September 2013 Italy Trip: Days 10-12

 

I'm writing this from roughly 30,000 feet somewhere off of the west coast of Italy on our return trip home 12 days after leaving Charlotte. It is a good news, bad news scenario. Good news, we are less than 12 hours from seeing our kids. Oh, how we have missed those guys. FaceTime sure makes things a bit better when traveling but nothing is like being with those guys. The bad news is our Italian vacation has officially come to an end. Cindy and I have been fortunate to visit some outstanding places on vacation but nothing compares so far to this trip to Italy! The relaxed attitude of the Italians, the history and art of Florence, the food and gelato from everywhere, the beauty and exercise of Tuscany by bike, the ruggedness and tranquility of Bellagio/Lake Como, the chaos and age of Rome altogether put this trip on another pedestal compared to some of our other vacations. And the food…oh, the food. Everything was fresh. I'm not sure I will ever be able to eat boxed pasta again. A great vacation for sure with great friends. Tracy and Alex are absolutely friends I would travel with again. Easy, funny and don't forget about Alex's personal friend Rick Steve whenever we get in a bind. Mr. Steve came in handy more than once on this trip.

So what did we do these past few days with the Backroads portion of the trip behind us? Mostly slowed our pace and relaxed a bit. “Tranquilo” is the Italian word for it as this wonderful woman on the train to Varenna told us as we were standing as the local train rolled along the mountainous region of Lake Como. She helped us at the end of a long day figure out our stop and proceeded to converse with us even though we both knew it wouldn't be easy. One of my favorite pictures, even though slightly blurry, was us with this wonderful woman. She put huge smiles on our travel-weary faces by doing nothing more than engaging with us. We have named her 'Marguerite' as we all kicked ourselves for not asking “Ti llami?” to get her real name.

We arrived at Lake Como after taking a misty ferry ride from Varenna to Bellagio, checked into the Metropole Hotel where we were put in a lake view room with a cute balcony. You could sit and watch ferry boats and birds and mountains for as long as you liked. The town of Bellagio was built into the side of the hill and has seen more than a few movies filmed here in the past, most notably the patio scene in “Ocean's Twelve”. On Monday we hiked up and down the very narrow streets two people walking, enjoying espresso, gelato, appetizers, wine, baked goods, light shopping and people watching. There was a much higher percentage of Americans here than we have seen anywhere else on the trip. The weight difference is crazy. So is the volume of our speaking…tone it down America! :). We had several good meals but noted the stronger Swiss/German influence here (roughly 15 miles from Switzerland) in the food. One night for appetizers we ordered and ate salted bait fish. Questionable was the verdict on this appetizer but points scored for courageous ordering. The Italian foods, while still very good, were not Tuscan quality good. The regional snobbery for wines in Italy amused us. The Como folk didn't think as highly of the Chianti Classico wines as the Tuscan region (the Chianti Classico side of Tuscany that is) did. We ordered it anyways and it was still quite yummy.

After much relaxation and many laughs, we got up on Tuesday and took a ferry and two train (Varenna to Milan and then Milan to Rome) and a taxi (the first taxi of our trip) and 4 hours later we found ourselves at Rome checking into the Hotel Nazionale next door to the Italian Parliament. In 6 hours we saw the 2,000 year old Pantheon (twice!), the Vatican and St. Peter's Basilica,La Pieta, Trevi Fountain, Rome's most famous gelato spot (Goiluca's?) and the Piazza Nervona which was filled with artists, musicians and crazy street performers. We enjoyed some final pastries from a Patticerie (good but not quite as good as the one in Montalcino), wine, bruschetta and pizza from an outdoor restaurant and our last fresh pasta of the trip where I doubled down on a pasta with pesto dish and a pasta with Pecorino cheese, garlic, olive oil, chili peppers and porcini mushroom dish. Both were awesome!

This morning we woke, choked down our last European breakfast of breads, cheeses, vitamin fruit juice, Nutella and yogurt, checked out of our hotel and headed on our way through the crowded streets of Rome to the airport. The best I can tell, drivers in Italy don't respect stop signs, fit small cars in very small spaces, rarely honk and somehow rarely hit other things. The bigger the vehicle the more room you are given. Mopeds are everywhere but seem to be the lowest of the transportation food chain leaving them to fend for themselves. They are also without a doubt the fastest way around Rome. Defensive driving on a moped is your only hope. Moped parking also seems to be harder to find than even car parking. Nonetheless, we made it to the airport in a brisk 35 minutes from the center of Rome via Taxi…not too shabby. As a side note, a cab for 4 to the airport is actually cheaper than a train for 4. $55 with tip versus $60. Who knew?

