it’s silent, magical advice…

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