Hello Everyone.

It’s been another splendid day for riding motorbikes. Lots of sunshine, a bit of a chill in the air…but best of all, no rain! With all the trials by weather that we have been subjected to, it was the sort of day to savour and do something special and that’s exactly what we did.

Continued apologies for the lack of photographs, hotel WiFi is still being a pain, so I’ll keep this report reasonably brief and save the photos for a longer post in the not to distant future.

Because of the weather issues I’ve rearranged our schedule a bit and dropped some of the lesser Dolomite Passes, actually that’s just an excuse to come back here again….please Mrs Dookes! There were however three passes that I really wanted to bag (that’s slang for riding over them), initially they had been scheduled for our entry to Italy, but yep the weather stuffed that idea. The trouble is that they are all so high that even in the height of summer and precipitation can fall as snow. Over the last week all of them have seen quite a bit of the white stuff and only yesterday snow chains were required on two of them! As you can imagine, there was still a fair bit around today making things look quite superb.

Oh yes, I nearly forget to tell you which passes I’m rambling on about, I’ll give you the German names for them, as we are in the South Tirol after all, in order that we rode them:

Penserjoch 2215m/7267ft
Jaufenpass 2099m/6887ft
Timmelsjoch 2474m/8127ft

I set out with a blank canvas, sure I knew where I wanted to go, but I hadn’t planned a return route. That was good really, because I enjoyed the outward ride so much over the first two that once we had done the Timmelsjoch High Alpine road, I turned around and came back the way we went out! 😎

I’ve got to say that although the Timmelsjoch is supposed to be one of the classic alpine routes, it didn’t do much for me; I much preferred the other two. A case of the bridesmaids out doing the bride!

Yes, I promise I’ll write much more in future about all three routes with, if I say so myself, some really nice photos as well; please stick around for that.

In the meantime, keep the rubber down and the shiny side up!

Catch you soon.


Beastie – Beating Stevio.

Just under a year ago I was in Italy with a brand new bike. One day I wrote this:

“Today we should have ridden the Stelvio Pass, but poor weather at Bolzano, low cloud and rain put paid to that idea. In addition I have come to the conclusion that Baby Harls just ain’t the girl for that type of road, she’s too heavy and her long wheelbase makes it “interesting” on the tight hairpins. What she is good at though is “mile munching” and today she did that just fine. ”

A few days later we crested the Col de Lombarde and rode the Cime de la Bonette, the highest paved through road in Europe. Was I wrong a few days previously? Yes, totally!

Since then there’s been a beast gnawing at my back and it’s name is Stelvio.

In the past year there hasn’t been a week when I haven’t studied the map of that bloody Pass, or read articles about it, or watched videos of people riding it’s famous hairpins. I wasn’t obsessed, it was eating at me and mocking me from a distance. It seemed that Stelvio believed that it had beaten me, it’s reputation had scared me away and it had wormed into my psyche.

You see I believe that mountains have something, call it character, call it soul; I’ve felt it many times. Sometimes it’s as if it doesn’t want you there. In my beloved Welsh mountains Aran Fawddwy stands out like that, perhaps it’s because it has claimed so many lives, but it definitely never wants you on its slopes; mountains, like the sea, demand respect.

What Stelvio hadn’t realised was that I’m a Celt, we understand and feel these things and we don’t take crap from anyone or anything.

All that time I was plotting my revenge, looking for the moment when I would return and conquer.

Today I woke early in Livigno. There had been rain overnight, the ground was soaking with large puddles everywhere and the cloud still hugged the mountains like gossamer strands caressing the silent peaks. A slow steady breakfast was on the cards, followed by a gentle stroll through the awakening streets.

By ten o’clock, things were looking up and the sun had begun to break through. Time to move, Stelvio – I’m coming to get you!

Livigno, basecamp.

Livigno, basecamp.

From Livigno the only road to Bormio and today’s target is the S301. At the Passo di Foscagno there’s a customs post, which is a bit strange as we are still in Italy, but it’s all due to the duty-free status of Livigno. I have to say that however laid back the Italians are, they do love a good bit of bureaucracy and this customs post took the biscuit! There was a poor chap in front of me who was made to unpack his car and another who was given a right grilling! When it came to my turn, I’m afraid I tired of the game pretty quickly – “just how many cigarettes and bottles of alcohol do you think I can carry on a motorbike?” I demanded of the official. He shrugged his shoulders and backed off when I told him that he was welcome to search through my dirty washing. “Grazie, buongiorno ,” was all I got, with a thumbs up and a jerk of the wrist indicating I was free to go!

