Roadbook Story: France, Switzerland and Italy.
It’s been a while since we completed the trip, but the excitement is still there – I still feel the buzz of every moment. Before the trip, six months were spent planning the journey, scouring web pages to compare hotels, services and prices, and studying routes. We couldn’t wait to get on the two Road King Classics and the Softail Springer and let the fun begin.
I bought my Road King in 2005, my first motorcycle, my first Harley-Davidson®. Ever since, after a few trips covering around 15,000km, I had been dreaming of a long journey like those I read about in Hog Tales®.
There were three of us: me, my friend Juan Carlos Gorría, whom I had met on my first day on the road with my Spiderman customised Road King, and JJ Maya, with his magnificent Springer with its peculiar cowboy seat. Pablo Neruda said that we should never stop being children, and, like children, we live with hope, and the three of us could not sleep with excitement in anticipation of the journey ahead.
With a turn of the key my Road King roared into life with the most heavenly harmony – the adventure had begun. I set off the afternoon before on a 500km solo leg from Aragon to meet the others in Carcassonne, France.
I spent the night in Jaca, in the Spanish Pyrenees, and awoke to a wonderful spring morning. I left Jaca at 8am to cross the Pyreneesthrough the 8km Somport tunnel, under the ‘summus portus’, which for more than a thousand years pilgrims had crossed on their way to Santiago de Compostela. I had 400km ahead of me to Carcassonne, while Juan Carlos and JJ Maya faced a 600km journey from Estella, in Navarra, to the meeting point.
The journey to Carcassonne is like a journey through the Middle Ages, and brings to mind the religious wars against the Cathars – the pure people. It is as if each stone is telling the tale of centuries of history to the passing traveller, especially at night when the city streets, full of tourists by day, are deserted and enchanted in the moonlight.
JJ and Juan Carlos arrived five hours after me, their jackets spattered with insects and obviously tired after covering 700km in just over six hours. We had a relaxing evening of fine food and drink followed by an early night. In front of us lay 5,000km and 12 days to enjoy marvellous landscapes from the saddles of our Harleys®, crossing the Pyrenees, travelling through the French countryside, driving through the high peaks of Switzerland and Italy, feasting our eyes on the Tuscany countryside and enjoying the coastlines of the islands of Sardinia and Corsica.
The first day of our adventure would see us face the longest leg of the trip that would take us across the easternmost part of France, around Lake Geneva and up into the heart of the Swiss Alps. A leg of about 1,000km, which turned out to be even longer than we had initially expected… We left Carcasonne at 9am, taking our leave to the roar of the twin-cams. The plan was to make up time on the first 800km stretch of motorway to Geneva. The three Harleys cruised through the Mediterranean countryside around Narbonne, the vineyards of Avignon (the town of the Popes), Valance and Chambery, only stopping to refuel, eat, or rest for a while. At 5pm we reached the Swiss town of Geneva and its lake of the same name, which we skirted on its right-hand shore, enjoying the wonderful countryside just as the sun was beginning to set. Now we were more relaxed, having reached the Chateau de Chillon – a beautiful medieval castle very close to Montreux – which seemed to grow out of the shore of Lake Geneva. There was almost 200km to go to Grindelwald.
It was 8pm when we left for Grindelwald. We had toyed with two possibilities: first, to cross using the mountain route that links Aigle and Interlaken via the famous Gstaad, and secondly, to go along the motorway via Freiburg. The time was not really right to take the mountain route with its passes higher than 2,000m, so we left, intending to travel via the motorway. By mistake we missed the turning and unintentionally ended up on a tortuous road full of 180° bends and slopes of more than 10 per cent, which seemed to point straight up at the sky.
Night was drawing in and to crown it all, dark clouds appeared depositing the first drops of rain. Even here the magic of the landscape was surprising. Suddenly, in the middle of June, and in the space of barely 15 minutes, the spring countryside had given way within a few kilometres to a landscape with pockets of snow, cattle and typical mountain chalets. The night was well advanced and we were completely disorientated, even though our navigation systems told us the direction to our final destination – 150km away. It was now around midnight and had been threatening to rain for half an hour.
Near Gruyères, we stopped to study our position and to re-plan the route. Juan Carlos took the lead. Yet more narrow roads, with the road signs telling us that we were starting to climb up to the Jaunpass, the first pass at 1,500m and gradients of 11 per cent – what a nightmare! I remembered seeing this pass on the maps and in the books when planning the route, but we never thought we’d be going over it on the first night.
