Saturday, September 11, 2010

Cycling to Chianti

One of my roommates had a brilliant idea: rent bikes for a day and travel to the Chianti wine valley and bask in a day of adventure and beauty. Naturally, our whole house jumped at the opportunity. What a great idea, no?

So upon our preliminary research, we encountered our first trouble: No person or website or travel guide could agree on how far away the valley was from Florence. We took the most common response and decided upon it as fact, because if the most people say it's right, it's right, right?

So the night before, we all endeavored to go to bed early, wake up early, and get 8 girls ready and out the door by 9 AM. We all started getting ready for bed around 2 AM. And then around 3, there was a horrendous sound of breaking glass permeating our house. We still don't know what caused it, but we're hoping it was just construction across the street and not structural damage to our building.

And at 8 AM, we dragged ourselves out of bed and stumbled around, grumbling at our lack of sleep, but having no suitable excuse to justify our sleepiness. We made sandwiches and filled bottles with water and pulled our hair back in anticipation for the day. One of our roommates couldn't come with us because she had terrible blisters/gouges on her heels, and wearing tennis shoes was too painful. So we bid her farewell and she went back to blissful sleep as we headed out into the daylight to begin our adventure at around 9:25.

We found the bike shop and received our bikes, helmets, and bike locks. Then we started our trek through the city, across cobbled stone and gravel. I contemplated the old Irish blessing, "May the road rise to meet you," and discovered after 5 minutes of torturous city travel, that the blessing is actually a curse to cyclists.

We finally made it across the river, and through a series of unfortunate word exchanges and tears, ended up continuing our travel sans one more roommate. But the sun was warm and the day was young, and there was a slight breeze at our backs, so we were content.

After some more time passed, the buildings thinned and we started seeing beautiful trees and grand country houses in the hills surrounding the road, and we grew more excited for the coming view in the valley. But shortly after the city faded in our background, the road before us once again rose to meet us. Except this road was overzealous and did more than just meet us; it surpassed our view and towered straight above us in a beautiful, but arduous mountain. Nevertheless, we figured that the mountain could not be quite as big as it seemed, nor could it stand in our way for too long, so we downshifted and began grinding out vertical miles on our bikes.

Three hours and many breaks later, we were still climbing the mountain, and the signs reported that of the 25 kilometers that we were supposed to travel, we had only done 15 of them. Now, with sore butts and inner thighs (because bike saddles are incredibly unforgiving), our mood was less jaunty and becoming increasingly more hopeless and frustrated. None of this cross-country mountain climbing was in any of the descriptions we had looked at. Besides, our destination was in a valley, so if anything, shouldn't we be going down? Yet all the signs directed us up, up, up, and locals confirmed our journey.

But soon, we couldn't take much more. Liz and I walked up one of the monster vertical climbs, and I was dehydrated (the whole group had finished all the water an hour ago), and finally, I couldn't take it any more. The others were out of sight, tackling the next hill, so we turned off one of the roads and began looking for a restaurant. We were sore and tired and thirsty, and desperate for a rest and hydration. We saw one sign that directed us to a bed and breakfast "This way" for an indeterminate distance, and that was unacceptable. So we approached a house and I used my limited Italian to beg for water. It was successful, because we not only got our bottles filled, but he gave us a 2 liter bottle of his own filled with more water. He refused payment, and we drank the sweet, life-giving liquid with gusto. Then we sat on a bench to wait for the others to call us with their next resting location.

It turned out that they didn't make it much farther. About a half mile up the hill, there was a little town with a restaurant, and we trekked up to meet them. We sat on some benches outside and drank gatorade, soda and water and ate our sandwiches and chips. We were still 8 kilometers away, and none of us were willing to continue on. We knew we still had the whole trip back, and despite our experience of continual uphill motion, we knew that we were just exaggerating and we would have to ride up more hills on the way back. So we steeled ourself for the return journey, considered the Chianti valley a suitable loss to an otherwise fun and exhilarating day, and turned our bikes down the mountain face.

Ten minutes later, we reached the bottom of the mountain, wind-swept and thrilled. The entire journey back was completely downhill. And the winding road, despite its switchbacks and blind corners, had very little traffic, so we flew down. It was by far the best part of the entire journey.

However, once we met up again with the city, we realized that the streets we took out of the city were all one-way streets. None of our maps included the outskirts of the city, so we decided to try to keep heading deeper into the city and find our way back on our own until we started to recognize streets from the city center. We had no problem with this plan, because we were still so caught up in our bullet trip back down that unforgiving mountain.

It took us an hour of some debatably illegal traffic maneuvers, backtracking, and asking random people on the street for directions before we finally made it back to the bike shop. We all were past ready to be home and done with this adventure.

So although we had a great time, we didn't technically complete our mission, and we all paid for it. I took a spill on one of the uphills, and we all are having trouble sitting without grimacing and shifting around painfully. We probably won't ever try that again, but it was fun, and I don't regret doing it. We all grew closer, and enjoyed each other's company, and the countryside was beautiful. 7 hours of biking can present a lot of challenges (and pain), but it was completely worth it, because it wasn't about the biking at all. Well, a little bit...

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