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Tuscany      March 26 - April 9, 2006

Refitting in Florence
    Arriving in Italy always puts smiles on our faces, but coming on the heels of our first trip to Egypt, it was especially sweet. Italy isn't exactly squeaky clean indoors or out, but it looked downright sanitized after 3 weeks in Egypt--and what's a little litter here and there anyway.  Noisy Italy even sounded quiet to us and the driving looked so orderly. And after being utterly flummoxed by written or spoken Arabic,  we were eager to again stumble through a few Italian sentences. Though clumsy, we knew we'd again be able to communicate the basics with people who spoke no English and decipher much of the posted information. 

Our library, fully exposed, before being re-dispersed.

    Kicking-off our biking season meant finally merging 3 stashes of belongings: there was the small amount of gear we'd left in the Florence storage locker with our bikes back in early December; the bulging suitcase we brought from home but left in Berlin with friends for a month; and the suitcase of essentials we carried with us for 3 weeks in northern Egypt.
    One shock was assembling all of the maps, guides, and books we had squirreled away--we both had a few in each of the 3 stashes and together they made an embarrassingly big and heavy pile. A couple were suppose to be read and then discarded while flying and while in Egypt, but an Egyptian history book picked up in Alexandria derailed the last of those good intentions.
    A bigger setback as we were about to leave Florence was discovering that both back wheels on our bikes were in desperate need of replacement. I was killing time at the storage locker cleaning up the bikes as best I could without water or a solvent while Bill was doing the more serious annual maintenance when I spotted cracks on the surface of the wheels. Around every other spoke was an inch long crack radiating in 2 directions. 
    An apparently overzealous Portland mechanic had cranked those spokes a little too hard when he built-up the wheels in 2004 and every spoke on the right side of our back wheels was pulling out through the metal. (The right-side spokes are under more tension than the left.) The cracks on my wheel were hairline whereas on Bill's bike the metal was visibly displaced.
    We scrambled to find a nearby bike shop to build-up sturdy new wheels on a short time line with the weekend approaching. Fortunately, the atypically customer-service-oriented clerk at the storage locker identified a nearby shop for us. One of the 2 men at the shop spoke just enough "bike English" to understand what we wanted and to communicate their timeline and the price.  

There was no ignoring the cracks in Bill's rear wheel.

    Giving up the bikes for the wheel repairs threw-off Bill's maintenance schedule as our contract at the locker was expiring and so we once again started our biking season with a few extra parts in our panniers. The heavy chains and most of the new cables made it on, as did my essential new saddle and my new shifters. Bill treated us each to new metal pulleys for our rear derailleurs but the new handlebar tape and padding had to wait. I would ride several weeks before getting my new computer and the bells for alerting pedestrians waited in the depths of a pannier for a couple of months before going into service.
    Another in a string of little set backs was discovering the new Vaude panniers that we worked so hard to find in Berlin had some awkward design changes. Attaching them in the most straightforward way on Bill's rack shifted the weight so far to the rear of his bike that it developed a terrible wobble that prevented ever peddling out of the saddle, something he likes to do quite often. Changes in the closure system required buying 4 carabineer's so as to maintain the treasured flexibility of loosely closing the tops when they are bulging with  just-purchased groceries, and a new strap required establishing a new habit so it wouldn't end up in the spokes. But despite all the unexpected problems, we were quite pleased to start riding after a 4 month hiatus with as much ease as we did.  

