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September 13, 2018

Mediterranean Megaride

Photo: Jean Gherlenda

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A spectacular two-week tour of the Old World
I recently realized a dream that I thought impossible even just a few months ago: ride a motorcycle in Europe, more specifically in Italy and France. I was with a group of 16: seven nice couples, the guide, and myself. What we did is called Megaride Méditerranée and it was organized by MégaVoyages, an agency specializing in motorcycle rides in the Old World. Here is the day-to-day story of two great weeks.

It all started with a false start. My Friday, May 4, flight from Québec City to Montréal was cancelled by WestJet because of a crew problem, and the replacement flight was also delayed. So I missed the 8:30 p.m. flight from Montréal to Venice. I was feeling frustrated and disappointed but managed to keep some level of resilience. Eventually, I found a solution and the next day, Groundhog Day, I took off with a new plane ticket. It certainly was an expensive solution, but at least I could go on with my European ride.

After a sleepless night, I landed at 9:45 on the morning of Sunday, May 6, at the Marco Polo airport, near Venice, 24 hours late. To help catch up, a driver was waiting for me and he took me right to our Lake Iseo hotel where I unpacked my regular luggage and repacked my stuff in BMW 1200GS saddlebag liners. We were to be on the road for 13 days, and we were told to keep luggage to a minimum. Soon after, our guide Max picked me up at the hotel. There was no time to lose: we had to join the group at a gas station and then ride to the port of Savona in order to take the ferry to Corsica. Boarding time was 8 p.m. No need to tell you that we rode pretty fast, except to go through the heavy traffic in Milano (where the group was split in two). The mountains and the numerous halfpipe tunnels in Liguria were impressive. We made it on time to Savona, loaded the bikes on the boat, went to our cabins, and then to dinner at 9:30. This first moment of relaxation after three days of rush and emotions was very welcome.

We arrived in Bastia early in the morning on Monday, May 7, and that was the start of our adventure on the beautiful French island. We rode along the coastline on a superb seaside road with lots of tight curves. Fantastic! From time to time, we had to slow down because there were goats grazing a few metres away from the road. We had lunch in Saint-Florent at the terrace of a restaurant near a huge marina. We then got back on our bikes and drove smoothly until we had to stop to put our rain gear on. It rained all the way to our hotel in Corte. We would spend three days in Corsica, and we’d get used to bad weather before we left.

Tuesday, May 8. Ten of us decided to drive our bikes despite the rain that poured almost nonstop all day. But the ride was spectacular: we took incredible roads with steep mountain walls to the left and deep cliffs to the right. The only protection we had was a small wall — only two to three feet tall — between the road and the cliff. Concentration was the keyword as the smallest error could result in a catastrophe. That was especially true when passing cars and buses, which made the usable lane a lot narrower. But that did not seem to bother the German, Italian, and Austrian motorcyclists — they would pass us even in the middle of curves. We went through various small villages hanging onto the mountainside. I was impressed by the ingenuity of the Corsican people who have been building houses and roads in places where it seems impossible to do so. The first place I fell in love with was the coastal city of Calvi, though we could only drive through it because many streets were closed for Armistice Day celebrations. We had lunch in a warm inn out of town where we had a chance to dry our clothes somewhat. Animals seen by the roadside that day: cows, wild pigs, horses, and more goats. The more I rode, the more I realized how omnipresent the mountains are in beautiful Corsica. At the end of the afternoon, we made a quick stop in the town of Porto to warm up over a cappuccino.

Wednesday, May 9. We are eight to hit the road. We decided to go for an easier ride south to the town of Propriano. The road was great and the curves were not as tight as yesterday. We stopped for lunch at a restaurant right along the seaside and the sun even made a quick appearance. We then headed back north to the hotel a little sooner than planned because one of the roads we wanted to take was closed for a motorcycle rally. And because it started raining again. Then a sad incident put an end to Vicky and Yvan’s European adventure. They slipped and fell down in an uphill curve and Yvan broke his right ankle. A fireman, off-duty that day, took control of the situation while the two Pierres and I secured the scene and directed traffic until the arrival of policemen. The ambulance was there shortly after and they took Yvan and Vicky to a hospital in Ajaccio, the capital. Max and MégaVoyages were very efficient in planning all the logistics to take this nice couple and their luggage back to the hotel in Iseo afterwards. Vicky and Yvan greatly appreciated the help and support they got; that’s one more advantage of traveling with an experienced agency.

