November 13, 2016
The next morning we say a long farewell to Magnolia House and our host Lucia, who’s parting gifts are a donation to our Lost for Good Project, a sprig from her palm Sunday service for Nita’s bike and a lovely bottle of wine! The sun is high in the sky and we all chat in the warmth – her little pup included. A few pictures later and we’re on our way again. Of course it’s the wrong way – sometimes I think we should call this adventure “The Wrong Way Round.” After getting ourselves sorted we finally make our way to the Amalfi Coast and the amazing road that runs it’s length.
This coastal road is stunning. It twists and winds it’s way through the hills in an endless procession of viewpoints high above the water before plunging us down toward beaches in the towns that line it’s length. Communes like Positano seem to lay impossibly nestled into the cliffs with no two streets sharing the same vertical plane. Around these towns, parked cars line the narrow streets for miles; with flat ground at a premium, parking is difficult for both locals and tourists. Hotels are often built down from the road, using the roof as a parking lot and the cliff-side views as a means to bring tourists in.
Back up into the sky, the corners are now being marked in degrees – 2 degree corner, 1 degree corner – they’re tight and with slow moving cars in front of us, they require some finesse on our part. The number of sport-bikes flying around the road is staggering and they’re not going slowly. Weaving wildly around the cars and passing in blind corners they fly by with complete abandon. While some look skilled others are obviously uncomfortable and simply trying to keep up with the pack. It’s a recipe for disaster and about 10km from Amalfi, traffic has come to a complete stand-still.
With no traffic coming towards us we know there’s been an accident and we begin making our way to the front of the line. As we pass the cars, a man gently waves us over; he can see an ambulance is making it’s way up the road in the distance. We wait by his car and he offers us a smile and thumbs up while the ambulance passes by. At the front, policemen are busy measuring while yelling back and forth to one another. A group of riders are waiting for the road to re-open and, after a little wait, we begin to move again. The cause of the delay is there for all to see; two bikes, completely destroyed, lay facing in opposite directions on the road. With the number of riders we’ve seen wandering into oncoming lanes as they try to test themselves against the road, it looks like these two clipped one-another travelling in opposite directions. The carnage is brutal.
Once again underway, even the bikes take it easy for a little while. Soon, we’re in Amalfi and we settle into for a caffè by the water. It’s been an eventful day already, but a good day for us. With our bikes in view of our table, we settle in to enjoy the sun and watch the world move around us. People love walking by the bikes and often stop to have a quick discussion about them. Sometimes, when people see the Canadian flag, we love to watch the look of shock draw itself across their faces. Some will even check the license plates to see if it all adds up. I love these moments.
It’s a great stop in Amalfi but the air is cooling and we can see the rain clouds that are meant to bring more weather to the coast this evening forming in the distance. The traffic for the next leg is a little heavier and we find it harder to keep a rhythm going through the tight turns. It’s all part and parcel with roads like these but sometimes I find difficulty in staying zen about it. Big horsepower SUV’s and sports cars are simply too wide for these roads which means they’re forced to stop at every turn – sometimes reversing – to get back into their lanes. Nita’s great at helping me remember to take a moment and look at where we are – to see what we’re surrounded by. And it is glorious. Soon the traffic begins to dissipate and the corners begin to flow once again. In some of the tighter corners our heads hang over the embankment offering a spectacular (and disorienting) view down the cliff-face – while also offering a stomach full of butterflies. High-siding a bike anywhere on this road would be a nasty affair.
Reaching the edge of Salerno, we’re met by a GPS screen that looks more like a bowl of noodles than a map. There’s heavy construction and the road that would normally take us around the city is nowhere to be seen. The route that the GPS seems determined to send us down is a gravel industrial road and we decide to turn back to the lane that everyone else seems to be taking. This route takes us into the heart of the busy city and a myriad of twisting side-streets that seem to back-track over and over again. In front of us a car is following the same route – using GPS and just as lost! After a series of turns we’d have never chosen, we’re spit out onto the other side of the city and happy to be done with it.
