Born in 1990, I’ve always loved the motorcycle world. I started leafing through magazines and brochures when I was 12, looking for the motorcycle of my dreams. Ever since I was finally able to sit on my first “serious” motorcycle, an Aprilia Tuono 50, I've always kept at least one in the garage. Since my very first adventure – a complete circuit around Lake Como – traveling by motorcycle has been an essential part of my life: A way to learn and to know myself, to explore and to explore myself, to live life by living.
The date I circled in red on the calendar is finally here – the day of departure. As always, I’m as excited as a little kid going on a school outing, I wake up earlier than expected. I dress “in layers” for a day that promises to be extreme in terms of the maximum and minimum temperatures I’ll have to face, and I go down to load my KTM. The air seems filled with a juniper scent: It’s probably my imagination, as I remember the many night departures from/to Sardinia. Real or not, it’s nonetheless the unmistakable scent of a vacation about to begin. I set off at 4.30 a.m. and in about 12 hours I should be near Auxerre, France.
The first stretch goes through the Val Venosta and the Swiss National Park, where I already have the opportunity to appreciate the virtues of the technical clothing I’m wearing as the temperature steadily remains between -8 °C and -11 °C. From here, I continue toward one of the most dangerous experiences I've ever had on a motorcycle: The crossing of the Vereina tunnel, which allows you to avoid the Flüela Pass, which is not yet accessible. Basically, imagine loading the motorcycle on a freight train, without anyone telling you what or how to do it, and, sitting on the motorcycle or standing by it – I still don’t know what the best strategy is – patiently wait for 18 minutes while the train runs at about 100 km/h to take you from one side of the mountain to the other. An experience that’s absolutely worth trying!
I continue to cross Switzerland, skirting first Zurich and then Basel, until I finally enter France. From here, on my left, looking south, I see the last of the Alpine peaks, which I’ll soon say goodbye to. The distance covered on the French highways – very cheap for us motorcycle riders – is uneventful, with the exception of one particular encounter: My path crosses with that of a beautiful Opel Omega Lotus (for those who know what I mean), we pass each other a few times and cast some fleeting glances – especially me – of approval (and envy). Fortunately, Easter Monday hasn’t affected my schedule too badly, so, as I’ve almost made it to my destination in a very reasonable time, I decide to leave the highway and venture a little through the Burgundy countryside before reaching my goal for the day. Secondary roads, some short off-road stretches, blue skies that beautifully contrast with intensely yellow rapeseed fields, a temperature of 23 °C - 24 °C – you do the math and work out the range of temperatures I’ve faced throughout the day. Kilometers go by, my heart is full of joy, and I reach the small village of Neuilly, the first stage of my destination: The journey couldn’t have started better.
I wake up before dawn and I’m off: As always, when I have to board a ship, I prefer to travel leaving a large contingency margin. Something that, in any case, has its positive sides as I get to experience moments of rare beauty. The previous day’s beautiful landscapes, still covered by the night’s dew, are bathed in the light of the sun that lazily peeps out on the horizon. It’s just me and my motorcycle on the road. This is when the notion of “traveling” acquires a different meaning. When the sun is quite high and the traffic on the secondary roads intensifies, I go back on the highway, heading north.
If it’s true that all roads lead to Rome, it’s equally true that all French (highway) roads lead to… Paris! So, to reach the coasts of Normandy, and more precisely Cherbourg, from where my ferry leaves for Ireland, I must cross the French capital. This happens during the morning rush hour, between 8 and 9 a. m. As used to the wild driving styles on Milanese ring roads as I am, I don't get scared and, instead, I enjoy making a few observations about some rather interesting social-anthropological phenomena: 1) Traffic is extreme (and I’m from Milan). The streets surrounding Paris look more like a huge, extended parking lot, but 2) there’s great respect for anyone traveling on two wheels; 3) this basically allows for rather extreme “filtering”: In fact, I just need to put the four indicators on and proceeding at 60/70 km/h between the rows of cars feels absolutely normal. Personally, however, I just queue behind a local, not wishing to take excessive risks and end the trip prematurely. Flowing through traffic, now almost past Paris and heading north-west, I inadvertently slip into a tunnel that, as I discover later, motorcycles are not allowed to enter. And once inside the tunnel, I immediately understand why: I have to ride with my head down to fit under the signs! A unique experience… Just to warn you, this happened on the stretch of road between Vélizy and Rueil and the maximum height allowed is two meters.