BikeLine
Led the Way
    Map Man carefully searched out BikeLine route books when we stopped over in Berlin and Frankfurt in December and we were reaping the benefits our first day out of Florence. We were picnicking our first afternoon on a stone wall overlooking the endlessly undulating vineyards and orchards when a British man stopped on his third pass by us to ask directions. He was on a day ride and had a map but couldn't find the turn he was looking for.
    A flood of memories of similar frustrations came back as we remembered circling in the same and nearby hills in 2001, looking for the elusive turns. The narrow, stone-lined lanes look like driveways instead of through roads and sorting out one from the next is all but impossible with an ordinary map. And cyclist's pay  terrible penalties for their mistakes in the maze of 20-25% grades. Bill's bike-specific route book was giving him the details needed to almost effortlessly guide us through the labyrinth of ancient farm roads that had trapped us in the past, had snared this man, and had exhausted-to-tears another American couple we spoke with a few days later.
    Almost all of the BikeLine route books are written in German, which adds to the difficulty of using them but built welcome German language lessons into Bill's day. It's unfortunate that we can only reliably buy them in Germany as they publish routes for many regions in Europe. This will be an exceptional year for Map Man as he had 3 different books of theirs whereas some years he doesn't use a one. (For the curious, check them out at: www.esterbauer.com as they are now printing selected routes in English).
    Having pre-scouted bike routes in hand encouraged us to take roads we wouldn't risk doing on our own. Often Bill will look at a bit of unpaved road on a map that would be a perfect bypass for a difficult traffic situation but waves it on as being too risky. With all the weight we carry, getting caught on a steep grade in deep gravel or on a dirt road after rain can turn another wise delightful day into a grueling ordeal. If it is a very long stretch, our average speed can grind down so low as to risk getting us in after dark. But with the BikeLine route maps and narrative, one knows that such alternate routes are suitable and we could go with confidence.
    In contrast, our Lonely Planet guidebook was written with non-cyclist's in mind and we choked when reading their description of the "gentle hills and valleys" outside of Florence. Yes, the rounded shapes and frequently repeating nature of the hills may look more gentle than angular terrain, but from the bike saddle they made for rigorous riding. These Tuscany roads had us quickly crossing over our magic line for identifying difficult riding by dishing out a daily average of 100' in elevation gain for each mile ridden, or 3,000' of gain on a 30 mile day. Grade markers only appeared on the bigger roads and on the downhill stretches, but we could look back and see the posted 10% and 15% grades in these "gentle hills".

One of the Duomo's many inlaid floor panels.

    We rode on 5 of our first 6 days out of Florence and traveled a mere 125 miles--a distance ambitious unloaded riders do in a day. But in that paltry distance we'd done over 12,000' in elevation gain and we generally consider 15,000' a week as our limit when in peak condition. We were thrilled to look back at our accomplishment, especially having only done a little unloaded riding in the last 4 months, but it was hardly what Bill had envisioned for our reconditioning program. The distance was certainly conservative, ranging from 17 to 34 miles a day, but we were racking up the gain even on the shortest of those days and our bikes were at their heaviest as they are at the beginning of every riding year.

 

Siena
    Tourist-mecca Siena was our first stopover out of Florence and it was only fitting to learn that Siena and Florence were traditional rivals, duking it out in the 13th century with Florence eventually getting the upper hand.  Siena had peaked earlier than Florence--in the 12th century--with the boost to commerce and trade that came from appropriating some nearby silver mines. Money flowed freely in Siena during the Gothic artistic bias, whereas Florence flourished in the later Renaissance period. Both cities have well preserved architectural monuments, giving even the uninitiated like us an almost side-by-side comparison of the two styles. Siena's old architecture would be even more grand but the 1348 bubonic plague wiped out two-thirds of its population and brought a permanent end to some of its grander building projects then underway.

A sample of the Duomo's library's vivid frescos..

    Siena's Duomo or cathedral is still fully decked out in its flamboyant Gothic finery.  White and green marble in horizontal stripes with red marble accents make the exterior hard to miss. The striped theme is continued on the interior, with nary a surface undecorated. The marble floors have 56 large, unusual inlays, each portraying a different scene; the ceilings and domes are colorfully decorated; there are bronze panels on the doors; huge old paintings adorn the walls; finely carved marble sculpture and friezes abound; and stunning frescos on the library walls and ceilings are hard to beat. We're not devotees of religious art but decided to dedicate a large page of our photo album to the vivid post cards of the church interior because it is so complete and such a representative of the Gothic period. Nothing is left to the imagination when it comes to knowing what it once looked like--it's all still there.
    The stiffly formal Duomo isn't the hub of the city however; the too plain and too large "Il Campo" central square is Siena's living room (like Portland tried to create with Pioneer Square). The awkward vastness of the 14the century square is tamed by the hundreds of people decorating it day or night. Il Campo is the place to be and the buzz of activity and its central location keeps pulling one in.
    We sat on the steeply sloping brick pavers with the student set, enjoying the cheap seats for our picnic lunch or when taking a break from sightseeing. Groups of kids in packs of 50's swarmed through on their way to their next sightseeing venue and couples and small groups of teens clustered and chattered away. Young parents with strollers and toddlers just learning to walk lingered in the huge open area as others watched from the expensive sidewalk cafes rimming the almost ellipsoid 'square'.

A small segment of Siena's Il Campo.

    Even without the beckoning buzz in the Il Campo, Siena exudes charm. The stone and brick hilltop city is still largely contained within its medieval city walls and all 8 of its original city gates still stand. Wickedly steep streets and steps do nothing to conceal the geography and one is rarely on flat land outdoors, which mirrors the surrounding roads in Tuscany. 

