Saturday, September 24, 2011

Sept. 22-24,2011 - Biking Siena to Greve in Chianti& the Finale in Florence, Italy

Our most memorable day of biking nirvana took place on Thursday 9/22 when we left Siena after our rest day. Perhaps it was the amazing food from the previous night's dinner, the day off, or the gentler hills, but all in all the entire group agreed it was the perfect biking day.

The highlight of the morning was our group grape stop supplied by some local grape harvesters, who posed with us for pictures!

At our lunch stop in Radda, Peter stayed to sketch while I rode another 24K extra to and from the town of Castellina in Chianti. We met back in Radda for late lunch and then rode two glorious downhills of 10K and 6K, split by a 5K uphill climb. I have never done a ride so amazing! Ended the day at just over 80K and felt great. We enjoyed an evening of wine tasting and dinner together on the outdoor terrace of our hotel in Greve.

The final day's 50K ride was tougher than we expected - we think the psychological burden of the last day combined with heat and hills made us work much harder than anticipated. But, it was awe-inspiring to see Florence in the distance and, powered by gelato, we arrived at the Piazza Michelangelo for out final guided bike route to our hotel on the Arno. We had an incredible (again!) farewell dinner and all of us were sorry to see it all end. The group was wonderful to bike with and we are already looking forward to our next - and eighth! - Experience Plus bike trip in 2012...

View from Hotel Ste. Catherine Terrace in Siena foretells a fantastic biking day.

Our amazing guide Michele awaits our departure from Siena - he and Stefania made a great team and we were so well cared for.

I gave my EP hat to the breakfast server - she brought me a second cappuccino and said "I was too young to get the shakes from it".

Grape harvest for Vin Santo production (a sweet dessert wine).

The group has a legendary "hat moment" with 3 grape harvesters who also gave us grape samples!

Peter enjoys a post-perfect-ride-day Morelli beer on the terrace of our room in Greve.

This is the only way I will ever get to pet a cinghale (wild boar)

Enjoying the wine, cheese and meat tasting before dinner.

Dining pleasure in Greve.

The final ride to Florence included a gelato stop in Impruneta. Jill and Peter posed for "Team Chianti Classico"!

Florence and the end of our bike tour looms ahead.

The bittersweet arrival for Peter, June and Jill.

June bikes the last 3k to our hotel beside the Arno River.

The farewell dinner and happy/sad bikers.

Packing up to say goodbye to Florence and Italy.

Hoping that all roads lead to our next bike adventure.

Ciao and Bon voyage!

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Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Sept. 20-21, 2011 The Ride to Siena, and Rest Day in Siena

I was more than a bit prescient with my comment from Monday night that Tuesday's ride would "flame" the calories I consumed at dinner. Tuesday started very cool and windy - first time I wore long- fingered gloves, leg warmers, arm warmers and a vest since the tour began last Wednesday. We rode 59K of some of the most challenging terrain Peter and I have ever biked. The whole day was rolling hills, or should I say rolling mountains! It was incredibly scenic as each climb presented (literally) breathtaking vistas while each descent, ever with a headwind, brought thrilling speed (well over 30 MPH).

After leaving Montalcino we biked about 23K to the Abbey of Monte Oliveto Maggiore . It is still a working monastery and much to our regret has been overly updated in many aspects. But, there was still much to enjoy with frescoes and sculpture, even though much of the architectural appeal had been altered. Our guide Stefania provided a great treat by spreading out a picnic of three Pecorino cheeses bought in Pienza - one young, one aged about 6 months and one cured in ashes that was very firm, grainy and pungent. Add fruit and bread we pocketed after breakfast and it was a memorable feast. The ensuing 36K into the hilly terrain and headwind was made easier with cheese power!

The numerous climbs were much shorter than those we did to end the day in our hill towns, but they made that up with steepness. We were battling up 15% and 20% grades in our lowest gear, wishing we could just shift one more time. At one point, I looked at my odometer and saw I was climbing at around 6.5 kilometers per hour. Doesn't require a math degree to get just how slow that is (4.2 MPH!). We figured out that due to the speed of our descents we likely had spent over 80% of our ride day, almost 3 hours, going uphill.