From here on, the kilometers on the highway fly by as I travel north, toward the ocean, and start feeling the effects of the Atlantic climate, which pleasantly cools the air. Just like yesterday, I’m ahead of schedule so, as I’m now close to Cherbourg, I allow myself an unexpected detour on the coasts where the D-Day landings happened: Sites of exceptional historical significance, such as Omaha Beach and La Pointe du Hoc. Places to be contemplated in religious silence, whose names inspire awe even just by reading them on road signs. Carried away by a whirlwind of bittersweet thoughts aroused by visiting these coasts, I arrive at the port of Cherbourg: I leave the most “bitter” thoughts behind by gulping down a sandwich while looking at the ship that tomorrow will take me to Ireland. From here on, there’s no turning back.
After a night spent rather comfortably on the ship’s sofas, I’m the very first to disembark: Already astride the bike, I observe the bridge that slowly lowers down, filtering the first rays of the sun. A few seconds later, I’m the first passenger to set wheels on Irish soil. As it always happens, I notice that I’m unconsciously smiling under my helmet: You always feel a particular satisfaction after crossing the sea and finding yourself on a motorcycle, thousands of kilometers from home, in places you could only imagine through the many days spent planning the journey.
From Rosslare Harbor, where I landed, I cut through the whole of Southern Ireland to Limerick (about 200 km), from which I’ll then follow the Wild Atlantic Way northward. It’s a stretch without big thrills, except for a few brief moments: Here in Ireland, the speed limit is quite high depending on the type of road (80/100 km/h on roads that are decidedly rural). The occasional feeling of being at a TT is therefore rather tangible, though the presence of animals and their droppings, tractors, gates and the like still invites caution.
However, I soon realize that the roads seem a bit too busy than the last time I was in Ireland: At a gas station, the attendant confirms my suspicions and tells me I’m right. All schools are closed for the Easter holidays, with the result that thousands of Irish families have taken the opportunity to visit the many beautiful national sights. Thanks goodness I’ve booked all hostels and B&Bs for today and the next few days in advance.
I can't really enjoy this first Irish day, probably because of the excessive traffic: There are a lot of cars on the road, and every site worthy of a stop is totally besieged by dozens of people. Even at the famous Cliffs of Moher, I only stop for about 15 minutes and as I leave I’m surprised at how some coastal stretches that are actually even more charming (those I saw on my trip to Ireland – also by motorcycle – four years ago) are hardly even marked on the map. My first 200 km along the Irish coast end in Galway, and sadly I feel more disappointed than satisfied, though I hope that tomorrow the day will be different.
Taking care not to wake up everyone at the hostel as I get dressed – I discovered to have the skills of a ninja in this particular operation – I get back on the road quite early again, aiming to avoid the hellish traffic that affected my previous day.
After the first 50 km, I realize that today already feels very different than the previous one. Sparse thatched cottages and green Irish pastures dotted with sheep have replaced the cows and the many resorts and golf courses (including Donald Trump's luxurious hotel overlooking Doughmore Beach) that lined the roads I traveled on yesterday. A red-haired kid, attracted by the roar of my two-cylinder motorcycle, turns around as I go by and waves excitedly. Yes, I’d say that this is the first gleam of the Wild Atlantic Way as I remember it.
This becomes a certainty when I reach Gurteen Bay: A beach on the ocean with very fine white sand, a crystal-clear sea, and a cemetery just a few meters from the shore. The wind ripples the water and a couple of dolphins occasionally emerge from the waves: The “quaintness” needle veers decidedly off the charts, and it’s only 11 a.m.
I continue north as per my itinerary, and in Clifden I take the “Connemara Sky Road”, a short (about seven miles) scenic road that has me stopping – and I assure you that I hate frequent stops – on practically every bend or hill: Breathtaking landscapes overlooking the ocean or, more generally, the coast, unfold around every corner or hillock. These seven miles alone would almost be worth the whole trip, and the “quaintness” needle is on the rise again... I start wondering how high it’ll go today!
Still with these fantastic postcard-views printed on my mind, I arrive in the vicinity of Omey, a small island not far from the mainland. So much so that, with the current low tide conditions, it’s no longer even an island: In fact, I see a couple of tractors crossing the ocean (literally), reaching the island on their own four wheels. I ponder the situation carefully, and check it out on foot: Yes, the sand is clearly very wet and a bit yielding, there are puddles of sea water here and there, I certainly don't have off-road tires and the motorcycle is loaded and therefore quite heavy, but... When will I have another chance to ride a motorcycle on the bottom of the ocean? So, back in the saddle and let’s goooo! I sail off (?) toward Omey Island, one of the most suggestive riding experiences I've ever had; I’m back on the mainland via the same route, with motorcycle and luggage full of sand and sea water (and a big smile under the helmet, as you can easily imagine).