Sleeping Is Often A Challenge In Italy
    For all of the things that we love about traveling in Italy, staying in Siena reminded us that it is the conditioning of their youth to exercise their lungs a couple of hours either side of midnight that wears us down. Cycling and years of cultural programming puts us on a mostly daylight schedule and by 9:30 or 10 at night our road-weary bodies are ready for some serious sleep. Unfortunately, that's about when the Italian kids start picking up momentum, even in the campgrounds, as we learned in previous years.
    Chatting with a sandwich clerk in Florence had revealed that the packs of 20-40 kids we'd seen each day dragging their wheeled suitcases to and from the train station weren't really on vacation. They had already had a recent holiday and Easter was 2 weeks off--this was instead an interval of school outings. We'd been tormented by such outings in the past. Several times we had been wrapping up the last of our evening chores when the bus load of kids descended on our hotel and proceeded to run up and down the halls and stairways, screaming, for hours. Their chaperones and the hotel staff were indifferent to our complaints and we learned that this wild behavior was considered normal and expected by everyone but us (and the other American guests).
    Armed with the knowledge that this was one of the intervals when packs of school kids were on the move, we committed to being meticulous about staying in hotels too small to house a school group. Our 1 star Siena hotel looked like just such a place. Quite spare with shared bathrooms and just small enough to be overlooked by a group, we thought we were safe. It was on a narrow pedestrian street with larger, mostly pedestrian streets at either end. And the plain but welcoming middle-aged women at the desk didn't look like they'd tolerate the nonsense of school groups.
    Indeed we eluded the menace as mostly young Italian pairs were checking into the hotel. But alas, the throbbing hoards of kids were out on the streets for most of the night. It started at about dusk with a low-budget parade of a few flag bearers followed by group of shouting men, with a group of women bringing up the back. Close to an hour later the same parade passed by on our other cross street. Then spasmodic bouts of music broke out, like it was intermittently being moved along on the back of a truck.
    We delayed going to bed, hoping the merrymaking would settle down. We did get some sleep but then they brought the roof down at 12:30 am. The endless shouting was like at a European football game that occasionally erupts into riots and the music was constantly blaring. The white noise generator on our laptop was undetectable in our room above the roar from outside. There was no going back to sleep, despite the deep fatigue from 2 tiring days of biking in the hills.
    Our side street seemed to provide welcome relief to some of the party goers who stopped under our window for animated conversations, shouting matches, and a pick-up game of football. The street party eventually wound down and my mind, desperate for sleep, manufactured a dream series in which I was a parade participant as an attempt to integrate the disruptions. But the short-lived quiet was soon punctuated by the distinctive clanks and whirls of the garbage crews and street sweepers at the end of the disappearing night. I wondered if the folks at the 5 star hotel around the corner did much better. Surely they had better soundproofing windows, but they were on the main drag for this street party.

A quiet night in our room facing the valley at Colle Val d'Elsa.

    The first stop the next morning was at the tourist information office to determine if this had been a Saturday Special or a weekend-long or weeklong street fest. We would need their help to find a hotel out of the 'zone' if it was likely to be repeated a second night. The staff person thought long and hard to imagine what had caused the ruckus. Finally she decided that since it had been April 2 and it had fallen on a Saturday, that it was likely an impromptu celebration in honor of the huge Il Palio event that occurs on July 2. It wasn't the logic we could have come up with, but it made sense to her.
    The next Friday night in a shut-down coastal resort we made the mistake of taking a room next to an ordinary looking cafe that was hosting "Harley Night" at 10 pm. We managed to fall asleep during the warm-up music but I practically had to be peeled off the ceiling when they ramped it up at midnight. Surely we had surround-sound in our room--the music was so loud I couldn't even tell which direction it was coming from. At 2 am the rounds of engine revving suggested that the guests were being introduced one at a time on their wheels, though we didn't go to the window to look.
    The following night it was our hostess in our small, 1-star hotel that kept us awake rather than school children or street revelers. Most of the guests were like us and to bed early to queue at 7 am for the ferry departure, but our hostess treated the place like her home. It was close to midnight when she stopped shouting down the long corridor to communicate with the person at the other end--perhaps her adult son. It wasn't angry shouting, just well-practiced projection of her voice to be heard over the long distance. Despite our best efforts to shrewdly position ourselves for a good night's sleep in Italy, there seemed to be an endless stream of reasons for high decibels around and after midnight.
 
