Day 27 – Monday, July 2, 2001 –
Up after a nice rest, gear on the bike, change some money and head to the post office
to pay for my sins. Could just blow it off, I realize, but what the hell? The problem
quickly becomes getting into the roundabout of this city. One-way streets, of course,
and once out of the rather nice Centro, the place is a maze. The guy at the desk has
given me explicit, if somewhat confusing because of the language, directions, but I’ll be
damned if I can find the post office. Finally, after going around two or three times I find
a police station. Maybe I can pay it there? Nope. Nice woman at the station, but no
dice. Post office is the place. But where the hell is it? More directions. More circling.
Finally I park and walk up and down the block it’s supposed to be in and find a lane that
runs off into a kind of alley – voila!
Now stand in line. Forever. “Why am I doing this?” I ask myself. Don’t know, but must
be some reason. People-watching is fun, though, so maybe that’s it. At last I make the
window. The fine is about $5.00 plus a $2.50 penalty for not having the right change
for the asshole at the tollbooth – about 15,000 lira in all.
So, my Italian criminal record expunged, I get out of town and head for a place on the
map called Spilimbargo that looks to me to be in the direction I want to go, still in the
hills but off the main roads. As everywhere else, I find, when you ask directions for
someplace they assume you want to get there fast and suggest the AutoBahn or
Motorway (here the AutoStrada), so I’ve searched out a route that avoids them.
Next adventure is getting gas. Find a station with little trouble, but figuring out which is
lead-free gas (leaded gas would mess up the engine) and then deciding which is hightest
or premium lead-free gas that’s the problem. It’s Blie-frie in Germany, Sans
Polombo in France. The guy at this station is no help, has no English, no time and no
interest, so I figure to hell with it and take off. I’ll find another station and gas up.
Road signs here aren’t easy to figure out. Sometimes they tell the distance to the next
main town or city, sometimes only to the next one, large or small. No Spilimbargo listed,
so I’m soon wondering if I’m on the wrong road. Next, the warning light goes on, telling
me I have only a gallon of gas left, so I’d better find that other station. In the next small
town a little old man and his wife run a tiny station and we figure out that the gas I want
is Sensa Polombo (guess I could have figured that, but didn’t want to take a chance).
Problem is, he won’t take a credit card and I only have a little Italian change, so he pours
me a few litres of gas for the cash I have and points me toward the road to Spilimbargo.
Soon I’m racing down wonderful one-lane roads through cornfields and the occasional
small town. It’s sunny but not too warm and a beautiful day for a bike ride.
A slightly larger town has a gas station (Shell) that takes my credit card, so I fill up (I
seem to spend a lot of time in gas stations, but keeping gas availability in mind is a top
priority) and head out again. The lousy map I’m using doesn’t list many of these local
towns and likes to show only the primary roads, so I’m navigating largely by instinct, but
having a great time threading my way through the beautiful hills and valleys.
Soon I’m on a very small road that’s heading up a very tall mountain. Interesting. Now
I’m into switchbacks and doing some serious climbing. Up and up and up, on a smaller
and smaller and smaller road. It’s quite clear by now that I’m not on the regular road any
more but I’m fascinated to find out where this one is taking me. The few signs that
show up now indicate Mount Prat, and I continue to climb.
As the road narrows to the point of ridiculous I begin to wonder if I’m headed for a dead
end. That would indeed be a drag, but this climb keeps pulling me along. Adventure!
God, it’s a one-lane road now and the switch-backs are even more severe. Higher I go
and now it’s unpaved and somewhat overgrown. Where the hell am I going? There is
periodic evidence that the road is used by someone, so I press on and soon break out
into a beautiful high mountain meadow. Thoughts flash – what if this is private property
and I’m going to get shot at? What if someone sics a pack of dogs on me? What if I
Now I’m into a beautiful dell - tree-covered, lush - and ahead of me is, yes, a cross-road!
People actually come here and then go somewhere else. Choices. The signs mean
nothing to me but clearly the roads lead somewhere. I go left (a personal bias) and
suddenly it’s down, down, down through this overgrown area. It’s rather dark and
there’s an eerie quality to it with leaning trees, little streams, ferns, beams of light
slanting through the foliage to the point that I half expect fairies to dash out from
behind a rock.
There’s a magical quality to this place that I can’t deny, so I stop, shut off the bike and
walk around for a while. It’s incredibly quiet except for the buzzing of insects and the
occasional flutter of a bird’s wing. Wonderful!
Enough. Mount up and head down, and down, and down until finally I come out on a
two-lane road. Another choice. This time I turn right and soon come to a small village
where a cabbie is waiting, apparently to take someone somewhere. I ask him where we
are and he gets out and shows me his map. Again no language, but he clearly
understands my questioning expression and points to where we are and where he thinks I
want to go.
Better roads now, through gorgeous, deep mountain passes. Occasional small towns
brighten the countryside. Cars are rare. I’m racing along, having the time of my life
without a clue as to where I am. Up again, then down, down, down until I spy a
motorway (Autostrada) ahead. Once on the road I spot a gas station, but they’re closed
for a siesta, apparently. Woman is inside, but won’t open the door. As I’m looking
around a biker pulls in and, to my query, offers his map.
Unbelievable! What instinct! I’ve gone in a giant circle and am almost back in Udine! I
can’t stop laughing. But God, what a great ride it’s been. After catching my breath I try
to figure a new route. The biker wants me to take the Autostrada, but I spot an
alternative and, after briefly considering riding up to the tollbooth and giving the troll
there the finger, I shake it off and head out again.
This road is again gorgeous and the ride is thrilling. Fabulous, giant sheer stone faces on
these mountains, high rocky peaks, wonderful, picturesque villages, deep valleys. It
couldn’t be a better ride if I designed it myself.
Another fork in the road, so I check my map. Now it’s getting late, so I opt to finally
head for the Autostrada. Shortly I’m into a suburban area and it’s awful. The traffic is
miserable, the buildings are worn, dirty and unattractive. I’m sorry I made this choice.
Finally it clears up and I find the Autostrada and go like hell to make up some time. I
figure I’ll head for Bergamo at the foot of the Dolomites. It appears to be a good sized
city, so I assume they’ll have a BMW dealer there. The bike is now at 5800 miles and
needs a service at 6,000, so that’ll be perfect. (God, 5800! That means I’ve covered
about 5,000 miles so far on this trip!). I’m doing OK on the Autostrada, but fighting for my life with the huge trucks and the
speeders racing by. No one wants to go slow here. All of a sudden there’s a huge traffic
jam ahead, with traffic folding into two lanes because of road work. I’m able to squeeze
through and do fine, then it opens up again and the race is on. A few miles more and
there’s another jam of the same type. I’m uncomfortable with the big rigs right on my
butt, so want to keep some distance between us. The roadwork ends and traffic races
away – and suddenly my bike quits!
Panic time! Trucks all around me and there’s no power, no nothing! I’m trying to find a
way to coast to the side of the road without getting whacked, while at the same time
twisting the throttle to see if I can get it back and just as suddenly as it was gone the
power is back, causing the bike to leap forward like a bucking bronco. This is truly scary
– and dangerous as hell!
Shaken and suddenly covered with sweat, I continue to the far right lane of the
Autostrada and try moving along slowly, letting the trucks race by, then increasing the
RPMs gradually. Now the bike seems to run fine. All I can figure is that there was
something in the gas line, some blockage, something that choked the fuel off. God, that
was scary. And then it happens again! It suddenly quits, just as though I’ve run out of
gas, but I know I have plenty of gas. I grab the clutch and as the bike coasts to a stop I
pull over to the emergency parking lane, twisting the throttle as I go, hoping that
whatever is wrong will pass through the line and clear up as it did before.
And it does. Now it’s firing again and all seems fine. This is crazy. I can’t get back out
into traffic with the knowledge that at any moment it can quit again, but I’m out in the
middle of the country without even a settlement in sight, so it won’t do any good to just
stop. I try to creep along in the emergency lane, hoping that there may be some
equilibrium I can find between the engine mysteriously quitting and then just as
mysteriously starting again.
Gradually increasing the speed seems to work for a while, then it’s as if the same magic
force cuts the power and nothing is happening. Then it’s back. Go and stall, twist the
throttle and surge forward, it repeats until I pull off and, against my better judgment,
fearing it’ll never start again, shut the bike down.
What the hell do I do now? Sit for a minute and gather my thoughts… get myself
breathing again, check the gas to make sure I’m right. I am. OK, turn the key.
