I'm here at last. After three days, 1497 kms and 18 hours in the saddle, I have checked in to my hotel on the outskirts of Florence. The last day was definitely the best day, except perhaps for the last few miles, but that's a whole different story.
Starting from Lake Garda, I headed down the western shore of the lake. The downside of the Italian lakes is that they are so very steep sided, meaning you find yourself spending a lot of time in tunnels. This is the case for Garda's western shore, the mountain rising almost sheer from the side of the lake. The upside of the Italian lakes is that when you're not in a tunnel, the scenery is stunning: the blue water of the lake, the snow-capped peaks of the mountains at either side, the sheer limestone cliffs, and the many palaces and villas built here by rich Italian nobility in the 18th and 19th century. A beautiful, if somewhat surreal part of the world.
Before crossing the Po Valley, I had to get gas, something which is far from as simple as it sounds. Gas stations are abundant, and vary wildly in price, but actually paying for fuel is a massive headache, unless you are Italian or have an Italian bank account. There are very few gas stations where you can pay a human being at a counter. Most are unmanned, and will take either banknotes of a specific face value or a bank card. A small proportion – in my experience, about 20% - will accept a bank or credit card with the Maestro logo, an international payment association. None will accept a standard credit card – Visa, Mastercard and you can completely forget about Diner's Club – and so cash is often the best option. In a car, with a large fuel tank, this is manageable. On a motorcycle, with a limited fuel tank, putting a 20 euro note into the slot is no guarantee of being able to put 20 euros of gas into your tank. Even despite Europe's outrageous fuel prices – tip: fill up in Austria, it's about 15% cheaper – 20 euros is roughly 12 liters. Unless you are running close to the edge, you can't be sure you'll get to use all the gas you purchased, and those machines don't give change.
Across the Po Valley, and Italy's industrial heartland. The flat, hot, breathless plain contains much of Italy's wealth, both industrial and agricultural. You can tell how wealthy it is by the amount of freight traffic on the roads. Italy's Autostrada are jam-packed with trucks from all over Europe. The sooner you leave the Po Valley, the better.
I did so by way of Modena, and up through Maranello. I have very little interest in cars – so little, I don't even own one, and haven't done for the past 12 years – but seeing the home of Ferrari on the map made me want to pass it by. I did. It is a large factory on the outskirts of the town of Maranello, and apart from the prancing horse on the roundabout in front of it, quite unremarkable. A bit like the Ducati factory: it is the passion of those inside, and of those who love the products they make, which distinguish it, not the buildings themselves. Inside some pretty dismal industrial warehouses, a lot of very cool products are made.
From there south into Tuscany, and my trip was made perfect once more. The roads in Tuscany are outstanding, almost wherever you go. Stay away from the Autostrada, and you simply can't go wrong. Two hours and 100km or so further, I headed onto the final stretch of Autostrada towards Florence. I had seen more bends and corners than I imagined possible, and I learned a valuable lesson. Though much motorcycle tourism is aimed at the Alps, and other high mountain ranges, smaller roads through middling hills and mountains can be much, much more fun. Road builders – or rather, the farmers, peasants and tradesmen who originally beat out the tracks back in the depths of prehistory – had far more options traveling across low hills, and often took several different attempts to cross the same valley. You could happily spend all day chasing up hill down dale and through every flavor and variety of bend. I had missed out on the Stelvio yesterday, yet I found my own mini Stelvio on the Via Per Sestola, just south of Pavullo. With no camper vans, tourist buses or slow tourist cars to contend with, I had it all to myself.
But the day ended on a dark note, though it had nothing to do with the journey. As I checked my phone for messages on the last rest stop of the day, I learned that Emily Wheeler, the wife of my friend and MotoGP photographer Andrew Wheeler, had lost her battle with cancer. It was a cruel blow, if not completely unexpected, as Emily had held out for many more years than most expected. She was a truly remarkable woman, a person of keen and quick intelligence, razor sharp wit, and a warm heart. She and Andrew were a wonderful, warm, loving couple, who spoke to and of each other with the utmost respect and deepest affection. They were an example to all. As someone who loves my own wife as deeply as I know Andrew loved Emily, I feel his loss keenly. Andrew Wheeler is a good man, as Emily was a good woman, and neither deserved this. Send your thoughts Andrew's way, in this dire moment. And if you have some spare cash, send it Andrew's way, as he has to cope with the mountain of unpaid medical bills which terminal disease always seems to accrue in the US.