Here is what I hope to be a less than novel-length trip report on my bike tour through Tuscany.
Tour: I took Vermont Bicycle Tour's 'Tuscany' tour. Left Boston on Friday, returned the following Sunday via Air France.
Preparation: I built my mileage up to 20 miles a ride, three or four times a week. I did one 25 mile ride three days before I left. I am active and fit to begin with, so take that for what it's worth. But I live at sea level, which makes preparing for hills a bit difficult.
Day One: Landed in Florence and was at my hotel by noon. I was staying at the Hotel Una Vittoria, which is on the 'other' side of the Arno, and by my pace, more than a 20 minute walk from the Ponte Vecchio, Piazza della Signoria, etc. The hotel is extremely trendy, dark and funky in décor. It was clean, new and comfortable, it's just that it was too far from anything for my liking. But it was for only one night. I grabbed a panini (tomato and mozzarella) and indulged in gelato more than once. I burnt off jetlag by shopping on the Ponte Vecchio and window shopping between Piazza della Signoria and the Duomo. I had a 4:30 reservation to see David at the Accademia, arrived there at 4:00 and there were no lines or waiting, so I went in early. There were maybe 30 people there, tops, which surprised me given all I had heard about the museums being overbooked/fully booked. I was revisiting David after my trip last year, and was thrilled to see him without scaffolding. I realized though how they made a good attempt to be as unobtrusive as possible with the scaffolding last year, because I was just as struck now as I was before. I kept expecting him to lean down and ask me why all these people are walking around him staring upward. I then headed back to Ponte Vecchio for a quick meal at Open Bar Golden View, a favorite of mine from my last trip. The point was to eat quickly and get to sleep, so I had pappa al pomodoro and a 4-cheese pizza and was in bed around 8:30.
Day Two: Up early for an included good breakfast at the hotel (cereal, pastries, meats, breads, etc.). I walked to the Pitti Palace and toured the Palatine Gallery. Maybe still a bit asleep or not fully over jetlag, it took me three rooms before I realized that I wasn't touring the apartments and that all this nice artwork hanging in the rooms was what I was supposed to be looking at. It's almost overwhelming to see them hung so closely together in a non-museum atmosphere. The Raphaels are truly beautiful, but I loved the statue of the young Michelangelo on the way out. I then walked the Boboli Gardens, which afforded a wonderful view of the city on this crisp, clear blue sky day. Since I was to meet the group at noon to depart on the bike tour, I only saw about half of the Gardens, and picked up another panini on the way to the hotel.
Our first stop was the Villa Ducci just outside San Gimignano. The terrace of the hotel afforded wonderful views of the town and its towers and the land around it. We'd all gather on the terraces after rides and before dinner to take in the view, drink wine and chat, or just settle down with a book. The rooms were large by Italian standards and clean with full bathrooms.
The tour was led by two guides and there were 12 of us in the group. The first day we were fitted with bikes and helmets and given a safety lesson. There was a short (8k) warm-up ride around the villa. We then showered and met for dinner in the villa. We had a Renaissance cocktail (grapefruit juice and campari) and bruschetta while we introduce ourselves. Dinner was bean soup, ravioli, turkey rolled with egg and carmelized onion, panforte in chocolate and green apple sauces. This was really very hearty and delicious.
Day Three: Up for an 8:00 breakfast. The spread here is great: cornflakes, yogurt, danishes of all types, different types of fruit juices, coffee, cheese and prosciutto. At breakfast every day the guides distribute a route map and route notes and discuss the highlights and caveats of the day. Usually there are 2 or 3 route lengths to choose from, but at any point you can flag down the van and either get a lift to another point on the route or end your riding and enjoy the ride from the van for the rest of the day. One non-cycling wife of a cycling husband rode in the van all week and she was fabulous, very supportive and encouraging, which was key on the first two day-long rides, which were about 9k uphill to start. The guides warn you about the intensity of uphills, steep downhills and numerous 'tricky turns' during the coming day. The notes turned out to be incredibly detailed and intensely accurate, which is great for the navigationally challenged.
