As Jeannie and I walked across the tarmac to the terminal in Pisa, Italy, we looked around, then at each other, smiling “We’re here!”; however, much to our disappointment, our bicycles and luggage weren’t. They were still in Rome, somehow not checked through. Thus, our adventure began, trying to get our missing belongings from Rome to Pisa.The small airport was quiet, except when the infrequent jets arrived with a collection of business people, travelers, and tourists. So, after making the necessary inquiries and arrangements, we waited for a while, then went to our hotel, hoping our things would arrive soon and safely.
We always try to arrange for a couple of days to acclimatize and explore when we first arrive at the start of a journey, so the delay wasn’t cause for alarm. Our baggage arrived that evening, and the bikes came 36 hours later, unscathed. Luckily, this was to be the only significant problem we encountered while bicycling the Tuscany region of Italy over the next two weeks.
Pisa. Everyone knows the name of the city with the famous Leaning Tower. The taxi ride to our hotel, the Royal Victoria, was exciting. We were in Italy! The busy streets were filled with cars, buses, motorcycles, mopeds, bicycles, and pedestrians all streaming about in what appeared to be a chaotic swirl. We crossed the Arno river which runs thru the center of this ancient and historic city and could see, in the distance, the “Tower.” Our first objective was to settle into our hotel room, then off to see the town.
The Royal Victoria Hotel faces the broad Arno river, which is lined with apartments and businesses. The streets on either side bustle with activity all day long. As we entered the lobby of the hotel, it struck us as both antique and elegant. On the walls hung paintings of a Pisa in older times. Photographs of famous guests from a different era included one of Charles Lindberg, among others.
The friendly smile of the desk clerk, an attractive young woman, accompanied her cheerful “buon giorno” as we stepped up to register. Luckily, she spoke fluent English (with a delightful accent, as we weren’t quite ready to test our rudimentary and, as yet, untried Italian lessons.
Our room, on the fourth floor, looked out over the Arno, and the busy street below. The large shuttered windows allowed the daylight to fill the entire room revealing the antique furniture, marble floor, and ceiling frescoes. The sounds of the city streamed in with the light until the glass windows were swung into place.
The carry-on bags accompanying us had the essentials necessary to get us through until the rest of our luggage arrived. So we washed up and went out to stretch our legs. We didn’t have a plan or a map at this point, just a desire to explore. Up one street and down another, taking in everything. Every shop and restaurant we passed was an adventure waiting to be experienced.
Suddenly, as we turned a corner, it appeared – the famous leaning tower of Pisa. Nothing could have prepared us for the sight, not the many photographs we had seen since childhood, nor the small plastic souvenir towers we had seen in the shop windows. The Tower, or campanille is a bell tower for the cathedral and baptistry which adjoins it. Begun in 1173, the Tower started its departure from the vertical before the third story was completed. Even so, construction continued until its completion in 1350. It does not just “lean”, it appears to be falling, although very, very slowly. It is one of those sights that cannot be adequately described.
Over the next two days we fell in love with Pisa. The Tower, Cathedral and Baptistry, the busy thoroughfares, the small side streets and alleys, the cafes and restaurants, and most importantly the people were endearing and friendly.
Having received our luggage and assembled our bicycles, we prepared to depart Pisa. We even made reservations for the next night’s accommodations by telephone, in Italian. Seven weeks of conversational Italian classes were paying off, we hoped (though we had the desk clerk confirm that we did, indeed, have reservations.)
Our destination was Casciana Terme, a small town only about 25 miles away as we had planned, but closer to 35 miles as pedaled. It seems that the scale of the map, which was in kilometers of course, was deceiving. So we missed our turn and had to improvise. Perduto means lost.
Much of our adventure involved improvisation. Most of the people we dealt with spoke no English, few of the country roads were marked, and many of the items on menus were not in our dictionary. On the other hand, the people were all patient and friendly especially when we let them know we were traveling by “bicicletta“; we somehow arrived at our destination each day; and all of the food was excellent.
Most of the places we stayed were walled medieval towns, each with histories dating back centuries, and each with its own identity and flavor. One such city was Volterra. Perched on a high plateau, Volterra has been occupied since prehistoric times because of its strategic location.
