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Rain, rain, go away...turning water into wine!

 By Rick and Monica Pappas

"Hide the pedal wrench in those bushes" she said… Huh, in the bushes?" "Yea, it beats carrying it your backpack all over Italy!" Good idea I thought as I waited for traffic to clear so that I could crawl onto the highway divider at the exit of Milan’s International Airport at Malpensa. This was the third time that Monica and I had landed here in Italy, but the first time without our touring bikes and panniers. Instead, we had our sleek Ciocc road bikes and only a small "Narrowgauge" backpack to carry our belongings. We are quick studies. There is a difference between weight on the bike and weight on your back. Into a plastic bag and under the shrubs went my shiny, heavy Park pedal wrench.

"Nice day eh?" "Yea, this looks much nicer than all of that weather we flew over as we crossed England, France and Switzerland." "Sure does, but let’s keep our eye on it in case those storms head in this direction" I said.

30 miles of riding through the Italian landscape brought us to the shores of lovely Lago di Como. The lake sparkled blue and white. The view of the Lombardian mountains that surround it’s shore made us remember the two other times we had been here. We had only ridden through the city of Como, only stopping for a brief time at Arnaboldi’s Bike shop for a visit, or stopping to wait out a cloudburst in a café. But tonight we would stay at an albergo in centro citta and enjoy the offerings of this lakeside resort. We spent the evening strolling by the lake, exploring the nooks and crannies of the city and enjoying our first Italian meal of the trip.

It must have been about one o’clock in the morning when I got up from bed and opened the shutters. I thought I had heard a familiar sound. As I stood at the window looking down at the glistening "pave" I exclaimed: "They’re here Monica!" "Who’s here?" she said in a sleepy voice. "The storms from England and France, that’s who’s here!"

As we ate our Italian breakfast of "air bread" and jam and drank the tiny cups of espresso coffee we watched in horror as our riding day was being washed away. We had flown over these storms and knew they were huge. We could see into the mountains that we had to cross on our way to our family’s village just outside of Trento. And everything we could see was WET! Or WHITE! Yes, that was freshly fallen snow up on those mountaintops!

So began what we have come to know as the "Pappas Punt".

Fourth down and long….

"Hey, this is probably going to lock us down here for a couple of days." "Well, what do you think we should do?" Monica said. "Well, we could make a dash for "il stazione" and grab a train to Trento!"

We arrived in Trento with our packs and bikes in a deluge. With no options we hopped on our steel steeds and headed up the hill out of Trento toward Fraveggio, Monica’s ancestral home. The sound of pelting rain on my Gore-Tex rainsuit was reassuring in a way, but my uncovered feet were captives in shoes full of cool water. Arriving at home we could see lights on in Monica’s dad’s window. "Apri la porta…Piove qua fuori!" (Open the door, it’s raining out here) Monica exclaimed. Her dad was not expecting us for a few days and we could hear him proclaiming "Mama Mia" repeatedly. Yes, he really does say that!

The two years that had passed since we had visited with Monica’s dad, Ezio Bressan, the 75 year old Director of Sport at the Hotel Solaria in the Dolomiti di Brenta melted away in a moment. We were welcomed with bowls of minestrone and glasses of grappa as well as hugs from Mary Lou, Dad’s new bride….yes, now we were home in Italy!

Relentless. The rain was relentless. It poured rain day and night for two days. We spent those days visiting with our wonderful family. We always look forward to sharing time with Monica’s Zia Flora and Zio Edi, her aunt and uncle. Their children and grandchildren brighten our visits to Fraveggio immensely. As we enjoyed our visits we kept one eye on the weather. It was unchanged. It was wet!

"Firenze Monica! Let’s go to Firenze." We had planned on visiting the heart of the renaissance at some point in the future…but the television weather reports showed pictures of sun in Florence (Firenze) and we were on our way! Fearing that the weather would change in the center of Italy we hopped on a train without our bicycles. This would be a "cultural" visit. Indeed!

Peculiar how things you never thought of can change your life. Or your outlook on life. That’s what I thought of as I walked around in circles in the Galleria dell’ Accademia. In the center of my circle was Michelangelo’s "il David". This statue of the slayer of Goliath, standing 18 feet tall, was the most perfect thing I had ever seen created by a man. As I walked around it’s perfectly proportioned body, I could see no evidence of a chisel. I could only see a giant of a man…not one who was elated by his victory, but one who was serene and confident that his battle had brought justice. I kept wondering how an artist could create such perfection. How much training? How much practice? How much patience? How much knowledge? How much heart?

