When you leave your 911 behind on what is short holiday anyway to curve your way along the mountain passes in South Tyrol, then the alternative steed should at least be compatible. Or better not. Or perhaps both? The tour on veteran Vespas with couple of pals from Germany and Italy promised both: a rear engine, well-groomed tradition, starts first time, unique sound and seductive shape. And yet a means of mass transport with two wheels missing, very limited performance and the archaic engineering of a veteran two-stroke. The back on our scooters whole appeal of a Vespa, since the ”Paperino“ first appeared in 1946. A couple of telephone calls to a few friends, even faster registration for the recently acquired 1981 Bella Donna, click look in the CURVES edition for northern Italy and the route complete with the programme for three relaxing days with a few mates is set up (not our standard destination for trips we make, but let’s regard it as an experience and an achievement). Wonderful routes, the right company, typical cuisine of the region, a full tank - the good life can be so easy. And the Vespa provides us with the right background music, the soundtrack of Dolce Vita, without the need for any encouragement. And on this Saturday morning in the summer of 2015, we are bathed in the sun’s powerful rays while the seven metal insects shine brightly as they stand outside our meeting point, a caféteria in Lana. A 1967 Granturismo poses for us with its voluptuous curves in mint green, as if the curvaceous Gina Lollobrigida herself were standing there (wearing perhaps a little too much). The “wide frame“ Vespa captured the imagination of the male sex from early on. Equipped with a separate swing saddle, the lady friend would sit demurely, side-saddle behind her freshly groomed beau. Fitted originally with a 125cc engine, with a little tuning in the Italian tradition this Italian beauty now has a somewhat more freely breathing engine with improved air-fuel mixture quality and buzzes along nicely at a good 100 km/h. There’s no doubt about it, the “vespismo“ always had something of a ”machismo“ flair.
Consequently, our conversations even before the first espresso of the day were no longer about our fascination with historic differences, but focused were concerned more with philosophical considerations regarding the fuel, which body was most suitable for the narrow mountain passes, which manifold was the right one for handling more air, what porting work inside the engine was required for what output and - finally - which exhaust system was the right one to produce the best Vespa exhaust sound. The nice thing about it was that after a short time even Vespa novices had turned into experts. This is because the rather basic engineering of the old Vespas enables things to be learned quickly and requires no car mechanic apprenticeship, let alone the kind of mechatronics training programme required today. Another element of Vespamania had thus been decoded: a little understanding of technical matters, a small set of spanners, a replacement sparking plug and some two-stroke oil to add to the petrol are enough if you want to go on a long trip on what is frequently regarded as an indestructible scooter. It just keeps on going - and ultimately reminds one of the freedom the VW beetle gave to earlier generations. It sometimes travels across entire continents, as the guys from Motorliebe did last year, when they crossed the USA from the East Coast to the West Coast and recorded the adventure in a wonderful book. The “quick espresso“ that had been planned was subsequently followed by more, as we are now in Italy, a little more laid back and are making a relaxed start to the day in the manner typical of this country. After some time, we climb back on our scooters. The trick is to press down the kick start with your right foot once, twice, then give the little engine a little air, kick down again and let the engine spring into life with a little hand throttle using your right hand: what you get initially is a metallic, rattling sound, but then the engine gradually begins to run a little more smoothly, accompanied by a tinny barking sound interspersed with some harsh Heavy Metal – the classic rääängtängtäng. A grin will then appear and the certainty of the wonderful days ahead. With the left hand, pull in the clutch lever, twist the handle down to engage first gear and with the right hand adjust the hand throttle as required. The wasp will now start to move and takes off when you slowly lift your left foot from the ground and place it on the unaltered, functional and beautifully designed running board. A perfect Hollywood performance, like any of