Final thoughts and observations:

  • Packing: pack even less. Zipper pants/shorts could have been useful over jeans and my MK pants. Pack fewer dress shirts. You can't pack enough socks and underwear (they are small). Two pair of kick-around shorts is fine. A lightweight pullover was my most used item. 2 cycling outfits (bibs and jerseys) is all you need.
  • Financials: self serve kiosks (e.g. Train station ticket purchases) in Europe want your PIN number even on a credit card. Know this before leaving the country of plan to use your debit card. Bank of America compatible (meaning the ones that are free and without crazy service charges) are not going to be found outside of the larger cities. Research where you can find these ahead of time and plan accordingly.
  • Electronics: bring at least 2 plug converters, ideally one that can control the voltage. Most updated rooms have master keys that turn off the electricity when you leave the room requiring all the charging to occur during sleeping hours or hours you will be in the room. Voltage converters are required for hair dryers and flat iron type devices. Bring them or you will be buying a new flat iron at an inflated price.
  • Water: buying water in large bottles at the beginning of the day from a grocery store will save you 3-5 Euros each meal. Using copper taps around the cities gives you access to free, fresh water in Italy. We spent like hundreds of dollars on Aqua Naturale (still water).
  • Language: work on learning the basics before you leave and practice it throughout the trip. One of the things I enjoyed each day was trying to speak in Italian first before succumbing to the “para Ingles?” line. I also think the locals appreciate the effort and work with you more. One of our most rewarding experience on the entire trip was speaking with the lady on the train who knew zero English. In the process of trying to speak it I also provided Cindy with many laughs (e.g. “We will take il Conti (the check) per favore”).
  • Wireless: it isn't as good in hotels in Europe as it is in the US. The buildings are usually older and the signals are weaker. Getting the universal phone plan is worth it if you are considering relying on Wi-Fi throughout your travel for your iPhone Apps. Cindy had it, I didn't, which means I spent more time offline and couldn't hit the Internet for easy questions, help, translations, etc.
  • Train Porters: there are no such things. I didn't expect there to be but when we were asked by a man on the speed train if we wanted him to rack our luggage we said sure. He then followed his hard work up by shaking us down for $5 Euros a piece to which we politely declined. He did get $2 Euros from us as a unhappily negotiated compromise by both sides and then walked off the train and platform shaking his head (ours were also shaking).
  • Coffee Products: Italians do not walk around drinking coffee products. In fact, they have a few unspoken rules about how to enjoy coffee products. 1) Espresso is rarely enjoyed sitting down. It is almost always ordered standing up at the bar and enjoyed standing up at the bar. If you want to enjoy coffee sitting down then a cappachino might be a wiser choice for you. 2) In my 12 days in Italy I never saw anyone order a coffee product using more than two words and usually only one would get the job done. No double this or half-caff that. Normale (plain espresso), macchiato (espresso with milk) or cappachino. Simple. Through some personal experience and a sleepless night to prove it, I also don't believe they even carry decaf in Italy. Ordering it is like indirectly ordering insomnia for a night. Just get water, wine or something else if you can't take the caffeine past a certain hour. 3) Cappachino is not to be ordered after noon no matter how much you love it. You will get laughed at and possibly told no. It is viewed as a morning drink. 4) Italians don't want to hear you talking about how there are no Starbucks in Italy. They want and like it that way. Ironic considering most of the language in Starbucks is based on the Italian language. Not one time in 12 days did I see a to-go cup or a travel mug.
  • No Cheffret (sp?): this means “no worries” or “don't sweat it” but it embodies everything the Italians stand for. These guys truly live a fuller and richer life than many of us do in the USA. They work less hours, take more breaks and are passionate about most anything. Family is talked about in generations and traditions. Meals are savored. Soccer is sacred. Neighbors are to be known, looked after and enjoyed. We have a lot of the same things in the USA but they seem more easily forgotten and at times ignored. Corporations in Italy while present seem to fit in with the traditions vs. driving a way of life. If most folks in Italy were given the choice of simple/easy vs. traditional (even if harder), they would take the latter.