Stelvio, I’m coming for you!

I dropped the bags off at my hotel in Bormio, I wanted the least top weight on Baby as possible, she’s heavy enough empty! Leaving the hotel, we turned left took a deep breath and hit the road.

Passo dello Stelvio at 2757 m / 9045 ft above sea level is the highest paved mountain pass in the Eastern Alps and the second highest in the whole of the Alps being just a tad below Col de Bonette in France. I’ve ridden Bonette on both Harls and Baby, so this upstart needed taming.

The climb and the hairpins start as soon as you leave Bormio. There are 75 in total, split roughly 50/50 between each side, this was going to be hard work! Throw into the mix various tunnels and Avalanche shelters, all dripping with water and having questionable road surfaces, life was getting very interesting.

The great thing about a Harley Davidson is the low-end grunt you get from the engine, there’s torque aplenty even below 2000 revs, so we stayed in second or third gears and just kept plugging at it. Just after a flight of 14 hairpins and about 7/8ths of the way up there is a road that bears off to the Umbrail Pass, right on the Swiss Border; well it would have been rude to ignore it, so hello again Switzerland! The customs post was, predictably, deserted!

Umbrail Pass, customs post. I like to declare...oh don't bother!

Umbrail Pass, customs post. I like to declare…oh don’t bother!

Returning to Italy and a further half-dozen bends took us to the summit…

Oh dear, what a disappointment!image

I love the peace that you normally find on a high mountain summit, maybe a small refuge or café, but this was something else! Every kind of small shop and stall selling any sort of Stelvio branded rubbish that you can imagine! It was all so tacky!

Stevio Pass? Over-used, over-publicised, over-rated!

Ok, so I did buy a pin badge, a patch and a bratwurst… which makes me a hypocrite, but I’m not the first in my family at that!

With perfect timing Mrs Dookes telephoned me whilst I was at the top, which was nice. She’s not a hypocrite incidentally!

We came up there!

We came up there!

Then it was time to escape and trundle back down the seemingly never-ending hill, for me going down is always harder that the uphill stretch.
Stelvio hairpin, just a silly old bend!

Stelvio hairpin, just a silly old bend!

Downhill you are always riding the brake and keeping the speed in check, going up gravity helps with that!
Serious bends!

Serious bends!

Stelvio, the high alp. It's not all hairpins, honestly!

Stelvio, the high alp. It’s not all hairpins, honestly!

Anyway, after a few “moments” we made it to Bormio and being a sucker for punishment I turned left for the Gavia Pass.

At 2621 metres, Passo di Gavia is right up there with the big ones. Unlike Stelvio it’s wild country, unspoilt by commerce and hordes of people. True there’s a cafe and a rundown refuge at the top, but there’s also silence, still tranquility.

Gavia Pass, for those that like their mountains pointy and peaceful!

Gavia Pass, for those that like their mountains pointy and peaceful!

The road up was in a terrible state, but with only eight true hairpins I could relax a bit more than earlier. Where Stelvio was a battle, this was almost a pilgrimage back to real mountain roads. On top of that, the scenery was amazing!

Baby and I trundled back to Bormio happy in a job well done. The beast had been laid to rest and now it was time to move on.

I’ve ridden all bar one of the top twenty paved passes in Europe and goodness knows how many others, maybe one day I’ll count them. For now, I’m going to ride a couple more tomorrow then a few old friends next week, after that if you see me heading for a mountain pass on a motorbike….just shoot me!

“So stand as one defiant – yes, and let your voices swell.
Stare that beastie in the face and really give him hell.”

Catch you later.


Passo del Tonale

It’s the 30th of November, happy St Andrew’s Day everyone!

Outside a Westerly gale is howling in off the North Atlantic, winds are gusting at 55knots, that’s over 60 miles per hour, the rain swirls horizontally hardly touching the ground, but soaking everything that dares to be vertical, definitely not motorcycling weather!

Inside Dookes H.Q. the kitchen log fire is oozing warmth and comfort, which is greatly appreciated by Deltic, my old gun-dog, who firmly refuses to budge from his chosen cozy spot in front of the dancing flames, who can blame him! He’s like me now, retired and content, I hate to think of how many muddy wet miles he’s trotted alongside me, patiently waiting to pick up a pheasant, partridge or pigeon, he’s earned his time in front of the fire.

Deltic's favourite spot.

Deltic’s favourite spot.

