Monthly Archives: June 2012

Brief Update: Safe Return Home

We arrived safely back home at around 11:30pm Toronto time Monday the 18th, after 2 stopovers (one in Frankfurt, the other in Washington, DC), and a lot of confusion in the Naples Int’l Airport. Certainly a bad experience with staff, which lead to us both nearly missing our flight, and also damage to our bicycles. But more on that will come with the Naples posting later.

Internet from Rome and south of there had been extremely spotty, and expensive at times (5 euro per hour at a few of our hotels – and still slow by N. American standards), so we haven’t yet posted about our visits from Siena onwards. Besides, making time for blog-writing was difficult, what with all the sights planned.

For the next few days, I will be writing-up the log of the rest of the trip. So, expect Montalcino’s write-up tomorrow, then that of Montepulciano on Friday, followed by posts for Orvieto, Viterbo, Rome, Pompeii, and Napoli and our returning flight in the next week-and-a-bit.

After a GIANT lazy spell, I will (finally!) be posting the rest of the trip, and updating the blog. Stay tuned.

Day 6 & 7: Siena

Since we arrived late in Volterra the previous day, we had a quick walk around the town before we packed up and hit the road to Siena.   Starting with a height advantage helped, but the overall trip was still long, and it was a brutally hot day at times.

We stopped for a break at the medieval fort of Monteriggioni halfway along the route to Siena. The road up and through the town gate was so steep that it had ridges created by interleaving the paving stones to give extra traction!

One of the gates into Monteriggioni.

The fort/town is one of Siena’s defensive structures built around the 13th century to protect trade routes against attacks from their rival Florence. In fact, this is where the Dante Alleghieri hid out after he had angered some powerful Florentines with his caricatures of them in his Inferno. It still has all of its tall walls and 13 turrets intact.

Main square of Monteriggioni

Siena is possibly a challenger to Florence, in terms of having impressive structures. Siena has wide streets line with 4, 5 and often times 6 story stone buildings, whereas Florentine streets are smaller and jam-packed with shorter buildings (which rarely surpass 3 stories), and aesthetically are less pleasing.

A square lined with the former homes of the Sienese elite.

Conversely, while Florence’s grand cathedral is monstrously sized, the smaller Sienese counterpart is far more refined, with very accurate stonework and an ornate floor – complete with tricolour stone engravings of saints and some scenes from the life of Jesus. One can only imagine the time and resources put into such art work.

Interior – Siena Cathedral

Exterior – Siena cathedral

Surely one of the highlights of our two days in Siena was the town square, il campo, which is a huge semi-circular piazza with a concave brick centre. We ate dinner in one of the trattoiri of the square on our first night.

Town hall and the surrounding Il Campo piazza.

In Siena, we were lucky to have our hotel right beside a camping store and a grocery store. We bought a gas cartridge for my camp stove and then some pasta, and made our own dinner the second night.

Mmmn… 

We (*Steve*) accidently bought some bad beer for our dinner aperitives; it had a gross after-taste! If you look carefully at the bottle, the monk seems to be holding his stomach in protest:

Stay. Away.

Here are some more pics of our stay:

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Cathedral from nearby wall.

Old city gate.

In the bapistry.

Medieval songbook from cathedral library.

The sienese tried to copy (and best) Florence’s city hall with theirs.

Day 5: Volterra

We had a good ride from San Gimignano to Volterra.   We were mentally psyched because we knew the ride up to Volterra itself would be very steep.  We stopped by the Super Mercato located just outside of the walls of San Gimignano and bought some fruit, pane, formaggio and salami just before we left for our ride. This worked out well because there weren’t a lot of little towns between San Gimignano and Volterra.

 The first leg of the day was very ejoyable. It was fairly quiet with few cars. We did have the company a lot of little green lizards who were sunning themselves every few meters along the roadside. They would scury under the scrub brush and grass as we approached them. At one point we road along a gravel road with beautiful vistas of colourful Tuscan hills with rich olive groves, vineyards and grain fields.  Small volcano-like mountains jutting out of the hills in the distance; very picturesque.

