Wheel Adventures: Tough trek in Tuscany rolls to melodious finale

David Sovka

Fourth in a series about cycling in Tuscany

Today is a day of wonder and discovery in northern Tuscany! After our standard 10,000-calorie breakfast, we mount up and bike off in the direction of Castelnuovo di Garfagnana, a 13th-century town nestled in a valley at the confluence of the Serchio and Territe Secca rivers.

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Let me cut to the chase and tell you about today’s main discovery: My brain turns off when I read too much Italian, as in the paragraph above. “What, exactly, is a Garfagnana?” says my brain. When nobody answers — probably a good thing — it drools.

This is despite a childhood largely devoted to televised police action dramas, featuring stereotypical Italian bad guys, sandwiched between commercials with stereotypical Italian good guys flogging Ragu and Alka Seltzer. My point is that despite all the years of TV preparation, I do not actually speak or read the lingo Italiano.

How to speak like an Italian

It’s not just the foreign-looking and strange-sounding words that make Italian such a challenge. It’s the attitude, and it’s difficult to fake. Until now:

First, touch all the fingertips of your right hand together. Now rapidly open and close your fingertips above your palm. OK, you’re almost there, just add a little wrist action. The last step is to yell loudly into a face — anybody’s face — the name of your favourite pasta and/or soccer team, over and over. That’s it! You are speaking like an Italian.

Eventually, I came to realize that not all Italians are extremely angry all of the time. They just sound that way. The Italian language, accompanied as it always is with wild arm gesticulations and finger jabs, is not meant to convey tender mercies so much as naked fury and soccer-match results. For example, the taxi driver I was convinced was threatening to murder me and my extended family was just turning left.

My wife, who is afflicted with a condition doctors describe as “smarter than me,” actually learned the Italian language prior to our trip. I was going to do that, too, but there were quite a few interesting programs on Netflix, and also there was sleeping, and beer. Anyway, my point is that learning even the basics of a language really helps in pronouncing place names, asking for directions, and choosing the right pasta for hand-to-hand combat.

A short-cut to learning Italian is to simply -—but angrily — employ one or more of the following phrases:

• Ahhhhh, now that’s Italian! (appropriate for food, traffic, leaning towers)

• That’s a spicy meatball! (appropriate for meatballs, bowel movements)

• Mama mia! (appropriate for calling your mother, Abba concerts, the Vatican)

By the way, “Garfagnana” describes the condition when you blink, and the gentle hills of Tuscany turn into the imposing wall of the Apuan Alps. Probably.

Garfagnana

The Garfagnana is gorgeous in a region that is already gorgeous. Small towns dot nearly every high spot above lush hillsides bursting with grapes, olives and everything else that’s green and growable. It’s like biking through a big salad.

In the far distance, a black dot on the ridgeline will later turn out to be a massive fortress, the Verrucole Castle.

We’re still too far away to make out the crenelated battlements high above the green valley, but we each know, deep in our thighs, that this ride will fully justify tonight’s wine, pasta and more wine.

The castle is 600 metres above sea level. It makes sense to pick a high spot for your fortress.

When bad people come to take away your stuff, such as your livestock and/or daughters, you can escape to the big impregnable castle and drop rocks on their heads until they go away.

As a plus, they might die on the seven-kilometre climb up from the valley below.

The Verrucole Castle was built between the 10th and 13th centuries by the Gherardinghi family to help keep nearby Lucca’s feudal ambitions in check.

Over the years, it has been accurately restored by a team of mostly volunteer historians, archeologists, architects and teachers, each passionate about faithful historical reconstruction.

This is the best kind of time travel: you wander around and learn how rooms and gardens were organized in the 12th century, but you get to keep your shoes and vaccinations against communicable diseases.

Well, I got to keep my shoes. A few in our group, wearing the kind of expensive cycling shoes that cause Achilles tendinitis and plantar fasciitis, had to leave them at the bottom of the steep hill you must walk up to enter the castle.

The spectacular view of the Garfagnana is worth the blisters.

The bad news is that today’s ride is 87 km long. The good news is that the first 17 km of it is all downhill. The, uh, other bad news is that the downhill begins at the top of the Apuan Alps in the rain. The temperature this morning is a crisp 4 C, and most of our group wears yesterday’s socks on their hands, not having packed for Outer Hebrides-type weather.

