Thursday, October 25, 2012

Giro D'Italia

Ashley and I have both had a lifelong love of bike touring, and have had the good fortune to do tours in many awesome areas, including what is probably considered the world’s best in France.  However, right there with France is Italy, and since Ash had never been there before and her not only lives in Italy but owns a vineyard in Tuscany we finally decided it was high time to take the steeds over and do our own Giro d’Italia.   And for once we planned far enough ahead to not only get to use our frequent flier miles but more importantly get our great friends Tom Simonsen and Julia Roether to join us. 

Ash’s cousin Jane and her husband Sebastiano (Seba) were key to our loose “plan”.  They have a house very near the Milan airport and also own a sweet apartment in the heart of Florence in addition to the vineyard in the Chianti area of Tuscany south of Florence.  So rather than landing in a foreign (and expensive!) city and trying to find a hotel via a taxi, we had a great familiar face greet us with a  huge smile,

then whisk us to her beautiful home in time for a huge celebratory Italian feast.   
Why hadn’t we done this before? 

While there are plenty of companies that take people on bike tours in Italy, the truth is that putting together an awesome route is – as Ash put it – “like shooting fish in a barrel.”  Just get a Michelin Map, decide on a macro plan, then make random choices of the myriad of white, yellow, and green-highlited red-colored roads on the map to wind your way through the plan.   Our general plan was to wind through area (state?) of Liguria to Emile Romagna to the famous Cinque Terre, on to Florence to get some culture, then south to the vineyard and Tuscany’s famous riding terrain, taking two weeks to do so.  Then somehow get back to Milan. 

Fundamentally, the trip was superlative. Our schedule was such:  get up, leisurely breakfast with cappuccinos (I tried….still couldn’t make it happen…), pack up, say goodbye to our new friends, mount steeds, ride the “best ever” roads all day – almost all climbing or descending on sublime, little-trafficked roads - eat paninis, focaccia, killer little pastries, gelatos, find a cool place to stay, eat sumptuous food, drink copious amounts of wine, laugh a LOT, retire, and repeat. 

I had never heard of Liguria or Emile Romagna, but these adjacent areas were quite mountainous  - we went over one 6000’ pass – and they actually were in some ways “better” riding than their more famous neighbor, Tuscany due to far-fewer tourists, bigger climbs and descents, and wilder, less-developed terrain.  Cinque Terre – right in the crook of the of Italy as it wraps around the Mediterranean - is a world-famous area of 5 little towns tucked into bays at the foot of 2-3000 foot mountains, and the hike between the 5 towns with a quick zip on a train back to your start is a mandatory stop on the “adventure travel” circuit, and this same train carries all the tourists into this area, so again the roads are nearly deserted except for the lean old guys on their carbon Colnagos charging up the climbs.  We also climbed up into an area that had a couple of minor ski resorts, which I didn’t know existed outside of the Alps or Dolomites, and like minor ski resorts in the US, their respective communities were as unassuming as the rest of the area, only with a  bit more relief! 

Ash was the patron of our Giro, and had the map out at every opportunity to plot our next move. However, one of the beauties of riding in Italy is that if you miss a turn you just take the next one because it’ll be just as good, and the next town will likely be as cool as the last.  After a week of this we pulled into Florence, where we were able to escape the tourist madness in Jane and Seba’s apartment that had veranda views of the top of Florence, including the Duomo a couple of blocks away.  A day of “doing Florence” then ensued, which involves as much strategizing and patience as it does wonder at the plethora of art that pretty much represents the end of the Church’s 1500 years of repression.  We bailed on the Uffizi Gallery (Florence’s  - or Italy’s? – version of the Louvre) but were able to get into the National Gallery to see Michaelangelo’s David; regardless of your views on biblical tales or your level of appreciation for art, that sculpture is truly jaw-dropping.   We hit another couple of museums, went into the perimeter of the Duomo to get to the airy top of the dome (via tiny staircases that had to accommodate both climbers and descenders; a fat person’s and a US fire marshall’s nightmare!) and finished off with Peroni beers on the terrace, Querciabella vino from the vineyard, and a sumptuous home-cooked dinner.  It seemed like one of those “One day in Florence” articles in airline mags. 

It’s possible to spend weeks in Florence (indeed, even months; it was packed with exchange-program US college kids) but the tourist scene and foot/leg/back destroying standing and strolling on concrete didn’t sound nearly as appealing as re-mounting our steeds, so off into Tuscany we went.  Greve-in-Chianti is the village where the vineyard was, and since it was only 30km from Florence Ash led us on a brilliantly circuituous route through (big!) rolling vineyard country to arrive at the vineyard late in the afternoon.  Alberto, the CEO of Querciabella, had warned us on the phone of the road to the vineyard:  “it’s steep, and there are rocks”.  We had laughed and told each other that he didn’t know about all the climbing we had done and looked forward to a little zip up the last hill, but as it turned out, he was right:  15-20% grade on gravel for almost 2 miles!  Once there, however, we were greeted as heroes and it wasn’t long before we were once again feasting and drinking the fruits of their labor. 

The winery was in full harvest/wine making mode while we were there,

and we got a great tour of the facility in the morning.  I always sorta struggle with wine; I like it, but so much of the industry smacks of pomposity, but to see a really cool little vineyard that is super-committed to “doing it right” – organic and as “pure” as possible – was really cool. 

We then packed up our gear and  - as our tour was winding down – started strategizing as to our next moves to optimize our return to Milan.  We had started to settle in on a plan when it dawned on us that what we wanted was a stellar day of riding, end up at a cool place, get more great Italian food, hang out with new Italian friends, and drink great wine…..ah hah!  Maybe one more night at the vineyard!  So we had yet another awesome day of rolling around the roads of Chianti that will be featured in next year’s road cycling world championships. 

Which of course was followed by more feasting, drinking, and laughs. 

As it turned out, our plan to return to Milan was thwarted by Italy’s surprisingly difficult policies regarding bikes on trains so we opted to rent a couple of one-way cars, which worked out fine.  Back at Seba and Jane’s we had yet another celebratory feast (good thing we rode a lot while in Italy!) and the next day Tom and Julia left while Ash and I joined hundreds of folks out on their Sunday rides near Milan.  A quick visit to the Milan Duomo that night – one of the signature Cathedrals in Europe, apparently, but unlike Florence the monster plaza is populated not by tourists but by Italians – and our fine trip was done. 

Ash and I had never done a bike tour with anyone else before, and Julia and Tom proved  -as expected – to be awesome travel partners and really helped make the trip amazing.  And of course, huge thanks to Jane and Seba for opening their homes to us and providing such great hospitality. 

Here’s a link to a lot more pics:

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