Brenda's Diary - Venice, Bologna, Florence, Tuscany

Italy March-April 2007

March 28/29, 2007
Victoria => Venice
42 km

We cycled to the airport to start the trip off on the right note, then stashed the bikes in plastic bags for the 15 hours of flying time via Vancouver and Frankfurt to Venice. The flights, at $2372 return for the two of us, plus $100 each way for the two bikes, seemed a bargain and were what got us planning this trip. I'm always surprised that bikes in plastic bags survive so well. And I'm always surprised when we find our way into a new city from the airport without too much difficulty. In this case, reaching the city in a quick 12 km ride was no problem, but then.....

Venice is a fantastic city. Built on marshy land comprising several islands, its transportation system is walkways, bridges and canals, along which ply traghettos (ferries or little boats), gondolas with gondoliers clad in the famous striped shirts and straw boater hats, taxi boats and a handful of pleasure craft. There are no scooters, cars or bicycle-riding allowed. This is in part what makes it a fabulous city. But for our bicycles, this meant trouble. Venice has 150 canals and 409 bridges. We hauled our bikes up and down the steps of several, and pooped ourselves out! Eventually reaching the apartment we had rented for 4 nights, we were pleased to find it included a kitchen, living room, bedroom, and terrace (thanks, Su Lin). At Euro 100 per night, we had it made. Unfortunately, we were so jet-lagged, I slept until almost noon the next day; Brent snoozed until 2:30! How we spent our holiday in Venice!

O/N - small but full apartment on Fondamenta San Felice for only Euro 100; recommended. Arranged through www.vacanzeinfamiglia

March 30, 31 April 1, 2007
exploring Venice

It is hard to describe Venice without superlatives. The magnitude and density of the city are amazing. Primarily 3-storey buildings, standing side-by-side, with an occasional narrow alleyway cutting through a maze of canals. On close inspection many of the facades are crumbling. But it doesn't detract from the overall impression of long expanses of 17th century (or older) buildings with columns, shuttered windows and general facade grandeur.

Even at this time of year, it's packed with tourists. Its only 11 degrees so everyone is bundled up a bit, but no one is complaining. Shopping would be to die for, if I weren't wearing grungy old biking clothes. Italian women are very chic and the stores cater to an upscale clientele. Window-shopping is actually fun -- and for me that's a statement. Murano glass, Carneval masks, shoes and purses are everywhere on display. While it seems impossible that so many stores can be supported, I suppose if every one of the city's annual 20 million visitors bought just one mask...

We did pretty well all the things one is supposed to do in Venice:
- took the ferry back and forth on the Grand Canal and over/back to Lido
- visited the basilica and had the obligatory $40 CDN (for 2) cafe latte on San Marco square
- attended a concert at Teatro Fenice. (Loved the opera house - did a tour; hated the music - modern by Michael Blvkenstizcwz or something like that, where the violinists played every part of the instrument including the wooden sides and the wrong side of the bridge - give me a break!; loved sitting in the first loge looking down (literally, I mean) on the orchestra
- visited the Peggy Guggenheim Modern Art Gallery (Brenda) and the Galleria dell Academia (Brent)
- tried Prosecco (sparkling wine of choice in Venice) and almost tried Bellini (sparling wine with soda and bitters)

But mostly we, like everyone else, just wandered the walkways and alleyways and piazzas (squares) for hours and hours. There are only a few cities in the world where it's fun to just hang out -- Venice is one of them. 3-4 days seems about right.

There are apparently some great restaurants in Venice - but most of our food was mediocre. The Vini da Gigio was fully booked on Saturday and Sunday; next time.

April 2, 2007
Venice => Cavanella
68 km today; 110 km to date

It is finally time to start cycling! So we hauled our bicycles over Venice's otherwise picturesque bridges and made our way to the Tronchetto car ferry. This was the first of three ferries that in combination allowed us to make our way down a long island strip that serves as a natural breakwater for Venice, 23 km in total with water only a few hundred metres on either side. Almost no cars, sun broke through - fabulous.

On the other side at Chioggia, a quick lunch, then a meandering ride along agricultural land being prepared for seeding, and the many canals and dikes criss-crossing the land. We are on the Po River delta - the river itself is 600+ km long, and this delta extends for at least the 95 km we plan to cycle. It was easy to make good time - a good intro for our not-quite-ready-for-cycling legs.

