Ready To Roll
Backroads shuttled us to the tiny Tuscan town of Montaione, where we were fitted to our bikes, given a detailed set of directions and set loose for a 12-mile spin through the fabled Tuscan countryside. Being a big fan of Italian vino, I felt like a football freak on his first visit to the Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. Vineyards flanked the roads and blanketed the hills that stretched beyond the horizon. I imagined all of the amazing wine that sprang from these fertile fields -- the barrels full of Chianti, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano and Tignanello. I wondered if it would be okay to fill my waterbottle with vino rosso instead of Gatorade.
Every turn of the handlebars produced another view worthy of a postcard. The landscape bloomed with olive groves and rows of towering cypress trees. Mustard plants clung to the hillsides. Splashes of color erupted in unexpected pockets of brilliant red poppies and richly hued roses. The breathtaking scenery brought a tear to my eye. Then again, maybe that was just sweat.
I began to see what all the fuss was about in Frances Mayes' best-seller "Under the Tuscan Sun." (Call it a guilty pleasure. I know I should have read Martin Amis instead.)
Whizzing along at a pathetic nine miles an hour, I was so entranced by the warmly colored countryside that I barely noticed we were back at the hotel that would be our home for the next two nights. Backroads doesn't go for the Motel-6-type accommodations. Our hotel, Palazzo Mannaioni, proved to be no exception. Having seen my fair share of youth hostels in Western Europe, I was ecstatic to park my bike outside this four-star property perched above the Carfalo Valley.
After studying the bidet in the bathroom and stealing the shampoos and soaps (just kidding... about the bidet), we made our way to the hotel restaurant for dinner, which we soon learned is a gastronomical marathon in Italy. As all marathoners will attest, it's important to stay hydrated. We immediately seized the wine list and ordered our table one of Italy's heaviest hitters: a Brunello di Montalcino. This mighty red, which should never be passed up if you can find a 1990 or 1995 vintage, proved to be quite a match for the food that would follow. Brunello also makes a killer tag-team partner for the infamous Bistecca Fiorentina, a dish of lightly grilled T-bone steak ample to make a PETA member pass out in disgust.
A prosciutto appetizer paved the way for an amazing first-course mushroom risotto. The waiter then served up a sublime second course of veal (it may not be PC, but it sure tastes good). We finished up with a tangy lemon tart, followed by a thimble-full of espresso and a goodnight grappa, the only nonpalatable liquid that passed my lips in Italy. Though made from the skins of spent grapes, grappa goes down like a cocktail of kerosene and battery acid. This clear liquid makes ouzo taste like iced tea.After finally reaching the feasting finish line around 11 pm, we dragged our exhausted butts to bed and lapsed into a food coma.
La Dolce Vita
Such was our life for the next nine days. Wake up, eat some breakfast, spend the better part of the day biking a picturesque 30 miles, get a little lost, find your way back, get dressed up for dinner and eat and drink until you feel like you're going to explode. Not bad for someone who's used to being chained to a cubicle 40-plus hours a week, eating salad-in-a-bag dinners and working out in a crowded YMCA in Chicago.
We pedaled through the truffle-rich land of the Arno River Valley and biked to historic hilltop towns like San Gimignano, Volterra, Pienza and Montepulciano, where Sandra, one of our fearless Backroads leaders, whipped up a lunchtime banquet of Tuscan delights: cannellini beans bathed in extra virgin olive oil, sundried tomatoes, cinghiale (wild boar), focaccia bread, buffalo mozzarella, cherries and melon. No wonder guests call Backroads "Snackroads."
The local enoteca doled out samples of the town's premier wine, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, which is mellower than the beefy Brunello but full of robust flavor and the scent of violets. A wine expert assured us that Vino Nobile is the wine favored by the pope. (Finally, the pope and I agree on something!) It's a good thing that Tuscan hill towns are so charming or it would've been a lot tougher to deal with the psyche-shredding, kick-in-the-teeth climbs that greeted us every day on the bike. The trek up to San Gimignano left my legs feeling as limp as Bob Dole without Viagra. I realized the pain was well worth it though, as we approached the massive stone wall that surrounded this Medieval Manhattan, a moniker that comes from the 14 stone towers that jut up from the ground like ancient skyscrapers.