Le Crete
    Our day ride out of Siena (after a better night's sleep on Sunday) into the Le Crete district was another day of wicked grades and grand panoramas. The haze the locals maintain by perpetual backyard burning made it hard to snap a photo that did it justice, but the mind was a little more forgiving in the moment.
    We learned that Le Crete is "the clay" in Tuscan and was a fitting name for the area. It is the fine, white clay from a 2.5-4.5 million year old sea bottom that had been lifted up and subsequently wind and water eroded that gives the area its distinctive look. The somewhat water repelling quality of the clay often results in deep grooves being carved until the mounds are destabilized enough to cause landslides, occasionally giving sharper faces to the generally moundy terrain.

The 'mowed' and "unmowed" hills of Le Crete.

    It was startling to learn that this region had been knobby with white clay knolls until the wonders of mechanization arrived a little late in Italy and the farmers were able to mow down most of them in the 1980's. A few remain juxtaposed with the smooth fields achieved with the help of Massey-Fergusson and their friends.
      Even more amazing is why mechanization arrived late, which was because these Tuscan lands had been farmed under the medieval sharecropper system until the 1960's. A boom, in part spurred by Fiat opening an auto manufacturing plant in Torino, shifted the economics of the country. Chronically poor Italians from the south, especially Sicily, flooded north towards the jobs and the old farming system eventually collapsed amid all the ensuing changes.

The intact fortified walls & towers of Monteriggioni's castle.

Monteriggioni
    Most of the stories of Tuscany are the stories of hilltops and the tiny village of Monteriggioni was an unexpected hilltop pleasure on one traveling day. Our Lonely Planet guide book didn't mention it at all, the German BikeLine route book gave it a one-liner, and the road up to it was dauntingly steep. It would have been easy to wave it on, but the old fortified town wasn't all that far off the road and it was lunch time on a short riding day. We gritted our teeth up the 10% grade and wobbled through the old stone gate on rough cobblestones to find a recently "discovered" tourist site. The ancient shops were all now storefronts catering to tourists with handmade jewelry, regional wines, and ice cream cones but they marginally detracted from the experience of this historic village.
    We enjoyed the brief walk required to tour the 2 streets and inspect the perimeter and then settled down for our picnic lunch in a pocket park sandwiched between the backs of some old homes and the historic fortified walls. The real delight came in discovering that the half dozen brief information plaques neatly tied together some loose ends of history of we had just learned. The village was built along the route of ancient Etruscan and then Roman roads, one of which became a pilgrims route (the via Francigena) in the Middle Ages for the faithful trekking between France and Rome. We had happened to tour the old pilgrim's hospital in Siena 2 days before, which was now telling the larger story of the history of the region, though it didn't fill us in much about the pilgrims themselves. We of course were amused to discover that not only were we again following an old Roman road, but like in Spain, were on a pilgrim's route as well.

The small church in the small enclosed area of the walls.

    The current village had its origins in 1213 with the building of a castle intended to be a first outpost in defending Siena from the marauding Florentines--a centuries-long conflict we had also learned about in Siena. It was the Sienese people who financed its construction and the later fortified walls with their still-existing 14 towers. No fools, the Florentine's used the well-worn via Francigena of the pilgrims to advance on Siena.
    Over the centuries, this castle lost its defensive importance and became the home of sharecroppers who worked the land until the 1960's,  just like in the "Le Crete" area. It was however curious to read the info panels describing the cultural and economic changes in the 1960's at Monteriggioni--changes that were spoken of like they happened hundreds or thousands of years ago. "Where had the sharecroppers gone?" the panel quizzed; "Start byaa asking around" was my thought.
    We were disappointed that the sharecroppers museum in the area was closed as we were curious to learn more of this branch of history. That frustration prompted us to listen to lecture #8 in our DVD series of 24 "High Middle Ages" lectures that we'd carried around for 2 years. We finally clicked them open as we were leaving Egypt to set the stage for our fast-forward of several thousand years to the most visible history in Italy. We'd paused at the discussion about the relationship between the nobles and the serfs, a perfect tie-in with Monteriggioni that had literally been the home of serfs. As we had hoped, listening to the series enriched our visit to this part of Italy.

An always hazy but grand panorama from Volterra.

