Alessandra-Acqui Terme-Albe

These first two days have turned out to be rather relentless in terms of cycling. Both were of a distance no more than 60km. A gentle Sunday perambulation for those that own a light weight carbon or even better, titanium framed contraption. We ride that most Sundays! One could be at the Cafe latte after tackling Norton Summit, 2 hours from a standing start! Snigger you may, but it took us on average 5hrs 30min day one and more than 6 and a half hours on the second. Not for want of trying. Day 1 we climbed up and down dale for 700m whilst on day 2 it was 1000m. A few panoramic shots will do more than words to demonstrate the endless rolling hills of vineyards, apple, plum and stone fruit orchards as well as acres and acres of hazelnut trees! Often we cycled along a saddle with picturesque valley on either side then more mountains!

The guide books supplied have in the main been excellent and becoming lost or mildly disorientated has occurred only a few times.

Acqui Terme is a hot springs town and the piazza has an ornate marble tower our of which the sulphurous greenish water gushes at a constant 75degrees centigrade.

The town of Alba is the capital of the truffle and the wonderful black variety is on display in glass cabinets on the street in front of the store with the price of a truffle I estimate at about 1 euro a gram or in other words 1000 euro a Kg!

At Alba after the exhaustion of our ride and with a well deserved air of achievement and smugness, we ate out at a nice restaurant and sampled the local food and wine, naturally with truffles and pasta in at least one dish.

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Alessandra

The start of our week cycle adventure in Piedmonte. The group came together with the arrival of the jet lagged James-Martin couple. We met them at the station then walked to the hotel. Both were too tired to even contemplate adding grumpiness.

I and the DeBoo team had arrived by slow train from Florence the day before.

The town is steeped in military history having a large fort on the outskirts constructed during the time of Napolean and some rather wide avenues, which the locals explain were specifically engineered for large troop movements. I guess this is the napoleonic equivalent of the extremely wide highway in Singapore from the airport, which the local taxi drivers boast was again engineered for military purposes. Specifically it can, in the twinkling of an eye, be cleared of all those trees in large tubs , and become a runway for the Singapore Air Force! One can only wonder what long straight avenue in Canberra, would be so altered, should Tony Abbott learn of this.

This weekend is a the Italian equivalent of the Aussie long weekend. August is the big European summer holiday month but this weekend almost everything is closed.

The train from Florence to Alessandra went to Pisa then followed the coast to Genoa and the Cinque Terra – to which we shall return.

On our first night in Alessandra was an amazing sudden electrical storm – the type that totally brings hail and the temperature plummets. We were out promenading and were drenched. The weather contributed to one of my BEST travel pictures. See if you agree?

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This is the better of the two below!

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Lucca

This is another town worth a day trip from Florence. It’s foundations go back as far as the ancient Romans. By foundations I mean literally and figuratively. There are many claims to fame including a well preserved medieval wall and moat that circled the village and to this day remains largely intact although the moat is obviously dry! The parapets have been paved and tree lined so that one can meander or cycle the 2 or 3 kilometer circumference, gazing down on the town from a great height.

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The town square is in fact the town ellipse! It was the site of the original roman amphitheatre, hence the shape. Lucca had the same feeling as Sienna in terms of its history and charm but on a smaller scale. The same white and green marbled church and Campanella and the paved narrow streets. I have a perception as well that the irritatingly all pervasive Fiats are the modern equivalent of the donkey of Ancient Rome.

Finally of interest to me at least is the fact that Puccini had a house in Lucca, so that there are frequent acknowledgements of this fact including an eponymous square with bust, an annual Puccini festival and museum.

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The Cathedral San Martino

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The Cathedral San Martino – interior

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Siena

Yesterday on the spur of the moment and in the late morning, took a trip to Siena. Earlier had visited the Museo Galileo – one of the best designed and beautifully laid out scientific museums I have encountered. Uncluttered exhibits of scientific instruments from the 16th to 19th century with explanations in both Italian and English. For the mechanically minded male, it is heaven.

