Its Thursday, and Hillary and I have booked a bicycle tour of Tuscany for today. This turned out to be the highlight of the entire trip! After bus sing it to the train station, we got a little lost looking for the tour meeting place, and just made it before the vans pulled out.
We immediately bonded with our tour guide, Gillian, who was from California. When we asked her, in rapture, how she came to be living in Florence, she answered "I married an Italian." We then listened as she recalled the amazing love story of her and her husband Thomas, how they met, and survived 6 years of long distance before she gave in and immigrated. It was all so wonderfully romantic and happy that Hillary and I were both mesmerized. She even commented that her husband had 4 single friends and would either of us like to return to Florence next week and be set up? Hillary about fell over herself accepting that offer! (Can't wait to hear how it turns out my darling! - have fun!)
Gillian gave us some really interesting insights into Italy: how important family is, and how they can be somewhat annoyingly dependent on one another (she commented that her father in-law would sometimes call in the middle of the night asking for them to move his car because he was illegally parked, as a for instance). She also said that the men here were not afraid of commitment, and that in general, men date with a view to finding a relationship because they really want to adore someone, and shower them with affection, love, and romance. Doesn't sound bad, does it? Interestingly, it was also pointed out that people in Italy (men included) are very encouraging and congratulatory of a person who is starting out in a relationship. Guys will support other guys who seem to be falling in love. There is no social expectation of playing the field, being one of the guys, or being afraid of commitment. The Italians enjoy talking about romance and are not at all afraid of sounding mushy and gooey. It is wonderfully refreshing.
After getting kitted out with our bikes, helmets and fluids for the day, we set off on the rolling hills of the Tuscan countryside: only about 10 miles from Florence. It was beautiful, and exactly as I had always pictured it in my head.
Our first stop was a beautiful winery called Principe Corsini that produced 4 reds & 1 white as well as olive oil. We were astounded to learn that today was the very first day of the harvest, and the place had been abuzz since 5am! Everyone was running around, there was much excitement, and we were lucky enough to watch the grapes get poured into the giant mechanical grinders to be separated from their stems, crushed, and then piped to giant stainless steel vats for fermentation.
Not knowing that much about wine, I found the tour to be fascinating: learning about the steps of fermentation, what yeasts are added and when, what type of oak is used for what wine during the aging process, etc etc. This region is the Chianti region and thus famous for its wine of the same name that uses mostly the San Giovessi grape. I didn't know that a red wine's color comes entirely from the skin of the grape. Without the skin, you could make a red wine look white, it just wouldn't taste that good.
We also learned much about olive oil. Interesting facts: each olive tree can only produce about 1 litre of oil, therefore production of olive oil has a notoriously low profit margin! Most of the olive oil comes from the pit, not the fruit. Extra virgin oil is produced during the first "press" of the fruit, virgin from the second, and regular olive oil from the 3rd press. Fascinating stuff.
Of course the highlight was getting to taste it all-which we did! The non-organic olive oil was my favorite, and I bought a can of it. I really enjoyed meeting with our tour guide, Rachel, too. She was from Australia and worked not only as a tour guide at the winery estate, but also worked as a nanny to the owner's two (very spoiled) children. She had no plans for the winter, and as a fellow traveller, had been wandering the globe every since college graduation. I immediately suggested that she go work in Whistler for the winter, and offered to have her come visit me first in Seattle. We happily exchanged emails. (There is this strange, unspoken, kinship that exists between people who choose to take on the risk of globetrotting during their youth, and it bonds you to them immediately. That's at least how I feel).
Funny story: there was a piano in the tasting room, and on it lay music from my favorite musical: Les Miserables. I asked Rachel "Why is the music to "Do you hear the people sing?" on the piano?", to which she replies "Oh, I'm learning to play it - its my favorite musical!". You can guess what happened. Yup, sang my heart out with Rachel at the keys for all to listen. What fun!
Our next stop was for lunch, and oh boy was it delicious! We ordered tagliatelle with funghi (mushrooms), ravioli, mixed salad, and tiramisu. It was a leisurely 2 hour affair with wine, and it was lovely getting to know our fellow cyclists. I especially enjoyed meeting Helen, an Australian lady who was travelling through Italy with her daughter, after recently losing her husband to cancer. She loved Mamma Mia, and I entertained her throughout the day by singing Abba songs to her while I rode my bike. She didn't believe me when I told her that one of Abba's first songs ever written was called "Hey Hey Helen". I sang a few lines for her. "Oh, you made that one up!" she jibed. I'm going to send her the song!
After lunch, struggling up some of the hills with a full belly was quite the task. Luckily, there were also some staggeringly fun downhills too! Stopping for photos along the way- we rode for a solid two more hours, before our final stop for gelato!
Storm clouds were gathering and we began to hear the first rumbles of thunder. What a memorable day we'd had. We were hot, sticky, sweaty, and all kinds of nasty- but no matter! Hillary and I were catching a train at 6;30pm for Venice and we had to go as we were! In fact, we wouldn't have made it without Gillian kindly offering to drive us to the station! Thanks, Gillian!
When we got to the station, Hillary and I were dismayed to find out that all of the second class tickets were sold out! Our first class tickets were $80 and we reluctantly paid, grabbed some sandwiches, and hopped aboard.
It was a fast 3 hours spent relaxing and excitedly recalling the day's adventure. Nothing could top it- or at least we thought so.
Hillary and I stepped off the platform in Venice and exited the station. Then we stopped. And stood still, aghast. Hillary started crying. I welled up. The station is directly on the Grand Canale in Venice- so you actually step out onto stairs leading directly to the water - full of gondolas and boats, all towered over by stunning buildings and palazzos. All of this framed against a glowing night sky. We were beside ourselves for quite some time.
Getting in line to buy our "Vaporetto" tickets (the only public transport in Venice itself is by these shuttle boats) we were again stunned when we were approached by 2 Australians who gave us their day passes and said "There's about 2 hours left on these...enjoy Venice!!" and walked away. Wheeee!! We got on the boat and awaited departure.
And waited. What was wrong with this boat? Why was this woman so mad with us that we'd decided to step out on the unshielded part of the boat where we could see the city? Hillary and I both got it at the same moment. What we were standing on, was not a boat! It was a sort of docking station, that the boats pull up to! We had pushed our way to the front of the line, and now stood in the path of exiting passengers. All very funny.
It was about an hour by boat to our hostel, and we didn't arrive until after 11pm. The city was stunning at night, but despite our excitement, the prospect of a shower and bed was even greater.