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Posts from the ‘vacation’ Category

built on a rock: Sassetta

 

 

the medieval town of Sassetta, built on a rock cliff

 

First let me say – rest assured, the Italy stuff is nearly over, I promise.  But thank you for hanging in there, as this has really been the easiest way for me to share with my boys at school, some family and friends.

So … today would be the best cycling day of the trip – if there really could be such a thing?  And I mean that by the cycling; the ride was spectacular.  Today’s route would be roughly 75 km (46 mi) with some cycle-perfect climbing.   We were leaving coastal Marina di Castagneto and heading to our next agrihotel, the beautiful Montebelli, in Caldana.  More on that later.

 

between Castagneto Carducci and Sassetta - the vistas were stunning

 

Our ride took us up once again through the village of Castagneto Carducci (where we had taken a detour to see yesterday afternoon), and then up into the hills to the village of Sassetta – the name stemming from the Italian word sasso, meaning for “stone” or “rock”.

Although I am typically not much of a climber, this was a climb I absolutely loved.  An scenic 8-10 km uphill with that perfect cycling grade … just find that comfortable gear, get into a rhythm, and enjoy the view!

You may wonder: why were all of these small villages built high up (and rather precariously) on the hill/mountain tops?  We were told that long ago, the low-lying regions of Tuscany we fairly inhospitable; largely marshlands, malarial, not “healthy”.  So to escape the unhealthy air, villages were built high in the hills, where the air was fresh, leaving the mosquitos and pests down below.  It wasn’t until centuries later that the lowlands were drained, and the agriculture that we know today was introduced.

approaching Sassetta

cliffside, Sassetta

resting place, heavenly view

If I had thought the ride up was fun, let’s just say the descent was even more so.  Long sweeping turns, the perfect grade, stunning views – and basically too much fun to stop, even for photos.  Along the way we saw a number of people heading into the mountain woods with baskets.  We guessed that they were mushroom hunting, as it was peak season for porcinis.  (It almost made me stop …).

Once again, down from the hills, it was pleasant cycling through more small towns, vineyards and local agriculture.  And, of course, the afternoon stop for gelatto.

 

Tuscan farm

 

I have never seen sheep with straight, silky fleece like this - wish I knew what breed?

I have never seen sheep with straight, silky fleece like this - wish I knew what breed?

navigating

evidence that I really do ride a bike (& not just take pictures)

Somewhere around the town of Bagno di Gavorrano, we came across this billboard.  I figured you all could use a laugh by now … And let me say that Mark did not put me up to this.  (No wisecracks from the peanut gallery, ok?).

lost in translation (?)

A last little bit of uphill before arriving at the beautiful inn of Montebelli.  And what is the end to a perfect day of Tuscan cycling?  You probably guessed by now – a spectacular local, organic, delectable dinner.  Buon appetito!

 

dinner at Montebelli

 

 

olives and Castagneto Carducci

 

blue sky day

blue skies and olive groves

 

Today would be an easy day, kind of a rest day, before some bigger things to come.  Our ride was a fairly flat 39 km (24 mi) loop to visit Fonte di Folana, a family-run olive oil mill, owned and operated by Di Gaetano Michele with his wife Bianchi Marina and their sons.  It was a really beautiful place, with gorgeous views all the way out to the coast.  The mill, however, was in the midst of an equipment upgrade project, which Michele explained was designed help preserve the polyphenols and vitamins during the pressing process, so I don’t have many photos from our visit – but the photos on their website are definitely worth looking at.

We did, however, have a spectacular lunch outside on their balcony … and I managed to bring home 3 litres (cans) of olive oil.  I figured if I had to toss all of my clothes to bring this stuff home in my suitecase, it was well worth it!

 

 

our lunchtime view, olive branches in the foreground...

