Cycling Through Italy
by Rebekah Kuschmider
When Christina asked me to write about my quintessential summer vacation my mind whirled. My family has taken some a-maz-ing vacations over the years. There was the trip to a due ranch in Wyoming when I was about 12 where we all camped out in Yellowstone one night and awoke to a horse sticking it’s nose into the tent. There was a trip to Disney World in high school where I got to try out my German on a waitress at EPCOT. The week at Rehoboth beach where it rained every day and we spent hours in our rented condo watching the Cape May ferry dock. Oh wait…
I have to say that the best of our summer adventures were those conducted by Backroads, an all-inclusive active vacation company. They offer trips with kayaking, hiking, and multi-sport activities but we always go with their core activity: cycling. There is no better way to explore a place than on a bike and there is no better way to go cycling than with a company that gives you the bike, the helmet, offers van support, carries your luggage for you, books meals at phenomenal restaurants and allows you to cycle, eat and drink with other interesting fun people for a week. And, no, Backroads does not pay me to say this. We’ve done probably ten Backroads trips in seven countries at this point and I would do another one in a heartbeat. They’re just that much fun.
One of the best Backroads trips we did was in Tuscany and Umbria, Italy in 2003. I was with my sister, her husband, and my parents and the trip was a welcome break between my first and second years of graduate school. I left the flatland of central Ohio for the hills of Italy in June and was dazzled beyond expectation.
We began the trip in Florence, which stands out as the place where I’ve had the best food of my life and also where I’ve been the hottest I can ever remember being. We heard rumors that Rome was breaking heat records set in the 1700’s and Florence was like a sauna. The most beautiful sauna you’ve ever seen though. The architecture is an amalgam of contemporary and unspeakably ancient and women in linen dresses zip by antiquities on Vespas. We wandered into a church that was built in 1066 A.D. The whole city is lined with walls that were built by the various power-wielders over many centuries. There are museums everyplace: the Uffizi, the Palazzo Grazi, paintings tucked in old churches and galleries all over the city. But nothing we saw could match the moment at the Gallerie Academie when we turned the corner to see Michelangelo’s “David”. This is a work of art so beautiful that it defies description. No pictures do it justice. I was totally unprepared for the reality of it. It literally took my breath away and Mom had tears in her eyes. I think we all spent nearly an hour circling it and trying to take it in completely.
From Florence we moved on to Tuscany to meet with our Backroads group and begin our cycling adventure. As usual the group was lively and interesting. The terrain in Tuscany varies between pleasantly rolling valleys and excruciating upward climbs to the hilltop towns — beginning with a four kilometer ride “on up to Cortona,” as the itinerary put it, on the very first day. “Up” was the operative word. There was a lot of “up” in Tuscany. The towns tend to be old, fortified cities perched on hills, all the better to defend themselves from invaders. They were constructed to frighten off barbarian hordes and were decidedly not built with cyclists in mind. That’s where the van support came in handy. A nice air conditioned ride was often my preferred method of getting to our destinations.
Once you ascend the hills, thought, the towns themselves were a montage of romantic images and sounds. The very names of places evoke a sense of myth: Montepulciano, Pienza, Chiusi, Castiglione del Lago. In one town we found ourselves looking down on the plain where Hannibal’s army marched. We stepped into a church founded by followers of St. Francis of Assisi after his death. In the back of a shop selling leather goods we found the entrance to an Etruscan tomb dating back to 300 B.C. We ate dinner in a medieval town where a boys choir was singing in the square, their voices echoing off the stone walls still wet from the sudden afternoon storm. There were flowers everywhere. Every building, even little sheds by the roadside, had window boxes or terracotta pots filled with bright flowers. The light over the fields was like a golden haze, as if the sun itself had leaned closer to the Tuscan hills. Everywhere was life: olive trees and vineyards beautifully tended; sunflower fields tracking the sun; wildflowers tucked into the sides of the roads; birds circling overhead; cats dozing in windowsills; and people moving, constantly moving, in the open markets and the streets of the towns. Each alleyway and corner in the high towns seemed to give way to open space above the valleys with the checkerboard fields below and the sun, the constant sun, pressing gold and vital down on the land. Tuscany will always be a memory of sight and color for me. I will remember looking and looking and trying to hold onto the visions forever. Stone walls and dark soil and brilliant blue sky.
The food was… I can’t adequately describe the food. It was simple, it was fresh and I think it was infused with some sort of hallucinogen that causes me to have drool-inducing flashbacks whenever I remember it, even now. Italian country cooking is like nothing else and reason enough to return to Tuscany.
After out six days of cycling, we returned to Florence to find it hotter than before and full of tourists. I guess the season had officially started in the week we were away. We fled the city and headed to the Mediterranean for the day. Viareggio was like something from a movie with long lines of striped umbrellas and chairs perpendicular to the sea and the sun bearing down on hundreds of bodies. A startling number of those bodies were stocky Italian guys with excessive body hair shown off to full advantage in tiny Speedos and big gold chains with medallions. I am not joking.
That trip was the beginning of my love for Italy, which only deepened on a trip to Venice several years later. Italy is a feast for all the senses. There is art, there is music, there is food and wine. It’s ancient and modern all at once. It begs to be explored, tasted even. It was my quintessential summer vacation and one I would heartily recommend to anyone else.
Rebekah is a DC-area mother with an over-developed sense of irreverence, ADD, socialist tendencies and a blog. She used to travel but doesn’t so much anymore because she doesn’t want to be that mom whose kid is kicking the back of your airplane seat (you’re welcome). You can follow Rebekah on Twitter at @MomIn_AMillion.