The espresso pot hisses as it produces a brew of strong, almost black, Italian coffee and my mind is transported back to sunnier days in Italy riding from Bolzano to Milan. I had to slightly rearrange my planned route on account of bad weather over the Stelvio Pass so I consulted the map for another way to go without too much Autostrada riding.

Hmm, Passo del Tonale with an elevation of 1883m/6178ft, that would fit the bill!

I wander into the lounge and settle in front of the other log-burner as my dear old dog won’t let me near the one in the kitchen. Hmm, thinking of Italy let’s have a Grappa to accompany the espresso! Ah yes, the ride. . .

Leaving Bolzano to we followed the wide Adige valley to San Michele, where we hung a right and crossed the pale green river.P1040419

The SS43 road soon began to climb up through vineyards and it became quite a pleasant day.
The scenery got more alpine as we approached Passo del Tonale, very pleasant indeed.P1040434
The thing about Tonale today is that it’s one of Italy’s biggest ski stations and unfortunately has been blighted with a whole bunch of, frankly, ugly apartment blocks! I’m sure that when there is snow everywhere and the place is buzzing with ‘Apres Ski’ activity, it must be quite pleasant, but it looked pretty grim to me as we rolled in. It didn’t smell too good either, the verdant ski slopes were well populated with goats doing a great job at keeping the grass nice and short and the air was full of their distinctive odour. Oh yes, I nearly forgot, their “calling cards” were all over the road as well!

One reason why I wanted to visit Tonale was because of its significance during World War One, when the whole of what is now Northern Italy, stretching from Switzerland to Slovenia, became known as “The Italian Front.”

Battles were sporadically fought here between 1915 and 1918, but mostly it was a cold, bloody, stalemate.

Italy had entered the war in order to annex parts of Austria, including the regions of present day Trentino and South Tyrol. The Italians had hoped to gain the initiative with a surprise offensive, but the front soon bogged down into trench warfare. This was grimly similar to the Western Front fought in France, but at high altitude. The fighting here was at times savage, but in reality the most deadly enemy was the weather. Both armies also suffered from poor logistical supply networks, meaning that not only ammunition, but more importantly food and fuel, was constantly in dreadfully short supply.

Autumn 1917 on the front line.

Autumn 1917 on the front line.

The soldiers had to contend with snow, ice and sub-zero temperatures and soon it was dubbed “The White War”. The civilian population was forced to evacuate and many thousands died in Italian and Austrian refugee camps from malnutrition and illness. The really sad thing about the war here, apart from the 1.2 million lost lives, was that the area has always been and still remains, somewhat autonomous, walk into a shop and you will be as likely to be greeted in German as Italian, the locals had always rubbed along just fine.

The front line passed directly through Passo del Tonale. Today a memorial stands in what was once No-Mans Land.P1040435
Built in 1936 on the instructions of Benito Mussolini and designed by architect Pietro Del Fabbro, it is dedicated to the soldiers of all countries who died fighting in the surrounding mountains during WW1.

Actually, its much more than just a monument, it’s also an ossuary, where the wall niches hold the remains of 847 soldiers.

I parked Baby and walked past the heavy wood and bronze doors into the Stygian gloom of a large square crypt. The atmosphere was oppressive and cold. A rack of votive candles flickered before a small altar, the light from their tear shaped flames fell onto a large marble statue of the risen Christ in the center of the room.

I paused for a moment taking in the scene and then lit a candle myself. I’m not big into religion these days, but it seemed the right thing to do as I stood there, being the only living one of the 848 of us who were present.

Walking around the crypt I paused frequently in front of the niches. Some were marked as “Unknown Italian Soldier” or “Unknown Austrian Soldier.” Some had names and others held fading photographs of the occupants, sometimes in uniform and sometimes in civilian dress. Some niches held multiple remains.

I only did one tour around the room before I had to leave, it was just too oppressive and hauntingly sad.

Outside, steps curve to a semicircular terrace above the crypt where I was able to sit in the warm sunlight and ponder the room beneath me. I was honestly glad to get out of there. P1040437

Today in the surrounding mountains, as snow and glaciers melt with climate change, further corpses and remains are being uncovered. Modern generations are still honouring the memory of these newly discovered soldiers of a hundred years ago, but thankfully the mountains are now playgrounds, not battlegrounds.P1040438

Playgrounds for people like me, free to play on a wonderful Harley Davidson.

Most of all, just grateful to be Free.

“‘Till the next time we say goodbye, I’ll be thinking of you.”

Catch you all soon.