I resume my itinerary, hoping – for the first time since I've been here – for a nice downpour to come and wash it all off. When the mountain ranges of Connemara National Park start peeking out on the horizon, together with some gray clouds, I think I’ll soon get a “shower”, but I’m promptly contradicted by the sun slyly emerging from the clouds. That’s no bad thing, I take advantage of it to ride across the Killary Fjord, a beautiful fjord that reminds me of the Icelandic landscapes, and that acts as the natural border between the counties of Galway and Mayo.
It might be a different county, but the landscape surrounding me is still as spectacular: I reach Carrownisky beach, the local surf hub, after a small off-road detour (taken specifically to clean the motorcycle by riding through some fresh-water fords, but you can also get there on asphalt roads) and I’m literally stunned by the beauty of the place: An endless beach, waves crashing into each other as far as the eye can see, the wind that, once you take the helmet off, has you tasting the delicate salty air on your lips. In such moments, the only thing to do is sit down, look at the motorcycle beside you, and enjoy the experience.
Despite this, I still have about 130 km to go before reaching the hostel I’ve already booked on Achill Island, which I intend to explore before getting to the hostel, also in order to enjoy its atmosphere as the sun sets. At a fairly rapid pace, I then head toward the island, skirting enchanting places such as Croagh Patrick, but… At this point of the story I’ve run out of words to further describe the beauty of the place. Achill Island, its coasts, its roads overlooking the ocean, its pastures, its villages – all this alone is worth a trip to Ireland. With no ifs and buts: Do you want to see the Wild Atlantic Way, get a realer-than-real authentic glimpse of “true” Ireland? Then you have to come here. The “quaintness” needle gets totally off the charts. I let myself be lulled by the bends of the road as I head toward the hostel and the sun plunges into the ocean, and I think, humming the famous song by Italian band 883, that “a day like this is enough”.
After putting my ninja skills to the test again as I leave the hostel, I set off from beautiful (yes, I reiterate this) Achill Island, and the end goal of the day is Donegal – about 500 km away. For the first few kilometers I cross several peat bogs, and the landscape is a bit boring. When it’s time to refuel, I see that this really isn’t a busy place. I’m almost out of water, the only gas station open 24/7 that I find has six pumps for diesel and only two for gas, and you can only pay by credit or debit card at the diesel pumps. I have no choice but wait for the station to open at 8.30 a.m., so I take the opportunity to have a hearty breakfast with the local cheese that I’ve been carrying with me since the previous day.
Having refueled the motorcycle and myself, I resolutely head toward the Erris Head promontory. An area with very suggestive cliffs, which I specially recommend to those who’d like to venture out on some hikes. Otherwise, by motorcycle, the place doesn't have much to offer, apart from some intriguing glimpses of the peninsula immediately south of the cape.
A coastal stretch that’s absolutely unmissable, however, is the one east of Erris Head: Downpatrick Head and its world-famous rock formation, the symbol of County Mayo, are definitively worth the stop and the time required to take pictures from all the different angles while just below you, as you overlook the ocean fading from green to blue, the waves loudly crash on cliffs that only reckless birds that nest there can access.
Back on my motorcycle – no more cliffs, but a beautiful beach awaits me a little further east: Lackan Bay, also thanks to the low tide, looks like a huge expanse of sand on which I’m rather tempted to have some fun with the motorcycle, but this time, unlike yesterday, reason prevails. I settle for a few photos and go back to my journey – I leave County Mayo for good and enter Sligo.
Many say that Mayo is the most beautiful county in Ireland when it's sunny (something that, however, goes for the whole country). What can I say, for now I can only agree. The stretch along the County Sligo’s coast has little to offer, probably also because the (obligatory) route it’s mostly on the highway, from which there are few detours. Still, Sligo’s famous “flat top mountain” (Benbulben), and Mullaghmore, on a headland, are worth coming off the highway and are quite exciting to see, even just from the road.
From here to Donegal it’s only about 50 kilometers, and so I come to the end of my itinerary (for this trip) on the Wild Atlantic Way. Four years ago I rode northward from Donegal, so that now I’m only missing the last bit of this beautiful road, further south, in the Cork region – which I’m sure I’ll visit soon. However, tomorrow I’m going to Northern Ireland for the oldest national road race in the country, the Cookstown 100, which this year celebrates the 100th anniversary of its first edition. I’ve already been there four years ago, and I’m as excited as a little kid thinking about the races and the chance to immerse myself, once more, in that unique atmosphere typical of road races. It’s a way to conceive motorcycle riding that’s light years away from how most people see it, and I just can’t wait to experience that feeling again.
When a road race is on, the whole town gets involved. Imagine the kind of atmosphere felt at a local fair, where, however, absolutely everyone, in some way or other, pitches in to organize the event. For example, I took advantage of the free parking offered by the Cookstown Presbyterian Church: I parked my motorcycle, took the opportunity to change into more comfortable clothes by leaving the bags at the church, and then I was offered an Irish breakfast with sausages – all for free – as well as the chance to take a shower in the evening if I needed to, after the road race, before leaving.