Weather today was gorgeous for this girl used to a Boston spring that has barely hit 50 degrees so far. 75 degrees, sunny and blue sky. Started out in shorts and a windbreaker, but shed the jacket quickly. I chose the 24k route today (just about 14 miles) to start out easy because living at sea level, I had no chance to train for these hills, which are brutal. But even at the most challenging, I had to marvel at what I was seeing. The landscape and smells and sounds made me feel like I was riding in a movie. Just spectacular. The route took us from our villa through Gambassi, Badia A Cerreto and to San Gimignano and I got a lift in the van up the last climb to San Gimignano.
San Gimignano is really enchanting. I was surprised that it wasn't more crowded, but enjoyed being able to amble through the small streets without bumping into people. I did some window shopping on the way to the main square. I ate with others in the group at a small café on the way up the hill -- enjoyed a cotto focaccia (prosciutto on a thick roll) and blood orange juice (is there anything better than that? I think not!) I then visited the duomo in San Gimignano which required that I cover up my oh-so-stylish bicycling shorts with a paper hospital gown type skirt, which the guard at the door wrapped about me with typical Italian panache. She did the same to a German tourist in line ahead of me, and he looked at me sheepishly and I gave him a hearty thumbs up which cracked him up and he thanked me for making him feel as if he fit in. The bureaucracy of the skirt seemed strange given that this is not a functioning church or didn't appear to be, but was in a state of disrepair and ongoing restoration; I would not be offending throngs of parishioners with the bike shorts, but maybe it's just that it's a religious building anyway. The frescoes here were beautiful, the panel of Santa Fina done by Michelangelo's frescoe teacher (a reminder to those who haven't read my 2004 Florence report, I'm a big Michelangelo fan)
I continued my empirical research into gelato flavors and savored crème caramel, chocolate orange and zuppa di Toscana (if someone could clue me in on this, it was good but I don't know what it was, exactly!). That was snack enough to propel me up Torre Grossa, the highest tower in town which affords amazing views. I spotted our villa which appeared a mere speck on the hillside and lamented the impending ride back now that lunch was making me sleepy. I descended and wandered the side streets, finding some scenic overlooks. San Gim reminds me a bit of Mont St Michel in France, minus the crowds.
Oddly, the ride back to the villa took less than 10 minutes -- proof that distances are deceiving here. Of course it helped that the first part was an 8% grade downhill which propelled me the rest of the way! (There was an optional 28k 'challenging' ride to Ulignano and S. Benedetto, which I did not do this day.)
I showered and spent the couple of hours until dinner sitting on the terrace in the late afternoon sun and enjoying the views, eating cookies I'd bought and drinking water while writing in my journal. I don't believe life gets any sweeter than this.
The guides recommended Il Pino in San G for dinner, and the group decided to eat there together. They drove us in two van-loads to the city as it is not really walkable from the villa. While waiting for our reservation time, we visited a fort in San G where we watched the sunset while sipping champagne and eating cheese. Dinner was delicious and hearty after my first day of biking: ribollita, filet steak done in balsamic vinegar (so tender and delectable) and a side of fagioli in tomato and garlic sauce (a bit bitter for me). I ended with a ricotta cheesecake with wild berry sauce. This was a bit grainier than cheesecake at home but very rich and satisfying. No guilt either, spending all day on a bike!