Volterra
    After leaving flat Florence wrapped around a river, our Tuscany tour was of one hilltop town after another. Each was different, each had its own distinctive profile and what made Volterra outstanding was its grand panoramas. We remembered them from our 2001 visit in our first months of cyclotouring abroad. Then we were treated to a ride on a hot day up the10% grades in the back seat of a rented car with our friends Elizabeth and Rick from Portland. Not only did we get to enjoy the views without the huge effort but we took a break from camping by spending several nights with them in their nearby rented villa. Then as on this visit, we marveled at the expansive look at the Tuscany countryside and imagined the sense of security and power the high perch gave its residences in more chaotic times.
    It's hard to imagine another view where one sees so much land. Volterra is so much higher than everything else around it and since none of the surrounding earth is quite flat, one sees so many surfaces. The views from peaks in the Dolomites are breathtaking, but they are of tops of other mountains--Volterra's view is a 360 look of the sides of many shallow, green slopes.

The finely detailed Etruscan terracotta funerary urn cover.

    We took another walk down memory lane at Volterra, which was a second visit to the Etruscan Museum. We hadn't heard of the Etruscans in 2001 and so every item in the museum was a curiosity then. That introduction to the Etruscans made us keen to learn all that we could about them from subsequent museums, so revisiting Volterra's was a chance to discover that we had indeed been good students since our first visit.

Those Bold Colors   
   
One of the things I love about Italy is the use of vivid colors. The air pollution and dry land make the vegetation and panoramas quite muted in some areas, but the buildings and many of the clothes are in wonderful yellows, oranges, and greens. I was always in love with the 'jewel tones', like purples, blues and fuchsias; but in Italy, its the yellows and oranges that turn my head. Where else but Italy would tri-colored yellow, orange and green shoes look like just the right thing? And where else but Italy do middle aged men waltz around in the city sporting burnt orange pants and look well dressed?  Those tones on the streets and in the store windows made me want to buy and I imagined having a home decorated with the same self-confident tones.
    Given the splash of color that many Italians enjoy making on the street, we were stumped as to why the moderately priced hotels in the area were all so devoid of color. We stayed in places that usually ranged from about 45-75 and most decors were reminiscent of 1950's hospital wards. Spare and clinical was the look, often with fraying furniture. A splash of those yummy yellow or coral tones would have done wonders for any of those somber rooms.

Those yummy, rosy-orange tones in Siena.

Circus Italian
    Playing around with foreign languages gives us endless entertainment on the road, though we usually only spend a few minutes at a time with it. I am a much less serious student of language than Bill who is happiest when he can spend an uninterrupted hour a day concentrating on his German vocabulary. I instead specialize in what he has termed "Circus Italian," or whatever is the language of the week. 
    My vocabulary lessons are crafted by the day rather than following an organized plan. The immediacy of the moment will spur me to look up "thunder, lightning, and rain."  Those caution signs with "Frana" on them finally compelled me to discover that it was landslide risk we'd been overlooking in Le Crete. But that triggered an interest in mastering other terrain words like "cliff, hill, and valley" and refreshing our memories on several variations on the words for "river." Since it wasn't our first effort at Italian, I also challenged us with the tongue twisting words for "towel" (ascigumano) and "spoon" (cucchiaio).
    One of the surprises and rewards of the circus-approach to languages is that everything we learn eventually pops up again. Bill pulled out a kid's Italian lesson card from his pocket during lunch at Monteriggioni and though the lesson on articles was beyond us, we learned the nouns "nail" and "mirror." Just 2 hours later we rode by 3 businesses advertising custom bathroom mirrors and at the end of the day, a prehistory museum  had iron nails and bronze mirrors in the display cases--but they were only labeled in Italian..
    I have little patience for conjugating verbs, so we limit it to just 4 forms "I, you/it, we and they" and only when we are craving a new verb. Learning a new noun will sometimes necessitate an appropriate verb to support its practice, like learning "to swim" once we know the name for "duck", so that's when we pause for the more tedious effort of working with verbs.
    Part of the benefit of playing with such words that are generally useless in our cryptic conservations with Italians about the price of rooms or if the Tuscan bread is made with salt, is that we get more practice and confidence in speaking. Though that doesn't seem to please everyone as much as it pleases us. More than one store clerk paled and instantly lost her bubbly Italian affect when it was clear that I was going to speak rather than just point at the product I wanted. A sense of dread and focused attention came over each of them and I suspect ultimate surprise when they could actually understand and respond to my carefully crafted 4 or 5 word sentences. We certainly don't have dialogues, only little scripted monologues, but it is a huge help in getting an indoor space for our bikes at night and a second towel when the room is only  supplied with one.     

