1972 - All roads lead to Rome

In my mind, drawing a straight line between the reign of Augustus and the modern era via a few renaissance painters, I hadn't even realised Italy had ever been disunited.


Eventually we decided to get off and walk. There wasn't much point in coming to Rome and not looking at the Colosseum so that was our first stop. Comparing it with the Parthenon, which I'd seen the previous year in Athens, it looked like it had led a hard life although from the inside it was apparent that it was a much more intricate construction (photo 8) so I suppose it was only to expected that it would decay faster than a building made chiefly of solid stone columns. I suppose I'd been expecting that being based in the middle of a major city that somehow it would be more functional, that it would have been restored or repaired and used for concerts or something. To leave the interior untouched but to use the exterior as a traffic island somehow seemed to be contradictory and belitting its significance. Since 1972 of course there have been two major restoration projects, one taking place in the 1990's and a second one underway at the time of writing so maybe there has been a change of heart by the Roman authorities.


Our second "must see" tourist venue was strictly not even in Italy at all. The Vatican has been an independant state since 1929 although we didn't notice any sign of of it as we wandered across St Peter's Square (photo 9) and into St Peter's itself. As both of us had been brought up in the Catholic faith and my education had been entrusted initially to nuns at primary school and then to the shock troops of the Catholic tradition, Jesuit priests, you'd have thought this would have been an emotional experience - a bit like finally climbing Mount Olympus and entering into the spiritual domain of the all powerful.


Sadly it wasn't. St Peter's was just another old church; impressive in its way but definitely rooted in the material world. Maybe if Pope Paul VI had been wandering up and down blessing everyone we'd have been more impressed but we mostly got the all pervading odour of incense (I suspect we'd just missed a ceremony), something that just took me back to my school's dark and gloomy Victorian church in North London rather than instigate visions of the world to come. We came away thinking they could have made more of the tourist trade and I have wondered in more recent times whether the Vatican is the only country on the planet without a MacDonalds!


Many years later, on a visit to Lourdes, we saw how it could be done. The French have certainly not missed a trick when it comes to commercial exploitation of Bernadette's visions and a halo of shops selling every conceivable religious artifact has sprung up around the site. We bought a couple of litres of Holy Water in a plastic container and it eventually got used to top up our car radiator when the level dropped. It was obviously worth the money as the car didn't use any more water for quite some time afterwards.


One more day with our feet grounded in the capitalist experience of Rome's shops and it was time to head back. However Italy's Catholic heritige wasn't quite done with us yet. In the north of the country we ran out of fuel and our efforts to find an open filling station would have tried the patience of a saint. Despite it being a weekday everywhere was closed and we were stranded for the best part of a day until one garage finally opened in the evening. To try and make up a little of the time we decided to try and avoid as much of the Alps as possible and came back into France on the road from Turin to Grenoble via Briancon and the Col de Lautaret.


This was a much easier ride than our route through Switzerland on the way down and within another day we were back in the Champagne region of northern France and our last overnight stop. By this time money was running a little short and in common with all of these early trips there was no credit card backup. We had what we took with us in cash or travellers cheques and it was up to us to budget accordingly. There was therefore a hierarchy of spending. Top of the pile was money for fuel as without petrol we were walking. Below that came money for accomodation and / or food and finally money for general spending, entry fees, sightseeing and souvenirs. An example of what happens when this goes wrong would be waiting for us in twelve months down the road in 1973.


By the time we were back in northern France just about all our remaining money was allocated for petrol so our last night was spent in another side of the road rough camp and using up the last of whatever food we'd got left. The site we chose was on a rural road just south of Reims and we set up camp next to a layby where convenient hedges would shelter us from direct sight. By this time we'd both had enough of the tent. It was probably the single worst piece of equipment we'd taken and enough was enough. I'd acquired it from my local scout troop about five years earlier when they'd had enough of it and I didn't know any better. Unlike more modern designs the groundsheet wasn't sewn in and unless you took great care in pitching it there would be a gap between the walls and the floor. Even if the walls did reach all the way down water would still run in. The entrance flaps were fastened with tie cords rather than a zip so wind came straight through and the problem with the wooden poles jamming together on the outward leg was the last straw. It was a tent design more suited to the Boar War than the 1970's and this was going to be it's last night.


The next morning we took our frustrations out on it. A couple of minutes of hacking and slashing with a penknife reduced it to the state in the bottom photograph. It was certainly never going to be used again. After packing the bike we decided that we'd take the next step and reduce it to ashes. A few drops of petrol to get things moving and we had the satisfaction of seeing flames rise from the bundle of canvas. Our satisfaction was shortlived though as no sooner had the material caught than we heard the sound of a police siren. Not only that but it then pulled in to the layby on the other side of the hedge, not 10m from us. Panic set in rapidly but we quickly worked out that the gendarme had stopped a speeding motorist and it wasn't an ultra rapid response to our tent inferno. It wouldn't be long though before he'd dealt with the speeding car and wondered where the smoke was coming from. Having just lit the fire we were now desperately trying to put it out - as silently as we could in case he heard us. Luckily he never did come to investigate and both cars moved off about 10mins later. Not wishing to push our luck we dumped the half charred remains in a rubbish bin.