I had the feeling that we had missed the road up to Gstaad, but neither had we come across the motorway to Freiburg. Imminently and unintentionally, at around midnight, and in pitch darkness, we were about to cross the first of the great passes. This was not part of the plan! It still had its element of excitement and adventure, for me more than for the more skilled riders who took the impossible bends with much greater ease, even after we had all spent more than 13 hours in the saddles of our Harleys (how glad I was that I had changed the seat of my Road King Classic for this trip).
The climb was not all that complicated, although I stayed a little behind the others, who were setting a faster pace. Juan Carlos insisted that I take the lead position, but I preferred to stay more relaxed at the rear rather than to have the additional pressure of setting the pace in these mountainous conditions.
The descent promised to be impressive, and the kind of never-ending bends that I was not expecting to come across until we got to Stelvio were right here, three days early. At midnight, and after many hours in the saddle, it was quite a challenge, but one that I proposed to enjoy slowly, even as the rear lights of my companions drew away and almost disappeared beneath me. I could see the disbelieving eyes of the cattle on the other side of the fence, they must have been wondering what on earth these three Harleys were doing at this hour of the night at almost 1,500m… I was thinking the same thing. The GPS told us there was only 120km to go.
The important thing was to remain calm and enjoy the experience. I made my solo descent from the pass and arrived at Interlakenalone and then climbed into the heart of the mountains again. Now only 30km lay between me and Grindelwald. Still in complete darkness, I passed alone through the town, slowly and in a high gear to keep the noise down, and despite the dark it seemed very pretty. I reached the hotel as my companions, who had arrived 15 minutes ahead of me, were taking the panniers off their bikes.
After more than 1,000km of motorway, passes and rain, the bikes were now in the garage for the next two days for a well- earned rest, which we would use not only to soak up the atmosphere of the Swiss mountains, but also for our own well- earned break to recuperate and enjoy a good rest at the foot of the fascinating Eiger.
The day dawned bright and sunny, showing off the Grindelwald valley in all its splendour: the still abundant snowfields and the typical alpine chalets dotted among the green meadows. I took a morning walk through the streets of Grindelwald to the station, before taking a train and cable car to the Piz Gloria (known as the Schilthorn).
The following day we made another excursion, this time in a delightful cogwheel train, to the Jungfraujoch, one of the highest peaks in Europe at 3,454m. The view was really spectacular.
We had allowed two days to visit this part of Switzerland and to recover our strength for the onward journey. Early in the morning on the third day we started the 750km trip through the mountain passes. We took the Sustenpass route (2,224m), a climb of more than 50km through the most beautiful countryside that we had seen so far. As we ascended, there was an increasing abundance of snow on either side of the road, although the road surface itself was clear. After 50km, however, we had to turn back, as the pass was closed due to snow. Not only did we have to cover the 100km there and back, but we also had to drive almost 200km around the motorway via Lucerne. None of us, however, regretted this ‘excursion’ as the countryside was really beautiful and well worth the detour.
No less beautiful was the route we chose that took us through Klosters (1,179m), the Wolfgangpass (1,631m) and the Ofenpass (2,149m). We stopped at the Austrian border very close to Klosters before crossing the Flüelapass (2,383m) where we began to climb towards the Passo dello Stelvio on the frontier between Switzerland and Italy. The bends twisted back on themselves time and time again until we reached the top of the Stelvio (2,757m). I had been so nervous about this when planning the trip and seeing the photographs; although it promised to be very difficult, I also knew it would be great fun. We completed our descent and then embarked on the climb up to the Passo de Gavia, which I did gently, enjoying the intricate curves of the ascent to the pass at an altitude of almost 3,000m. The descent was something else altogether.
The precipitous slope and narrow road meant that caution was at the forefront of my mind. I wanted to take it gently and enjoy it, even stopping to photograph the frozen snowfields that, in the middle of June, lay around us. At the bottom we headed straight to Desenzano, on the southern shore of Lake Garda for the night.
The following day, we left Desenzano for Siena, with Juan Carlos as our guide. The journey through Tuscany was tranquil and memorable for the lorries along the whole route and a considerable change in the landscape. The glistening snow and the green springtime of the mountains gave way to the ochre hues of the Tuscan countryside. After a magnificent meal, we approached the Abetone pass, a more gentle pass than the alpine ones, but very interesting due to the nature of the bends. It was already dark as we entered Siena, with just enough time for a shower and a delicious dinner.
