November 13, 2016
It’s a beautiful morning to be back on the road. The sun is still low in the sky but its fire is draping the seaside roads in a rich red that make us feel lucky to be here. We’re quickly through Nice and riding along the cliffs reveals a beautiful view of Villefranche. We stop for fuel in Monaco and meet a young man who, upon seeing the flags on our bikes, tells us of his dream to move to Canada one day – a dream we’ve heard a few times on the road. The grass really is greener. Back onto cliff-hugging roads we drop into the beautiful town of Menton and again we’re selfishly met with the longing for even more time; Mentons appeal has us wanting to spend a day or two in “La Perle de la France.”
On the far side of Menton is the Franco-Italian border and it doesn’t take long for our journey into Italy to get interesting. As we approach, we notice about thirty RV’s lining the check-stop, all seemingly empty. As the guard house comes into view we see it’s empty and immediately outside of it a vendor has set up a vegetable stand! It feels as though we’ve entered the Twilight Zone. Our experience at the borders in Europe have been a far cry from the scrutiny of our Canada/USA trips – and it’s been a pleasant departure. Nita reminds me over the headsets to enjoy it while we can – it’s unlikely to stay this way along the length of our journey. She is, of course, right.
The road quickly turns into a wonderful blur of endless corners, winding along the sea then darting inland and upwards into the sky. These coastal passes may be far lower than those we’re used to, but what they lack in height they make up for in twisty, hillside goodness. As quickly as we climb the road drops us back down by the water for some more glorious weaving through endless small towns and caffè-lined streets. The road in Italy immediately transforms from its counterpart in France; there’s a flow along the roads in this first 200km that’s we’ve not felt in some time.
The roads aren’t the only thing that’s transformed. Drivers in Italy are a far different beast than their French neighbours. There are a few realities that are quickly established in our minds: Everything here really is a race, the speed limit is established by bureaucratic policy-makers so should, therefore, be ignored, and the left two meters of your lane is considered a no mans land that can be used by oncoming traffic should they decide the racer in front of them is not of the same calibre – which means there’s always someone coming at us head-on in those two meters. Somehow, we don’t feel stressed with the mayhem, but instead, discover an interesting zen-like spot where we glide easily through the chaos. Italy, it seems, is bonkers.
We find the Grand Hotel Arenzano and celebrate our first night in a new country – country number six. A walk around the town has our ears filled with Italian for the first time and an unusual feeling in my belly: I feel unprepared for dealing with a new language. Luckily, Nita’s obsession with the language is paying off and our first few interactions are painless, if mildly stressful.
Hungry and ready for a celebratory drink we walk past a tiny bar about four times before finally entering. A man sporting a fairly unfriendly face has watched us each time and may be part of the reason we’re feeling apprehensive. On our way in Nita shoots him a smile but he breaks eye contact and returns to his beer – it’s a disingenuous way of letting us know we’re intruding on a “locals” bar. Still, we’re met with a few ciao’s on the way in and the owner greets us with a nice smile and a genuine warmth.
Nita orders her usual (Jack Daniels e Coca Zero) and I try my hand at an Americano – a classic I’d long forgotten about. Before the drinks have even made it to the table, our host returns with a plate of quartered sandwiches filled with mortadella and provolone, some nuts and chips. A look of concern must have fallen across my face as he quickly smiles and says “Gratis. It’s free.” We’re happy to discover that many places in Italy will serve up some free snacks along with drinks during happy hour and we eagerly accept the gift. As soon as the plate is empty, he returns with another and suddenly, our dinner plans have changed! The endless plate of food is helping us understand what it’s like to have an Italian mother.
We finish up and walk slowly back to our hotel for the night; Arenzano is a sweet town with cobble roads and hilly side streets that drift away from us in all directions. It’s strange to be back in a hotel and we’re reminded why we prefer staying in apartments where we’re self-sufficient. Still, our night here is wonderfully fun and we fall asleep content with our first day in Italy.
Our internal clocks are still waking us up earlier than usual, but I think we’re both glad for it. We seem to have hours before needing to check-out of the hotel and loading the bikes is a leisurely affair. We have a longer day in the saddle as we head into Toscana and our home the next five days, an olive farm set in Vicopisano.
Our first major city in Italy is Genova and its hectic streets are our introduction to the day. While the zen-like state from the previous day seems to have stayed with us, the city seems to take forever to traverse. Along the docks, under the freeway, around the round-about, up into the hills back down to another dock and we’re out. Wait, no we’re not. Up another hill, through a residential area, another industrial area… and so it goes. Finally, along an innocuous looking hill we see the sign:
GENOVA. The crossed-out name lets us know we’re through as does the slightly reduced frequency of crazy drivers. Hallelujah! A couple of fist-pumps in the air and a good laugh over our headsets reveals our mood – spirits are still high and we appreciate that every city helps with the next.