When we spotted a quaint ristorante/inn (7 rooms) in a town of about six houses, our bikes turned themselves in. This would be a great route for beginner cycle-tourers. No cars, beautiful scenery, pancake flat. No wonder we like it.

O/N Ristorantino ai Scalini, via Cavanella Po 695. tele 0426- 43150
dinner Euro 78 (ok); room with breakfast Euro 70 (very nice)

April 3, 2007
Cavanella => Molinella (30km from Bologna)
100 km today; 211 km to date
11 - 16 degrees

A great easy cycling day - at the beginning. Most of the way we travelled along the tall dikes of the Po River. There must be some flooding here! The dikes are about 10 to 15 metres tall and in places have a very wide expanse, often with a small cottonwood plantation inside. There are apparently good birds on the Po delta at this time of year, although we saw only small numbers and nothing more exotic than pheasants, magpies, jays and crows.

We are continuing through flat agricultural land, 100% under cultivation (no wonder such plenitude of fresh vegetables!) Homesteads dot the landscape the entire way, with little gatherings of 10-20 every few kilometres and small villages complete with church and belltower every 10 or so kilometres. The way of life looks slow; people putter in their gardens; laundry wafts in the breeze; old folks cycle slowly down the quiet street. There are few young people. I'd guess that they've left the locale for cities and jobs - as is the case worldwide.

Two days ago in Venice, we saw a local wedding. Bride and groom arm-in-arm strolling down the stone walkway in their finery, followed by 100 guests cutting a swath through the Venetian crowds. Today we saw a local funeral, making the parallel journey. A casket covered with flowers being jostled on the shoulders of eight pall-bearers followed by 100 mourners, moving slowly down this rural road. I love this outdoor tradition, something unseen in North America.

At kilometre 85, we ran into a detour, the city in sight, but on the other side of the out-of-commission bridge. Sigh. A great day, but now too much of a good thing. When we finally made it to Molinella, our nondescript hotel looked like heaven.

O/N Mini Palace, 80 Euro w breakfast. Boring, but clean and the only place within miles.

April 4, 2007
Molinella => Bologna
40 km today; 251 km to date

We awoke to lightening and the sound of crashing thunder. Pouring rain gradually gave way to light showers, so we grudgingly donned all our rain gear and hit the road. In the end, it wasn't too bad. Agricultural roads, very light traffic, completely flat. Even when we lose our way on these back country roads, our 1:225,000 (i.e. 1 centimetre = 2.25 km) map lets us know pretty quickly and we somehow end up following our noses to the right destination. In this case, somehow we managed to find our way right to Geri and Sergio's doorway.

Although Geri is a regular visitor to Canada, we've missed her the last couple of times, so its been several years since we last got together. But it was only moments before we were chattering away and the years fell away. Geri and Sergio's apartment is modest by North American standards, but large by Italian, with three extra rooms in addition to the large "for every use room" and about 1200 square feet. They made us feel so at home. Sergio works long hours arriving home at 7:30 to 8:30; he says this is pretty standard. It reminds me of many of my previous lives - one of the parts I don't miss.

Sergio's sister lives two blocks away, across the hall in the same apartment block as Sergio's' mother, not an uncommon set-up in Italy. It means Matteo (15) and Alessandro (12) have three homes in the area. This seems pretty close quarters to me -- fortunately Geri gets along with the whole family and adores her mother-in-law, in whom she has found a kindred spirit. Imagine were it otherwise!

I can see why Geri loves Lucianna. She and her cousin Laura had us over for afternoon tea and even with our inability to converse in Italian, she is clearly forthright, interesting, charming and kind, with a ready smile and a hearty laugh. After our cycle of the morning, we ate all the cookies she put out, as various members of the extended family came and went. Lots of hugs and affection in that family! The family for three generations crafted handmade uppers for shoes, and in no time we were admiring lasts, punches, models and a few sample shoes. Apparently in the basement there is a huge workshop with all the old equipment. I would love to see it -- maybe next time. I don't think they'd notice if I adopted them - one more person coming and going would fit right in!

Dinner was pasta - Spaghetti Bolognaise, of course. The authentic thing has no tomatoes in it; how do this myths get started?

We slept in the master bedroom while the hosts got the TV room. Seems unfair, but they insisted. And I must say, we slept well!