Thursday May 10. Still somewhat shaken from yesterday’s emotions and the loss of two nice participants, we left Corte early in the morning and headed south to Bonifacio and the ferry to Sardinia. The road was great, and the weather was much better. After a seaside coffee break in Tarco, we got to Bonifacio around noon. In my opinion, this is the nicest city in Corsica — I really loved it! The marina is magnificent and the city is dominated by a superb citadel. We had lunch on a terrace by the marina and then visited a small part of this great touristic city before boarding at 3 p.m. The look at Bonifacio from the boat as we sailed off was exceptionally beautiful with its eroded beige cliffs. Just one hour later, we were in Santa Teresa, Sardinia. Then, a two-hour drive took us to Olbia. Just before arriving, we were greeted with a downpour, so we had to stop to put our rain gear on again. We would be staying for three days at a very nice hotel directly on the seafront of the Aranci gulf.

Friday, May 11. At 9 in the morning the temperature was already above 20 degrees. We followed the east coast towards Orosei. At lunchtime, we were treated to a very special and typical hotel-restaurant high up in the mountains with a splendid panoramic view on the hills and countryside around us. In the afternoon, our guide had another nice surprise for us: we went down a superb road with very tight curves and breathtaking viewpoints of the sea and the mountains. A great day, and certainly the nicest in terms of weather. We had dinner in a fine restaurant in Olbia.

Saturday, May 12. I took my first day off, a welcome rest after six days of pretty intense riding. The rest of the group enjoyed a fine ride and nice weather with Max.

Sunday, May 13. We would be leaving Sardinia that night. We took it easy in the morning at the hotel, had lunch and then left around 1 p.m. for a short ride on the western part of the island. After Tempio, we stopped at Perfuga for a break on the terrace of a cafe. We then headed to the port of Olbia where we would take the ferry again to reach the Italian continent. And guess what? It rained! Once more. Boarding was at 7:30 p.m., so we registered and went to our cabins to leave our stuff. Then we were invited to a hearty dinner in a nice upscale restaurant.

Monday, May 14. We arrived at the port of Civitavecchia, north of Rome, at seven in the morning and drove the bikes off the ferry right away. We then rode a few hundred kilometres south on toll expressways to Naples and nearby Pompeii. We were flying on the highway and it was nice to ride at a fast pace again after exploring smaller roads. In Pompeii, we had lunch on the terrace of a restaurant right by the archaeological site. Our guide allowed us an hour to enter the site and discover some of Pompeii’s marvels. The remains of this ancient city are absolutely stunning. We were delighted and grateful to have the opportunity to do this extraordinary visit. Back on the bikes, we rode through the beautiful city of Sorrento. The only problem was that it was rush-hour, so it was a long and tiresome ride under a scorching sun. It was fascinating to see the countless scooters passing us and threading their way between the cars and other vehicles in this extremely dense traffic. These scooter riders are very good but above all quite daring. Eventually, our patience was rewarded because when we finally got out of the city, we reached the famous Amalfi coast. It was love at first sight!

There was so much to see and to marvel at that riding was not easy — it took an extra effort to maintain full concentration. After a long day of discovery and riding we got to the hotel tired but all smiles. This hotel is directly on the seaside and embedded into the cliff. Really a magical place.

Tuesday, May 15. We woke up to the patter of rain and left at nine to do the rest of the Amalfi coast road to the east. The traffic was slow and dense but even with the rain falling on us we are still able to appreciate the remarkable scenery with the cliffs and villages on the left side and the sea on the right. We passed through the beautiful city of Amalfi and then reached for the highway. We rode north, passed by Pompeii and Naples again, and headed towards Narni. We rode fairly fast and went through numerous violent downpours. The weather was terrible. We were soaked when we reached Narni in the middle of Italy. Formerly called Narnia, this charming medieval city inspired the author of the series of films The Chronicles of Narnia. After dinner, we went for a night walk in the beautifully illuminated streets of the old city. Unforgettable.

Wednesday, May 16. The sky was cloudy and the air cool when we left Narni, headed for Tuscany, but at least it wasn’t raining. On our way south we went through it fast, so now we would have more time to appreciate the great beauty of this exceptional region: green rolling hills spreading to the horizon, vineyards with rich villas at the end of long alleys, thin and elegant cedars here and there pointing to the sky. After a quick lunch in Ponte d’Arbia, we headed towards Tellaro. The sky was getting darker so we decided to play it safe and stop to put on our rain gear. Good call: a few kilometres later it was pouring! At 5 p.m. we were happy to stop for two days in a very nice hotel with a great seaside view.

