Getting from Kansas City to Varese, Italy, basically involves traveling for about 24 solid hours. So one Sunday morning in March, I arrived at my hotel exhausted but determined to stay awake until evening. I figured that way, I’d avoid the worst of the jet lag, and take best advantage of a free day – a rare thing, for a motorcycle journalist on a ‘launch’ junket. (I was scheduled to tour the factory and interview Giovanni Castiglioni on Monday, ride a new MV Agusta motorbike on Tuesday, and fly home on Wednesday.)
I had heard there was an MV Agusta museum about 20 kilometers away, near the helicopter works in Cascina Costa. Judging from the museum’s web site, it was primarily devoted to the aviation business, but there seemed to be quite a few motorcycles on display, too. Like a lot of small European museums, the opening hours were intermittent, but it was supposed to be open from 2-5 pm. All in all, a perfect way to kill a few hours and keep myself awake.
As usual on such trips, MV Agusta had provided a ride from the airport in Milan to the hotel, and they were scheduled to pick me up on Monday and drive me to the factory. But I was on my own when it came to getting around on this day off.
I set off on foot from the hotel, jumping puddles in pelting rain. I counted on finding the train station by dead reckoning. That was more difficult than it should’ve been. Two or three desperate immigrants were sleeping in there, under piles of blankets needed both for an illusion of privacy and warmth.
Italians kill time waiting for the train by making out. I accidentally made eye contact with a guy whose expression in the U.S. would almost certainly have conveyed, What are you looking at? But here it was more like, Yeah, she’s cute, isn’t she? They too deserved an illusion of privacy, so I looked off into the grey distance, where a helicopter buzzed. The whole region’s still a hub of helicopter- and aviation-related industry.
In Galarate, I grabbed a cab; a BMW that the guy drove as though he’d never heard of aquaplaning. But when we got to the museum, the gates were all locked—even though according to the ‘museum hours’ sign on the gate it should’ve been open.
I guessed that it was possible that if I’d waited, someone would have come to open it but my cheap-o phone plan doesn’t offer European service at all, so I had no way to get a cab to come back. I told the cabbie to take me straight back to the train station. He spoke no English at all, but my Italian’s good enough to understand his suggestion, which was that there was a bigger and better aviation museum nearby that would be open. I told him, No.
Again, as we got close to the train station, he pointed out Galarate’s modern art museum. My Italian’s not quite good enough, any more, to communicate that for me, it’s motorcycles or nothing.
40 Euros lighter, I got back on a train to Varese. At that point I opened by backpack for the first time, and realized that while my umbrella had been keeping the rain off me, the backpack and its contents were soaked. Luckily I’d pulled almost everything—especially my passport—out of it. Damage report: a half-filled Moleskine and the Italian-English dictionary I bought way back when I was writing ‘Searching for Spadino’.
I had another long walk from the train station back up to the hotel, at which point I was happy to take a long hot shower and install myself in the hotel bar.
The next day while I waited for my interview appointment with Castiglioni, I told MV Agusta’s PR director, Alessia Riboni, my ‘museum was closed’ story. After my talk with the boss, Alessia came back to show me out and said, "Our driver will take you to Gallarate, drop you at a roundabout where Giovanni Magni will pick you up and take you to the museum"
Me: "It's closed Monday."
Alessia: "They're opening it for you."
Giovanni parked, and called someone on his mobile. An old gentleman, Cesare Tobaldo, appeared at the door, recognizing Giovanni, he unlocked it and let us in, then locked it again behind us. Perhaps I’m too Canadian, because that kind of special treatment is a little embarrassing to me.
Tobaldo apologized; the museum should have been open when I’d arrived on the previous Sunday afternoon. But that morning, the museum had a big group come through, and the staff were not able to shoo them out in time to close for lunch at noon. Since no Italian can properly eat a Sunday lunch in less than two hours, they decided to reopen the museum at 2:30. I had arrived in the interim.
I got over my embarrassment when I realized that the museum has a much bigger collection of bikes than I expected, and I was getting the ultimate private tour, accompanied by Giovanni Magni (whose dad Arturo had been Giacomo Agostini’s lead mechanic, and who is himself a leading restorer of MV Agustas) and guided by Cesare, who it turns out is the museum’s own restorer. He came in just for me, on his day off.
Cesare worked as a fabricator in the helicopter factory for decades. The motorcycle race shop was also located there in Cascina Costa, not at the nearby motorcycle factory in Verghera, for several reasons: the Count’s office was at the helicopter plant, and he liked to keep an eye on the race bikes in development; Arturo Magni, the race team manager could take advantage of the plant’s advanced fabrication capabilities; and the layout of the plant made it possible to move race bikes on and off the property even if the factory was being picketed by strikers, which was a common problem in Italy in the 1960s!
I asked him whether the employees at the helicopter factory had been big supporters of the motorcycle race team. “Oh yes,” he replied. “There used to be a big private road along one side of the factory, and Sig. Magni used to run motorcycles up and down that road frequently. There were always a few people who’d stop work and watch. But every now and then Agostini himself would come to run a bike up and down the road, to get a feel for a new motor. When word got out that Ago was riding, 500 people put down their tools and went to watch him, even though he was just riding up and down the straight road.”
The museum has a lot of race bikes from the 1950s through the ’70s and scores of production models that I was unaware of, including scooters and trail bikes. Many of the displays are prototypes, so the information placards carry two dates; the year the one on display was made, and the date – a year or two later – when this model was raced or produced. There are also several wild and wonderful prototypes that were never raced or that never made it into production, including a stylish microcar and a working hovercraft!
If you love motorcycles, Museo Agusta is ‘worth the detour’, as they say in the Michelin Guide. Admission’s a bargain at €2.50. And of course, if you’re a particular fan of MV Agusta and its storied Grand Prix history, this collection’s your Mecca. There are, of course, also many exhibits devoted to the Agusta helicopter business, including a helicopter simulator which established, if nothing else, that I’m a better rider than pilot.
Getting there: Museo Agusta is located immediately east of Milan’s Malpensa airport
Via Giovanni Agusta, 506 – 21017 Cascina Costa di Samarate (VA)
For more information visit: www.museoagusta.it
Tuesday & Wednesday: 2-6 pm
Saturday 9:30 am-12:30, 2-5 pm
Sunday 9:00 am-noon, 2-6 pm
If you dug this deep dive into moto-history, you'll probably also like my book, 'On Motorcycles: The best of Backmarker' available here on Amazon.