|Scene between Bonconvento and the farm|
Two years ago, my wife Charlotte suffered a significant medical problem. She recovered, but required treatment with Coumadin, a potent blood thinner, necessitating close monitoring. She had previously made arrangements for her yearly Italian landscape painting course. The course, held on a farm in Tuscany, was scheduled within 6 weeks of her hospital discharge, and she was insistent on attending. I was very nervous about her making the trip. I had been to Italy enough to know the medical system is less than ideal. Not that many years ago a friend of mine, while in Rome, developed mononucleosis and was treated with enemas twice a day for 2 weeks. Three years ago my niece twisted an ankle in Venice and the hospital's xray machine was non functional
Since she was going on the trip despite the risks, I decided to go, in case someone yelled "medic". She had a roommate and they had both paid accordingly. There was no additional room on the farm for a last minute extra person. I found a place in Boncovento 3 km away. Since I would have been by myself for the most part, I invited our other (sort of) daughter Jennifer to come along. I baby sat Jennifer when I was in college. She attended college here in Macon and we had informally adopted her over the years. Though now living in Baltimore, Jennifer remained close to the family, and we see her regularly. She had taken up cycling in recent years, but had never been on a cycling trip. When we extended the invitation, she immediately accepted, assuring me that she was up for the hilly rides.
Charlotte flew to Rome. Jennifer and I flew to Milan. We did not take our own bikes, a first for me, because we needed to be flexible, in case of an emergency. We rented bikes from DF Bikes, a store in Siena. This turned out to be fantastic. The bikes were fairly new, carbon frames with Campagnola components. The store delivered and retrieved at our hotel. The cost was less than it would have been, had we carried them on the plane as over sized luggage. We first stayed in Lake Cuomo with Camiel, my Dutch riding friend, who will be featured in a future blog. We then drove to Bonconvento and the bikes were there and ready.
Most of the towns are on hill tops. In medieval times this was ideal for defense, now nonpareil in visual drama, when approaching the town on the bike. In the center of each town the roads were often so steep that it was difficult for us to maintain the balance necessary to negotiate our way through the pedestrian traffic. I think it was OK though, as many of the locals greeted us with the phrase " va fungul" which we concluded means "Welcome to our Town".
The painting group, Etruscan Places, was residing at an Agritourism. These are generally ancient farms with many stone/brick out buildings. In medieval times, the land owner lived in the main house and workers lived in these quaint structures.This provides some insight into European culture. The barns and other animal dwellings were all wood, some old and rotting, others new, but built to eventually rot. I would conjecture the original owners were uncertain as to whether or not they would indefinitely use cows for milk and meat. Perhaps some new animal would be invented 100 years into the future. But the relationship of the owner to the worker would never change. So it was prudent to use materials that would last for centuries. There currently are few itinerant workers in Italy. Tractors have replaced them, but the out buildings still stand. The current owners, likely direct descendants of the medieval masters, given European social mobility, commonly rent the farm to large groups who occupy these recently modernized structures.
I picked up this Chianti Classico kit (riding outfit) at a wine store in Siena. I bought the red suede leather shoes in Pienza where this photo was taken. An unbelievable end of the year sale or possibly no one else wanted them
We took this photo on the way to Montepulciano. It is such a characteristic scene, we could have taken 500 equally as stunning, between any two small hilltop towns. My over developed left sided brain (actually, more likely, my under developed right sided brain) found Tuscany to be so astoundingly beautiful, that despite being right in front of me, I first sensed these scenes were fake! Perhaps someone had painted them and mysteriously moved the canvases along the roads to fool the tourists. I eventually was able to believe them, however. This, I concluded, was civilization. Despite all the baggage through the centuries, the feudal system to the class system, wars, the ridiculous heavy handedness of the Church, and the mulitple bubonic plagues, every generation, for over a millennium, made everyone of these places incrementally more attractive. Jennifer and I just cruised along, intoxicated by all the natural beauty, juxtaposed to the Tuscan's collective hard scape efforts. This experience was exponentially more entertaining on a bike, with our 360 degree panoramic view, than squinting through a car windshield at 3 times the speed. If I didn't ride to keep from going insane, I could ride 51 weeks a year to be in good enough shape to ride here one week a year.
The steepest grades were usually 1 to 2 kilometers and in between the towns. The rise into the the towns could be as long as 20 kilometers but were fortunately less steep
The best place to ride was out of town and past the dirt road to the farm. This was the back way to Siena, mostly uphill going, and a fast net downhill when returning and drained. The above shots were taken at a functional abbey on this route. They had a small restaurant and we had our best meal of the week here. Check out the Missoni water bottle. I ordered grilled mushrooms and (real) truffle pasta. If you go to Tuscany, do not pass up truffle pasta when on the menu. I unabashibly sniffed it for 10 minutes before eating, somewhat to Jennifer's visible embarrassment. I on the other hand couldn't have cared less, confidant I would know no one, an oft repeated bonus of overseas travel.
One day we drove this way to visit Siena and entered the town at a confusing place. We mistakingly drove further in than necessary, parked illegally, and walked to the center. We hung out at the Piazza del Campo, had great coffee, snacked, purchased the riding kit, and attempted to drive out at dark. When we decided to leave our actions became a scene from Chevy Chase's European Vacation movie. The roads were the windiest we had ever seen and our Garmen kept assuming we were making U turns, as we weaved along each of these roads. We heard "recalculating" more than 100 times. After driving for more than an hour we hilariously noted the exact place we had originally parked. If you go, enter on the main road and take a long hike to the town center. Otherwise you might want to bring a sleeping bag
|Jenny conquers another hill town|
|Infinity pool at the farm. Like I said , they had modernized|
Charlotte fortunately had no problems the entire trip and no medic was needed We were able to eat with her at the farm every night. On the way to back to Milan we took a detour to a City on the west coast which had a precariously leaning building. The engineers were on strike so the city leaders were looking for volunteers to take turns holding up the building. We were proud to do our fair share before leaving the country.