It was time to leave Switzerland for a couple of very good reasons: 1) it was blowing the budget even more than the rest of the trip (beautiful country, not cheap!), and 2) we’d been in touch with our friend, Nich, who was planning on getting to Mandello del Lario in Italy on Friday so he could visit the Moto Guzzi factory, and did we want to meet up? The answer to that was a resounding yes, so on Thursday morning we packed the bikes up, gave the SatNav our destination, and were off.

Time to pack up and go...

We had had some debate about which route to take… The SatNav was offering up the quick-but-dull route on motorways through Italy after crossing the Alps via the Saint-Bernard tunnel. The Saint-Bernard pass has quite a reputation as a fun and twisty one to ride, but we’d ridden a fair amount of twisties over the last few days, and Tony really wanted to ride through one of the big tunnels. We ummed and ahhed for a while, and eventually agreed to go for the tunnel. After all, we still had a lot of mountains to ride up ahead! After that we would play it by ear (or road!) and see how we felt after getting into Italy.

Planning to ride a little more safely than this...

The gloomy weather forecast was proved wrong, as after packing up under a few clouds, the skies cleared to another sunny day. The road leading up to Saint-Bernard was a glorious one, full of bends and twisties, and even the hairpins were easy-peasy after the roads we’d ridden with Jean-Maurice.

There be snow on them thar hills!

This was a main trunk road after all, with full-sized HGV’s driving it, so the hairpins had plenty of room for manoeuver. We played leap-frog with one of them, as we had to stop and take some pictures en-route, and each time he would overtake us, ready for us to go past him at the next appropriate moment.

Uh-oh, he's sneaking up behind us again - take the darned picture!

We got to the final decision point where the road branched off for the pass, and carried straight on the tunnel. We had no idea how much it would cost, but figured it would be worth it just for the experience, let alone the saved fuel and time (although we know, we know, we missed the views and a great pass to ride this way!). In we went and pulled up to the toll gate, where Tony shelled out 17.5 Swiss Francs per bike. Italian customs waved us on through and we rode into the depths. And kept riding, and riding, and riding. 4 miles on and we were just coming out of the tunnel proper, but there were still another several miles of gallery before we emerged back out into the light. It really was an interesting ride, and I’m glad that we took the decision to go that way, for all that we missed out on the pass.

Into Italy and more twisty turny roads down out of the mountains. We were stuck behind a truck for a goodly amount of the time, which was a tad frustrating as there were very few places where overtaking was allowed. Eventually we saw a gap, as did the driver, who kindly drove over to the right to allow us past. We swooped our way down the rest of the bends, which held no fear for me after the roads of the last few days. Wish I could say the same for the Italian drivers, however, who more than lived up to their reputation!

We hopped on to the motorway so we could get some distance under our belts, as the weather was starting to look a bit iffy and we’d had a few splodges of rain. We were doing one of those “shall we stop for waterproofs or shan’t we?” things that most bikers will be familiar with. It wasn’t made any easier by the fact that the odd laybys and rest areas were not exactly abundantly signed – it was rather a case of “There’s another one we’ve just missed, doh!”. Luckily it was nice and warm, so the odd bits of rain dried quickly and we never regretted our lack of waterproofs – indeed we would have cooked in them if we’d put them on!

We were making great time, and decided to push on to Mandello del Lario, as it looked like we’d get there in plenty of time to get the tent up and settled in. Then we reached the outskirts of Milano. At rush hour. Bloody hell. Not my favourite riding experience of the trip, that’s for sure! The traffic was truly awful, and this was just the outskirts – I dread to think what it’s like actually in the city proper. The problem for us was that the lanes were really quite narrow, so filtering with the bikes loaded up and with metal panniers was a bit of a problem. We filtered where we could, but had a couple of close scrapes and spent a goodly amount of time just stuck in the traffic, watching scooters shoe-horn their way past. And as for lane discipline, well, the less said about that the better! It seems that to drive in Italy you need the balls of a lion, a completely brass neck, and a complete lack of concern about yours or anyone elses safety! But I could be being a tad harsh here…

Spot the health and safety violation...

Suffice it to say that once we’d finally escaped from the madness that was Milano, we set off hell for leather to reach the relative safety of Lake Como. Coming into Mandello we were glad to spot a small petrol station, as we were getting close to running on fumes having not filled up since Martigny in Switzerland. The petrol pumps were attended, something I haven’t seen in years, and we caused much merriment to the lovely chap who filled our tanks, who was most approving of us riding Moto Guzzis. Mandello del Lario is the home of Moto Guzzi after all! Neither of us speak any Italian, but we still managed to communicate enough to enjoy a little banter. I asked about camping, and the one English speaker amongst the attendants came over and gave us directions – they might be scary drivers, but on first impressions, they’re lovely people! We headed off with much waving and smiling, and found our way to the campsite with ease.

There was no-one available at the camping reception, so we rode on down to the campsite and pitched the tent, sure that we could find someone to check in with and pay in the morning. Luckily we just managed to get set up before the storm that we’d heard rumbling thunder around the mountains hit the site. We finished unpacking to the sound of the rain on the tent, then took a brief walk up to the bar and restaurant on site, Bar Paradiso. We ordered our first real Italian pizzas before watching the storm from the veranda. It was most spectacular, with big flashes of lightning lighting up the sky, and huge rolls of thunder echoing around the lake. Fantastic. We’d arrived in Italy.

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