Apparently not all roads lead to Rome… Image via Alex Botton
When I tell my Sydney mates that travelling around Europe shooting custom motorcycles for a major bike manufacturer is hot, hard and tiring work they often point out that it sounds a lot like looking a gift horse/motorcycle in the mouth/air filter. “You poor thing! Did you burn your mouth on a delicious pasta or espresso?” mocks my wife. Yeah, I know. I sound a little privileged. But it’s not all shits and giggles; more working than holiday, this last trip saw me bust my balls for four weeks straight with no days off. And when you’re not sweating about getting the shots you need to get paid, you’re rushing to make flights, checking bank balances and making sure you don’t lose that twenty thousand dollar video camera you’ve been carrying with you for countless thousands of kilometres.
But as you’ve probably already guessed, it’s not all sweat, blood and tears. As a reward for the hard work, myself and Alex – the poor bastard who accompanied me on this non-magical mystery tour – ended the shoot with a few free days in Rome. “Downtime,” said my schedule. “Pasta and red wine,” said my brain. But apparently not. Not if Roman Royal Enfield dealer (and candidate for Rome’s most generous man) Bruno Brunetta had anything to do with it. After tirelessly helping us with the shoot, allowing us to interview him in his villa during some of Rome’s hottest ever weather and being an all-round top bloke, he doubles down on his kindness with an offer. “Tomorrow we ride to a lake, yes? I give you a bike. I give you a helmet and gloves also. Will you come?” Will we come? Screw the pasta. We’ll be there with bells on.
So the morning arrives and we are picked up by Bruno in a classic Fiat 600 (no not the Cinquecento, the Seicento) only to be whisked off to his Cafe Twin Royal Enfield dealership located in Rome’s north east. Set in what looks like a patinated courtyard from the 1920s, Bruno waves his hand at the showroom of bikes and says quite literally, “Take whatever you want.” Sheepishly but also feeling like kings, we end up wheeling a new Classic 350 and a new 650 Twin Interceptor out of the pack and into a clearing. From past experiences, I know what happens next. Bruno gets us to sign an agreement that basically states we’ll pay for any damage to the bikes blah blah blah. Except he doesn’t. He just hands us the keys. Allllrighty then…
With one of Bruno’s previous customers in tow, we follow the big fella to a local caffe to meet up with the rest of the riders. Still blithely unaware about what we’re actually doing and where we are going, we leave our fates in the hands of the motorcycling gods and instead focus on looking cool as we neck an espresso Roman style; while standing at the cafe counter in an establishment that clearly hasn’t changed its decor since Marcello Mastroianni was on the local movie posters. I could get used to this. Surprisingly, the assemblage of bikes waiting outside isn’t exclusively made up of other Royal Enfields; with Triumphs, Ducatis and Beemers present Bruno tells us that the group’s not about what bike you ride, but about being inclusive and friendly. Nice. Soon we don our gear again and with the temperature already in the high 20s, we make like a defeated Roman emperor and ride hastily out of Rome.
Heading west on the E80 (a road that – if I’m not mistaken – goes from Lisbon in Portugal to the border between Turkey and Iran) and the Classic 350 I’ve opted to pilot for the outward leg of the mission is holding its own. While likely one of the least powerful bikes on the ride, it manages to keep up with the pack both in the Roman suburbs and once we get onto the freeway proper where speeds rise to around 120 kmh or so. And while some very energetic applications of the throttle are needed to overtake slower vehicles, it never manages to run out of breath or give up the ghost. This really comes in handy as neither of us have the slightest idea of where we are going so losing the pack will result in an anticlimactic ride back to our hotel, as It’s the only place other than Bruno’s dealership we know in Rome. But enough catastrophizing.
We ride on to be confronted with the first set of toll gates on the trip. As we’ve done a million times before back home, we expect that we’ll just ride past a camera that will read our licence plate and bill us later. But why’s everyone stopping? What’s all this traffic? Do we need to pay actual cash to an actual person sitting in a small, hot booth? What is this, the opening sequence from a Fellini movie? Do they really still do that here? Apparently they do. I can’t remember the last time I had coins and notes on my person, let alone Euro coins and notes. Bruno to the rescue. Che gentiluomo!
We ride on. Soon Rome’s outer suburbs melt into peaks and greenery. As you may have already known, the bone in the boot of Italy’s map is the Apennine mountains that run down the peninsula’s centre and into the toes. Put simply, if you ride away from the coast in any Italian ocean town, you’ll hit them sooner or later. And that we did. Gently at first, but upwards we went.
