Friends: I had to blink and give my head a shake to make sure I was seeing what I thought I was seeing as I approached the home of my friend David's mother, Margharita, in the village of Vitolini. There was a via Martin Luther King just a couple blocks from her house.
The last time I had seen Margharita was four year's ago when she was moving back to Italy from her long time apartment just off Martin Luther King Drive on Chicago's South side. It would be hard to find another similarity her small Tuscan village shared with Chicago, her home for forty years. Her ancestral house, built by her great-great-grandfather over 120 years ago was a minor villa, quite a contrast to the cramped two-bedroom apartment on the 17th floor of a high-rise apartment building where David and his older brother grew up. There she looked out over McCormick Place and Lake Michigan. Here the views were of olive orchards and rolling countryside.
Margharita had lived with her grandparents in this house for a year when she was nine years old, just before WW II broke out. It is a time she still fondly recalls, playing in the basement wine cellar and the family olive orchard a short walk away on the outskirts of the village and up in the sprawling attic. In the years afterwards, as her family lived in one city after another, she always wished she could be back in Vitolini. Hardly a year has passed since she moved to Chicago with the American husband she met in Paris nearly 50 years ago that she hasn't returned to Vitolini, often for several months at a time when she had a break in her teaching at the University of Illinois. Once on a sabbatical she returned for a full school year. Her two sons spent a year in Italian schools, David in the fourth grade and his older brother as a high school freshman.
For years David has told me of his regular sojourns in Vitolini and the bicycling in the area. It was all even more magnificent and tranquil than he described. I only wished David could have been here to share it and also join me in riding around Italy. He is an ardent and fully-committed cyclist, long overdue for another bicycle tour. His last was 25 years ago as a spring outing to Wisconsin as a high school project at Chicago's Latin School.
But if David had been here, I wouldn't have been able to spend so much time with Margharita. She was in the midst of writing several papers and preparing for a conference and also in the middle of a minor crisis, but she was still able to give me a full tour of all her holdings. The day I arrived the long-time caretaker of her farm, 83-year old Vito, had been rushed to the hospital with severe leg pains. It seemed as if he was gong to be okay, but Margharita has been perplexed for awhile how to handle Vito's declining capabilities. She doesn't want to hurt his feelings and pass on some of his responsibilities to others, but its approaching the time when she must.
We were caught by rain as we strolled about her farm and its house. The house has had two substantial additions since it was first built six or seven centuries ago. Just behind it is a cottage, added to the property less than 50 years ago. Both are presently unoccupied. If she were not such a committed academic, she could devote her energies into turning them into a bed and breakfast operation.
She could also turn her cellar into a museum or a pizza parlor. When she unbolted the vault-like door before we proceeded down into the virtual dungeon she said, "Don't be scared." There were huge wooden barrels for wine that hadn't been used in years and smaller containers for olive oil. There was a wine press and all the apparatus for making wine. It all awaits David and his brother if Italy should call.
After our afternoon tour I had planned on heading out, but a cold rain dictated that I make it a full rest day, my first since Cannes. The only riding I did all day was several runs through town testing my bike after replacing its chain and three broken spokes. The broken spokes were a surprise. I'd heard a tinkling a couple days before in the mountains before Florence. I thought I had a loose strap from my tent or sleeping bag brushing against the spokes. When I couldn't find one, I noticed one broken spoke and then another and another.
I test my wheels for trueness every morning, giving them a spin to brush off any debris that might have stuck to them after pushing my bike through the brush back to the road from my campsite. They have remained true all along and were true even now despite three broken spokes. With 48 spokes, a dozen more than the usual 36, when one or two or even three breaks, it isn't noticeable. I could have broken the spokes back in Naples from the pounding the bike took there for 15 miles or so. That was a brutal stretch. I wasn't even sure if my frame could survive it.
After a full day and two nights sleeping in doors, I was off for some more Tuscany site-seeing the next morning after helping Margharita install a new, longer hose for watering her many geraniums. Margharita sent me off with two half-full jars of Dutch peanut butter and a jar of almond paste that makes a terrific drink. I headed south fifty miles to Siena, another World Heritage site. Its main plaza was jaw-dropping extraordinary, a huge oval on a slant in front of a city hall that was part cathedral and part chateau. It was ringed by outdoor cafes. Siena for centuries was a rival of Florence. Florence had nothing to compare to this.
The Orcia river valley south of Siena has also been granted World Heritage status for its exemplary scenery--rolling hills and small villages that have inspired artists over the centuries. I made a 75-mile loop through it, then swung back up past Siena to San Gimignano, another tourist magnet of a city, not World Heritage status, but close to it with multiple towers that jut up into the sky from the walled city of narrow streets that were clogged with camera-snapping tourists.
Pisa is next, for better or worse.