Loving the Italian Alps and Dolomites
Have you ever considered an overseas trip that combines riding motorcycles on incredible roads surrounded by amazing scenery?
Imagine snow-capped mountains, countless waterfalls, and villages so quaint they don't even look real. While I've been to 80 countries so far, the Italian Alps and Dolomite mountains have some of the best scenery and riding in the world. Italy is such a beautiful and historic country, with great food, scenery, and warm hospitality. The problem is: where to go and which are the best routes to get there?
Italian-born Enrico Grassi, founder of Hear the Road, loves to show off his country, and spent many years discovering the best places to ride. Last summer I joined a tour led by Grassi that started in Rome and looped north into the Alps and Dolomites, traversing a wide range of terrain and climate zones. The first day included time to visit Rome, get our reserved bikes from the rental shop, and enjoy a welcome dinner – so the participants could meet. Our group included one couple and five solo riders from all over the world.
The second day took us from Rome some 178 miles to the historic Tuscan city of Siena, the ancient capital of Siena province. The road north is fairly flat autostrada (i.e., motorway), which gave us a chance to get familiar with the bikes, roads, signage, and “relaxed” driving style. Siena, as with other Tuscan hill towns, was first settled by the Etruscans (c. 900–400 BC). Siena's center is steeping with history, was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and is one of Italy's most-popular tourist stops. As we walked the vast main square, and took in the sights along narrow cobblestone streets worn smooth by countless footsteps over millennia, history surrounded us. A brief respite at a sidewalk cafe was welcome before we returned to our bikes.
On day three our group continued north 170 miles from Siena to Modena (Which gives us a loose reason to link to this song by the Modena City Ramblers –Ed.), through the famous Chianti wine region, past ancient Firenze (Florence) and over lovely Abetone Pass. Modena is a large city on the south side of the Po Valley, in the Emilia-Romagna region of northern Italy. It, too, is an ancient city, now famous for its high-end car manufacturers; De Tomaso, Ferrari, Lamborghini, Maserati and Pagani have all been located here. After a hot day it feels great to doff our riding gear and savor a cold drink, or three, along with a tasty dinner.
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During day four, we rode about 200 miles from Modena to Pieve di Piscogne, which is a stylish four-star hotel near the historic Pisogne city center, situated in a low yet hilly region just above the long lake. Our route skirted Lake Garda, Italy's largest, which was buzzing with power boats and skiers. Later we rode around Lake Iseo, then crossed the twisty Maniva Pass, a taste of things to come as the mountains began to surround us.
The following day, our route brought us a very busy 185 miles from Pisogne to Bormio, up and over the Zambia, San Marco, Maloja, Bernina, Forcola Livigno, Eira and Foscagno passes. The sheer number of corners and constant elevation changes made it great practice for Stelvio! Stelvio Pass (Italian: Passo dello Stelvio) is the most famous mountain pass in northern Italy, with an elevation of 9,045 feet. That makes it the highest paved mountain pass in the Eastern Alps, and second highest in the Alps – just 148 feet shy of France's Col de la Bonette.
Bormio itself is a quaint little city in Sondrio Province and the Lombardy region of northern Italy. Due to its famous thermal baths – said to offer healing powers – Bormio has been a popular destination since ancient-Roman aristocrats came to bathe in the soothing warm waters. The village is built around historic Piazza Cavour and Via Roma, a major stop on the ancient trade route gong from Venice up to Switzerland.
Bormio's medieval center draws many tourists and its proximity to excellent skiing brings more in winter. But in summer Bormio's strategic location near the base of Stelvio Pass makes it perfect for a three-night sojourn; so, we could play! Stelvio's 75 hairpin switchback turns – 48 of them on the northern side – are a challenge to negotiate in any weather. We had rain and fog, which took it up a notch or two!
For Day six we enjoyed an epic 144-mile loop, including a run up and back, crossing the legendary Stelvio Pass. Then we rode the Umbrial, Resia, Zernez, Livigno and Eira Passes, including a brief crossing into Switzerland. Day seven was a free day for us in Bormio, which, of course, I put to good use by taking on Stelvio and the surrounding high mountain roads once again; this region has some of my favorite roads in the world!
On day eight, we left Bormio for Canazei on a 181-mile ride from the beautiful Alps to the amazing Dolomites. The route traversed the Tonale, Cles, Cavalese, and Lavaze Passes and skirts along Lake Carezza. While the Italian Alps tend to have smoother, earthen slopes, the jagged Dolomites have craggy bare rock peaks thrusting unabashedly skyward, and are capped year round with snow at higher elevations.
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Canazei is a quaint mountain town of about 2,000 inhabitants in Italy's far northern Trentino-Alto Adige/Südtirol region. It's situated in the Dolomites range, which extends from River Adige in the west to Piave Valley (Pieve di Cadore) to the east. Northern and southern borders are shaped by the Puster and Sugana valleys. We stayed at Canezie for two nights, with the day between used for riding 150 miles over roughly a dozen passes – some of the finest scenery and roads imaginable.
Next morning, we rode from Canazei to Ravenna, about 219 miles, crossing the Rollo Pass through Martino di Castrozza and then Bassano del Grappa – home of Grappa wine. The roads became straighter and the cool mountain air was replaced by the warm temperatures of the lower elevations. A feeling that the ride was coming to an end was palpable.
The last day on the road took us south from Ravenna near the Adriatic coast to Rome, nearly 300 miles, and the longest distance in one day. Much of the route was on high-speed autostrada, allowing us to return the rental bikes in the late afternoon. Afterward, we met for the farewell dinner and to trade goodbyes and individual tales of the journey.
Signore Enrico Grassi, leader and founder of Hear the Road, is fluent in both Italian and English. What makes his tours stand out is the fact you're riding with the founder of the company, and his passion for riding in Italy is strong. Our trip came with an excellent route book containing daily instructions on maps, along with an Italy-based cell phone we could use to contact Enrico, make emergency calls, or receive calls from home free of roaming charges. It came in handy when I got separated from the group after stopping (perhaps too long) for photos.
Experiencing the Alps and the Dolomites should be on every serious motorcyclist's to-do list. Riders must be capable of handling steep roads, switchbacks and tight turns, sometimes in rain. But the rewards are many, earning a sense of achievement and adventure which only comes with a two-wheeled journey. We enjoyed comfy hotels, tasty foods and fine wines, plus interesting riding companions. Along the way, we experienced Roman and renaissance cities, medieval villages, and aqua mountain lakes. The memories of high mountain passes with endless curves, deep valleys, snow-capped mountains and steep challenging roads will last a lifetime.
A new, but similar, Alps and Dolomites tour of eight days and seven nights, with six riding days over 950 miles now replaces the tour above. Starting and ending in Milan (instead of Rome) it reduces the time and distance required on busy main highways getting to and from the mountains. Hear the Road offers small group and custom tours with a variety of itineraries along spectacular roads, which will allow you to explore the country easily. The company collaborates with Blue Strada Tours and Bill Kniegge, who operates specialized motorcycle tours in and around North Carolina.