Everything lights up, so there is power. Push the starter, twist the throttle and there’s
that lovely sound, the engine working perfectly. OK, start up slowly and everything is
fine, give it more gas to gain a bit of speed and suddenly everything’s dead again; Shit!
Before it can come to a stop I twist the throttle and the engine catches again, jerking
me forward. Jesus!
Trying to find the balance so I can keep going, I consider the situation. Milan is an hour
ahead of me. I’ll never get there like this. Bergamo is only a bit closer. I passed the
turnoff to Verona a while ago, should I try to make my way back there? Can’t keep on
like this or I’ll get killed. What to do?
Sweating big time, it now appears that if I keep it below 3000 RPM it’ll run for a while
without stalling, so I try that. It’s hard to do it and at the same time stay out of the way
of the onrushing traffic.
Christ, more roadwork ahead and the traffic is squeezing over again, so I can’t stay in
the emergency lane. Soon we’re moving along together, trucks right behind me and I’m
terrified this thing will stall. Thankfully it doesn’t, so I make it past the work and pull
back into the emergency lane on the right and limp along. Bergamo is an hour and a half
to two hours ahead at this rate, but it’s a bigger city and more likely to have a serious
bike shop, so if this thing keeps running it’s probably worth a try. That in mind, I pass by
the exit for Brescia.
And, of course, now the gas warning light comes on. Shit, shit, shit! Can’t turn around,
so press on. And soon, thank God, there’s another exit for Brescia, so off we go.
Through the toll gate without a problem and follow the signs toward “Centro.” Maybe if
I can find a hotel they can help me locate a bike shop. Failing that, maybe I can rent a
truck and haul the bike to Milan.
A mechanic sign pulls me off the road into a little alleyway, but it’s closed (it’s now 7 or
8PM). A gas station is just up the street, so I pull in there. So far, every time I’ve shut
the bike down it’s started again, so I figure that’s safe enough. But there’s no one at
the station and the automatic pump won’t take my credit card. This is really beginning
to piss me off. Bike starts, stalls with a weird noise, a kind of zippp… and that’s all she
wrote. No juice, no nothin’. It’s dead.
Well, I guess if there’s anything to be grateful for it’s that I’m not out on the road with a
semi behind me right now. But what to do? The only thing I can figure is to stick with
the game plan. But instead of riding into the Centro, I’ll have to leave the bike here and
I can’t carry everything, so decide to cross my fingers and leave the bike and all my gear
right there in the gas station and head toward the center of town. This is a bit of a
rough-looking neighborhood, but the sun is still up and I’m hoping I won’t have to leave
everything here for long.
Walk, walk, walk. Damn, this is farther than I had hoped. Finally, sweating, I make my
way into the old square, but there’s no hotel in sight. I stop a cabbie to ask about one,
but he has no English. Another. No. Shit, there are people all over the place, but I’m
like a fish out of water. Then the second cabbie I had asked comes over to me and
points around the corner, saying “’otel Vittoria, speak English.”
Amazing. Just around the corner is a great old hotel with a huge marble foyer and a nice
man at the desk who speaks perfect English. I explain and he looks up BMW in the phone
book and makes a call. As he’s doing that I call Shelley on my cell phone and she gets a
number for BMW in the states. I call them. Meanwhile the fellow at the desk has
connected and then gives me the phone. An operator on the other end speaks English
just as I’m hooked to the US guy to explain the situation. So now I’m juggling two
phones and trying to respond to both while the Italian operator and the US agent are
telling me in different ways that there is indeed an authorized BMW dealer right here in
Brescia. It’s closed now, of course, but they should be able to deal with the problem in
the morning. I thank the US agent and break that connection while the Italian woman is
asking if I need someone to tow the bike. I do. It’ll cost $70 US. OK, whatever. She’ll
call back. I’ll be here. I think I have to sit down. My head is spinning.
I arrange for a room and shortly the woman calls back. The truck should be here in
between 20 and 30 minutes. I’m not to wander around. “Don’t worry,” I assure her.
“I’m not going anywhere.”
An hour later, it’s dark and I’m worried. The tow guy calls. Thank heaven the nice man
at the desk is still there. The tow guy is running late – surprise. Half an hour later he
shows up with a big truck with a tilting bed and not a word of English.
The desk clerk comes out and interprets. “Where is it?” Well, I figure, having passed
one exit which must have been the east entrance to the city, I must have gotten off on
the west exit. If we can find that I should be able to retrace my steps.
No problemo. I get in and we take off – and drive and drive. Pretty soon I’m sure we’re
not going where I think we should be going, so I try telling him “too far.” We struggle to
communicate. By the time we get to the west exit from the AutoStrada I’m sure this is
not where I got off. I’m shaking my head and he’s asking me more questions. Finally I
work out that there are not two exits for Brescia, but three, so I assume I must have
gotten off at the middle one and tell him so. We head back east, but he has somehow
gotten the idea that I meant the East exit, so we end up there. “No, no,” I tell him, the
“otro.” Back to the “Centro” exit, but nothing here looks familiar either.
I’m going nuts, it’s dark, and I can’t figure out where the hell I am or where the hell the
bike is. I tell him I only walked a few kilometers from the bike to the hotel, so it must be
the Centro exit, so we keep looking. As I recall, it was the first street – “primero strada”
– after I got off the AutoStrada that I turned right toward el Centro. Nothing. We drive
up and down, look and look. It’s now been an hour and a half or more since we left the
hotel and I’m sure the bike will be gone, all my stuff with it. I’m literally sweating bullets.
Next thing I know, we’re back at the hotel. The driver is pissed and I’m the same. He’s
about ready to give up, but I draw a map and try to explain to him the way I got to
where we are now, hoping we can try once more to retrace my steps. He gets it,
agrees, but as we work our way along, some of the streets are one way and others are
too small to accept the truck. More pissed, we stumble along. One minute it’s, “Yes, I
think this street looks familiar,” then it’s “No, I don’t see anything I recognize.”
Finally we’re heading down a street and it’s dark and I can’t figure out where the hell I
am when all of a sudden I see something that looks familiar. “Maybe…” I say to him…
and there it is! The gas station is dark, but there sits the bike, everything intact. God
bless all the people in this neighborhood for their honesty, which I never doubted for a
minute, I swear!
Now that we’ve found it, the driver is fine. He’s happy, I’m happy. I help him load the
bike onto the truck (it has a tilting bed and a cable on a pulley), we secure everything
and we’re loaded up inside of twenty minutes.
Once back inside I ask if we can take it to Auto Sports (the name of the BMW dealer I
was given) and he tells me it’s too late, they’re closed. He’ll drop me at the hotel and
bring the bike to Auto Sports in the morning. When? By 10:00 A.M. This doesn’t feel
too good, but by that time I’m too tired to argue. And besides, what’s the point? We’re
pals now. After all this he’s not going to try to screw me. And if the place is closed, as
I’m sure it is at this hour, I’d just be leaving it out somewhere else. So, OK.
Back at the hotel we work out what I owe him. Comes to 334,000 Lire, which is about
$155. More than we had originally bargained for, of course, but I’m not complaining. I
do have to get the clerk (a new guy) to give me some Lire and put it on my room
account, which is a bit of a hassle. He doesn’t know me and isn’t anxious to give out
cash, but the driver won’t take my credit card and needs to be paid, so he talks to the
guy and they work it out.
I leave an 8 A.M. wake-up call and go up to my room. It’s a nice hotel, by the way. Very
After all that I figure to have a good sleep. Wrong. Fitful. Worrying about the bike.
What’s wrong? Can they fix it? The woman on the phone earlier mentioned that the
warranty I have may not be honored in Europe. Shit. What if they can’t get the parts?
God, what a day! Finally, sleep.
Day 28 - Tuesday, July 3, 2001 –
The phone wakes me at 8. It feels like I barely closed my eyes. Shower. Go downstairs.
The nice fellow is back at the desk, points me to the bank, where I get some cash. Cab
to Auto Sports. It’s a big, classy BMW dealership with great looking cars everywhere and
a couple of motorcycles. I’m early. 10AM comes, no bike. 10:30, 11, 11:30, no bike.
Nobody here speaks English, so we struggle our way along, but nobody knows anything
about a bike that was supposed to be brought here.
And, of course, I had failed to note the name of the towing service, so what to do? I
hate myself. No I don’t. I hate Italy. No I don’t. I call Euro Service, the telephone outfit
that arranged for the tow. They have no record of my call. No record? I hate you. No
I don’t. How can there be no record? I think I’m being gas-lighted here. “Look, lady….
