Friday, December 24, 2010

Christmas Eve in the Rain

After 2 beautiful days of snow that left Florentines either awestruck or traffic-stuck, the umbrellas came back out, returning Florence to it's usual damp seasonal weather, and rain. But it didn't seem to matter. The city was just as vibrant and the Christmas buzz shone through. The longer I live here, the more I am beginning to appreciate the rain in Florence. Not only does it add a feeling of mystery and antiquity as I walk through the streets under a serious umbrella, but it changes the sound of the cathedrals' bells.

The clouds in Florence hang very low and when the bells chime, the sound bounces back and forth between the clouds, eventually getting literally stuck in the clouds, creating longer and deeper echoes, making the resonance last longer, adding more dimension and solemnity to the sound. You can tell if it's a cloudy day without even knowing it, just by listening to the bells.

Rain is a part of the personality of Florence and I am finally learing how to adapt to it and not allow it to stop me from my normal buying a collection of serious umbrellas and never leaving home without one! You can tell who are the native Florentines because they can ride a bicycle with one child in the front, another in the back, and hold an umbrella in one hand while navigating the narrow streets, and still come out of it alive. I won't feel like I have earned my Florenting badge of honor until I can pass a similar test.

Waking up on Christmas Eve morning I opened my windows to see a heavy, dense layer of grey-white clouds looming above the Duomo. The bricks of the duomo were brown instead of orange, being soaked from the rain. I was looking forward to spending the day doing last minute shopping, enjoying the spirit at the market and just taking in all the energy and anticipation for the day to come. I decided to start my day by walking up to the top of the Duomo's bell tower to observe the greatness of my city from far above. It was as spectacular as ever, even in the rain.

I ended the day on an equally high note, attending an exceptional Christmas Concert at Teatro Verdi, where the Orchestra della Toscana, under the direction of Giuliano Carella, performed Puccini's Messa di Gloria complete with a tenor, baritone, 2 sopranos and the entire Maggio Musicale Chorus. This was one of Puccini's early religious works that I had never seen or heard before and was deeply moved by its beauty and the perfection of its execution. It was a glorious prelude to Christmas.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Christmas Shopping

This is the third and possibly last day to experience the rare occasion of Florence in the snow. Just in time to enjoy Christmas shopping in Florence, what a blessing!

Strolling down Via Gioberti, I suddenly heard the sound of trumpets playing in the distance. At once, there appeared a small brass band of men marching down the street, dressed in red, filling the air with music! When I asked who they were, I was told that they are just local friends having a good time together! How much I love living in Florence. So rich and full of surprises!

Sunday, December 19, 2010

When Are You Coming Back to Visit?

The answer, my friends, is that I don't know. I thought that by now I would have made plans to return to the U.S. for the holidays. I am struggling to understand why I am not feeling this desire. Why am I not compelled to go home to New York for Christmas, after living and working there for 50 years? .

And why have I not yet booked a flight to California? To reunite with friends, to see the coast, to ride my bike, to feel the sun, to actually drive a car? To escape the cold. To maybe go to the gym? To perhaps lose those few pounds that have insidiously accumulated from an overdose of olive oil, wine, salami, bollito misto, and that intoxicating just-baked Tuscan bread that I ritualistically buy from the forno next door.
I can only attribute my procrastination to this feeling of being content and at home in Florence. When I look at my Christmas tree and the view of the Duomo out my window, I feel the magic that has begged me to spend Christmas right here in Florence.

I know that one day I'll just wake up and book a reservation. But it hasn't happened yet. And perhaps I'm a little worried that maybe it should. Because my airline ticket has now expired.

But what about that Hammer Gel, those Powerbars, that cold cream, those vitamins and anti-persperant that I cannot find here? And the soft contact lenses and dental bleach that I want to stock up on? I got nervous last year when my supply started running out, and didn't think I would survive Italy without going back to stock up on those "necessities".

And what about all my "stuff"? The stuff of a lifetime that I whittled down to a mere storage room in San Clemente? The remains of things that were so desperately important to me.

I can't seem to detach myself from Florence! I love the lifestyle here, from my morning vegetable market expedition, to buying buttons at the button store, to buying pens at the pen store, paper at the paper store, salami at the salumeria, chicken at the polleria, and knives at the coltelleria. I have my carpenter, my shoe maker, my macelleria, my lavanderia, my pasticerria, my pizzeria, my fioraio, my farmacia, my gelateria, my mesticheria, my salumeria, all within a pleasant pedal or a short walk from my piazza. I love that I have the opera and 3 theater houses within a 5 minute glorious walk away. I love that all the shops that I frequent are owned and operated by families who have owned them for generations. I'm even beginning to love carrying a serious umbrella and getting to know Florence in the rain.