 

 

... and our spectacular lunch

 

Our guides Luca and Andrea offered up directions to allow Mark and I do to some additional riding upon leaving Fonte di Folano.  So we headed out with a great guy we had made friends with from NY (“Paolo”) to ride an additional loop up to the village of Castagneto Carducci – which proved to be the highlight of our day.  After all of the olive oil I consumed, I figured a bit of climbing was a probably good thing. 😉

 

Paolo and Mark – riding into the village of Castagneto Carducci
around every corner there was always a picture to be found
“Where to?” (thankful for a map of the labyrinth of streets)

We roamed the beautiful small streets of the village for a while, Paolo and Mark were very kind to indulge all of my stopping for photos.  At one point when I was about to take a shot of some colorful laundry that was hanging in a little lane, a sweet old Italian woman popped her head out of her window above me and started laughing and giggling things in Italian … I simply knew she was saying, “Oh, you silly, silly American tourists – taking pictures of my laundry of all things?!  Mama Mia!”.   To this minute, I would have killed to have gotten a shot of her smiling, laughing face looking down at me.  Live and learn (to react faster).

Since most shops and businesses are closed each day between 12:30 – 3:00 pm, we were somewhat hard-pressed to find a place to stop for a cappucino or a Coke.  We finally found a place that was open, and stopped.  To discover that sitting at a nearby table was a group of young Americans, who we came to learn were travelling around Tuscany by car.   They asked me to snap their photo, and very kindly reciprocated.

 

tables with a view
Paolo, Mark and I – photo thanks to the friendly group from the US
somewhere within Castagneto Carducci

 

 

the universal parts of daily life, no matter where you are

 

We (reluctantly) left this beautiful little village to head back down to the coast.  The ride back was an adventure in itself, more like mountain-biking than road riding.  The road was winding, fairly steep in parts, and the pavement was largely broken and rocky.  But it was a blast!  (And I was mostly thankful we were heading down on this road, rather than coming up it).

Throughout Tuscany there are countless religious shrines built along the roadsides.  I was fascinated by all of them, but this one in particular was pretty amazing, simply because of its size.  I would have loved to know what all of the symbols on the cross represented.  Upon returning home, I discovered that couple of books have been published about these shrines throughout Italy and Tuscany – Shrines: Images of Italian Worship and Scenes and Shrines in Tuscany.  I may have to put these on my wish-list.

 

roadside shrine – the largest one we were to see
I would have loved to know more about this one: who built it? when? what do the symbols represent? why is the rooster on top of the cross?

For a rest day, we had a wonderful day of riding (and food, and amazing villages).  And when it was all over, I did get a little R&R, poolside. 🙂

 

 

the rest of the "rest day", poolside

 

 

 

biking La Strada del Vino & the Italian cooking lesson

 

coastal maritime pine forest

Today would be an easy cycling day … which was probably a good thing, considering that it (ultimately we) would be filled with amazing food and wine.   We would be riding to our next hotel, the Tombolo Talasso Resort in the coastal town of Marina di Castagneto, and on our way, riding up into the hills to visit the tiny and beautiful village of Bolgheri.

We were told that the cycling Olympic gold medalist (2004) and two time World Champion Paolo Bettini is often seen riding these roads, and while I don’t think we ever spotted him, we did see some pretty incredible (and incredibly fast) guys heading up into the hills.

 

we were told there were over 2500 independent vintners throughout Tuscany
definitely not Tennessee

We arrived in Bolgheri late in the morning, allowing us time to walk around the village before enjoying lunch.  Bolgheri had, for a time, been home to one of the most celebrated Italian poets and Nobel laureates (1906, Literature)  Giosuè Carducci.  While we did not find any books of his poetry, the little village offered some of the most famous regional wines, a small market selling pastas, olives and other Tuscan treats, as well as a shop filled with beautiful hand-painted pottery.  We had lunch at a small restaurant in the heart of the village, and the porcini ravioli was to die for.

 

entering the village of Bolgheri
it’s a good thing I was on a bike with only a small bag for camera & rain gear – I could have gone nuts buying food
don’t worry … I didn’t drink all of these
inside the small market; I broke down and bought some pasta

After lunch, we left Bolgheri to continue cycling along the slightly rolling and shady Strada del Vino “Costa degli Estruschi”.  Basically, it is the road of famous “Super Tuscan” vineyards – names like Tenuta San Guido, Ornellaia, Le Macchiole, Michele Satta, Grattamacco, Guado al Tasso, etc.  (I figure if you know your Italian wines, you will like know these names.  I can only plead ignorance; to me, it was all amazing – the cycling part as well as the wine part.)

