Touring Tuscany, the Italian Riviera to Lake Como

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May 24th 2006
Published: May 31st 2006
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Tuscan VillaTuscan VillaTuscan Villa

This is the image stuck in my head of Tuscany, didnt take long to see perfection.
Leaving Rome for the hills of Tuscany was exciting, some places you tend to hold high expectations for and just know it wont disappoint. You cant complain about the climbing either, lest some tour group of silver haired sixty somethings pedal past you with their massive tour van bringing up the rear. I must have been the only cyclist carrying his own gear. That will be me in a few years so I cant complain. Leaving Rome I followed Via Cassia for the first 50ks, built during Roman Rule along with Via Aurelia and Appia these 2000 year old roads run as far as Barcelona and Brindisi, my entry point into Rome.

Access to medieval Sienna was a bit strange, park your car/bike walk towards very high and imposing city walls, jump into a modern automated pay escalator system that shuttles you up four flights and spits you out next to a massive cathedral with Oriental nuns blowing past you talking on cell phones. I rode in from the hills and small villages and was really dumped on with cold rain, a bit of Ireland to come. It was so cold my surgically repaired left wrist couldn't work the brake, a problem. I resolve to buy warm things. In town the corridors are narrow the streets lined with black stone, a bit too dark and confining, until you reach the piazza, then the sun is out, a massive crescent shape piazza holds a fountain on one side, a clock tower on the other. People watching at its finest, that and a good place to take apart a camera and dry it out.

Further towards Florence I visited Castellina in Chianti, a steady climb into the famous wine region, the air is colder, the soil harsher and the wine better for it. I ate lunch on the church steps watching a dotting grandpa force feed a child bits of fruit and bread to his considerable disinterest. Riding into San Gimignano was more of a half hour coast down into the valley along with a light rain, this village was one of my favorite places in all of Italy. There were originally 72 towers along the hilltops, only 14 left, wandering around every passage way, a view to the hills would remind you where you are. Even better, for the morbid and curious, a medieval torture museum

I almost broke my camera after getting rained on, my gore tex jacket let water in the pockets but did a nice job keeping it full. My camera was submerged for a good ten seconds.
located in one of the towers, closed for the day when I visited.
My route to Florence zigged and zagged all the way up to the city, once there it was time for some art. The Uffizi is the best museum Ive seen after the Vatican, and the longest wait time too. For the two hour wait you could watch how many times illegal bag and painting sellers would have to do a speedy pick up when a police man walked by. They would be in the middle of a haggle, and load 16 bags on a white sheet in 10 seconds, a skill of sorts. By the end of my visit I had 'Madonna with Child' and 'Adoration of the Magi' fatigue but the paintings from the pagan Renaissance were captivating, 'The Birth of Venus' is the gallery's signature piece, also the severed head of Medusa on a shield was decidedly not Christian. Academia holds David, he has a custom build dome and is wired from his leg with seismological instruments, every thing else in the gallery is not that impressive but he alone is worth admission.

Leaving Florence and riding towards Cinque Terra I was
Castellina in ChiantiCastellina in ChiantiCastellina in Chianti

The Chianti region is high in elevation, the soil full of rocks and lots of pine forest, perfect villages dot the countryside.
given misinformation that its well over 200ks so I started late laughing about two just graduated Dutch psychologists I met the night before who were interested in talking about ADHD in the US. While chatting I was sipping one glass of wine and was pretty spacey from it and talking a lot faster and more than I usually do, I know they were analyzing me - a long term traveller who rides a bike all day and talks too fast and cant sit still hmm. Along the way I rode through Lucca, impressed by the conversion of the city wall into a public park circuit and just the gorgeous bike friendly old city in general, I lazily rode around the city a few times. I saw several Italians doing the 'sorta jog-sorta walk' thing. Even jogging they are looking sharp but its as if the couldn't be bothered by that sweating thing that happens when you start to workout, messes up the hair. The cyclists are just as cool, gotta a pink and green bike? Well, you must wear pink gloves, green tights and throw in some yellow if you feel crazy. That black and silver thing is just too
San GimignanoSan GimignanoSan Gimignano

17 remaining towers fill this gorgeous hill top village. The entire village was paved with red brick, seamless, without curb right to the buildings. After a rain I felt the place looked brand new, for a medieval village.
boring. A long and flat day took me within 20ks of La Spezia and Cinque Terra.

Jon, Boss and Tim had visited a couple of years prior so I had seen some pictures before I knew where the isolated villages were. Not remote any longer with the Pisa/Genoa train line linking the villages you can still hike between the villages through terraced gardens with stunning vistas of the sea. I just spent one day in the region but it was a long day of exploring and lounging about the villages, I took too many photos of the small cafes in worn buildings with lots of color. The following day was a ride into Portofino and San Margarita, the Italian Riviera, you know by the yachts in the harbors and tight white pants zipping about. Every building is immaculate, false columns and mouldings painted with more detail and effort than real fixtures themselves, five star hotels with private beaches. In Portofino, I was treated to an American cruise ship filled with tire store owners on vacations, walking along I heard my fair share of really terrible jokes.