We spent two short days in Florence touring the "highlights". We climbed the 414 steps to the top of Giotto’s Campanile. We visited the Uffizi Gallery and the works of Leonardo da Vinci, Botticelli, and Michelangelo. We shopped the gold laden Ponte Vecchio and the leather markets on the streets. We wandered about, being overwhelmed at every turn. We drank cappuccino. We ate Gelato. We spent our evenings drinking chianti on the roof of our hotel overlooking the birthplace of the renaissance. We spent every moment in mutual wonderment of the place we had found ourselves in.

Hope springs eternal. So, thinking that the sun must surely be shining in the north we hopped on the train back to Trento. As we trained through Verona and Rovereto we noticed that the skies became darker. By the time we reached Trento it was raining. Still.

The next day brought sunshine to Fraveggio. The weather forecast however, was for more "pioggia" in the north, but clear skies in the central portion of the country. Now on our bikes we said arrevederci to the family and headed south toward the Tuscan region via Lago di Garda, the largest lake in Europe.

The lake is only about 20 miles from the village and the route is surrounded by wonderful mountains. We took the "long cut" and headed into the hills. Riding through the tiniest villages of Commano Terme, Ballino and Tenno was like moving along on a time machine. Historic old villages laid out in lush green valleys, surrounded by high mountains makes it apparent to the visistor that not much has changed in 300 years.

As we descended back toward Garda we were being followed by large dark clouds. Once at the shore of the lake it became a race. With the rain chasing us we rode furiously trying to stay dry. Occasionally little showers would catch us and spur us to pedal even faster. Finally, almost at the southern end of the lake near Peschierra del Garda we emerged from under the clouds into a bright blue day. We were dry!

The next morning we awoke to another threatening day. Fourth down and long…punt. We made another dash…this time for Verona and the train that would carry us back to Tuscany and the sunshine. Arrevederci Alpi! Ciao regione di Chianti! Warm sunny bike rides! YES!

Landing in Borga San Somewhere we realized that we were on the fly. No maps, no plan, no reservations, no idea!!! Cool. Very, very cool! Freedom to choose.

So we chose to head for the wine….always a good choice. As we bicycled for the heart of the Chianti region we stopped and picked up a map that would show us the back roads that would take us through Dicomano, Rufina and into Pontassieve. These are the wine roads of legend. Perfect rolling hills littered with wonderful vineyards that are sprinkled with olive trees. We arrived in Pontassieve during the town "Festa". Perfect timing. Music, dancing, food, wine and games. We discovered penne al’ arrabbiata. Pasta with a kick! What a great time! As we found our way back to our hotel late in the evening, the skies opened up, and the rain found us once again…..

Not to be deterred, we listened to the weather forecast and found that the weather was better just a short distance to the south. So once again, we punted, got on a train and found a sunny day. Sunny Arezzo. Our visit to Arezzo was brief. The artwork in the Duomo was being restored and the building was closed. We paid a visit to the home of Petrarch, the Italian poet and humanist and headed on our way to Siena.

Riding our way out of Arezzo we were passed by a local cycling squadra. We latched on to the back of the pack as the boys in green and yellow blew up the road. We stayed on for about 10 miles chatting with the team about the local competition, their homes here in Tuscany and their high-tech Cinelli team bicycles. At about 10 miles we realized that we had no idea where the team was going, and that maybe we had better stop and check our map. We discovered that the team had been on track with our plans, but when we got back on the road we truly missed their presence. And their draft!

Our route took us through Laterina, Mercatale, Bucine and over the soaring climb of Monte Lucco. This was the most interesting of Tuscan climbs. Steep at times, but ever rewarding with spectacular views. We climbed from the vines to the pines. What an awesome change. As we looked over our shoulders while climbing, we saw the valley falling away as each switchback took us higher and higher. Finally, lungs and legs full of fire, we reached the radio towers at the summit. Here at the top is a fragrant, lush pine forest! Incredible!

The descent on the narrow, bumpy road toward Siena should be negotiated with caution. Tight turns and the variable road surface command attention. The splendid views are an ever present treat. But the reward at the end of the road is:

Siena. The most unadulterated of the medieval cities, this maze of high dark buildings with streets only wide enough for carts can easily lose the inattentive tourist. This mysterious city, preserving it’s original character more markedly than any other in Italy is built on three sienna-colored hills. It features roads constructed on 20% plus grades. "My god" I asked, "how did the people of centuries ago ever move their goods up and down these streets?" "Teamwork" Monica joked. "Two people to help get the carts up the hill, and four or five to put the stuff back in at the bottom!"