The climb was long and difficult, and even with granny-gears, the 30-plus pounds of gear on the bike made the going tough. In spite of the work, the spectacular views of the countryside stretched out all around us. The fields of colorful spring wildflowers, flowed up to the vineyards, which were just starting to spread their new spring growth across the hills, while groves of olive trees added their own unique presence to the landscape. Tall, stately spires of Italian cypress appeared to march across every distant ridge, usually leading to a small farm or a large villa.
As we finally entered the ancient gates of the city, we collapsed in the shadows on a cool stone bench. The climb had been exhausting, but we made it. The cobblestone streets were narrow and steeper still, so we pushed the bikes the last hundred meters or so to our hotel. I did my best to communicate our need for a room to the elderly desk clerk, but I didn’t get much response until I remarked that we were “due biciclisti stanco” or “two tired bicyclists.” Her eyes lit up and she indicated, pointing to a picture in a brochure, that there was, indeed, a room available.
So we unloaded our panniers and other gear, locked the bikes in an alley, and began the trek to our room. Up some stairs, down a hall, around a corner, down another corridor, and up some more stairs, around another corner and . . . out we stepped into a rooftop garden filled with flowers and trees. Tucked into the corner of the garden was our room, a small cottage with a view over the red tiled roofs of the ancient city.
We strolled the streets and alleys, saw the ruins of the Roman amphitheater and baths. We visited the museums and gardens. The city was old but very much alive. Everyone walks, for there is very little room for cars. Although mopeds dart about here and there, walking is the preferred method of transport within the city walls.
Departing Volterra the next morning was much easier than the arrival. The newly paved road leading out of town had a wide shoulder, and there were spectacular views all around. Looking back, the town of Volterra dominated the countryside. But best of all, it was downhill.
We departed Volterra after eating a typical Italian breakfast, which consisted of a hard-roll and cafe latte or coffee with milk. Though this wasn’t the kind of meal we would normally eat in preparation for several hours in big hills, the dinner of the previous evening was surely enough to see us until lunch.
Of the many superlatives we experienced on our adventure, the foods and the wines were some of the most memorable. Granted, after riding four to five hours in the morning, then walking three to five hours each afternoon, boiled cardboard might have tasted good. But what we had was always exceptional and filling.
The restaurants in Italy rarely open before seven o’clock, and no one shows up until at least eight. Needless to say, we were by then, very hungry. Water is ordered by the bottle, with gas (carbonated) or without gas, and we were advised that the house wine or “vino della casa” is generally the best way to go. The advice was good, and so was the wine.
The menus typically consisted of several courses: the antipasta, or appetizer; “il primi“, or first course, generally a pasta dish; “il secondi“, or the meat; and “il dolci” or dessert. As any experienced cyclist knows, food is one of the reasons we ride, so we reveled in each meal. It was not unusual to take two to three hours for dinner, including the time required to translate each item on the menu into English. Of course, most of the waiters would assist if they were able.
Every meal, like the rest of our journey, was an adventure. One delightful, small cafe had no written menu and the waitress spoke no English. She informed us what had been prepared for the day, and patiently helped us, with the aid of our phrase books and dictionary, to order one of the most wonderful and least expensive meals of the trip. We never left a restaurant hungry.
Volterra, perched upon its high plateau, faded behind us as we continued our descent. The fun was tempered by the realization that our next destination, San Gimignano, was also at the top of a high plateau. Even so, we cycled past fields of wildflowers, more vineyards just beginning their spring flush of growth, and through small grey-stone villages brightened by pots of colorful flowers and laundry hung in the warm sunshine.
We began climbing just as the air was getting warm. Vineyards alternated with forests as we pedaled up and up. Just as we crested one hill, we could see the skyline of San Gimignano off in the distance.
San Gimignano, “the Manhattan of Italy,” is one of the best preserved medieval towns in Tuscany. It is renowned for its tall towers, which were built during the thirteenth century by wealthy families as private strongholds and as symbols of their wealth.
We pedaled through the main city gate into a mass of tourists. The “high season” was just beginning, and the place was buzzing with activity. Pushing our bicycles through the crowds, we began our search for a place to stay.
The town is not too large, and we soon reached the opposite city gate, turned around and began inquiring at each hotel about vacancies. “No camera libere”, no vacancies, seemed to be the phrase we were to learn well this day. The situation was beginning to look grim, so we decided to locate the tourist information office for assistance, until we realized that it was after noon, and everything was closed until about three o’clock.
