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Saturday, December 31, 2011

Buon Anno Nuovo!

Happy New Year from Solana Beach, California, where this photo is the view from my temporary "house swap" winter home. It's almost 3pm here on New Year's Eve, and almost midnight in Florence. Yet that is where my thoughts are.  I can see, hear and feel the celebration, the music and fireworks taking place in Piazza Signoria at this very moment.  Where I've rang in the New Year for the past 3 years.  I miss it, I miss everyone, yet looking forward to celebrating New Year's Eve later tonight from a very different perspective, at a beach party on the bluff at Dana Point in a world far away from Florence.

To all my friends near and far, I wish you all a serene and happy 2012.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Hard to Leave Florence at Christmas

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Counting down the hours until my departure and deeply missing Florence already. When a San Diego friend proposed a house-swap for the winter, it seemed perfect, since my work is seasonal and I have the time off.  Spending Christmas in New York with my family and then heading to California for 6 weeks in a house perched on a bluff above the Pacific.... falling asleep to the sound of crashing waves...watching the sunset over the ocean...it sounded ideal, but I still had to contemplate. 

I was looking for excuses to say no, but the idea, within hours, instantly came together.  I was offered a choice of several projects to work on for a director of the Italian Cultural Center in San Diego.  It sounded like the ultimate combination.  I could stay connected with my life in Italy by working for the Italian-American community.  At the same time, I could spend days of surf, turf and cycling with long-missed friends in the perfect winter climate.  I still hesitiated.  But when, with unusual ease the perfect frequent flyer itinerary materialized, "maybe" became "yes".  I couldn't think of another excuse not to go.

With only 2 days to go, the only thing I've packed are Christmas gifts....about 50lbs. of Tuscan food! My house-exchange guest is arriving tomorrow from San Diego and I still have to pack clothes for opposing climates... New York and San Diego.  Yikes! Perhaps I'm procrastinating because I don't want to leave Florence as the Christmas season heads for its crescendo.

Every year Christmas becomes more spectacular in Florence.  It started earlier this year, two weeks before the Feast of the Immaculate Conception on December 8th.  Fairs, concerts, lights strung on every street, Christmas trees towering in every piazza, every shop dressed up in colors, music in the streets.  I love it even more because I know what I'll be missing, after 3 years spending Christmas in the city that has become my home.

Though very hard to detach from Florence, once on the plane, I'll be looking forward to Christmas in New York with my family.  I want to smell the scent of fresh-cut pine Christmas trees and feel the cold...perhaps some snow?   I'll be ending my Christmas in Florence with Sunday dinner in San Casciano with friends, topped off  by an evening at Teatro Comunale to see The Nutcracker by the Kiev Ballet. It will be a delightful way to end my Christmas season in Florence.

I will miss all the non-stop Christmas events that are happening in the city until the Ephiphany. I will miss waking up to the thunder of bells ringing from from every church in Florence on Christmas morning.  This will be the last blog post that I will write for a while, but I will definitely be writing while in the States. Probably about how much I miss Florence.  Buone Feste!

Concerto di Natale dei Bambini


Some of the most precious classical music events in Florence are those that are not advertised, those that you don’t hear about unless you know someone who is tied-in to local musical circles. An important part of my Florentine experience has been the unique part that music has played in my life thanks to having special friends who are musicians, opera connoisseurs and one very special friend Maestro Cesare Orselli, an opera professor and critic.  Being invited to, or just being made aware of what’s going on behind the scenes in the musical arena has opened up doors to many a special concert that I never would have otherwise known about.

In the past couple of weeks I’ve attended several special concerts, most with a Christmas theme, but the one I attended today at Chiesa di Ognissanti was really special because it was the Christmas Concert of the Centro Musicale Suzuki di Firenze, a music school that develops a child’s musical talent from the age of 3 and up. A dear friend and family invited me to this magical concert in which their 6 year old Costanza plays the violoncello in an orchestra of 100 children among violins, harps, piano and flutes.

With the inspirational and historic Chiesa Ognissanti as the backdrop, and the children playing so reverently and confidently…it was a rich pleasure to see such youngsters appreciating and developing their musical talents at such a sweet age. It was a remarkable performance filled with emotion, a very fitting prelude to the Christmas season.

Earlier in the season I was honored to attend a memorial Requiem to famous pianist Fausta Cianti, at the Chiesa S. Stefano by the Ponte Vecchio.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

The End of a Musical Era in Florence

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Tonight's production of Il Barbiere di Siviglia at Florence's Teatro Comunale was one of the more magical interpretations of this opera that I've experienced. Strong on Rossinian sparkle, it was a delicious rendition that evoked thunderous applause from the Florentine audience.

I could have listened to this opera until the cows came home, relishing every split second, knowing with a broken heart that this would be one of the last operas ever staged in the historic Teatro Comunale,  the heart of Florence's great musical tradition.  A tradition that is very sadly coming to an end.

While it doesn't stand in the ranks of world class opera houses, Florence's Teatro Comunale has gratified the Florentine community for 150 years with quality productions, having played host to some of the world's greatest musical geniuses the likes of Callas, Abbado, Strauss, Muti and Mascagni.  A Florentine landmark, it is rich in history, having been originally built as an open-air amphitheater in 1862, since then having been thrice reinvented after surviving devastating fires, WWII bombings and the great flood of 1966.

I've dearly loved this theater since moving to Florence in 2008. It feels like another room in my home. I love it because it is a part of the community fabric and serves its faithful Florentine audience like a church serves its congregation, connecting us through a powerful social, spiritual, musical experience.

I love it because it is not an impersonal multiplex performing arts center, but a local musical piazza steeped in tradition, where the real people gather to adore their music, their history and their city.

I love Teatro Comunale for all the opposite reasons why for 30 years I've loved the Met and my old neighborhood Lincoln Center. But New York City needs a piazza.  I love it because bigger and avant-garde isn't always better.  It is one of the few venues in centro where you can really feel the people who live here.  A five minute stroll from Ponte Vecchio along the Arno, it is romantically connected with, but peacefully removed from the masses.

It is not exactly the epitome of high-tech elegance and is perhaps even borderline blah but the productions are fine, affordable, the acoustics while not supersonic are decent enough, and nobody is complaining about the lack of designer lighting or space-age staging.  Handsome on the outside, glitterless on the inside, it is tastefully Florentine with a stately stage curtain marked only by the Florentine Giglio.  It applauds the character of this great city. 

It beats many a Met in the comfort factor, with wide cozy seats, tons of legroom and no distracting digital subtitle machines protruding from the facing seat.  I've never seen a supersilious snob in the audience, which comprises everyday erudite Florentines who damned-well know their opera, right down to the kids.

