Under the Tuscan Sun

Trip Start May 24, 2006
Trip End Jun 04, 2006

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Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Time to ride a bike! We leave Florence for a 6-day, 5-night tour of the southern and central regions of Tuscany - Siena, Chianti and Montalcino. Each region has specific tastes, types of wines, special dishes and food. We are planning to take it all in after a hard day of riding.

The first day of biking is a merely 28 kilometers (approx 18 miles). I think the idea is for the guest to become familiar with the bikes, make any adjustments and perhaps for the guides to evaluate the group and see what kind of riding each person will be capable of for the days ahead. Our goal for the day is to arrive at an ancient Roman spa site called Bagno Vignoni. This amazing site, which pre-dates the Romans back to the Etruscans, was a major waypoint along the Rome to Florence for merchants and later Christian pilgrims seeking respite along the way. I have seen a lot of European villages but this one uniquely has a huge Roman bath as its town square! Leave it to the Romans to leave their indelible march upon the place. Nearby Monte Amiata, the largest volcano in Tuscany, looms over the valley. Despite its "dormant" state, it fuels numerous thermal springs and mud baths in the area to this day. Historically, there were separate pools for the ruling class, men, women, even pack animals. The water which also powered a grist mill, flows to this day and I seize the opportunity to take a quick soak.

Lambryne is less inclined and I think is stressing a bit over the 300 meter ascent to end the ride. I see the group dynamic is kicking in with each rider trying to see who will ride with whom and what kind of pace each is comfortable with. I think that Lambryne is happy to see that she might not be the caboose after all. The van which sweeps our route does look cushy though and has air conditioning.

We lodge for the first two nights in a quintessential hilltop city-state, called Pienza, with its central plaza (piazza), large main church (duomo in major cities) and high walled perimeter. Ancient Italy was composed of highly independent city-states, fiercely independent and self-sufficient. Florence's #1 enemy for hundreds of years was Siena. Siena, with visions of sea access, sparred continuously with Pisa, and so on. This was the pre-eminent history of the peninsula for well over a millennia and the lines of territories shifted constantly with one besting another, only to be later reclaim territory or be conquered anew. Consequently, Tuscany is replete with small hilltop villages, each using the advantage of a high-walled acropolis to keep an eye out for neighboring would-be attackers. For the modern day traveler (or biker) this means beautiful vistas at the beginning (descents, hooray!) and end of the day (sometimes daunting ascent after a full day on the bike). Pienza is absolutely beautiful. A small village of 1500 people which today survives on tourism and perhaps somewhat on its local production of pecorino cheese and wines attributed to the its neighboring Montalcino (the wines being Rossi, Vino Nobile and Brunello).

PASSION POINTS - I've decided to give you some examples of the attention to detail, passion for life that is so beautiful about the Italian culture. I will call these PASSION POINTS for future posts.

1. Lambryne points out on the ride that there are roses planted at the end of each row of grapevines along the way. I stop to view and ponder this for a moment and can only conclude that this is purely for aesthetic value. These vineyards are commercial enterprises and we are looking at rows and rows each planted with a beautiful, blooming rose bush on the end. Would I see this in Napa?

2. Eight kind of chocolate gelato - I do my part to support the local vendors by sampling as much gelato as possible along the way. Could you even imagine that there would be a need to have 8 different types just of chocolate? You even order chocolate based on the percentage of cocoa added, satiating those liking a less-sweet dark chocolate taste. Chocolate with rum, chocolate with red pepper flakes, chocolate with hazelnuts. It all may seem a bit much but another example of the seriousness that they take when it comes to food. Pretty neat.

P.S. On a short tour we heard that Pienza and the nearby area, is the site where portions of the films, The English Patient and Gladiator, were filmed. Looking around, I have no doubt this is true.
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