Finally free wheeled into downtown Florence, which for many folks is the hearstopping center of Italian Art. For me, it is the confluence of not only art but also the meeting point for my older brother Niel who flew over to ride with me. The road in, over those last few pulls was a wee bit of a test of my mental attitude. While not overly tall by any means, they bit my legs hard, and I guess that was because I had concluded heck we are there when indeed we weren’t quite. By 3pm I rolled in under the long shadow cast by the illustrious Duomo Cathedral. What a city, really has a good feel to it for me. This, my second visit to the fabled art city of Michelangelo and DaVinci, Florence, home to art and culture in Italy.
Brothers flight was just fine, he had so many concerns about leg room and other things, but he was just fine. You know how it is with that first international flight, all those worries and concerns seem to be an anchor halting ones ability to enjoy the moment. Once on the ground and rolling in a taxi, I could see him let down and accept mentally that he was among the survivors of yet another international travel expirience. Once again, I had rented an apartment, we put his gear away and headed out for a quick bite before calling it a day. We walked the cobbled streets of city center Florence, under a waning moon and the yellow cast light of a meager few street lamps. Vendors bjsied themselves packing thier wares into thier sidewalk hawking carts! Rolling vestibules of capitalisim in this communist leaning goverened country called Italy. Produce sellers, sorting thru spoiled produce, and a few would-be partiers were just starting thier evening, ebullient and loud, while we were ready to call it a day.
The following morningbegins our day begins afresh, we awake to the 6clarion call of Italys favorite vehicle…….the bedamned scooter, with it’s raspy, smoking breath. That weedeater on steroids, driven by some pimple faced teen, making it’s roar/whine sound combination, akin to a vocalist just a little off key and not quite as endearing……thats Italys fabled scooter. The sound of swishing brooms and shuffling feet greets our timpanic membranes, as we make our days plans sitting in a small cafe shop……….”holy crap, thats a cup of coffee”…..pretty normal sound eminating from the lips of a person out on the streets of europe for the first time. There are so many things to become accustomed to on that first visit, many of them are so different that they set us back in our effort to just enjoy that which is new. over time though, it seems we can relax and take it in stride. The tastes,the smells and sights, we can become comfortable with, if not downright enjoy the differences for that short time that we are here.
Begin the day with a walk down thru the central market, a huge venue in downtown Florence hosting sellers of every edible product known to man or grown or made in Italy. Italy markets its food-self with a great deal or pride and boast as to quality and organic freshness. A host of local catch fishmongers greet us as we walk thru the front doors. The chill of ice, the smell of fish and the loud clamour of buying and sellling begins. The onrush of senses awakens our sleepy pituitary, and arouses the “old-factory” glands lying idle at the moment. Hawkers of dried fruit and Indian spices make thier pitch as we pass, further along the famous Florentine Bisteak is being hand cut and sold by kilo as we stroll. Another local favorite I have come to love, is a good piece of Schichiatta bread with its airy texture and olive oil and salt flavor, low and flat like a house slipper and almost as chewey. We buy a few items to munch as we walk, after all, we are men on the hunt so to speak. In quest of the famous Lampredotto or what we would call a boiled tripe sandwich. Found it AHAH….. at Florences most famous shop for such a delicacy……and really wished we had taken a wrong turn somewhere along in our search. Turned out to be boiled strips of inner tube in a dry crusty bread roll……..”food writers”, what a lying bunch of dogs they are. As a group, they are about as dependable as the UN. If a food writer describes this local delicacy in more than one short paragraph and without expletives……you know danged well they never actually ate one they are just regurgitating something else they have read about it.
The Duomo, which is one of the best known cathedrals in the world I think, yes, even beyond that of St.Agathe Manitoba, was on the list of “TODO,S” while in Florence. Not ragging here, but the outside is indeed that part which is a must see. It is quite simply described as, fabulous. The art work achieved by the varied artists and designers is stunning. The interior, while it is both massive and wonderfully done is rather austere in its character when compared to most or many Cathedrals. Massive white marble octagonal pillars, some 20 feet across, support the flying buttress roof design which vaults some 75 feet above the tiled floor of this God inviting sanctuary. The Duomo’s dome, known as the “Cupola”, hosts a mural of striking beauty……Spong Bob Square Pants meets Moses as they part the river Thames. Some 7,575 steps later, or what felt like that many, after climbing up the tiny staircase which threads its way to the top of the Cupola. All at the same time that those who are coming down have to thread past you…..all a little close depending on which part of what anatomy you are left hugging, and how sweaty it is. Once we top out and take in the view, it all comes home as to how worth while the climb really was, even on a cloudy day as we had it is awesome.
