Saturday, May 27, 2006

Tuscany & Umbria Biking

Last night I returned from two weeks in Italy where I helped run our Italy Biking Adventure. 18 participants joined our team of Italian and American guides for seven days of biking, sightseeing, eating, and drinking in Tuscany and Umbria.

Tuscany is perhaps the most famous province of Italy, having been popularized by the book and movie Under the Tuscan Sun. Winding roads, ancient hilltop towns, lush vineyards, and amazing sunsets are all part of Tuscany's charm and justify its fame. However, the area is also hilly and there is no getting around the hills when bicycling in Tuscany.

Umbria, on the other hand, features a large flat valley with hills on either side. Less famous than its neighbor, Umbria nevertheless has great wines, wide-open scenery, and fascinating towns. Plus, there is the advantage when on a bicycle of that flat plain. While most people who visit this region of Italy tend to see either Tuscany or Umbria, our seven-day tour features both areas. Our cyclists appreciate it.

Our tour started in Siena, a beautiful town in the heart of Tuscany famous for its wild horse races in the central "campo" of the historic district. Meeting in the morning, we shuttled to the wine-centered hilltop town of Montalcino where the group arrived to find 22 shiny bikes - our wheeled companions for the next seven days - nestled under the walls of the Montalcino castle. After introductions and an overview of both the trip and the bikes, we started on a ride through the Tuscan countryside. Our route took us on both paved and dirt roads, avoiding traffic when at all possible, and featured a stop 10 kilometers in at Casata Prime Donne winery, the only one in Italy owned and operated entirely by women. Most of the group left with one or more bottles of the delicious brunello wine, specialty of the Montalcino area.

Shortly after the winery, the route had a junction where those looking for a shorter ride headed to our hotel and others looking for a workout could elect a longer option. Our hotel, a converted farm (Agriturismo) situated on a ridge with incredible views of the area's rolling hills, also provided our dinner for the evening, an amazing Italian meal made with ingredients that came straight from the farm. The menu consisted of bread, salad, spelt soup (made from a grain common in Tuscany), artichoke risotto, veal with a spinach sidedish, dessert, and all the wine we cared to drink. Mama mia!

This first day was typical of our subsequent days and I won't go over each day in detail. The biking was excellent, always with multiple distance options and detours to ancient towns, abbeys, and fortresses. We also had a variety of non-biking fun, including an olive oil tasting, a wine & cheese pairing, a culture talk on the differences between US and Italian culture, and an historical walk featuring everything from a Renaissance church to a Roman aqueduct. Each evening we would have an amazing Italian dinner, featuring local pastas, bruschetta, pizza, meats, salads, and always the fantastic Italian wine to wash it down.

And the biking? With three routes available on most days and van support there when needed, this tour is designed for all ability levels. Many of our participants on this trip laughed on the first day when describing how they had not been on a bike for years, while a few others were frequent riders and brought their own specialized pedals. The goal is to accommodate everyone and I think that was definitely achieved.

Tours like this tend to end all too quickly. Seven days came and went with unbelievable speed and I find it hard to grasp that just two weeks ago I was arriving at Rome's airport for the start of my Italy stay. While the trip is finite, the memories last a lifetime and I am sure all 22 participants and guides will long remember this past week.

For me, my best memories are always of small things. While I like touring Rome or seeing the sights of Tuscany and Umbria, I most enjoy feeling that I have become involved in the local life in some little way. Getting up in the morning for a run in the fields surrounding the hilltop town of Pienza ... having a glass of wine with our Italian guide Giovanni upon our arrival in Sansepolcro, still exhausted from plane travel ... sitting at a table in the out-of-the-way town of Lucignano watching the two 70-year old proprietors shuffle back and forth bringing fresh meats and produce to their guests ... or stopping for water in the center of Bevagna, watching as the local policewoman casually eyes our bicycles before telling a resident driver to move her car from the auto-free zone.

Italy is an amazing country and everyone should go there at least once in his or lifetime. Italy 2007, here we come!

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