August 2, 2013
Swiss National Day fell on a Thursday this year and we made plans to have brunch with some of Dan’s Swiss family that day. But that left us Friday, Saturday and Sunday to ourselves. What should we do? Our friend Bob suggested that we should go to the Mediterranean Sea. Dan was keen on this idea as well and while I would have chosen to go somewhere cooler, it was still a place that I wanted to visit. Very well – we would travel south.
An early morning start
At 6:15 Friday morning the three of us headed out on our motorcycles, sticking to the main motorways through Switzerland’s center. We skipped by Olten, passed through the modern portions of Lucerne and finally rode through a very chilly and shadowed valley between Lake Lucerne and Andermatt before stopping for a break. The temperature was fairly low, at least compared with what Basel had been experiencing the last couple of weeks, and we weren’t very well prepared for it. We sucked down our hot beverages and made for St Gotthard Pass.
Following the garbage truck to Andermatt
The St Gotthard Pass has been in general use since the 13th century but has seen a few changes over the centuries. The cobblestone road (Tremola Pass) that can still be taken today was constructed in 1830, the first real improvement to the pass since its inception 500 years prior. Half a century later, a 15km rail tunnel was blasted through the solid rock, followed by a second tunnel a 100 years later for auto traffic. But all of that history flew by as we rode up the northern side of the mountains and then down again on the southern flank.
Ascending Gotthard Pass
Air vent from the Gotthard Tunnel, well below us
Cows are everywhere!
Starting the descent
The view from under the avalanche roof
Freaky elevated corner – you can see through to the hillside on the inside as you’re making the turn
Looking back towards the pass
We were now in the Ticino Valley, a narrow and lush stretch of land that flows all the way south to the Italian border. In the spring time the sides of the valley are full of cascading waterfalls. This far into the summer the falls were few in number but the hillsides were still lush. Even better, the traffic was light and the temperature, while rising, was still tolerable. We fueled up just before the Italian border and then the riding went downhill.
Down the valley
The GPS had suggested the we skirt around Milano before heading towards Parma and then south. In hindsight this was a mistake, as the heat was getting unbearable and the landscape became featureless. The road straightened out and the traffic built up considerably. It was almost two hours before we cleared out of the thickest of traffic. I have heard quite a bit about how bad Italian drivers are, but I didn’t know what that really meant. I mean, a “bad driver” could refer to aggression, inattention, ignoring the laws or blatant stupidity. But now I had a better grasp of what Italian drivers were like – at least the northern Italian drivers: they were completely oblivious of lanes and other vehicles. While annoying, this driving fault was at least tolerable and sometimes even amusing. I didn’t take many pictures during this stretch because if my mind wasn’t needed to focus on the drivers around me, then the landscape had nothing of interest to offer.
Welcome to Italy
Fortunately just south of Parma the flat plains gave way to the Apennine mountains. The range was wide at this point and that meant that we had a lot of twists and turns to enjoy before we got to our destination. The air was hot and dry and the roads were treacherous with slumping asphalt and potholes, but the scenery and the engineering of the road worked together to create a very enjoyable time.
Heading into the mountains!
Leaving behind the flat lands
The road was like this for a very long time – although not always as smooth
A hilltop village
Near the end – notice the fine lane control this car exhibits; he crossed over every single blind corner
Along this stretch there were many decrepit and abandoned buildings. They all had a similar design and look to them and it was sad to see the state of disrepair into which they had fallen. Other buildings along the way were usually well-kept, sometimes even bordering on prosperous looking. But over all, there were few manmade structures along this stretch of road; it was all about the scenery. After some internet crowd sourcing, it appears that the buildings below were called “casa cantoniera” and were supplied by the government for the people that lived there and worked for ANAS (road maintenance department). They were also warehouses for keeping tools, machines (snowplows etc.) and supplies such as salt for the winter. In the 70/80s the houses were abandoned because the road maintenance was outsourced and many road were given to local councils. The buildings that were in remote areas were just a cost so they were abandoned.
Many buildings just like this one lined the road
By the time we finally reached the coastal town of La Spezia we were getting tired. Googlemaps had promised us a 5 1/2 hour ride today but it had already been over 8 hours. All three of our GPSs suggested different routes to take for the final leg of our journey and after a short detour, we finally settled on a direction. In less than half an hour we arrived in the town of Manarola. Or, more precisely, we arrived in the parking lot above the town of Manarola. The town itself has very limited vehicle access and even the locals have to park their cars in the area between the road and the town. We stuffed our bikes into a temporary spot, grabbed our bags and hiked our way down the hill. After quite a bit of confusion as to where our weekend lodgings were located, we finally found our rooms and it wasn’t a moment too soon. We were sweating in our gear and wandering up and down the hills and steps of Manarola was the last thing that we wanted to do. The landlady met us at the door with perfect Italian, which none of us knew. Fortunately Dan’s French came in handy and the two of them worked out the room situation and we got our keys. We dropped off our bags and gear, walked back up the hill to park our bikes legally and finally set off to explore the town.
Getting lost in La Spezia
Sometimes getting lost leads to good things
The Mediterranean Sea!
During the sorting of the parking situation we met Brian, a nice guy from the States who was currently working in Stuttgart. He had ridden down on his Honda CBR to meet up with some friends and we worked it out to park all four bikes in one spot to save a bit on parking fees. We saw him a few more times over the weekend, as Manarola is a very small place. He was having trouble with a blown fork seal and was concerned about making the trip back, so hopefully that all got sorted out. We paid for his parking and we eventually met up again and he bought the first round.
Manarola is one of the five villages that make up the region of Cinque Terre, a National Park and UNESCO World Heritage Site. Manarola is the oldest of the five, dating back to the early 1300s, and over the centuries each village built up terraces and buildings on the cliffs overlooking the sea. Our rooms for the weekend were in one of these ancient buildings perched up high. This did not always work out for the best, as it was easily 125 stairs to get from our room down to the waterfront – you didn’t want to forget anything once you left for the day!
Just a few of the many, many steps in Manarola
Manarola’s main street
Our front door
The first thing we did was head for the water. The protected harbor was small and cozy, with many access points to the water. There was no sandy beach, however. The shore was rocky and unforgiving, but once in the water, the ground fell away quickly and it no longer mattered. The water was perfect: a slight bite as I jumped in but then I acclimated quickly and realized that I’d forgotten how salty salt water can be.
View from where we went swimming
Clear water – and no sand
After our dip in the sea we went off in search of dinner. It had been a long day and we wanted a hearty meal. Unfortunately, the best looking restaurant in the village was full for the evening and we went off in search of other fare. We settled on a small restaurant along the main street and satisfied our thirst and hunger. The service was good, but very slow, and our waitress made a few assumptions about what we wanted. In the end, everything worked out well and we were happy with what we got. After dinner we walked along the pathway that used to link all five villages. The path from Manarola – in both directions – was closed due to dangerous conditions, but we walked as far as we could.
View from the pathway
Very cool rock formation
The end of the trail
Our rooms are about where the bright red building it at the top, just right of center
A bar across the street had some good live music and we spent some time rehydrating ourselves there before we decided to settle down under the stars with a bottle of wine. We trudged up the stairs, this time taking a different path through the maze of alley ways and corridors and found a small, empty terrace that overlooked the sea. In the near-darkness, the stars came out in profusion and it wasn’t long before the Milky Way made itself bold against the night sky. A steady breeze blew in across the water, cooling off the air to a perfect match of temperature and humidity. It was the perfect ending to a long but good day.
Tomorrow we’d really begin our vacation!
* * * Day 2 * * *