The Suzuki completed the trip without any real problems and I subsequently borrowed it from Ashley many times over the next six or nine months when my CB450 Honda was laid up with various mechanical maladies. By spring 1973 I was looking to replace the Honda and considered both of the T350's bigger siblings the T500 and the new GT550. I came very close to buying a GT550 but the new 1973 version, complete with front disc brake, was considerably more expensive than the drum braked model it replaced. In the end I went for a Yamaha XS2, a 650 four stroke twin, influenced mainly by the fuel consumption. My heart would have chosen a two stroke every time but my head couldn't ignore the rapidly inflating cost of fuel and the dismal mpg figures that most bigger two strokes returned - particularly as by this time we were planning a major bike trip back to Greece in the summer of 1973.




The previous two years had proved it was possible to reach the outer edges of Europe on small bikes, even when they were overloaded with pillions and mountains of luggage. Actually, at the time we didn't think of 250s as small bikes. They were bigger and far more powerful than the Lambrettas we'd been using a few years earlier and significantly bigger Japanese bikes were still thin on the ground. That was about to change but this trip, in early August 1972, represented the high water mark for two stroke touring.


My brother had just bought a Suzuki T350. Physically much the same size as John's Yamaha DS6 250 from the previous two years but with a significant increase in power and torque, it looked just perfect for a long distance trip from the day he brought it home from the dealers.




















Actually he hadn't wanted the Suzuki. He was upgrading from a 125 Yamaha two stroke twin and had placed an order for one of the new 350cc Triumphs that had been announced in a blaze of publicity towards the end of 1971. Compared to the older Triumphs these really did look as good as the Japanese offerings and influenced by the torrent of flag waving enthusiasm coming from the motorcycle press he decided that this was what he wanted next.

He placed his order and waited .... and waited, and waited.


Eventually, as the spring of 1972 turned to summer, he gave up and bought the Suzuki. It turned out to be a good decision because for financial reasons Triumph never did put the Bandit into commercial production and within a year or two the whole company was on the point of collapse.


Having convinced him that the new bike would be perfect for foreign touring we decided that a trip to Rome would be possible in the time we had available. After the previous year's luggage carrying problems where the Yamaha rack had to be welded in Italy and the rear of the Honda had been overstressed by the weight of luggage to the point where the whole of the rear end, mudguard, lights and everything had fractured and off in east London shortly after our return from Greece I'd eventually realisedthat we needed to take this aspect of preparation seriously. So the one upgrade we agreed on was a decent luggage rack.


A quick trip to Ken Craven's factory in north London to obtain a rack was the next step. Cravens had the reputation at the time for producing about the best touring racks and panniers available albeit it with a slightly old fashioned look and feel about them (even then). They offered a fit while you wait service which we took advantage of on the basis that factory fitted had to be better than lashing it up with whatever bolts and brackets we could find at home.


A return visit the following year to have one fitted to my new 650 Yamaha wasn't quite so succesful though as they managed to strip the threads on a bracket welded to the frame. They jammed the bolt back into the hole and I didn't find out about it until days later when I was loading the bike prior to departure. On the Suzuki though there were no problems and the new Craven rack withstood an even bigger mountain of luggage than before without flinching.


I was so impressed by the design of the stuff Craven's produced that to this day I have a couple of bikes fitted with luggage based on Craven parts. Since Ken Craven retired in the late 80's the manufacturing rights to his range of racks and panniers has passed through a number of different hands but sadly no one has gone back into more than limited production of a few items. I would have thought that the upsurge in the worldwide classic movement over the last couple of decades would have provided a decent enough market for someone to take it on but at the time of writing nothing is being produced.
























1972 route





































Despite the new rack our approach to packing the bike was the same as it had been for the past few years. A small suitcase containing clothes went directly onto the rack to form a flat base and everything else was piled on top. A waterproof covering - a rubberised canvas groundsheet - then covered everything to keep the weather out. Elastic bungee straps then held it all in place. Oddly shaped items that wouldn't fit neatly into the pile, stuff we thought we'd need en route or things we just forgot to pack were lastly forced under various taut elastics and that was it. You can see the overall effect in the first picture taken in mid France when we pulled over after riding through a thunderstorm. The yellow and white box on the side was our new Kodak Instamatic 33 camera bought on the cross channel ferry and this was its first picture.
























