Second in a series on cycling through Italy’s Tuscany region.
Our 300-kilometre cycle adventure across the golden hills and green fields of Tuscany is more than just a bike trip. It’s also a test drive of my heart, which had a spot of bother last year. Nearly dying threw into jeopardy my plan to bunk off work as soon as possible in favour of goofing off in various interesting places around the world.
Getting back on the proverbial horse feels a little bit like sticking my tongue on a metal pole in the winter time, just to see what will happen. It is an uneasy thing, not knowing if you will see the day through.
The Magnificent Eleven?
Speaking of uneasy, as this is not my first cycle trip through strange new lands, I am familiar with the uneasy sensation that comes with meeting the group with whom you’re going to share the road. How fast do these folks ride? Will they — against all common sense — enjoy climbing hills? It’s like first-day butterflies at elementary school, only instead of nap time, you get tired quads and a sore bum.
Including the guide and driver, there are 11 of us, from all over the world. A notable few:
• A sweet American couple — both retired school principals from California — named Ed and Denise. I christen him “Eduardo,” which he likes very much, despite his wife’s disapproval.
• A brash Australian woman, as wide as she is tall, who works in emergency management and disaster recovery, where she picked up her basic life philosophy: “People, mate? People are the worst.”
• An 80-year-old former actuary with a fondness for expensive wine and a sad look that somehow conveys that he knows within three decimal places when and how you will meet your demise.
• An academic based in Atlantic Canada whose interest is — I swear I’m not making this up — bringing down the patriarchy through environmental poetry, and who turns out to be Patient Zero for the flu-bug that eventually takes down most of our group. Oh, and she also has a communicable skin rash so virulent it requires an ambulance ride to the hospital. Still not making this up.
• A nearly incomprehensible, socially disturbed Australian man who may be suffering from PTSD or some kind of serious brain trauma, probably both. His favourite activities include monopolizing the guide’s time with pointless questions, asking others to take photos of him, and violently cursing when we don’t.
• Our Greek guide, Efi, who has perennial long-distance boyfriend troubles and speaks just enough English to be thoroughly confused by everything anyone says, all the time. Judging by how many times we are left behind at T-intersections to guess which way to go, she may not have actually been to Italy before.
• Several average, normal, human-type people.
Will our group gel? Only time in the saddle, over meals and in the gravel at the side of the road will tell.
After meeting our fellow cyclists, we meet our bicycles, which is even more nerve-wracking. This is because rented bikes are never as good nor as comfortable as your own bike back home in the garage, safely collecting dust instead of hurting you.
Fortunately, my rental bike is a perfect fit for me, assuming I am four feet tall and weigh about as much as a small basket of raspberries. For the record, I do not.
During this “bicycle fitting” session, which amounts to our guide Efi passing each of us a bike and saying, “This is your bike,” I can tell right away that the bike seat and I are not going to be best friends. I don’t mean to be indelicate when I note that although the human backside comes in many shapes and sizes, none of them are going to happily, uh, conform to this hard, narrow piece of cheek horror.
On the road at last
We leave beautiful Florence, cycling north and west along the Arno River toward the Tuscan hills.
Here and there in rows and clumps are classic Tuscan cedars. The tall, skinny trees make you feel like you’re in a Julia Roberts movie about eating and praying and loving. Bright red corn poppies grow along the sides of the roads and riverside pathways, and make us smile despite the wind and cold. It’s good to be on the road, finally burning up some of the pasta calories.
Today’s ride takes us past sleepy farmhouses and through small towns bustling with excitement, by which I mean there are a lot of pink balloons and ribbons tied to the trees and fence posts, and there is much furious smoking by the locals. The excitement is due to the approaching Giro d’Italia, and because the cops have closed the roads we need to travel, we leave our bikes and join the passionate crowd that appears out of nowhere.