M’scusa, signorina, mi moto…” Jesus! Then another, who speaks some English. “What
is the license number?” “What is what license number?” “The Moto.” “Why?” “In order
to find it in our file.” “You won’t find it in your file under the license number because no
one asked me for the license number before this.” “But we file them by license number.”
“Not this one, you didn’t.” “Then how can I find it?” I do hate you. No I don’t.
Deep breath. “Who does your towing in Brescia?” She says the name of the company.
“Please call them and ask them where my motorcycle is. It was supposed to be delivered here at Auto Sport at 10 AM.” She hangs up, calls back a few minutes later. “Sorry,
they couldn’t deliver it this morning. Maybe this afternoon.”
Another deep breath. “MAYBE this afternoon?? What is his number, please?” After I
hang up, the by now very sympathetic young woman here on the switchboard at Auto
Sports who has had to listen to all of this dials it and connects me. A man answers.
Yes, they have moto. When I ask why it’s not here as promised, he says he’s sorry, but
Rocco (ah, Rocco! It’s Rocco I hate.) shouldn’t have promised it for this morning.
They’re very busy. It’ll be delivered at 2:30 this afternoon. And nobody thought to
inform me? “Sorry.”
Thanking the young woman, I tell her I’ll be back this afternoon and decide to kill
myself… or maybe a walk back to the hotel will do me good. It’s a bit of a hike, but I
watched (having learned from experience) the route the cabbie took and need to blow
off some steam. Might as well see the town while I’m here.
Most everything is shut up for siesta as I walk by, but eventually there is the tunnel
through the old wall or abutment that leads into the Centro. Outside it’s a relatively
modern city; inside it’s cobbled streets and buildings that must be hundreds of years old.
I walk around a bit, check in at the hotel – for what I don’t know – and then walk around
some more. At about 2:15 I take yet another cab back to the BMW dealership. And
wait. At 3:30 the bike shows up atop the truck. Rocco’s boss unloads it and is actually
very nice. He apologizes for the delay again and says he’s very sorry Rocco made a
promise he couldn’t fulfill, but it was very busy this morning and there was nothing he
So, it’s here, he’s being nice… OK, I don’t hate him.
The mechanic takes the bike down to the service area below-ground. I follow and am
told to wait for someone – an English-speaker, evidently. As I wait a nice young guy who
has seen me waiting around keeps smiling and giving me the thumbs-up sign.
Soon a very businesslike guy comes over and asks what’s up. I give him the run-down,
saying at first I thought it was a clogged gas line or something having to do with fuel
delivery, but then, when everything went out I assumed it was a short-circuit of some
kind. They turn the key and the electricity is back. They point to the light showing the
reserve tank is being used and give me a look that says “maybe you’re just out of gas?”
I explain it had only come on a short time before I stopped, so there was still gas. The
guy suggests dirty gas, but I tell him I had ridden many miles before the problem
appeared, so that seems unlikely to me.
He sees a wire hanging down, suggests it might be shorting out, but I explain that it was
set up that way so I could hook the battery to a trickle charger (slow charge to keep the
battery from dying when it’s not ridden over a long period) or to connect to an electric
vest when it gets very cold (but I didn’t bring it for this trip).
He shakes his head, unable to figure it out (which, though troubling, at least makes me
feel a bit less like a complete imbecile), and pulls off the tank to expose the battery. He
then looks down, looks up, takes a wrench, tightens the nut on one of the battery
connections and says, “That’s it.”
“That’s it?” “That’s it.” “What’s it?” “Battery cable loose.”
Oh, my God. The battery cable. The battery cable that I had connected back in England
after pulling the bike out of the shipping crate, had vibrated loose. When it got loose
enough, and the connection between the battery pole and the cable to the engine
separated, the power would simply cut out; but when the forward motion ceased, or I
jiggled the bike around in frustration, sometimes the washer on the nut would flip
forward and the connection would be made again and I’d have power.
Oh, my God! You mean all I had to do was pull off the cowling and check the Goddamned
connection and everything would have been all right?? Oh, my God!!! I am an
imbecile! I am a jackass! I am smaller than a gnat as I stand there looking at these guys
who could so simply solve this problem, a problem that had me trying to figure out if I’d
have to ship the bike somewhere, or sell it, or wait a month while someone fixed it. Oh,
So, the guy smiles. And I smile. And I’m not sure if he’ll know what I mean if I say,
“Oops,” so I smile again and say thanks. He nods, apparently happy. Apparently not
thinking I’m a complete fool. And he starts to put the cowling back on. But I stop him,
saying, “Well, I’m glad that was so simple. What about the 6,000 mile service?” He
looks at the odometer, which reads a bit over 6,000, and says, “Here in Italy it’s
“Uhhh, no,” I sputter. “I… I’m pretty sure I have to have the bike serviced at 6,000.”
But, of course, having proven myself so mechanically adept with the battery fiasco I’m
not sure I’m on solid ground to quarrel with this guy. So we go back and forth for a bit,
and then it occurs to me that we’re talking apples and oranges. I say, “Aha, maybe you
mean you do the service at 10,000 kilometers, yes?” “Yes,” he says. “Of course.” “But
you see,” I point out, “this is an American bike – or I mean I bought it in America – so it’s
reading miles, not kilometers. 6,000 miles is about 10,000 kilometers.”
“Aha. Yes, you are right. OK.” OK, indeed. So they say it’ll take a couple of hours. I
wait. They finish. I pay. It’s done. All friends.
I ride back to the hotel, find a nice restaurant just off the square and have dinner and, of
course, a glass of wine, then hit the sack. God, what a couple of days.
Day 29 - Wednesday, July 4, 2001 –
Up early after a good sleep. I’m still a bit giddy, somewhat embarrassed and feeling
happy and silly about the whole bike fiasco. But I’m OK, it’s OK, I’ve learned a few things
and all is well. There is a place here to do e-mail, so I check in, catch up a bit, then go out and get the
bike and load up. Happy Fourth of July! No one seems to notice. I find a place to buy a
better map of Italy and decide I’m going to head south. Once out of Brescia and across
the cursed AutoStrada I find a small country road and fall in love again. Cornfields,
beautiful fields of sunflowers, wonderful old towns. The bike is running fine, thank God.
It’s overcast, but a woman at the hotel said there was no rain coming. Sure enough,
she’s wrong. There are some drizzles, but nothing to worry about. Head down and pass
through Leno, wondering if Jay’s people are from here, circle around Cremona and
continue on the small country roads for a couple of hours before deciding to try an
AutoStrada to make some time. I find an alternate highway and it’s awful. It’s crowded
and I’m dodging trucks, dealing with stop signs and cross traffic and trying to figure out
how it can be so wonderful at one point and so lousy a short time later.
Finally an AutoStrada and I whip along and around Bologna, where the hills begin again –
nothing like the Dolomites, but nice. I continue south to Firenze, get off the highway
and into town. It’s a zoo. Not only cars, but motorscooters zipping every which way.
They’re like gnats - in, out, around – I’m amazed they’re not splattered all over the walls.
There seem to be no rules for traffic, or if there are they are very few or simply ignored.
I find the Centro, but it’s worse. Go around a bit, but finally decide this isn’t what I’m
looking for so I’ll just continue south to Siena, a city I’ve heard about.
Once out of the city it becomes a lovely ride again. The clouds thicken, but I’m sure it
won’t… and suddenly it does. It’s raining like hell, so I pull off to the side of the road,
get out my rain gear and cover up. Once I get the gear on, of course, the rain stops. Is
this a joke? Ah, well, I leave it on and continue south. And soon I’m glad I did, because
it begins to pour down. Not so bad, though, since I’m covered up. The mountains are
beautiful. I’m into a great stretch with tunnels and wonderful downhill stretches, the
slick surface the only real concern. Gorgeous countryside.
And then Siena. The rain quits and I head in and take a look around, find the road into
the Centro, loop once to get a sense of it, then stop at the Jolly Hotel – how can I not?
They have a room and I can leave my bike right in front, so I check in, take my gear up
to the room and clean up a bit, then head out for a walk.
The old city is gorgeous. Built in a series of circular lanes, or streets, around the Plaza
Del Campo, it feels a bit like a maze. The lanes curve as you walk along with the crowd
in what seems like a canyon; shops lining the street are built into the bottom floors of
what appear to be almost continuous 4 to 5 story buildings with occasional breaks down
which little lanes run further inward toward the Plaza. It breathes history; the cobbled
streets, the age of the buildings, everything exudes a sense of lives lived that is almost
The Plaza in the center is huge, almost an amphitheater, ringed by restaurants, bars and
some shops. It has a very chic, very “in” feel, and emanates a sense that the people
here “belong” and are here to be admired by the tourists. Structurally, everything is
designed to focus the attention on a huge edifice at its apex, but unlike most of the
city-centers I’ve seen, this center-point is not a church; it is an ancient city hall. One gets the sense that centuries ago some very important proclamations were made to the
throngs gathered here.
