Thursday, October 18, 2007

Day 2 - Florence

What fit of madness can explain why an overweight, unathletic, out of shape man in his late forties and his wife would choose to spend their first full day on vacation, after nearly twenty four hours of travelling across the world, on bicycles, pumping and straining to reach an ancient hilltown when a perfectly good city lay before them right at their feet?
I struggle with that question the following morning as my legs tremble from their recollection of our adventure yesterday and my bottom still retains the unpleasant memory of a hard, unyielding bicycle seat which was its host for nearly six hours.

We awoke at an unpleasantly early hour, assisted by the confusion of our body clocks, which have not yet adjusted to local time but which have lost track of home time already. We dress in the athletic gear that we have optimistically brought along with us and looking completely ridiculous, depart our hotel, the well-situated Pierre (Via de’Lamberti, 5, Florence, tel. 055.216.218) just off the Via Calzaiuoli and a stone’s throw from the Duomo. Although running a few minutes late we charge into the hotel’s breakfast room for a quick cup of coffee and a bite to eat, drawing disapproving, or at least unbelieving looks from our fellow hotel guests at our unusual and inappropriate attire (please don’t worry yourself, we were clad in workout gear – shorts and tee shirt, not bike shorts), a situation that is hard to swallow from anyone who has put up with the hoards of wacko tourists in this town as we have. We feel a definite lack of comfort as we descend into the depths of “them.”

We hurry down the street toward the Ponte Vecchio, making a left hand turn along the Arno river toward our destination, the much more recently built Ponte alle Grazie. This bridge connects the oltrarno (the other side of the Arno) with the main side of the city, connecting with the Via de’Benci, which runs up to Piazza Santa Croce. This bridge, where we are to meet our tour guide, served as our daily transit point to central Florence nearly twenty years ago when we lived here for the summer as student, wife and newborn son. Every corner, alleyway and building in Florence bring back some sort of memory of that trip or one of the many other visits we have made to this exceptional place.

We are unaccustomed to rising this early in Florence while on vacation and there is a very different feel and look to the town as it, too, is shaking off its previous evening’s slumber. Workers outnumber tourists as they charge past in their stylish Italian outfits, sidewalks and streets are wet from their daily washing and the sun has yet to rise above the buildings, leaving the streets in relative darkness and the air cool, heavy and fresh. In our shorts and tee shirts we begin to wonder if have dressed appropriately for the day.

We arrive a minute before the appointed hour and there waiting for us is our guide, Steve, a young man on leave from college back in Missouri, who guides groups of cyclist ranging from two people to twenty from Florence to the hilltown of Fiesole, some number of miles up and away from Florence. We meet Sue and Laura as well, two middle aged women from Virginia who will round out our group. Steve greets us all, shows us to his van and we weave our way through traffic to the outskirts of town where his employer, I Bike Italy (tel. 055-234.2371, stores their bikes in a small locked garage. We are assigned mountain bikes, each with its own name (mine is “the Promise,” Suzy’s is “Up and Away,” others, such as “Crash and Burn” and “the Mangler” thoughtfully not assigned today given the small group).

As we don our helmets and listen to Steve’s introduction and instructions, anticipation is rising and each member of this unlikely group seems to be trying to hide a case of nerves, as none of us has ridden a bike since childhood. We alight from the garage area to begin our first segment, a short ride onto the main road, across a bridge and along a country lane where we will assemble in front of a gate with a plaque that welcomes us the countryside that inspired the setting of Boccaccio’s Decameron and has inspired countless other authors and artists since. Our group makes it to the first checkpoint intact, but already there is grumbling and complaining among us, even though the ride has been perfectly flat.

We head out for our second segment, where we begin our ascent to Fiesole, the road a gentle incline punctuated with short, steeper segments that challenge us and cause at least a couple of us to dismount and walk our bikes for a spell. It is during this segment that it becomes apparent that the genius who came up with the line “it’s like riding a bike; once you learn you never forget” had never met Laura. Not a half an hour into our trip she has crashed her bike (getting on it, mind you, not riding it), has cut her arm and has given up on riding to Fiesole. Steve has to pedal back to the garage, get the van, pick her up and run the trip from a van, rather than from his bike. I can only imagine how incredulous (read, pissed off) he is, but he betrays no ill will.