Day Four: Same breakfast as yesterday. Today we transfer to our next home in Lecchi, outside Poggibonsi. So the luggage was sent off to the Villa Lecchi while we ate breakfast and did route review. Today there's a fairly steady rain and it's cold. This will be a challenge for me, who likes neither and has never ridden in rain! Same uphill route to leave the villa as yesterday, which was just miserable in the rain. After that it was downhill or flat, and by noon the rain had cleared, my shorts were dry again and I could shed the raincoat. The van, fully stocked with fruit, cheeses, cookies, chocolate and water, was a source of inspiration for me, both with the much needed snacks and the support of the non-cycling wife and our guide. I almost gave up right before the rain stopped, but was glad I didn't. The afternoon turned out to be beautiful and warmer. The route took us through the provinces of Pisa and Siena to Colle Val d'Elsa, the tiniest town I think I've ever seen. This town also has the dubious distinction of being the first place I've ever used a Turkish-style toilet -- in all my 20 trips to Europe, I've never seen one. But I survived boldly. We walked the town for about 25 minutes before lunch at a tiny restaurant in town. For 13 euro each, we had the most amazing bruschetta ever, spaghetti pomodoro, salad and wine (for those brave enough to ride on it) and water. I am finding myself ravenous on this trip, but what better country to be so hungry than in Italy!?!? I followed lunch with gelato: this time chocolate, cherry and cream. I'm getting used to this. At this point I'd put in 23 miles and decided to ride the rest of the way to the villa in the van -- my fear was tiring out early in the week, so I was working up my mileage. Our guides stopped at a glassworks factory on the way out of town to introduce us to one of only two glass-etchers left in Colle Val d'Elsa. Apparently the town is known for its crystal and he's the expert etcher. Very interesting to watch him at his craft.
Arrived at the Villa Lecchi, which was larger and more grand than Villa Ducci, but also felt older in décor and architecture. My room had a wonderful view of the valley on the east side. Room again was comfortable and clean. No complaints here. Because the villa is so remotely located, however, both of our meals would be here. Tonight we have a lecture on Siena and the history of the town and palio before dinner. The dinner was fair: chicken noodle soup, thick spaghetti in pesto (highlight of the meal), cutlet of beef in pepper sauce, roasted chicken, roast potatoes and eggplant. Nothing other than the pasta really stood out to me. Dessert was crème castellana, which was like crème brulee, and just heavenly.
Day Five: The group decided to start out earlier today to have more time to spend in Siena. Some of the less interested cyclists were a bit disconcerted at how much cycling they were doing and how little time sightseeing (imagine!). The guides acquiesced and agreed to an earlier start and longer time in Siena after the lecture the night before that really encouraged people to spend more time there. This ride was much more challenging than the day before, but not excruciating. It did, however, provide me with the highlight of the trip:
Each day the group all starts out about the same time, but through natural selection, breaks off into clusters based on speed and ability. I had started riding with two men in the group who rode a pace I was comfortable with and tended to be toward the front of the pack. We were attacking a particularly steep uphill in Lornano and stopped at the top to reevaluate the route notes and map, and suck down some much needed water. There was a sharp, flat corner next, and then my road mates disappeared, hooting and hollering with glee into the nether regions. The route notes had said 'STEEP DESCENT - CONTROL YOUR SPEED' which was the understatement of this millennium. I experienced a sharp intake of breath as I found myself on the rim of a gorgeous bowl-like valley, with a 12% descent (one of us had a bike computer which measured) that wove left to right several times in front of me. Still early in the trip, I was terrified of such drops and kept the brakes pretty much full on as I puttered down, but this descent was unreal. As I wove back and forth on this road alone (no traffic, and my friends were already waiting at the bottom) the most amazing landscape rotated and swirled around me. It was like having a 360 degree movie screen around me, and the picture kept changing as I turned and descended. Had I been able to stop (I couldn't, but there was no shoulder in the road either), photographs would never capture what I saw and felt. It was simply the most amazing experience of the trip, and one I have tucked away in the corner of my mind for future recall.
At the bottom of the hill, we opted to push on and not wait for the group to ride into Siena. I navigated through several traffic circles (we in the northeast call them rotaries) and heavy traffic to the Siena gates. I had been to Siena last year, so only wanted to revisit the Duomo (which is the most beautiful anywhere, IMHO) and climb the belltower, since I'd seen most everything else last year. I did both. One of the other solo riders in the group and I ate in the piazza and each had a prosciutto pizza and water (I told you, I'm ravenous!) The sun was out, I was taking it in and enjoying the people on the square. After lunch I shopped and had gelato at Nannini, a Siena institution known for its pastries. This time panna cotta with nutella and cappuccino, which was a remarkable combination -- I highly recommend it! I replenished my stock of cookies for my late afternoons on the terrace in the sun. Today I did just over 25 miles and took the van back to the villa for my usual pre-dinner activity.
Dinner tonight was somewhat better than last night. The white bean soup with pasta was tasty. It was followed by flat noodle pasta in duck sauce, which was fairly good. There was a very tender chicken cutlet in white wine sauce and zucchini stuffed with bread and meat stuffing. They lost me with the cervo though, which was deer. I just couldn't do it. Dessert was a hit -- an alcohol laden white cake with a cheesecake-like topping and berry sauce.
Day Six: Breakfast at the Villa Lecchi was the best on the trip. Cereals, apple coffee cake (and others), frittata with onion, flaky pastry with prosciutto and onion, yogurts, etc. The villa is perched high on a hill between two valleys and the ride up on a bike is treacherous, but the views are stunning. Today we transfer to Pienza, so our luggage goes off ahead of us, and we transfer by bus to Monte Olvieto Maggiore for a tour before starting our biking. The 3 hours it took us to get on the bike hurt me though, as I was tired and a bit grumpy starting out so late in the day, but the sun was out and bright and again it was low to mid 70s. I couldn't complain.
Monte Olvieto Maggiore is a Benedictine monastery and its beautiful frescoes portray the life and times of St. Benedict, which I found timely for us given the recent election of this Pope. Our Italian guide was well-schooled in the history and helped us pull the stories out of the frescoes. Our American guide was an art student and still does paint on her own, so she added the art history aspect for us. After seeing the rest of the monastery, we headed out on bike and enjoyed a wonderful downhill to start with gorgeous views. The landscape seems softer and less dramatic to me in southern Tuscany than it was up north. But still pretty.
The ride before lunch was 16k, with only one uphill, which was a steep 3k climb. I earned lunch, which felt like it was on someone's front porch at a hidden nook in a hill in Montisi. We had pici in meat sauce, which is handrolled thick-spaghetti like pasta, almost as thick as a pencil native to the region. There was also a wonderful lemon gelato. By now it is nearly 80 degrees, so the lemon tasted so refreshing. The pasta was tasty and very filling. I'm careful now not to load up if I'm riding post-lunch, but I wish I could've finished it!
Back on the road for my first afternoon ride of the week. I had chosen the medium route, which ended up being 28k, which isn't a bad half-day's work. Both of my usual riding companions either took the long route or gave up the afternoon ride to save energy for the last day, so I was either alone or with some stragglers in the group. The afternoon ride was rolling hills with a few climbs through poppy fields and fields of little yellow flowers. I also stopped at Sant'Anna in Camprena to see the church where parts of The English Patient were filmed. It was closed, but the refectory and cloister was open and very pretty and serene. On the way into Pienza I posed with another biker in the poppy fields for the essential poppy photos. The ride into Pienza took until about 4:30, 2 hours after lunch.
In Pienza, as soon as you cross the town gate you can smell the pecorino cheese. For a cheese-lover it is heaven! We stayed at Il Chiostro di Pienza, which is right in the center of town. All the guidebooks I read on Pienza said that you must experience the view behind the cathedral, which is just exquisite. Well, the Chiostro is on that same ledge and the view from the window of my room was that view. Just gorgeous (I am running out of gushing adjectives here!) The rooms here are a bit stark (it was a home for nuns at one point after all!) but the cloister and views more than make up for it. Again, clean and well-kept, excellent location in the center of Pienza and remarkably quiet -- everything I'd want in a hotel.
Before dinner I walked to the gelateria/bar at the top of the main street and had mascarpone gelato and a Bailey's (that most Italian of drinks!) in the warm afternoon sun while I wrote in my journal. Amazingly, this cost me only 4 euro, so this was to be repeated the next day. It's the bargain of the century! The group met for a private wine tasting at Ghino's Enoteca. I learned a lot about wine but sadly am not a wine-drinker so I didn't appreciate the wine or my liberal access to it all week. What little I tried did not blend well with the Bailey's and I was in a slight stupor on the way to dinner.
A small group of us ate at Dal Falco, which has been featured in Bon Appetit magazine. I had three courses starting with pici al'aligoli (spicy with garlic and olive oil) which was so obviously handmade fresh and done perfectly al dente. The sauce was light but very effective, not overpowering at all. I followed it with the grilled sausage and a mixed salad. Dessert was profiteroles in reverse, white chocolate sauce on the outside, dark chocolate filling inside. All for 20 euro, which I thought was great for a very high quality meal.
Day Seven: Last day of biking and today I committed to the long route. Breakfast here was pretty standard, except that they had blood orange juice and bite-sized biscotti which were wonderful. Today's ride would take us up Radicofani, a town perched on a mountain nearly 50k away, then back through to Montepulciano and back to Pienza. It started off cloudy but slowly cleared by about 10:30. The ride started with some gentle sweeping downhills for the first 20 minutes or so (by the last day I'm less fearful about the downhills, it figures!), a brilliant warm up ride. There were about 10k of flats before a 6-8k climb up to Radicofani. I rode with one of my usual partners until about 11, when he continued up Radicofani and I turned to head back to lunch, chickening out at the 8% climb ahead. I managed to find myself alone up a 7% grade though, with a beautiful picture postcard shot of a Cyprus-lined driveway about halfway up the hill (nice place to stop for a breather). Lunch was at a picnic ground near Montecchiello and the guides put a marvelous spread together: caprese salad, field greens with prosciutto and mozzarella, pecorino with pears, bread and meats, fava beans, pesto, roasted red peppers, lots of fresh fruit and nutella. Only five of us survived lunch to bike on to Montepulciano, even though it was a fast, downhill ride that took all of 15 minutes. The ride up to the town was a gradual climb, which made it less painful on a full stomach. My riding partner and I explored Montepulciano in about 45 minutes. Don't get me wrong, these small towns are beautiful and well-worth visiting, but I am baffled at how people can spend more than a half-day here, unlike Siena where you could spend a few. I'm glad I went, but they definitely fit into the biking itinerary well given that we had little time to spend before we moved on. We visited the main square and noted that the town hall is strikingly similar to that in Florence (it's meant to be). I spoke Italian to a few folks sitting around with their dogs; I became the visiting Dr. Doolittle on this trip, using pets as a way to talk to folks, but it is a great opening line. I window shopped a bit, took in some lemon and strawberry gelato and we were ready to move on. It was an 11k ride back to Pienza, mostly flat except for the last 1k which was an incredibly steep uphill to the town itself, which I did not walk! The views along this last leg were beautiful, particularly of Montepulciano on the hill and the clouds casting shadows and causing peepholes of sun across the valleys.
Again with the Baileys at the local gelateria, and then our goodbye dinner in Pienza. This was at La Buca delle Fate. This was a very quaint and cellar-style restaurant. The starter was three delectable types of bruschetta (pate, pesto and traditional tomato). There were then two pasta courses: pici agli olio (tomatoe and red pepper flakes) and gnocchi in mushroom sauce. Already I'd decided this was the best meal of the trip! The pastas were both so soft and tender and done well, I was in heaven! There was roasted pheasant and roasted beef served family style, which were pretty good. Then an insalata mista. The dessert cart was a free for all, and you could try bits of whatever you wanted. I had a slice of pastry with chantilly cream and torrechino (?) which was a chocolate cake with coffee cream and sugary cream on top. They topped it with sweet wine and good conversation and this was a most excellent meal. I would've been fine stopping at the pasta, but the meal stretched out long enough that there was a bit of room left for dessert.
Day Eight: Another great Pienza breakfast followed by misty goodbyes to our guides. We hopped a bus to transfer back to Florence, and our speedy driver had us at our hotels by 10:30, a whole hour and a half earlier than we were told to expect. I now had a lot of extra time on my last day in Italy, so I planned to head out, finish some shopping and see those things that I hadn't managed to see in Florence last year. Mind you, the weather today was sunny, warm and humid with building overcast clouds, the warmest day by far of the week.
I stopped first at Pharmacia de Santa Maria Novella, to fulfill an order my mother had placed with me for her soaps, lotions, etc. The hotel, Hotel Adler Cavallieri, was conveniently located just up the street. So I brought my heaving bag of purchases back to my room before I set out sightseeing. The Adler, by the way, is located within about 2 minutes of the train station, in fact, if it had a back door, I'm pretty sure it would face the train station. This was a much better location than the Una, although I am still partial to the location of my hotel last year, the Alessandra right at the foot of the Ponte Vecchio. The Adler is comfortably furnished, clean and everything you'd want in a tourist hotel. I liked the room and the bathroom. I was up too early the next day to try their breakfast.
I next visited the church of Santa Maria Novella. It is deceiving because the square outside of it is so unattractive and filled with unsavory characters, but I found the façade and interior of the church beautiful. Particularly the frescoes. Next I made my way to Medici Chapels, which I'd visited before but only wanted to see the Michelangelo drawings under the apse which were 'closed' last year and alas, 'closed' again this year. So I shopped in the market in San Lorenzo, picking up a pretty watercolor of the duomo and a small leather change purse with gold filigree. I walked onward to Casa Buonarotti, and now it was getting a bit more humid and uncomfortable and I was finding the Saturday crowds overwhelming after being in the open country all week. I decided to skip climbing the Duomo (I'd climbed the campanile last year) due to heat and sore legs. Casa Buonarotti was a nice escape; it was cool and completely empty except for security guards. The Madonna of the Stairs and the Battle Scene were all that they promised to be, just exquisite. There were some pencil and charcoal drawings of Michelangelo's. Otherwise the artwork was others' interpretations of him, his life and work. One room interestingly, was frescoed floor and ceiling with scenes from his life, including when he met Popes and dignitaries and his death. It was an interesting stop, but not unless you are really a fan of Michelangelo.
I made my way toward Ponte Vecchio past Santa Croce and stopped at Vivoli for gelato (kiwi, strawberry and blood orange) which kept me going for my last burst of shopping. Last Saturday I'd purchased an Etruscan filigree pendant at Evolutions of Gold on the Ponte Vecchio. The little man who owns this phone booth-sized shop is so sweet and remembered that I'd purchased my ring there with my mother last year. I had been trying to decide what to buy her last week and decided to wait until today to buy her something for Mother's Day. I returned, and he gave me an excellent discount on what I'd had my eye on last week, I was thrilled. His work is beautiful, if you want something that does look Italian rather than just your ordinary gold piece. I also returned to P. Giacomo Tozzi to buy the other bracelet I'd decided on (his prices were good and he gave me a discount for being a repeat customer). On my way to Via Calzaiuoli, I picked up a tomato/mozzarella/basil focaccia. I'd spotted a pair of shoes in a shop window and decided I had to have them. Sure, they were a lot more than what I'd pay at home, but they were 'hand made in Florence' and once I tried them on, I knew it'd be a good investment, they were that comfortable. That was my 'big purchase' of the week.