Soon we’re rolling once again along the coast with all of its twists and turns. Every once in a while our route takes us high into the hills providing us with stunning views of the towns nestled tightly into the hills below before gently lowering us down by the water once more. We stop briefly for a macchiato in Sori and catch our breath; the roads here are incomparable and our initiation to riding Italy this morning has been unforgettable.
A highlight of the day is a ride along the Passo del Bracco whose snow-lined road seems to twist endlessly into the hills. At each bend, the temperature seems to drop and our only company along its route are some cyclists who look to be training for the Giro d’Italia. During the summer the pass is a mecca for sport bike riders who test their mettle along the length of its tarmac, with some discovering the hard way that sheer fearlessness isn’t always enough. But for us, it isn’t simply the curves or the challenges the road offers – it’s being here, in this moment, with the towns far below us, the blue ribbon of sea in the distance and, except for the sound of our engines, complete silence. It’s a juxtaposition to the days earlier mayhem which is so beautiful it refuses to be dismissed. We pull over, turn off the bikes and let it ring in our ears while we breathe in the landscape.
The day is getting late and we speed on towards Vicopisano choosing to make our way over to the highway for the last hour. Toll booths are friendlier to travellers in Italy than they are in France and I manage to pay the fees without attracting a police escort. Another victory! Soon we’re winding our way down the long, tree-lined road that leads into the centre of town and after arriving at the wrong address, we meet Marie and Lorenzo outside the cemetery to follow them to our home for the next five days.
Vicopisano is one of the five towns that comprise the Strada dell’Olio (the Olive Oil Trail) along a 138km stretch of road and Il Frantoio de Vicopisano is a working olive farm that produces some of the regions best extra-virgin olive oil. The long gravel road leads us to the main farmhouse and we’re met by what seems to be the entire family! As we remove ourselves from the bikes, Marie and Lorenzo introduce us to Lucia, the owner, her daughter Simona, and Valentina who’s married to Lucia’s nephew Francesco. After a warm greeting, Valentina and Marie show us to our apartment and share some local information before leaving us to settle into our home for the next five nights.
Once we’re settled, we head down to the office to pay our deposit and Valentina presents us with a bottle of wine and a bottle of the farm’s olive oil. A beautiful shade of green, we can hardly wait to taste it over a bed of leaves and prosciutto or perhaps a slice of freshly baked bread.
Vicopisano is about a ten-minute walk from the farm and, with the sun making its way towards the horizon, we still have plenty of time to walk about its main street. Marie had mentioned that restaurants in the area don’t open much before 8 pm, and the rumbling in our bellies assures us that we’re unlikely to last that long. We haven’t adjusted to the late dinner times in continental Europe yet and we don’t know that we ever will! Looking for a coffee and a snack, we hit the only bar open and take another try at ordering in Italian. The owner quickly responds in Italian that’s so fast it leaves our minds spinning. The looks on our faces give us away and she quickly changes to excellent English. We still try to finish ordering in Italian, but this time Gratiza coaches us through it with a smile.
We enjoy some time sitting on the patio with a macchiato while devouring a slice of pizza until the darkness and the cold convince us it’s time to grab some groceries and go. We take our time walking the aisles of the grocery store, looking at the new brands of food, the new types of treats, and the differences between what’s carried here as compared to France. The sounds of friendly conversation fill the air and we understand none of it which is surprisingly nice.
With baskets full of supplies for our stay, we head to the register and are met by a lovely smile from the cashier. After a couple of questions in Italian pass us by, she politely asks where we’re from. Our answer brings a huge smile to her face and suddenly she’s speaking quickly to her mother behind the pastry counter and her father who’s just walked in the door. As the mother rounds the corner saying something to us with great excitement, their son leaves the butcher counter to find out what’s going on. Suddenly Nita and I hear a word we know well: Quebec. When I repeat “Quebec?” the mother responds by yelling “Si! Si! Bravo! Quebec!” and the cashier points to the wall behind the register. There, towards the ceiling, is a postcard from Quebec. In a mix of broken English and Italian, the son tries to explain the connection, while his sister pokes fun at him with an overly dramatic “He loooooooooves Quebec!” punctuated with another fantastic grin.
We explain our travels to them and all the while everyone seems to be talking at the same time. We not sure anyone understands what anyone else is saying and no-one really seems to care – everyone’s having a good time. As we leave, the volume seems to hit a crescendo and ciaos fill the night air as we enter back into the darkness. With bags in hand we walk back through the town, then along the highway and up the gravel road to our home, kept warm the entire way by the conversation in the market. Sometimes, all it takes is for one person to go ever-so-slightly out of their way to create an unforgettable moment. Had the cashier simply rang us through and asked nothing, this feeling that fills us would never have come to pass and all we’d have left the store with is a couple of bags of groceries.
