Monday, August 30, 2010

Vive le Donne

A sweet group of women on today's tour made this a great day of sightseeing and cycling to the Le Corti wine estate in San Casciano. An unexpected downpour on the way back after our gelato was a real bonding experience. I love being a part of people's vacation memories in Italy.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

A Weekend of Riding

Great turnout for yesterday’s ride….now that many have returned from their August vacations. We enjoyed a splendid climb up to Vinci and San Baronto and got some good paceline speed going on the way back on the flats. It was a long ride, which got us home later than usual, so we had a chance to ride in Saturday traffic, which is more fun in Italy than in New York City!

It’s taken a while for me to “understand” the traffic flows and driving behaviors of the Italians, but once you get the hang of the non-rules of the road and get to trust their exceptional skills, it becomes one clockwork machine that just works like organized chaos. Italian drivers might appear a riotous cult, but on the contrary, they are fast and noisy, but sharp, synched and adept, making cycling a pleasure here. Italian motorists are accustomed to and respectful of sharing the road with cyclists, it has never been an issue. Well, maybe in Napoli. It is such a pleasurable feeling of freedom that adds to the joy of cycling here.

That was yesterday and today is Sunday. Today I was supposed to join my team again for an encore ride, but despite being the hopeless groupie that I am, this morning I couldn’t resist the urge to ride solo up to my favorite place, Monte Senario. So close in distance but so far away from anything of the physical world. Sacred, serene, lots of climbing, first up the steep ascent to Fiesole and finally from Bvigliano up the steep (last kilometer reaches 17%) road to the most heavenly sanctuary in the northern hills of Florence. It is so special because it is so unreachable to anybody who isn’t either insane or athletically inclined. No wonder the 13th century monks settled here, but they must have existed on nothing but berries, pine nuts and chestnuts. Riding to Monte Senario makes me high for a week. Past wildflowers, vineyards, under cypress and chestnut trees, cool and breezy at the higher elevations, a pre-Alpine feel. Like ascending into heaven.

Today my legs were on fire. I paced myself up to Fiesole but then exploded like a stallion breaking loose at the Palio. The stunning scenery looks different every single time I see it. The colors were exceptionally sharp and clear today, the dimension profound. The intense perfume of pine permeated the air. Wild flowers cascaded from the cracks of century old stone walls and raspberries overflowed on the sides of the roads. The first chestnuts were beginning to fall, with their spiny green skins intact, not yet mature, but definitely a sign that autumn is arriving.

One of the reasons why I wanted to ride to Monte Senario today was because I recently learned that this was also the temporary home of Pietro Annigoni, a renowned 20th century Florentine artist who lived right here in my apartment during the height of his career. In fact, the very bedroom where I sleep was his art studio in which he painted his famous portraits of Queen Elizabeth and Pope John XXIII. When he lived with the monks on Monte Senario, he painted frescos in its church. Although I have visited the church many times before, I only discovered recently that he painted frescos here. I wanted to make a special trip not only because I love riding up there, but to see the frescoes that he painted in 1985. They were a little too "Caravaggio" for my liking. He did a better job painting his queens and popes.

After visiting the church, studying the frescos and getting lost in the mountain vistas, I wanted to climb some more rather than coasting back to Florence. I was feeling too good to allow the day to end. So instead, I downed a panino in Bvigliano and took an undulating backroad to Polcanto before climbing back up towards Vaglia. By then I was ready for the thrilling descent back to Florence, where I stopped in one of my favorite churches, right near my apartment to say a prayer of thanks. Gazing above the altar, two cherubs were waving down at me, as if to cheer me on.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

As Summer Fades Away....

I am sitting on the wall of the Arno at dusk, tranquil and thinking about how the the summer is fading away. For the last few weeks I’ve been enjoying the tranquility of an absent Florence population, as many residents have been on vacation, most of the neighborhood shops have been closed, the market was empty, the post office had limited hours and the pharmacy wouldn’t make any appointments.

But as compared to last year, there have been many more tourists flocking the major piazzas. It feels so much better this way, because last year the poor American economy had a somber effect on Florentine business. This year the merchants who did stay open were pleased with the increase in tourism.