From the church, I set off on foot toward the “circuit”. It’s a beautiful day, the sky is blue, no sign of rain on the horizon: Great news for both riders and spectators. After having explored the “paddock” on foot and having considered different places, I decide to position myself on the main straight, just after the start/finish line. It’ll give me the advantage to understand what goes on and see the motorcycles whiz by, only a couple of meters from me, at speeds that easily surpass 250 km/h. Not bad, right?
The program includes 14 races, in different categories – from vintage vehicles to modern Superbikes. The day, and more in general this kind of day, is a celebration of the gods of motorcycling. Wherever you look, you see real, tangible passion: So, I remain in the same place, in the company of two elderly gentlemen who, between one race and another, give me some advice on how to avoid speeding fines in Scotland, which they tell me it’s full of speed cameras, and discussing the performance of the motorcycles and riders “on the track”. We’re all a kind of big family: At the first lap, as the motorcycles appear and disappear from view in the blink of an eye, everyone looks at their neighbors and rejoices; at the sight of the red flag, everyone holds their breath for a few seconds, hoping that it’ll mean nothing more than a technical failure; everyone enjoys the exhaust smell of a 125 GP that has boldly lined up on the starting grid close to the most modern – yet much more unremarkable – Moto3 motorcycles.
About nine hours’ racing go by in this way: Without even realizing you’ve been standing in the same place all that time – I even managed to get sunburned… In Northern Ireland! Tangible proof of the magic of these events.
At the end of the day, I go back to the church, get changed and hit the road in order to reach today’s B&B, about fifty kilometers from here and strategically placed so I can quickly get to the boarding terminal and leave for Scotland tomorrow morning. While I’d already been in Ireland, I’ve never been to Scotland, so, from tomorrow, it’ll be a completely new experience – and I just can’t wait.
I get back on the motorcycle, but not before the B&B owner – with very rare kindness – has made me two huge ham and cheese sandwiches, and returned a big pile of clothes that she absolutely insisted on washing for me the day before. She warmly bids me farewell and, as if to warn me, says, “Scotland is like Northern Ireland, but with far less hospitable people”. Deep inside, I think that if her standards include stuffing her guests with delicious sandwiches and do their laundry (all for free), she’d find that lots of places around the world are rather inhospitable.
Now, the ferry across the Irish Sea, and then Scotland...
Now, you might have some logistical and organizational questions, which I’ll try to answer in the next points.
In all my travels, I find it essential to use a GPS, so that you always have directions. Mine is a Garmin and before leaving I load the most recent topographic maps I can find, with contour lines, which are useful to understand in advance the nature of a trail, and the GPX tracks for each daily itinerary. Topographic maps allow you to see the characteristics of the terrain on which you travel, a very useful feature, especially when dealing with unknown off-road stretches. The most accurate maps also show roads, lanes and trails, easily distinguishable from each other as they are drawn differently. By adding the level lines, you can get an idea of both the uphill and downhill inclines you will encounter. The tracks attached here are the same ones I used on my trip, so they don’t include the unexpected detours that I’ve described here.
Having planned the route in advance, I also booked my accommodation in advance. In many cases, I’ve underestimated the distances I can ride in a day, but this has allowed me to keep a certain “room for maneuver” for unexpected detours or extra stretches. In any case, booking in advance allows you to avoid having to find B&Bs or hostels at the last minute. Moreover, my trip coincided with a series of public holidays in Ireland that I hadn’t foreseen – if I’d left it all to the last minute, it would have certainly been more difficult or I’d have had to drastically change the itinerary. It should also be considered that, when traveling alone, it’s no bad thing having someone waiting for your arrival at the end of the day.
For the tires, I decided to compromise – I went for road enduro tires, capable of withstanding long distances on asphalt without wearing out too quickly, but which, at the same time, allowed me to have some off-road adventures – just like that very muddy one on the Isle of Islay. The choice of clothing is, perhaps, even more important for such a trip. I experienced temperature variations ranging up to 35 °C, which is definitely unusual, yet I was absolutely comfortable, as I chose garments that could be layered – being able to remove or add layers quickly is key to avoid suffering from heat or cold. Fortunately, it never rained a lot, but in these areas, in any season, it’s always good to have a waterproof kit or suit with you, even when wearing a Gore-Tex® suit or similar. It’s also important that the aforementioned kit is kept in a bag or backpack that’s easy to reach. A small detail one might not think about in advance: In Ireland and throughout the UK you drive on the left, so it’s handy to keep the items you most frequently use in the left-hand bag of the motorcycle, which means it won’t be on the side of the road in case you need to stop.