'Oh my god, he’s real!’ The check-in staff at Eurotunnel fall about laughing. We get this a lot. ‘He’ is Bruce, a nine-yearold Welsh Terrier, and we’re off to Italy again – three-up.
There’s a bit of backstory. A few years back, my wife Diana and I had the chance to spend four months in Rome for work, and yes, we know we’re lucky. The only problem was the dog. We couldn’t stand to leave him behind, or face a fourmonth kennel bill. Eurostar only take your dog if you’re blind, and flying sounded as excruciating for him as it’d be expensive for us. Bluntly, you don’t get a pet across the Channel without a vehicle. Half-jokingly I suggested, ‘I could always take him on the bike’.
I’d never ridden anything like that far, but the more we thought about it, the less stupid it sounded. It didn’t seem to be illegal, so Bruce and I did a few short practice runs and went for it. Next time, Diana joined us and we motored south as a family. A couple of years on, Bruce’s passport is filling up with stamps and here we are again: it’s almost routine. Fuel up, dog on, head south.
And off we go. At the Tunnel, where I’ve sometimes had to pick my words with care, the gate staff ring through to reception who say yes, we’re fine to travel as long as we’re road-legal, they’ve had a case like this before (that’ll have been us, then, I mutter).
The handwritten ticket reads ‘Dog on motorbike’ (the previous year’s ticket repeated for clarity, ‘Yes, dog!’). And just like that, we’re away, the only bike on this early-April, early-morning crossing. We hit the péage and by midday we’re at Paris Bercy.
The Paris idea is this year’s tweak. You drop the bike off at Gare de Bercy and make your own way to your destination, where your ride will show up, in theory, early-ish the next morning, thereby saving the long and tedious ride south. The TGV whisks us to Nice and the autotrain turns up with the Varadero eventually.
I then contrive to run out of fuel in Nice. Yes, the fuel light came on as we were wiggling in towards Bercy, but on any other day that’d have meant ‘some time in the next 30-odd miles’. Drat the Vara’s prodigious weight and bulk – we choke to a halt on a steep, tight, narrow bend and I know I’ll struggle to push it uphill out of the way of the honking traffic I’m now blocking. Luck kicks in – we’ve expired right outside the local Ducati salesroom. The guy comes straight out and helps me push ten yards round the corner to the neighbouring car mechanic, who he reckons might sub me enough petrol to take us to the filling station. Bruce gets a big thumbs-up, we get meticulous directions. Handshakes and smiles all round, and no-one will take any money. People are good.
Fuelled up, we hit the autoroute that becomes the autostrada – whoosh, you’re in Italy on the Autostrada dei Fiori. We’re in a landscape of perfume futures: rose-packed glasshouses festoon every bend and slope, of which there are plenty. The best Italian motorways are heady cocktails stirred from three parts dynamite and reinforced concrete to one of Tarmac. From swooping bend to swooping tunnel to swooping viaduct: mountain, chasm, and a big blue sky. It’s not a flat country. Diana’s awesomeness as a pillion is in full effect.
Bruce is scent-deaf to fine perfumes but a connoisseur of quality curves: head out and ears fluttering gently in the bubble of still air behind the screen, enigmatic behind his shades, he knows how cool he looks. From urban chaos to crumbling switchbacks, he lives to lead the charge. Or so we tell ourselves; jealous rivals would say he’ll do anything for treats and comply with any proposition that avoids walkies. Passengers wave and take photos. Drivers take photos. Ah well, at least it stops them texting.
Genova evening rush hour is a head-rush of momentary gaps in nonexistent lanes, everyone jinking and honking like crazy because that’s just how we roll here. Italian traffic: FUN. And kind of dangerous, yes, but no-one here worries about dying in a wreck, because if it happens, it’s your time, whereas sitting in a cold draught – you might as well slit your throat.
Websites are full of American tourists who’ve never seen a corner before saying that Italian drivers are suicidal, homicidal, blind, insane, but most Italian drivers are pretty sharp; they have to be to survive in Italian traffic, and most of them do survive. We all just slot in, somehow. Most of the cars are dented, especially as you go further south, but that’s partly because many Italians are poor and none of them like throwing anything away until it’s properly broken. Also, they talk on their phones a lot (what did Italians do before their telefonini?) and don’t look in their mirrors much, but that’s by the by. Relax, fuss the dog, and join the dance.
