Monday, October 11, 2010

Under the Tuscan sun… er… clouds

We made it past Pisa and along the way were adopted by a great Australian family – a couple and their adult son who are travelling around Europe for 9 weeks. Much like cats, I can’t resist an Australian. They confirmed that there are no such things as drop bears. The company for the next few hours was great and they helped us with our bags through the Pisa train station.

We thought it was a short enough walk from the train station to our hotel. We were wrong. While it only took about 20 minutes, pulling cases along cobblestones is not a good time. We seemed to encounter an attitude in Florence that we have not experienced elsewhere. It has a different vibe than Rome – although Rome is larger, it somehow feels more intimate.

The hotel was a disappointment – it does not meet the description provided online or the rave reviews on Trip Advisor. Not quite what it’s cracked up to be, however it is centrally located, close to the Uffici and other major landmarks. It also offers a decent continental breakfast and Marco the man at the desk is quite nice.

After wandering around the streets and the shops, the city charmed me a bit more. The architecture is much different than Rome but also somehow familiar.

Our main purpose for coming to Florence was a bike tour through the Chianti region. The weather did not fully cooperate, but the ride was great. Tuscany Bike Tours is run by two great guys – Keith the Irishman, and Andy the Scotsman. Both were charming and very witty. They made the day a lot of fun. The team was rounded out with Amy who led our group.

We started off with a twisty turning drive out of Florence and into the tranquil countryside. Tranquil except the drivers are still kinda nuts. Our first destination was a 12th century castle that’s now a full time winery – Castello di Poppiano. In addition to wine, they also produce olive oil. It’s still owned by the original family – the Count and Contessa still live there and run the winery. Andy led us through the old castle explaining the different steps to wine and olive oil making. The top of the castle gave us fantastic views of the surrounding vineyards and olive groves.

Then came a real treat – wine tasting and olive oil sampling. Chianti is my favourite wine, so it was the easiest part of the day. We came away with 2 bottles – one of their Reserva Chianti and a Super Tuscan.

After being plied with liquor, we got on our bikes. Andy warned me that my seat was too low – he was right. The first hill was a hell of a struggle. After some quick adjustments I was relieved to find I do remember how to ride a bike. They started us out with a mainly downhill route. You could see that the locals respect cyclists and do not try to run them off the road. Instead they are patient and give lots of room despite the narrow roads. Perhaps they could come teach the people of Bamberg, Ontario a thing or two. Traffic was really reasonable and on either side of us with lovely vineyards, old churches and ancient homes.

Over lunch we got to know our fellow riders – mostly Americans – and invited them to share a toast to Thanksgiving. Lunch was in a local town and was good and filling and complete with dessert and wine.

Unfortunately, that led me to mentally check out of the fact that I had to get back on the bike. The half hour after lunch was a real struggle for me as we made our way up a “false flat” – this is where the road looks flat but absolutely isn’t. It’s just a long gradual hill. I remember thinking, “Look at the pretty vineyards, look sunflowers. Wow, I wish I could breathe!” Dave hung back and encouraged me to the end.

The weather was also not cooperating – it started to drizzle. And my legs were definitely not caring for this whole exercise thing. But I made it. Until it came time to conquer the steep 950m hill. I knew better than to even try. “I’ll take the van thanks.” Dave made it to the top but described it as “a bitch”. Pretty accurate description. I guess I better work on my cardio when I get home.

After getting back to Florence, Dave chose a nap over shopping. Shocking really. I discovered the Leather School of Florence. Such beautiful bags but I still can’t afford them. I did make it to the outdoor market just as it was shutting down and snatched a leather bag I’ve been eyeing since Rome. I’m pleased. I probably could have negotiated another 10 Euros off, but the bag is still about $100 cheaper than I’d pay for a leather purse at home.

Tomorrow there may be more shopping in our future and hopefully David if the lines aren't oppressive, then another train to Naples and on to Sorrento.

Happy Thanksgiving!

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