Traveling is something I am so fortunate to do and want to continue to do with my best friend in the world. It doesn't help me see where the USA is better or worse but rather enables me to open my mind and see first the differences across cultures. Hopefully it allows me to apply the great spots I see and learn about to my family and culture and absorb the rest as appreciation for these differences. The world is bigger and more amazing than any of us give it credit for being (I'm still scratching my head wondering how 2,000 years ago people made huge structures like the Pantheon!) and I am most appreciative of any reminders of how we are all pieces in the overall existence of life, none ideally big enough to make too much of a negative impact so another 2,000 years worth of people can live in it and appreciate how amazing it all is.

Until our next vacation, arrivederci! Click here for a slideshow of our last 2 days.

 

September 2013 Italy Trip: Day 8/9

 

It's over. Almost as fast as it started it ended. 6 days and 5 nights of cycling surrounded by unreal scenery and immense pampering by Backroads. I cannot say enough positive things about this trip and experience to make it match the feeling I had throughout the trip. There was nothing easy about the cycling. That was great. There was nothing ugly about the Tuscan countryside. That too was great. There was nothing bad about the food. Also great. There are no words to put into context how cool it was to share this trip with my best friend. To ride the trip alongside great friends like Alex and Tracy made it all the more special. The true makers of the trip, those who did all the work, coordinated the events during the rides, kept the espresso flowing and provided great context along the way were the guides, Edo (from Gaoile), Chris (from Australia) and Katie (from SW Colorado). These guys made the hard work of the climbs more fun, adjusted for the desires of the group, helped keep us on the right route and made sure we had lots of local color throughout the trip. The put on birthday parties, made extra cheese snacking occur when they found out people (me) liked eating cheese, introduced you to their family when they rode through their hometown. Just amazing and the trip was far better off because of them. More than anything, they made it possible for experienced riders and more novice riders alike to enjoy the same experience. They allowed for adjustments when people wanted to stay in a town longer or skip forward to get to the hotel earlier. One of the coolest jobs ever but certainly not the easiest as these guys worked their tails off for us.

I went into the experience like I do almost anything that is new. Cautiously. Backroads is a shared experience and going into it I fretted about the type of people that we would get in our group. Would these folks like us? Would there be someone in the group that didn't mesh or was unpleasant? My M.O. is to hold my cards close and share only so much to avoid befriending before I really know someone. I find myself always walking out of conversations after getting to the surface level only. This is likely a defense mechanism of some sort. Maybe the result of not trusting my judgment of people. Maybe a situation where I became friends with someone I didn't like very much once I really got to know them. I'm not sure, but on a trip like a Backroads adventure, this is certainly a detriment. It reminded me of my family vacations to Calloway Gardens where I would wait until about Thursday of a Sun-Sat trip to open up to new friends and then regret the depth of friendships I could have had if only I had dove right in on Sunday. There were 14 unique and nice people on this trip. Briefly:

  • Mary Beth & Stefan: Westport, CT couple, 2nd Backroads trip, Stefan rowed and had immense wattage/power. Mary Beth was funny and rode an electric bike. They traveled here with Chip and Kate. Ex-banker, now business investor.
  • Chip & Kate: Westport, CT couple, 2nd Backroads trip, Chip was also a strong rider. He ran a Private Equity firm after spending time in Commercial Banking. Cindy referred to Kate as an ‘enigma’ because you rarely saw her riding but she rode lots of miles. I’m not sure Kate loved this reference.
  • Ester and Klod: Ester was a hoot. Boisterous with an infectious laugh and lack of a filter which was endearing. Her biking confidence grew by the day. Klod was an Ironman Triathlete. Strong rider with a happy-go-lucky attitude. You got the impression that the only thing that could upset Klod was a lack of trying. He wore an Ironman ring- never seen that before. Good Calgary folk.
  • Cary and Julie – a true cycling couple. Both coming off of injuries and not riding as much as they once had, but you could see their strong potential. Portland, WA.
  • Roger and Sheryl – a really funny couple. Roger was a Personal Injury Attorney in Toronto and very well-spoken and witty. You get the impression he may be the best PI lawyer in all of North America but he’d never say so himself. At 67 he was very fit and clearly very successful. Sheryl and 'Rog' had been married less than 2 years but really seemed to soak up life together. This was Sheryl's first time riding a bike since she was in her teens. She improved quickly throughout the trip. I really enjoyed the time spent with them.
  • Alex and Tracy – these are two of my closest friends and truly great people. I am so happy that Cindy and I got to experience this great trip with them. We have laughed a great deal and the trip with them has been amazingly easy. The sign of great friends is when the unexciting times are as good as the exciting times.