Walking your bike through the imposing archway (don't try riding it -- I think I almost landed myself in an Italian prison), you feel like you're entering the set of some medieval movie -- if you can block out the souvenir shops and postcard stands. Everything in this town exuded oldness. Everything, that is, except Sergio Dondoli's gelato. Sergio wakes up every morning at 4 to churn out the sinfully rich treat. Judging by the photos on his walls, Sergio certainly has plenty of fans, including Robin Williams and the entire cast of "Tea with Mussolini."
With gelato-stained shirts, we bypassed San Gimignano's esteemed churches and historic sites and headed straight for the only museum we visited during our trip, Museo della Tortura, which you don't need to speak Italian to translate. From modern day electric chairs to ancient thumbscrews and other assorted bone-crunching devices (they sure knew how to party in the Middle Ages), the torture museum certainly is an eye-opener. Actually, I think they had a few of those on display.
Each night at dinner, perusing the wine list was like standing in a gelateria, gazing at all the gelato choices, wanting the nice Italian lady to somehow make them all fit in your tiny cone. Some people on the trip didn't drink, which made me wonder why the hell they chose Tuscany. This made as much sense as Calista Flockhart vacationing at a fat farm.
Alas, those of us who do drink did so more than enough to make up for our dry travel companions. I became a huge fan of Prosecco, a dry, sparkling wine that Italian men in espresso bars like to down by the glassful in the middle of the day. My husband and I also took a shine to the trendy Super Tuscans, the umbrella term that refers to innovative Italian wines that don't conform to the super-strict rules and regulations needed for DOC status. (When a label says DOC, which stands for Denominazione di Origine Controllata, it basically means that the wine contains a certain percentage of grapes grown in an official winemaking area.) Those radical, free-thinking Super Tuscans technically fall into the "table wine" category, which can include everything from plonk to primo vinos, like Castello Banfi Excelsus, a nontraditional blend of merlot and cabernet sauvignon grapes aged in French oak barrels. It can be tricky for the uninitiated to tell a regular old table wine from a Super Tuscan just by looking at the bottle. Here's a hint: anything over $30 is probably a Super Tuscan. One of our faves was a tasty 1994 Sammarco Vino da Tavola Castello dei Rampolla (try saying that with a mouthful of pecorino cheese).
Having profited not one bit from tech stocks or the dot com craze, I was delighted to discover that you don't have to drop serious coin to get wonderful wine in Italy. Even the hum-drum, low-end Chiantis hold a certain charm and can be cheaper than Pepsi.
Speaking of Chianti, one of the best nights of the trip found us slurping a homegrown batch of this potent potable in a rustic farmhouse. Backroads took us there for a crash course in Italian cooking. We crowded around long wooden tables while a stocky woman named Simonetta taught us how to make stuffed peppers, tagliatelle with mushrooms, ravioli and tiramisu. We chopped basil, rolled pasta and consumed gallons of the ruby red nectar while the sun slipped beneath the horizon. The meal was as good as any we'd had in a restaurant. So much for the old adage about too many cooks in the kitchen.
We woke up bright and early the next day, miraculously hangover free, and began racking up the miles as we wound our bikes past golden wheat fields and sheep-spotted hills. Our city-dwelling legs, trained on the pancake-flat plains of the Midwest, were finally getting the hang of this rolling terrain. Flying past a tour bus stopped on the side of the road, I looked at the people sitting inside their climate-controlled, diesel-powered dungeon. I filled my lungs with rose-scented air and smiled to myself. I wouldn't have traded places with them for anything. Except maybe a 1990 Brunello.