Friday, June 29, 2007

Long Ride Home

I knew I would have fun. Biking in Italy is the best.

You head off on your bike in the morning. Stop for cappuccino in some small town, then back on the bike for more beautiful scenery. Visit a 900 year-old church, have more coffee. Bike to lunch in a picturesque bar in a quaint town. Rest in a tree-lined piazza. Bike uphill to an ancient hill town, have gelato and coast back to the hotel for a dip in the pool before a fabulous dinner. I knew I would love it.

But at some point it becomes as much about the people as the place. I think we were lucky. We just got in with a terrific group.

On a trip like this you share a lot in a short time, which makes the experience more intense. Friendships bloom, connections are made, attachments are formed. It’s powerful stuff.

And, eventually, it’s how you remember the week. In your mind, these people will always be part of Tuscany. That's an honor.

And that's what I'm thinking about as we travel 20 hours on four flights out of three different countries to make it back home again.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Bye Bikes

Early breakfast today, because we have to be packed and ready to go to Rome.

Hard to say goodbye to friends, even brand new friends. You get pretty close when you share so much in a short time. It’s hard to see it end.

For me, it’s worse because I always get so emotional when I am getting ready to leave this country. Italy really messes with my head. Part of me always wants to stay. Emotions come bubbling up to the surface, and it’s hard to keep my cool. I'm such a girl.

We’re leaving the Malos, Pat and kids, behind. They get another day in Montebelli, and then another week in Cinque Torre. The coast is beautiful. They won’t be disappointed. Then Pamela is off for parts unknown, maybe Croatia, maybe India, Africa – who knows? The girl has the wanderlust. She really is a citizen of the world.

The rest of us board the minibus for the trip to Rome, where we will be met by Franz, VBT Roma division. Think Barney Fife, only more nervous, with an Arnold Austrian accent. His job is to help us settle in. Adam and I decide to join the Osters and the sisters on his six-hour walking tour of Rome, which BEGINS IN FOUR MINUTES WHERE ARE THE OTHERS WE MUST LEAVE IMMEDIATELY.

I know, I know – Rome wasn’t built in a day, but a lot of it could have been completed during this tour. All interesting, all beautiful, all historic, but just too much. At one point during one of the longer speeches I look at Bessie, and we both go, “What? I have no idea what he has been saying for the last ten minutes.” Adam filled us in. Luckily, he was paying attention.

Dinner happens in the first place we find, and then back to the hotel. Although it’s late, we hang out in the hotel bar, telling stories about the other people and saying our goodbyes.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

A Hard Day's Ride

It’s really not right that the last day of biking should be the hardest.

This morning we bike to Pescaia, a medium sized town by the coast. It is famous for some old stuff, Etruscan castles and things like that, and a fabulous view over the ocean. But it also has good pizza, and it’s that thought that keeps up going.

In town we do a little shopping. Everyone is playing the two euro game, where we have to buy something and learn the Italian word for it before giving it away to someone else in the group. Because of this, Adam and I end up helping Pam shop for underwear in the “Everything’s A Euro” store.

Of course, buying a cheap pink thong undergarment is easy. Naming it is the hard part. Oddly, my dictionary was no help. We had to ask the guy behind the counter several times before he told us how to say it, although he might really have been saying, “Get out of my store you pervs.”

After a pizzeria lunch some of the smarter people decide to swim in the ocean. Adam goes in his bike shorts, stopping to change on the sidewalk in front of the bank. Eventually, the rest of us head back to the bikes for the ride to the hotel.

You’d think the road would be just as long on the way back. It wasn’t. It was twice as long, uphill and into the wind the whole way. We should have been in shape after the week, but it was tough to make it back.

I could write about that evening, when we exchanged gifts, and about how Nick won the thong, and about how he put it on and danced, and I could even post a photo of the event, but that would be gratuitous and wrong. Plus, it would get this blog site blocked by WebSense, and Adam wouldn’t be able to show his friends.

Instead, I'll just say I spent most of the night waiting up for my son, who was hanging around playing cards with the Washington girls until 2 a.m. The Italian guides were very proud.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Raindrops on Helmets

Our first taste of rain, and even then it is only a sprinkling. It comes and goes for a few hours, but we don’t even mind because the scenery is so spectacular.

Today we leave the coast and head inland through several small towns toward our next hotel. The thing about Tuscany is that every little town is breathtaking. Amazing views, thousand year-old churches, cafes and bars lining the ancient streets – it’s all perfect.

After lunch Bessie proves she is worthy of the superhero suit. Not many people can keep up with Adam, but the two of them take off, racing across Tuscany at warp speeds. Luckily, in Suvereto Bob finds a way to slow them down.

We’re behind schedule, and our guide is a bit irritated by the time we pull into the new hotel. I think he’s had enough of us today, but, being a guide, he is still pleasant.

Montibelli is another agritourismo, and the owner is trying to produce organic wine, something rare in Italy so far. He seems like a great guy. I think several people on the trip would come back and stomp grapes for him.

I haven’t played tennis in Italy since I was living with my cousins in Lecce, but Chris and I manage to get in a fierce, competitive match. It isn’t really fair because I get the good racquet, which is only missing two strings in the cracked frame. We have to keep prying the balls out of the gigantic mouth of Lupo, a wolf dog with a head the size of a dumpster, so by the end we are covered in slobber.

