The two day stay in Siena was just enough time to tour the local sites and take a bit of a break to recharge for our next cycling ride to Montalcino.
Looking over our off-line digital map and planning the cycling route with its elevation profile in advance of the trip made us a little nervous; we would be setting new personal records with our climbs. Again being mentally prepared for the trip helped. The ride turned out to be not as difficult as we had anticipated – even though we ultimately climbed to an altitude of 610 meters by the time we arrived in the town of Montalcino itself, we managed to avoid steep inclines for the most part.
We had a very steady climb on the way out of Siena for about an hour and a half. We then took a break at the crest of the climb to nourish ourselves with a nice lunch that we had purchased and packed from an alimenteria before leaving Siena – fresh pane rondecon sale, local Italian pomodoros, soft formaggio and some proscuitto. For desert we had lots of fruit – pechi novi and apricots.
After lunch and a couple more hours of riding, we arrived at the base of Montalcino. When we saw the road that we had originally selected for our ride up into town, we quickly decided to remap our route. The road was gravel with an incline of between 15 and 20%; too difficult and treacherous to try to climb with loaded bikes. We weren’t really up to walking our loaded bikes a kilometre up a steep hill, especially not after having had a taste of doing that up a similar grade for 200 meters at Monteriggioni. We decided instead to ride the extra 5 kilometres up the main road which gradually wound its way around the hill up and into town. Slow and steady gets the job done.
We were still hot, sweaty and dirty by the time we arrived in the town proper, and so we followed our ritual of quickly checking-in to our hotel, rejuvenating ourselves with hot showers and changing into some clean clothes before doing a quick tour of the town and seeking out a place to enjoy dinner.
The hotel room
Since it wasn’t quite dinner and the restaurants weren’t serving yet, we enjoyed some aperativi in a patio on town square. The “Tuscan Rewind” car race was under-way as we enjoyed our drinks, and the cars were revving and preparing to start their race in the square. An hour later, we began walking the town in search of a restaurant, and got to see a little more of the beautiful town and the race cars as we searched.After passing down a few side streets, we settled uponthe relatively innocuous-looking Albergo Il Giglio restaurant for dinner.
Tuscan Rewind racer, rolling into the town square
What a treat that was! By all measures the Albergo was a fantastic dining experience, with a really nice atmosphere and run by a wonderful family. We had veal served with vegetables in brunello wine sauce, with a decanter of brunello on the side – the bread plate that came with the meal was so fresh that it almost outshone then entrée itself. The best meal of the trip — if you ever visit Montalcino, we wholly recommend you have a meal at Albergo Il Giglio.
The following day, we woke up early and prepared to finish sight-seeing, and do some wine-tasting; this *was* the location of the famous Brunello di Montalcino, after all.
A very large number of wines ready to taste, in Montalcino!
The town’s fort/castle of Montalcino stands out prominently on the edge of the town, overlooking the fields below the hilltop. We visited the fort, and deciding that we couldn’t pass up the tower-top view, paid the 5 euro fee and walked up the keep’s staircase to the top of the walls, where we were able to see the entire valley and a few distant towns.
Inside the fort
On the fort walls
Road into town, view from fort walls
Part of the town, from fort walls
Located inside the keep was a wine shop, which we visited on the way back down. Steve and I (Ryan) had a few samples of the varieties of Nobile and Brunello, and bargaining for a good price, ordered a few to be sent home.
Not too tipsy to ride, we returned to the hotel and packed up for our ride out. Against our better judgement, we decided to try the gravel hill out of town, only to find it washed out near the bottom, and being so steep that Steve had a wipe-out – ouch (he was OK, though)! We begrudgingly walked the bikes back to the city gate, and began to follow the road out of town and onward to Montepulciano.
Just outside town gate, ready to roll down gravel road
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 properway.
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.
This is the [very long] packing list of all the items that we are going to be bringing with us to Italy for our trip (other than our two bicycles, of course). All the items on the list are the totals for both of us combined, unless otherwise noted as per person (p.p.). Extra heavy or bulky equipment like the chain to lock up our bikes, will be bought in Italy once we arrive.