Stopping into a church for a quick prayer, getting engaged in a conversation with a macellaio trying to convince me that Tuscan soprassata is better than Pugliesi soprassata because it is more fatty and morbido. Standing on 2 different lines for an hour at the post office only to have the both numbers called at the same time. I can live with that...I can even laugh at that. But I don't miss frozen, prepared foods. Above all I do not miss mega superstores like COSTCO. I love being able to buy a pizza at 1 o'clock in the morning and a cappucino as the sun rises, right outside my door. On the other hand, I would like not to have my showerhead sticking off my bathroom wall and would love to find a worthy dentist. Tradeoffs!

I love hanging my laundry out to dry, it makes me feel so loyal to my wash and so proudly domesticated! I like walking up 56 steps in a 500 year old renaissance building into my apartment, the former studio of the aritist Pietro Annigoni.....who has a whole museum devoted to his art. It was here in my apartment that he painted the masterpiece portraits of his career. My home feels like a very special place.

I get a kick out of Franco who will fix the front light on my bike for either a Euro or a kiss. He's got a hell of alot of testosterone for a 70 year old man. And Giuseppe the shoemaker who wants to make love to my feet and Giovanni the florist who won't give up on asking me for a "date" (in my apartment, mind you). Priceless stuff! Now if only one of them were my age, didn't smoke and were relatively healthy !

So my friends, these are a couple of the things that keep me here in Florence. I love my friends and cannot wait to hug my brother, my sisters, Aunt Marion and my nephews. I am sure that one day I will wake up and make that reservation. But for now I cannot imagine leaving Florence.

Another Day of Florence in the Snow!

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Concert at Palazzo Vecchio

Living smack in the middle of Florence's mecca of magestic cathedrals, I awake each morning to a divine, melodious symphony of chiming church bells enthusiastically beckoning me to rise. But this morning was special because as the bells resounded I knew today Florence would be at its best, covered by a mystical coat of snow, just waiting to surprise me with endless sensual delights.

This ended up being a day of unequalled splendor that could never have been planned! It started with the divine opus of church bells and concluded with a grand finale concert conducted by the master Domenico Pierini in the breathtaking Salone dei Cinquecento of the Palazzo Vecchio.

I started the day on an escapade to explore Florence's winter wonderland in my much appreciated New York snowboots, to experience this extraordinary moment of snow before it melts away. From the snowboarders gliding down the hill of Piazzale Michelangelo, to the snow-laden bridges of the Arno, the city was magnificent. I snapped uncountable photos and marveled in these fleeting moments of capturing so many precious and rare perspectives of my city.

During the day I paused in several places to warm up. First on the rooftop of Rinascente to warm my tummy with a cioccolata calda (100% pure melted hot chocolate) and later as I was passing by Palazzo Strozzi, I decided this would be the perfect time to see the Bronzino exhibit, which revealed to me another great master of Renaissance art. I then stopped at my favorite lunch place for a panino finocchiona.

After a long day of exploration and appreciation for my city, I remembered that that there was to be a concert at Palazzo Vecchio for which I had tried to get tickets several times. However, nobody, including the palace's curators knew how to get tickets! I entered the ticket office at 6:20 PM, expecting that the concert would be sold out. However, to my surprise, I was told to simply enter, no ticket was necessary...and that the concert would be starting in only 10 minutes. Lucky me! What a dramatic climax to an already perfect gift of a day!

Friday, December 17, 2010

More of My Snow Videos From Today!

Snow in Florence!!!

It was a blessing to wake up to the splendid miracle of Florence under a veil of snow and to spend a glorious day marveling at its endless wonders. Every single day Florence finds another mind-blowing reason to keep me here. I cannot imagine ever leaving Florence.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Florence Prepares for Christmas

The Duomo dazzled the eyes and hearts of the Florentine community tonight as Mayor Renzi lit the Duomo's first-ever Christmas tree, on this feast day of the Immaculate Conception. Preceding the lighting ceremony were festivities and music and the spectacluar traditional flag throwing parade with noble Florentine families clad in medieval costumes. Children and elders alike were awestruck by the spectacle. It was quite an emotional ceremony that brought tears to my eyes.

Florence is alive with Christmas fairs and concerts, musicians are in the streets playing violins and accordions. Singers burst out into song unexpectedly, the smell of smoky chestnuts fills the air and lights are strung all throughout the city, making Florence more stunning than ever.

Coming home from the festivities I bought a cute Charlie Brown Christmas tree and started shopping for ornaments and a presepie among the cheery crowds.

After two years of settling in, I am really feeling and living the rhythm of the holiday season, rejeuvanating some old traditions and learning and adopting some new ones.