Hopefully this is one of many adventure cycling vacations we get to take in our lifetime. Cindy was awesome on the bike. Strong uphills, finished easily in the top 25% of the riders on the trip. We are going to work on her fear of going downhill. Edo helped her relax this fear a bit on the final day – I owe him for that. I am amazed at her strength. I dare anyone to tell Cindy she can't do something…

The Route: a loop from Castello Di Velona (CdV) back to CdV – 74km. After more bread, cheese, yogurt and cappachino for breakfast we headed out for the route rap (where they tell you all about the route with a brief history lesson added at the end). CdV is set atop a large hill overlooking the vast Tuscan valley so the downhill to the roadway is no joke. Easily 12% grade. The road continued down for a short distance on a brisk morning until pitching upward for a 10k climb that was no joke. My goal was to go at it hard riding from last to first and to the top in 40 minutes. Not a bad time for me considering it was about a 1600 foot climb. Once on top we were back to great views that by now are almost something we take for granted. Open air views on all sides as far as your eyes can see. Winery's, hillsides, sheep (some blocked the road earlier up this hill for Cindy), olive trees, castles…amazing. Interestingly, in Tuscany many of the towns are built on top of the hills which added to the scenery after a tough climb. These towns have narrow roads with the buildings right against the roadway almost creating a tunnel. After some minor ups and downs we stopped in for the traditional morning espresso or cappachino. From there we motored onward towards lunch at Piesa, named after a Pope many centuries ago. The pope asked for this town to be created as the perfect utopian city to compete with the likes of Siena and Florence. To do so atop such a small hillside the architects had to build with many optical illusions like curved and angled walls, offset buildings and non-square piazzas. Cool town where I had my best pizza (Gorganzola and red radish) and best Gelato flavor (Biscotti) of the trip. After a leisurely time at lunch we headed back out for another 35km up a different route to Montalcino (big uphill with awesome switchbacks at the end) than the prior day and then down a great 11k to CdV! My favorite 11k of the trip because you can ride at a sustained 30mph for most of the way. So cool! This morning (Sunday and final Backroads day) and after a quick 11k ride up to Montalcino for sweets and espresso with Edo, we stopped in at the Abbey on the way back and heard the monks chanting. So very cool to watch and hear. I'm not sure why monks become monks but they sure seem at peace. Churches should consider this to get more people meditating in weekday services – totally peaceful experience.

A word or two more about the Castello Di Velona. A very cool place to arrive at for the last two days after 45-50 miles cycling. Typically we were greeted with an adult beverage and then we quickly found our way to the pool area where there were plenty of covered chairs as well as a 270 degree view of the mountains, valleys, wineries and olive groves of Tuscany some of it across a multi-tiered infinity pool. Now I am not one to praise the spa life but when it is included in the price of the stay I will wear it out. I found myself in the Turkish mineral bath, the sauna and the steam room (not sure I understand why the latter two are relaxing!?!?) as well as the “emotional shower.” What's this you ask? Think of a 4-stop shower alley. Stop 1: Cool minty misty shower. Stop 2: bucket-like shower. Not quite warm, not quite cold. Stop 3: an even cooler mintier mist. Stop 4: this stop puts the emotional in the “emotional shower.” Think ice cold rain. Ouch. Each stop is about a minute and oddly once done I missed it a bit. Still not much of a spa guy but it did provide a nice break to 2 hours of laying around reading by the pool with the great view. Clearly, I am a man of few real life problems and I am truly grateful for the gifts I have been given in life.

Speaking of grateful, it is trips like these that make me so fortunate that a great, smart, strong and beautiful woman like Cindy married me. She helps me build a deeper foundation with concepts like appreciation, gratitude, kindness and inner strength. She lives with these qualities and as an example of these things along with well-defined character, honor and integrity. All of this and I am lucky enough to wake next to her almost every day.

