While the mental hassle and physical challenge of touring in Morocco managed to sap some of our enthusiasm for bicycle travel, it only took a few days in bella Italy to fully rejuvenate our spirits–and then some! For nowhere else does it feel perfectly normal to stop in the middle of a mountain climb, wet from the rain, and enjoy a four course gourmet lunch over a bottle of the house Chianti. For few are the places where we can pedal out of a medieval town in the morning, turn the wheels through a landscape of olive groves and vineyards, and arrive in a town more stunning and historically important than the last–and know that the next day will bring one even more stupendous. Oh, wonderful Italy! How I am so happy to be here, with all the time in the world, making the most of every day we have by sometimes doing nothing at all. From the museums to the food to the lonely forest roads whose habit of suddenly turning to mud and gravel keeps the cars at bay; experiencing a bicycle tour in Italy has been everything we hoped it would, and so much more than others have suggested.
The topic of cycling in Italy is a strange thing. Throughout our travels in Europe we have spoken with numerous cyclists, roadies and tourers alike, and they all said the same thing: Italy is their favorite place to travel, but they would never want to cycle there. Perhaps it’s because they often come in the summer when the country swells with visitors and heat-stricken Italians take to the roads to vent their frustrations. Perhaps they think only of the congested roads of Rome where driving is known to be a contact sport. Or perhaps they think only of the narrow, winding roads of the Amalfi Coast. I don’t know. What I do know, first hand, is that Tuscany and Umbria are lovely places to bicycle in December. Yes, it can get a little rainy, but the temperature has seldom dipped below 40° F (5° C) except above 3,000 feet (1,000 meters) in the Apennine Mountains, and the roads have been wonderfully devoid of traffic. And the drivers we have faced, including within the city limits of Rome and Florence, have been no less courteous than anywhere else. And though we haven’t spotted many bicycle paths outside of Florence, we’re practically as big as most Italian cars, what with all of our bags and 29er tires. No, the only downside to bicycle touring in the winter in Italy is that the campgrounds are nearly all locked up tight for the season and the widespread agricultural, private, and steeply-sloping land makes stealth camping a challenge. That and having to dim the lights in hopes of remaining unseen through 14 hours of darkness.
So we haven’t used our tent in Italy, but we probably wouldn’t have wanted to in summer either. With towns like Lucca, Florence, Siena, and Orvieto, to name a few, what draw would there be to a crowded commercial campground? No, we are plenty happy to visit these towns whose architecture, art, and food we’ve only ever read–and dreamed–about.
Our first day out of Livorno, the port city where we arrived by ferry at close to midnight, took us right through Pisa. We didn’t have any desire to pedal out of our way to see the famed tilting tower, but we were riding right past it on our way to Lucca. The little boy that still lurks inside me shakes with joy and wonder over this last statement. Who among us wasn’t amazed by this mythical leaning tower as a child? Yet there we were, knowing our agenda was so filled with world renown attractions that Pisa was little more than a quick stop for lunch, warranting no more attention than Clark W. Griswold gave the Grand Canyon. So we took our photos, ate our pizza in Pisa, and moved on to Lucca, then into the mountains en route to Florence, former home of Dante, Michelangelo, and numerous other one-name superstars. I want to talk about David.
You see, David and I go way back. To 1993 to be precise. I was Co-Editor-in-Chief of the high school newspaper and and we were spotlighting the International Travel Club’s recent trip to Italy on the front page. Above the fold in journo speak. The selection of photos we were provided with were, to use a scientific term, crap. No group photos. Nothing really showcasing Italy’s scenery or architecture. Except one photo: Michelangelo’s David. I had taken an art history class and had an appreciation for Renaissance art and knew there were few things more Italian than this statue. My co-editor agreed. And neither he, nor I, nor our teacher-advisor, considered the fact that the newspaper was distributed throughout the entire school district, not just the high school. That’s right ladies and gentleman: full-frontal male nudity sent straight to every eight year old little boy and girl in town. I was stripped of my editorship halfway through first period. But, look at me now! And look at David! Let’s see you shut down my blog, Principal Torre!
I kid. Principal Torre is no longer principal, but he still is the uncle of one of my great friends and I actually got to see him just two years ago at a wedding. The genitalia of biblical characters did not come up in conversation.
Florence was amazing, simply amazing. Paintings by Botticelli and Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo and statues everywhere, and the cathedrals and Medici palaces, and the bridges, and the food. Yes, the food. But not the food in the cities. We ate fabulously well in Siena, splurging on our last night in Tuscany, and we ate similarly well at an apertivo in Florence called Soul Kitchen where, purchase of a cocktail gets you access to a delicious, never-ending buffet of really good, albeit basic, Italian dishes. No, the meal I wish to talk about was up in the mountains above Lucca, en route to San Momme. We were the only people there, it was the only source of food we had seen for over 20 miles. It was raining and cold.