The entire area is a honeycomb filled with people walking, shopping, gawking, courting.
It’s very seductive, somehow, as though it holds powerful and titillating secrets, and
makes me wish I had the time to explore all the little alleys, shops, bars, restaurants and
haunts. After trying to get into a couple of the restaurants and finding them all booked,
I walk back out of the maze and to the hotel for a nice dinner there. Good food. And to
Day 30 - Thursday, July 5, 2001 -
Good bed, good sleep. Up, load up and head out west toward the coast, quickly finding
some little roads through beautiful countryside of rolling hills. Great ride. Then it
flattens out and becomes more industrial, dirtier.
Suddenly, going through an old town, I pass a sign for Alto Centado and a steep road up
a hill to the right. After a quick “U” I head up an ancient brick road that ends in a walled
city high above the community below (“Centado?”). This place is great. All brick, very
old. Arches in the wall beckon and I ride through the wall into the past.
It’s early, so not much is happening, but this place is a marvel. Literally unchanged, it
would appear, from who knows how long ago – maybe hundreds of years. Still occupied,
laundry is hanging out to dry. Shops are not yet open. The narrow lanes that pass for
streets are bare of automobiles and I’m a bit embarrassed at intruding, so keep the
engine noise down as much as possible. The few people I see seem to indicate no
offense at my presence as I check the place out. It’s clearly a tourist attraction now,
complete with a little funicular/train on the west side to bring up those who don’t want
to chance or can’t manage the steep brick road. After walking through history and
soaking up the atmosphere for a while I saddle up and head back down the brick incline
back into today.
The map shows Pisa ahead, but I figure it’ll be full of tourists. Having been there many
years ago I figure ‘if you’ve seen one leaning tower…’ so cut northwest and come out
onto the coast in the middle of what is apparently the Italian Riviera. Row upon row of
private beach resorts line the road on my left as I head north, the beach just beyond
them bordering the Ligurian Sea. It’s like Newport Beach stretched out for miles and
miles. Young and old, ready for a bit of sun, stream across the road at regular intervals;
cars cruise along, tops down. It could be any beach resort in the U.S. except that the
signs are all in Italian, the architecture is a little off and the men are all in those dinky
Speedo-type swim suits and don’t seem to care if their bellies hang out.
I stay on the coast road as long as possible, then cut into La Spezia, a port town.
Spotting a sign, I ask and am told about a boat trip to something called Cinqueterre (?),
which is supposed to be spectacular, but I can’t find it. Instead, I pick my way onto a
narrow, twisting road that hugs the hillside for a while, then winds up, down, in and out
of houses poised on the precipice looking out on the Golfo di Genova and finally find
what must be Cinqueterre. It’s on the westernmost point that juts out into the sea and
forms the protective rim that creates the calmer water which in turn allows La Spezia to
be a safe harbor. Cinqueterre or not, this spot is a tiny town jammed with cars, kids,
bikes and sun-worshipers. It’s very Balboa Island, with food stands, cafes, souvenir
shops and oily flesh. And it’s hot. So I find a spot – not legal - to leave the bike for a
minute and walk to a store to pick up a bottle of juice and a banana, watch the people
for a bit as I eat and then head back out the winding road.
Once on the main road I again head north and am soon in a series of tunnels passing
through Genoa. Instead of stopping I give a nod to Christopher Columbus and make my
way further north toward Torino, having decided to try the French Alps the next day.
Approaching Turin the weather begins closing in, so a hot meal and a warm bed sound
good. Off the Autostrada and into the city I again follow the signs for “El Centro,”
having found the center of these cities to be the most interesting, historic and
hospitable part. A very long, tree-lined road with heavy traffic and many confusing signs
pointing off in various directions begin to worry me, but a friendly motorist at a stop
sign rolls down his window and responds to my shrug and shouted “El Centro?” with a
nod, a fusillade of Italian ending with the words “El Centro” and a pointed finger
suggesting I’m still on the right track.
And sure enough, just as darkness begins to settle, the road curves into a main street
lined with a colonnaded walkway on my left and what appears to be a huge civic building
– Post Office? Railway station? – on my right. Halfway down is a grand looking hotel so I
pull the bike up on the sidewalk (getting pretty casual about adapting to local custom),
pull off the helmet and make my way into the very ornate lobby.
A room is quickly arranged, I can put the bike in the garage off an alley just to my left
and there is an Indian restaurant within walking distance. Heaven! But it’s late, I’m
warned, and the restaurants will not be open for long.
Unload the gear, stash the bike, a quick clean-up and change and I’m off walking through
the centuries-old streets of Turin (is this where the shroud was found?). The Indian
restaurant, though, is closed, as are most of the places I’m able to locate. Finally I find a
little Italian restaurant still open, but they don’t seem too happy to see me. I ask if
they’re still serving, there is a hurried conversation between an unpleasant woman and
the man behind her, then a kind of reluctant nod and I’m taken to a table.
The meal is fine, but it’s hardly the warm, pleasant, relaxing interlude I had in mind. The
waiter seems in a hurry, everyone is apparently ready to go home and the sense is
they’re all watching my every move, wondering what’s taking me so long to eat, drink
and be merry.
Afterward, feeling a bit put off by having gotten the bum’s rush (which the tip
reflected), I stroll through the darkened streets. Wide avenues, somewhat reminiscent
of Paris, divide sections of the city. Across one I find a newer, more modern commercial
section complete with neon lights and the now traditional stores displaying their wares in
window displays, but I prefer the older section with its cobbled side streets and buildings
that exhale a sense of historic times. To bed.
Day 31 - Friday, July 6, 2001 –
Up early feeling well rested and I check out, load up and make my way toward whatever
happens next. Leaving the city is as confusing as was finding my way in, if not more so.
This city, like many, has grown exponentially, sprouting suburban communities that are
essentially cities themselves. The road signs and identifying information all being in
Italian doesn’t do much for my understanding, but I finally get back on the Autostrada
and make tracks. Quickly, however, the tracks I’m making appear oddly familiar, if in
reverse order, and I pull off at a tollbooth to have my fears confirmed. I’m going the
wrong way. Intrepid explorer.
Turned around and heading west toward the Alps I’m watching the weather close in
again. No rain last night, but it could get wet soon. But those concerns are quickly
gone as I’m overwhelmed with a sense of joyous freedom. God, this is wonderful! I’m
tearing along an Italian highway headed into the Italian Alps and toward the French
version. As the land rises I’m treated to the appearance of beautiful, jagged peaks – the
image of sharks’ teeth again coming to mind – and thread between them through narrow
valleys of beautifully tended farmland. As this particular valley narrows even more the
determination of the farmer is impressed upon me, the tilled fields climbing what soon
appear to be impossible slopes.
Onto smaller back roads the climb continues and the higher we get the colder it gets.
Suddenly the border appears - and as quickly it’s behind us – and bike and I are back in
Lovely! For hours the majesty of the French Alps surrounds me. Up and down, through
valleys and ever higher toward the peaks, the rush is intoxicating. No cares, no clock, no
obstacle too difficult to overcome. What a feeling!
Coming into a village I stop for gas at a small station. Pleasant woman with a sweet
smile seems content to be all by herself in the little place. Outside, an antique carowners
group moves through the village, their carefully-tended treasures looking right at
home against the ancient mountains.
It’s cold. Heading down the mountain now I’m stopped behind a line of cars. The lead
car sits at the entrance to a tunnel, waiting for something. It’s a narrow opening, so
apparently they’re waiting for some obstruction to clear before entering. Time passes,
and after a while I begin to consider moving past the line of cars to investigate the
situation. Maybe whatever is blocking their entrance won’t be a problem for me. As I
ponder the likely reaction to my slipping past all of these increasingly impatient drivers, a
wide-bodied truck appears, moving slowly out of the mouth of the tunnel, an apparently
disabled antique car ferried in its bed. Bet he’s frustrated at missing the parade.
Between the width of the truck and the height of its load, it’s clear that negotiating the
tunnel was a chore. I’m glad I didn’t act on my impulse.
