Thursday, September 20, 2018

Sept 19 -- Pisa, and the end of the tour

Today was a proper finale to a wonderful eleven days in Italy. We went to Pisa in absolutely gorgeous weather. Along the way, Alain and I stopped at the Nozzano Castle, most recently renovated in 1395! While walking around the small hilltop town, we ran into a villager who invited us to join him for the view from his back yard and small garden. He then opened his garage and showed us his sculptures, the wine that he was making, and finally, a "family tree" like representation of Mussolini's top military officers in 1942, among whom was his father. He also had a photo of his father, dressed in the gear of the alpine command in which he served. Only with Alain's help translating would this visit have been possible.
Nozzano Castle

Pat and Natalie at Nozzano Castle

View from Nozzano Castle

Very slow WiFi ton Wednesday, so I am adding the pictures and posting this on Thursday from Pisa Airport.

Following the visit to Nozzano Castle, we went on to Pisa. My first surprise was that there were huge throngs of people from the cruise ships that visit the port of Livorno and then bus the people to Pisa. I did climb to the top of the Leaning Tower of Pisa which afforded magnificent views from the top. One more item off the bucket list. I also had time for brief visits to the Cathedral and the Cemetary (Camposanto).

We had a great farewell dinner at a restaurant in Lucca. For starters we had three different types of bruschetta -- eggplant, bell peppers and tomato. The latter two were excellent; I skipped the eggplant. Then we had a surprise -- a zucchini flan. I am not normally a fan of zucchini, but with the rich parmesan sauce, it was not to be missed. The pasta course consisted of faro (a grain) in a rich sauce, so that it was almost like a stew. The main course was a mixed plate of fried seafood -- shrimp, calimari, etc. , with a few vegetable thrown in. Delicately fried like tempura, they were delicious. All this was followed by a choice of desserts -- I had creme caramel.

I awoke this morning (Thursday) to see a message from my driver that he will pick me up at 11 am this morning. That will make him 12 hours early. I hope that he sees my message with the correct time.

Getting to the airport this morning was a piece of cake since I had my own personal guide in the person of Lisa who had a plane shortly before me to take her to the next tour that she will be guiding.
I am all checked in a heading for home via London and Los Angeles (there is no direct flight to San Francisco in the afternoon).

I close this year's cycling blog with a sign that I saw in the shop in Pisa where I had lunch yesterday. Several years ago, Thomas and I cycled in Italy with a group whose motto was "Pedale forte, mangia bene." [Pedal Hard, Eat Well.]  Here is a variation on the theme.


Tuesday, September 18, 2018

September 18 -- Vinci to Lucca

Getting near the end of this journey. We are in Lucca now, for the last two nights.
Don takes the uphill start in stride

First stop today was the Medici villa in Cerrito Guidi, with a great view. The "stairway" up to the villa is not really a stairway, but a sloped and terraced incline designed to let the horses ascend to the villa. Inside was an interesting arms museum. Only a short visit, but very worthwhile.

Next stop was Montecarlo (of Tuscany, not Monaco). This was another pleasant small town with lots of restaurants and shops and some good views. Some had lunch here. Others waited until the arrival in Lucca.

Lucca is a fascinating town, surrounded by an intact defensive wall that is centuries old. We saw most of it from the outside as the van made its way around to the entry portal that would get us to the hotel with the least amount of traffic inside the city center. After settling in, I had a delicious zuppa di pesce for lunch and then explored the city center on foot. Of particular note is the Piazza dell'Anfitetro, site of an ancient Roman amphitheater, hence its shape. It was turned into public housing in the 1830s, but today is the most expensive real estate in the city.

Tomorrow is the last day of cycling, and those still riding will do an out and back ride to Pisa. I will get there in the van, but I will get there, and I have a ticket to climb to the top.

Monday, September 17, 2018

September 17th -- Florince to Vinci

Happy Birthday, Kathleen

We motored out of Florence this morning and drove through more beautiful Tuscan countryside. Along the way we picked up three members of our group as it started to rain, and they opted for the van ride up the long climb of the day. By the time we reached the summit, the roads were dry and they got back on the bikes. Peter and I remain van-bound.

The drive up the climb with the van was quite taxing for poor Alain

We gathered outside the hotel Monna Lisa before checking in. This is a delightful small hotel in the town of Vinci, birthplace of Leonardo.

Once checked in, we were on our own to explore the town, especially the museum, on our own. First, however, was lunch. I had a very nice lunch with sauteed clams and mussels followed by a tagliatelle with wild boar ragu.  Excellent. Just what I need to provide the stamina for walking to the museum and then climbing the tower. The museum, devoted to Leonardo's inventions and anatomical studies had some English signage, but much of it was in Italian only. However there is an app that you can download to your phone that provides a complete English guide. This was a great tool.