I head inside while Kristin locks the bikes together and dilly-dallies with her helmet and gloves. Lei parla Inglese? The woman tells me to wait one minute and disappears into the kitchen. And then, moments later, out walks a stunningly beautiful twenty-something Italian woman, smiling wide, completely ignoring the fact that I’m dripping wet in cycling attire, and that my helmet is still on. She’s as charming and welcoming as can be. She shows me to a table near the window, presents the prix fixe menu, and walks to the bar to get the bottle of fizzy water I requested. I was sad to see her go, but I loved watching her walk away. That’s how the phrase goes, right? Just checking.
In need of a cold shower, err, to see what’s keeping Kristin, I went back out into the rain. “Listen, honey, I know you’re a bit self-conscious about how you look when we’re in the cities, and I know you’re feeling wet and schlubby and grubby right now, but I just have to warn you Miss Italia is our waitress.” Kristin rolls her eyes. “No, I’m serious, Miss Italia is our waitress, but she’s very nice. You look great in your raingear and I love you and I’m sure she couldn’t pedal up that mountain.”
We get to the table and, after placing our order, Kristin expresses her surprise at just how attractive the woman is. “You’re right, she’s unusually beautiful,” she said. I then directed Kristin’s attention to a bulletin board near the lobby that featured awards and news clippings from several years ago. The woman was quite literally Miss Teen Italia just a few years prior. And after our incredible meal, we then chatted with the beauty queen, her mother, and her grandmother for nearly fifteen minutes, telling our story and answering their questions, all the while receiving complements and detecting not a trace of conceit or pretension from our gorgeous, down-to-earth interpreter who, over the course of a lunch, shattered every stereotype we’ve heard about beauty queens and proved false everything the Lonely Planet guide had to say about Italian women.
Oh, mi scusi, you thought I was going to talk about the food. Okay, for the foodies among you: fried polenta crostini with porcini sautee (appetizer); porcini risotto and spinach & ricotta ravioli in a walnut cream sauce (primi); mixed grill with potatoes (secondi); chocolate tort and espresso (desert). No, we don’t normally eat like this for lunch in the midst of a huge ride (PB&J is more our style), nor would we ever down a carafe of Chianti while doing so, but when in Rome…
And that’s where we are. We’re in Rome. We arrived in the Eternal City exactly 9 months and 9,524 miles after leaving Seattle. Just in time for Christmas which, even as a seldom-practicing Catholic, is pretty neat. And speaking of Christmas, the clock struck midnight on Christmas Eve as I typed the words Eternal City in the previous sentence and fireworks and bells could be heard outside our hilltop hotel room. We stepped outside onto our balcony and listened to a chorus of church bells ringing throughout the city below us as we stared to the illuminated dome of St. Peter’s Basilica.
Merry Christmas and Happy New Year everyone! This has been an incredible year for us, one that was a long time coming, and every pair of eyes that falls upon these words plays a part in our success. Thank you.
Special Thanks: Tremendous thanks to everyone who thought of us this holiday season! Tina and James Miller, Megan Knight, and Brittany Taylor all helped make a season bright and, for that, we thank you all a ton! We’d also like to thank our parents, siblings, and dear friends Alan & Katrina for remembering us while we’re away and for stuffing our Paypal stocking with plenty of yuletide cheer. We love you all!
And in Other News: I’m also very excited to announce that an essay I wrote this past October was accepted for publication in Adventure Cyclist magazine. I’m still awaiting the details, but I’m told it will likely appear in a 2016 issue. Adventure Cyclist is the only magazine in the United States devoted entirely to bicycle touring and is free with an annual membership to the Adventure Cycling Association of America, a group whose ranks have swelled to 47,000 dues-paying members. If you enjoy cycling in any form, do consider becoming a member.
Our Waldorf Astoria Stay: The desk I’m writing on is made of a gorgeous blue and gold-flaked marble. There was a bottle of champagne on ice when we arrived, chocolate covered strawberries on the coffee table between two luxurious armchairs, and we have a private balcony overlooking Rome and the Vatican City. For free. I’m using the last of my Hilton Honors points for five nights in one of the finest hotels in Europe, a hotel bedecked with 17th and 18th century art. I say this not to brag, but to underscore just how wonderful it can be to use hotel loyalty plans if you travel a lot for business. I had to travel a lot the past few years for work. But I knew it was all building towards this moment. Here’s a rundown of how I put my Hilton Honors points to use: 3 nights in Quebec City, 4 nights in Edinburgh, 4 nights in Amsterdam, 3 nights in Madrid, and 5 nights in Rome. Not only did using the points earn free hotel rooms, but free breakfasts, complementary wifi, access to Executive Lounges (i.e. free drinks and appetizer buffets), and room upgrades. I inquired about extending our stay here in Rome for one extra night. Our upgraded room is 390€ per night ($475 with a historically good exchange rate) , but they’d let me have it for the basic room rate of 280€. No thanks, we know when it’s time to move on. We might not be camping, but we still have our limits. Anyway, I know there are budget travel purists out there who would chafe at this frivolity, but using the hotel points proved extremely valuable this year, especially in Edinburgh during Fringe Fest and in Amsterdam on a weekend, where hotel rates are through the roof. And, besides, a little pampering does the body–and the marriage–good.