Wednesday, May 20, 2009

May 6

Florence and the Tuscan Countryside

Today is scooter rental day.

It didn’t get off to the best of starts. The Florence by Bike shop only had one 125cc Honda; the people who had rented it the day before extended their rental. But the woman at FBB made arrangements with her “colleague” to check out a scooter for us to rent at another location.
It turned out that her “colleague” had gone up to Alineri rentals to check out the availability there. Kevin and Penny stayed at Florence by Bike and Marg and I headed up the street to Alineri. Alineri wasn’t my first choice but it was who we would deal with if we wanted to go.

Alineri didn’t have any 125cc Hondas available and instead offered up a 100cc. I asked him if he had anything a bit bigger and he said that he had a 150cc Honda – but only available if I had a motorcycle license. I haven’t ridden a motorcycle for over 25 years but I still have the endorsement on my license. You don’t need a license for a 125cc but you do for a 150cc. He took me to the back to show me the bike. There was a big Doberman doing guard duty – and like guard dobies the world over, was docile when the owner was around and the gates open. And like most dogs in Italy, it needed no grassy area or fire hydrant to relieve itself, the tile floor where that bike and others were parked had a couple of urine puddles through which he rolled the bike as he brought it out.
Kevin and Penny came up the street with their bike just as we were getting the briefing from our guy. Marg suggested once around the block to get used to the bikes – so we did. And shortly, we were off. We managed to get ourselves a bit disoriented on our way out of town, but with the help of the GPS, we eventually figured it out.

We made our way down SR222 (the Chiantigiana). This designated scenic wine road runs right through the heart of the Chianti district. Wine has been produced in this area since the time of the Etruscans. The ride was glorious; well, maybe not as glorious as it could have been since the weather left a bit to be desired – it could have been just a shade sunnier with a bit less wind.We rode for a while, stopping from time to time to take pictures and enjoy the scenery.

As so we found ourselves in the town of Greve in Chianti – the unofficial “capital” of the area. It was obvious (to me at any rate) that this was a town that gets by on the higher-end tourist dollar. But that didn’t detract from the charm of the place; in fact, it kind of enhanced it. We decided that this would be a good place to stop and take a bit of a break. We found a place to park the scooters (not difficult) and then went for a bit of a walk.

We walked away from the main road and on to one of the streets running parallel. There was a fairly large square – Piazza Giacomo Matteotti. We walked around the piazza, went to a café on the north side, sat down and relaxed.

Marg and I ordered cappuccino, Penny and Kevin ordered hot chocolate (ciocolato calde).
The cappuccino was good (it’s always good) but the hot chocolate was something else. It was only drinkable when the cup was nearly full (and it was still hot). As the cup drains, it became more and more difficult to get any out. I guess that’s why it came with a spoon.

After the break, we continued on to Siena. Overhead signs gave good directions to the old part of the city (the centro storico). We had made a very brief stop in Siena during last year’s trip but had approached the city from a different direction. In any event, we got to what I believed would be as close as we’d be able to get so we parked the bikes. As a precaution, I used the GPS to mark the spot where we’d parked.

Our first stop was for a bit of lunch. Now, I know what you’re probably thinking … Tuscany … the Chianti region … you’re probably starting to work up a bit of an appetite just reading this. So … in the midst of all of this gastronomical splendor where did we decide to grab a bit of lunch? McDonald’s!

Right now, many of you are probably labeling me a heretic; but for whatever reason, we were all having a bit of craving for beef. I’ll make no apologies. While Kevin was paying, he reached into his pocket to dig up a bit of change and along with the Euro coins, out came a Loonie. The kid working the counter couldn’t take his eyes off it. Eventually, Kevin gave it to him and (I think) got a pretty good rate of return for the coin – he certainly got back a lot of change.

After lunch we continued walking through the narrow streets towards the historical centre of Siena – the Campo. Siena is one of the most beautifully preserved medieval cities in Italy. The Campo itself is at the convergence of three main streets that run along ridges that divided the city into three “terzi” or districts. The city was further divided into 17 “contrade” or wards. Twice each year, dirt is laid on the campo and horse races involving 10 representatives of these 17 contrade are held. This is the famous “Palio”.

The stone of the buildings is also a very unique colour and is the origin of the “Burnt Siena” the oh-so-popular Crayloa colour.

We left the Campo and wandered the alleys of Siena. We didn’t have much of a plan, we just wanted to wander and so, inevitably, we got lost. We got out the GPS and tried to get a fix on our position, but the alleys were so closed in that it was difficult to get a good “sky shot”. We had to make our way to a piazza to give the GPS the opportunity to get a position fix. Once we had that, it was an easy matter to get the GPS to figure out a route back to where we’d parked the bikes. The problem was staying on the route; once we got back into the confined alleys, the GPS would lose the signal and we’d have to keep going forward without position updates. Normally, that wouldn’t be too difficult, but you have to keep in mind that we were wandering through some very confined alleyways and sometimes the difference between one “street” and another was only 10 to 15 metres.

We managed to get back to the bikes and start on our way back to Florence. We tried backtracking our route in, but the traffic circles were a challenge. In addition, the signs for “Firenze” were all pointing in the direction of the divided highway and we wanted to go back on SR222. For a time, the divided highway won out (mostly because we found ourselves going down the “on ramp” before we realized where exactly the road was leading us). We had to do about 4.5 Km on the “Superstrada Firenze-Siena”. It wasn’t so bad for us; we had a windshield on our 150cc Honda. Kevin and Penny – on the other hand – had to get by with no wind (or bug) protection on their 125cc. We got of the Superstrada as soon as we could and the first thing we did was go back to the GPS to figure out not only where we were, but also how we were going to get back to Florence.
It turned out that we were on SR119 which leads directly on to SR222, so the way back (at least until we got closer to Florence) was going to be easy.

The sun was getting lower in the sky, and while still pleasant, the weather had turned just a bit cooler. The ride was not unpleasant, but a bit more sun and warmer temperatures would have been welcomed.

Rather than risk getting caught in Florence’s rush hour traffic without a clue as to where we needed to go, we stopped just north of Strada in Chianti to start up the GPS and figure out the route. I rode the rest of the way with the headphones in my ears listening to “Jenny” give me directions. At one point we rode along the outside of the old city wall. There were traffic lights at each end of one particularly narrow stretch of Viale Antonio Gramsci – to regulate one-way flows.

Eventually, we got back to Via San Zenobi and arrived just in time to drop the bikes before they closed.

The drop-off was sort of inverse to the pick-up. Where Marg and I had had a couple of hassles picking up, we had no problems at the drop-off. Penny and Kevin had a smooth pickup, but a bit of hassle dropping off. The shop was busy and their drop-ff kept getting interrupted by other customers pushing in. But nothing was really going to ruin what had – in the end – turned out to be an excellent day.

We headed back to the apartment to clean up and relax; then, we headed out for supper. After supper, we did a bit of shopping at the “mercato della nocce” (some may call it the Marché Noir) for some sunglasses. Opening prices of €30 for “Gucci”, “Dior” and “Versace” sunglasses were quickly whittled down to €10 – although not without a bit of “hardball” negotiation tactics including the infamous “walking away” gambit.

After that, we headed down to near the Ufizzi gallery to listen to another one of the many street performers. He had quite a crowd gathered; people were spilling up onto the loggia. We stayed for a few songs then headed over to get our nightly fix of gelato to enjoy during our stroll back to the apartment.

Tomorrow, we’re off to Venice.

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