1 pair light cotton trousers
1 pair cotton shorts
2 pairs cycling shorts
3 pairs underwear
2 cycling jerseys
3 pairs socks
1 botton-up/nice long sleeved shirt
1 waterproof riding jacket
1 cycling cap
1 pair cycling gloves – only for Dad
1 pair light pajamas
1 pair running shoes
1 pair walking shoes – Dad buying his overseas
1 tube toothpaste
Lens cases and solution
2 pairs sunglasses – and regular glasses
1 bottle sunscreen
1 small bottle shampoo
Razors and shaving cream
Facecloth and towel – will be bought overseas
1 unlocked Galaxy Nexus smartphone
1 rooted Nook tablet
1 power adaptor & plug divider
1 compact Canon camera
1 small first aid kit
Keys on keychains
1 Snow Peak butane stove
1 butane refill adaptor
2 Guyot squishy cup/bowl sets
2 GSI utensil sets
1 small Sigg Inoxal cookset – w/ two pot lids as plates
1 salt + pepper shaker
1 small cooking knife
5 650mL Filzer Stainless water bottles
2 1L Filzer Stainless water bottles
1 swiss army knife
1 camera monopod
Tools & Bike Parts
2 cable bike locks – will be buying lock-up chain in Italy
2 pad locks
2 bicycle multi-tools
2 sets flat repair kit
2 sets tire levers
1 spare chain
2 spare inner tubes + 1 extra to cover lock-up chain
In Italy, we hope to cut our costs down somewhat by cooking as many of our meals as possible. But, the availability of stove fuels is somewhat different that North America, meaning that choosing a stove is a little hard. White gas (camping fuel), and the standard EN417-threaded butane canisters so plentiful here are quite scant in most of Europe – Italy included. Across the pond, Campingaz’ dominance in the market means that its own proprietary canisters are ubiquitous throughout much of the continent, to the chagrin of many tourists, who won’t have much luck finding EN417 butane canisters for their stoves in all but the largest cities in Italy.*
*Update: We have completed our tour of Italy, and in fact did not have too much difficulty locating the EN417-threaded canisters. We purchased our refill at an odd little “Liquigas” shop in Siena, a chain which appears to be unique to Italy. There are more of these shops, and so our advice would be to start the search there. The cylindrical, hairspray-type bayonet canister were no where to be found in the country whatsoever.
I, myself, am not a fan of the Campingaz canister system nor their stoves, which are relatively heavy and seem (to me) to be of inferior fit-and-finish to many MSR, Snow Peak, and Primus stoves. While MSR offers the Superfly stove which can fit both the EN417 and Campingaz canisters, it also happens to be fairly heavy and large – not something I’d want for travelling light. So, I broke down and ordered a stove that has consistently been praised for its light wight and compactness, performance, durability + quality of build, and simmering ability: the Snow Peak GigaPower SS Stove. But, you can’t have everything: the GigaPower runs only on the EN417 canisters.
Snow Peak GigaPower butane stove
In one of my earlier posts, I talked about cutting costs by using a butane can refill tool; you can top-off a used canister with one of the spray-paint shaped bayonet cans available in most hardware/grocery stores. In Italy, these cans are also supposedly common, and so I plan on finding one GigaPower canister in the camping stores of Firenze (Florence) where we fly in, and then continuing to refill that can as we travel on through the small hill-towns of Tuscany.
Another helpful tip for tourists: if you are willing to pay a small premium, many plumbing shops/hardware stores in Italian cities sell the EN417-threaded canisters for brazing torches, which can be used in a pinch.
The Italian cycling trip has changed quite significantly in the second rendition. Now, we will be avoiding the western oceanfront and heading through the heartland of Italy: Central Tuscany. The stops include Firenze (Florence), where we’ll be flying in, followed by cycling through the great Italian hill towns of San Gimignano, Volterra, Siena, Montalcino, Montepulciano, Orvieto and Viterbo. From Viterbo, the rest of the inter-city transit will be done by train; we head to Rome through the Ferrovie Regionale (regional railway), then Pompei and Napoli (Naples).