After a long day the route begins to straighten as we rejoin the quiet beach roads that remind us of Central America. We continue on to Pontecagnano Faiano where our home for the night, Hotel Olimpico, is waiting. The woman at the counter is incredibly friendly and after a quick change into normal clothes we find ourselves enjoying a well-deserved drink on the back patio overlooking an empty swimming pool, a construction site and, in the distance, the remnants of the Tyrrhenian Sea. It’s perfect.
The glorious sun of the previous day is long gone this morning. The rain is pelting down and yet we’re both happy to get back on the bikes. Riding in heavy weather is less of a problem if you’re prepared and sometimes the blurry landscape provides a beautifully distorted movie to the soundtrack of our engines. Once again, the long beach-side roads are home to a number of prostitutes, young and old, sheltering themselves under the brow of colorful umbrellas in the driving rain. Some smile as we pass while others talk in groups or on the phone. Again, with no cars nearby, we wonder how they get here and imagine a van dropping them off along the road in the days early hours.
Our destination for the night is Bosco and a small hotel called Tenuta Terre di Bosco. With our longer stays in Vicopisano, Rome and Sant’Agata, we’ve decided to make a run to Sicily before catching our ferry to Tunisia from Palermo in a couple of weeks. Finding our destination using an address is, again, pointless. Most of our stops over the week are only plottable – that is find the point on a map and match it to the GPS as closely as possible, drop the pin and hope you’ve got it right. It’s just another way we keep our journey exciting!
While we thought the road would share some easy curves we couldn’t have been more wrong. After gently easing us into the day we quickly find ourselves on more Amalfi-esque tarmac taking us once again high into the cliffs with fantastic views of the sea to our right. The towns are sparse which leaves us riding alone much of the time and today the tight corners come with ease as we both glide through them effortlessly. At Agropoli we head inland where we’re presented with beautiful farmland – an aspect of Italy we’ve not seen enough of. Through the rising crests of valley walls, we tip the bikes at each apex and wind our way toward the pastures that line the valley floor. Soon, the roads begin to narrow until finally we find ourselves at a hairpin turn into a steep descent toward our home for the night.
Almost as soon as we park the bikes, the sky opens and a torrent of rain greets us while we unpack. Running inside we’re met by a lovely man, who asks if we’d like lunch and dinner at the hotel. With the weather raging, we’re happy to stay inside and he opens the dining room for us while we get settled. Soon we’re set up in our room, looking out over the foggy pastures as they lean towards the now hidden sea, and then we feel that familiar sensation of calm after a day on the road.
In the dining room we meet Flavia, a young woman who speaks English very well. On the television Scream 2 is playing – an interesting choice for lunch – but it’s in Italian and we’re hooked instantly! The food is wonderful – the portions aren’t massive and the flavors are beautiful which makes for two very happy travellers. We talk with Flavia about our journey and her dreams to travel to both Canada and America. Invariably we also get a lesson in Italian which we’re becoming more and more appreciative of – and we get to return the favor in English.
After a caffè, the young man lets us know that we can park the bikes under the entry-way to protect them from the weather which is always a lovely perk when it happens. I wheel my bike to the entry and, as I get a running start up a small ramp, my foot slips on the wet tile and I almost drop the bike. Actually I would have if it wasn’t for the quick reflexes of our host! With my new-found knowledge and a twinge in my elbow where I had all of the ART work done in July, I don’t make the same mistake with Nita’s bike. I return to the dining room, and we stay to watch the end of the movie before heading back to the room to catch up on some work for the site.
The sky fights to break the grey and while shards of blue manage to peek through now and again, the storm is simply too grumpy to have any of it. Rather than providing any hope of a sunny morning, the fading light simply hides the rain from our view. Dinner is easily as good as lunch and the wine makes the aching in my arm disappear which is a welcome relief. We spend dinner talking with Flavia before heading back to the room at a reasonable hour – we have another long day ahead of us on the bikes and we want to be well rested.
