Italy 2008

Welcome to my summer adventure of 2008.  I am still pinching myself at how it all worked out, sometimes you plan the merest of events and suddenly things all gel together and suddenly you don't have enough time.  So after last year's great biking trip and missing the palio in Siena by a day I decided that I couldn't miss it this year, and booked flights back ended by the 02 July palio.  Given I was going to Italy, I naturally had to take my bike and ride with my friends in Montelupo, so that made two things to do.  I was then speaking with friends from Brisbane, John & Wendy, who said they were going to be in Italy when I was there, on their lovely new yacht and I had better get there before the last bottle was opened.  Naturally, it would have been terrible to see any wine go to waste, so that made three parts to the holiday.  And since I had been told about the stunningly picturesque countryside around San Quirico D'Orcia, I decided to stay there and ride in southern Tuscany.  Which then made 4 thirds of my trip.  You are starting to see how I ran out of time.............

  So this is the new yacht, MV Norseman.  This was its first trip after purchase so it was a sea trials cruise around northern Italy based around Viareggio (the north western side of Italy), the port where the vessel was built.  For the boaties out there, it is a Falcon 90', one of a family of 4 Falcon yachts.  John never knew he owned a horse stud, but the two V16 engines below had a total of 4600 horsepower so I reckoned that was a lot of horses.  It is a most lovely vessel and we had a great time on board.  Once you convert bedroom to cabin, toilet to head, and left and right to port and starboard you have graduated from land to sea school.


  John and Wendy, the proud parents of the new yacht looking every inch like they are enjoying it, and rightly so.  Of cousre it takes someone to man the vessel and their good friends Hans and Uli from Southport were there to skipper and CFO the boat, and a delightful young couple Miki and husband Janetz had been hired locally to assist.  The rest of us were there to generally get in the way, drink coffee, and look forward to the approach of wine-o'clock each day.  


  Naturally there has to be a picture of me looking like I am doing something, and this is it.  I am in fact holding a glass.  We were on our way from Viareggio to Porto Venere and Hans was attempting to show me how the myriad of instruments on the top helmsman's station worked.  I had flown from Jacksonville-Miami-Rome the night prior, arrived in Rome, immediately had my first Italian espresso, jumped in the car, and driven to Montelupo-Firenze (to drop off the bike), then to Viareggio, jumped on board and we took off.  So this was getting on for 24 hours with no shower.  If you have a scratch and sniff screen, don't try it.


  And this is Porto Venere.  How much more gorgeous can you get?  It is north of Viareggio and in fact just at the bottom of the Cinque Terra, the part of the world regularly voted one of the most beautiful places on earth.  Just ahead of my cabin, which was pretty damn nice too.  We managed to explore the castle, the churches, the village, did just a tad of retail therapy, ate at several of the restaurants, drank at most of the rest, and spent several hours wondering who was the owner of the building who so obviously went against the local beige/taupe/cinnamon tradition by painting his building light blue?!  


  This was taken by Miki I think (please correct me if I am wrong), further up the coast in the Cinque Terra, with Norseman in the bay.  I wasn't there for this part of the trip, which is probably a good thing.  I think I might just have stowed away on shore when it came time to leave.


  Norseman and some neighbours, another stunning photo taken by Miki.  The weather before I arrived had been cool and rainy for several weeks (see note on wheat later on), hence the clouds.  Fortunately that subsequently all cleared and more traditional summer weather ensued.  


  Lunch in Viareggio with (L-R) Miki, io, Wendy, John, Hans, Uli, Janetz the day before John and Wendy were to return to Australia.  I also had to leave to start biking in Tuscany.  The funniest thing about lunch was that here we were in the heart of nautical Italy, having an Italian lunch, Italian wine and the music playing was a very non Italian Don McLean singing American Pie!


  And the final night, it seems appropriate to have a sunset photo with bikes in it!  Many thanks to John and Wendy especially, and also Hans, Uli, Miki and Janetz for a memorable journey with many laughs and enjoyed friendship.  


  Yep, so swap water for mountains.  This is the village of Vinci, home of Leonardo of yore.  And very near to Empoli and Montelupo-Fiorentino, where I was staying with Loriano, Cinzia and family.  You may remember from last year, a photo taken on top of the climb behind Vinci, called San Baronto.  It is often part of the Giro d'Italia as well as being used every day by a gazillion local cyclists.  I think rule #1 for the local riders is 'no helmet', and rule #2 is 'talk lots while you ride'.  Oh, and use your hands while you talk.


  Loriano (in very Aussie jersey), Guido and at the back, Marco on one of our rides.  The voyage of discovery is alive and well here.  We rode to the little hilltop village of Palaia  which, despite being born locally and living locally, Loriano had never seen.  We watered there, and being a Sunday morning, all the men of the village were having their normal after-church discussions outside in the sun.  It could have been a moment in time from years ago.  Which of cousre, is part of the magic of being here.


  Rode 100kms from Montelupo to San Gimignano and back one day, you can follow it on Google Earth if I could figure out how to embed the ride here, which I can't.  But email me and I will send you the link.  It is quite amazing, you see the ride and also photos along the way taken by whomever wants to put a photo into Google Earth. 


  I mentioned the rainy weather earlier.  The winter wheat would normally have been harvested by now, but the rain meant it had to dry further so all around were fields of baby pasta-to-be.  So if the countryside wasn't golden with wheat, it was green from the rains.  And these bloody Italian cypress trees everywhere, looking so damn healthy.  Mine here in Florida are having problems finding their growing legs, and these just pop right up.  I had severe cypress envy.


