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Experiencing Southern Italy from an Edelweiss Tour Center

In many Calabrian towns, such as in Pizzo, some streets are colorful, narrow canyons.

In many Calabrian towns, such as in Pizzo, some streets are colorful, narrow canyons.

Photo Credit: Bill Stermer

Bill Stermer
April 8, 2011
Filed under Guided Motorcycle Tour Reviews, Motorcycle Rides, Roads and Self-Guided Travel, Touring and Rallies

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story and photography by Bill Stermer

Calabria, the region located in the lower foot of the “boot” that is Italy, is a much more laid-back, slower-paced region than the more bustling, upscale north. Warm, rural and hilly, Calabria’s livin’ is simpler and quieter than the more popular Alps. That’s why I was so enthusiastic about taking part in a new tour early last May based from Edelweiss’ Southern Italy Touring Center in Calabria.

If you’ve taken an organized motorcycle tour, you know the drill—wake up early, pack, rush down to breakfast, have the bags to the luggage van by 8:30, then it’s on to another hotel. If it’s pouring rain—you’re stuck riding on. Edelweiss’ Tour Center concept, however, is that the group stays at one hotel for the entire tour, and takes day trips in the surrounding area. There’s no constant packing and repacking, and if it’s pouring down rain, screw it—we’ll walk the town and drink wine for the day.

For its Southern Italy Tour Center, Edelweiss used The Trevi Village Resort near Campora San Giovanni, nestled on Italy’s west coast overlooking the Tyrrhenian Sea. There my wife, Margery, and I, with four other Americans on the tour, were able to enjoy five days of riding in three directions around the mountains, villages and seacoast of Calabria.

Our tour guide was Marko, a German now retired from the Deutsche Luftwaffe who had been a navigator on a Tornado fighter aircraft. Edelweiss’ founder, Werner Wachter, also accompanied us for much of the tour.

Margery and I have wandered by motorcycle on our own throughout Europe, but Calabria’s roads are so tight and convoluted that we were grateful for Marko’s guidance—and he in turn for his GPS. Each morning our little group would meet for breakfast, then the 8:30 briefing on the patio above the sea. While the guidebook we’d received before our trip gave us the highlights, Marko would review the day’s particulars as the waves broke on the rocks below.

What was it like to ride this hilly, rural land? Each morning we plunged into the local two-lane roads where olive trees stood in neat rows on the hillsides, with red poppies growing underneath. Soon we’d round a tree-furred corner and there, in the distance, would be a little village. One of the most dramatic was Morano Calabro, which appeared as multiple tiers of earth-toned boxes set in rows on the mountainside across the next valley, neat and colorful and structured.

These sandstone caverns were cut into the cliff and carved into religious figures over many years. President Kennedy is among those honored.

These sandstone caverns were cut into the cliff and carved into religious figures over many years. President Kennedy is among those honored.

Often the village streets were inlaid with cobblestones, the walls of textured block, brick or painted stucco. Texture was everywhere. We idled through narrow streets designed centuries ago for horses and wagons, hemmed in by three-story-high canyons of buildings. Every day was wash day, and from the balconies overhead multicolored sheets and clothing fluttered in the breeze. Heavy, ornate wooden doors opened onto the streets, and stiff-legged old men would step out with their canes. Arm in arm they would walk with black-clad women past the war monument to the café or the church. We could smell the old men’s pipes, and the aromas from their kitchens.

On the narrow, twisting back roads Marko led our little group on a BMW R1200GS at an enjoyable but well-controlled pace. While the BMW R1200RT touring twin I had selected is a wonderful motorcycle, it was definitely overkill two-up where the roads are two Fiats wide and hairpin turns frequent. I spent a good many kilometers in second gear, and strongly suggest that future Calabria tourers request smaller bikes. Two riding buddies from Texas, Ron and Mike, selected much more nimble machines, a BMW F650 single and an R1200GS. Various Suzuki and Honda models will be available on future tours.

All the usual suspects on the Calabria tour: Ron, Margery, Bill, Marko, Kimberly, Mark and Mike. We got ’er done!

All the usual suspects on the Calabria tour: Ron, Margery, Bill, Marko, Kimberly, Mark and Mike. We got ’er done!

One day Marko led us to the high-ceilinged, 12th-century cathedral in San Giovanni de Fiore, which the guidebook humorously translated as “Flower Joe.” Here, I lit a votive candle and left an offering, asking for a safe trip. Meanwhile, madcap Kimberly (who with friend Mark was from Florida) met a man who invited us to his restaurant just off the square. The square was a labyrinth of cobblestone alleyways, and at the restaurant we found a couple’s 25th-wedding-anniversary party in progress. Here were perhaps 20 family members and friends dining at a large table in the cool, brick-lined room. When Wachter informed the couple that this day also happened to be Margery’s and my 24th anniversary, we were all suddenly part of their party and many sincere greetings were exchanged. Wachter was wearing a 25th-anniversary Edelweiss T-shirt, and elicited a hearty laugh when he spread-eagled himself against the wall behind the couple so he could be photographed with the “25” prominently displayed on his back. It’s that sort of spontaneous exchange that adds to the textures of Calabria.