Return to Italy

This retirement game is pretty OK, particularly with such a fantastic summer of sport going on all around.

First there was the splendour and power of Le Tour de France, then the cricket test matches between England and Australia have enthralled and are now being followed by the first warm up games for the rapidly approaching Rugby Union World Cup. If only the weather in the UK was quite as predictable!

Time to slip back to Italy for a top up of coffee, fine wine and sunshine!

It’s true to say that I have fallen hopelessly in love with everything I have seen so far in Italy. The country is a place where passion is worn on one’s sleeve and wow, do the Italians get passionate about things! On top of which, everyone I have met have been friendly, happy and super welcoming. Note to self; learn to speak the language better this winter!

Drifting back to the hills of Piedmont, in the North West of Italy, on a Harley Davidson is no hardship at all! The name Piedmont apparently comes from latin, meaning “at the foot of the mountains,” though if you speak French it is also easy to see the link and as the area is bounded on three sides by the Alps it’s also pretty obvious too!

Piedmont is an important industrial region, it is home to FIAT the automobile manufacturer, but for me more importantly is one of the greatest wine-producing regions in Italy. Here they do not make “old rot gut” stuff, oh no, this is the home of top end prestigious wines such as Barbaresco, Moscato d’Asti and most revered of all, Barolo. P1040478

Situated about 30 miles southeast of Turin, yet light years away in time, lies the small town of Barolo, population 750, which gives it’s name to this most majestic of wines. On my last trip I slightly slipped up, I didn’t buy enough, so hence my return!DSCF3864

We rolled into the compact town square just after midday. The town was quiet, actually it was more than that, it was dead. The hot air was still and the scorching sun reflected back off the terracotta roof tiles making the sky above shimmer. It’s an unassuming little place, really only attractive from a distance when the red tiles stand out against the verdant vineyards that run right up to the edge of town. From a small bar came muffled voices and the alluring scent of strong Italian coffee.
Baby Harley’s engine ticked as she cooled gently in the heat of the narrow streets. A large truck with French registration plates rumbled past, stirring dusty clouds up off the parched road.

I walked through the open door into the shady interior of the bar and ordered a double espresso and lunch. The sunlight penetrated in shards of light that captured a million dust particles hanging like shimmering diamonds in the still air. I settled in a corner chair, rubbed my eyes and realised how much the ride had taken out of me. The lady working behind the bar smiled and delivered my coffee accompanied with a carafe of water and a glass; the Italians know much about coffee and the obligatory water was certainly welcome.

My ears were singing a high-pitched wail as a dumped my riding jacket on the tiled floor. Riding motorbikes plays hell with my tinnitus, even with ear protection and a quiet helmet; it’s the legacy of years working with noisy railway locomotives!

I sipped the strong, excellent coffee and pondered the sanity of riding to Barolo just for some wine. Yep, definitely a good idea!

La Signora reappeared and placed a plate of heaven on the table in front of me. Filetto Baciato, made from pork fillet marinated in white wine then coated with a paste made from salami and packed into a sausage casing to age for six months, wood roasted artichoke hearts and fresh asparagus spears, a small jug of olive oil, some crisp bitter salad leaves and of course Grissini, the Turin breadstick now common all over Italy. Piedmont is rightly famous for it’s simple cuisine, at its gamey best in the autumn, but hey this is summer so go with what’s available, I’m not complaining! I contemplated a cold beer, but no, I’m riding, so stick to water.

The other patrons of the bar are seemingly locals, it’s not the sort of establishment that really attracts tourists and that suits me fine. There are probably about a dozen other people as well as me, cutlery chinks against plain solid crockery as we all eat, enjoy our lunches and for those with companions, talk. My Italian language skill is not great, but I catch snatches of conversation and smile at the animated way that views are exchanged, deals made and the food discussed, yes this food deserves to be discussed it’s simple and very good.

You know, just about everywhere I go it’s always about the food and sadly mine is now finished.

I catch La Signora’s eye and order another coffee. Well, why not, I don’t intend to sleep for hours yet! She returns with a fresh cup and offers a bottle of grappa. It’s another Italian tradition that I love, whereby the spirit is supposed to take the edge off the caffeine or the caffeine off the alcohol, I get the logic, but either way I politely decline!

Coffee gone, I settle up and step outside back into the furnace of this scorching summer. It’s nearly two in the afternoon and the glass is reading 34 degrees Celsius. Time to hunt down this small town’s most famous product and ride on!P1040712
Guess that’s mission accomplished!

“I love wine, women an’ song.”

Catch you soon.