Now, residents are starting to return from their vacations with deep dark tans, the passĂ© way we used to tan ourselves in New York. They are happier than you ever see them. They smile at you in a way that they don’t smile in the winter. My piazza, which is about 5 yards from my house is starting to get lively again. Soon Giovanni will return from his month in Sicily to sell flowers in my piazza again, bringing my piazza back to life. How he makes the whole neighborhood happy! He is the "mayor" so-to-speak, of the piazza!

The merchants in the outdoor market are back, aggressively offering bargain prices, free bunches of basil and parsley, in hopes of stimulating their business again after their long absence. I am starting to see figs in the market and my favorite Claudia plums are now as sweet as they get. Fish is on sale because people are not thinking fish anymore. They are starting to think autumn. They are thinking of mushrooms, apples, and berries.
The grapes are starting to burst on the vines. It is beautiful, but it means that the summer is coming to an end. The olive trees are bearing hard baby olives. You can even see fields of autumn squash starting to bloom. The plum trees are spilling their fruit. Last Saturday I rode with my squad and when we reached the top of the climb to La Panca, the guys on the team were waiting for me at the top offering me a handful of plums that they picked off a tree!
The mosquitoes are disappearing and the moths are reappearing. The motorini and noise is increasing. You hear laughs, cries, motors, ambluences, church bells and motorcycles all at the same time. A charming chaos. Florence is coming alive again, after a few weeks of closed stores and a lack of services. International students are starting to fill the streets again, getting ready to start their junior year abroad. This week the tourists started to disappear, as they are all going back home to get their kids ready for school.
The days are getting shorter and I am sad that there are only a few weeks of summer left. I don’t want it to end. I don’t want to sleep because I want to live every minute that I can and soak this all in before its gone. I am so grateful that I have my health, that I have people and friends who love me, and that I have Florence.
I still think a lot of my friends in Southern California and New York and miss them and hope they don’t think I have forgotten them. I am trying to keep in touch and recently joined Facebook and put my blog out publically, to make sure that I keep connected with people that I love and miss.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Special Tuscan Treats Along The Road

I have been spending many delightful days this week guiding bike tours in the Tuscan hills of Florence with happy cyclists, soaking in and sharing the very best delights of Tuscany. With stops along the way to tell stories of the landscape, its history, its culture, its castles. Each stop is a special moment. The scenery changes daily with the progression of the season, so there are always new surprises to discover, making every day a unique adventure. There is simply no better way to experience Tuscany than on a bike, and I feel very lucky to be able to enjoy this pleasure along with happy clients as we tour the always pregnant back roads of the Tuscan countryside. So many of my clients say that this ride has been the highlight of their trip to Italy, and it feels great to know that I made it happen for them.

This week the Sangiovese grapes are starting to explode with spectacular color, adding delightful and sensual dimension to the vineyards as they start to ripen up in anticipation of the approaching vendemmia (grape harvest). I have been making stops to pick and taste the grapes right off the vine on the side of the road with my groups. They are growing more abundant and tasting sweeter and more pungent every day. The clients get a real kick out of this, because for many, it is the first time they have seen a Tuscan vineyard. And I get the double pleasure of getting a kick out of it myself, and getting a kick out of them getting a kick out it!

This week was chock full of natural surprises along the road. On yesterday’s ride we also rode past apple, peach and plum orchards, and……..

…..While guiding my group along a hilly shaded road, I unexpectedly sighted a large porcini mushroom growing in the woods all by itself in the middle of nowhere. I signaled the group to stop their bikes. I dropped my bike to the ground and climbed up the hill. I picked the mushroom and brought it down to my group. It was the size of a small eggplant and its smell was so intense, you could smell it from yards away. The group was drooling with excitement at the find. I cleaned it off, broke it into pieces and we shared it on the side of the road. We only wished for a bowl of tagliatelle to accompany it. If that was not enough, a few kilometers further down the road, I saw vines of blue and red raspberries growing up the trunk of a cypress tree, so we stopped for yet another tasting, and the berries were super sweet!! I also stopped to show them what a bay leaf bush looks like. At the Le Corti winery where we had lunch, capers were spilling out of the stone walls surrounding the villa.