Riding along an old country road

We learned how to take panoramic photos with the camera of our phone. The quality is not as great as a real camera, but it allows you to better appreciate the scenery:

 We stopped for a break and a late lunch in the shade of some cedar trees by a small church at the base of the climb to Volterra. We figured it was good to rest and recharge ourselves with the nourishing lunch we had packed in San Gimignano before starting up the steep arduous climb to Volterra. There was a large parking lot nearby. It seemed to be associated with an old alabaster factory located beside it, but it was rather empty; perhaps it had been busier in better economic times of the past.

The climb up to Volterra took some time as we were moving very slowly. We weaved our way up the serpentine road, pausing every so often to catch our breath and take a drink of water to keep hydrated in the blazing Tuscan sun.  Thank goodness for the constant breeze that was a respite from the heat radiating from the hot pavement below us.

Part way up the climb we encountered some signs indicating that an archeological site was located just off to the side of the road. We took the opportunity to stop and take a break and do a little exploring. There was no one around so we carried our bikes up and off the road and locked them together up against a small fence. We then followed the well-worn dirt path leading to the two archeological sites.

Both sites were ancient hellenistic tombs from the 4th century b.c. They were quiet interesting. There was electric lighting once we entered into the tombs so there was no need for a flashlight. Here are a few pictures:

Tomb interior

Walking down the entrance

Looking out of the tomb

After the pleasant break we continued our slow but steady upward climb to Volterra. We arrived in town late afternoon and checked in to our hotel, La Locanda. The hotel was very accommodating with our request for a place to store our bikes. They let us store them in a hallway off of the kitchen. We cleaned up and showered and changed into our tourist clothes and then wandered around the town before settling on an outdoor patio in one of town Piazzas for our dinner. We then wandered the streets late into the evening. Had to go back to our hotel to pick up our sweaters since it was actually quite chilly once the sun went down. 

The next morning after a quiet breakfast at the hotel, we wandered the town for a few more hours taking in the wonderful panoramic views of the Tuscan hills below us as well as some interesting sites including the local churches, the ancient roman theatre and the archeological park at the peak of the town with it’s Etruscan ruins and Roman cistern.

Roman theater 

Etruscan ruins

View from town 

All in all, a very enjoyable visit and a little less tourist infested than San Gimignano. Volterra also becomes very quiet in the evening once the day crowd and tourist buses depart. Highly recommend staying overnight so that you can enjoy the early morning and late evening solitude.

Brief Update: Status

We are finding it difficult to find time in between cycling, sleeping and seeing sights to update the blog. We made a few mental notes though, to remember what happened where and when, so we can write up the visits to all the towns we have seen once we reach Rome (or possibly Viterbo).

Right now, we are in Orvieto, just preparing to see the town briefly and then check out and cycle to Viterbo.

Day 4: San Gimignano

Note: we are staggering our posts as we have been finding the internet to be slow and spotty coverage. All our posts are behind a few days.

June 4 was our first true riding day, where we were tested by the Italian hills and our fully loaded bicycles. The weather cooperated with us for the most part, but we did have to stop around 2pm for about 45 minutes to avoid a down-pour. We found refuge under the overhang of the roof of San Andrea, a tiny country church, about a third of the way between Florence and San Gimignano.

We were certainly expecting hills – but I think we (*Ryan*) somewhat underestimated the actual magnitude of the climbs. Here are some stats for our Florence-San Gimignano trek:

Total Distance: 60.5 km

Average (Moving) Speed: 9.98 km/h

Max Speed: 49.3 km/h (gotta love the ride down, after the long climb up!)

Min Elevation: 81 m

Max Elevation: 443 m

Total Elevation Gain: 2087 m

We found that our unlocked Galaxy Nexus phone was invaluable for guiding us out of the maze of one-way streets that make up Florence. Whenever we got lost (which happened often), the built-in GPS and maps on the phone made getting on track an easy(er) process. We picked up a SIM card for the phone in Florence, on the ride in from the airport, at Telefonia Italia Mobile, affectionately known as ‘TIM’ locally. €20 got us a €15 credit for calls and texts, plus one month of free unlimited data/internet, which suits us wells since we are here for 18 days. More details on the phone and SIM cards will come in a future post. Based on our experience so far, we would call it the best €20 investment to date.

As it is a hill town, one can see San Gimignano from the distance, giving a spirit-lifting boost of energy for the final tough hills into the city gates. We thought its imposing spires and towers made for an interesting contrast with the Tuscan countryside:

We made it!