Things i did last week

I am stuck on Florence. Drunk on her. So rather than waste more time, here's a snap shot of last week's activities that I didn't write about yet. So here goes....while I have the opportunity. No theme for this blog entry. I am overflowing with things to record......for myself....and for whomever wants to read them. Some of the magical moments of the past 10 or so days: Strolling the narrow streets that are all dressed up and sparkling with lights, smelling the olive wood burning from the pizza oven across the street, everyone smiling big smiles, scarves, mittens, vapor rising from my breath, ears freezing, buying a cutie Christmas tree and ornaments....and a presepi nativity scene with a hundred little figurines!! Deciding which panettone to buy, and finally......buying a espresso machine! Settling in......nesting.....buying new curtains, a new sofa, a new hunting for a flat-screen TV. The merchants and shoppers look happier than last year! The city is alive and brilliant and spilling with emotion and passion. I am finally settling down after 2 years of slow adaptation....I am redecorating my way and signed a long term contract for my apartment. The Christmas fair at Santa Croce was delightful this year....For the first time I went to Teatro Verdi, a 19th century theater 2 blocks from my house to see a rockin' Gospel Concert. I discovered the best finnochiona in Florence in Falciani. Every day the sweet sound of church bells competes with motorini, amblulences in a bizarre but unique harmony. I discovered a very special Thursday night Mass at Badia Fiorentina. I saw performances of Tosca and La Forza del Destino at Teatro Comunale....and often visit the church where Dante met Beatrice...NEVER having my camera at the right time! Speaking better Italian all the time! Had a pizza reunion with my bike team a few days ago...making friends with Michele from Minneapolis.....spending last Saturday taking Rob Valinoti, (a good friend from New York) on a whirlwind tour of Florence....climbing the bell tower in the rain, a terrific lunch at Il Giova....enjoying my other favorite lunch spots…Rocco’s at Mercato Sant'Ambrogio, Antico Vinaio, Antico Noe....rediscovering carne bollito after 50 years! Ponies on the street, horse drawn carriages near my house, and to top it bike team came in 3rd place this year.....and won a couple of trophies....and a prosciutto. Damn!

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Marathon and Opera

Tomorrow I will be joining thousands of spectators to observe the Florence marathon...for me, the third time. I wish I were a runner. Just walking and riding my bike through the streets of Florence is intoxicating, I can only imagine what it must be like to have the whole city closed to traffic and thousands of people routing you on. Last year's marathon was sensational and I was able to ride my bike through side streets to keep a little ahead of the action, and got to see the best of it. I hope I can do that again tomorrow, although the prevision is for rain.
I am so proud of my city. Mayor Renzi is a dynamo, a doer and little by little he is transforming the city in many ways, promoting cultural, social, athletic, and educational events throughout Florence and garnering outside support to heighten the pride of its constituents and improve its image and economy. He has played a strong part in promoting the marathon since his election, and he will be participating as a runner too.....I hope to spot him!! The marathon is just one of the many events that is contributing to the growing international appeal of Florence over the past year. In spite of this being our rainy season, it is a perfect time of year for a, crisp, with many outdoor events happening.

This year the marathon is attracting over 10.000 participants who will be starting high above the city at Piazzale Michelangelo and running along the streets of the Medici to finish at Piazza Santa Croce where renowned Renaissance masters such as Galileo, Machiavelli and Michaelangelo are buried in the Cathedral....a very fitting backdrop to this electric event. I am psyched to see this exhilirating display of energy which, with the backdrop of Florence's great monuments, is truly a great tribute to this great city.

Today, in preparation for the Marathon, Florence was especially buzzed and the streets were packed with tomorrow's athletes, including 3,000 of which are coming in from other countries. You can tell who are the tourists and who are the runners...they dress more sporty (which means no high heels) and have a rhythm in their gate....they are pumped for tomorrow and the anticipation can be felt all throughout the city.

There were helicopters flying low over Florence today buzzing around all day, either preparing for the marathon or surveilling a student protest at the duomo, which was very interesting and informative to observe. All the hotels are booked and restaurants are prepared to feed the crowds with their special pasta carbo-loading menus today. I am looking forward to following the marathon along the side streets on my bike tomorrow, although rain is predicted, and I still haven't mastered the art of carrying an umbrella in one hand while handling the bike with the other.

Tomorrow also marks the beginning of my opera season subscription, which after cycling, is my number 2 passion, in search for which I have traveled to many countries over the past 20 years as an avid follower who can never get enough. Opera and cycling have their respective seasons in perfect harmony. Both are spiritual sources of energy and enrichment for my spirit. Tomorrow's opera is La Forza del Destino one of my favorite Verdi operas. It makes me think of how we get to our destiny by way of the sometimes conflicting powers of nature, searching, hard work, desire, struggle accident. Somehow the right combination of these elements brought me here to Florence, where I am peaceful and happy.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Truffled Out

I am suffering from an apparent truffle overdose.
As the autumn truffle season approaches a crescendo, Florentines are in a frenzy to lay their hands on the best of the costly culinary crop. Merchants are raising the stakes for these highly coveted parasites as people hunt them down more furiously than did the original dogs and pigs. Even those of us who are reluctant to spend a small fortune on this addictive seductive fungus are giving in to the temptation. Including me.
I’ve recently learned to simultaneously love and hate these brutally ugly creatures. In the past 10 days I‘ve engaged in the ultimate macho truffle challenge, having eaten ad nauseum this precious food in every conceivable culinary concoction…both black and white…accompanying tagliatelle and risotto, shaved on quail eggs (my favorite), mashed into a pâté, sliced on carpaccio, stuffed in ravioli, whipped inside a soufflé, sprinkled on paper-thin raw scallops and shaved on top of a mega Tuscan beef burger. I am up to my ears eating truffled pecorino, truffled sausage, truffled salami, chocolate truffles, and even truffle infused gelato.