There is an exhibit showing "Leonardo's bicycle" based on fairly recently discovered drawings. There is debate as to whether it was done by Leonardo, by one of his assistants, or is a forgery. Nevertheless, here it is.

After visiting the museum proper and the church where Leonardo was baptized, I climbed the tower which offers magnificent vistas of the town of Vinci and the surroundingTuscan countryside.

It is just about time to head out for our group dinner. (By the way, we are a much smaller group now since nine riders ended their tour in Florence, leaving only nine of us.)

Sunday, September 16, 2018

Sunday September 16 -- Exploring Florence

I woke up still feeling the effects of my minor mishap of a few days ago. Not sure how soon I will hop on the bike again, but I am determined to enjoy Italy while I am here. We have had lots of hot weather (today was 88) but no rain.
Santa Croce, around the corner from the hotel

This morning we had a three hour guided walk of the major sights in Florence with a local guide, Francesca. She did an outstanding job of providing a historical context to all of the buildings that we saw -- from the outside only. She left it to us to decide which ones to go back to and explore in further detail. We finished at noon with a gelato stop and then walked back to the hotel.
Cathedral and Il Duomo

Ponte Vecchiod 
Another view of Il Duomo

That left me just enough time to grab my prearranged reservation for the Uffizi gallery and get back there for my 1 pm admission. I had been there many years ago, but had forgotten the immense breadth of the collection.

After that I went back to the hotel to shower and rest my weary feet before setting out again for some final exploration of Florence before we leave tomorrow for Vinci (birthplace of Leonardo). After all of the heavy eating we (I) have been doing, I was glad to settle for a simple "antipasto toscana" and a glass of wine. Then back to the hotel to finish this post and rest my feet some more.

Saturday, September 15, 2018

Fridy and Saturday, Faenza to Ronta to Florence

As mentioned in the previous post, Friday was the day to cross the Apennines. Alas, it was not meant to be for me. Shortly before Marradi where the steeper part of the climb began, I hit some gravel, went off the road and hit knee, elbow and shoulder. I have minor road rash on the knee and elbow and some discomfort in the shoulder and ribs. Nothing serious, but it was enough to keep me off the bike for the rest of Friday and all of Saturday. This is my twelfth bike tour, and the first time that I have lost any cycling due to a fall, so I can't complain. Hopefully I will be in shape to ride on Monday. (Sunday is a day off, in Florence.)

I did manage to do 21 miles and almost 1400 feet of climbing before the mishap, so I did get to cycle into Tuscany.

Fortunately the van was not far behind me when I fell. I got up, and pedaled about a mile when the van caught up and stopped. Alain gave me excellent first aid and I rode the van to join the others for lunch in Marradi.

Alain (front) and Lorenzo (rear)

We stayed at a pleasant hotel in Ronta, where we had an enjoyable happy hour on the balcony and then another huge dinner for the entire group. Unlike the three hour chef's tasting of the previous night which four of us enjoyed, this meal was served rapid fire -- lots of good food and many courses, but we got through it in somewhat less time.  Given the sore shoulder, however, I postponed blogging until this afternoon in Florence.

Being sidelined and riding in the van has one advantage. I had more opportunity to take photos of other cyclists on the tour. I don't have room for all of them in the blog, but here are a few:

We stopped for lunch in the town of Fiesole. It is fairly high so that if affords an excellent view of Florence in the distance. Several of us had paninis that we bought from a truck which is a mobil cheese and meat market that will make sandwiches for you. Mine was excellent and cost only two Euro.

While we came into Florence, the remaining cyclists rode into the city en masse. Usually we are each on our own, following chalk arrows laid down by one of our guides. The route into Florence, however, is so congested and difficult to navigate that the group divided into to smaller groups, one led by Alain and one by Lisa to make their way into the city.

Since we will be at this hotel for two nights, I had hoped to get laundry done tomorrow. No such luck, as tomorrow is Sunday. [Side note -- the fisherman don't go out on Sunday either, so you won't get fresh fish on Monday in Italy.] So, I did  my own in the bathroom sink. With only three days cycling left, this should be the last time!

We have another group dinner tonight, and a guided walk of Florence tomorrow. In the afternoon, I have a ticket for the Uffizi at 1:30 pm.

Friday, September 14, 2018

Thursday September 13 -- Part 2

I had to stop writing last night and post half a day's worth of a blog because of a fabulous dinner that ran until 10:30 pm. More on that later.

