Riding Italy's Backbone
The pass sign indicates “Vado di Sole.” This means something like “The way to the sun.” I’m standing on a cleared road, and everything to the left and right is covered in five inches of fresh snow from the night. Behind the pass, the view opens onto a high plain that reminds me of Tibet. This is not southern Italy as I expected. Traveling 1,500 miles from Germany at the end of April, you count on a much warmer climate compared to central Europe. My Ducati Hyperstrada is even packed with swimming gear. Pure miscalculation.
Let’s go back. The Italian journey starts in Bologna, a city famous for its architecture and for red motorcycles. Bologna is the hometown of Ducati. After a visit to the factory halls to watch how this piece of high-end technology is assembled, I’m on my own. All of Italy is at my disposal. Bologna is located in the fertile and culturally rich plains of the river Po, but just south of it are the Apennine Mountains. Like a backbone, they stretch from here all the way to the southern end of the country. They will become my way.
First I have to make a decision. On the western side of the range, the famous lands of Tuscany lure with its splendor. On the eastern side, toward the Adriatic Sea, the region of the Marche promises mountains and less traveled routes. I opt for the latter and am rewarded immediately. The cliffs start to rise like monuments out of the green landscape. On one of them an entire country was built: San Marino.
A little farther, a small village, San Leo, sits even more spectacularly on such an outcrop. It is erected like a fortress on top of vertical rock walls. Invaders in the past must have given up in despair just from looking at it. The best thing about San Leo: I can get there by bike. A steep road carved out of the rock leads through a gate. It is narrow enough that tourist busses don’t stand a chance. Today, San Leo can defend invaders successfully, at least the ones of mass tourism from the nearby Adriatic Coast.
The next architectural pearl of this area is Urbino. Federico II da Montefeltro, the head of the family that ruled the area for a long time, wanted to build the perfect Renaissance city. He came very close. Like the immaculate Italian architecture, the town spreads exquisitely over a hill. I just need to follow the sign “Punto Panoramico,” a promise that comes true.
Together with a few dozen students, I sit on the lawn and enjoy the view of walls and towers overlooked by the Palazzo Ducale. But there are not only dead stones here. The city, with 15,000 inhabitants, is stocked by 25,000 students each year. And the scenery seems to inspire. The famous artists Raphael and Bramante, architects of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, came from here. Even a pope was born in Urbino.
The roads connecting the allure of the area are addictive with hardly a straight stretch, and it takes strong discipline not to start racing. It is said that the SS 73 was the playground for Valentino Rossi. Nearby Tavullia is the pilgrimage site for fans of this racer and national hero, and it’s impossible to miss. At the entrance to town, his number, “46,” is painted on the asphalt. A fan shop and posters hanging everywhere give witness to his birthplace.
Rossi must have practiced along the Gola del Furlo many times. This beautiful 2,000-foot-deep gorge carved into the white mountains, with the turquoise river Candigliano in between, inspired the Romans 2,000 years ago when they built the Via Flaminia from Rome to the Adriatic. It is a memorable moment to use the same 140-foot tunnel—through the narrowest point of the gorge—that was carved in 76 A.D.
Between olive trees and vineyard-covered hills, I reach the base of the highest part of the Apennines. From almost zero, they rise to 9,554 feet at Corno Grande. The peak still has a decent snowcap (I don’t know yet that it will grow considerably overnight) while down where I am everything is blossoming. The small towns on top of the hills are especially charming, an invitation to stay overnight. In Loreto Aprutino, I climb a narrow alley up the hill and end at the most gorgeous castle, which has been converted into a hotel. The simple word “room” doesn’t really fit the 12-foot-high chambers overlooking snow-covered peaks.
To be continued...
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