Notes from 2012 Italy-France tour

Published in

Approaching D-Day

Well, here I am, sitting at São Paulo's International Airport, and rising my level of expectation on every minute that goes by. In some minutes I will enter the plane to Frankfurt, where I will meet my wife Lily to begin what I expect to be another magical journey. Many questions run through my mind: will it be as magical as I expect? Will my wife, who is doing it for the first time and isn't really crazy about motorcycle tours, be able to do it to its end? Will the rental motorcycle be in good shape? How will we make it through the first day, the longest of all in terms of Kilometers to do, after flying through the night? And most urgent of all, will I receive the upgrade to business which will let me sleep comfortably from São Paulo to Frankfurt and be in shape for the first day? I thought and thought and, with this, the moments passed quickly and soon Lufthansa was calling to enter the plane.

I leave the lounge and begin to proceed to the gate. There, I am notified that I have been upgraded. Well, that's a good beginning. Maybe it is a sign for perfect upcoming days. The flight takes off, I eat dinner, and lay down to sleep.

First day: arrival to Milan and ride to Grenoble

I meet my wife Lily in Frankfurt, and she is also after a flight that left Israel at 5AM. I can even say that my situation is better than hers, at least I slept for 8 hours. We enter the plane to Milan. One hour and a half later we land in Milan. There, from the Malpensa airport, a train and a taxi, and approximately 90 minutes, separate us from the BMW R1100RT rented by us. Around 6 hours separate us from Shmiel, Louisa, Sapir and Elena, our partners in this trip, who began one week before us and already had the time to visit the whole Italian and French Rivieras.

We go backwards in time to May 2012, when I learnt that I I had a trade fair in Brazil on these dates, and wouldn't be able to join the BurgmanClub Israel  European tour 2012, since the trade show fell in the same dates of the first week of the tour. Then, Jaki, the president of the Burgman club, proposed me that I would join them for the second week with a rental bike, for doing the Montblanc. I was happy to agree to do it, rented the bike, got the tickets for me and my wife, vacations from work, and after two weeks, we were ready to go. Then, one week after that, the whole tour fell apart because of the small number of participants. Therefore, a situation was created in which Lily and me were travelling by ourselves. Happily, Sapir and Shmiel, good friends from the Burgman Club, decided to come along, and to do the whole plan of 14 days.

And this is the way it happened. Right now, as we arrive to Italy and get the bike, they are at their 8th day of the tour, and Lily and me have to arrive tonight from Milan to Grenoble in France and meet them at the hotel. So we did, and at 5:45PM we were in our way to Grenoble.

Lily demonstrating her (photographic) skills with the R1100RT. Click on any picture in this article to see it in full size.

We went out in Milan's heavy traffic, not before hitting our first problem. The GPS stand that I brought to install in the bike did not fit it, so I couldn't have the GPS in front of me all the time. I had to have it in my pocket and stop to consult it every now and then. Doing that in the middle of Milan's traffic was not an easy task. So at the end, a nice Italian guy with a Burgman 400 helped me get out of that Milanese web and get going on the highway to Torino. The time was already 6PM, and we were getting very late.

Arriving to Torino, I decided that the easiest way to find my way to Grenoble was to ask the lady at the toll how to continue to there. The answer was "continue with the signs to Piacenza". So did I. Approximately after 30 Km, in the next toll plaza, I asked again. "Oh my God, what are you doing here?", said the girl there, and continued: "you need the road to Frejus, not to Piacenza!". I checked the GPS and it confirmed I had to turn back and travel the 30 Km back almost to the previous toll area and take the road to Frejus.

At this point, the traffic was already running better, but Lily was already calling this day an "attempted murder". And we had no idea of what was still to come. Some 20 minutes later, we reached a tropical rain which looked like a wall of water. Every drop was almost the size of a golf ball. We decided to stop in the first restaurant, have dinner, and continue with our rain suits on. Until we left the restaurant it was already 8PM and we were no place near Grenoble or even France.

We used the local Wifi network in the restaurant to talk to Shmiel and Sapir via ZELLO and tell them we were running late and bound to arrive after midnight.