Obviously, all the hotels in town were full so we headed out to see what might be available outside of the city walls. As we passed one last hotel before actually leaving the city, I went in, on the off chance that, well, just maybe. . . .
I approached the desk clerk, and in my best Italian asked, “Avete camere libere, per favore?” She responded, in English, “Perhaps,” then began scanning the reservation book. Things weren’t looking good, when I offered that we were “due biciclisti stanco” at which she quickly asked “Would you like to see the room?” Stunned by our luck (or was it just the sympathy of the clerk), I quickly glanced at the room, indicated that it would do nicely, and returned to the bikes to unload.
Jeannie and I hauled all the gear up to the room, and as I put things away, Jeannie explored. “Where does this go?” she asked, pointing to a louvered door at the back of the room. Before I had the chance to respond, she opened the door onto a large tiled terrace that overlooked the green countryside as far as the eye could see. We both stood there, stunned. What had begun as last resort accommodations, had turned into a room with an incomparable view. After showers, I went out for a bottle of the local wine and some bread, and we spent the next couple of hours sitting in the warm Italian sun updating our journal, writing postcards, and developing a well deserved glow.
After a good meal and a delightful, romantic, evening stroll through the town, whose towers and buildings were lit by spotlights, we slept well. The next morning, however, was punctuated by the steady staccato of rain on the terrace.
It was that kind of rain that isn’t heavy, and comes and goes, but could be miserable if it were to get any worse. We inquired about keeping the room for another night if it were to be necessary, then went to breakfast.
It’s amazing how a couple of cups of good coffee can change your outlook. Watching the sky as we ate, we decided to push on. We had good, bright yellow rain wear, all our gear was packed in waterproof bags, and it wasn’t raining that badly. So off we pedaled toward Sienna, in the rain.
The rain wasn’t bad at all. In fact, as we pedaled through the countryside, the fragrances of the wildflowers, the freshly plowed fields, and the cool, moist air combined pleasantly. Traffic was very sparse and the hills were moderate. The rains passed quickly, and only rarely came down heavily enough to be uncomfortable.
We stopped for a quick snack along the side of the road once the skies began to clear, and as we ate our apple and PowerBar, a tour bus that had passed us earlier, approached and the driver sounded his horn. We looked up to see the driver wave and smile, and as the bus passed we saw all the elderly passengers, faces pressed against the windows, smiling and waving as well. We appreciatively returned waves and smiles.
Siena is a city, colored a shade of earthy red that lends a friendly warmth to the meandering, medieval alleys, arches and narrow passageways which surround the Piazza del Campo. The shell-shaped Piazza del Campo, constructed during the 12th century, seems to be the main center of activity in Siena. Locals and tourists, nuns and businessmen, students and housewives all come to the Campo to visit, be seen, sightsee, or just sit on the worn red brick or in one of the many sidewalk cafes. The Torre del Mangia, an imposing 330 foot bell tower built in the 1330’s dominates one end of the Campo while a ring of tall medieval buildings surrounds the piazza.
The Gothic cathedral, the Siena Duomo, is considered one of the most spectacular in Italy. Built from black and white marble, the striped Duomo was constructed between 1136 and 1382. The exterior is covered with elaborate carvings, statuary, and gargoyles, while the interior is awe inspiring in its grandeur, with intricate inlaid marble floors, carvings, statues and tapestries beneath the vaulted ceiling.
Two days in Siena were not enough to fully explore this gem of a city. But it was time to prepare for our departure. We attempted to make reservations by phone for our next nights stay in Rada-in-Chianti and for the following nights in Firenze or Florence. But as we had learned in San Gimignano, the tourist season was upon us.
The reservations we made for Rada-in-Chianti were tenuous at best, since the proprietor didn’t speak English, but we figured we were set for at least that night. However, things were looking bleak for Firenze. Not one hotel we called had a vacancy, nor could anyone offer any encouraging words about our possibly finding a place to stay. We worried for a while, then decided to go eat some gelato instead. By the way, gelato is Italian ice cream that, for lack of space, will only be described as spectacular. After calming down, we realized that, at worst, we might have to sleep on a bench in the train station. That wouldn’t be so bad, and anything else would be an improvement.
Perched high on a hill, Rada-in-Chianti is another small, walled medieval town that overlooked vineyards and forests. We had made our reservations at a local guest house, in Italian, over the telephone, and were surprisingly successful. The room, small but comfortable, looked out over a narrow cobblestone street and a part of the ancient city wall.