These are the special, priceless gifts that make the Tuscan experience come alive for everyone in a very sensual way. And in the spring and autumn there are other equally thrilling gifts of nature to share, such as sunflower fields and olive trees ready to spill their fruit, the Pini (pine nut trees) and chestnut tress dropping their cones and nuts to the ground.

As I leave the quiet peaceful Tuscan countryside, I return to Florence after a day working on my bike. As I approach Florence, the sounds change as I transition from country to city. The contrast is sensational. I cycle through the city wall of Porta Romana into the traffic as I start getting pumped by the energy of the city. I cross the Ponte Vecchio and pause along the Arno to absorb the sights and sounds of Florence welcoming me back into its arms. I gaze at the image of tourists strolling in awe. I hear the buzz of motorcycles scooting around. I see the colorful reflections of light shimmering on the Arno. I thank God for a great day and the opportunity to share it with others.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

A New Job

I recently sent my resume to one of the popular bike tour companies in Florence, and was hired to lead their Chianti Tours. I’m already noticing that everyone knows everyone in this business and I am beginning to know them too. As an independent tour guide, I can work for any or all of them, it just takes careful booking. After spending 5 days training on the course of their Chianti Tour, I will take the helm on Monday.

The tour I will be leading for I Bike Italy follows a specific course which takes us along sprawling vineyards, olive groves, cypress trees and medieval hilltop towns surrounded by an undulating Tuscan landscape. Our destination in San Casciano, is Fattoria Le Corti , a prominent producer of 3 Sangiovese wines, 2 of which are Chianti Classico. The fattoria also produces olive oil, using modern milling equipment.

After cycling through bucolic Tuscan backroads with our guests, we arrive at the fattoria to tour the cantina and orciaia (wine and olive cellars) to learn the techniques of their wine and olive oil production, aging, storing and bottling. In addition to guiding the cycling part, I am studying and learning how to conduct the wine and olive oil tours. It is a great opportunity for me to learn more about 2 products that are basic to Tuscany’s culture, economy and everyday conversation.

We then enjoy a Tuscan lunch at the cantina, accompanied by a wine and olive oil tasting. After refueling, we get back on the bikes and head back to the start point while enjoying exciting panoramas of Florence in the distance.

I am lucky to be doing work that allows me to bring people together, make them marvel, and to be a part of the memory of their vacation in Florence, by engaging them in my greatest passions, cycling and the Italian culture. In comparison to the many years I worked on Wall Street, this is such a delicious contrast. I loved both jobs but in a different ways.
Cycling under the Tuscan sun, vineyards, wine, olive oil....great company...everyone smiling and marveling. It doesn't get better than this.

Today was my father’s birthday. He would have been 82 years old. As I rode through the magical Tuscan landscape, I thought of him and wondered what he would have thought of my destiny in Italy. A chill went through me as I felt him smiling down on me.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Under an Olive Tree at Bardini Garden

I wanted to lounge under an olive tree today, because it was a tranquil lazy summer Saturday., The city is empty and quiet because everyone is "al mare". I love August in Florence because I feel like I have the city to myself. So I decided to go to my favorite wine bar, all'Antico Vinaio, for lunch, and then to The Bardini Garden, one of the many destinations on my "to visit" list.

While first enjoying a salami sandwich and a glass of Chianti, I got into a conversation with another patron, who gave me a recipe for spaghetti and speck, a Tuscan peasant pasta dish, which I can't wait to try! Then I headed up to the Garden for a delightful surprise.

There I discovered another jewel in Florence's necklace, juxtaposed high above the city behind the Bardini Museum, sandwiched between the city's medieval walls. If I ever were to own a villa, this is where it would be! The surprise panoramas at every angle were a sheer visual and sensual delight. In comparison to the Boboli Gardens, these gardens are not as expansive, but much more cozy. And unlike the Boboli Gardens, these gardens have a very ecclectic mix of sculptures ranging from ancient to contemporary, offering many scenic contrasts and a welcome relief from the antiquity that dominates the feel of Florence.