April 5, 2007
exploring Bologna

With a population of 375,000 Bologna is not too daunting. However, as in most European cities, the old city core is relatively small, streets are narrow, and driving/parking is a nightmare. So we hopped the bus for the 3 km ride and then did the sights.
- looking out over a sea of red tile roofs as far as the eye can see, from the top of Torre degli Asinelli (98 metres; 498 steps). At one time the town had more than 180 towers; building a tower was a show of wealth in the 12th Century.
- visiting the Basilica di San Petronia, named after the city's patron saint. It was started in 1392, under construction for 250 years and then planned to be enlarged to be bigger than one at the time in Rome -- these folks had ambition! But the papacy put an end to that plan, halting the expansion. To this day, the facade is not completed, but a more interesting story for all that. It is still the 5th largest church in the world. But its more interesting feature is a long metal strip in the floor that is lighted up at a specific point along the strip at noon each day through a hole in the tall vaulted ceiling -- making it a long sundial in effect, with the solstices marking each end of the strip. Very cool.
- Bologna is the city of porticoes. As the first university in Europe, date back to 10xx something or other, the city was flooded with students. They began to use the porticoes as teaching and shelter space. By the end of the 12th Century, each building was required to include a portico. The result is a city with an unbelievable 40 km of porticoes. What a lovely and practical feature they make, providing pedestrian ways and shelter from the elements.
- the world's best gelateria is at La Sorbetteria Castiglione (via Castiglione 44); I'll be back for chocolat and for caffe flavours.

Geri is a good tour guide, and we took one of the kid's school books - as good as a Lonely Planet for this purpose.

April 6, 2007
Bologna => Florence
by train (8/259)

It is possible to cycle Bologna to Florence, but they are both at low altitude and there's a big 900 metre bump between them. Reason trumped pride and we and our bikes took the train. Lots of trains in Italy carry bikes, but the Bologna to Florence route only has one daily. Fortunately it was a convenient time at 9:53, arriving 11:45. Passenger Euro 3.50 each; bicycles Euro 4.80 each.

We are staying at a lovely European style hotel on the "other" side of the Arno (thanks, Carol!), with a comfy lounge area with books and stuffed chairs and cocktail hour and with inviting garden terraces. Our room has a comfy balcony that will see some evening time. It is a bit out of the way and a walk into the old quarter takes about 1/2 hour, but in all other respects, it is recommended.

O/N Hotel David, via Michelangelo 1, recommended
Euro 145 with breakfast

April 7/8, 2007
exploring Florence

Florence is an amazing city of many delights. The Duomo, a monstrous church clad in white, pink and green marble is fantastic in every way - the translucent colours, the sheer size, the intricacy of its architecture and carvings. We didn't get inside - it being Easter Sunday and preparing for a special mass - I can only imagine. Surrounding the whole area are market stalls of well-priced leather goods, shoes, and every imaginable tourist trinket. Even at this time of year, all the streets are crammed with tourists - what it must be like in July I hate to think.

There are more squares, bridges (Ponte Vecchio with its former workshops hanging over the end a famous landmark), churches, museums, galleries, monuments (including the Statue of David standing quite alone as people traipse by, open to all the elements), arches, cafes, than one could see in a month. And the real charm is just wandering around. Another visit required.

We spent 4 hours in the Pitti Palace (1,000 paintings mostly collected by the Medici family, many old masterpieces, the largest collection of Raphael); the next day 6 hours at the Uffizi Gallery (45 rooms, old masters, one room devoted entirely to Botticelli); and 1 hour at the laundromat. That pretty well covers the spectrum and our time. We sampled cafes and trattorias; we've had no bad food, but also nothing particularly noteworthy. And its all expensive - lunch of pasta, basic salad and water is usually about Euro 40 for 2 (i.e. $60 Canadian). I'm glad my student days are behind me.

Florence takes more time, 6 days would be about right.

O/N Hotel David

April 9, 2007
Florence => San Gimignano
60 km today; 19 km to date

This was a strenuous cycling day, with 2 big hills before the final climb to San Gimignano. Although tough, the conditions were otherwise near perfect; warm spring day, little traffic on the back roads through vineyards and olive orchards - is that the right word? - on the hilltops with grass and freshly tilled bottom lands. The entire land base is covered with small holdings, and every field has a tanned old guy working the soil with a tractor (many of the tractors are small FIAT made tracked machines - like small tanks - rather than wheeled). EU agricultural policy at its best and worst. On the plus side, it maintains a way of life from an old tradition and is probably all that keeps these tiny villages alive. On the minus side, economically inefficient?