In the morning, the kitchen cooks us some eggs which is a fantastic change from the sweets we usually get for breakfast – not that I’m complaining! I love the sweets too but the protein will go a long way to helping us on what’s become another cold day. We load up the bikes as quickly as we can before saying our goodbyes to Flavia, the young man and the mother. As a parting gift, Flavia hands us a bottle of olive oil which is always a great treat! We pause for some photos with everyone and then, with a quick right, we’re up the hill and back onto the backroads of Pontecagnano Faiano.
We start the day with a long list of wrong turns – second-guessing the GPS proves to be a mistake and, when a u-turn leads Nita towards a ditch, I bark at her leaving her feeling scolded. I immediately regret it but the damage is done and for the next while there’s radio silence on the headsets. Making it worse is the amazing road we’ve found ourselves on and, for a change, the feeling of no-one to share it with. It’s not all honey and roses, and while Nita and I are incredibly lucky to have one-another there are the occasional days when we’re on different pages. The good news is that it rarely lasts long.
After winding our way along a simply stunning set of cliff-side roads, I stop at a pull-out to get some pictures of the water breaking on an amazing beach. Finally the radio silence is over and we spend a few minutes easing out of the mornings stress. Technology is once again a sore spot with me as the GoPros continue to freeze every time I try to start a second movie. It turns out it’s not the cameras at all, but rather the SD cards – either the latest firmware update has made the current cards useless or they’re both at the end of their useful lives. Either way, we’ve lost footage of this wonderful place.
It’s getting to that time of day where a caffè becomes more of a need than a want and we need to fill the bikes anyways. Descending down a long hill towards the beach we see a nice looking town lining the water and, just before it, and nice looking filling station with a larger caffè. Pulling in, We’re met by a homeless-looking man who’s an old hippie throwback, and while I get a feel for the place, Nita heads in to order some caffè for us. By the time I get inside, a party seems to have broken out with Nita in the middle of it all! Two women own the store and are in the throes of an animated conversation with Nita about our trip and the regulars – all men – have pulled up tables around them to listen in.
Not a single head turns when I enter and the conversation continues in full swing while I take my beautifully made caffè and watch the show from the sidelines. Every once in a while, one of the regulars will look outside at the bikes, then look at me, and smile while shaking his head in disbelief. Meanwhile the ladies have been joined by another woman who’s been collecting a delivery of flowers in the parking lot. Quieter than the owners, she’s just as lovely and soon we seem to have her Facebook address – everyone wants to keep in touch! Nita’s been making new Italian friends with “Ci vediamo su Facebook” which always seems to get a good laugh from them. The ladies shoo us to the back to enjoy our coffee then, just as quickly, call Nita back to them. She returns with a bag stuffed full of cornettos – a gift for the road. With the wine from Amalfi, the olive oil from Bosco and now these pastries we’re running out of places to store the generosity of the people we meet! I stuff them into my tank bag and after a wonderful stop, we take some photos and say our goodbyes. It’s one of those moments you couldn’t predict.
Back on the road and with some conversation in the headset, things are beginning to feel good again.The sweeping tarmac drops gently from the cliffs, back onto a long beach road and soon enough we pull into our hotel for the night, the Hotel Ashley. Once we’ve checked in, we pull our bikes around the back of the hotel which, when the gate opens, reveals a steep ramp covered in the same slippery tiles that nearly saw me drop the bike in Bosco. Shiny from the freshly starting rain, we ease our way down making sure to stay off the brakes. We find a spot to leave the bikes and unpack – only slipping once on the way to the elevator. Perhaps it’s walking that’s the problem!
Our night in the hotel is incredibly good for the price – half the cost of a motel at home. The amenities are great, the restaurant is good and the only hiccup is our inability to connect to the internet – which probably has more to do with my current effect on gadgets. Technology is totally messing with my Qi.