Despite — or possibly because of — the cold, the ride is exhilarating. We are the only ones on the road, zipping down the asphalt at automobile speeds. The narrow road precipitously drops off to the right, as the valley expands and expands and expands until we can almost see the mists of the Tyrrhenian Sea to the west.

We are the only ones on the road, right up until the moment when we suddenly share the road with large trucks burdened with giant blocks of marble, barrelling past us in what must be a concerted effort on the part of the drivers not to use up any expensive brake pads.

Italian marble — the good stuff, we are told — is quarried from these mountains, and it is cut and shipped out from the towns on the coast far below. You know you’re in one of them by the marble sidewalk curbs and public drinking fountains.

Lovely Lucca

Garfagnana has a massive hilltop fortress, whereas Lucca — on the plains 50 kilometres to the south — has a massive wall. The 4.2-km Renaissance-era wall that still encircles the old town is actually Lucca’s fourth wall, the first of which was built by the Romans when they founded Lucca by stealing it from the Etruscans in 180 BC. It outlasted the Romans by a thousand or so years, until 1118, when Lucca became a commune, or self-governing city state. The wall was expanded in 1300, and then again in 1504.

Why so many walls? You guessed it: so many wars. When gunpowder became a mainstay of Western military conflict at the end of the 15th century, high walls became an expensive liability. High walls are great for thwarting climbers, archers and biting monkeys, but they are absolutely crap against cannons. This is why the grass- and tree-topped walls around Lucca are wide enough to play a game of rugby.

Lucca was an independent city state for 700 years, becoming rich from the silk trade and good diplomatic relations with the Pope. The only army to ever breach the walls and conquer Lucca (in 1805) was that of our old pal, Napoleon Bonaparte, who — I’m mostly not making this up — began his military career as an artillery specialist and monkey handler. Today, the walls remain intact, a broad pedestrian and cyclist promenade encircling a truly beautiful city. Lucca boasts gorgeous cathedrals, offices, museums and the suspiciously amphitheatre-shaped Piazza dell’Anfiteatro, built around a Roman amphitheatre.

Outside our hotel is a large, bronze statue of a moustachioed-man lounging cross-legged in a chair, smoking and looking bored. This is Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924), born in Lucca to become the greatest Italian opera composer after Verdi.

I don’t know if that “after Verdi” bit refers to Giuseppe Verdi’s chronologically first appearance in Italy (1813-1901), or to his being a better opera composer than Puccini. I have no way of judging the quality of opera music, which sounds to me like a whole lot of hollering and dramatic shrieking held together with pretty arias, the acoustic equivalent of duct tape. I only know two things about going to the opera: first, you are supposed to wear pants; and second, you must shout, “Thar she blows!” when the soprano lets fly in Act I.

 

What’s opera, doc?

The Italian word for opera turns out to be opera, which means “work” in the sense of the labour done (the mental and physical exertion), the result produced (This opera is my greatest achievement!) and the effort required to sit there and listen to it (I need a drink!).

No, opera is not for everybody. Most people typing these words right now (me) recognize opera as great music, but that doesn’t mean they (me) necessarily like it.

There are a few good reasons for people’s reluctance to embrace this form of classical combat theatre:

1. Opera does not come cheap.

2. Opera does not come short.

3. While it is true that opera finishes when the fat lady sings, it also begins that way, and is that way in the middle, too.

The good people of Lucca might have fixed those issues (well, two out of three ain’t bad). Every night of the year — for more than 40 years — a short evening concert is offered in the Chiesa e Battistero dei SS Giovanni e Reparata, a magnificent decommissioned church originally built in the 12th century.

It features a hauntingly beautiful interior with very hard chairs, all the better to keep you from falling asleep and taking a grievous elbow to the ribs from certain other audience members, by which I mean my wife.

The concert, which is different every night of the year, only lasts an hour, and only costs 25 euros. On the night we attended, the set list contained an enjoyable mix of arias by both Puccini and Verdi, and for the life of me, I can’t tell you which guy is better.

Who cares? Sitting in that beautiful Renaissance church, listening to talented musicians play and sing, I admit opera doesn’t seem like work at all.

 

Next week: Our tour winds down by winding up the many stairs of a certain wobbly tower, and then it’s many, many more stairs in beautiful Cinque Terre.

• More on Verrucole Castle: http://www.castellitoscani.com/verrucole.htm

• Opera tickets in Lucca: https://operaticketsitaly.com/lucca/

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