Saturday, May 30, 2015

Ten Days—not a year—in Tuscany

One of these days I'll have to read the book. Yes, the Year in Tuscany one. After now having stayed in that magical region of Italy for a second time in two years I should compare my notes with those of better writers and more astute observers. Of course, they simply must lag behind me when it comes to gluttony in all its facets, and of that we experienced a lot.
Sabine and her loaner bike outside of Sirmione's city walls
This scene looked like something from Las Vegas—only, Sirmione is real!
What a beauty (the one on the left, of course)!
After my arrival in Germany and a few days of, ahem, acclimatization to the local beer scene it was time to pack Sabine's Skoda and head south. We had been able to rent the same house in Tuscany as last year, but this time around we had planned a tiny bit more time going down and driving back up. Religious holidays are a great thing, at least when it comes to providing extra vacation days for one of Munich's finest Landscape Architects.
Lake Garda, for once, was rather uninviting with low clouds and brisk winds
Florence offered little sunshine but lots of tourists
Still, Florence is Florence
Our first night once again was spent on the southern shores of Lake Garda. I had never heard of Sirmione, but Sabine had. It's a totally picturesque (and tourist-overrun) Roman and medieval hamlet built on a tiny peninsula that juts into this large lake. Our hotel was outside of old town (much lower prices, safe parking), but we did use our inn's loaner bikes for a tour of Sirmione. Even under cloudy skies it was a stunner, but I really would hate to be here when the hordes of German tourists arrive in earnest.
Shopping in Florence: Anything pig-related ...
... supplies for the next Tintoretto...
... and the ubiquitous oh-so-Italian gelato
For night number two I had booked us into the Hilton in Florence, using points and a few euros. I love that system! It allows you to stay in style in a swank place while paying less than about half of a C-note—how can you beat that? Instead of bikes we had access to the hotel shuttle that took us into the heart of this wonderful city—again, no traffic or parking woes. The weather continued to be a bit on the iffy side, but since we both had been to Florence many years before there was none of that "tourist pressure" to take the perfect pic, to see every sight, to do it all. I really like traveling with Sabine: We enjoy going to a converted market (converted to a must-do meeting point for the local foodie hipsters) and sampling some of the foods and drinks just as much as marveling at the beauty of Michelangelo's David.
Panoramic view of the Arno with Ponte Vecchio on the right
The entire bridge is taken up with tiny jewelry shops
Actually, in hindsight I really would like to stress how the "tourist" things seem to fade more and more into the background and our traveling is increasingly centered on experiencing a place. I am less concerned about reading the travel guide (Sabine always checks them out at the local library) to learn about which painting hangs in what corner of this or that monastery rather than simply sitting in the town square and watching the little old men and women quietly shuffle by or sit down for a chat and appéritif. Maybe it's age, or maybe it's just the realization that I won't remember shit about the different paintings for very long anyway (oops, a sign of age???), but that's where my travel experience seems to be heading. Call me a heretic if you want.
Hanging ...
... hanging ...
... floating
We arrived in our home for the week in Castelmuzio on Saturday night, and it was exactly at the time of the day when the sun bathes Tuscany in that magical light that makes you think of the great painters. There was once again the Abazzia Sant' Anna in Camprenna just across the valley, the very site where The English Patient was filmed. Barely after our arrival the church bells all around us started to ring, one of the most touching sounds that I know, even as a good heathen. We knew why we had returned to heaven.
Flat riding in the Orcia river valley
Seeing the light after hundreds of meters of climbing, close to Radicofani
The world from above
For the next week (well, almost) the weather cooperated and we went on wonderful bike excursions. Sabine had not been able to ride as much as last year in the weeks before this trip, so we took things just a little easier, reducing mileage and increasing gelato time. Nevertheless, we rode about 170 miles in five days, before rain once again hit us. Who cares? That night we didn't use the outdoor grill: It was time to try our hand at osso bucco, and I am happy to report that it was a full success! The other nights were scrumptious feasts with the likes of seafood pasta, steak, and entire grilled fish—in other words, I was able to let it all hang out! Meal plan and wine list were that of a two-starred Michelin restaurant. OK, maybe just one, but there was nobody to judge us.