Through the week we took in many sights and experiences. In Tropea we paused below the Santa Maria dell’Isola church set high on a sandstone peninsula. To access the Grotta del Romito we rode an extremely tight one-lane road through farmland textured with goat paths and steep hills. The Grotta was home to early man; its high, sloping walls sheltered the rock carving of a bull, and two 11,000-year-old graves.

The church of Santa Maria dell’Isola in Tropea was a spectacular scene and a long, rocky climb. Nope, we didn’t….

The church of Santa Maria dell’Isola in Tropea was a spectacular scene and a long, rocky climb. Nope, we didn’t….

From Catanzaro we rode along the eastern coast on the Ionian Sea to La Castella, the remains of a sandstone fortress built in the 16th century to protect the coast from pirates. The view from the castella showed the sea, the surrounding hills, and of course the tiled roofs and cobblestone streets that were, once again, examples of Calabria’s wonderful texture.

In Pizzo we idled through a canyon of buildings to the town square to enjoy tartufo at a café. This layered chocolate/nut ice cream concoction has a center of chocolate nougat; the nero (black) version is covered in powdered cocoa. We fell face-first into our tartufos and ate our way to the bottom. Later, along the coast, we climbed a set of steps down to the 15th-century Church of Piedigrotta, which has been carved into the volcanic rock. Late in the 19th century, local artisans carved life-sized religious statues in the stone, which populate the church today.

Shortly after visiting this 12th-century church in San Giovanni in Fiore,  we stumbled onto a couple’s 25th-anniversary party on Margery’s and my 24th anniversary.

Shortly after visiting this 12th-century church in San Giovanni in Fiore,  we stumbled onto a couple’s 25th-anniversary party on Margery’s and my 24th anniversary.

My most charitable description of Calabrian traffic is that, by American standards, it’s barking mad! Italian traffic laws, as Marko informed us, are more a suggestion than ironclad rule. Stop signs and speed limits are largely ignored. On main roads we would usually roll along at about 30 klicks above the posted limit, then here would come an Aston Martin or an Alfa, snout stuck up our tailpipes, pushing to get through. Behavior that might elicit rude gestures in the States was business as usual in Calabria. Still, we spent the great majority of our time on back roads where the traffic was nearly nonexistent—until we rounded a corner to find a herd of sheep or a miserable little three-wheeled, two-stroke Piaggio truck smoking along with two people in the cab and whatever in the bed.

Wachter told me that among his criteria for establishing a new tour were that it was a unique area with beautiful motorcycle roads, culture, light traffic and a small local airport, and not well known. Calabria met all that in spades. In early May the temperature was in the 60s and 70s, with minimal rain; your weather may vary.

Marko was super. Whether it was his infallible ride leadership, his helping Margery off the bike, helping me get my ATM card back when the machine ate it, his unflagging sense of humor or his bribing a driver to get us to the airport when our prearranged ride didn’t show—thanks! As for Kimberly, Mark, Mike and Ron, you guys multiplied the fun!

With two full lanes and a center stripe, this

With two full lanes and a center stripe, this

While some of our days were long and tiring, with the Tour Center concept we were free to head to the barn if we wished. We never wished. Tired or not, Margery and I will treasure those late afternoons when we’d return to the Trevi, change clothes and meet the rest of the group on the patio for a Heineken. OK, eating at the hotel restaurant every night was repetitive, but good.

While Calabria may lack the spectacular views and grandeur of the Alps, it also lacks the crowding, tour buses and high prices. If you’re ready to slow down and see Italy in a slower, more laid-back way, Calabria’s the place to be!

For more information contact Edelweiss Bike Travel at www.edelweissbike.com.

[From the September 2006 issue of Rider]

Cobblestones, brick and stucco contribute to the textures of the old church in San Giovanni in Fiore.

Cobblestones, brick and stucco contribute to the textures of the old church in San Giovanni in Fiore.

Wildflowers attack the old fort in La Castella, which lost its first battle against the pirate Barbarossa; many inhabitants were taken into slavery.

Wildflowers attack the old fort in La Castella, which lost its first battle against the pirate Barbarossa; many inhabitants were taken into slavery.

Stop beside the road anywhere in Calabria, and you might be greeted by such a gorgeous scene.

Stop beside the road anywhere in Calabria, and you might be greeted by such a gorgeous scene.

Twisty and narrow, a typical Calabrian back road requires second or third gear.

Twisty and narrow, a typical Calabrian back road requires second or third gear.

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