Riding into Genoa I was feeling a bit
San GimignanoSan GimignanoSan Gimignano

Glowing after the rain
pinched, it was a bit late and I wanted to get out of the city before dark so I decided to stay on the main road to find my turn into the mountains and out of trouble as my experience with any big city, lost is the rule. So after riding through town with white knuckles on what felt very much like an interstate freeway, I followed the end of the signs pretty sure I'm in the right direction but not wanting to make a mistake. I pulled the phrase book out to ask a local. Just then two Mormon missionaries come around the corner with short sleeve white shirts, name tags and ties, sweet! I scared the hell out of them though, I yelled to them in English and they almost dropped their pizza. Of coarse they had a huge detailed map of the city and yes I was on the right track. I got the scoop on the church happenings in Italy, (not much) was told that I was crazy to be travelling for nearly two years, wait a minute....

On the way to Milan the dreaded happened, my back wheel was destroyed by the excess weight, I didn't have a strong enough rear wheel and couldn't find one in Israel so it was just a matter of time. I was making such good time thinking I would be in Milan by 1pm see the sights, ping, ping, ping. Broken spokes, I laugh, head into a grocery store to buy some milk and figure out what I'm going to do. I slam the milk Napoleon style and ask a local in very bad Italian if there is a bike shop in town. He laughs and points to a warehouse not even 200 meters up the street. Inside a old man translates to the bike shop owner what I need, the owner talks about Lance with me in Italian (I nod when he gives the thumbs up) When I showed him my route so far and what I have left its 'Bravo, Bravo,' he then sold me his very wheel off his bike when he couldn't find what I need on his showroom. Loaded with spare spokes and a great wheel I was back on the road in two hours, way too lucky, it should have been in the middle of nowhere with a rainy night

One of many duomos
fast approaching.

Rolling into Milan I decided to head for the train station and buy a ticket Venice, I was originally going to ride there, but Cinque Terra and Portofino on the west coast won out and Venice is a bit out of the way for a ride. Arriving in Venice I slept outside of the city center in a resort with a pool and bar where I got to show off some mean tan lines. Venice was in better shape that I had expected, hearing lots of negative comments, wandering around its impossible not to get lost so I didn't bother with a map, most tourists seem to be looking around with a permanently funny look, map in one hand, gelato in the other. Two things really bothered me about Venice, all the pigeons, vendors sell bird food for several euros, the birds will land all over you so you can get photos. Pigeons carry salmonella, shit everywhere and you want ten on your back? The other was the obscene charge to take a pee, all the public toilets had electronic gates, 1 euro for a urinal. Still Venice has to be visited, all the elements that endear are still there, just put the blinders on to the crowds and silly things that come with it.

Back to Milan to continue the bike tour, I raced from the train station to try and visit the monastery where Leonardo painted the very famous 'Last Supper,' doesn't help when 'The Da Vinci Code' just comes out, every minute of view time available for the room containing the fresco was booked solid for over two months, next time I guess. Defeated, I checked out a few other sites I missed and rode to Como to spend the night. Lake Como is long and narrow, like an upside down Y, late at night, deciding which bank to travel along at the road intersection, I was saved again by native English speakers. Two wonderful people, both professional signers from the States and New Zealand, working in Milan pointed me in the right direction, we had an entertaining chat about their three recent weddings across the globe, life in Italy and the plan to end up in NZ, good choice in my opinion. I crossed the lake in the original Bellagio, rode into Lugano, Switzerland for an hour, back into Italy for a crossing of Lago Maggiore and back into Switzerland for the start of three Alpine passes in three days.

Additional photos below
Photos: 43, Displayed: 29


From Ponte VecchioFrom Ponte Vecchio
From Ponte Vecchio

This bridge has shops full of rocks (the expensive kind) on either side. It crosses the Fiume Arno and towards Piazza Michelangelo.
Weekend Fair in Piazza Del CarmineWeekend Fair in Piazza Del Carmine
Weekend Fair in Piazza Del Carmine

A facinating mix of people pedeling something old, something silly and something strange.

Waiting in line, I was besiged with questions from three midwestern mothers eating massive scoops of gelato. Where do I sleep and what about those crazy Italian drivers? I made it farther than they did, on their first day in Tuscany they managed to put diesel fuel into their petrol car.
Cathedral in LuccaCathedral in Lucca
Cathedral in Lucca

Lucca was a complete and pleasant surprise, riding out of Florence and towards Cinque Terra I wasnt expecting to see anything too interesting. Lucca is a walled city that had been widened around the wall for a bike path, the tower lookouts are covered with trees and grass, each a mini elevated park.
Monterosso al MareMonterosso al Mare
Monterosso al Mare

The northern most of the five villages, I left my bike in La Spezia for a day of hiking between each village.

Maybe the most recognizable of the villages, I managed to leave my water bottle on a park bench and spent 30 minutes retracing my steps till I found it.

Delightful chatter, probably about the tourists.

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