We rented a small apartment for the night; affitacamere (rooms for rent) were actually pretty common in San Gimignano. Ours came with an expansive view of the fields below the town from its windows.

We met up with some friends who were also staying in town at the same time. They rented an apartment in one of the towers in the main piazza, across from the town church. A shout-out to Jeff, Juliet, Charlotte and Maxine! Hope you are enjoying the rest of your trip!

Jeff, Juliet and family stayed in this medieval tower.

The town’s main square.

When we arrived in town, the day tourist crowds were all gone and it was very quite. It was nice to have the town all to ourselves, and see the locals. We would say that the nicest time to visit San Gimignano would be late afternoon, with a late dinner and evening walk, and a stay overnight. The next morning came with a quiet breakfast and stroll for some nice views and pictures. We managed to pack up and escape around 11AM, just as the surge of day-tourists started again.

Arrival in Italy: Days 1-3 in Florence

On Friday we flew in to Florence, after a 7-hour flight from Toronto to Frankfurt, and then a short 2 hour commuter jet brought us into the Gallileo Gallilei airport of Florence. Understandably we were slighty worried about how well our bicycles fared in the flight – or if they even followed us to Italy in the cargo hold of the plane. However, everything went smoothly and our bicycles survived undamaged – likely due to our “leave them no chances to break something” approach to packing them. It took us a little over and hour and a half to unpack the bikes again and move all our equipment from the duffel bags to our panniers, and then off we went. But very slowly, due to the narrower italian roads and zippy cars scooting about haphazardly.

Our babies – they are ok!

All packed and loaded on the way from the airport to the hotel.

Although initially scary and seemingly devoid of order, we have come to find that Florentine roads have polite and highly skilled drivers, always willing to give bicycles the right of way, if only by a smaller margin than we are used to. Our hotel took a while to find, but has been a great home base. We were allowed to store our bikes in our hotel room, and since we are only on the 2nd floor, we consider ourselves lucky in terms of bike-hauling. The compact city is easily walkable, but its tall stone buildings and narrow cobblestone roads opening into piazzas made it a metropolis for us. People fill many streets, and nearly as many mopeds and scooters buzz along the vias as well. Cycling isn’t difficult, but we had to go slowly on many roads, as people on a stroll didn’t jump out of our way as North Americans do.

Almost everywhere here we have been able to find english-speakers in stores and restaurants. The only exception to this is in the smaller churches and in the local food market, where little old nuns, priests and the local fruitvendors understand little to no English. These less “touristy” locations have a more authentic Italian feel to them, and we have made use of hand gestures and our limited Italian vocabulary to get by, and enjoy ourselves nevertheless. We did, however, see all the standard attractions Florence had to offer, and were not disapointed. It is an amazing city. The duomo and its huge dome is a spectacle that was well worth visiting. We climbed over 500ft upwards through small rock staircases in the walls to enjoy an unparalleled view of the cathedral floor from a catwalk, and then outside to see the entirety of Florence from the dome’s top.

From duomo’s roof.

We also visited the Accademia Gallery, where we saw Michelangelo’s David (which you really cannot appreciate until you have seen the original up close), and enjoyed a large collection of late medievel and renaissance paintings. Seeing how art evolved in this time period, how the artists influenced/imitated one another, and the effects this had on religious artwork was interesting. On Sunday after an all-Italian mass in the small but beautiful Basilica della Santissima Annunziata, we managed to enjoy the city simply by cycling around. We saw the street life (and bought some apricots in a local market), crossed the Arno river to ride to the hilltop San Miniato monastery outside the city for a good view, and finished off the day by grabbing a gelatto.

NOT the real David, but a David none-the-less

View from San Miniato

San Miniato monastery exterior

The food is also wonderful here, from a simple, fresh Pizza a Pomodoro as you walk the streets at lunch, to the full, 3 course meals at one of the trattori that line the many piazzas. It gives us a better appreciation of the phrase, La Dolce Vita!

Enjoying the good life.

 We will leave you with a few more pictures from the trip. Ciao for Niao!

Drinking from a nasone – the proper way.

Duomo roof relief, the centre ‘eye’ is the oculus.

Duomo floor and hall – view from catwalk.

Campanile or belltower, from the roof of the cathedral’s dome.