But all of this is coming to an end.

I don’t want to embark upon describing the, “Teatro dell'Opera di Firenze”, which is soon to oust our beloved Teatro Comunale, since there is already plenty written on the subject.  Suffice to say that it is the brainchild of certain individuals who envisioned an avant-garde high tech, one-stop musical shopping center with supersonic acoustics and state-of- the art staging that would allow it to increase its repertoire by 40%. Further, it could accomodate the masses....5,000 people all at the same time within its multiplex theater configuration. It could conceivably host an opera, a rock concert and a jazz-fest all at the same time, beckoning all of Florence to take a passeggiata or a jog in its new mega-piazza, which is being called its new ‘polis”.

Originally it was expected to cost €105 million, with a good chunk of that coming from the Comune di Firenze in the hopes of reimbursing itself with the proceeds from junking our precious Teatro Comunale.  The first auction failed for lack of interested buyers.  How ambitious for a country that has been brought down to its economic knees. According to this recent article, the project has cost €160 million, with another €80 million to go.  According to Mayor Renzi, it is soon to be saved by a corporate sponsor who would pay mega-Euro in exchange for advertising its name. Could this be the new "Bank of China Performing Arts Center"?

The theater, unfinished, will inaugurate itself with a series of pre-Christmas concerts without a single parking space to boot. Cars will have to park at Piazza Leopoldo, just a dreamy hop, skip, and a tram ride away along one of Florence's most trafficked viales.

I had to see this for myself.  From Ponte Vecchio, I walked along the Arno and as I turned right at Parco delle Cascine, it appeared in front of me, the architectural antithesis of Florence. It looked like a shoe box suspended inside a cheese grater. 

It just seemed so out-of-place.

This“fabbrica di spettacolo e di musica”, (music and performance factory) does looks like a factory. A rectangular structure suspended high above the already unattractive surroundings, this marble-armored fire and bomb-proof box is perfectly positioned to survive another Arno act of Mother Nature.  Its bold lines and heavy mettalic-looking marble, incongruent with the feel of Florence, reminded me of 1970’s Los Angeles.  Even The Sydney Opera House, while avant-garde for its time, incorporates some sexy, curvy musical movement in its design and fits beautifully in its environment. I can feel Brunelleschi's ghost crying from the pits of his cupola.

Florence has indeed lost a treasure.

I

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Renaissance Running...The Florence Marathon

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The Florence Marathon has made significant strides since I first settled in Florence 3 years ago. As a spectator in 2008, the marathon had a genuine neighborhood feel with an indigenous buzz. Most participants were Italian and Western European.  The website was parochial, the logistics untied.  Publicity was limited and it was not on the then-mayor's priority list.  Neither was Florence on the destination wish-list of serious runners and marathoners around the world.  I liked it that way because it felt so untechnically Italian.  It felt like it belonged to the Florentines.

In the past three years, Florence's marathon has grown up and it's been fun watching it grow as I have grown closer to my city. The marathon organization has tweaked every detail, from the course, to the publicity, to the ease of registration, traffic and spectator control, and especially the staging at the start and finish lines, not to mention free massages at the end.  This year 11,000 runners participated from all over the world.  After today's race, the Florence Marathon now ranks among the 20 most widely recognized marathons in the world.  Once they decided to do it, they brought out their old Renaissance thinking caps and designed a seriously marathonic masterpiece.

For the past few days, the city has played host to these 11,000 visitors and their families, and you can feel the personality of these athletes all over Florence. The streets have been packed with a welcoming spirit.  It's fun to watch others appreciating the city that I love.

The marathon was a spectacle to behold, the best one since I've lived here, not to mention we were blessed with outstanding running weather, blue skies and crisp, cool air.  I cannot imagine the high of running through Florence, with a mass of 11,000 people, being aroused by the energy emanating from 700 years of art and architecture smack in front of you on every street, not to mention the natural beauty of the Arno and the hills that encase and crown the city.  The Florence Marathon outdid itself this year.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Autumn Highlights

The touring season ended a month ago, bringing my second year of guiding bike tours in Tuscany to an end. Guiding tours in the Tuscan hills while sharing its wine, food and culture from such a unique office chair is pretty awesome. It's something I dreamed of when I took my first cross-country bike tour of Italy in 1996.  It's something I dreamed of from my office on the 23rd floor of Chase Manhattan Plaza.  But who woulda thunk that there would be the place, the space and the time to live it out?

While the prolonged summer resulted in an underproductive grape and olive harvest, not to mention no porcini anywhere, we've been rewarded with an equally prolonged, unseasonably warm autumn. Which has beckoned me to soak up these last days outside before surrendering to the winter. And so in the past month, I've abandoned my touring saddle to immerse myself in outdoor events, fairs, as well as riding for pleasure in the Tuscan countryside with friends.

But that's not all.  Despite the political and economic disarray in Italy, over the past few months Florence has been outperforming itself in its repetoire of cultural events and there's no end in sight.  The city has played host to an extravagant program of concerts, fairs, feasts and exhibits.  New museums continue to pop up everywhere and the ever-more popular Mayor Renzi has launched countless new community initiatives, improvement projects, cultural events and forums.  It is also the season for theater, classical music and opera, which abounds in Florence, making it hard to decide what to do next.  Just in the past week, we've had an international documentary film fest, myriad ethnic feasts, sagre, truffle, wine and olio nuovo fairs, the Sicilian Fest, the Maggio Musicale.....the list goes on, leaving me litte time to blog.

But thanks to my IPhone, I've been able to capture a photo here and there! Memories of Autumn 2011.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Another Sunday on Two Wheels

Another great ride with Bill and Christie. Savoring the last days of autumn.

Nice 100k loop took us for the steep climb to Castello Poppiano and a schiacciata stop in San Quirico.

Wore my booties for the first time.

Winter is on its way.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Favorite Local Loop Ride

Just discovered my favorite ride today, although I seem to say that with every new road that I discover.  But today's route comes in first place. Bill and Christie were wonderful riding company.

Riding the ridge from Tavarnelle to Cerbaia is breathtaking, rich in scenery, hidden castelli and great schiacciata stops.  Even after years living and riding here, I am constantly taken by the urge to stop and take photos, which runs counter-intuitive to the impulse to keep pedaling.  And as much as I want to stop and snap a photo, I seldom do, because that would interrupt the high of the moment. Having the roads of Tuscany so accessible and being able to experience them all year-round is a true blessing. 

We've been lucky to have such enduring, crisp autumn weather, vivid colors, sharp blue skies, the smell of wood burning, birds still chirping, roses still blooming, and we're taking advantage of every lasting day before winter strikes!