Some rules of the road, bad or otherwise: lane markings are of no great consequence. If the signage says no overtaking, mother Italy demands you overtake, going as wide as the opposing carriageway will allow. Near a blind summit is good, and keep your indicator on the whole time, to remind the world how good you’re looking; indeed, leave it on afterwards as a memento of your exciting encounter.
Speed limits are near-universally ignored – to observe them would almost be suicide. As a rule of thumb, treat the stated kph limit as mph and then interpret with as much flexibility as you would at home. On quiet roads in the hills, treble it, but be ready to come round a bend and right up the tailpipe of an old dear doing 20 in the family Cinquecento. The weird exception is motorways, where Italians stick much closer to the limit than the rest of us; I’ve never figured out why. There are signs for speed cameras (‘controllo elettronico’) everywhere. I have never seen a speed camera in Italy.
Tuscany may be full of rich Brits but to the south, an hour and a half from Rome, you can find a scruffy farmhouse on a patch of hillside for Mondeo money. Our acre of the Sabine Hills is mostly boulders and brambles and you can see daylight through the roof (it’s in progress) but we have vines and a few olives and complete peace and quiet, if you don’t count the neighbourhood farm dogs and hunters in season (the forested hills teem with boar and, come winter, camouflaged enthusiasts tipsily shotgunning each other).
We clear creepers and slash spiny horrors; I light pyres and feel manly. It’s high here, 500 metres plus, and the roads are scabbed and cratered by hard winters: Diana digs her knees in and I pick my lines carefully. This is backwoods country of goats, olive oil, agile cows, and ramblers in season. Farming here is a hard life; everyone looks twenty years older than they are. A quarter-mile down the lane, our neighbour-but-one looks 120 and is made of leather. She’s up and down every day herding sheep, gathering firewood, fixing roofs. We call her ‘Signora’ and are glad she’s friendly; in a fair fight she’d destroy us.
Other excellent neighbours down the lane stuff us with pizza from their wood-fired oven. They press their own oil, make their own wine. We drink quite a lot of it. Warm sentiments are exchanged over locally traded grappa, or at least I hope they are. On a good day I have bad schoolboy Italian, if the schoolboy had been far too busy developing precocious appetites for food, booze, and motorcycle parts to learn any grammar or polite forms of address. Lello and Palmira have no English at all, though they’re proud to tell us their boys learned it in school (their boys, grown and gone to town, have forgotten every word). They are delighted to have simpatici new neighbours and declare us ‘bravi genti’.
Sentimental as hill-farmers go, they cherish having us younger folk around (if only they knew what wizened souls are concealed by these ageless exteriors) and find Bruce adorable.
We slouch off late morning, unavoidably delayed by Diana’s work commitments, for an overnight in Genova, the better part of 300 miles. I can barely lift my arms – not the bike’s fault but my own silly excess of posturing among the brambles. By the time we
get there all I’m good for is a long beer and a blow to the head, but we must walk the dog.
We join the flock: heading away from Genova full of coffee and confidence I give the satnav a break and follow the sign for the motorways, only to find a choice between a place I’ve never heard of and a bunch I don’t want to see today. Faced with a snap decision, I pick Milan because it looks like a left turning; as long as I keep the sea on my left, I can’t go far wrong. The sea is on my left... and then isn’t. An hour later, sick with frustration and selfblame, I’m starting over from right back where we started. Turns out what you want is Ventimiglia, the one I’d never heard of.
Our TGV carriage is full of French teenagers on a school trip. There is no gentler way to put this. ‘Infested with shaved monkeys’ would insult the monkey lobby. Their teachers wear the faces of burned-out veterans who stopped caring a lifetime ago. Thank heavens we have earplugs, and headphones, and the capacity to fantasise brutal retribution rather than just carrying it out.
The haul to Calais is grim. Italian motorways have spoiled us, the overbanded two-lane péage is stacked with HGVs all pathetically convinced they can go faster uphill than the one in front, and we’re flagging: I’m stifling yawns, Diana’s feeling the cold, Bruce is limp in his palanquin. He’s nine now: that’s sixtythree in dog years, a senior gent.
It’s late when we get in; we make the bed, I ring my folks to tell them they can stop worrying till next time, we eat M&S pizza and crawl under the duvet too tired to sleep. It’s overcast the next morning, chilly with the promise of rain, but really not so bad a day. We get up and walk the dog.