We stop several times along the way to Fiesole, getting directions to our next checkpoint from Steve and stopping to enjoy some of the most amazing views of Florence imaginable. From the hills above town the entire ancient renaissance city is visible, the famous Duomo of Brunelleschi rising above everything, providing a frame of reference from which you can find the church of San Lorenzo, the Pitti Palace, the Piazza Signoria and all of the other famous buildings that one discovered and fell in love with in Art 101. A hazy layer of smog blankets the entire valley, obscuring the view somewhat and reminding us that this town is not just a museum piece, but the center of an industrial area in a modern economy.

By now the sun is high in the sky and temperatures have warmed somewhat. Still the air is slightly cool and crisp but the burning in our legs and sweat generated by this unusual activity make us glad we have dressed as we did. We are getting accustomed to and even possibly adept with the gear shifters on our bikes and the dismounting and walking up hills has become less frequent, even as the hills have become steeper. On some of the steeper inclines our feet pedal furiously as our bikes, in lowest gear, inch forward at a ridiculously slow rate. But we are captains of our own ships now and each of us (except Laura) is determined to arrive safely in port at Fiesole.

And so we do arrive, around noon, in the main square of Fiesole, sweat streaming from our pores, chests heaving and each of us emitting more odor than the Italian national soccer team. But we have done it. We have achieved what seemed impossible a few hours earlier. As we began our trip we were nervous about our ability to even ride a bike. As we mounted the first few stages that concern gave way to doubts whether we would have the stamina to make it all the way, whether on bike or on foot. Fiesole seemed a long walk away. As we entered the piazza, we did so as different people. Despite a rather steep final ascent I was damned if I was going to dismount and walk into town. Summoning every bit of energy I pumped my legs and ignored the burning and broke through into the piazza. For a moment I was Lance Armstrong, and I could imagine the short, heavy Italian matrons lined up at the bus stop cheering and going into a frenzy over my nature-defying achievement. Such is the mind of the cyclist. Or so I would imagine.

Suzy and I wander around the main piazza, our first visit here since our first trip to Italy when Bill studied law at Georgetown University’s summer program in Fiesole. Despite its proximity to Florence, this is a town largely unvisited by the tourist hordes and little has change in the decades since our last visit. After walking up to the belvedere that affords a spectacular view of Florence below, we return to our bikes to learn that our victory over Fiesole was only pyrrhic. We are far from over. A forty five minute ride is required to reach the restaurant where we will have lunch and another couple of hours remains on the program. These I Bike Italy people are very good at managing egos and expectations, indeed.

Nearly an hour later we arrive at La Panacea, a small trattoria set in a cool garden outside the town of Olmo. Despite the fact its business card proclaims seafood as its specialty, we enjoy typical crostini topped with chicken liver pate and bruschetta topped with flavorful tomatoes, basil and local olive oil pressed at an estate a short five minute bike ride down the road. We follow that with heaping plates full of spaghetti with pesto sauce and penne with tomato sauce, carbo loading for our return trip. The trattoria Panacea lives up to its name, the food, relaxation and most of all the padded chairs a panacea for us.

Before descending back to Florence, we stop at the Fattoria di Montereggi, a winery and olive farm where the proprietor bottles modest quantities of chianti and extravirgin olive oil. Steve shows us entire operation, from the plants to the pressing equipment, explaining how wine is fermented and olive oil obtained from mashed olives. We then get to taste a little, buy a little at insanely low prices and begin our downhill coast back to the outskirts of Florence. Along the final leg, a steep, windy road that skirts Settignano, the childhood home of Michelangelo, and passes a number of castles, we barely have to pedal at all, using our breaks constantly as the pine forest whizzes by. Never have I loved gravity so much. Thank you, Mr. Newton.

After checking in our equipment, Steve drives us back to the Ponte alle Grazie and we say our goodbyes. It has been about eight hours since we first met and it is still our first day in Italy. The strenuous activity has perhaps made us forget our jet lag and has definitely filled us with an overflowing sense of well being. As we return to our hotel, legs tired and bodies aching, we are beaming, smiles creasing our faces. We pass an old fashioned barber shop and we stop in for a quick haircut (Matteo Parrucchiere, Via dei Neri, 26/r). The barber finishes up trimming the mustache of a man in a beautiful plaid wool jacket who looks like he stepped directly from the set of the Godfather and begins plying his trade on my head. Twenty minutes later I am transformed, confirming my belief that Italy produces the best barbers in the world. It is a thoroughly enjoyable visit.

Back to the hotel for a hot shower and dinner reservations at our favorite restaurant in Florence. More on that tomorrow.

A presto.
Bill and Suzy

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