On only the second day of our October visit to Italy we did something very un-us-like. We went on a daylong bike excursion from Florence to Fiesole, a hilltown seemingly located about 4,000 miles straight up a hill from Florence.
I’m pretty sure if you glance up toward the noonday sun you can catch a glimpse of Fiesole - slightly to the right and below. At the time, surviving this physical ordeal seemed like an epic achievement, but with over sixth months to recover, its memory has been transformed from its original Guantanamo-like ordeal into an almost romantic ideal. So as we begin our three week sojourn here one of our goals is to buy bicycles and to discover the countryside near our new home in Cannara.
Generally, once Suzy and I make a decision, there is little messing around on the implementation side. I think the fact that I am writing this little memoir from a new couch sitting on a Persian carpet in the newly painted living room of our farm house in a little farming village in central Italy is pretty much a testament to us not gnashing our teeth, not pussyfooting around. Once we make a decision there is only one speed. Full ahead.
So on our second day here we fight off the jetlag and begin crossing items off our to do list, compiled on multiple pages during our 3 month absence from Cannara. High on that list is “buy bicycles; go cycling.” (This somewhat modest entry on our to do list is not nearly as impressive as the all-time great shopping list that one of our bosses carelessly left out for all of our co-workers to see some twenty five years ago – “milk, cereal, orange juice, chicken, BMW . . . “). Off we go to buy bikes and a few other things (no BMW, thank you very much) along the road to Magione, a journey that takes us beyond Perugia and along a familiar stretch of stores that are the Italian version of the big box store (la grande scattola), Gran Casa, Mercatone Uno and others that feature pretty nice furniture at a reasonable price, if you don’t translate the price back into dollars.
We literally have no idea where we are going, except that our associate Javier, a longtime resident of Ponte San Giovanni, the bedroom community at the base of the hill on which is situated Perugia, has mentioned that he is good friends with the bike store owner there and that he will give us a good discount if we mention his name. We’re not sure that this is actually the case, but we head first to Ponte San Giovanni and, as seems to be the case more often than not with us, we stumble upon the bike store within minutes. Unfortunately it is chiuso per ferie, closed for a summer holiday, and won’t reopen for 10 days. Ten days is eternity for Suzy and Bill, so we pull up anchor and head toward Magione, again recalling from Javier that there is a big cycle shop that organizes bike tours somewhere near Corciano. We arrive in Corciano, passing the office of the lawyer who handled our real estate closing, as stores are beginning to close and, as fate would have it, pass right past Testi Cicli, one of the larger bicycle store in the area. Despite its size, however, it has about 6 parking spaces directly in front of it, only one vacant and more the width of a bike rack than a parking space for a car. So we make several lazy swoops around town, in ever tightening gyres like a majestic falcon (not really, but the allusion overcame me), getting closer and closer to Testi Cicli until we find a space, illegal, but this is Italy, across the street and in front of a gas station.
Then, as usual, the fun begins. Over the past six months we have been in Italy five times, negotiating the purchase of a house, establishing an Italian corporation to effect the purchase, arranging the transfer of utilities into our name, buying furniture, installing satellite TV and high speed internet, all with an ability to speak Italian at about a second grade level. There are Italians all over Umbria that must be thinking, gee, that little boy seems awfully gray.
So armed with zero bicycle vocabulary and a complete lack of knowledge about bikes in general, we throw ourselves into the hands of the wonderful man who now owns half of our assets and who is no doubt planning his move to the US where the masses of Euros we paid him could likely provide him a very comfortable retirement. Actually, this gentleman provided us with sound advice and a very reasonable price, as well as a few laughs (surprisingly with us, not at us, we think) and before closing time we were the owners of two new bikes.
Despite our years of travelling and doing business here in Italy, we will never seem to learn, however, that unlike in the U.S. where business is a transaction, in Italy business is a process. A relationship. A lifetime. So of course we leave Testi Cicli the owners of two new bikes. We just do not have use of them. Until tomorrow evening. After they can change the tires, adjust the brakes and put on the little holder for the water bottle.
So we return to Cannara for the evening, count down the hours until the next day when we can make the return trip to Corciano to pick up our bikes. That next day we stop along the way at some of the big box stores in Magione, buying a little something here, a little something else there for the house. By the time we arrive back at Testi Cicli the entire back of our car is full of our purchases – pillows, fans, kitchen utensils, furniture. When our newest bestest buddy proudly presents us our new bikes he offers to help us stuff them in our car and his cheery expression vanishes as he sees the tiny shaft of light that represents the only uncluttered space in our car. But he is a good man and immediately starts helping us remove all of our purchases to make room for the bikes. By some sort of miracle (this is the land of the saints), the bikes fit into the car, all our purchases find a space and even the pillows come in handy, cushioning the bikes from one another. Within a half an hour we are budding Lance Armstrongs.
* * *
The next morning, after the excitement of the hunt has subsided, we have to figure out what to do with the body. We own two nice bicycles. Now we have to use them. So, with a little apprehension we decide to take an excursion from Cannara to the nearby town of Bevanga, a beautiful walled town with some great restaurants and scenic buildings whose main advantage is that it is connected to Cannara by a road with absolutely no hills. In anticipation of the bike ride we have noted the distance, hoping that we have the stamina to make this epic journey. The odometer in the car, which for some strange reason is a Fiat set to miles, tells us that the trip is a little over 4 miles. We prefer to use kilometers, which at 7 sounds much more impressive.