Once out of the narrow tunnel the road follows a river through gorgeous terrain, but it’s
freezing now. Gradually, as we descend, the temperature rises until finally, at the base
of the last beautiful Alpine pass and onto the road toward Grenoble, it’s suddenly hot.
Grenoble is a modern city. Traffic, neon, hustle, bustle and din. Quite a change from the
peaceful Alps. I find a little Mercure Hotel, one of a small chain of European business
hotels I’ve used before, on a main street with a place to park the bike in front, so check
in. The room is fine, spare, utilitarian. There are no laundry facilities here, but the pretty
young woman at the desk says there’s a Laundromat a few blocks down the street, so I
load up a sack of dirty clothes, grab my book and take a walk. It’s hot and it’s a hike,
but not a bad one. What’s bad is that the machine will only take Franc coins and I don’t
have any. The businesses nearby are mostly closed by now and those that are open
won’t change either Italian or American money for Francs. The Cambio (change place)
down the street is closed. Aha! I think, an ATM! But my credit card isn’t recognized. I
find another that recognizes my credit card, but wants a pin number that I’ve never been
asked for before and have never registered so I can’t give it. By this time I’m very hot
and plenty pissed. All I want to do is do the damned laundry.
I’m reduced to the embarrassing state of making an international call to my bookkeeper
to see if she knows if I have a pin number for my credit card. She knows. I don’t.
Steamed, I walk all the way back to the damned hotel, getting hotter and more pissed
with every step, and find that the young woman I thought was pretty is a dope who
won’t change my money. Sorree, it is against the rules. They no longer change money
at any hotel, she tells me, I have to go to a bank. But the banks are closed. Yes, but
they’ll be open tomorrow. But I don’t want to do my laundry tomorrow. Yes, I see. So
is there any way I can get the money changed today? No, sorree. How about this? Can
the hotel advance me a few Francs and put it on my bill, which I will pay with my credit
card, so I can get the laundry done? No, I am sorree, we cannot do this.
Fairly fuming, I turn away, dirty clothes over my shoulder, and head out of the lobby.
But I’m stopped as I hear what sounds like American voices and turn to see three men
sitting in a corner talking. It turns out that they are Americans here on business. God
bless America! Between us I’m able to exchange a $20 bill for enough Francs to get my
damned laundry done, thank them, look back at the once-pretty, now stupid
receptionist, leave, trudge back along the hot damn street, all uphill now, to the stupid
Laundromat and get my fucking clothes washed.
Figuring out the machines is a bit daunting at first, but I finally manage and, as the
clothes are washing I’m able to sit for a moment, take a deep breath and let it all go.
Pretty soon I begin to laugh at the Keystone Kops escapades of the past couple of hours
and decide things could be a lot worse. I’m in France, for Christ’s sake; I’ve just ridden
through the French Alps; I’m having the time of my life; my clothes are actually getting
clean. She’s probably not stupid or ugly. But the rule is sure dumb.
Clothes done, I walk back to the hotel, clean up and change. The woman at the desk
seems to be going out of her way to be nicer now – or maybe it’s me. Anyway, I get a
map of the area and am told about a good Indian restaurant in the Old City and head for
A nice walk through the now cool evening feels good, so after waiting a while for a
streetcar I decide I’ll just hoof it. This little map is pretty clear and I like finding my way
around. Pretty soon, though, it begins to appear that ‘this little map’ is not so clear. I
walk and walk and pretty soon come to a river that isn’t where it’s supposed to be. But I
figure if it’s here and I’m here, then maybe I need to follow it to where the map says it is
and then I’ll be where I’m supposed to be. Right? So I walk. And walk. And walk.
Pretty soon a wind comes up. It turns into a hell of a blow and apparently doesn’t want
me to go the way I’m going, because it does it’s very best to stop me. A couple of
times I actually think it’ll succeed. Damn, it’s strong.
About the time I begin to think this map is a trick from the stupid, ugly woman at the
desk, I finally come to a major thoroughfare. The name is wrong, but instinct tells me to
turn here. If the damned river is in the wrong place, why should I trust the street names
on the map?
Lo and behold, after another half hour of walking I come into the Old City. It’s a center
of nightlife lit with clubs and restaurants. The crowd is not overwhelming and after a bit
of looking I’m able to figure out the streets and find the Indian restaurant. God. Quite a
Good meal, glass of wine. Maybe two. At the end, feeling pretty good, I give my credit
card to the woman and she comes back in a bit saying it’s no good. Huh? No good?
That’s not good. Also embarrassing. Fortunately I have another. She goes, comes back
and says that’s not good either. This, now, is very not good. I don’t have enough francs
to cover the meal but can pay with American money if that’s acceptable. But wait.
Before I have to call my bookkeeper again, would she mind running the card through
Looking at me a bit askance, she agrees, goes away. In a bit she comes back looking
sheepish and is full of apologies. The card is fine. She had done something wrong in
entering the information. Many, many apologies. No problem, I insist, happy to be off
Out into the night. Finding the tram tracks I figure if I follow them I’ll be better off than I
will be trying to deal with the map. I’m sure not going to go back the way I came.
Amazing. Back to the hotel in no time. I probably added five miles to the trip the other
way just by following the stupid map. But the windstorm was fun.
Day 32 - Saturday, July 7, 2001 –
Up after a good sleep and look out to find that it’s been raining. Shit. Oh, well. Put on
my gear, load up the bike and head out into the wet. Heading out of Grenoble on the
same road I came in I turn south toward Vizier then up into the mountains toward Gap.
It’s great here, passing through little Alpine villages, not finding too much traffic, though
there are the periodic speed demons. Just for the hell of it, as one guy whizzes past me
I chase him along the highway just to let him know he’s not the only one who can go
fast. As we come into the town of La Mure and hit a roundabout I decide to mess with
him. One way says Gap through Centre Ville (center of the city) and the other says Gap
and something else. He goes through Centre Ville so I quickly take the road through
‘something else,’ figuring he’ll be slowed going through the center of town and later he’ll
find me out on the highway sauntering along. Exulting in my cleverness I race along
quite smugly, waiting for him to come up from behind and discover me. But soon the
road begins to get smaller. And smaller. Then it’s winding up into the hills. Soon I’m
getting way up in the high country and beginning to realize that this can’t possibly be
the highway heading to Gap. Not so fast, Mr. Smug, I laugh, having outsmarted myself
What fun! Ah, well, he’ll never know. I’ll just enjoy the ride until it connects with the
main road………….. except it’s beginning to appear that it doesn’t. The road keeps
getting smaller and smaller as I wind through the mountains. Pretty soon I’m crossing
little one-lane bridges and passing through tiny Alpine hamlets. God, it’s gorgeous. I
wonder where the hell I am?
Looking off into the distance I see a distinctive shape – a castle? Can’t be, it’s too big.
It would have to be a giant castle to be this distinct from this far away. But it’s a great
shape, whatever it is. Maybe it’s just a big rock mountaintop with sheer sides.
Whatever it is it conjures up all kinds of possibilities, sitting out there majestically, it’s
top shrouded in misty clouds. I figure I’ll keep it as a landmark so I have an idea of the
direction…. oh, shit. The road I’m on hugs the mountainside and I watch my castle drift
away to my left. That means, assuming the big rock was south, that I’m heading west
now, and maybe going in a circle?
Passing through a beautiful glade I’m reminded of the Italian Alps adventure. I hope I’m
not as screwed up this time. But maybe I am. The settlements are fewer and farther
between and none of them, I note, have gas stations, which is beginning to be a concern.
Finally, there’s a sign ahead. “Grenoble,” with an arrow. What?? God, I’ve done it again!
I’ve come all the way around the fucking mountain and ended up going back to where I
Well, I sure as hell can’t turn around; I’ll run out of gas for sure. So, I might as well see
what happens next. Soon I come upon a young man at the side of the road, so I stop.
He doesn’t speak English but we make ourselves understood. The road to Gap? He
points in the direction I’m going. That’s confusing, so I point back in the direction from
which I’ve come – Gap? He nods again, and smiles. Now I’m really confused. I say
“Gap?” and point in both directions. He nods again. Oh, good. I say “Grenoble?” and
point up ahead. He nods. I say “Gap, aussi?” He nods again. Aha. Gap is both ways,
but maybe it’s shorter if I keep going this way? Yes, he indicates. So I decide to take
the risk and head on up the road. And sure enough, before I go too far there’s a fork:
Grenoble to the left, Gap to the right. Happy now, I head off down the road to the right
– a much better road than I’ve been on, by the way – and in about 20 minutes I come
into the roundabout – yes, the same roundabout – leading into La Mure. Ah, what a
maneuver I pulled on that guy… a mere couple of hours ago. I wonder if he’s still
At least I can get gas.