From the Duomo strait in to see the great works of Italys best sculptors, Michealangelo not among the least. Thanks to hawkers on the street, we aquired tickets and pretty much walked right in past the sweltering que beside the building…..hahaha I say to myself……..it pays2pray. Now even a person who does not care a great deal about art and sculpture can walk among these pieces unaffected. Viewers are caught short of breath when they for the first time come face to face with the likes of David or The Rape of the Sabine. These and others like them, are not simply scanned like a bar code and walked past, these works will wrench emotion from rocks let alone the human, a unique combination of inspiration, art, spatial design and yes even math comes into play ( if only my highschool Math teachers could have told me this instead of….if you dont learn this you will end up digging ditchs ) turning the heads of even the dullest viewer………..something Picasso just cannot do for me…..I always like the back of his pictures better than the front, while the work of Rubens canleave you with tear filled eyes. A day well spent, and a bit of a cultural&art filled overload……if you hail from Claresholm where “paint by number” still rules the day…..but some of it is really good….just saying.
4 long years ago now, both mykids were over to Italy during the summer and ate S well as RAVED about eating at IL PORCHINO RESTUARANTE…….ya just gotta bo there to know what its is really like. So fast forward 2 years, and last Christmas we spent it over here in Europe….France, Switzerland and Italy ….to be exact. And during that trip we took in Florence for 2 reasons. Obviously to eat at the Il Porschino but also forthe art and cathederals. It was fabulous, and the cathederals were great as well. My brother arrives and I am sick, I cannot find the little restaurant anywhere, I call my kids. ?……….I call my wife?……I am panicked and distraut?……..it is gone,closed,might as well leave Florence now there isnothing to see. I leave dejected from my cafe stool and walk some 200 yards down the street……..walking rather zombie like…….excitement and life had left my limbs…..and one eye……….”what the heck, look at the size of that bike hub JimBob its hugger than yours”……….I bend over smart like and begin to feel the synapses fire again as the blood invigorates my thinking all the time burying the loss of Il Porchino further back in the rusty filing cabinets of my mind……..”Hey,you like my bike or what”? says a well dressed old guy on the sidewalk (gosh he had to be close to sixty, didnt evenknow someone that old could still throw a leg over”…….and so as JC would have it a conversation about hubs ensues and I even take his bike for a quick spin…..all while he holds onto my wallet, my dog, and my pants…….I love the whole trust your brother thing. With our bike conversation drawing to a close I decide to segway into another directkon, I ask if he is local here and if he has ever heard of the Il Porchino Restaurant………….a slow wide Italian smile erupts…….why yes, I am born in Florence it is always my home for 59 years ( my self thinking- holy crap, he’s alot older than I thought) and yes I did hear of the little Porcupine. Great I am thinking, do you know where I can find it? Certainly he says, with a smile like the Cheshire Cat, just step this way and I show you……..I move maybe 2 or 3 feet towards him and the sidewalk he stands on, all the while thinking this vantage point will allow me to see in a direction that I have not yet looked……..Now, says my host, lean right there on this post……….I feel likeI am playing Simon Says now, but I do it dutifully as he asks………..my right hand shoulder high on the black post, and I am still looking strait at a stone wall?????……..Okay says my epicurian guide, look strait up to you right hand………and voila, like that. What I am looking at,maybe 2 feet above my hand is the sign welcoming you to dine at the Il Porchino…………..now, did I feel like the village idiot…….no, not at all. The village idiot walked by me though, to rpoud orembarresed to ask and talk to those whom Christ places in your path. Was God giving me a lesson…..I think so. If we were to seek him as diligently as we would seek a simple restaurant……..I wonder what the results would be. To conclude this missive, we did indeed dine at this fabulous restaurant,and yes we again had Franco as our waiter. We had, squash blossoms deep fried, outstanding. Then we had what looked like a ravioli but much bigger and a different kind of dough, served with melted butter it was stuffed with squash with a hint of nutmeg and trecal sugar……WOW, now that I could Wrangler Founder on. Then we went on to full on Ravioli served with fungus ( for Kendra and Kate, think mushrooms ) and wild bore sauce bedded on sawdust…..haha just kidding but caught’ya didnt’eye. Our ravioli, to put it as elequently as a food writer would, were bedded on crisp arugella leaves and coaxed in between delicate slices of scallion…….or as a cowboy, my little macaroni wrapup thingy’s were jammed between skinny onions and lettuce lookin stuff. But hey, it was all good no matter how you describe it. Topped of the evening in 3 delightfull manners, we had a great 1.25ounce Espresso, followed by Tiramissu and a conversation with 2 young attractive women sitting next. The whole meal had been rather a Shakesperean comedy feel to it, we got advice from 4 people sitting behind us on what was the best entree of the day……we got advice again on which ravioli was best today………Franco, did not remember me………he only remembered my wife…..”WHO, Is that embarraseing for”……..so being red faced he offered to help out these language stunted yankees and just ordered for us. As it turned out, both gals sitting next were art major students from Sweden ( another country full of finger painters ), one a degree in Music History and round dance ( she didn’t even know who Billy Ray Sinus was…….no foolin…..King of line dance doesn,t even get mention…..go figger, thats European education fer ya. And the other, a Masters in fine art. A mere 2 hours plus after the last bite was swollowed by all in attendance, we untied our attention deprived students and bid them good night.