I was invited on a few recent occasions to dine at friends’ houses who needed to consume these potholed, grotesque looking creatures before they self destructed. They must be eaten immediately or they die an ugly death.

Hopelessly afflicted by truffle fever, I reciprocated by buying a tartufo bianco from San Miniato and a tartufo nero pregiato from Norcia at San Lorenzo. The precious diamonds were meticulously jarred, wrapped twice and then boxed. Would I make it home without being accosted? Flinging my scarf around my face like an outlaw, I hid the prized package under my coat and escaped undercover in case someone having observed the transaction would follow me home. (It didn’t occur to me until later that this could be a new strategy to meet my ultimate Italian amore.)

After preparing my precious find with some friends in 3 different ways, I decidedly inhaled my last gluttonous truffle tasting for the year. It is now coming out of my ears, it is in my sweat, and somehow I cannot get the smell out of my apartment. After preparing that pleasingly pungent microscopic morsel of white truffle that almost broke the bank, my whole house reeks of truffles. The exquisite aroma initially provoked an orgasmic olfactory experience on the first night, but even two days after its consumation, I nearly keeled over from the scent as I entered my apartment this evening. I opened all the windows, turned off the heat and prayed that the smell would vanish in time to prevent me from seeking revenge with a can of marsiglia-scented air freshener.

Too much of a good thing is not good. Thank God truffle season comes only once a year. All the better to anticipate, to appreciate and to indulge.

Friday, November 19, 2010

A Green Day in Florence

Last Saturday, Florence woke up to behold an extraordinary spectacle at Piazza del Duomo. Here, a magnificent carpet of lush, fragrant green grass was sprawled on top of the dark cold stone ground, transforming the piazza overnight from a bustling urban observation deck into a lush green oasis. This one-day event was organized to commemorate the 4th Century Miracle of San Zenobi, kicking-off the first "International Week on Cultural Heritage and Landscape" hosted in Florence.

Walking on the grass-swept meadowland bedecking the piazza was a rare opportunity to feel and smell the soft earthy grass beneath my feet instead of the usual hard musty stone. The whole city lingered, appreciating a fleeting moment in time that would last for only hours. Children played, elders were pushed in their wheelchairs, people strolled and laughed. Mayor Renzi was there hanging with the people, and a historical flag-throwing event followed. The piazza's transformation transformed the very mood of Florence. Every Florentine walked proud today.

This spectacle was just one of 100+ cultural exhibitions, concerts, lectures, films, tours, workshops, wine and gastronomic events that occurred here this past week in various venues all over Florence. The program was packed with events, rendering the city a global forum of art and culture, promoting “international economic and social development through appreciation of our artistic and cultural heritage”.

During the week-long conference, a new copy of Michelangelo’s David was exhibited in various spots in Florence, including the duomo, a photo of which I captured in the evening. You can faintly detect the new moon rising by the side of the Duomo. This manifestation recalled the 1504 debate among Florentines as to where the David should be placed. Three copies later the debate still goes on, with Rome being the latest to argue its rights to possess this majestic Florentine icon.
I spent much of the week following the activities through its museums, bookstores, libraries and piazzas. I particularly enjoyed a special tour of the Palazzo Strozzi Sacrati, one of the lesser-known treasures of Florence as well as seeing the replica of Loggia dei Lanzi being constructed in Palazzo Vecchio.
After living in Florence for 2 years, I fall more and more in love with this city every single day.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

My Town Hall

Catching the moon rising over Palazzo Vecchio tonight while taking a two-wheeled evening passeggiata was a glorious moment which captured a plethora of emotions in a single vision. Irrespective of how often I pass through the piazza I am always struck by overwhelming feelings of passion, pride and gratitude. Tonight these sentiments overflowed in the form of joyous tears.

It was here in Palazzo Vecchio that one year ago I was ceremoniously presented with my official Florentine residency acknowledging my final acceptance into the Florentine community shortly after being granted my Italian citizenship through "ius sanguinis". (Latin for the "right of blood".)

For this reason I feel a very deep-rooted connection with the Palazzo. This magnificent palace, world renowned as a historic bastion of political power, is my town hall. It is where my new life in Florence was officially cannonized, and where my dreams have become reality.