Just before we turn in, there’s a knock at the door – it’s Francesco – Valentina’s husband and the nephew of the properties owner. He’s come by to make sure we’re warm enough since the inland weather is shifting and the night air is very cold. The old stone house takes some time to warm up and we know we’re in for a chilly night. With rain and snow in the forecast for the next few days, our plans may turn out to be quite limited.
As it turns out, we’re a little too early in the year for living “Under a Tuscan Sun” and the weather rages almost ceaselessly during our stay here. From sideways rain to afternoons filled with blowing snow, there are moments when we wish we’d stayed by the Mediterranean and chosen a better time to visit. Regardless, the area is beautiful and the view from our window is stunning. With a clear sight of Filippo Brunelleschi’s watch tower, the town of Vicopisano unfolds into hillsides lined with olive trees.
Brunelleschi’s discovery of linear perspective not only changed the way artists painted (it stopped plates from slipping off of impossibly angled medieval tables), it also changed the ways in which we look at the world around us – much like travel. The world is familiar yet changed once we begin travelling and the tower we see in the distance is a beautiful reminder of our own transformations.
The weather remains still enough for us to manage a trip to Pisa and it’s beautiful sights don’t disappoint. When we left Suzanne in France she described the opposing forces at work in Italy – to be blessed with so much style and yet, at the same time, to be so gritty. Pisa certainly seems to fit into that vision. It’s a city that’s filled with young people who are incredibly stylish and vibrant set on a backdrop of graffiti-soaked walls and littered streets. But the murky river that runs through it belies the palpable energy that seems to power this place.
We stop for a caffè and take a moment to enjoy the people as they hurry about before setting off for the tower. As a child, having a name that rhymes with a famously tilted landmark can have its drawbacks but I’ve had a fascination with the Torre di Pisa as long as I can remember. A fantastic engineering failure, it’s lean is even more difficult to comprehend in person. The closer we get to it, the more frequently we see people posing for pictures which, using perspective, give the illusion that they’re either pushing it over or holding it up. Some people are good, some are bad. These Pisa Pushers are literally everywhere and, as they contort their bodies and receive direction from their photographers, Nita and I have to share a quiet chuckle.
While most of the eyes here focus squarely on the Campanile, ours have wandered to the incredible Duomo in the Piazza dei Miracoli. The beautiful dome of the Cathedral dominates the square and it’s architecture intentionally demands the attention of onlookers. Further west and into quieter grounds, sits the Baptistery, a massive dedication to John the Baptiste that reaches slightly higher into the sky than the Torre di Pisa. Its beauty rivals the Duomo while it’s ornate walls and massive dome seem to allude to a crown in its design. This piazza is stunning.
As we leave the piazza and head toward the river, we pass plenty of pro-communist graffiti, a communist centre and a wall with tattered posters of Che Guevara covering its bricks. And Jimi Hendrix, although I’m not sure Jimi was a communist. Still, the concentration of leftist material leaves me curious even though I know answers to any questions I have will be hard to come by.
We make our way back to the bus station, negotiate a bus ticket and head back to Vicopisano. By the time we’re back at our apartment at the farm, the rain has returned in force and the wind is whipping it around our patio. We nestle into the room and wait to see what the next day will bring though it isn’t looking great for a trip to Firenze.
The morning brings with it a decidedly colder weather system and by early afternoon large, fluffy snowflakes are blowing past our windows. While they never seem to form more that thin layer over the ground, the next days become a writing and movie watching retreat. We venture out for a tour of the farm with Francesco and his pride in the operation – and the oil – is tangible. He works hard from early in the morning until late into the night and, over the years, he’s developed skills akin to an artist mastering their techniques.
Since the snow has stopped, we bundle up and take a walk around the grounds where, at every important point along the way, Francesco tells us exactly what’s what. We walk through the thousands of olive trees that are farmed for the oil and on to the Sangiovese grapes used for the family wines. He takes a moment to explain that Chianti is made from the same grapes as Sangiovese but, like Champagne, the name isn’t allowed to be used outside of the region. Next to the grapevines are rows of kiwifruit vines and Francesco explains that, for some time, Italy was the largest producer of the fruit in the world. While no longer the high-priced rarity it once was, the folks at Il Frantoio de Vicopisano now produce a beautiful desert wine from the fruit that reminds us of the ice wines we get in North America.