Thursday May 17. A special day — my birthday — but also the day for a visit to Cinque Terre, and no motorcycle. A bus took us to the coastal town of Lerici from where we took a boat to Porto Venere. From there, another boat carried us to the five colourful fishing villages. The sun shone and the tour was great. I particularly enjoyed Monterosso and Vernazza.

Friday, May 18. Last day on the bikes. We left the hotel early under blue skies, in the direction of the Trebbia valley further north. Ernest Hemingway lived there for a while and he said that this was the world’s most beautiful valley. I have not seen them all, of course, but I can tell you that the great author was probably right: it was absolutely magnificent. We rode through a countless series of very tight curves. On the way, we made a nice quick stop to see the Bobbio bridge, built by the Romans more than 2,000 years ago. After another stop for lunch and gas, we headed to our starting point, the Lake Iseo hotel. At 3 p.m., we left the bikes in the garage for the last time. That was a great adventure and we all went to a nice restaurant to celebrate the good times we’d had.

Saturday, May 19. Departure day for some of the participants. But nine of us had decided to add one extra day to visit the great city of Venice. That was a marvelous idea, especially since the weather was on our side. It’s fantastic to be on a vaporetto (taxi-boat) on the canals of this unique cultural capital. The superb Piazza San Marco square is unforgettable.

The flight back to Québec was the next day, Sunday, May 20. But guess what? One door of the plane wouldn’t close properly, so Air Transat had to delay our flight for more than two hours. Which meant in turn that I missed my plane from Montréal to Québec City. Plane bad luck seem to come in pairs, like wings.

All in all, this was a great trip. It must be said, though, that such a Megaride is not for everyone. It’s tiring and the rhythm is hectic, so it’s not the kind of vacation where you will rest and relax — far from it. This is for passionate motorcyclists who like to ride day in, day out, at a quick pace. That was my first motorcycle adventure in Europe and it was a rewarding experience on many counts. With my travel companions, we crossed various countries, rode a lot (close to 3,500 km in 12 days), and learned a lot about group travelling. I would recommend this sort of ride to motorcyclists looking for something intense and unforgetable. Max, the owner of MégaVoyages, is an excellent guide. He has lots of experience, he knows the best roads and the nicest hotels and restaurants. You feel safe with him; if a participant gets lost or is delayed (it did happen), he will wait or go back and find you for sure. To know more about these rides, visit the Web site of MégaVoyages.

Finally, I would like to thank Importations Thibault who provided the equipment for this trip. I loved the practicality of Scott’s Dual Raid pants and jacket kit. I tested extensively (!) the rain gear, also by Scott, and it turned out to be remarkably waterproof. The Scorpion modular helmet was up to the task, and the G-Air boots and the Scott gloves were perfect.

What I liked best:
• Cities: Calvi, Bonifacio, Olbia, Pompeii, Sorrento, Amalfi, Lerici, and Narni.
• Places: Lake Iseo, bay of Naples, Amalfi Coast, Corsica, Tuscany, and Cinque Terre.
Good to know:
• There are very few traffic lights in Italy, Sardinia, and Corsica. They are replaced by roundabouts that make the traffic faster and more flowing.
• Italy’s rest and service areas are inviting and practical. They remind me of the ONroute Service Centres in Ontario.
• Max gave us a basic lesson for driving on Europe’s three-lane highways: unless busy with slow vehicles, always use the right lane, and keep the centre and left lanes exclusively for passing.
• Gasoline is expensive: between $1.65 and $1.80 per litre.
• When motorcyclists pass you in Italy, they thank you by pulling out their right leg, a cool and original manifestation of politeness.
• The left-hand salutation as we know it here is also currently used.
• You can drive between the traffic lines on a motorbike in Italy, which is great for bikers but also to relieve traffic congestion. I really wish we could do the same in Québec.
• Over 15 days, we slept in 10 different hotels (including the two nights on ferryboats).
• Motorcycle used: The BMW R1200GS is an excellent motorcycle, nimble and easy to ride, especially in curves, powerful and well-balanced. In my opinion, it was an ideal bike for a long ride such as this one.