South out of La Mure the road curves distinctly to the left and down into a valley, so my
unerring sense of direction erred. The road winds up again through the mountains and
down into lovely valleys and rather than cut east to Gap I continue south toward
Sisteron and then west into Provence. Coming out of Sisteron and heading toward
Avignon, a wide valley welcomes me, an agricultural area filled with grape vines, of
course, plus wheat and other crops. I pass what look like apricot trees. I can head south
to Marseilles, which might be interesting, but the road west heads to Nimes and from
there, it appears, I could go down into Spain.
I’ve never been to Spain. Why not go to Spain? OK, I will. South toward Montpellier I
get onto the Motorway to make some time. It’s clouding up again, but no rain so far as I
race south, the Mediterranean on my left again, Italy across the water.
Hungry, I stop to eat on a pass where there’s an ancient, walled, turreted structure
overlooking the sea. What adventures were had here? What attacks fought off? The
Romans, perhaps, fighting off the Moors? Or vice-versa? Back in the saddle I’m quickly
into a new land. Crossing into Spain I stop at the border to change some money, not
wanting to be caught short as I was in Grenoble. Lots of cars and trucks lined up here,
lots of people eating, getting gas and changing money.
Sun has set, but I press on and by 10 PM I’m in Girona and find a nice hotel, the Melia
Confort, to rest my weary bones.
Day 33 - Sunday, July 8, 2001 –
Sunday morning in Spain. It’s quiet. Girona is a small city inland from the Costa Brava
and I cruise a bit to look around. The old city is closed to vehicles so I decide to pass
and head for the highway. Given the number of days I have before getting to Frankfurt
to ship the bike home I don’t have too much time here and really don’t know what to
look for, so head south toward Barcelona. Leaving the highway I pass through some
small towns, another with turreted walls, and am into the outskirts of Barcelona shortly
The outskirts, at least, boast stacks of boxy apartment houses on the hillsides. Some
are nicely painted and decorated, but they’re still boxy. Entering the city I’m riding down
a broad avenue lined with 9 and 10 story apartment houses. It’s a virtual canyon, and it
goes on and on for quite a distance. Seems like miles of this before I’m into the Centro
Ciudad, the center of the city. Nearing this area the apartment houses began to be very
attractively decorated, the facades done quite artistically.
In what seems to be the center is an area called La Rambla, the main street of which is
divided. About a mile long, the center of it is reserved for pedestrians who roam among
stalls and attractions. I find a place to park the bike and walk a bit among the people,
young and old, who are enjoying the puppeteers, mimes, bird sales, musicians, artists,
shell games – the works. It’s all very happy and quite lovely. Lots of smiles, lots of
After walking along enjoying the sights for a while I wander into one of the narrow lanes
that feed off the main street, figuring I’ll find a place to eat. First, though, I spot an
Internet sign, so go in and check out my e-mail and send a message to Shel. After that I
wander a bit more, find a likely-looking café and go in to check out the menu. All meat.
Back outside, I find a vitamin shop and go in and ask about a natural food or vegetarian
restaurant. Nobody knows of such a thing.
Ah well, I’ll just keep looking. Finding nothing of interest I go back to the bike and roam
a bit, again finding nothing of interest. So I decide to head west and see what happens.
I’ve lost my map somehow, but I remember that Zaragosa is out to the west. I ask a
cabbie, who gives me some directions that seem weird, but they turn out to be correct.
So adios, ‘Barthelona,’ I’m on the road again. It’s soon a very flat land I’m passing
through, dotted with the occasional mesa. It’s hot and a bit arid appearing, except that
the land is being worked. It reminds me of some parts of southern California. Dry, hot,
but fertile. Some areas green, probably irrigated, others brown, some sitting idle,
already having been harvested, others still pregnant with food.
The few towns I pass through in this area are noteworthy mostly for their church
steeples. Otherwise they’re unremarkable.
Then suddenly I’m in a serious wind and fighting to stay upright! I guess there’s no
natural break to block the wind for miles.
Next I’m into an area that suddenly reminds me of Africa. The dry, rolling land is marked
by trees that appear stunted by the wind. It’s reminiscent for me of the northern
A few miles more and I’m into an odd valley, the floor of which ends abruptly in a cliff
face that is many miles long. It looks, in a way, like a giant step, but its surface is
jagged, carved, convoluted by the wind. Riding along beside it for a while I note up
ahead what appears to be an ancient structure atop the cliff. May be a castle or a
church. As I come nearer it appears more likely that it’s a church – and I see now that
there’s a newer, smaller church beside it. Intriguing, all of these places. I wish I had
Soon I’m nearing Zaragosa. Having lost my map in Barcelona I figure I’ll pick up another
here. Zaragosa seems a smaller version of Barcelona. A handsome, three-steepled
church is the first thing that catches the eye. As I approach I see there’s a fenced off
area behind it, apparently an old ruin being excavated.
I can’t find anything that appears to be an “old city” here, and what I do find doesn’t feel
particularly friendly. Try to spot a restaurant, but after stopping at two, neither of
which is inviting, I decide I’ll get a map and look at what’s next down the road.
A sign tells me that the road out of town is the route to Pamplona. The map says
Pamplona isn’t too far away, so I figure I won’t starve to death if I wait to see what’s
there. Pamplona, as I recall, is the place Hemingway wrote about - the running of the
bulls - so they probably have restaurants and accommodations for the tourists that
come whenever that happens. Should be worth a look.
Heading northwest now, toward the Pyrenees, and the road begins to climb. It clouds
over and really starts getting cold. Between the climb and the wind I’m using more gas
than anticipated, so I’m well into the reserve tank and wondering if I’ll spend the night
beside the highway before I finally spot a station. Just in time.
Gassed up and ready for a meal and a bed I make the final miles into Pamplona and find
myself riding into a party. There’s some kind of convention here, it appears. Cars and
buses are all over the place; people, many of them young, crowd the street. Most seem
to be wearing white clothes and a red neckerchief. Not all of them are kids, on second
look. This is like a carnival. I wonder what’s going on?
Heading into the Centro it’s like a beehive. Cars are double-parked and buses are
fighting for passage. Shit, with whatever is happening I’ll be lucky to find a place to
Can’t find a place to park the bike, but since so many cars are double- parked anyway I
just do the same in front of what’s called the Hotel Toldi and walk in. There’s a friendly
guy at the desk and when I ask if he has a room he says “Sure. Last one.” He can’t be
more helpful. Doesn’t have a garage for the bike, but points to a little passageway
beside the hotel where I can lock it up. I ask if I can see the room and he says “Sure, but
it’s the last one.” I get that he’s suggesting it may be the last one in town, so I decide
not to be picky and take it.
Nice guy. Before he checks me in he shows me where to park the bike, I pull off the
bags and he helps me carry them up the three flights of stairs and into the world’s
smallest hotel room. But what the hell, it’s clean; it has one small bed, room to turn
around (just), a window and a bathroom of its own. As we’re heading down to the desk
to check me in I ask him what all the excitement in town is about. He looks at me
curiously and says, “Have you ever heard of the running of the bulls?” I say, “Sure, of
course.” He says, “That’s what it’s about.” I’m dumbfounded. “You mean it’s now?” I
ask. “Yes.” I can’t believe it. “When?” I ask. “All week,” he says. “Every morning at
I am absolutely boggled. I had no idea this was the time of year that it was to happen. I
feel like the biggest dope, in a way, and at the same time just a bit like I’m being guided.
This is going to take some thinking about.
This fellow also tells me of a vegetarian restaurant in town, but warns that things will be
crowded. So I go up and call Shelley to tell her what I’ve fallen into and how utterly
stupid I was about it. We have a good laugh and then I head out to find dinner.
Walking into the old city is like stepping into Mardi Gras. The streets are wall to wall with
people laughing and dancing, drinking and singing. Ad hoc bands weave their way down
the road or pop out of little lanes and spontaneous parades snake their way through the
crowds, creating currents of exultant, bubbling humanity. People lean out of windows
singing, waving, laughing. It’s quite amazing. There’s a lot of drunkenness – or at least
a lot of drinking - but I see no anger, none of the macho posturing usually associated
with this kind of craziness, no pushing contests, no swearing or head-banging. It’s just,
from what I can see, pure joy.