Well, I think I don't need to tell, when the rain saw our rain suits, it got upset and ceased. From that moment on, we were able to travel as fast as the law permits (on that road we are talking about 130Km/h) in order to get to Grenoble ASAP. But despite the fact that these toll roads permit you to travel fast, they force you to stop every few kilometers in order to pay tolls. Worse than that, every time with a different procedure. Once you pay a fix price to a man, once to a machine that only receive coins, once to a machine that only receives credit cards, once you only have to collect a ticket, once you need to deposit a ticket for the man there to calculate the variable price to pay.... in summary, you never know what will be the next method, so you can't get ready for it. Completely crazy.

(Here I need to tell that I decided that this day we were travelling through toll roads, since travelling through them, the distance was the same, but the time was half, according to all sources).

After a zillion toll plazas, when we were already totally tired and confused, came the last one. This one was, for the first time, a machine to insert the ticket and pay the value with a credit card. We insert the ticket, and nothing happens... no value, no blinking light... after some seconds, I notice that we had inserted the ticket in the place of the credit card, and it was gone! After some good laughing, I managed to identify a button to press, and this button brought someone in the other side of the line, speaking French. "We inserted the ticket at the wrong place", I shouted, and OPA!, the ticket jumped out of the machine. Well, we got it right this time, paid with the credit card, and continued our way.

After 6hr40min, 450Km, and 75 Euros in tolls, we finally managed to arrive to our hotel in Grenoble at 00:20. Shmiel, Louisa, Sapir and Elena were waiting for us at the hotel entrance. That was a real happy moment, specially for Lily, for whom it was the sign that the torture was over. We went to our rooms to sleep.

End of day 1.

Day 2 - Chamonix and the Montblanc

We began the second day with a visit at the Grenoble Bastille, a castle in the top of a mountain from where we are able to see all Grenoble.

The smiling group at Grenoble's Bastille.

View of Grenoble from the Bastille.

From the mountain we took our way to our next destination, Chamonix. This is a beautiful country way through Albertville, Chambery and Saint-Gervais-les-Bains, very near Annecy. In our way, beautiful mountains, houses, and pictorial villages, like Saint Gervais itself.

On the way to Chamonix

Stilish houses and villages seen on the way.

During a great part of the road, we travel in parallel to rivers which give us a hint of how much water (so scarce in our country) can be found here.

 

As expected, suddenly the Montblanc appears in all its glory.

The Montblanc !!!

The experience of seeing from far this white giant is already a thrilling experience. This mountain has something that catches you from the first moment. In the back seat, Lily doesn't stop taking pictures, she prepared a full photographic book for the mountain.

Near 4PM, we arrived to Saint-Gervais-les-Bains, and decided to stop there for a cup of coffee. The town was having a kind of a festival, with booth selling arts and typical products of the area, and with a very beautiful procession by people dressed typically for the area. Everything by the sound of the typically Swiss yoddle.

Near 5:15PM we were arriving at Servoz, to our hotel. Due to the early time, we were talking about putting our things there and continuing to Geneva, but then we hit a sign at the hotel door saying that the reception is closed until 6PM. This crashed our plans. 

At the end, we spent a very nice, unforgettable evening at Chamonix.

 The hotel in SERVOZ

The hotel in SERVOZ was at a distance of a 10 minute ride to Chamonix.

Chamonix is a magical city. To tell the truth, it is a pity that we had planned only one night there. There was a lot more we could do in the area, from cable cars to the mountains, through tracking paths, and until Segway tours.

 

Chamonix

After walking around through Chamonix for nearly two hours, we had dinner and went back to the hotel in Servoz to sleep and get ready for the next day.

End of day 2.

Day 3 - From Chamonix to Sauze D'Oulx (near Susa)

We began the third day with a country breakfast at the hotel, and with... rain. So we decided to go out with our rain suits on us. We left near 9:30AM to the Montblanc Tunnel. We knew we had some 240Km to ride until our hotel in Sauze D'Oulx, with some beautiful Mountain Passes, and some beautiful villages like Courmayeur, Séez, Tignes, Val D'Isere and Susa. But there were two things we did not know: first, we didn't know that these villages will be the least impressive places we would see that day, and that the whole day would be stunning. Second, we did not know that those 240Km would seem to last forever !!!