Each year the residents of Siena celebrate the "Festa di Palio delle Contrade". This is a brutal horse race and pageant that is held in the shell shaped Piazza del Campo…the place where the three hills of the city are joined. As luck would have it we showed up as over 100,000 people were celebrating the big event. Having our bikes and arriving late, we could not make our way into the piazza. The throngs of people around us watched the event on the televisions that had been placed in all of the city's shops. The race is known for it’s brutal narrow course around the piazza. Bareback horses and riders fall or are knocked to the ground by being struck with the clubs that the competitors carry during the race. Although the race itself takes only minutes, the day long pageant that precedes it creates a frenzied crowd. The contrada (region of the city) whose rider wins gets the privilege of donning drums and beating on them while marching along a serpentine course throughout the city until the sun rises in the morning. We will never forget the spectacle of hundreds of drummers waving the flags of their contrada as we dined outside in the piazza. Wine and grappa flowed freely. The drummers who drank the most were at the back of the line and beating way out of time. It simply did not matter….their rider had been victorious!

We toured the colorful shops and made our way to the lighted Duomo that evening. The inspiring architecture, the enticing stores and the circulating mass of flag waving, grappa drinking drummers made the entire journey worth while.

Here comes the sun, da da da da, here comes the sun…." I love old Beatles songs, and I really loved the warm sunny morning as we walked along our farewell tour of Siena. The city is known for its language schools and their ability to make even struggling speakers into masterful Italian orators. For this and its beauty, we will return.

Cycling the Tuscan hills is not unlike cycling through the familiar Sierra Nevada foothills near our home in Sacramento, California. There are some differences however. Castles, walled cities like Monteriggioni and green foliage rather than the dry brown grasses of the western U.S. are some of them.

San Gimignano is the most striking of the walled cities. It has a skyline of towers built centuries ago that has earned the nickname of "the Manhattan of Italy" The town can be seen for miles and miles away and is truly a "not to be missed" site. Our maps paid off as we cycled over the seldom used back roads throughout the Tuscan region. We passed hundreds of manicured vineyards. We rode by ancient castles, olive groves and fields ablaze with sunflowers. We enjoyed the hills, the scenic narrow roads and the warmth of the Italian sun. At last the weather had improved!

"Andiamo visitare il torre Monica!" I said, practicing my Italian. (" Lets go see the tower!") "Great idea" she said, "after all, we’re so close!" Pisa is a busy place. Lots of traffic. Pedestrians and cyclists buzz about seemingly without focus creating a swarm for the uninitiated cyclist to ride through. As we swerved and dodged our way through the masses I began to look for a glimpse of what could be the most recognizable building on earth. As we turned around a corner and my eyes first saw the "Leaning tower of Pisa" my jaw hit my chest with a thud that could be heard for a block. "Jeez Monica, today must be the day!" "What day might that be?" she asked. "The day the damned thing falls on all of those people taking pictures under it!" I replied. "It really leans." she commented. "The laws of gravity are being violated each moment that it stands." I heard a voice say in English. There has never been a picture that does the lean justice. It is an amazing sight. The tower and the artwork in the Duomo may be the only things that Pisa is known for, but they are grand.

"Well Monica, I think I am finally Duomo’ed out" "Me too, you want to head back up north?" "Yea, lets go back up to Fraveggio for a couple of days and ride the "neighborhood" before heading back to Milano."

We have great riding in California, and consider a 100 mile ride with over 7,000 feet of elevation gain to be a challenge. Rides with 10,000 ft. over a 100 mile course are considered very, very challenging. The rides in the mountains that surround our Italian "neighborhood" make our tough courses look tame by comparison. Consider our cycling adventure from Ala just north of Rovereto to our village of Fraveggio. Only a 50 mile jaunt. As we began to climb about 5 miles out of Ala we felt fresh and ready to go. We rode through spectacular little villages with names like Ronzo, Chienis, and Cimone. Much of the way afforded us great views of the Val d’ Adige far, far below. As we came to the top of the ascent at mile 40, high on the shoulder of Monte Bondone, I looked at my altimeter to note that we had already climbed 8,000 ft.!

"Look!" Monica shouted as we turned onto the road that would take us down from Bondone and back to the Sarca valley and Fraveggio. "Mama mia!" I screamed, doing my best impersonation of her dad as I slammed on my brakes. There in front of us was my favorite view in all of Italy. Rising high over the Gruppa di Brenta mountains on the other side of the valley were the Adamelo and Presanella glaciers. Looming over the landscape like guardians, these two glaciers gleaming in the late afternoon sun were the payoff for our tough day behind the handlebars. We stood there shivering as our sweat dried in the cold alpine breeze. Looking, not wanting to leave we held each other, sharing our warmth. We talked about our hopes of dividing our time more equally between the U.S. and Italy at some point in the not too distant future. When we could no longer fend against the cold we put on our Gore-Tex for wind protection and warmth and dove down the screaming descent to the valley.