In addition to gratitude and a great deal of fun and excitement, this trip has reinforced my love for Cycling. While at this stage of my life it is difficult to be my primary sport given the time it takes, I still want to find myself on my bike weekly throughout the year and ramp up over the summer as the days lengthen. It also reinforces my one day desire to ride across the United States for no other reason to say I did it and see the small parts of our country. Lastly, this trip has not only allowed me to see and learn about another country but it has afforded me a view of a simpler life with greater traditions, less work and more play. A passionate life that embraces art, science, food, sport most of which has family clearly aligned at the center. Sure the economy isn't as strong and maybe political corruption is a dark spot, there is no doubting how this country embraces that which most humans would agree are some of the best parts of life. As Americans (warning vast and wide generalizations are about to be made here), we will likely never fully understand the value and benefit of this life but I would hope we could adopt the Italian philosophy of more play, less work attitude as a culture. I hope I am wrong – it is our loss if I am right.

Today we said goodbye to the Backroads guides and our group and have spent the afternoon traveling to Bellagio on Lake Como. Bus from CdV to Florence, speed train from Florence to Milan, slow train from Milan to Lecco, express train to Varenna-Esino, then ferry to Bellagio. If Steve Martin or the ghost of John Candy are in my room when we arrive I'll be sleeping on the floor (“those aren't pillows!”).

So I made you read a small novella. If you made it this far go ahead and click here for a slideshow of Day 8. Ciao!

September 2013 Italy Trip: Day 7 Bellisimo!

Day 7 was a spectacular riding day. We moved into a different part of Tuscany. One with fewer trees but many more views. It was similar to the terrain you see when driving to Yosemite in Northern California but with more hills and not as hot. Before riding we had breakfast at Borgo Scopeta – our best breakfast of the Backroads trip. The difference maker? Tastier eggs (scrambled with olive oil) and fresher bread – in fact the wheat loaf was still warm. Nutella in plain yogurt is darn good too once again proving that everything is better with Nutella.

The Route: 82km or 50 miles or rolling hills with a large climb to Montalcino near the end of the day. There were rollers leading up to lunch that had huge grades. 15 and 20 percenters with a few nearly requiring my ‘granny’ front ring. We had our morning espresso break at a town near the autostrada (think interstate but much narrower). Eddo, our Italian guide referred to this town as the town that God abandoned. Lunch was prepared for us at an Abbezia (an abbey) atop a large hill. The climbing to the abbey was challenging. The last climb to the abbey lunch spot was steep and the location of my first wreck of the trip. I shifted late and my front derailleur jammed. When I went to unclip I couldn’t do it faster than my bike was falling. In fact my bike rolled backwards, I fell to the right side, hit my right hand hard, the the bike toppled over me while I was still clipped in, my helmet hit hard and all the while I think I was cursing. A sore right hand, scraped up left shoulder, dented helmet and a very bruised ego were luckily the extent of my injuries. After lunch Cindy decided to ride the full day (50 miles instead of 30) which included a nasty 8k climb to the town of Montalcino. The drop into Castello Di Velona was spectacular. I averaged 50km while drafting the Backroads van for a few kilometers – it is serious fun to ride that fast!

Highlights and Observations:

  • Montalcino is a must-see town when visiting the Tuscan region. Consists of several alleys with great enocetas (wine stores), pastry shops and restaurants.
  • Long climbs with long descents make then climbs so worth the work.
  • Juice in Italy is better. Their smoothies in a carton are also great.
  • Abbeys are cool – monks may be on to something – at minimum they get how to own land.
  • Pizza and calzones in Italy are divine. Mushrooms in truffle sauce will make both even better.
  • The cannoli I ate in Montalcino was the best one I have ever tasted.
  • Cindy and I had a great day of riding together. I think I’m out of the doghouse.
  • I think Cindy may want to ride a bike more when we get home.
  • I have never stayed in a hotel as nice as Castello Di Velona.

Click here for a brief slide show of Day 7. Buono Cera.