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Panelle....Simply Addictive

 

I couldn’t wait for the annual Sicilian Feast to come to Florence, because it’s the only place outside of Palermo and Brooklyn where I can find one of life’s most addicting comfort foods…..the panelle panino. And so, I will take a momentary diversion from my Florentine life to write about something terribly un-Tuscan.

A “panella” is a lusciously light, flat fritter made with chickpea flour, water, salt, and parsley. After being deep-fried, a sizzling stack is topped off with a generous heap of fresh ricotta fresca and slivers of ricotta salata and immediately placed inside a hot semolina toasted sesame roll. The fusion of warm, nutty and cheesy flavors, punctuated by the contrasting crunchy and creamy textures, makes for a categorically indulgent, albeit calorically decadent panino. Try it only once and become addicted.

Panelle are eaten as simple street food in Palermo, made and sold at outdoor "friggitorie" stalls, but otherwise only found in heavily populated Sicilian communities such as Brooklyn, New York where it is sadly on the verge of extinction. Making panelle is not only an art, but a profession in and of itself.  Panelle-makers are called “panelleri”, and they are a dying breed in the U.S.

Lunching on panelle sandwiches at Ferdinando’s Focacceria on Union Street in Brooklyn was a weekly childhood ritual. Owned by Sicilian immigrants, the Buffa family has been in business for over a century. It is perhaps the only surviving panelleria in the U.S. It is my first essential stopover on any trip to New York.  Living in New York I could go to Ferdinando’s whenever I craved panelle.  And I needed my regular fix. Upon moving to Southern California, I quickly learned the futility of trying to make it myself, after many failed attempts. It requires precision, experience, skill.

A little research led me to discover a tiny Sicilian eatery in San Diego’s Little Italy, where Bruno was the only surviving west-coast panellaro. This provoked an incurable weekly habit of driving 120 miles round-trip just for a panelle sandwich. Until one day taken by the urge, I drove to San Diego, desperately salivating for an entire hour, only to find that Bruno had died, and along with him, my weekly fix. Selfishly saddened, I was curious to know why someone else couldn’t make them. While I drooled from the mouth like a wolf ready for the kill, Bruno's brother Tony explained why nobody else but Bruno was capable of making this humble but precious Sicilian fodder. Rrrrrr….the better to eat you, my dear. I bared my fangs and went for his neck.

He explained to me the history and secrets to its preparation. Arabic in origin, it is a poorman’s fare. The ceci bean, plentiful in Sicily, is easier to harvest than wheat, cheaper and more protein-nutritious than pasta. The recipe seems painfully simple….farina di ceci, water, salt and parsley, but the method is truly an art. Similar to polenta, the mixture is thickened by stirring constantly for 45 minutes. When the paste starts to pull from the sides of the pan,  (the critical moment) it is removed and placed in cylindrical containers and left to harden. The secret is in knowing exactly when to remove the paste from the pot. If you wait too long, it becomes unpliable. It must be sliced into flat squares as soon as it cools down, no longer, then deep-fried at the precise temperature until golden brown and MUST be eaten at once. This is not “take-out” food. The panelle becomes gooey, chewy and soggy if not eaten immediately.

After searching all of southern California to find ceci flour and finally finding it at Claro's in Tustin, I attempted to make it myself.  But numerous attempts proved useless.  Either I ended up with a gummy paste or a limp lump of goo that exploded all over the kitchen as I dropped it into the hot oil.  I gave up and set my hopes upon the Sicilian Sagra which was coming to Florence in November.
 
Anticipating the Sicilian feast with famished fervor, I attended the opening parade and perused the multiple food booths, building up for the final climax. I waited my turn on a long line of customers and ordered my panelle sandwich.

To my utter dismay, the panelle were pre-made and reheated. My heart fell.  Delusa and totally depressed, I brought my soggy, overpriced panelle sandwich to a picnic table where others were eating rice balls and fried calamari as costumed performers danced and played the accordion. Skeptical, I bit in and sunk my teeth into to the highly suspicious gooey, chewy, tasteless concoction and almost cried. I later found out that the mixture was mass-produced in Vicenza, frozen and delivered that morning.

Time to go to Ferdinando's.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Enjoying the Raccolta On My Last Day of Work

My last day of guiding bike tours was filled with surprises.  I was fortunate to have only two clients, and was able to conduct the ride like a private tour, taking them off the beaten path.  A mile into the ride, Chris got a flat tire, my first and only flat of the year!
 
While fixing the flat on the side of the road, I could hear leaves and branches rustling in the woods.....my client had wandered into the brush, taking photos.  Suddenly, an enraged hunter, fully decked out in camouflage gear, appeared out of the woods aiming  his rifle directly at my client, angrily shouting and cursing in heavy Florentine country vernacular. He was enraged.  Terrified at first, I realized that Chris had interrupted a potential "kill" while snapping photos of the hunter at work.  The hunterman wanted Chris to turn over his camera.  I tried to explain to the hunter that Chris is a tourist, innocently taking photos, meaning no harm.  I was trying to protect my client without becoming his dinner.  I apologized over and over again, hoping that he would relax and put his rifle down.  Thank God he did.  It was the quickest and shakiest flat I've ever fixed.  We were out of there!

My real objective of that day was to ride through certain olive groves that I knew were already begining their raccolta (harvest).  For all of Tuscany, this is a very exciting time of year.  Last year was the first time that I experienced it firsthand, riding through the olives groves every day, watching them multiply and grow, preparing themselves to validate many a Tuscan dish. 

Last year's raccolta was robust and abundant.  There were ladders and people perched in every tree, nets all over the place, baskets and baskets of olives being transported to the frantoio (press). The buzz of the harvest electrified the countryside. 

This year, the prolonged summer and lack of rain previsioned a meager harvest.  As the months passed by, I could see that there weren't many olives on the trees, and those that were there were small.  On this last work day, I was eager to catch some action, and I had to search it out.  I took some side roads near Pisignano and alas, there we saw life in the olive groves, men and women in the trees, harvesting the olives.  Always a sight to behold.  Of course, we got off our bikes and asked permission to watch, and were welcomed with glee.  On the invitation of one of the workers, my clients were invited to climb up the latter to help them pick!  It was a blast and the clients were tickled with excitement. By the time we left, alot of smiles were shared and photos snapped.

It was a great way to end the touring year.  When we arrived at Le Corti, they too were harvesting the olives and I was able to explain the press while it was in action.  We even tasted the newborn oil, as it poured out of the press.  Here's the video I took!  Can't wait for next year, but very content to get back to city life in Florence.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Exploring Florence's Foothills

What was intended as a quick Sunday morning bike ride up north to get the blood churning, turned out to be an irresistable all-day adventure in the hills above Florence.  Tuscany's temptations always get the best of me and today they beckoned me to stay.  I stumbled on luscious backroads, castles and food festivals on a brisk, clear, perfect autumn day and just made it back before sunset.