The kismet of it all is that today in Siena it is an official rest day - no biking! We slept in a bit, had breakfast and then joined our group for a guided tour of Siena, starting at the Campo, or city center. Our guide was fantastic and even though Peter and I had some familiarity with Siena from a 4-day visit in 2000, we learned many new things of interested (at least to us).

When the tour finished around noon at the Duomo, we purchased entry to both the Duomo and the Duomo Museum. The true highlight was climbing up to the Panorama, the unfinished east side of the Duomo, the for fabulous views of the city and surrounding countryside.

We bought food and picnicked on the Campo, then hiked over to a Sienese cemetery we had discovered in our first trip. It is a very interesting experience to walk through the tombs and crypts and see the various graves and some of the amazing personalizations upon them. Peter sketched and I just relaxed and enjoyed the moment.

Had another great dinner experience with our convivial group and are looking forward to a great day of biking tomorrow!

The day dawns cool and dramatic for our 10K descent from Montalcino.

June prowls the Abbey and finds interesting scale comparison! We figure it is a secret passage to an illicit TV room...

Theme picture of the day/week/trip - climbing!

The grades were 15-20% both up and downhill. Only problem is the downhills are over too quickly!

June surveys Siena in the distance...getting closer to the promised land!

It's about the journey AND the arrival.

The Campo is the heart of Siena - this is a late afternoon scene when we first arrived.

The Campo at night from our restaurant table. We inhaled pizza!

And the Campo in the morning before our wonderful guided tour.

Sienese street scene - magical.

Endless clay tile roofs and distant mountains from the Duomo Panorama.

The cemetery in Siena is one of the most interesting places in the city - the families of the deceased take great pains to keep up the tombs and personalize them to give the living a window into who they once were.

A great example of personalization - this guy must have been an amazing billiards player!

June blogs "plein aire" while Peter sketches.

And vice-versa...

Peter's rendition of the cemetery in pen - a great quick sketch.

Ciao for now and Buena Notte - it's almost midnight in Siena!

Monday, September 19, 2011

Sept. 19, 2011 - Biking to Montalcino

We briefly awoke at 4:45 am to the sound of rain - pouring rain, with wind gusts that drove sheets of water against our windows. I declared it a good omen as we were to be on the road at 9:00 am, and it couldn't possibly keep raining that hard (could it?). Well, maybe it is the candles we've been lighting in various churches along the way, or just plain dumb luck, but by 9:00 am the sun was out and the temperature had plummeted to a Minnesota-like 60 deg. F!

Today's ride was wonderful in so many ways. We had some short, hard climbs to warm us up and some steep descents to whoop it up. Best luck for us is that rain threatened again around noon - as the drops started to fall we pulled up under a roadside grove of trees, donned our rain jackets and covered our rack packs. While we barely got wet as we rode to the next town, some of our group were caught in the deluge just behind us and needed to take refuge in the support van! We also avoided another shower during a short snack break in the town bar. We emerged to sunshine once again and started the BIG climb up to Montalcino. The 8k took us 50 minutes - there were prolonged stretches of climbing where I stayed in my lowest gear for 10-15 minutes. Believe me, it is a low gear!

As we wanted to have more "town time" in Montalcino, we forsook the optional ride down and back up to a notable abbey - after hot showers and laundry we enjoyed strolling/sketching/snacking time under sunny skies and wonderfully comfy, cooler temperatures.

In the evening rain showers started again but we were armed with jackets and umbrellas so all was well. We toured the imposing 14th century Fortezza (fort), walking the wall (more like jogging) as the rain and wind buffeted us. The fort was also the location of our group wine tasting - we learned all about Brunello wines and the various rules surrounding their classification. Of course, my favorite was 49€ a bottle - a 7 year old Brunello from a five-star year. Despite the offer of free shipping, we passed on buying a case :-)))

The evening of this great day was capped by a lovely dinner at a restaurant recommended by both our guides and Rick Steves - Taverna il Grappolo Blu. It did not disappoint! Peter had Tuscan sausage with white beans and a side of melted Pecorino cheese and honey. I had Riboletta (Tuscan bread soup) and a side of spinach. It was all so good we got dessert too! Guess I'm rationalizing that tomorrow's ride will flame it all. Buena notte!

Midmorning and the group is still fresh and energized! From left Cliff, Lois, June and Deb.