I am constantly drawn here, whether to delve more deeply into the Palazzo's art, history, to tour its magnificent interior, or just while strolling around, to say hello and connect with the power and appreciation that it fires up in me.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Exploring Pecorino and Brunello Land

This weekend I discovered the rich wonderland of the Colle Senese, the southern Tuscan rolling hills of the Siena countryside, while scouting out some spectacular roads for a new 2011 bike tour.

Discovering the infinite bounty and diverse landscapes of Tuscany is an endless experience. While venturing more deeply into southern Tuscany beyond the classic Chianti countryside, I saw the topography of the landscape and its indigenous gastronomic resources gradually change character and form.

In this area of Tuscany, the vineyards are sloped gracefully along rolling hills that reach deep into the visual distance, with the stark contrast of the white winter wheat fields acting as a stunning backdrop to the elegant, regal cypress trees that accentuate the ridges. The gradual long rolling hills provide perpetual long-distance views all the way to the Appenines.

Dramatically different from the Chianti region, its views and terrain are all the more mystical, dreamy and lunar-like. The roads are virtually traffic-free, smooth and pristine. From the silence and tranquility of the environment and the sheer lack of human presence on the roads, it feels like an undiscovered, virgin land, yet this is where the Via Cassia was forged thousands of years ago, rich in Etruscan, Roman, medieval and Renaissance history. This dreamy territory boasts some of Tuscany's most precious jewel towns, Montalcino, Pienza, Montepulciano and Cortona. It is the perfect cycling haven, rich in medieval and Renaisance treasures, providing truly gutteral opportunities to feel and taste the land through its fine Brunello and Vino Nobile wines and its "cacio", pecorino cheeses.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Trip Advisor Reviews

........................ ...
"With Barbara Barrett as our tour guide my heart and soul were singing and dancing as we rode our bikes through Chianti. Barbara was an excellent bike guide as well as wine and olive oil tour guide. She is very passionate, knowedgeable and inspiring. The bike ride takes you through the hills of Tuscany, through small villages and to an amazing winery/olive oil factory where we were fed delicious food and tasted local wine. Our accomodations were lovely and once again we were served local food, fresh veggies and pasta, as well drinking the local wines. We were lucky and on the second day as we entered Panzano there was a Sagra delle Maccellerie (Butcher shop festival). We also biked through Greve and a few other villages. This was one of the high points of my trip to Italy. I will sign up for this tour again!!!

Oct 28, 2010
“Amazing countryside, a fantastic way to see Tuscany. We had a wonderful day starting out in Florence, taking the van to the start of the bike tour and riding in the countryside to the winery. A few stops along the way to take many photos. The lunch was fantastic and the ride back, breathtaking. Our guide Barbara was wonderful. Very knowledgeable of the area. She also encouraged us to make it up all the hills and enjoy the scenery along the way. THANKS Barbara and I Bike Italy for a wonderful day I will never forget!!" Peggy and Sergio

Oct 8, 2010
“A wonderful day in wine country. Myself and two girlfriends took an Italian girls getaway in August and this was by far my favorite part of the trip. We met I Bike Italy in Florence and were shuttled a short distance to the Tuscan countryside for our adventure. Barbara who was our guide was truly amazing. Her passion and knowledge for the area and cycling made for a great ride. The bikes were well kept and new. They provide handy bike bags for cameras and a few Euro for the gelato you'll buy toward the end of the trip. The views were indescribable, I found myself wanting to stop every few minutes to snap another shot, and was rarely rushed- this is a bit of a strenuous uphill ride, but is taken slowly.Lunch and wine was delicious and the winery/olive oil tour was informative. Don't fret- you can buy wine and the van will take it back for you.I would highly recommend I Bike Italy to anyone I know staying in Florence. A great day spent in a beautiful setting!"

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Revelling in the Raccolta

The olive harvest was in action all over Tuscany yesterday. We rode through a wonderland of olive groves being picked by hand, mostly very old women and men laboring on ladders in the trees. We stopped and shared the experience with Anna, in Pisignano, who has worked on her land cultivating and harvesting olives for 69 years.

After a couple of hours riding through the live, endless harvest, we arrived at Le Corti wine estate where I gave the olive oil tour while the cold press was in action, which only happens for one month per year. For lunch we tasted the olio nuovo, and savored the bright green, robust and spicy flavor. We then headed back, only to see another vision....tons of grappa being lifted by a crane to be delivered to the distillery. A memorable day.

Sunday is the last day of the bike tour season. My company will host a dinner for all associates to bid farewell until we start again in March. While I am sorry to see it go, I am looking forward to devoting my complete attention on living and loving my life right here in Florence.