We wandered about the town until early evening when we found a small restaurant for dinner. It was only 6:30pm and, unexpectedly, the place was crowded. Filled mostly with German tourists, we looked around and couldn’t see anywhere to sit. When the waitress motioned us to a table, asking if we would mind sharing a large table. We, of course didn’t mind, and found ourselves sitting with a delightful, elderly Italian couple who spoke no English. Out came the phrase books and dictionary, and with some creative signing, some of our best Italian phrases, and, of course, lots of smiles, we all had a wonderful evening.
Not having a hotel reservation for Florence – just when the peak tourist season was beginning – had us concerned. So we rolled out of Rada-in-Chianti early the next day. Pedaling north, we passed through many small towns and dense forests. Weekend cyclists in typical colorful cycling garb were out in numbers though few, if any, wore helmets.
We stopped in Greve for market day. Food, flowers and plants, clothes, furniture, tools were all on display in the small piazza. The crowds milled about as we took it all in and bought ingredients for lunch, which by now we reckoned to be 75 grams of “proscuitto” (ham) and 50 – 75 grams of “provolone” (cheese) and some “panne” (bread.) A couple of bottles of water and some candy finished out the shopping list, and we pedaled our way out of town.
As we neared Florence, the traffic became more and more dense, and the countryside gave way to apartments and row houses. Soon, we found ourselves thick in the middle of a busy urban thoroughfare. However, we were always allowed our place on the road, and sensed that we had as much right to the road as the motorists. We were aiming for “il centro”, or the center of town, where we hoped to find the tourist information center and some assistance in finding lodgings for the next three nights.
Winding our way into town we followed signs toward il centro. We finally got out of the flow of traffic into an alley where Jeannie wanted to check the map. I, on the other hand, noticed a sign for a hotel went over to inquire about a room. Much to our surprise, not only was there a room, but as it turned out, we had stopped at the back entrance of one of the hotels we were looking for.
The next three days were filled with music, art, architecture, food and wine. We attended a free classical concert at a music conservatory and visited several art museums, including the famous Uffizi gallery. In the Galleria del’Accademia we saw Michelangelo’s David. Standing alone in a large section of the gallery, the statue is so impressive that you have to remind yourself that it is indeed made of stone and not flesh. The art collections covered centuries, but especially the renaissance. Some of the many pieces we saw included works by Michelangelo, Botticelli, Leonardo da Vinci, Caravaggio, Titian, Raphael, Rembrandt, Rubens, Van Dyke, Drer among many, many others.
Of all the wonders of Italy the architecture is one of the most visible and memorable. One of the most recognizable elements of the Florentine skyline is the Duomo and Campanile of Santa Maria del Fiore, or the Cathedral of Florence. It is both massive and delicate at the same time. The Palazzo Piti, begun in 1457, and the adjacent Boboli gardens, palace home of the Medici family is an incredible example of renaissance opulence.
Another significant Florentine landmark is the Ponte Vecchio, or Old Bridge. Built in 1345, it was the only bridge to survive bombing in WWII. Medieval workshops built on both sides of the bridge originally housed butchers and blacksmiths. Today, however, jewelers and goldsmiths sell their goods to pedestrians, since the bridge is closed to vehicular traffic. Jeannie delighted in the fact that jewelry wouldn’t be too heavy or take up too much space in her panniers.
Florence is a bustling, cosmopolitan city. Certainly the largest we had encountered on our trip, but even so, we found it to be friendly and intriguing. Yet, as our time came to depart, we were happy to be on the road again. The excitement of pedaling our way to another adventure was calling. Our next destination was the hill top town San Miniato. We also planned a detour to Vinci, the birthplace of Leonardo.
The city of Florence is situated in the valley of the Arno river, and thus is surrounded by mountains (ok, really big hills), travelling away from the river means lots of climbing, and climb we did. The change in terrain also meant that the urban sprawl was behind us and we quickly found ourselves amongst the vineyards, olive groves and forests again.
The morning was sunny and warm as we rolled the last few kilometers into the small town of Vinci. We ate our lunch in the piazza in the center of town, not noticing the accumulating clouds. As we pedaled to the Leonardo da Vinci museum, the sky turned black and just as we got under cover at the museum, the bottom dropped out.
