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The traveler: An expected journey This time it's the Scandinavian countries of Denmark, Sweden & Norway before England again for several weeks and on to Croatia.

Cycling in Tuscany

ITALY | Friday, 13 November 2015 | Views [323]

It would be impossible to describe each bicycle ride, meal and day in Tuscany, but a few moments I think will suffice for you to be envious of my week here with Women’s Quest. Still it is a whole week condensed into words, so beware it’s long!

After the initial commotion of haulling bags up steps, meeting roommates, and unpacking in what seemed our own villa, though there were a few other guests at the rural hotel as well, we all assembled outside for a short bicycle ride that afternoon. The difference between my upright, heavy touring bicycle from Austria and the ultra lightweight road bicycle I became acquainted with in Italy was night and day. I’d never actually been on a road bike before, just my mountain bike along the dirt roads of the Rocky Mountains. So I set off with the middle group to get a better understanding of the right timing for switching gears as we bicycled along the quiet roads with fields of olive groves, and lines of cypress trees. I’d mastered the technique well enough along with another lady, ironically from my home region of Colorado, that we were told to just keep going and catch up with the group ahead of us on the way back. So it was we found our group for the rest of the week of inside jokes, gentle hills and long curving descents.

That evening and many others that week the 15 of us ladies sat down for dinner with our 3 bicycle leaders: a wonderful Italian lady, my triathlete neighbor who leads the entire adventure and her husband, the one man among the 18 of us. There were several tables put together outside beneath a grand tree with spreading branches, and small lights where we met for breakfast before our bike rides and ended the day with conversation and laugher around dinner. After we sat down with plates full of freshly made Italian food more dishes continued being laid out. It didn’t look like we made much of a dent in the different dishes of colorful vegetables, meat and vegetarian platters, soup and pastas. Of course the bottles of Italian wine came out as well. By the end of the week we had 17 great friends and knew each other as bikers as well as a bit about the lives of each person back home.

 

The next day my group of 5 bikers set off with my neighbor’s husband, who is a great athlete in his own right, for a several hour ride with “just one hill”. Well we went up “the hill”, which ended rather sooner than we expected. A bit later we went up another hill, and another on the way back, neither of which we thought was significantly different from “the hill”. After we’d made the first climb up we followed the cobbled streets of the hilltop village to a panoramic view of the tiled roofs below and the rolling hills of the countryside around. The crops had been harvested so the hills were brown with the tilled dirt, except for the fields of silvery olive trees and snakes of tall, green cypress trees along roads.

Of course there were rows of vineyards along the way as well. It was at one family owned vineyard that we all met for lunch. Not a lunch or dinner past without glasses of local wine. The vineyard was no exception. Along with the several varieties of wine we tasted we were told a bit about each one. They did not limit themselves to wine though. The olive oil on our delicious meal came from their fields as well.

After returning to our villa most of us found our way out to the pool, where we quickly realized how cold the water was. So instead we enjoyed drying off in the sun while watching the few real swimmers among our group go up and down the length of the pool.

 

Perhaps it was the next day my bicycling group set off on a “long climb” with the prospect of a great descent down the “wiggle road” on the other side. We all settled into a steady pace and conversation. Before we knew it our bike leader told us we were at the top. “Was that all?” After the “one hill” we had been prepared for more when we heard “long climb”. Before we started down the “wiggle road” he gave us tips on leaning into the curves and braking. By this time we’d figured out who were the speed demons in the group and who liked to go at a more reasonable speed.  So off in front went my roommate and the triathlete in our group. What a lovely ride it was down the curving road beneath the canopy of trees and dappled light! Though it didn’t seem terribly steep our fingers were definitely sore by the time we came to a stop at the bottom. It was by rides like this that we covered about 40-50 miles a day.

Another day we ended most of our riding at the unique estate of a friend my neighbor had made while bicycling in Italy years ago. Intrigued by the natural and geometric shapes of the stone statues lining the long driveway behind the gates my neighbor decided one day to find out who lived there and left her cautious companions behind on the road. At the top she was greeted by the artist and thoughtful man whom she’s been friends with since. Before we had even started out for the day she was telling us about the incredible food we’d have for lunch, like the rest of our meals weren’t already! The day before he’d driven something like 50 miles one way to collect potatoes from one specific farmer. Indeed our lunch was fabulous, with all organic food, and very flavorful fruit. After we’d had small samplings of everything it seemed unlikely we’d be hungry again.

We admired his craftsmanship in everything from the dozens of large, ambiguous stone sculptures with specific meanings to their creator, to the outdoor pool with a pale stone ceiling above it. The water in this pool was graciously warm and very relaxing. Before we donned our biking clothes and returned to our bikes we sat down around our host while he answered questions and shared his philosophy on life with the translation of our Italian bike leader. Despite the easy abundance around us he said that living simply was the best way to carry through life. He feels the oneness of all creation. The earth and natural world around inspire him to create.