I had intended to spend Sunday here in the city because Florence's weekend agenda was rife with significant events, wine festivals, art exhibits, an artisanal fair, and special insider activities for Florentine residents for which I was already reserved.  But all that got cancelled in a flash as I became hypnotized by the perfect combination of weather, adrenaline, passion and appreciation for the beauty and history of Florence.  Loving and learning Florence and its periphery is truly a chronic disease of the heart.

There's something special about Sundays in the quiet hills in the area of Fiesole, Settignano and Vaglia especially during autumn, where hamlets and tiny villages, or "frazioni", are connected to, yet isolated from the secondary roads. Other than the echo of church bells and birds, Sunday is silent and sleepy, truly a day off.  The forni and pasticcerie close down  before noon. The people gather at their church or local community center and afternoons are spent on country roads in passeggiata, picking chestnuts from the ground, hunting for funghi and gathering wild autumn flowers....young and old alike.

Unlike the Chianti Classico area of Tuscany, this area is not popular with tourists even during the harvest.  Though so close to Florence, one feels remotely detached from the zing of the city.  Many of the backroads are long, but dead-ended, keeping them secretly silent and untraveled.  Villages, castles and villas are discretely hidden among cypress, olive, acorn, chestnut and pine trees that protect the area from the extreme Tuscan sun.  Even the smallest frazioni play host to "sagre", or food feasts that feature a local seasonal food specialty, music, festivities and artisanal exhibits. This is the time of year for schiacchiata con uva, chestnuts, funghi and cinghiale.

Florence's beauty and history can be learned not only from the city, but can be appreciated  and expanded when traveling through these nearby hills where one can see three thousand years of history, from Etruscan and Roman ruins to medieval castles and great Rennnaisance villas, each with a rich history of its own.  Experiencing it on a bike is extraordinary, taking you out of the city past the grand Medici Villa, along the roads where Boccaccio wrote the Decameron, by the monastery where Fra Angelico lived,  past thousand-year old fortresses that protected Fiesole and Florence from its rivals, and through protected nature reserves, brimming with animal life and fauna unique to the area.  At the end of an endlessly hilly ride, you enjoy a long, breathtaking downhill back into Florence.  It is awesome.

Now I understand what it must have been like for Lorenzo di Medici to gallop and trot up there on his horse.  Probably even better than a bike..... having an elegant live animal friend breathing below you, dancing together in perfect harmony in this extraordinary paradise.  No wonder.

While it's not in a cyclist's gut to ride to the end of dead-end roads, these are the roads that offer some of the most precious surprises in barely marked and peculiar locations, concealed by the natural environment, which adds to the sense of adventure and discovery.

It was along one of these roads that I was suddenly struck by the imposing, crenellated medieval fortress of Castello di Vincigliata dating back to 1031 and restored by a noble English lord in 1865. Its massive front doors were wide open, inviting me to enter the stunning, silent courtyard with my bike. Nobody was there, so I loitered in its striking gardens and wandered into the castle, exploring the elegant manor,  until a butler approached me and informed me that I had entered a private residence.  Embarassed, I apologized.  Before dismissing me from the property, he told me the history of the castle, which is believed to be haunted by Donna Bianca, a woman who was wronged through a love affair with a member of the family who owned the castle.  There have been sightings of her ghost on foggy winter nights along the crenellated walls of the fortress and in the forests that surround the castle.

While heading deeper down the road, I sighted another castle, Castello di Poggio, also of medieval origins, but destroyed by the Signoria in defense of Florence in 1348, and was rebuilt and expanded in the 1400's

Both of these castles can be seen from Florence as one looks up at Fiesole, in all their grandeur, reminding us of medieval Florence.

The day was ended by riding up to Bvigliano, where a Schiacchiata Festival was taking place, and all the town was there, sampling this Tuscan style focacccia bread. Schiacciata means "squashed" and the bread is flat, only about an inch thick. It provided great power food for my awesome descent back to Florence!


Sunday, October 2, 2011

Following L'Eroica

For the past few weeks I’ve been looking forward to seeing this year’s "L'Eroica", which took place today. L’Eroica is an annual classic Italian race which pays homage to Italian cycling champions of yesteryear. The rally is an all-out reenactment of a bygone cycling era, requiring adherence to the use of pre-1987 bikes and vintage cycling equipment.

The race begins and ends in Gaiole-in-Chianti, the very heart of the Chianti Classico region, and transverses long stretches of gravel and dirt roads. The ride is often compared to Paris-Roubaix because of the difficult terrain and lumpy gravel, pot-holed roads. The event has become an institution, and recently started allowing a limited number of non-Italians to participate from other countries. The race, originally contrived as a way to save the "strade bianche" from being asphalted, has achieved its goal, having become world-renowned.  The roads are permanently marked with signs designating the route.

The event is a flashback to the days of Gimondi, Bartoli, Bindi, Coppi, Moser and beyond. The participants are devoted enthusiasts who invest a lot of time and preparation gearing up their bikes with old down tube shifters, metal toe cages, and old gearing. They carry an extra set of sew-ups, just in case of a blow-out on a gravel road.  Keeping within the spirit of a bygone era, the participants wear vintage cycling attire, scarves around their necks, goggles, woolen jerseys, old cleat-less cycling shoes, and cycling caps instead of helmets.

A serious, arduous race, it is also a gigantic antique ciclismo costume party on two wheels. A spectacle and so much fun to watch. The rally includes many festivities including displays of vintage cycling memorabilia, and opportunities to buy precious antique bike parts from collectors and vendors who exhibit their classic collections.....a live outdoor cycling museum. Of course a Tuscan feast follows the rally and a great sense of nostalgia, spirit and festivity fills the air.

My cycling friends in the States would really enjoy watching this rally because it’s unique, and different than anything that we know in the U.S., where cycling history doesn’t go that far back.

Many of my team members participated in the event. (There's their photo above). Each one of them has a vintage bike that they love, pamper, polish and prepare in anticipation of this event. With those of my team who did not participate in the event, we cycled out to Gaiole and Panzano, one of the strategic high points of the ride, where spectators await the heroes. We waited at the summit for our teammates to arrive, and cheered them on. At Panzano, of course, Dario Cecchini the famed butcher was there with his crew handing out Italian energy food as the riders passed by...sausage, salami, cheese, grapes, figs, bread and wine!