September 2013 Italy Trip: Day 6

The theme of this day is sleep! We got to sleep in an extra 15 minutes this morning due to a later departure from our last day in Castelle Del Nero. We heard today that it was a top 50 hotel in the world. Yea Backroads! In addition and more importantly Cindy slept a full night! She was running on fumes. After bags by the room door at 8am and another high quality and quantity breakfast we took in the route rap and a special birthday song for Tracy – finally her 40th! Backroads presented her with a cool gift and even had balloons attached to her bike. Cool folks these Backroads leaders are. The gift ties into the theme of our riding day: L'Eroica. The gift was a book about this historic race where all entrants must follow the vintage cycling rules: no bikes newer than 1986, no water bottles but instead only bottles with corks, no sports drinks but instead only water or wine and all vintage clothes and gear. This race apparently now sells out in minutes for 5000+ entrants and draws huge crowds along the 200km route. The tie in you ask? Our route today followed a good bit of the L'Eroica route.

It was a beautiful day of riding over terrain that was very challenging and hilly but also shared some nice downhills (some quite steep which means very fast!). The first few climbs from Castello Del Nero were ridiculous with 15-18% grades. From there we rolled along a ridge line while continuing upward until we reached a cool town called Cantalina where the buildings were right beside the road and a quaint church in the middle. The great people of Italy seem to put such a premium on building high quality structures that are built to last. They also seem to place such value on traditions and heritage. These trump all other things except for maybe their love for great food and wine. We heard a saying tonight, wine and oil makes old things younger while water just makes them rusty. That plus 'no chefrette' (no worries) pretty much sums up the Italian way. These great folks still take siesta, enjoy long meals and tend to favor the traditional way over the latest and greatest thing or way.

After the short stop off in the town we road onward towards lunch at 44km. The terrain was a mix of longer uphills and longer downhills. Some ridge riding and some valley riding until the 4k climb up to the lunch spot. Lunch up top was brief as Alex and I decided to push onward to the 70k point and our second hotel of the trip a Borgo de Scopeta. We had a great 25k into the hotel with some great and extended downhills, one treacherous section of hugely step downhill (>20%?) and a couple of solid climbs including nearly 5k up to the hotel. It was actually more like a castle and the cypress-lined street leading to the buildings was amazing. This hotel is home to some of the filming for “The English Patient” and numerous Ferrari club outings. Cool place on a huge piece of land.

Truth be told I'm in a little bit of the doghouse today. I made some miscues: too much riding ahead and not enough riding as couple with too few points where I'm waiting to regroup is flaw número uno. Not hanging with Cindy for lunch was issue número due. I rode on with Alex and maybe didnt think that through like I should have. Less assumptions and more checking in with the reason why I am here. Tomorrow I improve. Tomorrow I'll be on my full game here. Here's to the the pendulum swinging back to center.

Once back we spent time poolside celebrating Tracy's birthday, then a quick shower and off to dinner at the hotel with the group (another 5-6 course meal with great food, wine and cheeses and chocolate cake). Great way to cap off Day 3. Fun times, I'm beat and it isn't quite midnight yet.

Click here for a slideshow of Day 3. Ciao!

 

September 2013 Italy Trip: Day 5

 

Today was our first full day on our bikes and it was spectacular. We road 56 miles between 9am and 4:30pm with a ton of breaks and loads of climbing. In fact, today we climbed ~4000 feet some of it in the lowest gear we had. So much to write about – where to begin?

Some of the rough parts of the trip first: a) Cindy's not sleeping. Last night she was up from midnight to 4:30 pacing, walking the premises of Castle Del Nero, bathing and even resorted to watching Italian TV all to no avail. There is something tougher about the time change than I remember in past trips. It is not uncommon to be wide awake at midnight on this trip. She was a trooper through the 32 miles she rode today. b) Alex's cleat issues. His cleats (part of the shoes that clip to the pedals) picked a tough time to wear out and hiking around the gravel rest spaces in them didn't likely help his cause. He was able to pick up new ones in Gaiole (hometown to Eddo, one of our fantastic guides) after several botched attempts to fix. A brief note to bike part manufacturers: you have made shoes and pedals too complicated and parts incompatible. Customers don't like this. Before that point he was pretty much riding with one leg and we had lots of chats about tying him into the pedals. c) Bonkville for Alex and Me hit hard around mile 50 leaving 6 tough miles into a headwind and up some serious grades until we arrived back at the plush Oasis that is Castello Del Nero. This place would lift anyone's spirits. Tomorrow we carry more food on the bike.