Vista from one of the hills close to Catelmuzio
Every day, we went on different excursions
Sabine was quite taken with the Giardino di Daniel Spoerri just outside San Giovanni d'Asso
OK, so we tanked a bit of art and culture, too
That is the nice thing about this house: There is nobody around. We had an olive orchard, a million-dollar view, a fireplace and all the olive-tree wood we needed, a well stocked cellar and fridge (stocked by us)—and nobody bothered us or could see us or we could hear them! All that for 450 euro for an entire week. The only negative is that the road is unpaved and very steep—so steep, in fact, that on the day prior to our departure, when we couldn't ride the bike because of rain, we almost got stuck trying to go up the hill to the main road. We made it, barely; when we returned from our visit to the truffle museum and the Georgian chants at Abbazia di Monte Oliveto Maggiore we wisely decided not to bring the car back down to the house. It continued to rain most of the night (the osso buco night!) and we needed our landlord's 4x4 vehicle to get our stuff and us up to the Skoda upon our departure. Oh well, thus it goes.
My outdoor cooking station
Almost like cooking on the Kamado
Osso Buco night
If you go to Tuscany, be advised that it does not offer easy cycling. The four letters "Mont..." in a gazillion place names indicate that this is a mountainous part of the world. Overall elevation may rarely exceed 3,000 feet, but when you start at 2,100 and immediately drop down to 500 or so and then go up and down and back up and then back down before heading back up to that place with "Castel..." in it (another half-gazillion of those!), well, you know you've done a full day's worth of work. So, forget the gentle, rolling Tuscany lore.
Our extremely successful attempt to make everything smell like "campfire"
All the other stuff is true: It's simply beautiful! No, it is stunning. Last year we had been here about a month later, and many of the grain fields had already been harvested, leaving many brownish patches instead of the swaying green seas of wheat and rye and clover. OMG, during those days that we were blessed with sunshine the countryside simply screamed "make love to me!" Undulating, soft, fragrant, just lovely—Tuscany beckoned to be explored and caressed. And we did, at a gentle pace, like good lovers.
Montepulciano, seen from the north-west
Just around the corner from our place
Our rides covered roads that we had already had ridden as well as new ones. I am sure that Sabine will keep track of our daily routes with the highlighter and our map, just in case we come back or feel the urge to buy an abandoned fixer-upper on one of those hill-tops. Wouldn't that be nice? Lots of people have done that, injecting fresh capital into the region and stimulating the tourist trade. Former Giro winner Andy Hampsten has a place down here, headquarters for his bike tours. Well, I don't have the wherewithal to plop down the money needed for an adventure like that, but it sure tickles the mind to think that maybe I could. At the very least it's a wonderful dream to entertain.
Sabine insisted that I include this pic from our blustery day at Lago Trasimeno
Two Ritcheys and a Chaparral on LagoTrasimeno
Our breakfast table at La Rustica
Instead, we were happy as half-open clams in La Rustica. As mentioned earlier, after our excursions we'd return "home" to fix appetizers and well-thought-out meals—you have to plan ahead when the next supermarket is in Sinalunga, 20K down the sinuous, curvaceous mountain. Now that I think of it, maybe we need to go back a third time.... This was like an Italian cooking school while being the teacher.
Jazzed-up Fiat 500
One of the lighthouses in Castiglione della Pescaia
Castiglione was a stage finish of the recent Giro d'Italia
Panoramic shot from the morgue
All things come to an end, and a week is not long. Last Saturday we left La Rustica (after the aforementioned Toyota 4x4 drive) and headed for the coast. Initially we had planned to stop over in Pisa as Sabine really wanted to take me to the Tower before the tourist hordes arrive, but after some soul-searching and listening to Cath's FB comment we spent the night in Lucca. Good choice! However, before getting there we had a stroll and another gelato in the lovely port of Castiglione della Pescaia, a Giro d'Italia stage finish town just a few days earlier. Oh man, those Italians know how to make sure their towns appeal to Americans!
