Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Arrivederci, Auf Wiedersehen, and Hope to See You Again Soon

We needed to be out of the villa about noon on Saturday, but I needed one more ride to say good-bye. It's a thing that I do ... I can't really explain it. But it's got to be just me and the road and the place.

It was overcast and cool when I got to the little coffee shop in Pienza at 8 am. After a quick cappuccino and chocolate croissant, I took the road towards Montelpulciano -- a new one for me -- and soon found myself rolling along an undulating foggy ridge.

Time was short, so I didn't stay long in Montelpulciano (sad to say, I never made it into the old part of town). I took the usual quiet road to Montichiello, once again loving that winding descent.

Back at the villa, I took the pedals and saddle off of my bike, quickly showered, changed, and packed, and eight of us were in the van heading for Florence just after 11 am. We dropped Joyce, Steve, Jill, and Bobby there, and then Tom, Cathie, RandoGirl, and I drove on to Bologna. After finding our hotel and giving the van back to Silvia from BikeRentalsPlus, the four of us sat on the balcony to enjoy the views of the city ...

... and to decompress while again ensuring that our luggage was not overweight.

The Mortadello Festival was going on, so after changing for dinner we strolled around town and sampled free baloney. Oscar Meyer did not have a booth.

It started to rain, so we ducked into some shops and then headed to a restaurant. We had planned to eat about 7:30, but discovered that nobody in Bologna eats before 8 pm. Apparently, you just sit around drinking with friends until then. Little did we know that we had been doing it right all along.

After dinner, we dodged the rain back to the hotel and turned in for the night. Much as I had enjoyed the villa, I must admit that I enjoyed the hotel bed a lot ... I think that it is the nature of antique beds to creak any time that you roll over in them, but those of us that sleep lightly find that distracting. We slept in on Sunday, then went downstairs to have breakfast with Tom and Cathie before arranging a car for the airport.

From there, the trip back was a chore. Bologna to Munich to Washington-Dulles (where you have to grab your bags, go through customs, re-check your bags, and pass through security again) to Nashville. We were all pretty much brain-dead when Tom's son picked us up, and somehow RandoGirl and I made it home.

All of the Tuscany Badasses have begun planning the next trip, of course. Some have flight information for Italy, others are talking about the south of France, and I've decided that next time we need to get a BikeRentalsPlus tour guide to help us find our way. Maybe by then, RandoGirl and I will have retired and we can find some other way to get to Italy, too. Perhaps catch a ride on a cruise ship going from an American market into the Mediterranean.

If I could find a way to bike there, however ... now that would be the perfect trip!

Finally, Bici

As bleary as Saturday night had been, Sunday morning the world snapped into focus. Maybe it was randonneuring experience enabling me to better handle sleep-deprivation, but more likely it was the prospect of riding bikes to new places with good friends in near-perfect weather.

And I'm not exaggerating, here -- the weather was honestly perfect. The mornings were just cool enough for a light jacket or arm warmers, and the afternoons warmed up sufficient to make you feel great moving fast on a bicycle. The sun shone bright most of the day, with perfect clouds to make it pretty and turn the sunsets into purplish rose blossoms of prismatic spectacle.

The Badasses fell almost immediately into a rhythm. Some of us got up at sunrise, so that coffee was percolating and things moving as others arose. A group had gone out for groceries the night before, so we had enough to feed the gang. We all had lovely rooms with private baths, but spent most of our time in the many spacious common areas in which we could share stories, food, and drinks.

For our first day, most of us decided to ride together to Radicofani. This town is dominated by an ancient fort (which, of course, was on top of the hill overlooking the town), but was still a fairly flat ride from our villa.

BikeRentalsPlus had provided us with a set of routes, all of which began and ended at our villa. They gave us a wide array of options, with rides from 20 to 60 miles in length. Some routes had "only" 1000 feet of climbing while others had almost 5000 feet. The company supplied these routes on printed maps with the roads highlighted, and had also sent us links to the routes on RideWithGPS.com.

I had loaded the RideWithGPS.com files into my Garmin, but my Garmin did its usual flaky thing all week by regularly trying to reroute me onto dirt roads. We also found the maps hard to follow at first, although we soon discovered that the trick was to just look for the road going to the next town indicated. These challenges, however, set up a little bit of worry in everyone's minds on that first day, as we cautiously made our way towards Radicofani.

Soon, we were in the town. We ended up separating as we each worked our way up to the fort, and I started to ride my bike up a gravel road that turned very steep (Tom Finegan made it all the way ... the show-off). After touring the fort, we went back into town for lunch. A few of us ate at an excellent restaurant full of locals, and then we rode back to the villa in time to catch the sunset.

Monday, we all went to Castiglione del Lago, a beautiful city on the edge of Lake Trasimeno. This was a longer route, but most of it was flatter once you got away from Montichiello and neighboring Montelpulciano. We started the day by riding into Montichiello for cappuccino and pastries, then began the long climb on the twisting road out of town.