the films produced by Wiler, Fellini, Moretti & Co.: on a Vespa, you’ll find Rome everywhere. Second, third, fourth - out of the village, off to the mountain passes, and here we come! We make our way from the Etsch Valley up to the Salto high plateau, passing Langfenn and San Genesio, and then down to Bolzano. The narrow curving roads helped us adjust to the rhythm of these few days, the air is filled with the smell of hay and the dense larch forest gradually opens up to offer us views of the distant Dolomites. Tunnel by tunnel, with dim lights, but with full surround sound, the little wasps make their way up the Sarentino Valley, and after a break to nourish man and machine, the first real mountain challenge follows on the Pennes Pass. The wasps attempt to burn the air-fuel mixture with the increasing lack of oxygen and the – conservatively selected ”rich“ setting in order to keep going. With little traffic on the road, we make our lonely way up to the top of the pass, the order of arrival being determined by the power to weight ratio of the individual ”Manchines“. 15 instead of 10 hp is fine, but a 60 kg rider is a lot better than one weighing a 100. At the scene of the crime on the Pennes Pass, Jürgen’s 200 Rally is fighting, in spite of the power. Michel could have been faster, instead he’s been gathering the pack with typical South Tyrolean composure - that too is Vespa style. And Michael? He’s probably deciding to upgrade his Vespa during his next diet. A thunderstorm is now on its way - coming from the west and becoming more threatening the closer it gets. As a Vespa owner, it‘s nice to stay clean and tidy “below“ when it‘s raining, but wet roads are not very kind to the small diameter wheels. Andy and Armin are pushing ahead to stay in the dry and after a couple of bends are no longer to be seen by the rest of the group, not even by Markus. That‘s annoying, this was supposed to be the big moment for my wasp-waisted ET3 - I have neither talent nor the courage to follow. A GoPro on Armin‘s smart 200 later shows why: leaning into the curves with semi-slicks fitted on their Vespas and keeping the throttle wide open gives them their speed and (not only subjectively) ensures they have a lively racing experience. And while the two speed merchants are going hell for leather in the valley, the five of us catch up with them again, braking only occasionally and otherwise cruising along to the rhythm of the strip of asphalt on our way to warmer weather.
When we arrive at the Passo delle Erbe, there are mobile homes, holidaymakers, weekend bikers and individual cyclists lined up in a long, closely knit chain that is mutating into an inert mass blocking the road ahead. Driving your car on narrow roads like these means that your forced to stay behind and even with a (large) bike it is only possible to overtake at some places. This is where the Vespa comes into its own, since the 12 hp of my narrow, dark blue ET3 is quite enough to get by on inside curves, outside curves and bends. So then we all get ready and, one after the other apply the wasp‘s sting: there is no waist smaller, none more elegant and none weaves its way quite so gracefully through the narrow opening up the pass – and down again. The full face helmet of the Ducati rider prevents us from seeing the expression of anger on his face as Armin once again takes advantage of a gap and passes by this monster of a bike. Andy realises quickly what Harley David Son of a Bitch must have been thinking when he pushed his Granturismo past this reclining chair in bright shining chromium - including the international hand wave. Time to get out of here, before the manager with the matt black helmet decides to consult the aggressive patches on his semi leather jacket to find out how to deal with Vespa riders. We continue for another three days: Falzarego, Giau, Pordoi, Sella, Gardena, Costalunga, Nigra are the names of the passes. The narrow roads have no names, are small with tight curves, as are the little villages through which they occasionally pass. What we cover in a day in a sports car has to be recalculated in terms of space and time when riding a Vespa. Whether you put on some speed or prefer to cruise along sedately – you smell, see, hear, feel and yes let’s say it quite clearly: you experience more. You are less of a rider and more of a traveller passing through the countryside; you don’t cover distances, you take in the world around you. And that’s how you travel. You adjust to the road, the traffic, the countryside, people, light, air and mood. Simply in tune with the wasp and in harmony with the world. Grazie, amici. Grazie, Paperino.
(c) Andiamo / Die Welt / ps-blog