The route: this morning was easy. Downhill early and moderate climbing until right before lunch. The pull up to lunch was a big one lasting 30-40 minutes but still very doable. After a swift, short downhill that reminds you of what you see on the grand tours we reached lunch at Badia a Coltibuono, a 11 century monastery that has since been converted into a 300 year old winery's and Olive Oil resort. It was worth every bit of the short but hugely steep climb to reach it. After a tour and olive oil tasting (yep, we drank tastes of the oil and whistled in to get an understanding of the tastes/notes) and honey tasting (honey with bees that visit a high variety of flowers is pretty not great – I know, hard to believe I found honey I don't like). After the tour we zoomed down the mountain (I hit 55km!) to Gaoile where we visited Eddo's hometown and even met his mama! She was born, now lives and works within 100 meters of each spot. We enjoyed our 2nd espresso/macchiato (espresso with a taste of milk) of the day, bought some stuff from Eddo's Mama and then off again. Most folks bailed at the next break stop but Alex and Me (and two other guys) continued onward and definitely upward to put in an 89km day. The highlights were definitely the tours, Raddo and the high speed descents (we hit 62kph on the way down a lengthy descent in the late afternoon. The salad at lunch was also amazing. Very little salad and very much antipasti (marinated garlic cloves, mushrooms, sun-dried tomatoes, cheeses, olives, artichokes, tuna, etc). The guides would fill your bowls with food until you said “basta” (stop) and would not fill the bowl with any one item if you didn't use proper Italian. No one went hungry. They also had these juice-box sized smoothies that are all organic, 2 servings of fruit and delicious. I think Barillo made them. Worth looking for once home.

After a long day of riding complete with bonking at the end it was great to get cleaned up and head out to the winery at Passignano. We took another great winery tour through a Chianti Classico vineyard specializing in the San Giovese grape. They made some great wines including a Super Tuscan (unregulated but using all San Giovese grapes). Dinner was another 5 course meal perfectly prepared and matched to flights of their wine and olive oils. The food on this trip has been nothing less than amazing!

 

So far this has been one incredible vacation! I'm not sure how we will top this one. Cindy is getting much more comfortable on her bike and is crazy strong going uphill. Her speed on the downhills continues to get better as she gets more comfortable. There's a strong chance she might consider a road bike in her future at home. It has been fun riding with her and she continues to tell me she's really enjoying it. So cool!

Click here to see a slideshow from our day. Ciao!

September 2013 Italy Trip: Day 4

 

 

Goodbye Firenze, hello Backroads. After once again accidentally sleeping in until 8:30 and after another great meal with Alex and Tracy and a fair amount of insomnia by both Cindy and me (more Cindy than me) we woke to the loud clamoring of mopeds and the hustle of city life outside our windows. Alex and I ran a quick 5 miles about the river Arno before a quick pack, snack and short trek to the Florence train station where we met the Backroads group. Our leads, Chris (Australian), Eddo (Italian) and Kate are all awesome and highly experienced guides. The group is also filled with nice folks with a variety of backgrounds. Most seem to be about 10-15 years older and only a few seem to be cyclists as their primary sport. We even have a few first-time riders in the group. It is a good group but the decision to take this trip with Alex and Tracy was a great one. Chalk that up to smart wives.

The first day was awesome. We are in the region of Leonardo Di Vinci, Galileo Galilei and other amazing humans. It is also the Chianti Classico region which apparently is the real and better Chianti. Our ride started without a ride, but with a huge picnic spread for lunch. This followed our first rendezvous at the train station and a short 45 minute bus ride into the country. The picnic had cheeses, meats, roasted veggies, cherry mozzarella, some local cake pastry made of pine nuts, but the biggest hits were 2 new dishes to me: One was a very rich mozzarella cream spread (amazing!), and the other was a bread, tomato and basil dish that was to die for. The only problem I see with food on this trip is not gaining weight!

 

The ride was a short one to start today but breathtaking and not a gimme. Views of vineyards and olive trees as far as the eye can see. Rolling hills with castles and homesteads everywhere. The roads are small, narrow and at times incredibly steep. In 34k, we probably passed through 10 very small towns/villages. So quaint. Bikes are everywhere on the roads and all of the cars seem super respectful and versed on how to ride/share with bikes. Take a lesson from Italy here America!