Monday, October 25, 2010

First Day of the Raccolta

The olive harvest in Tuscany has begun
As I woke up this morning to the sound of pounding rain and thunder, I rushed to the window to see if I had any clothes hanging on the clothesline. Luckily I didn't. The next thought was "Will today's cyclists show up or back out due to the bad weather?" I called the office, and five people were reserved, but would they want to ride in the rain? Arriving soaked at the starting point, I hoped I would have a group. I was already wet, but was geared up and ready to ride. Of the five people reserved on the tour, four backed out. Doug from Australia and I started out riding in the pouring rain through puddles of water and mud, not knowing what wonders the day had in store for us.

Tuscany's drama never fails to excite. Even in the rain Tuscany showed herself off, flaunting her intense colors, bragging outloud with mysterious sounds, smells, sensations. As heaven would have it, the rain stopped, allowing us to see more clearly into the olive groves, and revealing that the raccolta has begun! The harvest of the olives is weather-dependent and you never know exactly when it will happen. Well, it happened today!

When we arrived at the winery I took Doug for a tour of the wine cellars where the smell of fermenting grapes has reached the height of its intensity, intoxicating us just by inhaling the fumes. The grapes had just finished their first fermenation and the skins and seeds were there in front of our eyes being sent off to the grappa distillery.

But the highlight of the day was when we moved from the bottling room to the frantoio (which is where the olive oil is produced) where the smell of extra virgin olive oil filled the air. They were "test pressing" the very first olives of the harvest, and at lunch we were the very first guests to taste the new olive oil....unfiltered, the olives were just pressed 3 hours before!
I touched the sacred bottle with great respect. I gently poured the liquid gold onto a piece of Tuscan bread, amd could not believe the bright green color that came from the bottle, it almost looked fake. I was startled. Newborn, only hours old, extra virgin olive oil. It was one of life's exquisite moments.

We celebrated a very special day in Tuscany.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Hide and Seek

As the cycling season starts to slow down, my bike tours are starting to slow down too. The unpredicatability of the weather at this time of the year discourages travelers and cyclotourists who don't want to risk the chance of being rained out or too cold. But for the frequent cyclist or outdoorsman, it is precisely this uncertainty that allows us to discover the unique and thrilling moments and special secrets of Tuscany that others don't venture to see.
This is the first weekend since July that I am not working a bike tour, giving me the opportunity today to explore some backroads that I haven't seen and to participate in a fundraising race with my team tomorrow. I have not rode with my team in a long time, and can't wait to reunite with them.
Today I wore some extra layers and rode up to Bvigliano with the usual anticipation of uncovering new surprises that await me on the road. When riding alone, the silence invites me to listen to Tuscany as she talks to me in mysterious whispers. She lures me to slow down and breathe deep through my nose to smell what's happening in the air. She russels the branches to attract my attention to a team of boar hunters deep in the woods standing silent and still. She sends out a butterfly for my eyes to follow into the olive groves to see a little old man harvesting olives from the trees on his land.
It's like Tuscany is playing "Hide and Seek" with me. She only allows me to discover her hidden treasures if I slow down, immerse myself in her silence, seek and listen. If I had been racing my bike down the descent out of Bvigliano, I would never have seen this cow on the side of the road. There are countless treasures buried deep into Tuscany's land just waiting to be discovered by those who want to slow down , feel, listen, and seek beauty in the simple things. To me, this is what living in Italy is all about.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Riding into the Raccolta

Just when I thought the party was over and that the cycling season was coming to a dead end, we were surprised with a sunny, crisp day out of heaven. The focus in Tuscany now is the raccolta, which translated literally, means "the collection", specifically, the collection or the harvest of olives. It is happening all around us. The grapevines have moved backstage, setting themselves up as the golden background, and it's the olive trees who are now showing off like a million dancers moving up front to grab all the attention. The olive trees are saying to the grapevines "It is now our turn." During the next few weeks another spectacular "live show" will unfold and come alive in front of our eyes. I feel so blessed every day that I spend marveling at the wonders of Tuscany as seen on a bike, with groups of people as passionate and endearing as the group that I guided today.
This was a group from the U.S. and Canada, and included two honeymooning couples who always add something special to our tours. Because the weather was so fine, we were able to really enjoy our stops to walk through the olive groves and to admire and photograph the crisp landscapes of the Tuscan countryside.
In the next few weeks I will be learning and living the raccolta. Soon we will begin to see the nets spreading out under the trees! Another great event to share with my bike tour groups.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Hard to Say Arrivederci

It is with mixed emotions that I have to say arrivederci to my clients after spending a weekend hosting and guiding their two-wheel touring experience through Tuscany. Spending 5 hours in the saddle together every day, being their coach, introducing them to Tuscan culture, hosting their meals, pouring and explaining their wines, confronting unexpected weather conditions together, responding to their strengths and weaknesses and being responsible as much for their safety as for their memories, seems like a big responsibility. Doing it so naturally and successfully while enjoying every single second of it is an enduring reward. Hearing people say that they never expected such a culturally diverse endorphic experience, seeing them departing, enriched through new insights and awakenings, gives me the sense that I have touched, although for only a moment in time, someone's life in a significant way.

