Saturday, November 5, 2022

Bike riding in Tuscany opens up new cultural sights and experiences

I was not born to be a runner, swimmer, weightlifter—and especially not a tri-athlete—because I really don’t like any activity that causes me pain or discomfort. In high school, I tried out for the wrestling team—for a single day. And then the same for the swimming team. My comment after quitting both was something like, “If I’m going to work that hard, I at least want to get paid.” On the other hand, I love playing baseball, basketball and volleyball, for the simple reason that I get lost in the joy of competition, camaraderie, teamwork and a focus on the required skills, so much so I don’t even notice that my body is being tested to the limits of its endurance.

We see this activity on nearly every street in the fall.
Bike riding might seem similar to those more painful sports, but against the odds, it has become one of my favorite activities during the months we live in Italy. It’s not that I’ve changed, because I haven’t, but riding on my e-bike in Tuscany requires so little effort and offers so many rewards that I scarcely consider it to be exercise. Because so much of the area surrounding the hill of Montecarlo is level, it was not even very difficult to ride on our old mono speed bikes. Indeed, Lucy and I often rode around just for fun during the years we lived at the Casolare dei Fiori in San Salvatore. But in 2015, we moved up the hill to Montecarlo, and after that we rarely used our old bikes because it was impossible to ride them back up the hill, and it took nearly half an hour to push them up. We just rented a car and left our bikes to gather dust in the closet.

Collapsing houses are a common sight, as it
is often less expensive to build a new house
than it is to remodel an old one.
A year ago, we bought two gently used electric boost bikes, and now I want to go riding pretty much every day. I can fly down the hill at 45 kph, ride for a couple of hours and then make it back up the hill at 15 kph, all the while barely breaking a sweat. Once down on the plains, I find a plethora of little used country roads leading in all directions. Pescia and Altopascio are just 15 minutes away. This week I rode all the way to Lucca in 45 minutes. Google maps said it would take about 70 minutes by bike, but apparently their formula didn’t take into account that the first six kilometers were mostly downhill, or that I would be going on an e-bike. I’m sure it would have taken longer to return, but I took the train back as far as Altopascio, so I’ll have to wait for another day to test the return time.

What do I love about riding in Tuscany? Well, first off, it is Tuscany, and that word alone should be self-explanatory. Just tossing out the word Tuscany sells books, wine, cheese, steak, ham and of course vacation bliss—all for good reason. It’s one of the most beautiful and famous regions in one of the most visited countries in the world. The weather this fall has been unseasonably warm, even for Tuscany, so I have continued to go riding almost every day.

Today is sunny with a high of 68f/20c, a little colder than the previous month but still ideal. Lucy has been busy all week making a quilt, so I took off by myself in the direction of Capannori, with the idea that I might make it to the Torre degli Spadoni. It was almost 3 p.m. when I left the house, and it gets dark now around 5 p.m., so I wasn’t sure I’d make it all the way, but the destination was not as important as the ride itself.

An almost unknown--and underfunded--park
that I rode past in Capannori 
In my younger days—much younger—I used to love riding motorcycles. I started on a Honda 150, moved to a Ducati 350 and then upgraded to a Triumph 650 Bonneville. None of these proved very useful once I married and had the pleasure of raising four kids, so these bikes are only fond memories now, but riding an e-bike is helping me make new memories. A bicycle is almost soundless, so I can hear songs of the birds, the whir of the olive harvesting tools and even catch snippets of conversation among the families working in their fields. I see abandoned, ruined and collapsing farmhouses, signs that farming was once the backbone of the local economy. It still is, to a lesser extent, but I also see many factories that produce paper, plastics, textiles, machinery, fertilizer, glass, chemicals and a variety of other industrial age products. I also see numerous orti—backyard vegetable gardens—and, of course, endless fields of grape vines and olive trees, as wine and olive oil are still important industries.

I didn’t make it to the tower, but I made two discoveries along the way that proved even more interesting. The first was an archeological site called the Park of the 100 Roman Farms, basically in the middle of nowhere. I didn’t have time to explore it, but later in the day I looked it up online. The excavations were begun in 1987, and in 2004 the first of many Roman farms was uncovered, with intact tools for making wine and olive oil. However, I also found an article on the website “Toscana Nascosta” explaining that promised funding for continued exploration and displays for visitors never reached the archeologists, and the site, which could be a valuable “economic and tourism resource” was nothing but “a waste of money.” The article also says that a unique oak wood temple of Dionysus was also found in the same general area, but plans for a museum focusing on this discovery have also stalled for lack of funding.

I may go back to see the ruins of the farms on Monday, though I don’t hold hope that I’ll find much worth seeing. Hopefully in future years, funding can be allocated and further explorations will be made and displayed. It’s part of an ongoing problem in Italy, because historical ruins are abundant, but money is not.

Two riders doing a wheelie.
I was probably only 10 minutes away from reaching the Spadoni tower when I took a wrong turn on a route that Google maps showed to be a through street when in fact it was blocked by fences from a factory. However, I found something equally interesting on the dead-end street. About 40 young adults and teenagers had gathered in a parking lot, many of them with scooters and motorcycles. They were taking turns buzzing along the unused street pulling wheelies and performing acrobatic stunts. Mesmerized, I stopped to watch and take photos for about 15 minutes, astounded at the skills of these riders. They could ride the length of the street with their bikes in a vertical position, a delicate balance requiring just the right amount of acceleration to keep them upright without flipping over backwards. Some of them were actually standing on their bike seats while doing the wheelies.

I found this very friendly and talented "gang' of bikers just
hanging out, socializing and practicing their tricks.
I was approached twice by a couple of guys, who asked me, “Ti diamo fastidio?” Are we annoying you? “Ma dai, ragazzi, siete fantastici!” I said. You’re amazing! I told them that I once had a Ducati when I was young. I also used to stand on my seat, but there is no way I could have done the tricks they were doing. I asked if this was an organized group. They said no, it’s just a group of friends, male and female, who gather every Saturday, weather permitting, to socialize and show off their skills. I could have watched for another 15 minutes, but I was worried about getting home before dark. I hope to return some Saturday next spring to enjoy the show again. This is something you’ll never find in a tour book—it can only be found while riding quietly through the Tuscan countryside.