Waiting for Giro
What is the Giro d’Italia, and why should we have to wait in the freezing wind and rain while it passes, you ask? That, dear reader, depends on whom you ask. According to Wikipedia, the Giro d’Italia (Tour of Italy) is a prestigious multi-stage bicycle race, held annually since 1909.
According to the other riders on our tour, the Giro d'Italia is “SO EXCITING! WEEEEEEE! WOOOOO!” Also: It's TOTALLY DIFFERENT! from the Tour de France, because the leader wears a pink jersey rather than a yellow one. And it’s totally worth it! to wait hours in the freezing wind and rain for the approximately one second it takes for elite cyclists to pass by at speeds the rest of us only dream of because blah blah blah I’ll bet you can tell that I don’t care. That is, I don’t care until I learn that Victoria’s Ryder Hesjedal became the first Canadian to win the Giro d’Italia in 2012.
On the road at last (again)
Today we’re heading through olive groves and vineyards to the town of Vinci, about 35 km from Florence. If you’re a student of history you’ll recognize the name of the town as the birthplace of Renaissance artist, scientist, inventor and all-round genius: Boris Johnson. I’m kidding! It’s the birthplace of Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519), born out of wedlock to notary Piero da Vinci and a peasant woman named Caterina. Yup, the guy whom many historians and scholars regard as the quintessential Renaissance Man and the most diversely talented individual to have ever lived, was a barely-acknowledged bastard with 12 half-siblings and very little formal education.
I learn all this and more from my wife, who ventures into the Museo Leonardiano, a small museum packed with models and machines at the top of Vinci’s narrow, cobbled streets. Instead, I choose to sample a fine glass of local wine in the shop outside the museum, which I like to think Leonardo da Vinci — who was very smart — would also have done.
The small town of Vinci is delightful. The people here are proud of their most famous son, to be sure, but you get the sense they are also pretty pleased with themselves, living in a slice of Tuscany that isn’t chockablock with tourists. Without any alarmingly out-of-plumb towers, or high fashion houses, or even a peekaboo view of the Mediterranean, Vinci’s dance card is never as full as other Italian sites. Vinci is more of a sweet spot than a hotspot, comfortably bridging 21st century marvels like wifi and vaccinations, with 15th-century wonders like lingering over fresh, local food and wine with good friends. Vinci is the real Tuscany, which means we watch tomatoes fatten in the sunshine, listen to church bells ring, eat and pray and love, but never worry about Julia Roberts and paparazzi.
Everything I just said about Vinci goes double for tiny, hilltop Barga, where we stay the next night on our Tuscan cycle adventure. Barga is a chic, art-friendly village whose winding, narrow streets are lined with chestnut trees. It’s a little bit like Nelson, B.C., only without the dirty hippies. Like almost every village in this part of Europe, it occupies the high ground, which is saying something because we’re now at the base of the Apuan Alps, and everything is high ground. My knees are still a little sore from the final seven-kilometre climb upwards from the Serchio River valley.
Crossing the Serchio is like stepping 500 years back in time. I don’t mean that all the people on the other side of the river at Borgo a Mozzano are, you know, backward. Just the owners of the lunch restaurant, who refuse to provide individual bills because that involves math. What I do mean is that to cross the river we walk our bikes over the 500-year-old arched stone Ponte della Maddalena, a.k.a. The Devil’s Bridge. It’s a marvellous bit of Renaissance engineering, and one of perhaps 50 billion other bridges around the world known by that ominous name. Each has roughly the same origin story: a stressed master builder finds it impossible to span the river, so he calls upon the devil or possibly Mayor Stew Young, who builds it in a single night, requiring as payment the soul of the first person to cross it. I get great pleasure hearing different people tell the story, which ends in slightly different ways (a dog crosses the bridge first, or a pig, or a daughter, or a piggy daughter) because it says more about the teller than the story.
Also, I have sisters and I used to have a dog, so I know how the story is really supposed to end.
Next week: We cycle over the freezing Apuan Alps — dodging heavy trucks laden with freshly-quarried Italian marble — and arrive at the freezing Mediterranean.