Italy, Tuscany, Thoughts

We’re home again. Got back to “The County”just before nine last night, feeling a little more than tired because it was nearly three o’clock Rome time. The trip to the airport was traumatic (a whole separate story), the flight was long (three movies and most of a season of “Big Bang Theroy”), and then the drive home at the tail end of rush hour. We woke up at four, sleeping done.

This was a cycling holiday. We’ve done a lot of cycle touring and feel pretty good at it.   Our tandem has well over thirteen thousand kilometers on it. J and I make a pretty good team and I’d have to say that the distances we had put in front of us for this trip seemed pretty tame with the longest day just around eighty kilometers.

What we had not imagined, before getting to Tuscany, were the hills. The first day we hit the base of he hill to the town of San Gimigmano totally unprepared for what was ahead. The day was hot, the sun was beating down, our water bottles were nearing empty,  the bike was not shifting into first gear, and even though we had only come forty five kilometers from Sienna, we were not mentally prepared for what was ahead. We made it though. Three kilometers of hill at eight kilometers per hour (at best).

Views and vistas were spectacular under sunny skies every day.


After that day, we got better every day. The bike was set up on the morning of day three giving us back the low gear and after day six we stopped carrying our luggage. Most important, though, was knowing a little better what was ahead, being mentally prepared to put our heads down and pedal.

It was worth it! The vistas from the tops of the hills and from the medieval walls were amazing with their patchwork of fields and forests. The narrow streets of these walled towns with their eight hundred year old churches were the stuff of novels and history books. It was particularly cool to be a little bit off of the path of the regular tourists in these smaller old towns.

Rome, at the end of the trip, provided a real contrast in terms of people and tourists. It’s really not hard to imagine Martin Luther’s disenchantment with the church and its hierarchy. I’m sure Wittenberg in Germany wasn’t all that different from some of the hill towns we visited. The contrast between them and Rome, with its over the top glitz and glamour would be enough to really impact any devout monk.

We saw the  Colosseum, the Vatican, St Peter’s, and the Sistine Chapel because it would just seem wrong to leave Rome with having stopped at these highlights, but the long lines and the crush of people made enjoying these spectacles tough. These places will not be the things we talk about first. They seemed more like obligatory stops along the way.

To St Peter’s. Lots of people. In the distance is the line waiting to get inside.

On the way home we talked about the next adventure….not sure yet.

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Sansepolcro to Arezzo 36.8 km Total….The End of the Italian Ride

Our ride today was a short one with one big hill and a smaller one (by Italian standards) in the middle. After 10 days of hills,we can tell that we are better at them, better at continually grinding upwards, better at working the gears to maximize our speed while minimizing the pain. Getting the bike set up  again at the bike shop back on day three, really helped too. Having granny gear on this trip has been important. Luggage transfer for the last part of the trip has made things easier as well.

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One of the Sansepolcro gates as we left the town

Today’s ride was again through trees, whole hills of them. I didn’t expect Italy to have as much wild country as we have ridden through. There are lots of “beware or deer” signs, and signs to warn about slippery roads in snow, and the need for tire chains. Signs about mushroom picking.

Since today was Saturday, it seemed like there were a lot more motorcycles out, racing up and down the curvy roads, knees almost touching the pavement as they accelerate through the corners. A few days ago we were passed by a group of Harley’s, the riders all wearing “Iron Italy” vests. We caught up to them in the next medeival village. They made a lot of noise when they left and seemed to be an unusual sight for the locals.

The ride has come to an end. We’ve found the luggage we sent away back in Siena and have broken the bike down and packed her away. We have a few more clothes now, and shoes too. Now it’s off to Rome for a couple of days of being tourists before heading back home on Wednesday.

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Greeted by a well worn tandem in Arezzo

 

Cortana to Sansepolcro 70.9 km…479.2km so far

Our day began with an up and a down. For ten kilometers we pedalled steadily up from Cortana, which was already part way up the hill. Then we went downhill. For 13 km we virtually never turned the pedals. Road conditions weren’t good enough to just let the bike go, so the brakes, and my hands, got a pretty serious workout. The pavement today was quite broken and rough. The bike, and various pieces of us, got a pretty good shaking as we bounced and banged over the road. 

We just kept climbing. The castle tower in the middle of the picture was a long way above us when we started out.


The last part of today’s ride was in a valley. At first, the flat valley floor was only about 100 meters wide. We had seen some tobacco growing yesterday but it was nothing compared to this piece of the ride. The area is virtually monoculture tobacco with a few fields of sunflowers and a little bit of vegetables thrown in to break the monotony. Tractors pulling trailers, loaded with leaves came from all directions heading to the big kilns nearer the villages. We actually saw our first John Deere tractors today. They seem pretty scarce here, taking a spot way behind the New Hollands. 

Suddenly, tobacco fields. At this point, the field is the whole width of the valley floor.


Tonight we are inside the wall of old Sanseprolco. It is a medieval city, originating with a monastery before the year 1000. It’s not on a hill like the others we have seen and, for some reason, doesn’t seem to have the tourist draw the others have had either. The narrow streets here seem to be mostly travelled by local with very few tour buses around. It a nice change.