Lucca's Torre Guinigi, with trees on top
The Piazza Mercato is about as Italian and scenic as it gets
Hotel loaner bikes are a better invention than sliced bread
Lucca was a total surprise. Neither one of us knew any more of it than what we had read in a Velo article just a few nights earlier: Lots of pros call it home since the riding is spectacular, the coffee is exceptional, and the town is as laid-back as they come. I may take a little umbrage with the last point as there were already molto turista milling around and the Lucca Music Festival in June will attract the likes of Mark Knopfler and Bon Jovi, but the rest I buy. We had booked, via Expedia, a room in the La Mimosa B&B. The 70-euro room was as pink as the maglia rosa, but the bed was firm and the bathroom clean, albeit small. But the inn-keepers had a well-worn fleet of loaner bikes, and upon our arrival on Saturday afternoon we chartered two beaters and rode the 4.5 K on top of the old city wall. What fun! Then we precipitated ourselves into the maze of the old town and ended up having our first restaurant dinner since Sirmione, and it wasn't pizza either.
San Frediano, Lucca
Lucca's San Michele in Foro
Our last day in Italy started with another circumnavigation of Lucca before we headed for Pisa. The sun was out, and so were the tourists. But we are part of the tribe, so no complaints. Sabine had been to Pisa years ago, but this was my first time. Like everybody, I had seen pics of the Leaning Tower. And just like in India, when Judy and I first glimpsed the Taj Mahal, there was this instant recognition followed by the wow, this looks different moment. The damn thing leans. Holy shit, it leans hard, and it almost makes you nervous to be on the lee side, just in case the engineers are wrong (after all, they are Italians!). But there is a beauty to this tower that I had not anticipated. Damn the tourists and all, I'm sure glad we stopped by this iconic place.
That thing really does lean!
The entire cathedral complex looks quite different from what I had expected, much larger
OK, so we did have to have one tourist photo
Iconic. I just happened to use the word while drafting this entry on my Berlin to Munich flight, but it's apropos not only for the Tower but also the next place we visited: the Carrara marble quarries. Located fewer than 50 K from Pisa it is definitely a must-visit. The road starts to wind up from the coast toward the open quarries that look as if they had been hit by a late-season snow-storm. Surprisingly few tourists were noodling up the serpentines, and when we booked our marble cave tour we were only two of a handful of takers. Turns out, more than 1,000 claims to mine the white to black marble (the whiter, the more expensive) have been established, but only two exist to mine inside of the mountain. Around 1965 some smart miner had the idea that one should use an old railroad tunnel leading through the mountains to excavate some side shafts, and he hit it big. We got to go into the mountain, 450 meters of rock above us, 450 to either side, and 400 down to the level of the Adriatic. Since the place is rather cavernous it didn't feel too claustrophobic, but I still was glad that I didn't know of any particular fault lines crossing this area. BTW, not only do they somehow manage to harvest and retrieve marble slabs that are up to 30 meters (around 90 ft) long, but they also host fancy photo-shoots, receptions, and paparazzi opportunities hosted by the likes of Ferrari and Maserati.
All of Carrara's marble is being transported to the nearby port
This particular claim (one of only two underground ones) is run by only five miners
Perfect place for a hip photo-shoot
This slab is 18 meters long; the max is 30 meters!
The outside of the mountain looks as if it has been covered by snow
From Carrara it was a pretty long haul back to our last night's domicile, the Hilton in Innsbruck. We started our 550-K drive around 4:30 p.m., and the little Skoda just hummed along the autostrada toward Parma and then up to Trento and Bolzano toward the Brenner. Little did we know that what we had cursed as rain had been snow up here, just a few days ago, closing down the passageway between norther and southern Europe. The total toll came to almost 35 euro, and we left the Autobahn just a few miles before the actual pass to avoid paying the triple whammy of regular Italian toll, Brenner surcharge toll, and Austrian vignette—a total of close to 15 euro, which buys a lot of gasoline, even here. And so we drove, on an empty mountain road, the final 20 K into Innsbruck, high on wonderful memories and great music, anticipating the cuddly king bed in our suite in the Hilton Innsbruck. Trips can get better, of course, but not by much.
Heading toward Austria on the autostrada
Finally: a selfie!!!!