I wish that I could participate in this ride.  It would mean buying an old antique bike with special gearing and a lot of practice riding on gravel roads.  But I think instead I prefer to follow and watch the rally from my own bike because I feel that this event really belongs to the ragazzi who were brought up loving Italian ciclismo from yesterday.  They wear the jerseys of their youth.  This is their day, it belongs to them!  Bravi to all my teammates who participated!!!  It was so much fun watching you!!

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Vendemmia By Bike

The vendemmia is almost over and I feel like it never even began. Like a shooting star it was over in a flash this year.  I was lucky to capture these photos of the late vendemmia (grape harvest) today while guiding a bike tour for a group of twelve American and Australian clients.
 
Recently, I hadn't been taking many photos of the landscape while guiding tours because the uncomfortable weather since July has caused the Tuscan landscape to dry up and not look as abundantly green as it should be at this time of year.

The lack of rain and unforgiving heat forced the grapes to be harvested 2 weeks earlier than usual. And then it happened very quickly.  While the quantity suffered because of the weather, the producers are proclaiming an exceptionally high quality yield for Sangiovese grapes, specifically because the weather trend was optimal to force the maturation of a superior quality harvest. 

From the saddle of a bike, however, there appeared to be very little activity in the vineyards.  The grapes looked skimpy and starved on the vines, and many shriveled up to become raisins in the unforgiving heat.  The leaves and the grass turned brown before the grapes were harvested. Usually you see thousands of migrant workers in the vineyards.  This year it was comparatively silent.

But grapes like to suffer, and when they suffer,those that survive will produce a superior vintage.  So this is all supposed to be good in the long run.  And while the quantity has suffered, the quality is said to be the best in years.

Cycling through the Tuscan landscape several days a week allows me to interact with nature in an intimate way. I see the landscape grow and change every day, riding through the sun, through the rain, through the best and the worst weather.  Guding tours, I get to ride through mystical lush horizons of verdent green.  I have to smile through thunder, lightning, freezing cold, pouring rain, and this summer, intense heat.  I see all sides of Tuscany.  I see the stark silhouette of naked grapevines in March, the purple iris springing out of the ground in April, poppies and artichokes coming to life in May.  Sunflowers dancing in the breeze in June....and oh, the lavender!! I see the grapes appearing on the vines, and then watch them turn from green to deep violet over the summer. I see the olives growing larger every day.  I see the vineyards turning red and gold in autumn and then going back to sleep in the winter.  Every season, every day is a joy  watching life spring from the Tuscan earth.

It was strange to see Mother Nature come to a dead halt in early August, and it has not revived itself yet.  We haven't had rain in a long time.  The drought deprived many Tuscan towns of water for days, including Panzano and San Casciano.  It will affect the porcini and truffle supply this year.  But it seems to have brought good news for the grape harvest.

Today we were lucky to see the last grapes picked and to arrive at our winery destination just when the grapes were being de-stemmed! (See video below) For me, it was probably the last day of the vendemmia, because all the grapes are now gone. It happened so fast!

I am sorry to see the vendemmia come to a conclusion so early in the season, which makes me excited to see a new year of growth next spring.



Monday, September 12, 2011

Giro della Toscana 2011

There's my team, as we departed for what was my third time participating in the annual "Giro della Toscana". I completed the medio fondo loop through Chianti with great company, perfect weather and the grape harvest taking place in the background. There were 900 participants, among which there were according to the organizers,  a "discrete" number of women particpants.  I counted fewer than 20.  In Tuscany, cycling is a male dominated sport. (Meno male?)

What pleases me so much about this genre of cycling events in Italy is that you ride for your team and win with your team, not for yourself.  These non-competitive rides are very different than anything I know of in the United States. They are hosted by a bike team and are never-for-profit.  In order to participate, you must have a license and be a member of a UISP-sanctioned bike team, requiring that you pass a drug test, stress test and medical exam. The entry-fee is nominal, usually less than  €10.  What you get is worth 10 times that.

You must wear your team jersey.  Everything is done as a team. You win as a team.  Points are awarded to the teams, based on number of team members participating and the aggregate distance that you ride.  And you win for food.  The winning teams are awarded trophies, but more importantly, entire prosciuttos, both crudo and cotto, local cheeses, pasta and bottles of wine.

The itinerary is replete with refueling stations, at which you pause to eat assorted local specialties.  At our rest stop in Panzano, Dario Ceccini, the world famous butcher was out there with his crew, carving up salami, finocchiona, pecorino, shiacciata, and serving crostini with truffle oil.

There's no such thing as a "race face" here. The teams have tremendous child-like passion and they are not afraid to show it.  Everyone smiles and chats, even the men with hard bodies.  You see alot of older, very happy men, but they all have one thing in common. Passion.  You feel it all around you, it's contagious.  At the end, there is a pasta party, of course, this is where it was invented. We started out with baseball-sized mozarella balls, prosciutto and melon, salami, and then on to the pasta and dolci.

As if this were not enough, each cyclist receives an amazing pacco gara, (a goodie bag brilliantly designed to wear on your back so you can carry it while biking back home) filled with Italian energy food and a book of art and culture in Tuscany. 

In addition, the women participants received something very special!  A glittery silver, sequin-trimmed make-up bag with sunscreen, anti-aging cream, makeup, deoderant and soaps.  It was truly a lovely way to acknowledge and encourage us women to keep on coming.  How very cool.
 

Saturday, September 10, 2011

The Electronic Rosary

Having trouble saying the rosary? Hands too busy fondling cigarettes, food, phones, or breast-feeding the baby?  Keep on forgetting which Hail Mary you’re on? Getting bored? Beads keep getting tangled in your purse?  Afraid your infant might strangle himself or mistake the beads for candy one day?

No more excuses. An Italian electronics technician, ‘Onorio Frati’, has invented the ultimate high-tech spiritual solution: The Electronic Rosary. 

While flicking through the channels of late-night TV, I came upon this "infomercial" that put me in stitches. It was dead serious, emotional yet solemn, with the Ave Maria playing in the background. It featured everyday people from all walks of Italian life, discovering the joys of abandoning their rosary beads. Just to think that such an invention actually appeals to a generation and culture that really exists, fills me with joy.
Imagine. This hands-free, tangle-free device, shaped like an egg and faced with images of the Virgin Mary, allows you to pray, smoke, cook, and clean at the same time.  The perfect size, it is too big to be swallowed by your infant.  Just leave it in the crib to put baby to sleep to the sound of prayer.