Siena was one of the main attractions in Tuscany that my mother was keen to visit in our trip together more than 12 years ago. The square is of course the iconic representation of Siena, if not Tuscany. It’s an ancient medieval walled city and on the day was seething with people! There appeared to be even more leather goods shops here than Florence, if possible. A horse racing festival was building up over the days leading up to Saturday. There was much drunken frivolity presumably by students – costumes, scarves and loud singing.
Pics of the square and the cathedral

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The Florence Card – a tourist pass

These past two or three days have been spent hiking the sights of Florence in rather relentless summer heat. There are picture post card attractions familiar to all. I won’t bore you, honestly. My instinctive urge to move on, is bubbling up. A day in the countryside tomorrow!

A few comments. Buy a Florence Pass, especially if you intend to stay for 3 days or more. The concept is fabulous, although the implementation leaves a lot to be desired. Its plastic and the same size as a credit card with a unique barcode. It claims you “bypass the queues” – worth the 72 euro alone! Sadly it’s not straightforward. At each “attraction” there is a, mostly fairly obvious, marked separate queue for the Florence card holders. How simple – short queue and scan bar coded card and “prego”! Sadly, no. One is required to find the separate Ticket Office for many attractions, no mean feat in itself, and there you will be required to queue (granted its a less lengthy one for the Florence cardholders) and purchase a separate paper ticket. Clutching this separate piece of paper, you return to the second, shorter queue at the aforementioned attraction.

It became obvious to me that the 2 step process is frustrating for both tourist and the ticket collector at the gate. Many tourists assume that the activated Florence Card is simply scanned at the entrance, and for the Italian gatekeeper they have to spend sometimes several minutes, trying to explain in limited English (forget about trying limited Japanese!) that it’s not the system. Tempers flare and the queue grinds to a halt. The reluctant tourist eventually is forced around and back outside passed the thousands, to find the Ticket Office. This is of itself a significant challenge! At the Duomo, we circumnavigated the Baptistery four times looking for the ticket office, twice clockwise then twice counterclockwise, based on the directions of the Italian lass at the turnstiles from which we were dejectedly ejected! Thankfully at other sites, the process was more transparent and simple!

There is an inviolate “theory of access” at Italian museums, cathedrals and monasteries, which I choose to call The Rule of Thirds: On any given day, a third of attractions are closed on that day, a third are closed for renovation, hidden behind scaffolding, with a sign which states the site is scheduled to be opened 15 months from whatever should be the date on which you turn up, the final third are open!

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Paella before Florence

Practicing the Recorder tonight before seafood paella- a Friday night special at the local restaurant. Suddenly the door to the balcony of the room next door opened and two middle aged men dressed in bike leather appeared! Should be some fun tonight if I play my cards right? Actually one is German, the other Swiss, so I promptly play the Kaiserhymne by Haydn. They are suitably impressed! I seductively tongue an A in the upper register, throw in a grace note and finish on lower F.

My last day in Avigliana was spent cycling mainly around the lakes (there are two) on small back roads then to Giaveno and on to Coazze and back to Aviagliana. The road up was of a gradual ascent over about 12 km. The last village lies at the foothills of the Alps and the entrance to one of many national parks. I wandered through both villages each of which had a local produce market. Coazze has signs proclaiming it to be the mushroom capital of Italy! Food for thought. What about a huge sign at Sydney international airport arrival lounge: “Welcome to Australia – the mushroom country of the world”.

The return cycle trip was a delicious descent over about 10km. I earned a gelato- lavender flavoured.

It’s now Saturday and I have arrived by high speed train in Florence to be greeted by sweltering heat and swarms of tourists. As I walked to the apartment via the Duomo, I was confronted by a snake like queue at least a kilometre long! I have a tremendous sense of foreboding.

