Tuesday, June 17, 2014

A week in Tuscany

Quintessential Tuscany—we descended this perfect serpentine, which is loved by Ferrari drivers
This was the trip that was supposed to have taken place one year ago but was thwarted when I broke my leg the weekend before and instead spent a sizable amount of time in hospitals and rehab. Sabine and I had rented a house in southern Tuscany, and we could not get a refund. However, the landlady offered us to use the house sometime in the future, should it happen to be unoccupied. So, before our change in relationship earlier this year we had nailed down a second attempt to go to Tuscany, and we were not going to let this opportunity slip by again.
Climbing toward the Brenner, the main gateway from Austria to Italy
And so we headed, with two bikes in the trunk, from Freising via Innsbruck to the tiny town of Castelmuzio about an hour south of Siena. We left about 10 days ago, on the Friday of the Pentecost weekend, meaning that thousands and thousands of Germans had exactly the same idea: Head to Italy and spend a week of vacation time. Between Bolzano and the exit toward Lake Garda we experienced the worst of the traffic; things later eased up.
Hundreds of thousands of Germans on their way to Italy
From Innsbruck, where we had spent the night, it's about a six-hour drive to southern Tuscany, and apart from some of the early congestion it was a pleasant drive. Taking the autostrada cost about $50, and gas in Italy is about 1.70 euro per liter, or just shy of ten bucks a gallon—ouch. But then, what is cheap in Europe?
Might as well enjoy the drive ...
We arrived at our domicile for the week late in the afternoon, after (wisely) stocking up on foodstuffs in the next supermarket, 15 kilometers away. Our landlady was awaiting us and showed us around: We had an entire house located in the middle of a well-kept olive grove, with outdoor grill and a wonderful seating area that looked out upon the monastery that was used to film the movie The English Patient. It slowly dawned upon us that with the amazing view that we enjoyed—upon the medieval towns of Montalcino and Pienza—we had to be on top of a hill. And what a hill it was!
Abaddia Sant'Anna in Camprena—just across the valley
Our house for the week, in the middle of an olive grove
Pienza, two steep valleys removed
We spent the week riding our bikes, going on one long hike in the neighborhood to enjoy the amazing views from the very top of one of the close-by hills, and driving to Siena when it became clear that a slight sound in the transmission of Sabine Skoda was becoming worse and needed attention. (Thanks to internet and GPS, we found the Skoda dealership where a young man listened to the transmission for 30 seconds and then told us, in that marvelous Italian-tainted accent that only an Italian can produce, that a repair was imply impossible, at least for a week; that if it were his car, he would not move it; that driving it could result in all kind of catastrophe. And then, ciao. With not too many option open for us, we decided to visit Siena and then drive back to Castelmuzio and not touch the car again until we started the 700+ kilometers back home. The sound became worse, but the car didn't explode, and today Sabine will take it to her local repair guy here in Freising.)
Houses and estates are generally located on top of hilltops ...

... as are many towns and cities (Montalcino here)
Sabine at the end of a sustained 10-K climb
Back to the bike riding. Somehow I had always thought of Tuscany as a gently rolling part of the world, with quaint villages, small roads, cypress trees, and easy riding. Check all that, except the "gently" and "easy" part. It should have set us off that half of the towns' names start with Mont...! Montepulciano, Montalcino, Montefolonico, Monticchiello—you get the drift. And where there are monts, there are valleys, and steep ones to boot. No, riding here was not easy at all (unless one chose a route in one of the wide valleys). Our first tour (which we started in San Giovanni d'Asso, to avoid having to climb for another 8 kilometers at the end of the day) was 47 miles long, and it included a murderous 10-K climb up to Montalcino that damn near gave us heatstroke and worse. On our last day, we climbed about 4,500 feet in what was supposed to be an easy 33-miler. So, don't complain that I didn't warn you, should you go to Tuscany.
On the route of L'Eroica—nope, baby, this ain't the way to Ropesville
View from Montalcino
Near-perfect pavement, cypress, and blue skies—what more could one ask for?
If I had a million bucks...
Two happy Ritcheys in Tuscany
Otherwise, Tuscany is even better than what you might have heard. Wow, those vistas are amazing. We totally lucked out with the most gorgeous weather for most of the week (it became increasingly humid in the afternoons, cutting down a bit on the views). The nights were cool, the days were hot (in the low 90s) and sunny. There are hundreds of small roads with smooth pavement, winding up and down the countryside, through golden fields and stands of cypress and oak. One sees quite a few cyclists, some solitary locals on road machines, others tour gaggles on mountain or trekking bikes. If you're somewhat fit and not too fat, you'll love it. Just don't think it is flat.