Next Francesco shows us the processing floor of the farm where the oil is pitted and pressed into oil. Unlike commercial-grade extra virgin olive oil that refines inferior products with chemicals to achieve it’s “extra virgin” status, this farm uses high-quality olives with age-old techniques to produce its product free of additives. And I have to say, tasting the oil makes us realize just how different this is from what we buy in grocery stores. It’s beautiful!
After we understand the process Francesco invites us into a room with a long rustic dining table and a large wood-burning oven at one end. The tour ends with a tasting that includes not only pure olive oil but also the farms’ various herb-infused offerings. He shows us how to taste the olive oil as you would a fine wine and the spiciness of the young oil takes me off guard leaving me suddenly breathless! Francesco explains that new oils are spicy (hot) and settle over time – and while he’s a fan of them, I can say I’m definitely a fan of mellow!
Rosemary, basil, lemon and chilli; the oils are truly wonderful and our tasting of the various types drizzled over bread is balanced with a sample of their Sangiovese, a chicken liver pâté made with their oil, and topped off with a dram of their kiwifruit desert wine. They even produce a chocolate sauce made with their oil that is, honestly, beautiful. An unbelievably delicious end to a tour of the farm.
With Francesco needing to get back to work, he hands us off to Simone and her husband Andrea – a Guzzi rider and a professor at the university. With excellent English and a fantastic sense of humour, we spend some time trading stories from the road and dreams for the future. We say our goodbyes and make our way back into the apartment for the night with a new appreciation for olive oil and a healthy supply of goodies from the farm’s store. The snow’s returned and a cozy night spent watching movies is just what the doctor orders.
Our last full day in Vicopisano is drier but the chill remains in the air. Rather than spend it inside we wander into town for a walkabout. Filippo Brunelleschi’s tower has been calling our name as has the medieval town surrounding it. Just off of the main street, we make our way up the steep cobblestone streets and find ourselves at the fortress that contains the tower but too early in the season to walk through it. We walk the grounds happy to be out and about, and soon enough we walk to Gratzia’s for a caffè before heading back to the farm.
After making a small meal for ourselves, we begin to settle in and pack for our departure in the morning when there’s a knock at the door. It’s Francesco. He quickly lets us know that family is visiting for a large dinner and wants to see if we would join them. We explain that we’ve just eaten but he reminds us that in Italy the eating part of any meal starts much later and we excitedly accept the invitation.
In the same room as our tasting, the door opens to show a raging fire and four men busying themselves around the table and the wood-burning oven. We quickly find ourselves holding a glass of Sangiovese, talking to Francesco’s father Stefano, and close family friends while a large rack of ribs and sausage is turned constantly over the flames. Slowly, over the course of the next hour, more and more people find their way into the smoke-filled room, and as the volume increases so does the fun. Kids are running around, dogs are playing, and now in the company of their spouses, everyone is laughing or deep in conversation. It’s the unexpected welcome to Italy we could have only dreamed of! Some of the guests are especially interested in our journey and have questions we’re happy to answer. Our glasses of wine are mysteriously refilled while Olga and Stefano happily tell of places we must visit on our route south. Valentina talks with us about Pisa where she attends school and, along with the help of Olga’s daughter Salena, sets up a crash-course in Italian that proves incredibly helpful. All the while, Valentina and Francesco’s daughter Amelia entertains herself amongst the adults, the pups and the food. It’s a full house, with full hearts.
Soon everyone takes a place at the long table and a feast of food is passed from end to end; ribs, sausage, slices of steak, spinach, roasted eggplant – all done in a traditionally Tuscan style. It’s so good that words can’t do it justice. Nita and I just keep looking at each other feeling so blessed to be in the company of this family. The empty dishes are replaced by more wine, and then grappa. The men now occupy one end of the table and the women the other; I’m invited to join the “macho” end and find a place next to Francesco where we talk about his passion for music while my glass of grappa seems to refill itself magically. Already buzzing, Stefano introduces Nita and me to Vino Santo – holy wine – a sweet and beautiful drink that is, simply, heaven in a glass. Even Francesco, who doesn’t drink, smiles, takes a glass, and admits that he can’t resist!
As people begin to say their goodnights and drift into the rain, we follow suit; it’s late into the night and we have to leave early in the morning for Livorno. Back in the room Nita and I fall asleep talking about the night and the warmth of this wonderful family. We feel truly blessed. The next morning, as we pack the bikes and prepare to leave, Francesco and Valentina head down from their room to say goodbye. We talk for a while about their desire to come to Canada one day and we let them know that they’ll always be welcome to stay with us. With a wave, we ride down the long gravel driveway with a chill in the air and the skies threatening rain. However, we are warm with the memories of a great night and warm thoughts of new friends.