Reading the interesting article by musicologist and insurance agent Michele Bianchi on Giacomo Puccini’s experience with bikes in this month’s LuccaMusica, a free magazine which gives as complete as possible listings of musical events in Lucca province and beyond (I’m the English collaborator for this rag) , I reflected on my own biking experiences. I was given my first push bike at age 7 for Christmas and would regularly ride, not just to school, but to explore most parts of London after my first major expedition from Forest Hill to Richmond Park on a Raleigh Space Rider when ten. London was a little different then.
When sixteen I moved over to motorized bikes and bought a second-hand Honda 50 – a model which apparently is still going strong.
In my twenties I graduated to motorbikes. The first was a somewhat unreliable Villiers Ambassador.
The bug was caught and I subsequently moved across to Hondas. The CBs 250s and 360s served me fine, especially in getting to parts of Wales other vehicles can’t reach.
(CB360ing from London to Mid-Wales – Bwlch-y-Groes and Lake Bala)
The real breakthrough was when I bought a Honda Transalp in 1997.
With this bike I managed my first trip to Italy across the most beautiful reaches of France and climbing over the highest of alpine passes, the col de l’Iseran at height 9088 feet. I eventually descended via the Mont Cenis pass into the piedmontese plain. Based in Tuscany I visited the most wonderful places including Urbino, Montalcino and San Galgano.
I also visited the comune of Bagni di Lucca (though not the actual town itself which had to wait until 2001) for the first time, entering the Val di Lima via the passo Della Croce Arcana which is above Cutigliano. Little did I know that in 2015 I would celebrate ten years of permanent residence in this valley.
According to my video entry this is what I did between 7 and 15 August 1997 on that bike:
C136 07/08 – 15/08/97 Italy – Sant’Antimo – exterior – painter of Badia – Montalcino – town hall – old streets – funeral – town wall views – Certosa di Galluzzo – Abbey church – choir stalls – cloisters – monk’s cell – Monterchi – Madonna del Parto – Parto film – Gubbio – town hall – paintings – pottery – Etruscan tablets – old streets – cathedral – Sant ‘Ubaldo – views – Prato – Pracchia – Bardalone – Piastre – Prunetta – San Marcello – Cutigliano – Melo – Passo della Croce Arcana – Fanano – Pian del Falco – Rifugio Ninfa – Sestola – Pievepelago – Abetone – Cutigliano – San Marcello – Passo d’Oppio – Bardalone – Piastre – Pistoia – Pontassieve – Stia – Passo la Calla – Monte Falco – Monte Falterona – Castagno d’Andrea – departure for Home – German war cemetery at Passo della Futa – Bologna – torri degli Asinelli – San Petronio – Sabbioneta – Palazzo Giardino – arms gallery – Teatro Olimpico – streets – Mausoleum – Town Hall with old equestrian statues – camping at Lago d’Iseo – grebes – eroded pyramids – lake views – Passo del Gavia – Bormio – old streets – Stelvio pass – eagle – Alto Adige – Austria – Voralberg campsite – Germany – Meerburg – Boden See – Strasburg – Cathedral – Peruvian & cimbalom music – stained glass – astronomical clock
On that memorable 1997 trip I began my return home by doing two of the most glorious alpine passes ever: the unmetalled Gavia pass (height 8599 feet) and the mythical Stelvio pass (height 9045 feet) before entering Austria and traversing the incredibly long and claustrophobic Voralberg tunnel.
Have bike, have tent, have trangia will travel and sleep and eat…… Glorious times which will always live in the memory.
As I trudged to work, fighting my way through London’s south circular road on that same Transalp I thought of those happy holiday times and wrote this poem:
Red and white flame of power: you unbar
my prison and deliver me into
freedom’s arms. The wind of the plains sings through
me as fleet wheels spin and carry me afar.
The whole earth unfolds around: vineyards yield
their ripened clusters in smiling valleys,
silver castles pass while the sun dallies
with my face and heaven’s grace is revealed.
There is ecstasy in the engine’s pulse,
a leap of joy in the throttle’s release:
swiftness and light, sky and motion’s increase
transfigured into a boundless impulse.
And when, through traffic and concrete, I ride
to work I don’t care: these wheels have had sight
of alpine glaciers and the eagle’s flight
and blue waters by the sea’s golden side.
In 2001 on another Transalp (a green one this time with disc brakes on both front and rear wheels – a bastard had stolen my original red and white one from just outside my house) I explored ex-Eastern Germany, Poland (reaching two places so diametrically opposed to each other in atmosphere: Cracow and Auschwitz) and Silesia.
(My second Transalp in front of Charlton House London)
In Italy I‘ve now stuck to scooters. I feel my biker days are over, although not two-wheel ones are not. I do feel lucky (cross fingers) not to have had major spills on any of my two-wheeled vehicle – just a broken wrist when the Transalp slipped across some oil near the millennium dome then being built in Greenwich (now called the O2).
In Italy I’ve slipped a couple of times, again due to “sostanze oleose”, but nothing serious – just some rather heavy bruising. I was, therefore, saddened to hear about the motorbike accident an acquaintance from Bagni di Lucca Ponte suffered at the start of this month on his Harley Davidson by the new Rivangaio bridge crossing the Serchio near Piaggione. Colliding with a van the centauro’s (bikers are called centauri – “centaurs” – half-man half-bike in Italy) condition was so serious that a helicopter lift to hospital at Cisanello Pisa was necessary.His pillion partner was, fortunately, rather less seriously hurt.
I wish D. G. a complete and successful recovery and I am sure he will have the guts to go back to his beloved Harley-Davidson as soon as he is well again.
The problem with driving bikes (and cars) is, of course, not so much one’s own skills and reactions, which have to be top-class, but the bloody fools which surround one (and think they can drive just as well as you).
I do hope that my mates who are taking to the road on two wheels, whether it be on a Harley, a Ducati or even a Honda, will realise that superhuman care is needed here on those mountain roads with so many blind curves, so much unreliable road surface, so many distractions (especially the stunning scenery) and above so many idiots that abound on Italy’s (and clearly in other countries’ too) roads. Always easy riding but often difficult driving……
PS. Interestingly, we again visited Cutigliano yesterday when we saw the end of its primavera (spring) festival.
Now we know how all those flamboyant Easter egg wrappings can be transformed to create new effects including iridescent butterflies!
Truly cute (twee?) Cutigliano!
(Cutigliano is a sort of mini Florence in the mountains complete with the old palace for the capitano della montagna and the loggia opposite it housing the Marzocco)
On our way back we took a quick look at the village of Lizzano, which lies just before the Abetone junction at La Lima, with its unusual mural paintings.
For more on Lizzano and the murals see my post at: