FLORENCE, Italy — It's morning rush hour along the Lungarno Corsini, a traffic-clogged road that skirts the Arno River. A dozen of us are standing on a bridge breathing exhaust fumes while we wait for Bill Dillon to round the corner in his white van and whisk us away from the noise and confusion of big-city Italy.
No churches. No museums. No annoying crowds. This was his promise as we set out for a day of biking in the Tuscan countryside.
We'd get back to the art and the history and the music soon enough. Florence, after all, is a treasure house of Renaissance riches, and to miss any of it would be a mistake. But today we were giving ourselves permission to play hooky from our vacation. For the next eight hours, our challenges would be purely physical; our biggest decision would be which pasta to choose for lunch — gnocchi with Gorgonzola or tagliatelle with tomato sauce.
Everyone eventually needs a break from sightseeing, and all over Italy it seems, entrepreneurs like Dillon, a 1990 graduate of Seattle University who started his company, "I Bike Italy," 10 years ago, are making it easier for time-pressed tourists to take time out to sample the local culture.
When my husband, Tom, and I began planning a two-week trip with his brother and sister and their spouses, all of them first-time travelers to Europe, our goal was to show them more than the must-see sights.
We checked off Michelangelo's David in Florence, St. Mark's Square in Venice and the Basilica of St. Francis in Assisi, but we also scouted other possibilities as we traveled throughout Northern Italy. Along with the bike ride, we added a nighttime tour of traditional Venetian taverns and half-day cooking class at a farmhouse inn near Assisi.
As a family, we bonded as we huffed and puffed our way uphill on the bikes; sampled a fiery Italian brandy, and dusted each other with flour while making ravioli. The trade-off was a few sights left unseen, but our relatives experienced a side of Italy most first-timers miss.
Uphill to Fiesole
"If you need to get off of your bike and walk, that's fine. We're on a bike tour. It's not a race. It's not a workout. It's not competition," Dillon stressed as we tried out our 21-speed bikes in the driveway of a neighborhood about a 10-minute drive from the center of Florence.
"It's a beautiful day in the Tuscan countryside. It's October and the sun is shining, and there's no rush."
The day's itinerary called for a 15-mile round-trip ride, the first three miles uphill to Fiesole, a fifth-century Etruscan hill town above Florence, then onto lunch at a roadside trattoria, followed by a visit to a winery and a leisurely downhill ride back.
Within minutes of mounting our bikes, we were cycling along a two-lane road hemmed in by high stone walls. Castles and villas with red tiled roofs dotted the green hillsides, and we were surrounded by olive groves, vineyards, cypress and fig trees.
"A lot of writers and artists were inspired here by getting away from the crowds in the cities," Dillon said. "This is an area that's rich with history and culture. It's not just beautiful countryside."
It's true that the Italian writer Giovanni Boccaccio once lived here, as did Mark Twain and Leonardo da Vinci, but we'd sworn off history for the day, so we turned our attention instead to the pretty valleys and trees shaped like giant stalks of broccoli, Adriatic pines, sometimes called umbrella pines, that produce pine nuts.
A few people got off their bikes and walked; one person's chain broke, and Dillon stopped to do a quick repair, pointing out the house where the movie "Room With a View" was filmed.
"The hard part is done," he assured us when we reached Fiesole about an hour and 20 minutes into the ride. But we still had four miles to go until lunch, and most of it was also uphill. The road widened, and there was a strong headwind. Cars and motor bikes whizzed by, but it was all worthwhile when we spotted the Casa Del Prosciutto.
Hams hung from the ceiling of this roadside restaurant that's been in the Macherini and Rossi families since 1964. A waiter ushered us into a back room past walls decorated with pictures of the local soccer team, framed jerseys and the photos of prized pigs and cows.
Bottles of Chianti from the vineyard we would be visiting after lunch arrived along with platters of grilled bread spread with olive tapenade and chopped tomatoes with garlic and basil. We didn't have to choose between the gnocchi and the tagliatelle, after all. The waiter brought both, and when the plates were empty, he brought more.
Wine and olive oil
Michelle DeKoven, from Washington D.C., recalled how she and her husband, Mitch, initially feared that 15 miles might not be much of a workout. But the pace had been brisk. "I can't imagine getting on that bike again," she said, but after cups of espresso whitened with a few drops of milk, we zipped up our jackets for a chilly 15-minute ride to the Fattoria Di Montereggi, a family-owned winery housed in a former 15th-century monastery.
Dillon, who became acquainted with some of the locals when he rented a farmhouse in the area a few years ago, took us into a cellar where the Chianti casks are stored, and then into a room filled with large terra-cotta pots. Like many wine producers, this one also made its own olive oil. Dillon lifted the wooden lid on one of the pots and offered us a sample.
The afternoon sun was low in the sky when we climbed back on our bikes. Our backpacks filled with bottles of wine and oil, we cycled back along a forested two-lane road with hairpin turns and sweeping views of the valley. The ride was literally downhill from here. No churches. No museums. No crowds.
Venice has become so overrun with tourists that it's hard not to feel like an outsider, but visiting a baccaro, a traditional tavern specializing in bite-size appetizers called cicchetti and local wines, is one way to ease yourself into the local scene.
With Alessandro Schezzini as our guide, 17 of us left the tourist crowds behind as we crossed the Grand Canal at the Rialto Bridge and wandered into San Polo, a district filled with churches and shops and cafes that attract a crowd of regulars.
Schezzini leads nightly "pub crawls" starting around 6 p.m., a time when many Venetians enjoy an inexpensive stand-up meal composed of tiny delicacies on toothpicks, drinks and conversation.
Our first stop was Antica Ostaria Ruga Rialto, a cozy tavern with wooden barrels for tables, beamed ceilings and a generous assortment of cicchetti.
The bartender passed around platters of calamari, fried zucchini, potatoes and mozzarella and stuffed olives. We washed them down with a Spritz, an orange-colored Venetian cocktail made with white wine, soda water and an aperitif called Aperol.
"The cicchetti is really just an excuse to drink," Schezzini said, and just like a happy hour in the United States, it's an excuse for a social get-together.
At the Cantina Do Mori, a 500-year-old tavern that claims to be the oldest in Venice, dozens of copper pots hung from the ceiling. Trays were piled with tiny sandwiches, called francobolli or "stamps," filled with onions and anchovies and Gorgonzola cheese.
"Time for a leg check," Schezzini said as we followed him out the Do Mori's back door and walked past the open-air stalls at the Rialto fish market to a wooden staircase at the water's edge. For the trip back across the Grand Canal, we boarded a traghetto — a boat known as a poor man's gondola because it carries six or more passengers at a time, all standing up
At the Trattoria ai Promessi Sposi in the neighborhood of Cannaregio, a waitress showed us into the garden where laundry hung above tables covered with red-checkered cloths. Carafes of red wine appeared along with platters of fried eggplants and sautéed sardines, shrimp, squid and octopus. Back in the Rialto area, at Ostaria Alla Botte, when I asked about what looked like a giant baloney sausage, the bartender carved thick slices and passed around a platter. The 200-pound sausage was Mortadella, a specialty of the town of Bologna.
Our final baccaro was the Enoteca Al Volto, marked only with a lighted sign that said "Enoteca," the Italian word for wine bar.
"The men have to drink grappa," Schezzini instructed us. "The women ... well, they can pretend to be men, or they can drink fragolino," a fragrant strawberry-infused wine.
"Grappa tastes a little like tequila," he told us. My brother-in-law, who rarely drinks, had four glasses of wine that evening and was speaking freely. "Tastes like paint thinner," he decided. Later, he rated this pub walk as the high point of his trip.
Cooking in Assisi
Five miles off the main highway along a dirt road that seemed to lead nowhere but up, we found Agriturismo Alla Madonna del Piatto. Letizia Mattiacci, 40, and her Dutch husband, Ruurd de Jong, gave up careers as entomologists to buy and renovate the abandoned farmhouse built centuries ago as a refuge for shepherds.
With six cozy rooms, breakfast and dinner, Alla Madonna made an ideal base for visiting the medieval villages of Umbria, and since like many agriturismo inns, it offers cooking classes, we were able to take advantage of a rainy afternoon to trade in a few hours of sightseeing for the chance to tinker in an Italian kitchen.
Mattiacci proposed a half-day session to include the evening meal for the six of us. The menu called for cured meats, including the local specialty, wild boar; cheeses; bruschetta with fresh, diced tomatoes; red and yellow bell peppers fried in olive oil with capers, olives and anchovies; homemade ravioli stuffed with ricotta cheese and Swiss chard from the family garden; and for dessert, panna cotta, a silky egg custard topped with a hazelnut-honey paste.
With wind and rain ripping outside, my sisters-in-law and I were happy to be inside a cozy kitchen. We diced onions for a tomato sauce, sliced peppers into slivers, then darted outside to the herb garden for handfuls of basil and oregano. Several pans were sizzling on the stove before long, and the room filled with the smell of onions and tomatoes, garlic and cheese.
Mattiacci demonstrated how to make dough in a food processor, then showed us how to feed the dough though a pasta maker. We took turns folding and stretching the dough into long, thin sheets, and when one of our husbands poked his head in the doorway, she invited the men to help. Soon, everyone was rolling and cutting, stirring and chopping.
We were exhausted by dinner time, but proud of the 60 ravioli of various shapes and sizes that rested on the marble work table in our host's kitchen. She tossed them into pots of boiling water, and we sat down to the bruschetta and slices of wild boar, prosciutto and cheese.
This was the Italy we wanted to share with our relatives, and as we gathered around the table, cracking jokes in between bites of ravioli and spoonfuls of panna cotta, I knew this was the Italy we would all remember.
Carol Pucci: 206-464-3701 or email@example.com.