And then we find ourselves on the Southern L’Aquila plateau south of the very volcanic-looking Monte Tino. Suddenly we’re in the nondescript carpark of a nondescript cafe called “Bar Il Chiosco”. It’s 10am. I assume it’s a caffe stop and welcome the leg-stretching. About ten seconds after I walk inside, I have a Campari and soda in my sweaty little hands. The refreshment is most welcome, but my non-Italian brain tells me that drinking alcohol at 11am with a long ride ahead of me isn’t a good idea. As they say, “When just outside of Rome, do as the just outside of Romans do”. It’s gone in no time. The Italians smoke their sigarette and we are off again.
Now the climbing starts in earnest, as does the scenery. While the distant mountains had certainly been more than a little pretty, we’re in amongst them now. It’s a little shameful to admit, but I didn’t realise just how beautiful these Italian villages can be until I saw that opening sequence from the Bond film No Time To Die. That scenery was jaw dropping. Just how something so old and run-down can look so beautiful is an Italian mystery that may never be understood by us mere non-Europeans. And as the excitement rises, so does the braveness of the group. Still with plenty of energy left before lunch and without too much sweat having been expelled into our gear, some pretty daring overtakes and other lofty manoeuvres are attempted.
That is until one of our group is distracted for a split second and ends up launching themselves over a very antique-looking guard rail and onto someone’s front doorstep in the small town of Castel di Ieri. My position in the pack gave me a ringside seat to the action and I pull over only a few metres from the crash. He’s shaken, but not stirred. Thank Madonna. Less fortunately, the bike is unrideable. It’s parked up nearby and the blushing rider accepts his fate by having to sit on the back of a stranger’s bike for the rest of the day. As he is now finding out, nothing tests the ego more than coming off on a group ride. He seems to take it well and we continue upwards and upwards.
More corners ensue, but it’s now heading towards lunchtime and the sportbikers are making their presence known. Known by overtaking us all at brutal speeds while also lent over on blind corners into oncoming traffic. As you do. Outgunned like a kid with a firecracker is against J. Robert Oppenheimer, I cool my jets and focus on riding well with the bike that has been so kindly loaned to me while hoping I’m not forced to dodge a Ducati Panigale that’s been punted in my general direction by a hapless local Fiat Panda on the other side of the road.
The steep inclines are testing the Classic 350 much more than the freeway speeds did; I look away in shame as I wring its neck to bleed some more get-up-and-go out of it. While bigger, more powerful bikes will allow you to be lazy in situations like this, the Classic’s more humble offerings require you to work the gearbox and be smart about gear selection. Luckily my head’s still in the game and my foot’s still obediently dancing the dance that it does with the Enfield’s gear lever.
As lunch approaches, I sense that the “lake” that was so vaguely described this morning is somewhere nearby. Simultaneously, I start to see signs for Abruzzo (pronounced Ah-BRUTE-so). Now I’m no geographical genius, but somehow I do know that Abruzzo is on the east coast of Italy and Rome is on the West. There’s no way we come that far, have we? Of course not! Stupid me. What was I thinking? But Indeed, we had come that far and the land that we now stood on was indeed Abruzzian. Then the lake arrives. We park up the bikes and cross an ancient bridge to what I now know is actually “Lago di San Domenico” – a lake in a valley between two spurs of the Apennines.
To say it’s beautiful is like saying Gina Lollobrigida is “OK-looking”. It’s stunning, and as with all Italian scenery, the fact that it also probably had ancient Roman soldiers kicking back sans togas and swords really ups the wow factor. Pretty soon we are all devouring “Arrosticini” – aka small pieces of goat threaded onto kebab sticks and barbequed over open coals and salted. As with most food in Italy, there’s just something about it that is next level delicious. Sure, it’s obviously covered in salt and let’s face it, anything barbequed is delicious, but this! This. This is the shit. I have about 20. I kid you not – pun fully intended.
I finish up the lunch with a dip in the lake. Being an Aussie who’s supposedly used to swimming, I note the Italians pussy footing around the edges and decide that – thanks mostly to the heat – I’ll go straight in over my head. From Sydney beach experiences, it’s the only way to do it. Any other attempt means you start second-guessing yourself and worrying about the temperatures. It’s only when I’m under the water that I realise just how brutally cold it is, especially near the bottom. Who’d have realised that even in summer, an Italian mountain lake would be colder than a Sydney beach? Most people, actually.
Still, the heat is completely washed away and I’m more than a little refreshed. I smile at the fringe dwellers on the way out as if to say, “Now THAT’S how you do it!” and dry off for the ride home. Against all common sense, I drop a joke about not needing to know our way home because, “all roads lead to Rome!” It goes down like a lead balloon. Oh dear. Let’s just pretend that bit never happened, OK?