Simple to use, the device keeps track of which Hail Mary you’re on.  Just hit the button and it will go to the appropriate “Mystery”, depending on what day of the week it is.  And the highlight: You can listen to the first part of the Hail Mary in your choice of Latin or Italian, either in the actual voice of Pope John Paul II, or Mother Teresa.  Priceless!  The voice recites the first part of the Hail Mary, and you respond with the second.  It can hear you too. As soon as you respond, it proceeds to the next one. If you fall asleep or if it doesn’t detect your response, it times-out until you return and knows exactly where you left off, and who you are. In addition, it can be used by your whole family!  It can detect and recognize the voice of up to 20 different family members.

Listen to it in bed, or in the car.  Indestructible, sand-proof and water resistant, you can even take it to the beach.  Just hang it around your neck while taking a passeggiata. It makes a perfect gift for Christmas, for a child preparing for First Holy Communion, or an elder who has lost their memory.

And that’s not all.  The electronic rosary comes in an assortment of colors.  It includes 20 holy cards of the Virgin Mary, your own personal prayer book and a miniature statue of....yes, you guessed it....The Virgin Mary herself.  Satisfaction guaranteed or your money back.  And if you call this toll-free number now, "we will include a free pair of traditional rosary beads with your order"!

Quantities are running out.  Get yours today, all for the unbelievable markdown price of only €30, only for the next 100 callers.

Ave Maria! 

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Italian Citizenship for My Family!!

After spending a great week with my nephew Michael in Florence, he just boarded his plane back to New York with his Italian citizenship. We received the exciting news an hour before he left. I cried for joy as we said goodbye.  A miracle of timing. 

Especially because we didn't expect the Italian Consulate to review our case for at least another year.

After an extraordinary series of destined events, I was awarded my dual citizenship in 2009.  I still haven't written the book, but it's coming.  My story is moving, and as I have learned, unique.  A year later, in conjunction with Michael, I started working to extend my Italian citizenship to the rest of my family. Sisters, brother and their children.  First born nephew Michael thirsted for it the most and spearheaded the collection of all documents and apostille for the family.  He wanted it badly and he so strongly appreciated his Italian roots.  The fact that he was was here when we received the news, was yet another sign, another act of fate. 

Which once again confirmed the pre-ordained road that led me back to my blood roots a whole century after my great-grandpa Ciro Mazzella immigrated from Lacco Ameno, Italy to New York.  Nothing could be more gratifying than to know that now this gift will be handed down to future generations and that it doesn't just stop with me. 

Thank you, great granpa!  Something stopped you from giving up your Italian citizenship a century ago, like everyone else did in exchange for their American citizenship.  But why didn't you?  And why was this unknown or irrelevant for the next 100 years until I dug up my roots and put the pieces together? Nobody will ever know the story.  I've got to believe you did it for me. Your dream has been fulfilled.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Delving into the Medici


After three years of living in Florence, discovering the infinite beauty and grandeur of its story, its art and architecture, I’ve spent much time studying the masterpieces that I pass by every day through a myriad of resources. I have learned as I go along, slowly, randomly and spontaneously, when for some reason provoked by curiosity and love, without method, pressure or time limitation.

The more I learn, the more I realize how crucial it is for me to develop an in-depth understanding of the Medici Dynasty and its political history, to fully appreciate Florence beyond its surface.  Each and every work of art, every corner, every courtyard, palazzo, basilica and museum was born and backed by a member of the Medici family whose brilliance, wealth, foresight and appreciation for classical thought propelled Florence out of the Middle Ages and into the grand era of the Renaissance, making Florence what it is today.

As I began learning its art, I was naturally compelled to learn about a particular masterpiece and its artist, paying less attention to the person who actually made it possible, albeit, knowing that some variation of a Medici was responsible, but getting confused as to which Medici was which. I bought a chart of the Medici family tree, which I thought would put the lineage into proper historical perspective. But that confused me even more. It rather resembled a corporate organizational chart, muddled by the fact that many of the Medici had the same first names. I acknowledged that in order to connect the dots, it was time to embark upon a serious introspection into the Medici history.

I browsed Florence’s bookstores in search of the perfect book that would bring the Medici history into perspective in a novelistic, exciting, unintimidating and readable format which would crystalize for me the story of Florence’s greatness and provide me with a rich understanding of everything around me, in a non-history book format.  I found my book, The Rise and the Fall of the House of Medici by Christopher Hibbert.

Since it covers a span of 300 years, it is a slow but loveable read, and as I have found, not exactly beachside reading material.  It presents Florence within the context of its rich history, and is accompanied by an index that covers every significant work of art and artist of Florence, which allows it to be used as a valuable reference tool as well.  I will be appreciating and re-reading this book for a long time to come.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Dog Days in Florence

I couldn’t resist taking this photo of an overheated dog under a chair at Piazza Signoria today! The days have been hot, the city is eerily empty, most merchants are closed and this poor dog was suffering from the heat! Like every month of the year, August is unique in Florence. Most everyone has taken off for the coast, leaving Florence silent and still.

I actually didn’t think I would be spending August in Florence for my third summer in a row, but did arrange to take off these 2 weeks from guiding bike tours, at least for a break. I had been invited by Nicola’s family to join them as their guest in Siracusa, for 10 days al mare, but I chose instead to stay in Florence.  I will however, definitely take him up on it next year!

So, here I am, choosing again to cling to my beloved Florence, even when she may not be at her very best. Everyone (but me?) bolted for cooler destinations. I am the only resident left in my building. When I look out my bedroom window at night, all is silent and dark.

The heat forced the swallows, sparrows, and even pigeons to leave, and so it is equally silent in the mornings until the church bells ring.  The market is closed, so I cannot find any fresh produce that looks appealing. I waited too long to get my hair cut and so I eagerly await Antonio’s return from Rome in September. Likewise, I procrastinated to have my favorite pair of shoes fixed, and Giuseppe, my shoemaker is in Calabria. Giovanni, my florist is gone to Trapani, so my supply of always-fresh flowers is missing from my table.

What really surprised me though, was the fact that all the tabaccherie are closed too, and so I cannot find a newspaper anywhere! I didn’t notice that last year, because I was still struggling just to understand the headlines.  But now it is a part of my daily routine. The city is asleep, the best restaurants are closed. No feasts, no concerts, just the city and me. While it’s a lonely feeling, it is also special, because I take notice of things that I would otherwise not see, or take for granted just because they are always there.

And yet, I appreciate the silence, and the chance to get out on my bike and ride without a single car on the backroads! And to enjoy the special seasonal treat of insalata di trippa. And it’s hot enough in my bedroom to do hot yoga! I have also found that this is a perfect time to take refuge from the sun by visiting churches and palaces that I want to learn more about, because their cool interiors provide tremendous relief from the heat and they are not crowded right now.

