Two seats, two wheels, two sore bums.
Tuscany is an ideal place for a bike tour. It is teeming with quaint little towns and not so crowded with tourists in early June. There is a lot to see within an easy day's ride. And with such a ready supply of delicious food and wine the commitment to a few hours of exercise leaves you feeling guilt free at meals.
It's hard to be critical of Tuscany, but the transport system lends a hand. The bus system and train system are not coordinated. Bus hubs are large towns, so when trains drop you off in small towns, you're stuck. There's no way to get to neighboring small towns without first bussing your way back into a large town. Except via taxis. Even then, you have to be lucky enough to locate a public telephone (bus terminals and nearby hotels aren't overly interested in helping tired backpackers with their transport problems - not even offering or allowing use of a phone), and lucky enough to find the only taxi driver in Montepulciano at home!
When the town's one taxi driver pulled up in a Jaguar, we had no choice but to hop in and make our contribution to his luxurious service. By the time we had made it to Pienza, the couple who were renting the bike to us were upset that we were late. We checked into a modest little hotel, ate wonderful handmade pasta for dinner, and repacked our huge packs into tiny panniers. We only had time to take a quick peak at the medieval town perched on top of a hill before we turned in.
The next morning we consulted with the renters about our route, insisted our bike had working brakes, and headed out with only a minor delay. We made great time as we followed the quiet side roads from Pienza towards San Quirico d'Orcia. It was only a week later, going the opposite direction on the same road, that I realized how much the slope favoured us on that first day. Nevertheless, we made great time and stopped in San Giovanni d'Asso during the mid-day lunch break that all Italy takes. We sat in the courtyard of the cathedral and had a little rest. The next hour, we worked our way up to Abbazia di Monti Oliveto Maggiore. An Benedictine monastery that featured a series of frescos, an apothecary, and an ancient library (whose size was reduced from 40 000 volumes to 10 000 when Napoleon turned the monastery into a barn and the shepherds burned the books to keep warm during winter).
The last 12 kilometers of the day were a speedy downhill cruise into Asciano where the tourist office directed us to a room for rent in a private house. They spoke no English, but the room had a huge balcony. Breakfast in Italy is coffee and a croissant. Had we known, we would have skipped the exercise in English-Italian translation, an attempt to communicate that we wanted breakfast with no meat. The older couple were very friendly and served up a delicious sweet lemon cake with coffee - a great start to our second day!
Before leaving, Karla decided that a stop at the local bike shop for proper bike attire was a necessity. The super padded shorts made riding on an already very bruised butt almost tolerable, so we set out to ride up into the Chianti region. After a few worries about being lost and another English-Italian translation experience (this time with the help of a map), we made it to the foot of the hill that climbed way, way up to the town where we were going to stay. We made it a few hundred meters up before we hopped off to push the bike. After an hour of walking and one German shepherd attack (aborted, thankfully), we reached the top. We rode across the top of the plateau, stopping just before Radda in Chianti at a quaint little garden cafe to be shamelessly gouged for water.
Radda was a beautiful medieval town on top of a high ridge. Our lesson of the day (that restaurants close after lunch from 3:00 to 7:00, when they open again for dinner), made our first authentic Italian pizza dinner even more delicious. After dinner, we sat out on top of the city wall to watch the sunset over Chianti's famous hilly vineyards.
The next morning, the climb to Radda paid off. For the first 20kms, we cruised downhill towards Poggibonsi, passing tens of Sunday cyclists beginning their week-end ride in the upwards direction. We passed through Poggibonsi and started our climb to San Gimignano, the medieval Manhattan. A skyline that resembles a modern city comes from the medieval fashion to build square towers to demonstrate a family's influence. We arrived to find nobles, maidens and soldiers roaming the streets in honour of their medieval festival. After lunch, we visited the torture museum. At first it was an opportunity to see some of the real artifacts that had inspired the Hollywood dungeons. The museum had an extensive collection of items and artwork whose detailed and explicit explanations were disturbing. The Hollywood side of torture and execution are the most benign forms that existed and were reserved for nobility. Much less consideration was afforded to commoners, and the treatment of heretics and traitors shattered my prior definition of cruelty.
