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Posts tagged ‘Italy’

La Serenissima

As reluctant as I am to use the adjective crazy, it is the one that immediately comes to mind when I think of our arrival in Venice.  The crazy boat traffic in the Grand Canal –  the gondolas, the motoscafi, the vaporetti and traghetti.   The crush of crazy tourists in the Sestiere di San Marco and lining the Ponte di Rialto.  The completely crazy notion of building an entire city upon soft, marshy islands in the first place – its foundation consisting of tens of thousands of long wooden poles driven deep into the mud, topped with slabs of water-impervious marble … materials that had to be hauled in from crazy distances, far, far away, centuries ago.  The crazy labyrinth of canals and calli, the countless bridges, the water entrances into nearly every building…

And the crazy, crazy, exquisite beauty of it all.

When we first arrived and stepped out of our motoscafi onto the damp stairs of the water entrance into our hotel, I wasn’t really sure if I could love La Serenessima … a name she was given long ago, the Most Serene Republic of Venice.  Upon introduction, she seemed anything but serene.  Far too many tourists, too many pushcarts of made-in-China Venetian masks, glass trinkets, tee shirts and souvenirs.  The obscenely over-priced designer district – a parade of Versace to Valentino.  And even the excess of clichés everywhere I turned – from the singing gondolieri, to the striped mooring posts along every canal, to the crumbling decay of layers of plaster upon brick.

I own a book with some of Canaletto’s magnificent works, and this just looked too much like I had stepped into one of his paintings – and (except for the tourist trappings) so largely unchanged from what he captured in the 1700’s to be believable.  It felt more like an artfully crafted movie set than reality.

But then you wander out, away – well away from the crowds and noise and gondolieri.  You discover that maps are useless in this place.  You find yourself in an empty calle, light filtering down against honey-colored walls.  You hear what sounds like an opera singer in the midst of a lesson – a soprano’s scales – from a shuttered window just overhead.

You are finally alone.  Away from the tourists, you can breath again – and you begin to see and hear her.

A couple passes by in quiet conversation.  Children with books walk home from school.  The inflection in their voices, their words, are their own form of music.  The most beautiful language… la bella lingua.  It truly is.

You get lost crossing small bridges, tiny canals, and puzzle through small crooked calli – some of these small corridors are barely a shoulder’s-width across.  Pieces of laundry hang to dry,  like a dare,  above the green water of a narrow canal.

You stop in the small empty shop of a book binder, eyes drawn to the exquisite hand-bound leather books and journals that line the wooden shelves.  And you enjoy an unexpected and smiling conversation with the proprietor – part English, part Italian, heavy with gesture – about books, dip pens and fine Fabriano paper.  And also about Elvis… when he learns you are from Tennessee.

As the sun gently comes to rest against the horizon and the tourists of the day make their exit, you feel the serene more than the crazy.  You stop at a sidewalk cafe for a glass of wine and listen to the music of a string quartet playing off to the side.  You understand Vivaldi’s muse, and imagine his genius being brought to life by the young girls of the Ospedale della Pietà.

Goden-pink light fills the water-edge of the sky and illuminates the domes of distant cathedrals and their halos of clouds.  Slender, violet-black crescents – the silhouettes of gondolas now empty of passengers – gently rock against their moorings.  It is Monet’s Venise, le Grand Canal before your eyes.

The moon rises and the trattorias glow with candles, wine bottles, and the fragrance of delicious food.  Someone laughs and lifts a golden Colombina mask to their eyes.  And in this strange, beautiful city, within in the maze of canals and calli, you instantly imagine all of the old stories of intrigues and assignations, of lovers and disguises.  La Maschera.  It is romantic beyond measure.

Like so many before you, and countless numbers yet to come, you have been seduced by La Serenissima.  She has cast her spell – and you know you will never, ever, forget her.

of music, mountains, and folktales…

I am not an exceptional cyclist.  Yet somehow, I have managed to have extraordinary and exceptional journeys.  Slowly.  Purposefully.  Sometimes accidentally.  On two wheels.

For me it is the love of slow travel.  It is not about pushing through to a destination, or about arriving. Rather, it is a conscious savoring of each meter, each mile along the way – under my own power, and to the beat of my own heart.  It is about letting the day unwind before me as it will.   It is about the diversions and accidental discoveries.  It is about seeing the beauty through all of the senses – through touch, sight, sound, smell and taste.

We – my beloved and I – spent mid- through late September traveling and cycling through three magnificent countries – Austria, Slovenia and Italy.  We began in Salzburg and finished in Venice.  And in between, we fell in love with the mountains, the people,  and the villages of Slovenia.  We were in the land of the Julian Alps, a region whose heritage is rich in music, folklore, and mountaineering.  It often looked and felt like something taken out of a fairy tale … and in a way, I suppose it was.

It is difficult for me to write, at least publicly and impartially, about this adventure.  There is so much that goes beyond even the best words and photos.  But for the benefit of our boys (who are spread far and wide right now), our families, a few close friends – and anyone else who may be interested in a glimpse of this region as seen from the saddle of a bicycle – I will share briefly and as well as a I can.  I will spare you all a day-by-day, blow-by-blow account, and instead provide a few posts and a few photo galleries about each of the regions.  Just to give you a taste.  Just to (hopefully) inspire you to visit this region a create your own journey…

We arrived in Salzburg several days before we were to begin cycling.  Salzburg is a picturesque city, surrounded my mountains and watched over by the old fortress – the Festung Hohensalzburg, or the “High Salzburg Fortress”.