The DeBoo family arrived around 4 pm – hot and sweaty so we put the kettle on. It’s almost too hot and humid to venture out. A siesta is appealing.

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An approaching electrical storm from the restaurant balcony.

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A medieval gate (portico) on the old part of Avigliana

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The seafood paella

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One of the multitude of Japanese tourist groups, frustrated by the queue at the Duomo, are led on an excursion of the industrial waste bins of Florence

Of Church and Cars – or Fiats Rule

There is a universal ambience to all Catholic Churches around the world. On entering it takes a few minutes to become accustomed to the darkness. Shafts of light from stained glass windows and domes, pierce the cavernous nave. The air is a constant cellar like temperature, so it is cool in summer and perhaps seemingly warm in winter.

Then there is the unique smell: much more complex than musty, although there is a distinct element of that. The principle components are the scent of burning candle wax mixed with incense, merged with dark preserved wood. The latter is akin to the smell of well worn, polished wooden furniture that one finds in antique shops. The wooden benches in the choir stalls rubbed shiny smooth and moulded into gentle dimples by the countless rubbing, over centuries, of the buttocks of thousands of choir boys. Once a month Father Clementine gives them a good oiling and rub down with a genuine chamois – the benches of course, not the choir boys’ buttocks!

So it is the presence of smell and of light and the equal absence of sound that creates this distinctive marriage of the senses.

Invariably in every church or cathedral I enter, there will be at least one person, age not relevant, not obviously a tourist, sitting in quiet contemplation. Some kneel, some possibly shedding a tear or two and I find myself wondering what upheaval in life is confronting them?

My upheavals in life however around Avigliana can be attributed to the ubiquitous Fiat! The small model that is essential to navigating the cobblestoned streets and alleys. They are, as far as I am concerned, a mechanical version of the European Wasp. If I suddenly turn a corner and visualise a medieval street scene or piazza, worthy of an iPhone picture, there hugging the central XII century fountain is a XXI century Fiat. Usually at least two and mostly three. There is an obvious “Parcheggio vietato” sign, but of course Fiats can’t read can they?

If it is a bad day, the Fiats are displaced by a large council rubbish truck. All of them have a debilitating sense of permanency – being in a siesta – as are their drivers.

I am cycling along at a reasonable pace on a main road and all seems quixotically quiet. A narrow cobblestone alley on my left leads to a gradual ascent to the “old town”, castle and church. I exit on this apparent pedestrian only thoroughfare. As God is my witness, within a few minutes, at least four Fiats, have turned into this very same narrow street rapidly coming up behind me. The one advantage is that whilst I need to dismount, a Fiat is of small enough width to allow passage between the convoy and my cycle and I, without risk of injury.

There is however a seemingly more insoluble confrontation between car and cycle. 4 Fiats from behind is a minor irritating hiccup compared to the sudden appearance on the cobblestones ahead of a late model Audi Station Wagon noisily bumping down on you and bicycle. It’s twice as wide as a Fiat and much more aggressive.

The ONLY solution is for one to dismount, knock frantically on the iron security gate of a local apartment and ask the housewife if she wouldn’t mind if you and your bike could occupy the front room for a few seconds to let a car pass?

Finally, street and traffic signs are a futile attempt by the civic fathers to promote law and order for pedestrian, cyclist and car. They are universally ignored and the ignorant are above the law! I have a sudden, fleeting sense that I am about to meet my maker, as I cycle with some momentum along a busy main road and suddenly there in front is a car parked on the side of the road, facing me! I do a quick check! Fuck ! Am I riding on the wrong side of the road? Was that keep to the left or the right? It is all too much for a senior Australian citizen.

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As God is my witness, a car turned up this road, seconds after me on my bike!

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The town square at Giaveno – only ONE Fiat!

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Dal Santuario Di Selvaggio

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An approaching electrical storm from the a restaurant balcony

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A seafood paella and a jug of Sangria.