Continuing on, we arrived at "the farm," the headquarters of ExperiencePlus. There we met Rick and Paola, the founders of the company, now owned and managed by their daughters Monica (based in Italy) and Maria Elena (based in Fort Collins, CO). It was also a pleasure to run into Javier, a guide from my first ExPlus trip, in Patagonia, who now works full time at the farm, and Christina, one of the guides from my Croatia trip. We had a great picnic, prepared by the staff at the farm (enough to justify skipping dinner, which, you will seem, we did not do). Then we had a tour through the facilities (all in a converted pig barn), where they house their offices, kitchen, dorms for guides passing through, and the bikes. All told, they have 350 bikes and a staff of three mechanics to care for them.

We returned to the kitchen to watch Paola's aunt make pasta from scratch, with no more tools than her hands, a rolling pin, and a knife. She made cappelletti,  ravioli, and tagliatelle. A few of our number tried their hand at filling and folding cappeletti.

The restaurant in our hotel was highly recommended, and is headed by a chef who is highly regarded in Italy -- we saw a magazine with a feature article on him. Six of us dined at one table (several others from our group also dined in this restaurant). Of the six, four of us ordered the chef's surprise tasting menu. They would not even tell us the number of courses to expect -- everything was a surprise. We started at 7:30 pm, and the food just kept coming. The chef himself brought out each course and explained it. All the dishes were fantastic -- my favorites were the "spring rolls" with tempura style shrimp, the risotto with shrimp, calimari and lime, and finally, the skewered pork with blackberries. All together we had nine courses. There might have been more had we not begged the chef to stop because we were so full and we had to get up in the morning and cycle. 

It is now Friday morning, and we are set to cycle over the Apennines. We will probably climb to about 300 feet. Should it prove to be more than we wish to undertake, their are to opportunities to peel off and take the train. I make no promises or predictions at this point.

Thursday, September 13, 2018

Thursday, September 13 -- Part 1

Best day so far, in many respects. Only 37 miles, and still flat. We hit the hills of the Apennine range tomorrow.

We are in the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy, known as the fruit basket of Italy. Throughout much of yesterday and all of today, we passed many fruit orchards -- apples, pears, peaches and plums. We didn't see kiwi (as far as I could tell), although Italy is the worlds's largest producer of kiwi.

But I get ahead of myself. About fifteen miles into the ride we stopped a highly recommended gelato stop. Although I don't normally eat ice cream at 10 am, this was not to be missed.

We continued on toward "the Farm," (more on that soon) and passed people harvesting peaches and pears. What a difference between the careful and deliberate process of these farmers, and the frenzied picking of tomatoes, grapes, corn, and beans that we see in California. The pear farmer came over and gave pears to two of us.
Harvesting peaches

Harvesting Pears

Just finished a three hour, nine course, tasting menu dinner (absolutely fantastic). We start climbing tomorrow, so I am too tired to keep writing tonight, even though the best of the day is yet to come. Will finish this day's journal when I get the chance.

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Wednesday September 12

Only 33 miles of cycling today, still flat, but lots of interesting things to do and see. We started out the day with a bus ride to Comacchio, another town with canals like Venice, and still a seaport. Our bus was about 45 minutes late, so we lost some of the time that we would have had to explore Comacchio. Our first stop, right off the bus, was the fishmarket.

Next, we stopped at a museum which featured artifacts from a ship that sunk sometime between 19 and 12 BC. (They can pinpoint the date because of the markings on the lead ingots which were the ship's cargo.) Because it was buried under mud in an oxygen free environment until it was discovered in 1980. The wooden hull is not displayed (it has to be maintained in an oxygen free environment) but many of the artifacts are, including remarkably well preserved leather sandals.

Now, at 11:45 it was time to get on our bikes, and it was getting pretty hot. We had to ride about 14 miles to a place where we had reserved a "picnic" at a small countryside restaurant. It was actually a multicourse meal, with two pastas to start, and a buffet with many vegetables, some small fried shrimp (eat the whole thing --head and tail), and the local specialty, marinated eel. The last was not overly popular. 

Back on the bikes for another 20 miles or so to our hotel for the evening in Ravenna. Right after the restaurant, we passed through a wildlife preserve where large numbers of flamingo were feeding. They were far away, so the picture was taken at the maximum zoom of my camera's range.

After showering and resting a bit, we met for a walk through Ravenna, passing Dante's tomb and the mosaics of San Vitale,  and Sant'Appolinare Nuova. Neither words nor my pictures can do justice to these fabulous mosaics which are the last/best preserved from the Byzantine era. They date back to the fifth and sixth century. They are immense, covering the walls and ceilings of the churches. From the floor you can't even tell that they are composed of millions of small precious stones. 
San Vitale

Mosaic Detail

After that it was back to the real world for a light supper of white pizza with sausage