Mark and I took a little detour into one of the smaller vineyards along the way, and were treated to a tasting and picked up a wonderful vino rosso for later.  Apparently, it was the height of the last grape harvest of the season – the Cabernets were ready.  There were people gathering grapes in nearly every vineyard we passed, and at the Chiappini vineyard where we stopped, we got to see them loading the grapes into a big de-stemming contraption by the crateful.

 

the Cabernets
he actually didn’t have to ditch his rain gear…
riding the cedar-flanked drive of Chiappini Vineyards

We continued riding to our destination of the coastal town of Marini di Castagneto and our hotel.  The Tombolo Talasso Resort was modern and very lovely, but I think we both preferred the more relaxed and simple atmosphere of the small rural agrihotels, like Elizabetta.  But we had some time to relax and take a walk along the coast before heading off to one of the highlights of our trip – a visit to a local home where we would participate in preparing our dinner.

The best way to appreciate the Italian food, is by cooking and eating it … Cook with simplicity, with good and local ingredients, and mostly with the heart!

~ Chicca Maione

So, here we were – in Chicca’s kitchen. A charming and vivacious young Napolitan woman, and an accomplished cyclist in her own right, she invited us into her home and her kitchen to teach us some of the recipes that had been passed down through her family.  It was remarkable.  We gathered around her kitchen island, chopping parsley, crushing garlic, learning the stories behind her recipes – from pasta to baked fennel to semolina gnocchi.  It was divine.  And dinner was even better.  Thank you, Chicca!

 

 

in Chicca's kitchen

 

 

preparing the Prostitutes Spaghetti ... don't ask me for the story behind this one

preparing the Prostitutes Spaghetti ... don't ask me for the story behind this one

 

 

a perfect day of cycling, and a spectacular home-cooked dinner - could you ask for anything else?

 

from sea to mountains


along the Tyrrhenian Sea

 

Where to start?  At the beginning, in the rain near the coast …

I suppose I should clarify a little bit about our trip.  As much as we may have liked to take a month or more and do self-supported touring, logistics and time constraints made it impossible at this point.  Instead, we opted for a supported tour through VBT – and the entire experience exceeded our expectations ten-fold.  I cannot recommend them highly enough; everything was seamless and amazingly well organized, and we had cultural experiences that I doubt we would have been able to plan or arrange on our own.  Five gold stars to the amazing folks at VBT!

warm-up ride & rainbow near Agrihotel Elizabetta

After leaving Florence, we began our cycling from Agrihotel Elizabetta in Collemezzano.  We met with our trip guides/leaders, Andrea and Lucca, both native Italians who fitted us with our bikes and gave us our route maps and cue sheets.  Although we never really rode with them, they would prove to be indispensable friends over the course of the trip; always entertaining, helpful and generous beyond description, doing everything for us “behind the scenes”.  Our first afternoon was an easy (25 km)  warm-up ride in the area around the agrihotel, just so we could adjust bikes as necessary and become familiar with their cue sheets and route directions.  The weather was cool with scattered showers, but we felt the rainbow was a very good omen.

Our second day, and first full day of riding, took us down to the coast of the Tyrrhenian Sea on a blustery morning.  We approached the coast walked the bikes across a stretch of shoreline, before entering some beautiful maritime pine forests on our way toward the coastal foothills.

walking the beach
guess who? (caught in the act)

Our route today (68 km/42 mi) was to take us up to the medieval village of Casale Marittimo, a beautiful village dating back to the fifth century B.C. (Etruscan) perched high in the hills, overlooking the beautiful Tuscan landscape filled with olive trees and vineyards.  The climb was fairly easy and extremely lovely, even through we encountered a few showers.  The vistas were amazing.  Luca and Andrea met us just before entering the village with a spectacular picnic lunch of vegetable salads, breads, cheeses and fruit.  (I was already beginning to love these two guys… ;))

the route up to Cassale Marittimo

One of our favorite aspects of our daily route plans was the option to choose from various distances and additional loops.  Mark and I opted to ride an additional 10 km loop that basically circled the hilltop near the village – which was really fun, except for a last (thankfully short) stretch of steep climbing.  But I’d do it again in a heartbeat.  Probably.  😉

