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!!