Sunday morning, we load our vehicles of chain driven labor and head for the extremities of Florence, to the west, its a setting sun we seek as we creak and pedal. No, the chain is oiled, as are the pedals and hubs……its hips and knees and lungs, yes even they make noise. The big guy, brother to me, tags behind as I act in Pines roll of navigator. We weave and thread our way thru low hills, olive orchards, terraced vineyards and a few steep pitchs towards our destination city of Lucca. It all happens shall we say….outt,a the blue…..when exuberance takes precedence over diligence,…….and when excitement precludes caution. We had topped a long for us series of switchbacks along the costal range, you know that point when you realize you have topped out and everything in front of you is a high speed decent……that point where you set deep in the saddle……lean over those bars……..take on that “mean as heck” look and set forth downhill on that asphalt luge to enjoy the fruits of our labor. Inside crank set high, legs stiff, we plunge into the curves………..AHHHHHH………CRIMINY………..Ahhhhhh…..my racers edge reflexes kick in and I peer into my rear facing mirror to see two huge eyes………and a tongue frantically trying to formulate an audible sound………man his face is red I think to myself?………… I wonder if hes getting to much sun?………..I can hear it, my oratorical devices snap into that lock on like radar position, both ears now pointing backwards……..my brain is computing distance to the sound of dragging metal and canvas……my emotion detectors that come on at the first sense of movement……..are trying to analyze the facial gestures and contortions in the mirror……….why doesnt he take his tonge outt,a his left eye so he can speak………DANGER WILL ROBINSON……. a red alert light goes off just milliseconds after all that information was fed into the mental computer that God designed not IBM. I apply a hefty brake and find a guardrail to lean my bike against, just in time to see big brother wheel his steed off the road way and onto a patch of grass. During our delight in bolting the bike back together…… niether of us double checked the rack bolts. As a result, the entire rack and panniers, as well as top load bag all flipped back behind the rear wheel in one unit……sure causes steering and control issues. All are fine, no one hurt, and bike shorts are easily washed out.
Our route takes us right thru the walled city of Lucca. Considered to be the best intact medium-evil city in Europe. If these guys are ranked as Medium -Evil, hate to meet to really evil ones. I really enjoyed the jibe of Lucca, with its huge walls dating back to early 1500. The walls are now lined with Sycamore trees instead of cannons, and there are more joggers than jousters. The city center sits wrapped in a cobweb of cobbled streets, more akin a labrynth than a mindful layout. Should fog shroud the streets and a moon glower over, breaking thru at brief moments, it would take on a Poe’esh ambience for sure. From Lucca, we head now more northerly than true west. After much debate and discussion about riding the fabled Cinque Terre, which I drove last year with my family and know it is indeed steep, we arrive at the conclusion that we may struggle just a tad much with soft legs and a loaded bike right out of the chutes. Our option is to skirt round the eastern flank of the Cinque Park region on minor roads. The route is simple enough, as it is the old road prior to the upgraded Autostrada which races back and forth above our route for the most part. Where cars see long tunnels and huge bridges spanning chasms 500 feet deep, we see the climbs of old that made both cars and bikers overheat. Every once in we while we would pull over and let loose the radiator cap so we could cool down, we could ponder the grand landscape spread before us……what a great gift we are given here this earth that we roam.
No climb to long, no climb to steep for men like us……as long as we have ice cream bars and Fanta we can/would/did tackle all of it in stride. Did we huff and puff, and did we smell bad, of course, but it was worse after we started cycling. Several climbs near conquered us, we took our rest stops while other cyclists rode on past. Keep in mind they were under 35, had empty 12 pound bikes. We had 150 pound bikes in the back of a truck………ah, sorry just kidding. We have ridden everything since departing the train way back in Russia. There is a point where cycling along thru the hills on the Ligurian coastline of Italy, that you fall off a ridge at a steep 12 percent pitch and can see city on coast for as far as can be seen along the azure waters that greet the eye. The mind relaxes, the muscles loose some of that natural tension that comes from many inclines, relaxation softens the spine till you resemble Sid the Sloth from Iceage. And then it hits……all along the coast there are these steep short pitches that take you up along or in some cases over the rocky headlands that dot the coast, and you realize its not over till its over and that will be in Genoa for us tonight. While stopped atone particularilybeautiful overlook, we happened to meet another fellow cycling our same route. Wheatsay, is from Holland and is cycling from Sicily to Nice for his vacation. Had a great visit and learned much from another perspective……even if he is wrong. jk