Yesterday I took the opportunity to visit the basilica and museum of Santa Croce. It always makes me feel special to get free entry because I am a resident. It just reminds me of how lucky I am. Every time I revisit a place like Santa Croce, I develop a more profound appreciation of the grandeur of Florence’s history and the miracle of its art. Standing in front of Michelangelo's tomb and Cimbaue's 13th century crucifix always mesmerizes me.

Well, I have survived the first 3 weeks of August, and look forward to everyone coming back next week, all tanned and happy to riunite with fellow Florentines.  The students will come in droves and Florence will change its face once again.  I am so glad that my nephew Michael will be coming to visit me at that time too, when Florence comes alive again!

Although I am enjoying August in Florence again, I do promise that next year I will go to Siracusa with Nicola and his family!

Monday, August 1, 2011

Escaping Summer in the City


As the motorcoach pulled out of Florence, I was on my way for the first time ever for a day excursion   al mare.  In years gone by, I have vacationed on idyllic isolated stretches of southern Italian beaches and isles as an American tourist. Today was my first time going to the beach as a day-tripper to escape the "heat" from everyday life in Florence and the nerve-wrecking turmoil exploding in the global financial markets.

"Quando il mare è in tempesta, restate sulla spiaggia.  Starsene tranquillo in vacanza".  While reading this bit of advice in the financial section of yesterday's  La Nazione, I was convinced that the moment was calling me. As much as I heretofore have always avoided participating with the droves of Italians who, every August, ritualistically abandon their jobs and their cities to partake in the frantic mass exodus to the coast, I desperately needed to "go fishin", both literally and figuratively.

And after a relaxing 2 hour motorcoach drive,  I found myself "nel posto giusto, al momento giusto".  At the seaside resort of Forte dei Marmi, in the Tuscan province of Lucca, with a striking view of the magnificent white marble mountaintops of Massa-Carrara in the background.  As the world awaited the final official word on the state of the global credit wreckage from "La Casa Bianca", I exhaled and turned off my IPhone.

Had I not already been fiercely reluctant to "beach it" at the height of Italy's coastal horror season, the following 3 brilliant reviews (written by my friend and fellow blogger, Liz Petrosian), were already enough to convince me hands-down that doing so would be like committing beach-side suicide, thus risking my chance of ever again returning to Florence.  If you want a good laugh, read these 3 witty pieces:  Angel of Death Wears a Wet Speedo,  Beach Vignette,  Flesh Circus

However, the allure of drenching myself in saltwater until my limpid body and brain floated away with the tide was beyond enticing.  After 3 years of summers spent innocently, lovingly, and secretly discovering the real Florence in its strange and solitary August emptiness,  it was time to consider myself a budding member of the mad Italian masses.  I decided to bolt for the coast, if only for one day, just to be safe.

On the advice of other Florentines, I took the coach to Forte dei Marmi instead of the train to Viareggio and went on a Monday, to avoid the "bollino nero". Never having done this before, I didn't know how the beaches worked. From the window of the coach I saw hundreds of "bagni". These are beach-side establishments with low-profile Laguna Beach type exteriors hidden by lush bouganvilla and palm trees, where you pay an annual fee for your own designated spot on the sand with an ombrella, table and lounge chairs. A restaurant, bar, showers and bathrooms are incuded.  If you go just for the day, you can rent a spot if available.
 
I walked into the first bagno I saw and asked for a spot vicino al mare.  After paying for my assigned spot, the manager escorted me to my private little front-row piece of paradise where I spent the day relaxing and observing the Italian way of spending a day at the beach.  There were some things I liked and others that I did not like. However, overall, it was more than just a beautiful day at the beach....it was amusing.

Each bagno is like its own private piazza on the beach.  You choose which bagno you like the best, according to its personality and reputation.  Families and friends go to the same bagno, year after year.  The one I went to felt like a tiny neighborhood.  Everyone knew everyone but me. The advantages of this system are many.  It's like home away from home. You can leave your personal belongings and valuables at your chair when taking a dip, without worrying that they will be stolen, because each bagno has its own heart-attack gorgeous male bagnoguarda, the guard who looks after the bagno. The sand is perfectly manicured, everything is meticulously clean and orderly.  Each bagno has its own raised walkway leading to the water, so you don't have to burn your soles on the sand when headed for a dip.

In between extended dips in the warm, calm caressing water, I spent the day mostly observing others as they carried on their customs at the bagno. I was not surprised to see a chocolate colored mass of  bodies baking their brains out in the sun, turning over at precisely timed intervals while checking out their tan lines. From this respect, it was like the Jersey Shore of the early '70's.  A feature of this particular bagno was posted on a sign in the bar.  They will send you a free SMS when it is time for you to turn over to keep an even tan.

Because I spend so much time in the sun on my bike, I inadvertently have a tan by anybody's standards, but felt like a self-conscious pathetially pallic China Doll amid the shiny black lacqured bodies surrounding me. The funniest thing of all, was the woman sitting across from me.  Every time I looked up at her, she was wearing a different bikini.  I counted a total of 5 during the day.  She never got wet, spent the whole day on the phone smoking cigarettes and getting annoyed when a speck of sand landed on her foot.

At 13.00, almost the whole beach got up and walked away.  I wondered where they had gone until the salty scent of  zuppa di vongole permeated the air.  They had all retreated to the bagno's restaurant for a 3 hour lunch where they ate spaghetti alle vongole, wine and other frutti di mare.  There were others who couldn't resist the best tanning hours of the day.....they ate mozzarella balls, plump green olives and panini out of their beach bags.

I was compelled by curiosity and the smell of clams to take my own pranzo, while watching the priceless scene of chatter, digestion and re-digestion, followed by a hand of cards and a shot of espresso.  Then they all headed back to their assigned spots for Chapter Two of a day al mare.

In the afternoon I walked south along the water observing other bagni.  It was a gorgeous day.  Although I tried to read my most recent book, The Rise and Fall of the House of Medici, I felt too far away from Florence for it to be relevant.  The day passed quickly and before I knew it, I was on the motorcoach, passing the beach town of Viareggio, which in comparison to Forte dei Marmi, reminded me of Asbury Park.  Which made me miss the sounds of the arcades and the smell of cotton candy, hot giant pretzels, cheeseburgers and French Fries at the Jersey Shore.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Riding in the Appenines

Gret time riding in the Appenines with my friend Claudio this weekend, it gave me a chance to see a landscape so different than Tuscany, yet so close by  Never thought of Emilia Romagna as a cycling destination, but it was perfect cycling territory, quiet, pristine and alot cooler than Tuscany.  I saw hundreds of cyclists on the road, and a very high percentage of women riders.   Terrific weekend.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Over the Rainbow in Florence

I knew before I even finished writing my last blog post that nothing in the world could ever draw me away from Florence.  Neither a big job, fortune, recognition......nothing.   But I had to explore the opportunity, if only to  revel in the knowledge that I do have choices.