Leaving the museum with a quesasy feeling, we needed a little time to recover wandering the quieter parts of town and exploring the quiet and frescoed cathedral. We left San Gimignano as afternoon turned to evening to ride to Colle di Val d'Elsa, an old but ignored town. As we wandered the streets looking for a restaurant, we discovered that a community dinner was being held in the old town square to raise money for schools. Our genuine Tuscan peasant meal was nothing like the pasta and pizza we had been served up until then. The salads, beans, vegetables and bread (we skipped the wild boar) were equally delicious.
We stayed two nights in Colle di Val d'Elsa. The next day we rode out to and back from Volterra. As I write this, it's beginning to feel a little repetitive. Volterra is another medieval town perched on top of a tall hill. Again, we visited the cathedral and wandered its narrow streets, stopping for delicious, fresh pasta and/or pizza. Did I mention that it's set in the middle of beautiful rolling fields, covered in long rows of grape vines, or even in mid-June, golden wheat or yellow sunflowers?
The next morning we opted for a short ride and stopped in Siena, a city of 60 000, and the largest stop on our tour. It was a real city. It was big enough to get lost in and to have an ostentatious cathedral. The term "golden oldies" took on a whole new meaning as we toured the museum, that had seemed to dedicate its all of its 50 or so rooms to those life sized gold-leaf backed panels portraying either a standing Virgin Mary or Jesus.
We left Siena and headed off road (off asphalt anyway) to head towards Montalcino. The small country roads took us through small villages, but led us over hills instead of along them, and eventually down to cross the river. We began the longest climb of our trip. After three hours of continuous uphill grind, we reached the home of famous Brunello wine. We went out and splurged on expensive glasses of smooth and savoury wine that afternoon, then foolishly ordered a carafe of watery, bitter grape juice, uh, I mean, house wine with dinner.
Our last day of riding started with a 10km decent to Abbazia di Sant' Antimo, an old stop on the medieval pilgrimage tour that had lay in ruin until about ten years ago, when the chief Benedictine monk sent five monks out to restore it. When we arrived just before 10, when it opened, we peaked through the old wooden doors to see two shafts of sunlight light up the incense smoke that wafted up from the swinging censer and to hear Gregorian chanting as the monks performed a Latin mass. After the series of immense, ornate cathedrals we had seen, it was a mystical experience to see this simple almost undecorated stone church, nearly empty, but very much in use.
The road home seemed long and continually uphill. By the time we got back to Pienza, the idea of a few days travel without pedaling was welcome. We enjoyed our quiet small town evening before heading for Rome the next day.
The capital was busy, crowded, and swarming with tourists. Our first afternoon we visited the Colleseum, the ruins of the ancient city, and walked past Fontana square and Trevi fountain. By the end of the day, we felt overwhelmed by the scale of the city. The next day we got up early and returned to Trevi Fountain and Fontana Square to catch a glimpse of them with only tens of other people, instead in a crowd of hundreds if not thousands like the day before. The fountain in Fontana square is supposed to represent the four seasons. Personally, I think it represents four typical reactions to morning - despair, shock, delight and denial. We walked over to the Vatican and despite arriving before it opened, we were easily behind more than 1000 people, more than three blocks away from the entrance.
The line moved quickly, and we were in the museum before we knew it. No other art gallery or museum, or for that matter, any building I had even been in prepared me for the size and scale of the Vatican. It was hundreds of rooms, not only filled with world class pieces of art, but frescoed and mosaiced floor to ceiling. We walked (without stopping to look at the displays) for an hour inside the building to reach the Cistene chapel. Even the exit was grand. Saint Peter's Basilica was also regal: enormous, opulent, majestic (pompous?). It made every other church we had seen a mere warm-up.
When we rose the next morning to catch the train to the airport, we weren't very sorry to be leaving Rome. We appreciated even more the beautiful country setting of Tuscany.