Friday, June 26, 2009

Carraca, Italy

Friends: The Tower of Pisa is so glistening white it hardly seems possible it is approaching its 900th birthday. And it is so strikingly grand, it seems more an apparition than an instantly recognizable icon.

It is one of a trio of magnificent Renaissance masterpieces, along with a cathedral and a baptistery, set amidst a vast green lawn. It is as lovely a plaza as is to be found anywhere, and one of the rare old city plazas with grass, making it seem like a collegiate quadrangle. It is known as "The Field of Miracles," containing three such miraculously spectacular edifices.

I enjoyed a prolonged picnic soaking up its splendor in one of the slivers of shade along its periphery, entertained by the mobs of tourists trying to frame a photo with someone in their party holding up their hands on the Tower's slant line.

As in Florence, the River Arno splits the city into a northern and southern sector just before it ends its journey to the Mediterranean. The Tower and company are about half a mile north of the river, just inside one of the city's ancient walls. There were no signs to The Tower, just signs for the "Duomo," the cathedral, and not many of them. I had to rely on dead reckoning to find it. That first glimpse from a couple blocks away was as breathtaking as spotting the Colosseum in Rome.

Much of my sixty mile ride from San Gimignano to Pisa was on roads with little traffic, an extreme rarity in Tuscany, adding further luster to my day. It was nearly bumper-to-bumper though out of Pisa on a perilously narrow road to Lucca, a town Margharita highly recommended. Even though the old inner city is surrounded by a rare, nearly intact, two-and-a-half mile wall wide enough to have a foot and cycling path, it was refreshingly spare of tourists and the blight of souvenir shops. I'd had my fill of them hitting all the premier tourists sites these past few days. It was a relief and a pleasure to leisurely cycle its narrow, quiet, centuries-old streets with locals on foot and on all manner of decrepit bikes. If I weren't a wild-camping guy, this is a town I would have been glad to be in search of a hotel.

With so few tourists descending upon the place, the woman in the tourist office wasn't beaten down by answering the same questions all day long from demanding, short-tempered tourists. Rather than regarding me as "not another one" and thinking "what does this guy want?" she was as friendly and helpful as could be. I've been trying to confirm that Cuneo is where Fausto Coppi, the Eddie Merckx of Italian cycling, is buried. Until Lucca all the tourist offices were totally befuddled by such a question and claimed that it wasn't within their jurisdiction. The women in Lucca was thrilled to have such an original request. She went straight to her computer and plugged away. She discovered he is buried in Costellania, and even produced a picture of his grave. That was all good news, almost enough to be the highlight of the day, something in my genre that I can truly look forward to seeing.

On many a day, finding a one-pound jar of peanut butter at a semi-affordable price, two-and-a-half euros, would have been the day's highlight, even though I am in no desperate need since Margharita supplied me with nearly a pound. But I couldn't resist stocking up when I discovered some at a Lidl discount grocery store. Lidl is part of a chain that I regularly patronize. This was the first Lidl though I had come upon with peanut butter on its shelves. It could be there is an ex-pat peanut butter-loving community in Lucca. I knew that the owner of the Hopleaf bar in Chicago has a home here.

That extra pound of peanut butter was weight I would have liked to have been without as I climbed a ten per cent grade to Marble Mountain and its quarries up above Carraca. The quarries date to the first century BC. This is where Michelangelo came to select his hunks of marble, though it turns out he didn't pick the best of quality for David.

The Carraca tourist office was on the outskirts of the town to provide directions to all the tourists coming to see the quarries. There are nearly 100 of them in operation, all privately owned. One gives tours. There were two main routes to the quarries that included passing through tunnels. When I asked if bikes were allowed through the tunnels and up to the quarries the woman replied, "Yes, if you can do it." It is a notoriously steep, six-mile climb.

It did take some extra effort. I was happy to arrive 45 minutes before the next tour so I had a chance to cool down. Then I had to bundle up, as the tour went inside the mountain, where the temperature was 64 degrees. As I sat eating two different men came by and spoke to me in Dutch, thinking I was a fellow countryman.

It was a 600 meter drive into the mountain. It was simultaneously being mined from its top and from its middle. Ten-foot long saw blades cut out hunks of marble weighing up to 60 tons. The men who operate them are known as "Cutters," just as those working the quarries around Bloomington, Indiana. "Cutters" was the name of the team that won the Little 500 in "Breaking Away," the greatest bicycling movie, if not greatest movie, of all time.

More than 40,000 tons of marble had been cut out of the interior of the mountain in the past 50 years. Its huge auditorium spaces, lined with white marble, are a favorite setting for Ferrari and Lamborghini commercials, the guide said. The biggest client for all the marble these days is Dubai. Nowhere else in the world produces such a quality or quantity of white marble. A nearby museum had photos from the era when the marble was hauled by oxen and rails to the sea and then transported to Florence and Pisa up the Arno River.

Now that I'm back along the Mediterranean camping is a super-challenge. I was lucky to find an abandoned house to camp behind last night.

Later, George

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