After lunch we rode up and into Casale Marittimo.  And were simply blown away.  It was incredible – from the narrow cobbled streets and stone buildings, to the geraniums in the window boxes and the tiled roofs.  An Italian couple (residents?) approached us as I was taking pictures in the village and kindly and enthusiastically pointed us up toward a little lane where they promised we would have a stunning view for photographs.  It would be the first of so many friendly encounters with incredibly hospitable people we would meet.

entering Casale Marittimo
the narrow streets of the village
the hidden viewing spot we were directed to by a kind village couple
I kept asking myself: can this be real?
the most fun streets to ride – ever!

We (rather reluctantly) left the beautiful village of Casale Marittimo, and headed back down toward the coastal town of Cecina.  On the downward slopes, we really began to get the classic Tuscan views – from the silvery-green olive groves, to the tidy rows of grapes, the graceful lines of cypress trees and the warm golden tones of the stone and stucco houses.

the Tuscan landscape en route to coastal Cecina

As we arrived back near the coast in the town of Cecina, the sun was beginning to break through, and we had our final treat of the day … the G.O.D. (Gelato Of the Day).  This stuff is so incredibly delicious … nothing compares.  I also think it is official law in this region: if you cycle, you must eat gelato.  And I am very happy to be a law-abiding visitor.

gelato: part of the (legally) mandated RDA for cyclists

back at the coast, with the skies clearing ... Cecina

 

dear friends

 

on the streets of Florence

 

Dear Family and Friends,

I have returned.  A bit changed, no doubt – as inevitably happens when visiting a new place, meeting new people, experiencing new things.  Happy, tired, filled, and fulfilled.  Full of bicycle memories and wonderful food, the warm colors of of the Tuscan landscape, the lyrical and expressive sounds of the Italian language.  Awakened to important lessons – learning the beauty of living slowly, savoring the flavors, taking in the landscape, speaking through actions and gestures.

I’ve been debating on how best to tell some of the stories of this trip … As you may have already guessed, there is an excess of photos (will be putting final cut on my Flickr as I manage to get them uploaded) along with experiences on the bicycles that are probably too numerous to re-tell.  But for my family, and especially my boys away at school who wanted some details, I have decided to tell the story over the course of several days (and several posts).  So please bear with me – and check in as often or as little as you care to.  I guess that’s the beauty of the blogosphere, isn’t it?

The story begins in Florence, where we arrived and had roughly a day to spend walking and enjoying this incredible city before setting out by bicycle across Tuscany.  The architecture is stunning – from the cathedrals and museums to the Ruine Anno (river) and Ponte Vecchio.  Bicycles and cyclists are everywhere.  From the young and hip, to the older and more classically chic Italians, everyone rides bicycles.

The streets are typically European – narrow, cobbled, winding, and always charming.   Everyone gathering in the piazzas in the evening for food and wine and fellowship.   The food was beyond description; olive oil, rosemary, porcini mushrooms, crusty bread, vino rosso, and light fragrant pasta dishes … hard to get enough.   And of course, our daily GOD (Gelato Of the Day).

Twenty-four hours is not nearly enough time properly see and appreciate this beautiful city, but we managed to walk until our legs nearly fell off and saw as much as we could.  Simply, it was breathtaking.  And I want to return someday.

So began the adventure….

 

family transport on the streets of Firenze

 

 


lunch at a sidewalk trattoria, and the things that would become imprinted in my mind: bottles of olive oil and bicycles (because it really doesn't get any better, does it?)

 

 

our lunchtime view - Piazza del Duomo

 

 

red bicycle outside of a trattoria

 

 

no one seems to care when they don't always ride on the righthand side of the lane...

 

 

she could seriously be my role model

 

 

Firenze (Florence) - one of the gems of Tuscany

 

mountain(s), bike(s)

Steamboat Springs ... a great way to get to the slopes

Had annual wonderful week’s vacation in Steamboat Springs, CO, last week.  It tends to be the week that “gets me through” the rest of the year.  I love the snow, the mountains, the skiing … the whole atmosphere and “vibe” of town.

