Bicycling with an Italian accentBy Lynne Tolman
VINCI, Italy -- Sixty kilometers south of Florence on the
Chiantistrada -- literally, the Chianti Road - the shady driveway of a
hilltop vineyard beckoned.
We pedaled five days last year in late May from Venice to Florence, took time off there for sightseeing, then made a four-day loop through Tuscany.
Unfolding at the same time was Il Giro d'Italia, a bicycle race on the level of the Tour de France in a country which takes cycling as seriously as Americans take football. We never crossed paths with the racers, but were inspired by glimpses of them we caught on television.
May, June, September and October are the recommended times to avoid the summer crowds and heat. We encountered light, warm rain for a couple of days in the Po Delta, and sunshine the rest of the time, with high temperatures in the 70s and 80s.
Venice, all canals and bridges with steps, was no place for bicycles. We had taken a five-hour train ride from Rome to the mainland city of Mestre, where we had sent our bikes by train a day ahead. We donned our helmets, pedaled eight kilometers across a bridge to Venice and carried the bikes to our hotel. We'd get around on foot and by boat the rest of our stay in that city.
Leaving Venice two days later, we took the bikes on a ferry to San Nicolo. We pedaled the length of the island, only eight kilometers, then took another ferry to another island of the same length. A third ferry took us to Chioggia, back on the mainland. Riding past truck gardens along a canal, we could smell the onion harvest.
Cycling gave us the appetite for pasta every night, and the carbohydrates were efficient fuel for the road.
During the 545 kilometers (340 miles), we traveled through several regions, each with its own culinary specialties.
Among my favorites were tagliatelle ai funghi (noodles with wild mushrooms) in Contarina, fagioli (white beans in oil) in San Gimignano and crostini (toast rounds with a thick meat sauce) in Tuscany.
Italians don't eat much for breakfast. Standing up at a "bar," they down a quick pastry with strong coffee. We'd pick up picnic supplies at breakfast time because shops close for a couple of hours in mid-afternoon and we didn't want a big restaurant meal then.
The farm fields and orchards of the Po Delta soon gave way to salt marshes along the windy Adriatic coast. The terrain remained flat. The beaches were deserted in May.
We turned west to Comacchio, a miniature Venice without tourists, then spun down a desolate road along the bay to our night's rest in Alfonsine.
We broke up the next day's cycling with a long stop to see the fourth- and fifth-century mosaics in Ravenna.
Entering Forli, a city about the size of Worcester, we got our first glimpse of the Appenine mountains, which we would cross the next day.
We rode up steady, gentle grades for about 40 kilometers. Then the real climbing began; another 18 kilometers in low gear. Lizards skittered across our path. My ears popped before we reached the Tre Faggi summit near Muraglione, 930 meters (3,050 feet) above sea level.
Dogs howling along with the church bells woke us up the next morning in Borgo San Lorenzo. From Fiesole, we had a breathtaking view of the whole city of Florence.
Navigating the urban traffic in Florence was horrible, but once the bikes were locked at our hotel, we shifted gears easily from countryside wanderers to city sightseers.
After a couple of days of art museums, cathedrals and window shopping, it was back to the country.
The Chiantistrada led to Siena, whose buildings gave the color siena its name. Relaxing on the sun-warmed bricks of the sloping, fan-shaped Piazza del Campo was like a day at the beach. We didn't want to leave. But a short climb put us in an equally delightful spot, the medieval hill town of San Gimignano.
Last on our tour was Vinci, hometown of Leonardo da Vinci. It's an ordinary, well-kept little town with an intriguing museum containing working models of da Vinci's inventions. Sweet-smelling jasmine was in bloom in many front-door gardens.
We left our panniers in the hotel for a steep stomp to da Vinci's birthplace amid ancient olive groves and wild orange poppies.
Looking over our handlebars at the rolling landscape, we could understand how a boy raised in these hills would be inspired to genius.