The route took us down the west side of France. We risked the rain holding off for an overnight stop at the side of country road near Reims (second picture in black and white) then continued south past St Dizier and Chaumont to our next overnight stop in a municipal campsite near the Swiss border south of Besancon (third picture where I'm cooking over a Camping Gaz stove).


That night the heavens opened and we rapidly became aware of the shortcomings of my tent. It was the same one we'd used for the Morocco trip two years earlier but we'd had very little rain on that journey. This time it had hardly stopped since we left the UK. By the time morning arrived everything was soaked and we had clothes, sleeping bags etc everywhere trying to dry them out in the sun. Even trying to take the tent down caused us problems. The wooden tent poles had swollen in the rain and wouldn't come apart. In one piece they were too wide to go on the bike so eventually, after struggling with them for ages, I just snapped them in half. Luckily the wood splintered on the diagonal and I realised I could hold the two halves together with a couple of hose clips.


That days's route took us over the Alps, initally to Lausanne then through Martigny and over the Grand St Bernard pass down to Aosta. The late start meant that it was getting dark by the time we were out of the mountains and onto the Italian plain north of Turin. More rain and the tough riding in the Alps meant we were exhausted and not finding any campsites we eventually decided on another rough camp at the side of the road. The tent went up as best we could do it in the dark and Ashley was so tired he crawled into his sleeping bag complete with motorcycle jacket, trousers and boots.


Next morning we realised just how poor a choice of site we'd made. The ground was waterlogged so everything, ourselves included, was covered in mud. Even worse, the warm, humid and wet conditions had attracted a huge cloud of mosquitos overnight. The tent was anything but insect proof and they'd got everywhere. Ashley was covered in bites - all over his face, his eyelids, all over his body and even some on his toes despite still wearing his boots inside his sleeping bag. I tried to get some idea of how many but gave up approaching 250. For whatever reason they've tended to leave me alone and I had under 20. Unfortunately we didn't have any medication to deal with them and Ashley spent a very uncomfortable day trying to deal with the itching.


We decided we ought to head for the coast and find a decent campsite where we could recover. At least now the sun was out and the mountains were behind us so we were looking forward to easier times. Not quite yet though. A desire to stick to the back roads combined with a navigational error had us riding along a dirt track for about 10 miles (4th and 5th pictures in b/w). This led to a few cross words as it was my error but his new bike that was getting damaged. Eventually we got to the coast near Genoa and deciding that we needed to make some progress, took the motorway as far as our next campsite just outside of La Spetzia in Lerida (picture 6 in b/w).




































































































After a day of washing, cleaning and recovery we were ready to head south again. We stopped off at Pisa for lunch and a chance to see the leaning tower. At the time it was possible to climb to the top of the tower but we decided against it based on a combination of cost and needing the time to get to Rome that day. A bad decision really as on my next visit the tower was closed and I've not been back there since.


Later on that day we eventually found a campsite about 10 miles north of Rome that could fit us in. The first few we'd tried were all full and we were starting to get a little worried. We soon realised that we'd probably got the pitch we did because no one else wanted it. It was on top of a huge ants nest and for the three days we were there it was a constant battle to keep them at bay. We tried looking both for for another pitch and for another site but without any luck. August in Rome area was very busy that year.


In the end it came down to us or the ants. Boiling water worked for a while as did blocking the holes. The campsite owner gave us some "insecticide" - a bag of white powder that looked to much like DDT for me to consider using it near where we were sleeping so it was only used the day we left. Hopefully the next occupants will have benefitted.























The next day after settling in at the campsite we took the bike into central Rome. With the reputation Rome has for traffic and Italian driving standards that may seem like a recipe for disaster but unburdened by the luggage and with our motorcycling sixth sense on overdrive it wasn't a problem. Our biggest issue was that we didn't have the faintest idea where we were going. We had only the most rudimentary maps and the AA's routefinding booklets. They were fine for getting to Rome but totally useless once we were there. Our combined knowledge of Rome was that it contained the Vatican and various relics of the Roman Empire. The only one of these we'd heard of was the Colliseum. Despite an above average education my knowledge of Rome stopped at about 100AD and five years of school Latin didn't help me much with trying to talk to modern Italians. At that stage I hadn't even seen the film La Dolce Vita! No guide books that we could find either. We were therefore riding blind


Our initial tour round the sights of the city look us past some huge monuments. We recognised the Coloseum but that was about it. However being on a bike meant we could park more or less anywhere so we'd frequently stop and see if there were any notices or explanations .


The one that sticks in my mind was the Altare della Patria - the monument to King Victor Emmanuel 2. When we stopped in front of it I read the inscription but I was no wiser. I'd never heard of the king. It was only in subsequent years that I realised it was not only a monument to the first king after Italian unification in the 19th century but that it's also a Great War monument holding the Italian tomb of the unknown warrior.



(Continued top left)