I didn't pay much attention to all the history, except to know that the gardens have been vastly restored after having been closed to the public for many years, and the original gardens contained acqueducts dating back to medieval times, which are now being used to display a vast array of fountains and waterfalls throughout the gardens.

Today, I was more interested in lazing under an olive tree rather than being distracted by all the historic details, because with all the history in Florence, it is easy to get overwhelmed and not see the big picture. So I spread out my yoga mat in an olive grove with a spectacular view of the city, listened to my favorite Italian music on my IPod, got lost in the serenity and thanked God for letting me do this

Friday, August 6, 2010

Little Things That Mean Alot

Today I received this postcard in the mail. It is from Nicola, whose family has become family to me. He just spent a week in Germany to see Richard Wagner's Ring Cycle. An exclusive opportunity for which he had to be on a waiting list for 10 years. Knowing how much I love opera, Nicola sent me this postcard from Germany while he was there.

Little things like this make me happy to have found my new life and new friends like Nicola here in Italy.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Bike Tour Abetone

Another day guiding a private custom luxury bike tour with our clients from Chicago, riding along the course of the Gran Fondo Prato-Abetone, a magnificent climb in the mountains north of Lucca. After dropping off our clients at their villa in Lucca, Dominick ( the owner of Best Tuscan Tours), Roberto (owner of the van service), and Paulo (the other tour guide) and I chatted and found a local trattoria where we lunched over spaghetti together. As we continued on to Florence, Dominick asked me if I could guide a 5-day tour in Siena and a 1 day tour in Chianti. Va bene!!!!

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Days Like This are a Gift

There are so many endless gifts to behold in Florence, it would take a lifetime to appreciate and see them all. Last week I became a member of the Amici degli Uffizi, which provides me with unlimited access to the museums in Florence. And I don't have to wait in the tourist lines. When I purchased my annual passs I wondered which museum I should see first. It was such a beautiful day today, that I decided to go to the Palazzo Pitti Boboli Gardens and headed there on my bike in the late afternoon, to avoid the mid-day sun. I had never toured the gardens before, except to see the opera a couple of times, which only allows you to see a small area of the gardens.

As I approached the entrance of Palazzo Pitti there were hundreds of people waiting in line and I just walked up front and showed my pass. Upon entering the garden gates, I was immediately stunned by the enormity and splendor that I was beholding in front of me. As I started my passeggiata I soon realized that I have found my Central Park in Florence, a place where I can escape to enjoy the serentiy while taking in such classic history displayed in the sculptures and fountains that lace these magnificent gardens.

I could never compete with the hundreds of writers who have described the splendor of these gardens. It has all been said before. But at every angle, at every step, at every turn there was a new and striking vista to behold, a new piece of history to absorb. I took so many photos, that my battery was fully spent within a short time.

Before I realized it, 3 hours had already passed and I had just skimmed the surface. There was so much more to see and it was closing time. Like Central Park, Boboli is not a place to "see" but to "live in". I'll be coming back often to stroll, to connect with nature and to appreciate the history behind the glorious sculptures.

I discovered that the Nettuno della Fontana dell'Oceano at the Isolotto is a copy of the original crafted by Giambologna, now at the Bargello. I am starting to appreciate Giambologna's style more and more as I see his works in other parts of Florence, such as Orsanmichele, Piazza Signoria and Piazza San Marco. The first time I went to the Bargello, I didn't know who Giambologna was, so when I saw the original Nettuno, I couldn't fully appreciate it. But now that I have seen the Nettuno where it originally stood, it has a new meaning to me. I will have to go back to the Bargello and look at the original again to appreciate it even more.

Upon leaving the gardens, I could hear the sweet sounds of a baritone singing a Verdi aria in the distance. As I followed the stunning voice, I was delighted to discover that a free operatic concert was just begiining in the Grotta del Buontalenti., one of Giovanni Battista's masterpieces. What a thrilling and spontaneous surprise. The concert featured a baritone, a tenor, a bass, a mezzo and a soprano, who were part of a Korean opera company on tour in Italy. The voices were so outstanding and I enjoyed an absolutely delightful evening that I will never forget. Days like this are a gift.