  The Three Amigos in silhouette in the breezeway of the Castello Guicciardini (it has been a wine producer since the 11th century - Poppiano) near San Gimignano.  There is a marble slab embedded in the wall of the breezeway that was placed by Francesco Guicciardini a compatriot of Nicolo Machievelli, that says (roughly translated);
"I desire two things in the world above all else: the first is the everlasting glory of our village and of our liberty; the other is the glory of our house, not only for me, but for everyone.  May God keep and conserve both my wishes."  They don't say it any more like they used to, do they?


  And just in case you thought this was all nice rolling hills and easy riding, there are many of these little teasers around.  For non bikers, 15% is VFH (very-insert word of choice-hard).  In fact the hill in front of Loriano and Cinzia's house is 13%, but thankfully less than a mile in length.  And no I didnt have the 15% sign in my back pocket and drag it out for pictures.


  I then moved to the classical Tuscan village of San Quirico d'Orcia in southern Tuscany for several days.  This served a dual purpose, to be close enough to Siena to experience the palio, and to experience the rides around this region, that included Montepulciano and Montelcino.  Some very famous wine names of cousre.  This was the view at the crack of 9 o'clock looking across the valley of Orcia.  There are many San Quirico villages in Tuscany, this one is d'Orcia.  After a morning ride of 4-5 hours, I would have a massage and then spend the rest of the day napping by the pool.  I know, I know, slap me!


  Inside the walls of San Quirico d'Orcia is this charming church, taken from my lunch table at a local osteria.  I was initially surprised by the extent of the 10 page wine list until they told me they also owned the wine shop 2 stores down.  


  More damned healthy cypress trees!  But how can you not have your breath taken away by such scenery, olive trees, grape vines and orchards.  The problem is that you see a lovely scene, then turn a corner and another one comes into view.  


  This is the monastery and abbey of Sant Antimo, near to Montalcino.  The monks there chant at the prescribed hours of the day, and I was fortunate to be there just as they started.  6 monks in all ranging from an uninitiated novice to a very elderly chap.  It was beautiful to hear.  Add to that the supporting columns inside that are carved from alabaster and travertine, and you have an experience not to be missed.


  At the end of a long white gravel road is the Castello di Ripa d'Orcia.  It remains in private hands but you can book rooms there, 2 nights minimum, and pretend to live the life of a medieval lord!  Following which, you come back down to earth.


  And again just in case you thought this was all holiday, there was work to do!  Apart from the long, 90F hot climb up to Montepulciano, there was wine to be tasted. A tricky combination when on a bike (at least afterwards), but with practice one that can be achieved.  Unfortunately it means the tastes are small, and the water intake is large.  Lunch afterwards helps too, but you still have to ride back home.


  The well in the main square of Montepulciano, taken by a couple from Portland OR who were also bikers and came over to say hi.  


  Where would summer be without the obligatory picture of 'bee on sunflower'.  The Italian word for sunflower is particularly apt, girasole.  Follow the sun.  The bee's name was Fred.


  And usually in the late afternoons these thunderous storms would pass over, dark clouds, lightning, and teeming rain.  You had to get back under cover before they hit or else a drenching would ensue.  That wasn't so bad since the rain was warm, it was cleaning the bike afterwards that was the pain.  


  The shapes of the rows of straw after the wheat had been cut were mesmerising.  I just loved this field and took many photos of it since I passed it every time I left the Inn.  You are lucky to see only one.


  In the evenings I drove to Siena to have dinner, and imbibe the sounds, sights and smells (horses remember) of the palio.  This of cousre is the famous Campo/main square in Siena and the wonderfully preserved buildings.  You will see the same shield here atop the well in Montepulciano above, as it was under the aegis of Siena during the Renaissance.


  The flags of the 10 contradas that were racing in this palio.  A contrada is a section of the city, and there are 17 in Siena.  Each palio has the 7 contrade not in the previous race automatically entered, with the other 3 drawn by lot.  The race is bareback and the only rule is that the jockeys cannot touch the reins of other horses.  Anything else goes, including bribery, nobbling and during the race, anything physical like kicking, whipping, fighting etc.  There are several races in the days prior to the final race, and the city was packed.


  This is one of the dinners that each contrada has the night prior to the big event.  They go on all over the city and are huge raucous affairs, the singing is non stop and as the wine flows the noise level increases.  But everyone is having fun and anticipating the events of the next day.  I guess they also pray it doesn't rain during dinner.

I didnt see the actual palio as you have to be in the city by 07.00 or else you won't find a park, so the trick would be to stay in the city itself.  However the energy and the buzz of the prior days was certainly evident.  I then went back to Norseman for an extra day (courtesy of UA delaying my return flights) to celebrate Hans' birthday before heading back to Rome for the flight home.  

  My last night in Italy was spent in Travestere, a part of the city seldom visited by tourists it seems.  It is more like the Village in NYC, Paddington in Sydney, or Soho in London, and very funky and fun.  I had an aperitif, dinner and then wandered around absorbing the last of Italy till next time.  It was the 4th July but there were no American parties anywhere that I saw despite two American universities being in Travestere, and I felt a little bit miffed.  I had never taken a picture of the Tiber River, so here is my first.  

As you can see I had an absolutely wonderful holiday, thanks to many people (and thanks to the co-operating weather!).  Especially thanks to John and Wendy for the invitation to join them all on Norseman, and to Loriano and Cinzia for being most generous hosts in their home, and to Guido and Marzia for their generosity as well.  Now what to do in 2009...................

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