By this point, it was about 1:45 and I was hot and getting grumpy in the crowds (I've chalked it up to culture shock after a week in the country), so I decided to pursue an idea that had popped into my head while on the bus this morning: head to Pisa. I had no idea what to expect, but I'd never been and wanted a bit of a break and escape. I'd seen all I wanted to in Florence, so I dropped my bags at the hotel and hopped the 2:30 train to Pisa. The train would've been on time, if we hadn't had to stop for the Giro d'Italia to pass the tracks at one point, but we were only 15 minutes delayed. We also managed to ride out a big storm which seemed to bring the humidity and temperature back to something a bit more tolerable for me as well. By the time I got to Pisa the sun was out again and the skies were clearing.
The walk from the train station took about 25 minutes. I followed a map in my Fodors book, so I'm sure it wasn't the most direct route, but I didn't pass much of note along the way. There are some nice shops under a portico along the way, one was a bookstore I stopped in to pick up the English book 'Too Much Tuscan Sun' which some of the folks on the tour had been reading.
Finally, I noted that I was rounding a sharp corner and any minute the Leaning Tower should spring into view. When it did, a broad smile crossed my face. It was beyond all belief for me. The tilt from this angle seemed impossible and I couldn't believe what I was seeing. I expected very touristy and kitschy, and while the Campo di Miracoli has its share of both, I really thought the tower, cathedral and baptistery were beautiful. There was much less of a crowd here than by the Duomo in Florence, so I wandered around a bit, taking the obligatory photos and looking at it all from every possible angle. I bought tickets for the cathedral and baptistery but not the tower, since it was already booked until 7:00 p.m. The exteriors of all three buildings are very ornate and it seems that there is a lot to look at, and the longer you look there is more to discover in the architecture. Also, all three buildings were much whiter than I imagined. Not sure if they've been cleaned lately, but I expected the black grime of time/age. The interior of the baptistery was very pretty and it was neat to play with the acoustics in there. The duomo was just as interesting, with its elaborate pulpit by Pisano and the lamp Galileo used to spur his pendulum theory. At this point, I was tired, so I said good by to the Campo and took a cab back to the station for the 5:00 (now 5:15) train back to Florence. Arriving at 6:30, I changed for dinner and headed back to Open Bar Golden View, mainly for their pappa al pomodoro, partly because it's easy to eat there alone, partly because I like it, partly because I like the view but mostly because I had to be in bed quite early for a 4:45 pick up the next morning.
So I had pappa al pomodoro (really, the best I've had in Italy), gnocchi gorgonzola with sausage and black mushrooms and a mixed salad. I topped the meal off with a limoncello. Oddly enough, the limoncello was 12 euro -- remembering that I paid 2 euro for (imported) Baileys earlier in the week, I was aghast that a native drink could cost more than any of the entrees I had eaten! I discussed it diplomatically with the waiter, who insisted that was the accurate price. So a bit of a damper on my last meal in Florence.
I walked to long way back to my hotel, through the Piazza della Signoria, to Festival del Gelato, where I had white chocolate, chocolate orange and cream. I stopped at the Duomo and saw a bride and groom having their wedding pictures taken in front of the façade in the half-light of 9:00. It was so pretty and, as the duomo bell tolled the hour, a really a nice way to end my stay here in Italy.
Total gelato flavors sampled: 26
Number of times I was awestruck by natural surroundings: Too numerous to mention
Overall impression: I will definitely travel with VBT again, anywhere that interests me. This trip was so amazingly planned and incredibly well-organized that it was well worth the cost and sacrifice of not traveling independently. I did not think I'd enjoy being on an organized tour, but other than the transfers and the dinners (which really could've been optional too), I felt basically independent, just traveling with some acquaintances (who became friends as the week wore on). The guides were phenomenal; that they are passionate about both cycling and Tuscany rubs off on us all. Tuscany is gorgeous, I understand the draw now. I don't think I could've seen and felt what I did from the inside of a bus or car. I'm glad I experienced it in the open air on a bike. I may not have covered every square inch, but I have enough of a taste to go back again, soon!
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Here is what I hope to be a less than novel-length trip report on my bike tour through Tuscany.