So off we go, our water bottle (Suzy’s bike does not have a water bottle cage, so she’ll have to be nice to me) filled and our helmets strapped on. Within a few feet (slightly more meters) I begin to feel how appropriate it is that we purchased our bikes from Testi Cicli. It is often said that certain activities, such as golf or waterskiing use (and make sore) certain muscles that you don’t normally use in everyday activity. This is clearly the case in cycling. How much though has really gone into developing a comfortable bike seat? I, and my sore rear end, say it is time to build a better mousetrap.
But through an intricate series of tricks played on the subconscious, within a few minutes we are both pedaling at a regular, albeit slow rate, our minds off our nether misery, enjoying the morning air, the warming sun, the beautiful, bountiful farmland and an altogether overwhelming sense of contentment. Until, at least, the first tiny car bombs past us at 200 kilometers per hour (again, it sounds better in metric) about 10 centimeters from us. Italians drivers, who don’t enjoy the highest reputation among American travelers to Italy, are in fact, remarkably conscious of and courteous to cyclists. But courtesy only dictates what we might consider a not-so-comfortable personal space between car and cycle. After a few strafings we grow accustomed to the traffic and enjoy the flat, nearly-effortless trip to Bevagna.
Arriving in the walled city in the (for us) early morning is almost a reward in itself, but dismounting from the hard bike seat is a true joy, only surpassed by the sight of the open door at the handmade pasta shop. We have visited Bevagna a dozen times, discovering this artisanal pasta shop on one of our early visits. It is seemingly never open, however, and we always salivate and imagine what could be, as we stare at the trays of gleaming egg pasta behind the counter and behind the locked front door. Today the door is open and we have a difficult time deciding what to buy before deciding upon some fresh ravioli stuffed with ricotta cheese.
It is then back to Cannara with our booty as we await the arrival of our friends Frances and Allison from Rome.
* * *
Since that first day of cycling we have religiously adhered to a schedule of at least one hour long excursion per day. The roads around Cannara, a small farming hamlet situated in the shadow of Assisi and on a vast fertile plain between Monte Subasio (on which Assisi and Spello are situated) and another ridge of mountains to the west, are amazingly flat. This is indeed a plain and our excursions to Spello and Santa Maria degli Angeli, the former about a 30 minute trek, the latter just slightly longer, are leisurely and not too taxing. Along the way the roads are surrounded by fields of everything that grows and it being harvest time, men and machines are toiling everywhere we look. Here a vast field of hay is being cut and bailed by enormous green machines, the freshly shorn field giving off a shiny gold hue. Next door, vast fields of sunflowers sway in the gentle breeze, these bizarre, almost alien looking plants facing the same direction in unison and then bowing as if in submission as we return. Birds chirp and flutter and, despite the blazing sun overhead, a cool breeze makes it all pleasant and comfortable. For years we have heard American tourists argue the relative merits and demerits of travelling by car or by train in Italy. As we discover the Umbrian countryside and make a new connection to it on bicycle, it is clear that neither side had it right.
* * *
About a year ago our good friend Letizia Mattiacci, the proprietor of the Agriturismo alla Madonna del Piatto and cooking teacher extraordinaire told us about two cheese shops in the town of Santa Maria degli Angeli, a short distance from Cannara. Despite our efforts to drop in, we had never made the time to do so, so armed with our new bikes we determine today to ride to town and buy some cheese. On these hot, lazy summer days in Italy, that sounds like a good project for the day. On the way, and always thinking ahead, we decide to stop at the local bike store in Cannara to buy a basket for Suzy’s bike, so we will have something to carry home our loot. Once again our second grade Italian suffices and the owner helps us install the basket on the front and sends us along our way with a smile and a wave. We couldn’t detect or translate the words spoken under his breath.
Armed with her new basket (cestino), I can’t help but whistle the Wicked Witch of the West theme song, all that is missing (other than the green complexion, pointy hat and pointier nose) is the little dog in the basket. I think briefly about turning back and getting the stray cat that we inherited with our house. I call him Dexter, but that’s just me. I don’t know if he is even a boy cat, only that he is missing one eye and recently had three kittens, one of which died. OK, I guess I know that he is not a boy cat. But Dex is field cat, happy to chase (and presumably eat) the unseen things that wander among the roots and stalks of the life that springs from our very own farmland.
Sans cat we make our way along the road to Santa Maria degli Angeli, a road that rises no more than a few feet (and even a fewer meters) as it crosses two bridges. About 40 minutes after departing the bike store we are at a caffe a few doors down from the Caseificio Brufani, one of the two cheese stores recommended by Letizia. In a piece of stunning good luck, the other cheese shop is right next door.
Without going into more boring detail (and even more boring detail in metric), let it be said that we have found a little slice of heaven where they slice little pieces of curdled milk. We enjoy a local cheese on a salad at lunch, as well as some buffalo mozzarella in a pasta with vegetables. We save a gourd-like hunk of scamorza for grilling at a later date. Reason number 153 (276 in metric) that I love Italy.