Because my weekend tour groups are manageably small, it is easy to influence and tweak the group dynamic that evolves in the saddle, at the dining table, or over a gelato, to make it work just right. Strangers from different parts of the globe connect with each other and before you know it, we are interacting and feeding on each other's energy like a team in tandem, laughing like old time friends, and watching out for each other.

This weekend Peter and Joanne from Los Angeles and Kate from Brisbane were great company. None of them were serious cyclists, and they were not prepared to face the rain that poured on us as the sky opened up after lunch. Cold and soaked to the skin, they nevertheless raved about the beauty in the landscape while on the bike and during dinner. They were good sports.

After arriving at our villa, showering and meeting over a very fine Tuscan dinner, the sky opened up again and by morning it was damp, dark and cold. We reached Panzano and spent time at the outdoor market, then headed on to Spedaluzzo where we lunched at La Cantinetta in a warm cozy room next to a fireplace that filled the air with a quintessential autumn atmosphere, where the table looked out on a splendid vista of the Verrazzano vineyards for miles in the distance. I can still smell the aroma of the wood burning while crackling furiously in the open stone fireplace.

What a splendid surpise awaited us after lunch. The sun broke out, bringing Tuscany into sharp focus, and displaying all the contrasting colors of autumn. To top it off, when we arrived in Impruneta, there was yet another festival going on in the town, celebrating the feast day of Saint Luca, the patron saint of Impruneta. Just seems like you can never ride too far in Tuscany without catching an unexpected feast, party or celebration of some sort.

Selecting a photo from a weekend's worth of stellar Tuscan moments is impossible, but this photo was one of my favorites because it is a photo I took on the road while I asked my group to go ahead (so that I could give them some space to ride at their own pace). I was struck by the contrast of the red color of the ivy against the stone facade and the dark cypress standing tall, flanking the entry. The photo seems to reflect the feeling of this weekend's weather, which was wet and crisp and autumn.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Riding with Sandy from Israel

Two weeks ago I led a tour for Sandy, a triathlete from Israel who was attending a business conference in Florence. I just received some photos from her, which reminded me of the pleasant, vigorous day we spent together riding through Tuscany. Sandy pre-arranged her bike rental and requested a private guide through the local bike store who also sponsors my team. She connected with me while she was still in Israel. I planned an 80k tour for her, based on what I learned of her skills and fitness, and hoped for the best.

We clicked well with each other. Being around the same age, and Sandy having lived for some time on the Upper East Side, we had alot to talk about. Our riding skills, energy and endurance levels were well synched, and we share a passion for cycling and adventure. That made it all the more fun!

This ride ended up being just perfect because we combined some real hard work and climbing with fascinating stops along the way. I pushed her just enough to make her feel like she earned her gelato in Panzano. It is infinitely gratifying to hear the "oohs and aahs" behind me while passing through this historically rich, endlessly changing landscape. Sandy went home happy and we have continued to keep in touch.

It was more than just a bike ride because I got to know alot about Sandy in a short amount of time. People are very open and honest when they are on vacation, because they are away from their daily responsibilities, looking at the world in a different way.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

A Quick Escape

Today is my day off from leading tours this week, so this is a time that I can take for myself to catch up on chores and take a solo ride to my favorite place, the Convent of Monte Senario.

The convent and church is uniquely situated on a towering hill commanding a daunting position in the northern Tuscan countryside. The summit is visible on the horizon 12 miles in the distance as you approach it along the quiet winding vineyard-laced road from Fiesole. From the distance it seems like a vision from a fairy tale. The drama builds as I get closer and closer.

The ride takes me to cooler elevations where chestnut trees, wildflowers and blackberries thrive. Where pine and cypress trees sway in the breeze. The hilltop convent is approached on a long steep road that assaults the slope and eventually becomes a dark and dense pine forest where rays of sunlight send their beams through the trees making it look like a silent, spiritual wonderland. The ride is like a trip to heaven.
There is never traffic on the road, only splendid vistas, chirping birds, butterflies, bales of hay, little farmhouses with roosters cock-a-doodling. Where you hear, see and smell only nature and your soul. The convent is so isolated, so unapproachable due to the long steep climb that leads to it, making it easy to understand why the monks would want to settle here.

Soon it will be too cold to ride up to Monte Senario. Because of its altitude it gets icy much earlier than the southern Chianti hills. So, I am now taking every possible opportunity to visit my sacred place before the winter settles in.

Monday, October 11, 2010

The Last of the Harvest

Every single day in Tuscany offers a new sight, a new activity, a new perspective to behold. There are never two days that the landscape looks the same. The dynamic life cycle of Tuscany is visually and sensually exciting.