In Montelpulciano, we stalled for a bit as we tried to pick the right road -- they all headed downhill, and we didn't want to have to retrace that road -- but were soon headed in the right direction. We stopped at a small grocery in Acquaviva, where the owner was kind enough to let us use her bathroom, then rolled on east. In Castiglione del Lago, we finally caught up to Rick Weisner, who had left before us, and we eventually found the right road to the lake.

Since we needed to ride back, we didn't really have time to explore the town itself. But we did have time for a big meal at a really funky-looking restaurant overlooking the lake.

The route was an out-and-back, but Tom and Cathie Finegan had found an alternative to keep things interesting ... and hillier. Some folks went straight back, and some of us took Tom and Cathie's option. Eventually, we all ended up on the same road, and I had a blast zipping down the steep curvy road at the end. That night, we all descended upon the small restaurant in Montichiello where a few of us had dined Saturday night. Maybe it was because we had ridden more miles and felt that we earned it, but the food tasted even better.

Tuesday we had groups doing different things, with some folks going to Pienza and then Bagno Vignoni, and some of us doing a hard loop ride up to Montalcino and beyond.

Tom Finegan and I went out first, going up through Pienza and then down to San Quirico d'Orcia. There, we got confused and started down a road whose sign said "Torrenieri," with another sign that said "Strada Chiusa." It was a very nice and quiet road, however, and seemed to be going the right way. Then, we found out that "Strada Chiusa" means "Road Closed."

This, however, was a "good" closed road ... meaning, it was impassable to cars but fine for bicycles. We proceeded to use this road regularly throughout the week, since it had a fun descent followed by a quiet winding climb, and took us right into Torrenieri. From there, it was easy to turn left to get to the climb up to Montalcino, or turn right for the long straight road towards Sienna.

When Tom and I arrived in Montalcino, we found Connie and Jill at a gas station. We joined up with them to ride to town and then up and over to the descent down to Castelnuovo Dell'Abate. There, we crossed the river to begin an even longer, harder climb heading towards Castiglione d'Orcia and Bagno Vignoni. Originally, we had planned to join the other riders there, but got text messages that indicated that they had moved on to Pienza for lunch. (It turns out that RandoGirl was still there when we went by.) We headed back to the villa to eat all of the food that we could find, since we were tired and hungry by then.

That evening, we went to another restaurant in Montichiello, dining on a lovely terrace. The food was great, but the weather chilly, and we all decided that we liked "the other Montichiello place" better.

Wednesday we all wanted to go to Sienna, but that was almost 50 miles each way. Originally, I planned to bike there and back, but Tuesday's ride had pulled something in my back and I opted to just go one way and do some strategic "piazza-sitting" in town. We came up with a plan for six of us to bike to Sienna, while the rest either took cars or the van there. Four would bring bikes in the van with them to Sienna and bike back, while the six who biked there loaded their bikes onto the van and drove back.

The plan had a lot of moving parts and interdependencies, so I set a strict departure time of 8 am. We almost left on time, going the flatter way to San Quirico d'Orcia and down the "closed" road.

The roads stayed fairly flat from Torrinieri and up to Asciano, with regular bumps for each old town. The six of us had no difficulty staying together, with Steve and Joyce on the tandem often pulling into the wind and getting ahead on the downhills, while the rest of us soon closed the gaps on the climbs.

We arrived in Sienna just after noon as planned, in spite of one flat on the outskirts of town. There was a little confusion locating the right road up into the old town, but we soon found everyone at the Roma Gate. We then loaded the bikes onto the van, changed clothes, and went back to the city to eat lunch. The folks who were biking back did the same steps in reverse, and then headed out to do the route in reverse.

After lunch, some of us did some shopping and hung out in the huge Sienna piazza. Others climbed the tower there to take in the views of the ancient city. I found a bakery, and got cookies with my cappuccino.

Steve, Joyce, RandoGirl, and I got a little lost heading back to Roma Gate to meet everyone, spending a few miles walking outside of the city on the busy main road, but eventually we were all together again. Unfortunately, the four riders who had opted to bike back had taken a very wrong turn and subsequently run out of daylight, and we needed to stop in Asciano to collect them. It made for some frantic and frustrating moments, and forced us to drive some narrow dark roads for a bit with a lot of bikes on the roof, but it all ended up okay. I chalked it up to a "learning lesson" when it came to rides with that many moving parts.

Thursday, RandoGirl and I wanted some "us" time. The two of us went up to Pienza fairly early, passing an Austrian cyclist on the way. In the main piazza in front of the old church there, we found him again and joined him and his friends for coffee and pasties.

RandoGirl and I then followed the route that Tom and I had used two days earlier, passing through Quirico d'Orcia again, taking the "closed" road to Torrinieri, and then going up to Montalcino. Amazingly, at the same gas station, we once again found all of our friends. This time, we just rode into Montalcino and had lunch.

While everyone else stayed to explore Montalcino, RandoGirl and I retraced our route back to San Quirico d'Orcia. From there, we took the flatter road back towards Bagno Vignoni, then up to the villa. On the way, we stopped at a farm and bought two packages of fresh pasta, which we put into our bike bags along with the two boxes of cookies we had bought in Montalcino. This all went into the huge dinner that everyone worked to fix that night in the villa.

