Epic Autumn Adventure Tuscany by Scooter


It was an epic fall adventure: scooting through Tuscany. Lush landscapes, rich culture, classic art and cafe-lined squares.

I rode with the Vespa Club del Mediterraneo for two exhilarating autumn weeks in the unspoiled countryside and hilltop villages of northwestern Italy. I had hesitated to go as I'd been to Italy many times but never by two wheels. What changed my mind was the encouragement of several by club mates in the San Francisco Scooter Girls who had been on earlier tours. The VCdM was founded in 2009 by two Seattle-based scooterists, Al Fragola and his wife Ardy Walden Fragola, who moved to the Greek Island of Paros. It was there they started getting requests from the Modern Vespa forum asking if they would organize scooter tours. The club is not a business or tour agency; the members decide the next location, providing scooters are available. A professional travel agent books the itinerary for an average of 25 riders per tour, providing hotel bookings, and other logistical requirements. Participants are free to find their own way between the hotels, most of which are located a few hours ride apart.

All images courtesy of Penni Gladstone. Please do not use or reproduce any images without express written permission from Penni Gladstone.

Pontedera - the Vespa Mecca

We began our odyssey in Pontedera, home of Piaggio, Vespa's parent company. There we toured the manufacturer's museum. Knowing what vintage models sell for these days, there had to be millions of dollars worth of classic Vespas dating back to the 1940’s, accompanied by old advertisements and other two-wheel artifacts.

Our rented Vespa scooters were mostly end-of-season disappointments. Some of them should have been used for parts. They were 125cc models with too many clicks on the clock. People riding two up got slightly more powerful models. Back home I ride a 300 Super so to me these bikes were severely underpowered at times. There were stalls, rattles, whizzing, and several stopped working altogether. Not that this spoiled our fun; despite drawing one of the worst bikes, San Francisco Scooter Girl Michelle Buggy pushed her metal beast to its limit, and was able to keep up. Another scooter came back to life after two days when it wouldn’t start; another had to be abandoned in Lucca.

On the last day of the tour, San Francisco Scooter Girl Lauren Harp, who always herded the stragglers and brought up the rear wearing her orange helmet, had a terminal engine failure… so we left the scooter under a blessed Virgin statue. The rental company, unaffiliated with Vespa, seemed unresponsive and uncaring. We were assured that this vendor would not be used again if the club goes back to Tuscany. I was told frequently that scooters on the other tours had been reliable.

ROAD ADVENTURES

Every day we hit the road with the slogan "FTEB": Full tank, empty bladder. We'd often ride four to six hours simply because we wanted to. You set your own pace, and were encouraged to map your own course: different people, different riding styles. You find a group of peeps on the tour that fit you. When we changed hotels, we had the option to follow our capable group leaders Al Fragola, and Doug Lothian.

My little black scoot did the best it could given it had a 125cc cylinder with 26,000 miles on it. Several times I twisted full tilt to get up some hills, which are plentiful, curvy and can be steep. The bike whined at 25 mph but smoothed out at cruising speeds. Sometimes I imagined Jeremy Irons riding next to me on his adventure bike, or Liev Schreiber on his Vespa. Traveling always makes me feel as though I could lead a simpler life, with just a duffle, and unlimited time to explore.

While the trip is touted as leisurely for the little core group I rode with it was anything but as we rode at a brisk clip between ancient hill towns.

Every day we plunged into endless bliss as we carved through mountain passes, along rivers and fields. I averaged seven hours of sleep to give my body recovery time from the vigorous sprints despite all the eating and drinking. I’ll admit that my body did ache at times but once I was back on the scooter, and encountered the next cinematic town, I was feeling good again.

We took a car ferry to the beautiful mediterranean island of Elba best known as the site of Napoleon's exile. Now it's a popular vacation spot and I can see why. It the largest island in the Tuscan archipelago with dramatic ocean views of turquoise water similar to the coastal

“Highway 1” in Marin County, California.

We spent two nights there, circumnavigating the island by day, relaxing in the evenings with drinks around the hotel’s large pool.

We passed wind farms and thermal springs, and were captivated by art and architecture in the many villages and towns such as Lucca, and Siena.

An unexpected delight was stopping for lunch at a former hunting lodge warmed by a large fireplace. The walls were decorated with game trophies and photographs of celebrities. The roadways were mostly smooth but when we crossed over the mountains into the province of Mass and Carrara we had a few harrowing experiences. One horrifying moment was when we entered a dark long tunnel. The only illumination in that cavernous space were our own headlights. Suddenly our bikes started plunging into gaping potholes, jarring our bodies. I held on but kept the speed and hoped the long, dank tunnel would end. Another challenging spot came when we decided to stop for lunch in a village with honey-colored stone walls. We made our way up to the hilltop town via a very steep and slender rock alleyway barely 4ft wide. It was crazy riding in this tight space full of well-worn, slippery cobblestones.

Italian drivers can be reckless as they speed down the narrow roads.

It’s freestyle driving Italian style: trucks and buses own the right-of-way. We tried to be polite and move over if we saw a car wanting to pass, but frequently you never saw them coming they were gunning so fast. We learned quickly to hold our personal space, and not let drivers push us off the road but more than once they came harrowingly close.

Later on we encountered medieval castles, sleepy hilltop villages, and the beautiful vineyards of Chianti. We even stayed a few days at the Terme Bagni di Lucca, a thermal resort with a spring-fed hot pool. The area has been enjoyed since the Etruscan and Romans times. We found a pamphlet at our hotel about the Grotta del Vento, and decided to reach the cave by riding through the protected area of Alpi Apuane Natural Park. The grotto was an underground world filled with amazing stalactites and stalagmites. In the town of Massa Marittima below the 13th century cathedral, we serendipitously met up with a group of Vespisiti, Italian hardcore riders traveling the Giro d'Itallia, a 1000 mile tour of Italy. We made our way to La Spezia the jumping off point to Cinque Terra. There we took the train to Monterosso, and walked the well-worn paths to Vernazza, and Corniglia. We celebrated that evening at a cliff side bar with an Aperol Spritz, an Italian traditional aperitif.