A moment on Cindy (she would hate that I am writing this)…she was quite nervous about riding these roads, especially the downhills. In the first 5k this nervousness seemed to worsen. I started having flashbacks to our early days do skiing. Not great memories to say the least. Let me just say there were multiple times where she walked down the slope or road down the chair lift! As the ride progressed she got more and more confident. She's very strong up all of the hills. Hills that I'd easily put in my top 5 steepest, and she's finishing near the front. The downhills still scare her a bit but I noticed she used far less brakes towards the end than she did earlier in the ride. I'm always so impressed by her strength. There's a good shot she's up for 50 miles tomorrow. I hope I am! 🙂

A brief note about where we are staying tonight and tomorrow night. Castello Del Nero. A structure built in the 1200s (!?!?!?) and home to some of the finest hotel accommodations I have ever stayed. It overlooks the Tuscan countryside and serves food that is out of this world! Tonight we had a 6 course meal where each course outdid the prior.

 

More to come tomorrow with a tour of an olive oil maker's operation and the potential for 55-56 miles if we want it. Until then, there's a slideshow of our day today below. Ciao!

Click here to view our slideshow of Day 4 in Italy.

 

September 2013 Italy Trip: Day 3 Firenze

 
 
 

 

Our last full day in Florence and the last day of 6 without a bike underneath my behind. I'm looking forward to starting to ride but will really miss Florence. I'd love to live in a city like this one day. Tiny or no car, street-lined housing, people drawn outside, food and drink everywhere and best of all, walking. We probably walked 6-7 miles today just getting around. So cool.

So what did we do today you asked? Ok, but only because you asked…we slept in. Dang blackout shutters! European breakfast which can feel a lot like a lunch. Stroll to the Pitti Medici (basically the founding family of Florence and the curators of a boatload of phenomenal art palace), the upward to what we thought would be the Piazza Michaelangelo. As a sidebar, Michaelangelo would be disappointed to know his name was associated what to us looked like a mix between an Interstate rest stop and Myrtle Beach. The good news is we got lost walking one lane roads in the hillside and wound up at the Chiesa di San Miniato al Monte, maybe the coolest church we have yet seen. It had the best view of Florence, almost 1000 years of historical relevance and gregorian chanting. The road was a one lane, road with high walls on both sides. So cool. Want to see for yourself? Check out these pictures.

 

After a hike back down to town we stopped at what we thought would be a great neighborhood restaurant only to find it didn't have pesto or Gorgonzola cheese dishes so after a mis-order of crostini that ended up having liver pâté on it (very popular in Italy), and some wine we decided to move onward. Our next restaurant was recommended by one of Tracy's friends and lived up to the billing. Bruschetta, Gorganzola gnocchi were the highlights. Afterwards we needed a long slow walk back to the hotel and some downtime.

After nap time, we met for dinner at another recommended restaurant that I cannot pronounce nor spell but the food was excellent! Oddly we are finding that Italians really do eat Italian and pretty much love their meat pasta and cheese. In addition, their breads are surprisingly bland. More for soaking than eating alone. Tonight we had decadent desserts at a different restaurant than dinner (La Osteria Di Giovanni) and some unbelievably good biscotti and Cappachino drinks. Who knew biscotti could be soft and slightly chewy?

Sadly we also found out that Ben, Alex and Tracy's boy, was stung by a bunch of yellow jackets yesterday. He's fine but is on steroids and cortisone to help the swelling. The news rightly scared Tracy and Alex pretty good. A parents worst fear while traveling for sure. Cindy's Dad Jim was apparently the house hero when he delivered a surprise gift of his favorite foods and candy this afternoon. He's a good man that Grandpa Jim is…

Highlights and Observations – Day 3:

  • The Italians need to lobby for a new Olympic sport: Parallel Parking. Everyone else would be competing for silver…
  • Gregorian chanting will make any church more awesome
  • Sometimes fire trucks in Italy can barely fit through roads to get to the fire (we saw a minor fire in a museum today)
  • No matter how hard you try to by still “naturale” water in the stores, there is still a greater than 80% chance you will screw up and end up with sparkling (gasse) water.
  • Electric mopeds are much quieter than gas versions.
  • Mini Coopers look like big cars here
  • Some roads in Italy are made for romantic kissing (a la Bachelorette so I'm told)

Here's a link to a slideshow from our day. Ciao!