Friday, the plan was another ride ending in the baths at Bagno Vignoni. Connie Weisner and I decided that the baths would be more restorative if we were in pain, so we left very early and rode to Cortona. The middle part of the route was fairly flat, but both ends had a ton of climbing.

Fortunately, Connie is a good climber and didn't mind pulling me along. We stopped in town for a quick sandwich, talking to some cycling tourists who were staying there and a lady from Colombia who told us far too much about her German husband. Then, we hammered our way back to the villa, arriving as planned about 1:30, where we immediately dipped our tired legs in the cold swimming pool. Connie's husband, Rick, had just gotten back from his ride, so the three of us then piled into their rental car and went to the baths.

After a long soak, we returned to the villa and started drinking again. We knew that this was our last full day there, and the sunset was bittersweet. Somehow, we had also accumulated far too many bottles of wine, and so set ourselves to the task of ensuring that our luggage did not exceed the airline limits.

Most of us had reservations at our favorite Montichiello restaurant, while some went into Pienza for a Frank Zappa tribute band consisting of guitar and bass clarinet. Remarkably we all found something new to fall in love with. Those of us at the restaurant even had dessert -- a first there -- and decided that we had really been missing out on something.

Next Blog: Heading home ...

Veni, Vidi ...

I've been wracking my brain for months now, trying to remember when the idea first came to me, but I'm pretty sure that it was the first time that RandoGirl and I went to Tuscany.

That was 2005, and it was for a cycling trip to celebrate our 25th wedding anniversary. The tour had us biking from one small town to another with a bunch of folks from all over the U.S.A., staying at neat little hotels and eating great food and seeing all of these little out-of-the-way pieces of history and contemporary Italian life from superb cycling roads. It was one of the best vacations that we'd ever had.

But it wasn't perfect.

We decided that what would have made it even better was doing that trip with friends. The folks we met were nice, but it's just more fun to immediately be able to kick back and not have to worry about saying the wrong thing ... to be able to immediately talk openly about politics and religion and philosophy and anything else that pops into your head after five bottles of wine have vanished to who knows where. (Well, we knew where.)

Another thing that made the trip a little painful was the need to change hotels. We never stayed in any hotel for more than two days, and that makes it hard to get to know those little towns. If you enjoy dinner one night at a place, you usually can't go back for a second night. And doing laundry is a downright chore!

RandoGirl and I thought then that would have made the trip better would be to rent a house in Montalcino -- one of the prettiest of those ancient hilltop towns -- and share it with another couple. We stuck that idea into the backs of our heads and waited.

Fast-forward to 2010 and our next anniversary trip, but this time around part of the Sicilian coast. On that trip, one of the guides -- Igor Baccini -- told us that he was now heading up a new part of the tour company that would provide bicycles and routes and hook vacationers up with a house. All we had to do was pick friends that could afford the time and money, and handle the cycling.

As regular readers know, things got weird for the next few years. We moved to Florida, and then we moved back. I did a tour of the West Coast.  But, during all of that, RandoGirl and I knew that we wanted to do another Tuscany trip and we wanted to do it with friends. So, about a year ago, we began doing our research.

First, we put together a list of who we wanted to ask. We had some cycling friends whom we knew probably could not do it based on commitments at home, and some who probably could not afford it. We ended up with just over a dozen, so we asked the tour company if they had a house in that area that could handle that. They did, and we sent emails to everyone to see who was in. After moving dates around to better fit schedules, we soon had our group -- The Tuscany Badasses.

From Left, Front: Joyce and Steve Grizzle, Tom Spear, Jill Campbell-Flowers, RandoGirl, Sametta and Bill Glass
Back Row: Connie Weisner, Judy Spear, Me. Not pictured: Rick Weisner, Bobby Kent, Tom Finegan, and Cathie Allanson
The next ten months saw the group working together to make the trip happen. We all needed to ride, of course, in order to train up for the tough hills in the area. But some folks set up Italian lessons for many of us -- Sunday get-togethers that also turned into opportunities to test-taste Tuscan cuisine and share research about area attractions, all the while spending a few hours learning how to find a bathroom or ATM in a strange Italian town. Everyone made their travel arrangements, with some adding days to the front- or back-end to see Florence or Rome or even other countries. We searched the web for tips on side-trips and cycling roads and what to wear and what to buy.

And the fire grew.

Finally, October arrived and we all began making our way to Tuscany. RandoGirl and I travelled with six other Badasses on a painful series of flights to Toronto (one of us sat with the actor who played Walter Junior on Breaking Bad), Frankfurt, and then Bologna. We quickly cleared customs and found Tyler and Silva from BikeRentalsPlus.

We shambled into the van (which we were also renting), and Tyler drove us to the villa. There, the rest of the Badasses began to arrive as we unloaded the rental bikes, put our pedals and saddles on them, and adjusted things so they fit us. I even managed to squeeze in a 10-kilometer ride up to Montichiello and down to the main road. Then we got cleaned up and a few of us stumbled into town for dinner.

Next blog: The Riding Begins ...