LOST AND FOUND

Keeping up with the group through the cities, and villages was not a problem because we practiced "stop and mark." The person behind the leader would stop at a turn, wait for the others, and point in the direction we were moving. No one was supposed to be left behind but on the first day, an inexperienced turn marker left after he decided there couldn't be anymore riders coming. He never waited for our orange helmeted wrangler. I also got left behind with two friends when we fell behind and someone forgot to stop and mark. We were on the side of the road checking our GPS when suddenly the group came charging back on the opposite side of the road. In a comedy of errors, they had ridden the wrong way, and still didn't realize we were left behind.

Having a reliable phone with map capabilities is a must; which brings me to say, Verizon sucks because they charge quite a bit for their data plan and profit from common mistakes subscribers make. I unknowingly went way over on data by leaving it switched on to check maps, and got a stiff penalty. I then purchased an additional plan at a higher rate. But there was no way to tell how much data was being used unless I called Verizon. Smarter travelers had T-Mobile's One plan which offers unlimited service abroad. Some bought an inexpensive phone from a vendor called TIM with a 3GB card, or switched out their SIM card for significant savings.

Other tools I found invaluable include a paper map of Tuscany (by Michelin), and a great find is the Lonely Planet's Tuscany Road Trips book

FOODIES

The evenings were filled with talk of our adventurous days, over the ever- present al dente pasta, or Caprese salad. Some people couldn't get enough of cinghiale, wild boar and wild mushroom. But the truffles were a delicious surprise in our pastas. I'm a foodie spoiled by San Francisco chefs and the food revolution has not reached many villages of Tuscany.

While they were authentic, I found dishes under spiced or not imaginative enough of me. When we had Wi-Fi, the most reliable source of information about restaurants came from Trip Advisor or Rick Steves. Most larger towns have a food coop, which was a savior as we were eating far too much pasta. Here we found it convenient to duck in for veggies, fruit, and prepared food.

In the end time caught up with us, the bubble popped and we said our goodbyes. The retirees went back home to plan their next holiday, the philosopher, teacher, nurse, computer techies, lawyer, and editor went back to their home towns, while the Scooter Girls returned to our delicious eateries in San Francisco to ride the Bay Area back roads.

I look forward to next years adventure. Anyone can sign up but space is limited. Current members get first choice to attend but you’ll have to cut someone’s brakes to fill their space. There are good people behind this organization, knowledgeable and hands-on. They’re not in it for the money. Anyone on two wheels would love riding with us.

All images courtesy of Penni Gladstone. Please do not use or reproduce any images without express written permission from Penni Gladstone.

These are the hotels and restaurants utilized during our tour:

HOTELS

Pontedera: Hotel Armonia, Via Ranieri Gotti Pontedera Pl,

Tel +39 0587 278511

www.hotelarmonia.it

Elba Island: Residence Villa San Giovanni, Isola d’Elba 57037

Portoferraio (LI),

Tel + 39 0565 914460

info@hotelvillasangiovanni.com

www.hotelvillasangiovanni.com

Poggibonsi: Hotel Alcedi, Viale Marconi,

67/A, 53036-Poggivonsi (SI)

Tel +39 0577 937501

www.hotelalcide.com

Bagni dei Lucca: Terme Bagni di Lucca,

Piazza San Martino, 11, 55021 Bagni di Lucca

Tel +39 0583 86034

www.termebagnidilucca.it

La Spezia: CDH Hotel La Spezia,

Via XX Settembre, 81, 19122 La Spezia,

Tel +39 1087 738848

www.compagniedeshotelslaspezia.it

Restaurants

Ristorante Bottega del Moro

Piazza Trieste, 14 Greve in Chianti

Tel +39 055 853753

La Tana dei Brilli:

Vicolo Ciambellano 4, 58024

Massa Marittima

+39 0566 901274

Belforte

Via Gerolamo Guidoni 42 La Spezia,

19018 Vernazza

+39 0187 812222

Tingle Tangel Caffe’

Via della Repubblica, 119, 53036

Poggibonsi SI

Ristorante Guidoriccio

Via Giovanni Dupre’ 2 A 7 Metri Da Piazza Del Campo,

53100, Siena

+39 0577 44350

Roads highlights:

SR429 from Poggibonsi to Castellina in Chianti, then SP35 from Collodi to Bagni di Lucca (changes number to SP55 and SP12). Best of all. Is SP13 between Castelnuovo di Garfagnana to Massa. It’s best if ridden east to west in morning or mid-day to see the ocean

Travel Agent

Maria Cherouvim of Visit Cyclades

maria.cherouvim@visit-cyclades.com

Maria Cherouvim Website

ALTERNATE ROUTES & ROADS

A beautiful ride near Poggibonsi is SP49 and SP70. If heading to Certaldo from the east to Barberino Val D’Elsa

Island of Elba

Explore the coastal routes. If you’re getting off the ferry at Portoferraio, take SP24 which turns into SP25

Greve in Chianti

Two lovely regional roads SP118 and SR222

VCOA Note - Penni is also a photographer, all images on this blog post are taken by Penni Gladstone. You can learn more about Penni and her images on her website.

#tuscany #Italy #ItalybyVespa #PenniGladstone #vcoacontentcurator #vcoacontributor #VespaClubdelMediterraneo #VespaMecca #Pontedera

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