"Why wander around in the distance, when good things lie nearby?" Long after his passing, these sage words of German poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe were the inspiration for our motorcycle journey. Goethe was so enthusiastic about the prospect of seeing Italy that in 1786 he boarded a stagecoach in the middle of the night and headed south. His adventurous undertaking took almost two years - we had but two weeks to spare.
With the grim grip of winter relaxing in the first warm sunrays of the year, my friend Herbert and I sat in his garden in Southern Germany's Black Forest, dreaming of our next motorcycle adventure. As we studied a map, our destination became clear: The jagged mountains of Gran Sasso and the remote Maiella in la bella Italia. We would cross Switzerland by highway and then zigzag on small paved and gravel roads over Italy's rugged spine, the Apennine Mountains, through the districts of Lombardy, Emilia-Romagna, Tuscany, Umbria and Latium to our final destination, the Abruzzi and Molise.
A Panorama Earned
Our journey started in early April, as riding in spring is a feast for the senses. We quickly cross Switzerland, where the breeze carries the heavy scent of blooming apple, cherry and almond trees, and flutters the lush green leaves under cobalt blue skies.
Belying the location, the shores of Lago di Lugano are serenely Mediterranean, flanked by low, tile-roofed houses with pastel-colored facades towering above the water. The lake, named after the city of Lugano, is in southeast Switzerland near the Italian border, between Lago Maggiore and Lago di Como.
During the serpentine ride along the shore we get the chance to adapt to the racy riding style of the Italians. What looks like a kamikaze stunt of some supermoto riders at first - passing in switchbacks despite the oncoming traffic, then cutting back into the slow-moving convoy of traffic just before the next curve - proves to be a precise calculation. Mimicking this riding style on bikes with wide aluminum panniers demands all our concentration. Thank goodness the drivers are used to it, not at all startled by these maneuvers.
Two days' ride farther south, near the Umbrian town of Norcia, we climb a precipitous trail that's just two washed-out ruts in big loose rocks. As our tires struggle for grip, we stand up and ride enduro-style to reach our goal, and our struggle to the hilltop is rewarded with a magnificent panorama. Below, the squares of tillage and fields in the wide valley resemble a patchwork quilt, and when dusk sets in, hundreds of lights twinkle on like lightning bugs. In the distance, a narrow ribbon of asphalt snakes up the mountain passes in tortuous curves. Tomorrow it will take us to the Abruzzi.