After dinner a bunch of us go up the hill to local bar. It seems like the guides must be regulars here. We have the best time drinking red beer and playing darts. Christian manages to hit the dead Tuscan Sea Mouse in the bulls eye. Pam manages to take a chunk out of a six hundred year-old wall.

Meanwhile Adam hooks up with a group of high school kids from Washington DC. He walks right up to them and starts talking. When I was sixteen, it would have been easier for me to levitate. Everyone is impressed, especially the guides. They give him a lot of advice about women, most of which I do not bother to translate.

Meno male. (Good thing.)

Monday, June 25, 2007

Lost In Oliveto

A shorter ride today, and I think everyone is secretly glad, especially after our adventures the night before.

Adam and I get separated when I stop to help someone and then get a flat myself. When I arrive at the Olive Oil farm, he is nowhere to be seen. Several people saw him along the way, but most everyone has arrived and still no Adam. I'm entering panic parent mode when he finally comes tooling up the road. Apparently, one wrong turn was enough to send him up an entirely different hill. It added a bunch of miles, all uphill, and he is very sweaty when he makes it, but he found his way and didn’t freak out, so I'm thankful.

We then learn more than I’ve ever wanted to know about olive oil. By the end I may be one of the few people in the world who can taste the difference between pitted and de-pitted oil.

And Chris, as you can see, makes a new friend.

On the way home it is shopping time, and most everyone crowds into a small bike shop in town. I have to think the guides did well, because most people bought something. Adam buys socks. Nick and Pam buy pink jerseys. Bessie buys what can only be described as a superhero suit. I buy beer in the bar down the street.

That night we are on our own for dinner, and a late reservation gives us time to sit on the fabulous terrace upstairs with the Osters and Malos and watch the sun slowly dip beneath the waves. Then, at a nearby pizzeria, Adam tries to break international nutrition records for eating, using the pizza AND pasta method. It’s a great time shared with people who were strangers a few days ago, but are now friends.

And as a reward, we get to hear Chris tell the story of the legendary evil carnivorous man-eating frozen iguana.

No one's sleeping tonight.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

The Extra Mile

Nothing like going for extra miles to make you feel like real bikers.

While the others go to one of the official approved restaurants in Bolgheri, we have a perfect, simple lunch in a local bar with the Osters. We could have been Italians, except for the bright clothes and our orange Wheaties jerseys.

On the way back we pass a beautiful town on the very top of a steep hill, and we know what we have to do. Once we arrive at the hotel we get directions, and then Adam and I take off with Bessie, Tim the Iron man, and the brother-sister team of Chris and Pam to conquer Castagneto Carducci.

It’s a bit of a climb. Bessie and Adam sprint ahead, then rest. Pamela puts her head down and pushes through, not stopping until she reaches the top.

It’s a typical Italian hill town, with beautiful views of the countryside. We feel lucky to be there, especially after gelato. We meet an old man who tells us stories about his time in the war, and his trip to America years ago. Like most Italians, he is happy we came.

We have dinner and reception at our new hotel, a 5-star resort on the ocean. It’s beautiful, but a little too posh. Dinner lasts, no kidding, like three hours, with 45 minutes between each fru-fru course. It’s so long that Adam keeps getting hungry between plates, and he has to sneak back to the room for more food. The highlight is when Adam learns the balancing fork trick from Bessie, making sure all of his future dates will be impressed.

Afterward we all take a walk down the beach, which turns into a game of night soccer, which turns into running and diving into the ocean in our clothes, which turns into an unforgettable night. The guides go nuts, flinging their swim suits around and baying like crazed sea lions.

It’s late, after midnight, when we tromp through the classy hotel leaving a trail of sandy footprints behind us. It takes me a while to get all the sand out of the tub afterward, but I'm too happy to notice.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Sea Wheels

Our first long ride together as we follow the coast through Cecina and farther south. I'm used to biking alongside of rivers and the occasional cow. Last year around Siena we got glimpses of distant towns around the next hill, but nothing quite as beautiful as the ocean.

At times we are biking literally on the beach, pushing our bikes past people lying on blankets and towels. Saturday is a huge beach day here. The town is swarming with people. No one seems to mind a group of Americans in spandex.

Things are already shaking out in the group. Adam likes to go fast, and so does Bessie. At one point she takes off with Adam for some speed work, and it is all I can do to catch them. Together they were able to push each other, making them even faster. "Thought I'd beat the kid," she tells me later. "No way."

The other thing about Bessie is this: she likes to be upside down. She's good at it. She can do these inverted push-ups, and the whole time she can talk and everything. It's an impressive talent, and one of the many reasons we decide to hang around her.

After biking we hit the pool, and then there is a wine tasting for us at the hotel. The owner has been making his wine and oil for years, just the way his parents did before him. This respect for tradition seems so different than in America, where everyone wants to distance themselves from their family.

I become the worst father ever by taking Adam to a wine tasting. Someday when he is an unemployed homeless alcoholic he can look back to this experience as a turning point in his life. He has a sip or two, but mostly focuses on the food, including the best parmesan cheese we ever had. (From Parma, duh.)

Great dinner at the hotel, with a bit of conversation afterward, although no startling inappropriate personal confessions from the guides, thank God. After all, we are trusting these people with our lives.