For a brief moment in time, I revisited a part of my life that made me what I am.  That was good for then.  But this is now. This is where life was bringing me all along.

While exploring the opportunity at least in theory, I took photos of some of the events and concerts that I attended during the last week, and created this video, which expresses my joy of living in Florence.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

A Blast From My Corporate Past

I spent the weekend in Florence with a former colleague from JP Morgan Chase who had disappeared out of my life eleven years ago when our career paths diverged. We fortuitous-ly reconnected two months ago and planned a reunion in Florence during her next business trip to Europe.  We just parted, after spending an epiphaniatic weekend together.

Jean started her career with an NYU grad degree in Renaissance Art, History and Politics. Besides her keen artistic talents, she was also an accomplished soprano, commanding a repetoire ranging from opera to nightclub cabaret on Off-Broadway. She has an implicit appreciation for and profound knowledge of Florence.

Later, she found her way into global banking at JP Morgan Chase.  In 1984 while my thriving V.P. career was boiling hot, I managed a strategic product profit center at JP at the same time that Jean entered the bank as a systems trainee reporting in to my product.  Together, Jean and I developed and marketed a range of strategic products that revolutionized the corporate cash management world.  This marked the begining of a working relationship that, with my support and our collaborative efforts, propelled both of our careers to new heights.

As we reminisced about old times, the fever of our discussions got hotter, and before I knew it, we were talking business again like it was 10 years ago.  She explained her new position at UniCredit SPA

On a personal note, Jean will always consider me the matchmaker who facilitated her first encounter and marriage to her husband Victor.  I was so impressed and taken by surprise to hear Jean's admission that she owes her personal life and career success to me.  Needless to say, it gives me great joy to know that I made such a strong impact on someone's life.

Jean was recently headhunted away from Hong Kong Shang Hai Bank, to join the V.I.P. management team at UniCredit SpA, whose Global Cash Management products are run out of their Milan office.  Jean explained the challenges that she is facing in strategizing with each entity to define, package and market its products, and to meet their business development plans.  She does not have the right team to to make this happen.  She wants to carve out an opportunity for me to take a position in Milan where I would implement these strategies and launch a marketing package off the ground.  What a surprise I had, hearing her thinking out loud alluding to what we could do together to make this work.  We did it for JP, why not UniCredit?

She told me to get my resume ready, that they would move fast on this.  I would have to learn alot in a little time, I've had a long absence from the financial world.  But it sounds like UniCredit needs someone like me with  a proven track record.
But would I want to leave Florence to settle into Milan?  This is a question that I will clearly have to answer within the next few weeks.  Perhaps there is a way to live in Milan during the week and then just hop the train to Florence for the weekend.  I think I could handle that.

Yes, it's cool that I am leading bike tours in Tuscany, and I love it.  On the other hand, should I be doing something more "productive" and less "dreamy"?  And the big question:   Do I really want to go back to the corporate world, and no less, the Italian corporate world?  Work 24/7 and go back to the true city life?  Do I want that?

It's time to get my resume ready and bury my head in research to examine the structure of UniCredit SpA, to understand the infrastructure and management....and to start pulling together an interview strategy.

I never would have expected something like this popping up when I am winding down and disassociating from my old corporate identity. But there's an open door, and I am going to see what's on the other side.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Around Florence

Random photos that I've taken around town over the past few years.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

More Room to Pedal!

"Se non pedali non sta in equilibrio".  These are the words of Matteo Renzi, sindaco of Florence, who has revolutionized the city over the past year by closing major streets and piazzas to motorized traffic. Translated into English, it means that you need to ride your bike to maintain an equilibrium!

And he has stood behind his words. After months of planning and publicity, yesterday, Florence celebrated and implemented the closing of some very strategic thoroughfares, including Via Tornabuoni and Palazzo Pitti, diverting traffic around, rather than through the city.  What a grand feat.  Many of the streets have been completely closed to motor vehicles, others have been transformed from two-way streets to one-way streets and many have changed direction.  While motorists and merchants are adjusting, Florence is overjoyed and proud.  A triumph for Florence's future by bringing back the streets of the past.

It was a joy to ride around the nearly traffic-free city on this great Feast Day of San Giovanni.  Less noise, cleaner air, easy-going and calm.  Strolling and pedaling along the once frenetic streets was like rising into heaven and floating on a cloud, making it easy to imagine the Florence of yesteryear, when the only mode of transportation was on foot and horseback.    Florence just gets better by the day.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Already Summer?

It's my birthday. Which always makes me think where I've been, where I am, and where I have to go.

Hard to believe the summer is here, when I never even had the chance to write about the spring.

So far this year, I have guided 60 bike tours. I have had 2 bikes stolen. I have seen 7 concerts, 4 operas and 2 plays.  I had a major flood in my apartment.  Last month in the White Salon of the splendid Villa del Poggio Imperiale, I was a guest at a tribute celebrating one of the world's most famed opera critics, who over the past 3 years has become a part of my family. I have celebrated 14 festivals and holidays. There is always a feast being celebrated here. There's another very significant one coming up on Friday. The whole city has off for the Festa di San Giovanni, in honor of St. John the Baptist, the patron saint of Florence.  Begining with religious ceremonies and Mass at the Duomo, a parade of the great Florentine families, events, music and dancing all over the city all day long, followed by a crazy bloody soccer game and a spectacular fireworks display on the Arno at night.

I have fallen more and more in love with Florence and Tuscany every single day.

And so far this year I've been to 3 sagre, have rode a few thousand miles, have volunteered for my team's annual raduno. I have rode a few radunos and fondos myself. I have been visited by family and friends from all over. Next week expecting a former colleague from New York who I have not seen in 9 years.

I have gained 3 (ok, well maybe 4) pounds. But my perspective on weight, along with other life philosphies has changed. Perhaps I should not say how many bottles of wine and pounds of pasta I have eaten.

The tourist season is at its height. There is so much going on in Florence, there is no way to even keep up with the festivities.

And my short term plan is to (finally) follow the rest of Italy "al mare" in August to spend some time in Lacco Ameno on the island of Ischia where my famly originated. To enjoy its thermal springs and beaches, to eat mussels, fried anchovies and grilled sardines on the beach......to sail around the island imagining what it was like for my grandfather to have been a fisherman there in the 1800's. There I plan to start writing a book on how I obtained my Italian citizenship because that is where it all started.

Loving and missing all my friends, family and cycling buddies from the past who got me here.

Happy.