Gelato d'amarena
Nirvana di gelati
Talking about fat: Don't expect to lose weight on a trip down here. Every little town has a few restaurants and trattorias, wine and cheese shops abound, and I finally had to give in to the lure of gelati and graniti. We cooked at the house on that fabulous outdoor grill every night with fresh ingredients from the supermarket. One night it was fresh seafood pasta, the next a dynamite steak, then chicken amped on fresh herbs from our garden—and always preceded by mouthwatering appetizers and accompanied by a fresh bruschetta salad. And don't ask how much wine we downed or how that bottle of grappa evaporated. La dolce vita!
Part of our "pantry"
Pre-meal culinary preparation on our outdoor dining table
Seafood (fresh) pasta (fresh) with fresh pesto
Happiness sometimes comes in the form of an appetizer chair
As mentioned beforehand, we spent a day in Siena. Just like all the small towns that we had visited beforehand on the bikes, Siena is located on top of a hill. The streets are narrow, and the church (in this case the duomo) is located at the very top. All these towns and cities have organically grown outward from this nucleus, forming a tight inner sanctum of tiny streets and clustered houses that seem to be just a few moments away from collapsing. No wonder the original Fiat 500 was so tiny—how otherwise could one drive through these streets? Around every corner awaits another sight, be it laundry that is drying or plants that have been lovingly placed outside of an entryway.
Beating the tourist crowds in Montepulciano
The mailman cometh in Lucignano
Laundry in Castelmuzio
Vespa patrol in Siena
The front yard in the street
Siena's architecture is amazing, and seeing the campo—the main "square" where every July and august one of the wildest horse races in the world takes place, the palio—and the surrounding buildings that have not changed since medieval times is simply breathtaking. Here are a few shots from Siena:

To round things out, I should mention one other fabulous excursion that we took one evening, before the car really started to worry us. It was on the day when we had taken our long hike in our neck of the olive groves and oak forests, with all its vistas and scenery. That evening we drove the few miles to Abazzia di Monte Oliveto Maggiore, a monastery dating back to 1313. The frescoes depicting St. Benedict are stunning in their detail and life-likeness. Ol' Benedict certainly wasn't much loved by some of his compadres, as was attested by the three frescoes chronicling three separate attempts at killing him. The third one was especially heinous: Florentius sends not just one but seven lovely damsels to the cloister to tempt Benedict who sees his only way out by getting on a donkey and leaving the place. What a guy!
Get on that donkey, dude!
Luvely, aren't they? They would have surely killed him!
The monastery is still home to about 50 Benedictine monks, and we stayed late to listen to their nightly Gregorian chants during the evening services. We were the only non-monks, and it was quite a moving and spiritual affair.
The modern-day monks dine here
I could go on and on about this trip to Tuscany, but by now I have probably lost every reader anyhow, so I better stop, too. We rode about 165 miles on four separate excursions, saw wonderful towns and even more impressive countryside, ate well, enjoyed a comfortable house and garden, and finally got to see a place that had been on our individual bucket lists for quite a while. Overall, this was a 10-star trip, and I can only highly recommend a visit to the region, with or without bike.