Our next outing was to quite a different place: the bustling city of Siena. We did not make the 100-mile trek by bike, but instead by bus. For several hours we explored the city with whichever other ladies we ended up heading in the same direction with. Some of us set off down narrow streets with fewer tourists while others stopped in one of the many leather stores. Many of us found probably the most beautiful window display in town of fruits, spices, olive oil and garlic. It was here I made some of my first purchases of my entire trip of things to take home. My pack had not expanded in size though so I thought carefully about my few bags of spices, and decided against the olive oil. Back at the heart of the city we all met up for a guided tour.

Where we began at the Piazza del Campo is the location of the famous bareback horse race, the Palio, which began in the 17th century. Only 10 of the 17 contrade, rather like boroughs of Siena, are allowed to compete at a time given the space. The seven contrade who did not compete the year before are given the first 7 spaces. The last 3 spaces are awarded in a lottery. The contrade do not know which horse will be representing them until just a few days before the race. In such an intense competition it all seems incredibly fair!

From this center of excitement in July and August we moved on to the Cathedral, which was built in the 13th century. Siena had grand plans and great wealth though, so in the 14th century they decided they would build practically a whole new cathedral of which the old one would be only a small part. Their timing was very bad. The Plague swept through the city killing about 3/4 of their population after only the first new wall had been completed. So there the wall stands outside of the original, grand cathedral, perhaps the largest I’ve been in. Inside the black and white stone striped columns reminded me irresistibly of jail stripes. They are however the colors that represent Siena. On the floor of the Cathedral the stone depicts scenes, some seemingly rather Pagan for a Catholic church, such as the founding of Rome symbolized by the suckling Romulus and Remus, as well as Venus leading ashore a group of lost men.

One of the side chapels is dedicated to an old, dark portrait of the Virgin and Child. If I remember correctly it is thought that it was cut from what was once a much larger painting. Nonetheless this small portrait has a great reputation for bringing about miracles.

Outside of the Cathedral we paused by the doorway of an unremarkable building, which turned out to have once been the hospital that was constructed along with the Cathedral. The hospital was as much a part of the Cathedral complex as the Bishop’s quarters. It was a place for travelers, and the sick and poor to find shelter, not a place for cures. I realized that this must be the origin of our word “hospitality”.

For the next two nights we stayed in spacious rooms on a vineyard run entirely by women. The only part of the whole process men are allowed to participate in is the harvesting of the grapes. Staying in such a place it was of course only natural that we sampled their wines after a tour of their pristine wine cellars. There we learned about the different processes and certifications wines are given. There is a very small group of people world wide, maybe only about 100, who have passed a test in which they blindly sample wine and must be able to tell what type of grape was used, and where the wine was produced down to the region, and sometimes the vineyard!

After another scenic day of gentle ups and downs on our bikes we came to a picturesque zigzag descent marked with cypress trees. After a chilly ride down the steep curves off we went on a long straight away lined with more of the beautiful, tall trees. It was here of all places that after glancing over my shoulder for the following biker I froze for a second as I watched my bike head off the road directly next to a tree. Thankfully no one was close enough to see my crash. Miraculously the expensive bike was unscathed. After brushing myself off I and the other lady, who’d caught up with me rejoined our biking group for the last steady climb to the small town, which was our stopping point for lunch. When we all found our way to the “best cheese shop in Tuscany” we discovered one of the short walls lined with bags of cheese, 77 lbs of it, which my neighbor was taking home! What a lovely little place it was to admire the shelves packed with dozens of varieties of cheese some of which I wouldn’t touch due to the heavly molded rind! Over a lunch of buffalo mozzarella, tomato, pesto and delicious raviolis with one of the ladies I could feel my ankle swelling and stiffening from my earlier crash. By the time dinner rolled around everyone could see how badly I was limping. Truly, I assured them I’d be fine. I’d had much worse. The incredibly cold water of the pool proved itself very helpful! Even my neighbor admitted that it was too cold for swimming, which I think is a first.

On the last day we visited the beach, with water at least noticeably warmer than the pool. A picnic was spread out and we spent several hours on the sand and in and out of the Ocean. Of all the towns, or perhaps villages, we visited my favorite was the smallest one perched on the top of the hill overlooking this beach. It seemed it was yet to be discovered by many tourists. Yet inside one shop I found shelves of dozens of varieties of Italian specialties, such as pesto, and olive spreads in small jars. Just perfect!

Our last dinner was not without celebration. Everyone brought out their long dresses and finest clothes. We filled the home of another friend of my neighbors’ where she taught us a few basics of Italian cooking. After our small part in preparing the food we sat down to another colorful, delicious meal. The evening ended with dancing, and music from our talented bike repair man and sag wagon driver who had checked, loaded and unloaded many a bicycle that week. So closed a wonderful week with great people that I will remember for many years. 

 

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