Fraveggio is a magical little place in the mountains of Italy. Picture a village some 300 years old resting on a steep hillside at the end of a narrow river valley. From the village you can look far out into the valley as the afternoon breezes from Lago di Garda blow through your hair. The front of our families home is on the village piazza, still an evening gathering place. The part of the house where Monica’s father lives is at the back and overlooks a small vineyard. If you look up from the kitchen window you can see the large cross which has been a reminder of the villagers faith since her dad was a boy. The village is quiet and street vendors visit a few times a week to sell meat, vegetables, bread and cheese. There is no store in the village. The one that Monica remembers as a child is gone. Monica’s cousin Andrea and his wife Sabrina share the home with her Zia and Zio (aunt/uncle) and her dad. Cousin Louisa and her son Davide live a few doors away. The village is alive with other Zia’s and distant cousins making our visits busy and very social. Makes leaving Italy all the more difficult too.

As we began cycling toward Garda on our way back to Milano I began to look forward to exploring the mountains that we had planned to ride through at the beginning of our trip. We climbed out of Riva del Garda through the long (2+mile) tunnel that led us up to Lago di Ledro. The lake was a crystalline blue in the center with a blue-green shoreline. We enjoyed the park at the west end of the lake and pushed off for our evening destination at Lago d’ Idro. This part of the famous "Lake District" of Italy is the best kept secret of the region. The tourists see the big lakes, Garda, Como, and Maggiore. But these smaller lakes are much more secluded and less visited. I’ll never figure out why. They are alpine jewels perched high in these mountains and just waiting to be found by the crowds!

With only two more riding days left on our trip, we arrived once again at the shores of Lago di Como. We have visited this lake on each of our three trips to Italy, and always find its shoreline villages to be welcoming. We stayed in the city of Como on our first night of this trip and have visited Bellagio in the past. "I want to ride up to Varenna" Monica said. "What’s in Varenna?" I curiously replied. "Dunno. But Rick Steves the PBS travel guy had a show on it and I thought it was pretty!"

Charming. That’s what Varenna is. It is charming…and romantic. As we rode into town I could not believe what was in front of me. This has to be the prettiest little town in all of Italy. Nestled on the steep shoreline of Como, the streets leading up and away from the lake present a challenge for the walker. The locals all look well exercised! There is a walkway that winds its way along the water through taverns and garlic scented restaurants. As the sun went down we enjoyed the lakeshore stroll, stopped for dessert and wine, and listened to the street musicians as they entertained the guests of the city.

The next morning we decided that we would take the ferry from Varenna across the lake and ride to Lugano up in Switzerland. The ferry ride took only 15 minutes and deposited us in Menaggio. There is a steep pitch out of Menaggio, but before too long we found ourselves along the shores of Lake Lugano. When we crossed the border into Switzerland, we remembered from our past visits that this is the country where the money is. A cup of coffee costs three times what it did a few miles away, the clothes in the stores are real high end….$1500 suits are everywhere. Food in the restaurants is priced way out of reason. But the roads are immaculate…the shops are inviting, and everyone is well dressed. After exploring the town of Lugano and its old centro citta (center of the city) for a few hours we got back on our trusty Ciocc’s and headed back for Italy, Lago Maggiore and financial sanity.

As I looked down from my airplane window I could see the top of Mt. Cervinia (the Matterhorn) peaking out from the clouds. I remembered how our original plan for this trip involved riding into the Alps and Dolomite mountains. We had been determined to ride over Passo Gavia in the Italian Alps and along the Austrian/Italian border in the Dolomite region. We had wanted to visit Cortina di Ampezzo, the internationally known ski area. I remembered our frustration during the first few days of our vacation as it rained buckets and caused massive evacuations in the city of Como the day after we had left it on our way to Fraveggio.

But this, "The Pappas Punt" trip had shown us that in Italy, with the right attitude, the cycle tourist can be flexible, traveling without plans or hotel reservations. On the fly, we saw art that changed us. We rode through the hilly Tuscan countryside, visited Siena, and rested at San Gimignano. We shared wine on a rooftop in Firenze. We watched as the laws of physics were being broken by a tower in Pisa.

"Well, Monica this was sure a different trip than we had planned eh?"
"Yea, but not bad…"
"Not bad at all, not bad at all." I repeated.

As the TWA jetliner headed across France I could already feel the pull of Italy tugging at my heart.

"…Little darling, I feel the ice is slowly melting. Little darling, it seems like years since it’s been clear. Here comes the sun, do, do, do, do, here comes the sun…it’s all right…"

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Rick Pappas