Many of the towns are on top of hills; good for the defence potential in bygone days -- not so good for cyclists. But that doesn't stop Italian cyclists. It seems the hillier the better. Today is Easter Monday - a holiday - and they were out in force. We saw between 250 and 300 in groups usually of 2 or 3 (but up to 25 in one group), decked out in their bee costumes as we call them. We often see the back of them when they pass us, as they frequently do.
Aside from the serious cyclists on their fast road bikes racing around the hills outside the towns, there are lots of septuagenarian and octogenarian cyclists on old black one-speeds probably left over from WWII in the towns. These folks we manage to keep up with! And since they don't wear helmets - Italy (and all other European countries) are enlightened in this respect - we identify with these geezers. (Brent finds it ironic that the road racers usually wear helmets but travel at speeds at which a helmet only decides whether it will be an open or closed coffin. Meanwhile the old folks move at speeds (less than 5 kph) at which they might actually benefit from a helmet but don't wear one.)

All hill towns have the same basic elements - a huge tall fortified wall, an enormous, cavernous Duomo (cathedral), often a palace or castle, and some steeped-in-history civic buildings dating back centuries.

San Gimignano is in a league of its own (or apparently in a league with another gem - Volterra). Originally an Etruscan town, it took on its current shape of tall towers (still numbering 14) and tall fortified walls in medieval times. It is incredibly well-preserved, with 13th and 14th century buildings in great shape surrounding two large piazzas. There are more shops and restaurants and outdoor cafes than one would think possible in this large-by-medieval standards but small by today's tourist demand standards. We found our first great restaurant (La Mangiatoia - rubiletto a cabbage/bread based soup full of fresh vegetables and other tempting dishes). Our hotel, La Cisterna, in one of the 14th century palazzi on the square, is also great - recommended. SG is a not-to-be missed, 5-star historic site where we lucked out on hotel and restaurant - fabulous.
Note - it is well worth staying in the old town overnight. It is surprisingly inexpensive, and the tour buses start hauling people out of town at sunset. In the evening and early morning, it is possible to imagine this site in its historic heyday - you can almost see people in costume!

O/N La Cisterna Hotel, Euro 92 with breakfast. Highly recommended. (There were no rooms with view left, and they are more expensive, but I think worth springing for if available. Book well ahead.)

April 10, 2007
San Gimignano => Siena
44 km today; 363 to date

A moderately difficult but short cycling day - despite getting lost on our way out of San G and pushing our bikes for an hour up and down the steep slopes of someone's olive orchard. Good thing its almost pleasant in such surroundings. Traffic still light, weather still warm and springlike.

Siena is a great tourist town. In addition to the cathedral(s), civic buildings and palazzi (slightly older and more Gothic than Florence since it hit its heyday a couple hundred years earlier around 1300), it has an enormous plaza ringed by well-preserved buildings. Twice a year there are medieval-style (including full costumes and pageantry) horse races. People form a core audience in the centre of the plaza, and the horses race around the outside, just inside the ring of buildings from which people hang out of every window and balcony to watch. The pictures suggest the palio, as it is called, is awesome. Too packed to really want to attend, so more awesome in concept.

O/N Hotel Piccolo, OK but not particularly recommended. Euro 96 with breakfast

April 10, 2007
Siena => San Quirico
46 km today; 409 km to date

We collapsed today. There's a bit more traffic (24 cars of which 4 trucks in 5 minutes), and its a bit warmer (22 degrees), and our side routes to avoid traffic added a lot of vertical. But it was the huge hotel with spa, spacious rooms, gigantic garden with (as yet unopened) pool and the place virtually empty that did it. Our bikes turned in, we followed. Brent opted for a four-hour(!) nap - I must have really tuckered that lad out! I found that an afternoon lazing and reading in the all-to-myself back garden was A-OK. Yeah hilltop towns! Yeah Chianti-land! Yeah Hotel Casanova.

O/N Hotel Casanova, Euro 110 with breakfast (recommended)

April 11, 2007

When you find a good thing, stick with it. Made inroads on several novels and reference books, enjoyed the sunny garden, generally opted for a life of leisure; the only thing we need to do today is decide what to order for dinner in the great restaurant in a 13th century farmhouse next door. Brent points out that a fancy hotel and big garden could be anywhere. But its not! Its Tuscany!