As I make my way through the crowd toward the street with the veggie restaurant the
bedlam continues. Spontaneous groups dance in and out of bars, up and down the
street. More than once my arm is grabbed by someone who wants me to join the dance,
but I smile and wave them off, aiming to eat. Through the narrow lanes I pick my way
between people of all ages pushing, looking, twirling in the street. I manage to cross
through two parades, get to the street and find there’s no there there. No restaurant.
Someone directs me to another street, so I make my way again through the bands, the
parades, the dancers and again come up dry. No veggie restaurant. But by now I’m
willing to eat anywhere and anywhere is jammed. I try place after place but no seating is
available – anywhere.
Wending my way down one street, two girls chase me down and stop me. Americans.
Am I me? They hate to bother, but their father is the world’s biggest MASH fan and
they’d love to have me meet him. Sorry, I offer, but I’m trying to find a place to eat.
Perfect, they reply. Daddy is hosting dinner with some friends over at the something
hotel and they know he’d be delighted to have me join them. Look, I really don’t think
so. I’m just looking for a quiet (hah!) dinner and then… Please, please, please, just
come and say hello to Daddy and we promise you’ll love it. Besides, you’ll never find a
place to eat tonight. The city is full and everything is jammed. Yeah, I’ve noticed.
Please, please, please, Daddy… How far is it? (Anything to stop this barrage of
begging.) Come on, it’s right around the corner.
So they pull me around the corner and into a major hotel and into the elevator and up to
Daddy’s room. They knock and apparently wake him up. Oh my God, he sees me and
it’s true, he’s a fan. Just a minute. In a minute he’s out in the hall with us, has me by
the arm and we’re heading to the elevator up to the restaurant on the roof. In the
elevator he starts with all the people he knows in the business and what a great
coincidence to meet me here and how he comes every year and he’s been drunk all day
but just needed a quick nap to sober up… I’m looking for the nearest exit as the
elevator door opens and we’re out into a quite classy restaurant where everyone is
nicely dressed for dinner. I’m in my jeans and have been on the road all day and want to
get as far away from this trio as possible, so as they head for a table full of people, with
Daddy spouting about look who’s here, I stop. One of the girls turns and I tell her I’m
sorry (as I’m backing away), but I’m not dressed for this and thanks very much it was
nice to meet you and please tell your father… and I’m around the corner and into the
stairwell and gone.
God! Down the stairs and out of the hotel and back into the streets. I walk for a couple
of hours looking for something, somewhere to eat. The one good thing is that I’m able
to get the lay of the land and see the street where the bulls will come down, see the
great gates that close off the lanes so they stay on the prescribed route to the stadium.
I walk out away from the old city, around the outskirts of Pamplona and back.
Everything is either jammed, closed or has an hour waiting line. Finally I find a little bar
that’s open and will make a fried egg sandwich. It’s good, so I have another. Nice
people. Friendly, warm. Thanks to them and I walk back to the hotel. It’s raining a bit.
On the way I’m picking my way through the now totally drunken crowds and the leavings
of the earlier party atmosphere. People, mostly young, are lying in heaps in corners,
beside buildings, on park benches, sick, drunk, passed out. It ain’t pretty. Glad to have
a room, I get back to it and leave a wake-up call for 6 so I can see the spectacle, then
happily flake out. What a day! What a night!!
Day 34 - Sunday, July 9, 2001 –
Well, what a night, indeed! The bed is too damned small, the pillows are very hard and
the noise from the inexhaustible celebrants never stopped, so there wasn’t much in the
way of sleep. Since the guy at the desk said the bulls run at 8 and the crowd would jam
the best viewing spots much earlier, I give up trying before the 6 AM wake-up and jump
into the shower, throw on warm clothes (it’s dark and still raining) and head out.
Check the bike. Still where I stashed it.
God, neither the rain nor the lack of sleep can stop the revelers. They’re still merry, if
blasted, and the party continues. Dancing in the streets and bars, people stagger about,
usually careful to avoid stepping on those sleeping on the wet sidewalk or curled up in
doorways. It’s a bacchanal.
Make my way down to Estefeta Street, where I learned last night the bulls would run.
Shops are not only closed, but barred, most with thick wooden gates covering the
storefronts. Many are there watching the work crews clean the street with highpowered
water hoses, then a street-cleaning truck, then the broom guys. It’s very
methodical, very professional. And they’re very pleasant, warning me at one point that I
need to get back away from the area I’m standing in or I’ll get wet when the truck comes
A flood of bottles, cans, plastic cups, papers, pieces of clothing and God-knows-what-all
flows before the advancing army of clean-up. One of the guys on the truck stops for a
while and gets down. Very pleasant, he gives those of us in the little intersection some
information: the bulls will come down from our left, not only will the big gate we’re
leaning on be closed, but we’ll have to be behind a second one a few feet further back,
so our view from here will be very limited. Getting his point I walk farther up Estefeta to
what they call “Death Corner,” where the bulls and those intent on demonstrating their
man- or womanhood will careen around a bend, turn into this more open space, then
complete an “S” turn and continue down toward the arena.
Huge crowds on this corner are massed on big wooden fences that have been erected
since last night. Throngs of press, mostly photographers and video-camera operators,
are in the inside bottom curve of the “S,” with a clear view of the drama. They’re in a
special area between the first fence and another behind them where the civilians are
plastered (in both senses of the word). There’s no chance to see anything from the
civilian areas, with people crammed against and atop the fences plus a mob four or five
deep behind them looking for the chance to sneak their heads through or grab the place
of someone who falls, leaves or wilts.
People are hanging out of windows above, some sitting or standing on balconies, others
on lampposts or clinging to hand- or footholds they’ve managed to find on the sides of
buildings. There isn’t an inch of space available, so, that option lost, I decide to try the
It’s worked before, so you never know. I’m able to get into the press area OK and am
hoping, before I get thrown out, that there will be an American reporter or someone
there who will recognize me (the one time on this trip I’d like to have that happen) and
provide an excuse to stay. But no such luck. Soon the cop who let me in asks for my
press credentials and nothing I can think of to say (being unwilling to try something like
“You fool, I’m a major American television star and deserve to be in here, don’t you
understand??”) makes any difference and I’m back on the street.
It’s still early, but I’m too late. There’s no place I can find that will allow a view of the
famous ‘running of the bulls’ and the infamous ‘running of the people,’ so I head back
It’s astonishing. There are people of all ages here, thousands of them, on the fences, on
ladders, on balconies, up poles, in window wells, on rooftops, on car-tops, anything that
offers a chance to see the spectacle.
Someone back in the press area suggested that one can buy a ticket and go into the
arena. Evidently the bulls and those who are proving themselves macho run through the
streets and into the arena, where even more young bulls are released and men (mostly)
run around and play at being matadors. That sounds even less appetizing than this, but I
walk in that direction. Before long I’m outside the arena in a park-like area and find a
spot on the fence apparently left bare because it’s guarded by a deep puddle that the
rain is busily making deeper. I step carefully through it, find a couple of rocks, place
them down in it and stand on them to have myself an OK spot. I can see the last curve
they’ll come around from Estefeta and I’m just above where animals and people will race
through on their way into the arena.
After a while there are a couple of cracks that sound like shots. I assume it’s the
starting gun intended to frighten the bulls into the run because the murmur of the crowd
heightens. There is a roar from the crowd out of sight up Estefeta St., so they must be
coming. Like an audio version of ‘the wave,’ I can track the progress of the run by
hearing the crowd’s roar come nearer. And then the first few of the runners come
around the corner to the cheering of the crowd.
There are, at a quick estimate, a hundred plus, maybe two. They’re mostly – but not all
– men, of varying ages, mostly dressed in white shirt and pants with the red scarf I first
saw yesterday (which has something to do with the blood of a saint). They are trotting,
I note, and waving grandly in response to the roaring adoration of the by-standers (those
of us without the guts to be down there, is the implication of the exchange). Chests
puffed out, grins on their faces, they are defined as men by “running with the bulls.”
Except, I notice, as they pass below to the deafening cheers, whistles, clapping and
shouts of the crowd, there are no bulls! Some macho stunt here. These guys aren’t
running with the bulls, they’re running ahead of the bulls, apparently well ahead, and
lapping up the praise of the crowd for doing so.
As they jog into the arena those at the back of the pack are turning their heads,
apparently to see if any of the horned creatures are gaining, but this entire group is way
out in front of any potential danger I can see.
There’s a gap now, then more men come, some of them walking, looking backward.
There’s some laughter from the crowd, hopefully at the vain posturing of the early birds.
There’s a loud bang, a firecracker or something, the walkers turn and run and a new
crowd races around the corner to a yet larger roar.