At the heart of Old Salzburg are magnificent baroque churches and architecture, the meticulously manicured Mirabell Gardens, and the gentle blue-green ribbon of the Salzach River.

The city is rich in its musical heritage, with Mozart being the biggest draw for me.  It is the birthplace and childhood home of Mozart – and the resting place for his wife and father.   It is home to the renown Salzburg music festival and the Mozarteum University.  And more recently, it was the home of conductor Herbert von Karajan – as well as being the setting (and home of Maria von Trapp ) from The Sound of Music, which was filmed in and around the city and continues to be a major tourist draw.

Like many other old European cities, Salzburg is wonderfully bicycle-centric.  In the heart of the city, bicycles are the rule, rather than the exception.  The streets are mostly void of vehicular traffic, with the exception of a few delivery trucks and a network of electric buses.  People walk or bike, or use some combination of the two – coupled with public transportation when needed.  It is a beautiful thing to see.

After three days of walking and seeing Salzburg on foot, we were ready to get on our bicycles … but that will have to wait for another day, another post.

To be continued …

l’ultimo giorno di bicycling

ancient archway; agritourismo outside of Castiglione della Pescaia

The last day of cycling – l’ultimo giorno. We had seen so much, yet at the same time, we had barely scratched the surface of the beauty and the adventures of cycling through Tuscany.  Today, we would have an easy (50 km) ride down to the coastal town of Castiglione della Pescaia – a charming fishing village dating back to medieval times.  As a defense against pirate attacks, the oldest parts of the village were built within a stone fortress, high upon the coastal hillside.   Yeah, it was amazing.

The skies were clouding over, and we would have a bit of rain later in the day, but the riding weather was comfortably cool and the scenery was beautiful – as always, rain or shine.

 

 

Mark and Paolo on the road to the coast

 

a lighthouse, a fisherman, and his bicycle
the fisherman’s bicycle

 

We arrived at Castiglione della Pescaia and had been advised to park the bikes and walk the village by foot.  Which proved to be very good advice, as the streets were very narrow and very steep.

the cobble streets of Castiglione della Pescaia
daily life – by foot
I am convinced, without a doubt, that Italian people possess a far superior version of the “drive-thru”

 

 

chimney cat

 

After lunch, we (reluctantly) left the village and headed back toward Caldana and agrihotel Montebelli.   We got rained on (a little bit), but had much fun – and a few laughs – along the way, riding with our friend Paolo.

 

I decided to add a little "turbo" to my helmet 😉

 

 

the village of Caldana

 

Arriving back at the agrihotel with a little extra time, Mark and I decided to take a hike up into the Montbelli olive groves and up to their family oak tree that sits high on a hilltop and offers a beautiful view of the surrounding valleys, their organic orchards and gardens, and the nearby village of Caldana.

The oak tree has a very special meaning to the Montebelli family.  Allesandro Montebelli and his family shared with us some of the stories about their decisions to care for and develop their land in a sustainable manner, their commitment to organics and solar, and the spiritual connection they feel with their homeplace and the great old oak tree at the top of the hill.  As Giulio Montebelli told me, “The oak tree is a sacred place for us, we all go there for the great views and, more importantly, to find an intimate space for connection with the world and the ones we care for.”

Montebelli became a very special place to us as well, a beautiful and inspiring part of Tuscany that we will never forget and hope to return to someday.

After visiting the oak tree, we walked up to the village of Caldana – in the rain.  I think that somehow, with the low clouds and wet cobbles, it may have been more beautiful in the rain than in the sunshine?  We made our way through the labyrinth of streets, trying to absorb our last moments in this small and beautiful village – the atmosphere that we had come to love throughout our time in Tuscany.

 

exploring the village of Caldana

 

 

rooftops of Caldana and the patchwork landscape of Tuscany

 

As we left Caldana to walk back to Montebelli in a light rain, the most amazing thing happened.  The sun very briefly appeared, creating a rainbow – a rainbow that just happened to “land” upon the sacred oak tree on the Montebelli hilltop.  I think that both Mark and I were speechless for that moment.  Could it be a sign?  I can’t say.

We began our days of cycling in Tuscany by riding under a rainbow, and ended our trip with the rainbow at Montebelli.  We didn’t really need a sign to know that our experience in Tuscany  – from the places we visited to the people met – was a gift to be cherished.

 

rainbow over the Montebelli oak tree

 

We would spend a day in Rome before returning home, but at this point I think I will spare everyone any more photo essays since there wasn’t any biking involved.  If you are at all interested, the “final cut” of Italy photos can be viewed on FlickrRiver – which is the easiest way to scroll through them, and on a beautiful black background.   The Rome photos should be up within the next few days.   (Personally, I recommend viewing them on FlickrRiver in the large size for the best resolution and detail.)  Whatever.

Coming soon … an overdue update on #330daysofbiking and some other local bicycling stuff.  Meanwhile, thanks to friends and family who have been patient with me through all of the Italy adventures; I am grateful for your comments and putting up with the “vacation photos”! 😀

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