The next day we visited Florence, a lovely city with a multitude of elegant monuments. Our last day in Tuscany was a pleasure for the senses. Tuscany lay before us at its very best on the route to the lovely town of San Gimignano. Lunch in Volterr,a and an afternoon walk in Lucca. The very essence of each field, each house, the sunset and the tranquility gave us such pleasure as we eased along the route. A truly delightful day, which ended as we boarded the ferry at 9:30pm to spend the night on the passage to Sardinia.
To see Sardinia at sunrise is to see the Mediterranean at its best. Sun, light, sea, mountains and above all, hospitable people who have been welcoming travellers for thousands of years. We chose as our base the famous VIP quarter of Porto Cervo that, even in June, was an oasis of unexpected tranquility, from where we would spend two days visiting the Esmerelda Coast area and touring the north coast up to Alghero, the Catalonian city of Sardinia. (It should not be forgotten that this island belonged to the Spanish Crown until the 17th century.)
Travelling the magnificent route that skirts the whole of the northern coast of Sardinia allows you to savour the cliffs and unspoiled beaches with fine white or pink sand that contrast with the emerald or turquoise sea at every turn. A paradise, punctuated with lovely villages, with a medieval character that would not have been out of place anywhere in Aragon or Tuscany. An obligatory port of call is Castelsardo, which, until almost 300 years ago, was called Castel Aragonese and was built by the Dorics and then conquered and fortified by the Aragonese. Its historical surroundings encompass multicoloured houses that spring from the approach to the impressive castle.
After lunch in Castelsardo, we continued the journey to Alghero, with a stop in Nuraghe di Palmavera, a first-class megalithic monument of impressive antiquity and state of preservation. No less impressive, however, was the fantastic view of the sunset over the Porto Conte bay from the Capo di Caccia, where the bar owner, who owns an Electra Glide, asked us to sign his visitors book – as he does all the bikers who pass through.
It was already around 8pm as we drove into the town of Alghero. Having parked the Harleys near Porta Terra, one of the main gates in former times that sealed the medieval walls, we made the obligatory visit to the Piazza Civica. The square is no less beautiful than its name. Its main feature is the building that in its time gave shelter to the Emperor Charles V, and is one of the historical landmarks of Alghero. Our magnificent dinner ended too late, bearing in mind we had to cross the island to return to Porto Cervo, almost 200km away, which we managed just after midnight.
The penultimate day of our journey dawned, and in about half an hour we had covered the coast road, which took us to Santa Teresa di Gallura. Taking it easy and enjoying the morning sun, we were exactly on time to catch the pretty ferry to the neighbouring French island of Corsica.
The arrival by sea at Bonifacio in the south of the island is most spectacular, and from the ferry the passenger cannot avoid the feeling that he is a crew member from a bygone age, from a privateer seeking the shelter of one of these coves or inlets. We got off the ferry, ready to cross the island from Bonifacio to Bastia in the north, from where we would catch another ferry at the end of the day, which would take us back to the European mainland.
On the recommendation of some people in Porto Vecchio, we were able to find a magnificent white sand cove at Solenzara, a few kilometres to the north. A good meal in La Dolce Vita, and then a gentle ride north, just short of 150km, for which we had a whole day. We enjoyed every second of it.
After a long tailback to get into the port, we got our bikes onboard an impressive ferry, which was to take us on an overnight crossing of almost nine hours to Toulon.
We arrived at Toulon and began our final day of the tour. Another 900km or so lay between us and home, taking us through the Marseilles area very close to Toulon and through Provence. Almost 10 hours later, we arrived home at the end of the evening and were reunited with our families.
I love my Harley more with every day that passes. Not just the bike itself, but everything involved with it, including the charming people. In a little short of 15 months, I have covered 22,000km.
On this tour through France, Switzerland and Italy, there is no doubt that I enjoyed every single kilometre, I learned a lot and I was able to share wonderful experiences with my travelling companions.
I am very happy to own a Harley- Davidson, and to do what I enjoy doing most with it: eating up the kilometres, the landscapes, getting to know wonderful places and people, all the while enjoying the harmonious roar of my Twin-Cam as I ride.