This was a really difficult day. We left Servoz at 9:30AM, and arrived to Sauze D'Oulx nearly at 8PM. With the riding difficulty comes the beauty of the day, and I can say that this has been one of the most beautiful riding days that I have had in my whole life, in all that refers to places, views, mountains and mountain roads, and riding. You go up a mountain, and then down, and when you think you are almost finishing then you begin going up again. There you get the real understanding of what is a "mountain chain" like the Rhone Alps. Together with the panorama, the weather also changes. There are moments you are riding with snow at your side, and moments you are under the crazy temperature of 35 degrees Celsius. Being on a motorcycle in such an environment is being part of the whole thing: you breathe the air, you feel the wind, you feel the smells, you feel the temperature, and you see and hear all around.

Some pictures of the riding and the breaks that we did during this day:

Shmiel and Louisa, strong on the road.

Me and my blue horse just after the Montblanc Tunnel and up of Courmayeur.

Stop for some coffee at La Thuile.

Waterfalls of all sizes covered the mountains around us.

Winding roads which lead us into pictorial villages.

Sapir and Elena getting ready for riding after one of our (many) stops.

Roads are narrow, winding, with no railing, right on the face of the deep

A group of Harley riders that parked near us at Relais du Petit St. Bernard.

This last picture shows a place I need to talk about. Its name is Relais du Petit St. Bernard at La Rosiere, and we stopped there for lunch and some rest. The place is a hotel, restaurant and snack bar. People at this place grow dogs of a special race, the Petit St. Bernard, which in contrast with the regular St. Bernard, are really small. They are trying to save the race from extinction. 

One of the dogs, specially cute and tiny, came to say hello, and if possible also get some food and caresses.

The other dogs were somehow bigger, though not the size of a full St. Bernard... and the truth is that I don't know if this is a baby or if the race is just like this. What I can say is that if it depended of the girls, we would have an additional traveller from this point on.

In the continuation, more slopes up and down, and then we get to a special place which is like a motorcyclist sanctuary.

The place is called Col De L'Iseran and it is approximately half-way between Val D'Isere and Bonneval-sur-Arc.

Riders from all Europe get to this place. They park, take pictures, buy some souvenirs, eat, drink, and continue their way. Once this was the highest peak on a road through Europe, but I have heard that today there are higher ones.

We did like they do, and after some 15 minutes, continued on our way. After a no-ending journey, we finally found ourselves in front of our hotel in Sauze D'Oulx.

We ate dinner at the very special Hotel Assieta, and after a walk through the village, went to sleep. I must admit that even the very special format of the bed, with the logs just over our heads, was not enough to prevent me from sleeping.

End of day 3.

Day 4 - From Susa to Stresa

The fourth day was the day in which we left the Rhone Alps and moved to the Italian lakes, in the north of Italy.

The day began with some lost time in Torino, trying to find the Fiat Automobile History Museum, but this was closed and at the end we did not visit it. From there, we took the way to Stresa, a road that surrounds the southern part of the Lago Maggiore, the largest of the Italian lakes. Lago Maggiore, or "the big lake", is part of a group of 7 lakes in Italy, and part of it is part of the Italian territory, while the northern part is part of Switzerland.

First view of Lago Maggiore from the road.

Stresa is one of the most beautiful villages around the lake, a typical holiday-town. People come from all Italy, Europe and the US to visit its mountains, its small streets, its hotels and specially its lake. The lake includes three islands at the distance of nearly 10-minutes by boats from the mainland. The city provides all kinds of entertainment, and is a place where surely one can spend a week or two.

Lily and Louisa at the Sresa Promenade.

Here we are sailing to Isola Bella, or in English, "The Beautiful Island". I have no idea in which it is more beautiful than the others, but since we had time for one island, and this was the name, we chose this one.

During the evening, the six of us walked through the beautiful streets of Stresa, had a nice dinner in one of its restaurants, and then walked back to the hotel and went to sleep. 

End of Day 4.

Day 5 - Lago Maggiore: From Stresa to Como

We began this day going up to Mottarone, a hill by Stresa from which in good weather one can see all the seven lakes. Unfortunately, visibility was bad and we could not see almost anything.