Montepolciano to Cortana 47.4 km 408.3 km so far

Yesterday, after a tough day of hills and gravel we gave the bike a rest and explored the town of Montepolciano, another medieval hill town. We met a number of other cyclists, shared stories of the road and compared notes on equipment and tour operators. We feel like we are sort of part of a community.

A Montepolciano street view.


Today we set off again. Our day was shorter and more moderate with a big downhill at the beginning and most of the climbing right at the end as we made our way into yet another historic walled city on a hill. 

Tobacco harvester dumping its load. It’s amazing how this machine can cut the bottom leaves of the plant and not damage the rest of it.


Most of our day was spent in the relatively flat valley. While a lot of the fields were in wheat or sunflowers, which were already harvested, we did stop and watch a machine stripping the bottom leaves off of tobacco plants, and got to see a farmer plowing. The plowed fields here look really messy, with clods of dirt bigger than my head all over the place. The farmer we saw today was pulling a two furrow, rollover, plow with a 100hp+ tractor, putting the plow down nearly 18 inches. The soil is deep here and we are not seeing a lot of stones coming up, but the soil is really clumpy. 

The view from the Montepolciano wall just down the street from our hotel.


We’re getting close to the end of the ride. Just two days left.

Massa Marittima to Monteciano: 40.5 km…275.7 km so far

Other than the downhill from Massa Marittima and the climb to Monteciano, today’s ride was relatively simple. We’re still riding through vineyards and olive groves, but there is also a lot of wild country, more than I would have expected. Cutting firewood seems to be important in this area with loads behind tractors, and on trucks, going through the plaza as we had an afternoon tea. 

The square in Monteciano

This area closes down in the afternoon. The grocery, pharmacy, and all the other businesses, other than cafes, are closed from two to four thirty. From where we were sitting, waiting for the grocery store to open, we watched a lot of folks trying the door of the Coop grocery store, going away disappointed. This place is off the beaten track and has not adjusted itself to cater to tourists. While there is a group of English speakers here for a wedding, most of the people at the cafe are locals. Four old men sit at one table, two of them noisily solving the problems of the world with wide gesticulations, while the other two nod off to sleep. Beside us, another local table fills up with a younger group for an afternoon glass of wine and enthusiastic conversation. Kids ride bikes down the hills ( and down the steps of the church) and dogs get an afternoon walk. Life seems good…

We’re travelling without our pannier bags now. It makes a big difference!!!

We Meet Gravel…Monteciano to Montepolciano 85.2 km….360.9km so far

We had been warned about today…

Way back in Siena, the representative from the tour company had a bit of a sceptical look on his face when he met with us to go over the directions and plans for our trip. He was particularly concerned about this day.

“You’ll need to start out early he” he said, “there is much climbing, and some of the trip is on gravel roads.”

He went on to tell us that since the whole area as been designated as a UNESCO heritage site, and since gravel roads were part of the area’s heritage, no new paving was being done. 

“They are very good gravel roads, very hard. Your bike might get dusty” 

Rolling gravel through the fields


We set out from Monteciano, where we had stayed in an almost empty hotel, with some trepidation. It had rained overnight and it was very cool. We started with a long steep hill, which was pretty much the theme for the day, snaking its way up and down through heavy forest. Going up one hill we met a pair of wild boar piglets rooting at the side of the road. We didn’t stop for pictures not knowing how momma boar might respond if she was nearby. 

Then the gravel started. The road was really a lot like our driveway on Donnybrook Line after a rainstorm. It was eroded, had loose sections and was intermittently cobbled in the center. I’m thinking the cobbled bits might have been what made these roads important to the heritage of the area. In some places you could see that the cobbled piece was about six feet wide with defined straight sides. At some point in time, with the advent of cars and trucks, the cobbled track was widened by adding gravel to each side. Over time, the cobbles were either buried, or removed in most places. These are rough cobbles, impossible to ride on. 

This grader really messed up the road. We walked about a kilometer.


Adding the gravel portion to our route today did have some advantages. There was very little traffic to worry about and the views from on top of the hills and along the ridge lines were outstanding. Compared to most tourists, our experience of Tuscany is very unique. 

We made it though, contrary to the scepticism of our tour director, all 85 km (should have been less but we got a little lost once) We climbed over 1800 meters. We did end up walking up a couple of 16% grades and at one point walked most of a kilometer where a grader was redoing the road. 

The day ended with another uphill climb to another medieval walled town with spectacular views from our hotel room balcony.

The view through an arch, near our hotel, in Montepolciano


………

Biobola to Massa Marittima (60.8 km) 235.2 so far

We’re on the road again. Today’s ride was a wonderful one that started with a downhill to the ferry ( thanks to a ride up the hill from the hotel handyman) and ended with a steep climb into the medieval town of Massa Marittima. 

Here we are 5km from our destination, right at the top of the hill.


If some roving band of bandits, or even an army, wanted to make trouble for this place, they would really have their work cut out for them. The village is over 300 meters above the surrounding countryside. The walk up to the walls would make you tired and then facing twenty foot high walls, with double gates, would likely make you be satisfied to eat some grapes and maybe some olives from the surrounding fields on your way to a less formidable opponent. 

It looks like it worked, because the old buildings, churches and houses are very well preserved. 

Today is Sunday, we visited a church. A basilica actually. Construction started nearly 900 years ago.