As I begin each bike tour, I always hope that there will be something special to show my clients, and it never fails. Today, even though the sky was cloudy and the vineyards were void of grapes, the yellow and brown colors of autumn presented a striking contrast against the silvery olive trees and the dark green cypress, making the landscape a visual delight. As the grapes disappear, the olives grow larger and larger. Soon the olive harvest will take place. As one activity ends, the next one begins.

Our arrival today at Villa Le Corti was indeed a tremendous surprise. We witnessed perhaps the very last of the harvest activities, as we watched the last truckloads of grapes being dumped into the de-stemming machines. It was a great experience for all to watch, and it made my wine cellar tour more relevant and real for all.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Special Visits From Afar

Having friends from the U.S. make a special trip to visit me in Florence is a thrilling way for me to reconnect with people that I love, and to reignite our friendships under the backdrop of fantastic Florence. It is thrilling to anticipate their hugs and their beaming smiles upon their arrival from their trains or planes.
It is such a treat to share moments with them when they are high on their travels and open minded to all the possibilities. Whipping up a simple Tuscan dinner and taking them to special off-the-beaten-track places that they would never otherwise have discovered, is special.
Last week my girlfriend Alessia from San Diego and her family (pictured above) came up to Florence to spend a day with me after spending a week sailing in the Mediterranean. We enjoyed reuniting over dinner. It was hard to say goodbye to her and her family as they embarked back to Naples.
One of the questions that my friends always ask me when they visit me here is "Do you think you will really stay forever?" And each time I answer "yes" with greater emphasis and conviction.
Yesterday Sheryl my dear friend from San Diego arrived and is spending a week with me. She rented a city bike and I took her for a ride to see the lay of the land. We stopped for a quick lunch at my favorite local pizzicheria where we sat on stools outside, eating a panino and a glass of Chianti, listening to the buzz of Florentines laughing and chatting about politics and work. Eugenio, the barrista now knows me and my favorite wines, so it has become a familiar place for me. Florence's close-knit community has become my home and it is always more evident when bumping into vendors and neighbors and merchants on the street who know me now by name. Such fun sharing my neighborhood with others! It makes them feel at home too, not like tourists!
Then we did more of the town and instead of having a formal dinner, we "aperitivo hopped" from one wine bar to another, having a prosecco and appetizers here and there, sampling the wines and hot spots of the night. After a Campari and soda, we traded in our bikes for some sleep.
The highlight of Sheryl's trip is coming up this weekend. Sheryl has signed up for the 2 day weekend bicycle tour that I am guiding for I Bike Italy.
I am so delighted that we have again been blessed with an extended summer. Yesterday it was sunny and 70 and this weekend promises to be the same. We are looking forward to a fantastic bike tour together! I have 4 more clients joining us, a perfect sized group. Looking forward to a weekend of adventure, seeing Tuscany again through several new eyes!

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Indian Summer Weekend

Mother nature surprised us this weekend with unseasonably warm weather, giving us another shot at summer riding. My group and I enjoyed lunch and a winery tour at Villa Le Corti . The gardens were in full splendor. We spent the night in Panzano at Villa Boscorotundo, a cozy restored villa set among the hills and vineyards of Chianti.

Adding to the excitement of the weekend was the opportunity to see portions of the Italian retro-cycling event L'Eroica, a nostalgic race celebrating the heros of Italian cycling. This race, which is the Italian equivalent of Paris-Rubais (gravel roads and all) takes place in the heart of Chianti and attracts participants from all over the world. Race rules require the use of pre-1987 vintage race bikes with downtube shifters and toe clips and all participants wear retro cycling attire. It is a flashback in time.

Panzano's piazza was buzzing with cyclists and spectators, wine and cheese merchants distributing free samples, and the Sunday market was alive and busy as usual. Passing through Panzano is never complete without stopping in to see the world famous butcher, Dario Cecchini offering a welcoming assortment of samples of his salamis, crostinis and wine and watching him passionately carving gigantic cuts of Bistecca Fiorentina. Sometimes while leading these tours I cannot figure out whether I'm a client or a tour leader.....I have to resist taking photos most of the time, because I am on "the job", but sometimes I sneak one in.

We stopped in Greve, where an artisnal fair was taking place, with sculptors chipping away at pietra serena, women crocheting curtains and doilies, artisans making silver jewelry and artists painting scenes of the Tuscan countryside. After our climb to Spedaluzzo we lunched at Da Padellina in Strada and rode back through Impruneta to end a perfect weekend tour.

It is hard to part with my groups after sharing such memorable moments together. Sometimes they tell me their life secrets while sharing conversation in the saddle. We always promise to keep in touch and we take each other's e-mail addresses. But then life goes on, people return to their real lives, and I live on as a part of their precious memories of Italy.

Even though each client is gone just as fast as they came, each one contributes something to my soul and helps me to grow and learn and understand more about life and to deepen my appreciation and compassion for diverse people from all walks of life.