BY BRENDAN BOYLE
I could just try to describe how beautiful Tuscany is once you are away from the working cities and every word would be true.
Or I could start with some real world details about getting to our Vespas and getting away from the factory where they were made.
Getting from Rome to Pontedera, the Piaggio company town that has produced planes, trains, cars and bikes since 1924, was an exhibition of Italian efficiency.
A vending machine on the Termini station forecourt coughed out four tickets for a Eurostar train leaving Rome within 20 minutes.
The seats were booked and each had a table with a 220 volt power point for laptops. There is even WiFi if you have a local account or want to sign on with a credit card.
Two hours later we were in Florence with 30 minutes to find and board the next train to Pontedera.
That was a different experience since we left boarding too late and ended up standing in a very hot vestibule outside a very well used toilet.
Pontedera does not expect tourists. Nor, unless you want to visit the Vespa museum, which is in the same road as the station, does the company.
We were not allowed to take cameras into the factory area, where scooters were stacked in various stages of completion,from under-coated chassis to bubble-wrapped final product each on each own pallet stacked six-high in racks waiting for the trucks to send them to every corner of the world.
The factory produced a million Vespas in the first 10 years from 1946. Today it produces a quarter of a million a year from this factory alone, with others sold under the Piaggio brand from factories in China and Vietnam.
After a bit of paperwork and a tour of the museum, we were introduced to the scooters we will be riding for the next two weeks – two 125cc models in different livery and two versions of the gutsy 300cc touring model, about which much more later.
The 50-km ride to our booked overnight at Montecatini Val di Cecina would be a cinch, we were assured.
Just follow the signs to Volterra or make sure your stay on the road marked Fi-Pi-Li.
But Italians are like South Africans in at least one respect: they assume you know all the towns on your intended route and mention them randomly on road signs. So, having plunged into the afternoon traffic and ridden for 45 minutes that included an unintended and terrifying highway experience, we found ourselves back in Pontedera with 24km on the clock and 49 still to go.
The details don’t matter, but we managed to break the Vespa homing instinct and eventually found the country roads we plan to stick to for an exhilarating run south.
What we need to learn, though, is how to handle the truckers who expect bikers to be more aggressive than they are, not timid as we were in these first few hours.
But we found our farmhouse before the 8pm, having stopped off in a tiny village grocer’s store for wine, tomatoes, fresh mozzarella, a wheel of crispy break and some unidentifiable meats with a lot of garlic.
Day two has dawned hot as hades, smoke spirals straight up from a farmer’s fire in the valley and we are contemplating a more measured ride to San Gimignano.
PICTURES: Brendan Boyle