Italy vs Egypt
    The sounds of birds were the first things I noticed when we left Florence on our bikes. We headed up into the hills above the city and were greeted by birds. We only spotted a few magpies, but the calls of other birds were everywhere. We didn't hear birds in Egypt--the roar in the cities wiped out their song (or perhaps them) and the few we saw in the Oases could hardly be heard over the winds. Each day we rode in Italy I savored the various tunes of the birds--they seemed to be symbolic of a much healthier place to be for both animals and people than in Egypt. And perhaps the potential devastation of their populations with bird flu was making them more precious too.
    Our budget hotel in Siena had no soap in the shared bathrooms, which again reminded us of the "veneer of feces" of which travel medicine doctors speak and was always on our minds in Egypt. Without any soap, the probability of fecal contamination on the knobs and handles of the bathroom and room doors was high. We responded by carefully washing our hands immediately after returning to our room (sinks are common in rooms without a private bath). But even with that glaring hygiene glitch designed into this hotel's routine, we felt that our risk of disease was much less than in Egypt as the people on the streets and working in the hotels in Italy weren't as likely reservoirs for serious diseases as the people in Egypt. Additionally, we had left behind the threat of tropical parasitic diseases from the produce and the dangerous residues from Cairo's very serious air pollution. Central Italy is hardly pristine from a pollution standpoint but it was far less toxic than the parts of Egypt we had visited. 
   Being able to amble and stroll in Italy was a wonderful contrast to having been in Egypt. No one pestered us for money; no one followed us, prodding us to ride in their cab; and we didn't have to guard against accidentally touching someone. The prices were posted in shops and we never had to tip to obtain a service, especially ones we'd already paid for or didn't want. The food was clean and picking through the produce was to eliminate the most minor of blemishes.
    And "Oh my, the women...." What a difference. I was hard pressed to imagine a more dramatic contrast between the street demeanor of Egyptian women and that of those in Italy. Italian women of all ages flaunt their bodies and their sensuality with confidence and sometimes grace. No hiding anything under multiple layers of drapey fabric as in Egypt. And of course, women can display themselves and strangers can brush against each other in passing without provoking the unwelcome advances that the Islamic fundamentalists so fear.
    I was again reminded of all of those cultural taboos in Egypt when I saw a lone young woman covered in the Islamic tradition sitting with a school group on the Siena Duomo steps. She was dressed appropriated for Egypt but there she would not have been in a mixed group of boys and girls and could not have freely wandered in most Egyptian mosques as she could in the Duomo.
    And certainly a huge difference between our current experience of Italy and what we had done in Egypt was the hills. Italy is largely mountainous and in most of inland Tuscany a flat bit of land is a rare thing. We could hardly ride our bikes or walk on a city street after leaving Florence without grunting up some steep incline. In contrast, northern Egypt is mostly flat, with our big elevation change being dropping 40' below sea level when entering the Siwa Oasis. For us, 'going up' in Egypt seemed to be mostly limited to climbing a desert sand dune or flights of hotel stairs.

Out of the Hills
    Unexpectedly to me though not to Map Man, our brisk morning, 1600' descent down from Volterra into the valley marked the end of our hilltop-Tuscany experience. Heading west for the Mediterranean coast and then north to Pisa, we were in a flat river valley. And by noon the next day we hadn't even climbed 100'. This pancake flat land was a bike friendly stretch of the coast, with many hotels prepared to stash our bikes indoors for the night. The coastal sea resorts were promoting cycling as a part of expanding their tourism industry, which was good news for us.
    But all of that would change, this time unexpectedly to Map Man. In looking ahead to upcoming Livorno, he noticed that it was a hub for the ferries heading for nearby French island of Corsica. Knowing that we shouldn't be in the Alps too early in the season because of snow, Corsica looked like an interesting detour to occupy us for at least a few days. So, Pisa and Lucca would have to wait and soon we would be off to Corsica, which wasn't on our original itinerary.

Where We Are Now 5/31/06
    We are in northwestern Italy, caught between the heavy winter snows that have delayed the opening of the bike-friendly mountain passes into Switzerland and France by at least a month (until mid-June) and the early 90 heat of the Po Valley. We left Biela today, which is roughly at the intersection of a line drawn north from Turin and west from Milan. Bill has found a delightful route eastwards that skirts us through the hills just north of the Po Valley. Yesterday's clear skies and fierce winds of the advancing low pressure system gave way today to rain mixed with snow at lunch as the temperature plunged 45F from just a few days ago. Hopefully that is behind us as we head north into the Lake District and then on to the Dolomites.

Love,
Barb

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