Still kissing up to the locals. I'm finding the vast majority of Italian dogs to be as sweet as can be.

Free ranging Jack Russell with a big attitude - he was facing down a car!

Once again each hill town had a wonderful aura all its own.

The clouds were massing for some big rain but also made exquisite shadow patterns on the landscape.

How beautiful can you get? This beautiful.

Peter captures June at the start of our epic 8k climb into Montalcino.

End of the climb - June surveys the vast Tuscan plains WAY below.

Peter sketches the city hall tower

The wonderful end result of Peter's sketching!

Umbrellas were defeated in the rain and wind as we toured the Fortezza walls.

The wine tasting was educational and delicious - the group was so happy!

Peter and June cap off the evening with a great meal at the cozy Taverna.

Thanks again for reading! Siena tomorrow and continued blogging on Wednesday. Amazing to think it will be all over in only 4 more days...

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Sunday, September 18, 2011

Sept. 17-18, 2011 - Heading for the Hills - Lots of Hills!

Blogger June in her typical setting....

Days 4 and 5 of our tour of Tuscany - the hills are alive and our legs are half dead! We flatlanders have a lot of adjusting to do to ride routes with climbs that stretch 4 or 5k and take upwards of one-half hour to summit. But there is no room for wimps and we leave Cortona Saturday morning at 9 am to ride 61k to Pienza via Montepulciano, a city made famous by the incredible wines they produce. The weather continues very warm and sunny. We are pacing ourselves pretty well considering the amount of heat and hills.

The ascents are made greatly worthwhile by the epic downhills we enjoy - one in particular from the peak after Montepulciano lasted over 6k and was like a slalom ski race course! "Exhilarating" does not begin to do justice as a description of the ride.

The vineyards are stunning as we climb towards Montepulciano. These are the most beautiful farms we've seen since starting the tour.

Vines are laden with purple grapes and we see truckloads of both white and red grapes pass us on the road.

The town square of Montepulciano- It is very prosperous handsome of the most expensive wines in Italy come from here.

One of the many scenic overlooks that ring the town. Yes, we biked up from that valley in the far distance!

A few of our bike group snack before leaving on the next climb. From left, David, Sharon, Jill and your narrator.

Leaving Montepulciano we crest another long climb and see our destination - Pienza - in the far distance. Only 16k to go!

Getting closer to the destination goal!

June enjoys the last downhill before the 5k climb into Pienza - it took one-half hour and a lot of water breaks!

Peter proudly poses at near the summit - it is always a great moment to crest the climb and enter your host town.

Pienza is very picturesque - despite our tired legs we had a wonderful walk around town including the wall which rings the south side of town and has incredible views.

The next day (Sunday) was an optional ride to Radicofani, and Peter and I debated a lot about just how much of the 74k we wanted to do after such a long and tiring ride Saturday. We decided the best plan was to follow the route and simply backtrack back to Pienza if we felt we were not up to the long, long climb into Radicofani. Well, the day dawned cooler and we just kept going (surprise). We saw many wonderful sights along the way and enjoyed yet another screaming downhill from Radicofani - but this one was 19k and we were averaging over 40 KPH! The ascent back into Pienza actually felt easier (are we actually getting fitter?) and we had another great evening in the town square enjoying the life there. We also toured the Piccolomini Palace and enjoyed our glimpse of "how the other half lived".

Our ride had a stop at Bagno Vignoni, famous for thermal baths since Roman times. This body of water was part of the thermal spring right in the middle of town.

Our Experience Plus tours are always marked with chalk arrows so we know exactly where to go. It's the best navigation system of any bike tour company we know!

June and Experience Plus guide Stefania soak their feet in the healing thermal waters that course through town.

Peter's favorite vista - a boulevard of cypress trees typical of Tuscany.

We discover the origins of our beloved Pecarino cheese - sheep! When you walk the streets of Pienza you can actually smell the cheese everywhere.

June attacks the last big ascent in Radicofani - lunch awaits!

Better by far than lunch in Radicofani was the big bologna feed in the Pienza town center when we returned - great sandwich makings!

The view of the valley - and our climb up to Pienza - from the garden wall of the Piccolomini Palace.

Time to sleep - another big day of riding to Montalcino awaits us! Buena notte!

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