Remarking about our good fortune, we were joined by another couple, also touring Italy by bicycle. We compared notes and traded stories about our travels as we waited for the rain to stop and the museum to open.
The museum was filled with models of many of Leonardo’s inventions, made from his extensive notes and drawings. All were remarkable in their imagination and vision, a tribute to a man who has become a symbol of the renaissance. One model, of a bicycle, was based on a drawing that was only recently discovered between two pages of notes that were stuck together. The design is remarkable for many things, but especially for its drive train which didn’t appear on bicycles for centuries to come. Just as we emerged from the museum, the sky started to clear. We said goodbye to Vinci and our two new friends, and rode on toward San Miniato.
The ride from Vinci to San Miniato was rolling, but easy enough, yet it was the second half of what was going to be the longest day of the trip, about 120 km or 75 miles. We were tired as we approached the small mountain on which San Miniato was built. Once we reachet the summit, an amused innkeeper informed us that the hotel was at the bottom of the mountain. We didn’t realize that, as we began our ascent, that we had passed our hotel.
Our good fortune, which didn’t seem so good at first, reared its delicious head again at dinner. Directed to a small neighborhood restaurant by one of the locals, we were challenged by the fact that there was no menu. The waitress, who of course spoke no English – and may have been the cook, too – recited what was prepared for the day and patiently helped us pick out a meal that, together with wine, coffee, and desert was delectable and hearty. The meal was topped off by an ice-cold, thick, green liquid that we later discovered was a locally made lemon liqueur. Tired legs? What legs? Luckily our hotel was just around the corner.
The next day’s ride was through areas that were more industrial than we previously had to deal with. We also traveled what you could call a “navigationally creative” route, but we arrived at Lucca with plenty of time to explore.
Lucca is surrounded by massive red brick walls which keep the modern world out. These walls, built in the 16th century, are among the best preserved renaissance defenses in Europe. Today, the wide, five-kilometer long promenade atop the wall is a linear tree-lined park reserved for pedestrians and cyclists. This was our last night on the road, and tomorrow we would be home . . . in Pisa.
It was interesting, but that was how we felt as we coasted down the switchbacks back into the Arno river valley. Of all the cities, towns and villages we had cycled into while in Italy, this was the first time we knew where we were and where we were going. Friendly smiles greeted us as we pushed our bicycles through the lobby of the Royal Victoria Hotel, the helpful desk personnel we had come to know, seemed very pleased that we had enjoyed our journey. And indeed, we had.
As a part of our preparations for this journey we posted inquiries, regarding bicycle travel in Tuscany, on the Internet, the world-wide computer network. We received many replies, mostly from tourists and cyclists who had been there (and were jealous of our plans.) However, we found one response to be especially valuable. Carlo Giuliano, a resident of Pisa, provided us with several pages of information regarding Pisa and Tuscany. We corresponded with him via the Internet several times prior to our departure, and in one of our last messages suggested that, while in Pisa, we should meet in person. Unfortunately, during our first stay there, we we were unable to get together, but when we returned, we found a message from Carlo indicating that he would meet us that evening.
We waited in the lobby of the Royal Victoria for someone who had become a friend, yet we wouldn’t be able to recognize. Even so, we knew when Carlo, his wife and another couple walked in. We were treated to a wonderful evening of dinner and a drive to the coast for gelato. We were delighted to have met such friendly people.
We had covered between 350 and 400 miles without any mechanical problems, not even a flat tire – a miracle considering all the rocks and debris we rolled through. Our budget, over in some areas and under in others, ended up right on the money.
Another important measurement of traveling success was the “waistline index” which remained unchanged in spite of all the good food and wine. Of course, cycling three to five hours followed by three to five hours of walking each day made this possible. Walking in the United States is a completely lost art compared to Tuscany. It is safe, easy, and interesting to walk just about any place you want to go.
As we pedaled the country roads and strolled the ancient, narrow streets we observed a style and a way of life very different from our own and yet familiar. The colors of the green shutters against the stone buildings, the aromas of the kitchens, the fresh fruits and vegetables at the corner grocer, the small shops and stores, the churches, the flower- filled window boxes and small gardens together echo the history of an area that has contributed much to humanity. We were indeed touched by our experience and hope to return, someday, to the beauty and friendliness we discovered on our Italian bicycling adventure.