I guess my love affair with Steamboat stems from my history with the place.  Back when I was probably 9 or 10 years old, our family would head to Steamboat in the summer to visit friends who owned a fantastic cabin in Route National Forrest.  I remember sleeping in the cabin loft with my sister and my friends, Karen and Kirsten – shrieking at the bats that would fly about the eaves on summer evenings.  Also memories of my “Aunt Pat” waking us up every morning to the sound of the Beatles’ Here Comes the Sun. Hiking up to mountain lakes for some trout fishing, horseback riding, the July 4th rodeo, visiting F.M. Light’s in town … all part of those wonderful memories of the “cowboy” mountain town of Steamboat Springs.

My parents began taking us on winter ski vacations in Steamboat back in the 1970’s – after skiing at various places throughout the west, from CO to NM.  I loved staying on the mountain at the Scandinavian Lodge, skiing right out our door onto the slopes.  Although we had skied at many Colorado resorts – Aspen, Vail, Winter Park… – Steamboat somehow became our favorite place, and the place we kept returning to.  Famous for their high altitude “Champagne Powder” along with maintaining their small-town atmosphere, it always seemed to be more laid-back and genuine than the developing glitz of places like Aspen.

Mark and I began taking our own boys to the mountain about 6 years ago.  Despite the fact that the boys don’t have the opportunity to ski as often as I did when I was younger, they’ve become very skilled and competent skiers – able to tackle every black diamond run on the mountain, along with a few of the double-black diamond chutes.  We’ve made a lot of wonderful memories skiing together, playing in the powder, finding our favorite outfitters and eateries in town.  As Mark recently commented, I think we both wish that we’d started the tradition years earlier.  And although we’ve seen the town changing, and some aspects have become rather uber-wealthy resort-ish, the town still manages to maintain a sense of charm that other resort areas are missing … at least in my opinion.

Dillon - Storm Peak, 2010

Dillon - cutting it up on Storm Peak

Although skiing remains at the top of my list of reasons to visit Steamboat, I have always been impressed by the great bike culture around town – whether summer or winter.  We’ve seen a great Xtracycle conversion with a PVC tube used for hauling skis, lots of committed cyclists riding through the worst of weather and road conditions, lots of people going about their daily routine in town – by bicycle.  One of my favorite sights in town one day this year, was this dad with his mini-pedalers and the family dog, riding down the main street.  Sweet! 😀

Dad, two tots and the dog - by bike; awesome!

never too young to start 🙂

Macs and bicycles ... a perfect combo!

macs and bikes - the perfect combo!

I really want a leopard-print saddle ... downtown "date bike"

Upon getting back home, the current issue of LAB’s (League of American Bicyclists) 2010 Bicycle Friendly America was in the mailbox.  I was happy to read that Steamboat had achieved Silver status as a Bicycle Friendly City (I believe they moved up from Bronze within this past year?).  According to the article:

The community boasts a 4 percent bicycling mode share; an ever growing network of on-road and off-road bicycling facilities – including 266 miles of natural-surface trails … The Open Space and Trails Master Plan includes over 25 miles of new bicycle routes and lanes to the city. More cyclists than ever are commuting and using their bicycles for errands around town.  The local political bodies responded by ramping-up their support for bicycling in the form of budget allocations and Community Development Code provisions for bicycle facilities and transportation systems, instead of thinking of it as a marginal or luxury issue for a special sub-group.

Last year we rented some bicycles and rode along the Yampa River bike path … a beautiful multi-use path that links several communities and provides a great way to get to and from the heart of downtown.  We’ve seen more and more people hauling skis by bike up to the base area of the mountain, as well bikes parked outside the grocery stores and restaurants around town.  It’s inspiring – and often amazing, given the weather and road conditions we’ve seen some of them out riding in.  Hat’s off!

So … vacation is over, and spring is well on its way.  Although the sight of blooming daffodils is lovely, I somehow still would rather see sparkling snow on a sunny mountain.  Just me.  😉

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