Our plan for this day was to surround Lago Maggiore at its Northern part, entering Switzerland and leaving it back to Italy at the other side of the lake. We did not know if it is complicated to enter Switzerland with the rental bikes, so we took in consideration the possibility that we might need to make a U-turn and come back. Fortunately this did not happen and we could successfully do our planned path.

During our ride on this day, we went through beautiful lake towns like Verbania, Locarno, Gordola, Gerra Gambarogno, Luino, Varese and Como. And surely, a lot of smaller villages and houses on the way, that made this a beautiful riding day.

View of Verbania.

One of our pit-stops, this time for getting rid of the rain suits.

A panoramic view of Ni&Co Beach, where we stopped for lunch.

Border pass back to Italy.

Despite the fact that we set the reservations for our hotels one month in advance, there was not a single hotel at the 3-4 star level in Como that had three rooms available at this period. So we split: Sapir and Shmiel stayed uphill in Brunate, while I stayed with Lily in Como.

That night, the rain kept us apart, so while they ate dinner at their hotel, Lily and me went to visit and eat at old Como. There we met an old friend of mine, Fabrizio Crippa, a colleague from the times I worked at Magic Software. I hadn't seen Fabrizio in 8 years, so it was very nice to see him again.

End of day 5.

Day 6 - Lago Como and the return to Milan

Plan for this day: ride from Como to Belaggio around the inner part of the left leg of Lake Como, then cross the lake with the bikes by ferry-boat to Varena, from there go down the outer part of the right leg of the lake to Lecco, and finish our way back in Milan, where in the next day we are supposed to return the bikes.

The way to Belaggio was one of the most beautiful days of this tour, and I hope the pictures below will give you the right impression of what this day was.

Views from the way to BELAGGIO.

BELAGGIO

A panoramic view of the lake from the ferry-boat

Leaving the ferry.

LECCO

The Duomo at Milan

After a visit to a shopping center near the hotel, we went to visit the Duomo and the La Scala.

We had our dinner at the area of the Duomo, what we can call our worst and most expensive dinner in this whole trip.

End of day 6.

Day 7 - Return of the bikes, some shopping and back to the airport

We separated from Sapir and Shmiel on this day. We had rented the bikes from different companies, so each of us had to go to a different place to return it. Additionally, our flights were at different times (though arrived in Israel almost together).

So I left the hotel with Lily in the morning for some shopping at Corso Buenos Aires in Milan, and in the afternoon went to return the bike. From there to Malpensa Airport, and back to Israel, via Frankfurt. We arrived at 3:20 at night, and met the other two couples there at the Tel Aviv airport. from there each couple went home.

At the time we returned the bike Lily found the bike she wants me to rent for the next tour:

I don't know, but it seems to me that the next tour will be much more expensive !!!

We also managed to see from the sky the places at which we rode:

The Italian lakes.....

... The snowy peaks of the Alps merging with the clouds...

And to conclude:

I have won the right to have 6 dream-days with my wife, with two wonderful couples of friends, to ride beautiful roads, see marvelous sceneries, and know places which I don't believe I would be in rather than in this kind of trip.

Meaning I won from every possible angle or perspective.

I want to thank Shmiel and Sapir, Louisa and Elena, for the company, the friendship and the partnership on this path. You are great friends, we love you and love riding with you.

Regarding the trip itself: I would make a small number of modifications if I needed to do it again or to suggest it to someone.

1. Don't take such a first day as I took. I did it since I had no other option, had to meet the other guys in Grenoble before riding to the Chamonix. I would suggest sleeping the first night in a place such as Modane, France, instead of Grenoble, and from there continuing to Chamonix.

2. It would be a good idea to stay a second night in Chamonix and enjoy the place better.

3. At day 5, for those who like Alpine roads, I suggest a different itinerary: from Gordola, leave the Lago Maggiore in the direction of Lugano, and then go around lake Lugano to Porlezza and from there via the mountains to Menaggio. From Menaggio, go down Lake Como to Como. The distance is approximately the same comparing to the itinerary that we have done.

You can see all the pictures (nearly 350) in this link.