This one is a melee of humans and animals. At first it’s mostly people with a few bulls in
the mix. Some dash around madly, crossing in front, others leap for the fence to avoid
the horns. Then it’s a large number of bulls and fewer people, some in the midst of the
animals, though how they stay up I can’t imagine. Those on the fence cling, pulling their
legs up to avoid the horns. Others join them. A few go down and roll toward the side as
spectators scream. This is insanity. I can’t help but think that these poor animals must
be terrified, confused, angry – and who can blame them?
Some shouts, cries of dismay and a video-cameraman rushes to the fence, shooting
something down at the entrance to the arena. I can’t see, but something has happened.
I’m reminded that someone last night mentioned that an American girl is in the hospital
here, having been gored or trampled yesterday or the day before.
Another wave or two of the same mix of frenzied animals and crazy people sweeps
around the corner, races by below us and into the ring and then it’s over. A few
stragglers, bulls and men, bring up the rear and the caravan of craziness is ended.
People near me step away from the fence and walk through the park, some heading for
the arena entrance, others away, apparently all richer for having shared this experience.
I stand there for a while, dazed – stunned, and a bit sickened. And angry.
I know this has huge meaning for some. I know Hemingway made it famous as the
ultimate test of manhood. I know some personally who have made this run in years past.
I know, or I guess, it’s connected with a religious ritual or experience in some way and is
an ingrained part of the culture here. And it’s clearly an economic boon for this town
one week a year. But without even seeing what’s going on inside the arena right now I’m
furious at the cruelty, appalled at the insensitivity and disgusted at the process. I’m not
even sure how I feel about myself at this point for participating to the degree I have.
I walk back to the hotel trying to sort it out. Clearly this works for a lot of people and I
can’t condemn them all, I guess, but it’s sure not for me.
At the hotel I go up to get my gear. Back down at the desk to check out they tell me
there’s food laid out, so I have some juice and cereal. The celebration continues, but it’s
a bit muted now. Or maybe it’s me. I thank the man at the desk for his kindness and go
out to load up the bike. An American comes out and wants to know all about the bike
and my trip. He’s just bought a Harley at home and is amazed that I’m doing this trip on
a dirt bike.
He ran with the bulls this morning and wants to know if I did as well. I tell him no, just
watched. He’s full of the experience, still excited. He’s just turned 65, he says, and
there are a number of things he’s always wanted to do. Buying the bike is one of them,
running with the bulls another. He’s not going to let old age keep him from doing what
he wants to do.
I nod and smile. “Well, good for you,” I say, “I can certainly understand that.” In a way I
guess I’m doing the same thing. “Just be careful on that hog.” We chat for a while as I
tie everything down and climb on. He reaches out to shake my hand and I take his,
appreciating how good he seems to be feeling about himself. We nod farewell and I pull
away, thinking about things. Life, huh?
I pick my way out of Pamplona and head north toward the Pyrenees. The rain has
stopped and the sun is breaking through. Soon I’m into a beautiful climb into the
gorgeous green mountains and feel cleaner with each deep breath.
This is Basque country, as I recall. Makes me think of Jeff Chandler bouncing from rock
to rock in an old movie about the Basque struggle, probably against the Nazis. I’m
reminded that Basque separatists are thought of as terrorists by some here as I round a
bend and come upon a Gardia Civile check point. I slow, but they wave me on.
Climbing higher, the road cuts through some sheer-sided cliffs, the edges of the
geological seams clearly evident.
Before long I’m over the top and down a steep incline, the road a series of switchbacks,
and into a deep, beautiful valley. Racing along a little-traveled road I wend my way
through some small, virtually hidden villages and am soon back in France.
I’m slowed by an accident. A number of gendarmes from a few cars are gathered at the
side of the road, their attention down the hill. Shit. It looks like a bike went off the
road. Takes me back to the guy on the highway in Tennessee. Always leaves an odd
feeling in the pit of the stomach – and lower.
Picking my way along through this beautiful valley in the Dept. of Navarre I’m Steve
McQueen again, racing to freedom, the Nazis don’t have a chance. What a thrilling ride
this is! And it just gets better. Over a rise and I’m in the midst of acres of beautiful
Heading northeast I run into some traffic in Pau and then lose my way for a while. Can’t
figure out which road to take, but I know I’ve got to get to Germany soon, so keep the
front wheel pointed north and east. Now gas is a concern, so I cut west through a
beautiful valley of huge stone walls and finally find a town with gas. Cutting north to
avoid Toulouse I make tracks until it’s getting dark and I’m tired and getting just a tad
goofy. Pulling into Brive-la-Gaillarde I stop at the first hotel I see and it’s full. Oops. Not
a good time to sleep outdoors, so I find another a bit out of town. It’s not great looking
but has just one room left, so rather than push my luck I grab it. Shucking my gear I
decide to stretch my legs and walk back into town to find something to eat. Think for a
minute I’ve lost my DPF hat. No I haven’t. Walking. One place isn’t appetizing so I roam
around a bit to find something better. A place I’m told about is impossible to find and
by the time I get back to the first place, they’re closed. Picky, picky, picky, no eatee.
Back to the room, hungry and more tired than before. The bed is big and looks great.
But shit… I have, it appears, lost my toothbrush. Ah, well, it’s been a big day. Sleep
Day 35 - Monday, July 10, 2001 –
Great sleep. Wonderful! I feel refreshed – and HUNGRY! And I have to buy a toothbrush
Clean up, load up the bike, get a toothbrush, EAT, and then its off to Geneva. Geneva!
Because it was raining yesterday morning I had put on my wet weather gear, and then of
course it cleared up and got hot, so I had to take it off. This morning it’s clear and warm
so I stick the rain gear away. Of course, no sooner than I point the front wheel east than
it clouds over and gets cold as hell. Can’t win. Starts to rain and I think about stopping
and dragging out the wet weather gear, but it turns out to be only a bit of a drizzle, so I
press on and tough it out. The wind will dry me off quickly enough.
South of Clermont-Ferrand I cut straight east across the Monts de Forez. Somewhere in
there I have another adventure on a small, winding road; my sense of direction gets all
screwy as I wend my way through mountains, valleys and lovely small villages. It’s pretty
clear I’m generally heading east, so it’s all good, but there’s an odd sense of detachment
about it. I could be anywhere in any period of time. At one point I have this fabulous
experience that, for some reason, just knocks me out. Riding along as the sun suddenly
pops out and voila!, I’m not alone - the silhouette of bike and rider is vivid on the road
beside me. I suppose it’s happened a hundred times on this trip, but this time it’s
dramatic. And it’s company, at least for a while. I like them.
Loop around Lyon to avoid the city traffic and soon I’m back into Switzerland through an
Alpine valley, the mountains looming. Again a tunnel through – a long tunnel, and
another – and it’s Geneva!
Down the hill and into the city, past the train station and down to the river, I ride around
a bit to try to figure the place out. There’s a huge commercial district on the east side
of the river (the Rhone?) and a couple of bridges leading to it from the west side. Oneway
streets make it difficult, of course, but I pass on the ritzy-looking hotels next to the
lake and stop at an OK-looking one a bit farther upriver. They don’t have a room, but
the very nice man at the desk says he has one in a sister hotel, the Hotel du Midi, right
across the street and I can leave my bike in this garage. He’s great, very proper and
very Swiss, gray hair, formal suit, but he’s sweet and accessible. So I follow him across
the street and check in.
It’s always a bit odd to drag all my gear into the lobby of a nice hotel, but no one seems
to object. It usually takes a couple of trips to get everything, so unless they have a
baggage cart I just pile things up next to the elevator until I come back with the rest.
The woman here is a bit Swiss, veddy cool and officious, but the man more than makes
up for her.
After I put the bike away and clean up a bit I go across and ask him if he can recommend
a good Italian restaurant. He suggests one just up the street, so I go have a look. It’s
small and neat, not crowded. The people here are a bit cool at first, but then warm up
and are great.
A woman with a group at another table keeps looking my way, so I’m trying not to meet
her eyes. Soon she comes over and wants to know if I’m me. There’s a bet, she says.
“Which way did you bet?” I ask. “I said you’re him.” “You win.” She’s actually pretty
cool and doesn’t make too big a scene. She goes back, triumphant, they all wave, salute
with their drinks. And now the chef comes out. Ah, well. They’re all nice. And the food
After dinner I walk around a bit. Nice city. Across the bridge the commercial district is
closed and mostly empty, but there are a number of restaurants with tables outside and
many people sitting, enjoying the river and, down a bit, the lake.