I swap bikes with Alex and now I’m on the Interceptor 650. Grateful for the additional power and general changing shit up, I instantly notice that the bike’s tank is basically empty. And not having seen a stazione di servizio for many many kilometres I’m a little concerned. I make sure Bruno knows and he seems unconcerned, unlike me. Of course, mere minutes later we roll up on a petrol station decked out like some Californian log cabin and the benzina is liberally dispensed to all and sundry. Thinking that the day’s pretty much over bar the shouting, I resign myself to a relaxed ride back the way we came and into Rome with time to spare for an Aperol Spritz before dinner. Little did I know that wouldn’t be the case Not at all. But sometimes it’s best not to know. So on we go, like some naive, smiling tourists into the hot, hot afternoon.
“VAFFANCULO!” shouts the Kawasaki rider right into my shocked face. And “PUTTANA!”. There were a bunch of other words, too. But the speed at which they were delivered and the amount of spittle ejected from his mouth kind of threw me from practising my very beginner Italian. He was livid. We’re in Villetta Barrea. It’s even more spectacular than the previous mediaeval towns, but I’m a little too preoccupied to notice.
But how did it come to this? Riding in a group with Bruno at the front of the pack and Alex following, I’m third in line. Like a scene from a movie, Bruno in his own inimitable way overtakes Mister Kawasaki through the ancient streets and Mr K is clearly not happy. He shakes his head and slumps in his seat as if someone had just insulted his mother. Missing all this, Alex now follows suit to make sure he’s not left behind. Mr K now throws up his left hand as if to signal to Alex that something properly insulting has just happened. The fact that Alex is on a 350 cc single and Mr K is on a litre-or-there-abouts inline four is not lost on me. But now I see the gauntlet that lays before me. This guy is gonna be properly pissed if I overtake for a third time, but like Alex, the only way I get home is to follow Bruno or rely on an iPhone with less than half a charge and no handlebar mount.
Grimacing my teeth, I bomb past the guy on the Interceptor and he’s clearly livid. He sounds his horn for an uncomfortably long time and as it stops, so does the traffic at a red light ahead of us. We all pull up in a pack and Mr K starts his saliva-ladened tirade. It’s now that I remember that I’ve got my bandanna tied around my face. With my glasses and open-face helmet, for all he knows he’s shouting at someone who’s just robbed a bank. But this does not deter him. After what seems like 10 minutes, Bruno screams at him that I don’t speak Italian and that he’s being a dick. He doesn’t notice and tears off as soon as the lights go green.
A while later, we spot him pulled over by the side of the road. Then he rips past us at speed trying to prove a point. Bruno’s not having it. He follows the guy on his stock Enfield Himalayan through a set of corners and they both disappear into the forested distance. About 30 minutes later we arrived in another beautiful town to see Bruno and some of the other riders stopped in a pack. Bruno is smiling from ear to ear. “What happened!?” we ask. “He was a shit rider. I DESTROYED him in the corners.” 25 hp beats 100 and the balance of the universe is restored. Karma’s a beautiful thing, ain’t it?
The rest of the day is a blur of delicate mountain forests, endless perfectly-cambered corners, mountain top views of breathtaking towns spilling down cliffside and more churches and/or monasteries than I could count on a papal supercomputer. At one point we round a corner to be presented with a vista that is so perfectly lit, so grand and so improbably beautiful that I swear out loud and wave my arms around in the air like I’m having a fit. But seeing as though it’s the 87th one I’ve seen today, it feels like too little too late. To do this justice I’d have to spend the rest of my life learning how to paint like an Italian Renaissance master and then spend my final day on earth painting one of these scenes before the brush slips from my fingers and I shuffle off this mortal coil smelling like mineral turpentine. But between now and then I have to battle the Roman traffic between la bella vista and our hotel room. I gird my loins.
Tired and sunburnt, I simultaneously beg for mercy but willingly follow as the local riders with much more Italian traffic experience in their hearts and a few glassfulls of prosecco in their guts murder the sunset traffic chaos. At one point with Alex alongside me and on the goddamn shoulder of the choked freeway, I look up to see a speed sign displaying 70 kmh. I look down at my speedo to see that we’re doing 130 and remind myself that we aren’t even riding on the damn road. An Aussie cop would arrest us on the spot if we did the same in Sydney, and yet I recall seeing absolutely no police – cars nor bikes – for the entire ride. No cameras, either. What the actual fuck? Not even once. What sort of insane paradise is this?
Delirious from sensory overload and too much goat flesh, I only come to as we arrive outside the hotel front doors. Unsure if I’ve just had the ride of my life or if it’s all some carbonara-induced fever dream gilded with heat stroke, I collapse on my bed and dream dreams of being detained by the Abruzzo Carbinerie in a local gaol cell that also serves an incredible spaghetti al cartoccio cooked by one of their nonnas. Thank you Roma, you big, beautiful, baking hot bastard; I’ll be back when it cools down a bit.