Italy: beautiful country, terrible value

We decamped, rejoined the autostrada and made it to Tuscany by late morning to meet old friends Nick and Judy, who run a superb holiday villa rental business called Villa Casavecchia on an olive farm and vineyard near San Casciano. If the notion of a family or group holiday in Tuscany appeals to you, by the way, check it out – it ticks all the boxes.

 

After a long, relaxing lunch we entrusted the Garmin with getting us to Rome by 7 o’clock, and it worked a treat, beating the target by 15 minutes. The Italian autostrada network is efficient but pretty boring, to be honest, with just the frequent appearance of fortified hilltop towns and churches to break the monotony.

The lack of an audio feed from the Garmin caused a few complications, and not for the first time this trip. When you come up to a junction on a motorway, the sat-nav screen splits and shows a digitised image of the junction on the right, complete with a photo of the actual road sign and with a purple line showing exactly what lane you need to be in. Three times in the past two days I had followed that line religiously, only to find I had taken the wrong exit and was now headed in entirely the wrong direction.

On two of those occasions I admit the fault may have been mine, misreading the five-inch screen and taking the wrong slip road at a complicated multi-exit cloverleaf. Just maybe. The third time I am absolutely convinced I made no mistake, yet still ended up riding about 10 km to the next exit in order to make a U-turn and head all the way back again. It wasn’t as if we were on a tight schedule, but petrol on Italian autostradas seemed extraordinarily expensive and it was being wasted. Memo to self: use the headset next time.

The other irritation about this segment of the journey was the trucks. Northern Italy is pretty industrialised, and the autostradas are full of trucks. Unlike the UK or the UAE, most autostradas in Italy have only two lanes in each direction. So we kept coming across one truck doing 100 km/h being overtaken by another doing maybe 102 km/h. Ignoring the fact that trucks are supposed to stick to an 80 km/h limit, this caused numerous tailbacks in the nominally “fast” lane.

It’s a tribute to Italian drivers that they coped so well with this, neither flashing in impatience nor running up your backside to intimidate you into pulling over (as the locals do all the time in the UAE). Italian road manners seem to deteriorate or disappear entirely in the big cities, as we’ve found time and time again.

We spent three great days in Rome, sightseeing with my sister Barbara who’s lived there for 40-odd years. We rented a four-door Smart so the three of us could travel together, paying more than double for the privilege compared with recent experience in the UK, France and South Africa. Italy has many attributes, but value for money isn’t one of them.

Roman beer
Peter and Barbara about to beat the Rome heat after a visit to St Peter’s

What is it about Italy and tourists? A few years ago we rented a car for a family holiday at the lovely Casavecchia. On a trip into the centre of Florence to collect my sister from the train station, I apparently drove around four sides of a square looking in vain for a place to park. It seems I got snapped by cameras on each side if the square, which was off-limits to cars without some special permit. Of course, there were no signs in English saying this, and the square was full of cars, so I innocently drove around it and out again. I then received a notice that I owed the city of Florence 620 euros for breaking their traffic laws! Six hundred and twenty euros!

On this trip, we took the Smart out to Castel Gandolfo for a picnic by the lake. We parked in a public car park, noted that we had to pay and tried our level best with the ticket-issuing machine. It had an English function, but that didn’t enable us to pay for three hours’ parking (eight euros). The problem was telling the machine how long we wanted to park for; it seemingly didn’t want to know.

My sister, who speaks fluent Italian, tried and fared no better. We asked two other Italians in the car park and they couldn’t help either.  I managed to but two 30-minute tickets and placed them on the dash to show good faith. Needless to say, I got a parking ticket. My sister tells me I may get a fine of 500 euros! Listen up, Italy: that level of fine for a minor transgression is simply nuts, ignoring the fact that there was no way a non-Italian speaker could have known about the Florence square, and that the Rome ticket machine is so hard to understand. I’ve had it with Italian cities now, on principle; beautiful country, but crazy.

 

The Valkyrie was duly washed and polished to remove a thousand dead flies and a week’s travel grime before we head back north up the autostrada, leaving behind Rome’s 40 degrees C and aiming for a lovely campsite at Valpelline, near Aosta, in the Italian Alps. The roads are impressive feats of engineering up north in the Genoa area, but otherwise the ride has little to recommend it in terms of scenery or interest.

Rome ready to leave
Washed, polished and ready for the return trip

The bike was performing well, taking the load and the wide range in terrain and temperatures in its stride. Average full consumption was 37 mpg, ranging from a disappointing 33 to an impressive 40. Speed was the key factor: stick to a 75-80 80 mph cruise and we hit the high 30s; move that up to 85-90 and it would rise (or fall, depending on how you look at it) to the low 30s.

Fuel prices in France, Germany, Switzerland and Italy were all a bit (and in some cases a lot) higher than in the UK, but it wasn’t the cost that hurt, really, it was the range. The tank holds just 20 litres, meaning that you can hit reserve after only 107 miles if you’re riding hard, or at 127 if you’re not. Total range if you’re lucky is about 150 miles. That means stopping every 100 minutes or so, which is annoying when you have serious ground to cover. You find yourself passing and re-passing the same cars and trucks time and time again.

I’ve been well aware of this through ownership of three Valkyries, so I’m not really complaining. If riding for 250 miles non-stop had been my top priority, I’d have bought a BMW; I simply prefer the look and feel of the Honda. It’s a trade-off I’m happy to make. I suppose it means it takes us 30 minutes longer to complete a 500-mile day than, say, a BMW R1200RT; so be it.

We reached Valpelline and found the Grand Combin campsite we’d last stayed at in 2010. It’s an excellent site and we can highly recommend it. A decent-sized swimming pool had been added since we were last there, so after pitching the tent we enjoyed a swim and then a beer or two in the evening sun, with snow-capped peaks towering in the distance.

Last time, the village fete was on and we walked the short distance to the village where we ate a selection of great food and drank superb local wine for very little money. This time, we were too early for the fete but the bar offered five pasta dishes, so out of sheer laziness we chose the lasagne and were treated to the best we’ve ever tasted, washed down by a local red wine bottled specially for the site. Memorable stuff.

If you’re into hiking and great scenery, the campsite would make an excellent base for a few days in this area. We contented ourselves with one night, because the Great St Bernard pass beckoned tomorrow.

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