The next morning we wake up excited for the days travel. We’re leaving mainland Italy and heading back onto the first ferry we’ve seen since being trapped for two days on the boat from Newfoundland to Nova Scotia during Hurricane Issac last year. Perhaps it’s the excitement, but we can’t remember if our hotel room was prepaid and end up getting charged twice. Still they’re happy to refund us via bank draft as they can’t refund credit cards. Gah! Again?! Thanks to Koray in Nice, we have an IBAN we can use and we’ll get the refund down the road.
We decide to make a straight shot to the ferry in Villa San Giovanni which will take us to Messina, Sicily in about twenty minutes. Travelling from Marinella to Villa San Giovanni is like travelling through three distinct countries. The landscape just inland from the sea reminds us of Mexico and the roads that lead toward the hills remind me of my time in Central America – as do the houses and shacks that line the lanes and hillsides. Then, as we climb and reach a plateau, the highway returns us squarely to the roads that take us through southern BC in Canada. For a while we feel incredibly close to home – for a moment I even imagine what that road will feel like when we return from our adventure.
Soon though the landscapes disappear into a seemingly endless barrage of tunnels and traffic. On and on it goes for countless miles, darkness broken momentarily by a gap, then into the dark again. The traffic is thick and slow-moving and, combined with the inability to see the condition of the asphalt in the tunnels, this stretch of road is tiresome. Eventually, we see the Straight of Messina and, with the sun now shining, we see the golden coast of Sicily. It looks beautiful!
Finding the Caronte & Tourist ferry to Messina is an easy process as there are plenty of signs to follow and the ticket booths are set along the way. A man shows us where to park and soon enough I have two €13 tickets for Sicily in my hand! Getting back to the bike, the man lets us know which road to take to get to the ferry and then asks for a few euro’s for his family. It turns out he’s not an employee at all! Well, he did help, soooo… Pulling up at the dock we’re surprised at the size of the ferry – it’s big for such a short journey. In no time our tickets are scanned and we’re on the boat for our twenty minute ride.
With no tie-downs required for the trip, I stay with Nita’s bike since the kickstand leaves it standing almost upright. Even with the calm waters the car-hold quickly comes alive with the sounds of car-alarms; such a peaceful sound. With my earplugs in I relax and enjoy the sensation of moving without knowing where I’m going. It’s a bit like walking with your eyes closed.
In what feels like an impossibly quick time, light breaks around the ramp in front of me and pours in as we approach the dock. As it finishes lowering we can already see the hustle and bustle of Messina just across the street and it’s looking markedly different from what we’ve seen so far. There’s an instant rush to get off the ship and Nita’s cut off before even hitting the ramp. After weaving our way through the port, a man jumps out of his car to take our pic at a red light and is immediately met with a flurry of horns and yelling – even though we can’t go anywhere! In fact, it’s a perfect introduction to riding in Messina; the roads here are mayhem.
Many people in northern and central Italy told us that traffic in the Sicily is lawless and slightly mad – and if our first impressions are what we can expect from this island then they’re totally right. Single lanes are stuffed three or four cars wide all vying for breathing room, people are driving the wrong way down the streets, scooters are flying everywhere and, all the time, there’s the endless sound of horns beeping. Even the firetrucks don’t get a break – no one gives up their space for anyone. When an inch is finally given to let the emergency vehicle through, the draft behind it is quickly filled up with drivers trying to get ahead. The five kilometers to our hotel takes about thirty minutes and is certainly the longest five so far!
We pull into the Europa Palace Hotel feeling mildly euphoric for having made it through the traffic incident-free. After unloading, we take a walk in the area immediately surrounding our hotel and it reveals a city with an interesting mix of run-down buildings, street-vendors and upscale shops. This location at the western edge of Messina doesn’t feel unsafe though we do seem to have our guard up slightly – interesting since everyone we meet along the way is very polite to us. From the two young women at a small caffè to the owners of a small pizzeria, any trepidation we have quickly disappears. It’s a moment that reveals one of the truths we’re discovering as we travel: an environment can create a sense of a place which its people can dissolve. Realizations like this are part of why we love to travel.