At 5am on Saturday I bolted out of bed, threw on some clothes, grabbed my backpack and fast-walked to the train station in time for the 5:35 train to Florence. I arrived at 6:40 and briskly walked from the train station to Duomo square. At 7am, it was mostly deserted, most of the people walking around had not yet returned to their homes or hotels after a long night out. I was approached by a group of Americans who were still drinking and saying I should come join them when the bars open up again. I declined and continued towards San Marco Square, where I caught the 7:15 bus to Fiesole. Fiesole is a hill town high up over Florence, looking down over the city from Montereggio, the Mountains of the Kings. I had never been to Fiesole before, but I was headed there for an affordable bike tour I had researched online. As a student, I can not afford to pay 100 euros to go biking through the vineyards of the Chianti region, that’s just ridiculous. So, I found a company that does mountain biking through the hills above Florence and decided that sounded perfect. I did not know what I was getting myself into.
Fiesole Bike is a brand new start-up by Giovanni, who used to work for Black and Decker in Florence. He is having much more fun leading people around the country side by bike and he is very good at it. Giovanni promptly met me in the main square of Fiesole by the bus stop at 8am with our bikes and helmets. We then walked up a small hill to get a gran view of the entire city of Florence, sprawling out beneath us, a very impressive panorama. Often, Giovanni takes cyclists on an easy ride down to Florence from Fiesole, entirely downhill or flat, and easy to pedal. However, I had told Giovanni that I am a Spinning teacher of moderate to advanced cycling ability and I wanted a challenge.
A challenge I got. Since Giovanni has only just started his business as a bicycle tour guide, he had yet to attract hoards of tourists. It was just him and I, off on what he called a “cross-country” trek in the beautiful hillside. It was unthinkable in the silence and pristine air that the massive city of Florence existed just 10 kilometers away. He pointed to a tiny tower far off in the distance, saying that was our destination. I decided he was crazy. Around 3 hours later, after working hard and earning the view, we arrived at the Monasterio Scenario. We had biked past small country side houses, ancient farm houses, olive trees and vineyards. We had been surrounded by gorgeous scenery, traveling by mountain bike on and off road, stopping every now and then to take a photo and once for coffee (strong coffee in a shot glass) at a road-side truck. We had almost turned around before the final ascent, but I insisted that I could make it and I’m glad I did. The view from the top of the hill spanned out in all directions underneath us – a view of the Appenine Mountains, a view of the Arno snaking its way towards Pisa, a view of Florence far off in the distance, a view of Fiesole, where we had started 20 kilometers ago much further below us, a tiny speck on the horizon.
We stopped for a break at the monastery, quickly touring the inside. Giovanni told me about the liquor that the monks made using the sap from all of the pine trees for flavor. He was surprised when I wanted to try it. We both had a shot of the tasty liquor, then washed it down with the snack of bread and ham I had brought along. Then it was time to head back, primarily downhill, but this time we took a slightly different route. Traveling along, we reached the summer homes of Dante and Beatrice, as well as the tiny church where they may have first met at the young impressionable age of 9. Many rich Florentines have countryside homes up in the Montereggio, where the temperature is at least 10 degrees cooler, and perfect for biking in the summer.
We made our way through hayfields, passing ancient buildings, a medieval tower, and bright yellow flowers blooming by the roadside until cruising back into Fiesole, where Giovanni showed me where to get a salami and cheese sandwich for only 2.50 Euros. Our bike ride had lasted over 5 hours! My legs were a little shaky, but I was happy that I had persevered and explored this absolutely beautiful and mostly deserted corner of the Tuscan landscape. After admiring the outdoor art that God created, I got on the bus back down the hill to admire the art created by man in the Uffizi Gallery.
The bus dropped me off in San Marco Square, and per usual, I somehow got lost in Florence. I checked out the neighborhood then eventually made my way down the Arno until I reached the Uffizi. The bike ride had taken much longer than I had planned for, so I was late for my reserved entry time to the Uffizi. Thankfully, the ticketing agent was nice enough to make an exception, and I entered the museum around 3pm. I spent 2 hours going from room to room to check out the Italian masterpieces housed in the old museum. I had my Nook with Rick Steve’s “Walking Tour of the Uffizi” pulled up so I could learn about the art I was viewing. I am glad I had downloaded it in advance for $2 instead of paying 15 euros for a guidebook. The museum only places labels with small commentary next to each painting, so if you aren’t with a group or haven’t bought an audioguide, you’re out of luck. The large groups touring the Uffizi were really annoying. 20 tourists would gather around a photo, craning their necks for a better view while their guide rattled off statistics and information about the painting in question. In my opinion, the gallery space is too small to allow so many tour groups. The museum should place a smaller number of tour groups allowed per hour or eliminate tour groups all together in favor of guidebooks and audioguides. It is hard to concentrate on something when the person standing to one side of you is rattling off facts in hushed Chinese and the person to the other side is barking information in rapid fire German.
Oh well, I visited the Uffizi Gallery, one of the most famous art galleries in the world, and got to see firsthand the masterpieces of Italian artwork over the years. At least it was much better in the way of crowd control than the Louvre, and much more manageable. After the museum, I headed to the café in an alletway where Verannzzo Chianti serves stuffed focaccia bread along with its best wines. I bought a bottle to drink some with my tomato and cheese stuffed focaccia, and took the rest with me to enjoy later. I made a quick stop at Grom and got strawberry and yogurt gelato, which I ate while navigating my way to the station. I got there just in time for the 7:15 train, and read Dan Brown’s new novel set in Florence “Inferno”, while sipping my Tuscan wine and eating some chocolate I had purchased earlier at the monastery. I arrived home a little after 8 and quickly showered and put on a dress. Thus why this was the most exhausting day yet.
After biking the hills above Florence, visiting the Uffizi gallery, enjoying wine and gelato, showering and getting dressed, I headed out the door at 8:45 and made my way to the river Arno, where I met up with the boys and Marina. It was the night of Giaco de Ponte, the annual competition between the two sides of the river Arno. The teams attach a paddle to a sort of tug of war device and then use brute force until the other side succumbs and is pushed off of the bridge and back on to their side. Thousands of locals and tourists swarmed the area around Ponte Mezzo, but we found a spot along the road to watch the parade of player and bands go by that wasn’t too crowded. Then, we headed back to the house around 10 to watch the battle on television. The sport is more time consuming that I thought – it takes each matching of about 20 players versus 20 players at least 10 minutes to force their opponents off of the bridge. Fatigue sets in and the weaker men tire out, allowing the other side to apply more force and win. The event is a huge festivity in the city every year, but after watching a few rounds, I read through the last few chapters of my Dan Brown book and headed to bed. I had been up since 5, and fully exhausted myself.