Saturday, October 30, 2010

Trip Advisor Reviews

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"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.