Rishad Saam Mehta hops on a bike and goes on a ride of a lifetime
Since my body clock is still hovering in the vicinity of the Indian sub-continent, I wake up, shower and get dressed before most of Pisa’s populace has even crawled out of bed.
More importantly, the tourist hordes are still blissfully asleep and I rush out of the front door of my Hotel Ariston. Two hundred mt to my right, standing deserted and proud in all its lopsided glory is the tower of Pisa. And, I have an iconic monument all to myself! As I wander in peaceful solitude around the tower and the pretty duomo (cathedral) complex, I silently thank the Active Holiday Company for choosing such a brilliantly located hotel.
A representative from the company arrives with my Merida Crossway Hybrid bicycle, an absolute beauty. Most importantly, it features 21 gears — which will help me make short work of the Tuscan Hills. It has a side saddle bag that contains a hand pump and a puncture repair kit, and a handlebar bag for my camera. The flap on this bag has a transparent cover where I can put my trip notes for easy reference while riding. The bike also features an electronic digital speedometer that tells me my speed and distance covered. The rep gives me a detailed briefing about the working of the cycle and how to sort out a puncture. Seeing I am a bit nervous about setting off on my first-ever self-guided cycling trip, he tells me I will have to make a real effort to get lost because the trip notes and instructions are so lucid. And within a few km from Pisa I realise he was right. The notes guide me with a combination of distances, road names and landmarks. The route soon goes off the main road, and I am happily riding on little cycle tracks along pretty streams, across quaint bridges, over railway tracks and rivers and through little villages with toffee-coloured stone houses.
My hotel, which is six km short of Lucca, is just 24 km from Pisa, and I arrive within three hours. My luggage is already there — transported by the company. After a refreshing shot of espresso and armed with a map of Lucca from the reception, I enter the ancient walled city of Lucca through Porta Santa Maria — one of the city’s six gates. Since I have already done my share of following instructions and a map for that day, I just follow the tourist throng taking in ancient Roman town plans, pretty piazzas (squares) and Renaissance architecture. Lucca has existed right from the 7th Century BC and was an important Roman trading post; the walls came up during the Renaissance era. With the advent of gunpowder, the walls lost their strategic military importance and became more of a promenade. In fact, cars were raced atop them in the mid-1900s.
I have my first truly Italian meal at a street side cafe called da Nonna Clara (From Grandma Clara) on Via Sant Croce — a thin and fresh pepperoni pizza. After working off that indulgence by cycling around the city atop the wall, I head back to my hotel.
The next day I have a long ride ahead of me, and my notes tell me I will have to ride 45 km over plenty of ascents and descents. The first bit of my ride goes down a very pretty walking / cycling path by the Serchio River, and then does a quarter circle of the walls of Lucca before heading out to the Tuscan countryside. I go through typical Tuscan villages such as Antraccoli and Paganico. At some, I set off local dogs barking who have caught the scent of this stranger in their quiet locality. The ones who do rush out always have their tails wagging so I am not too worried. I ride through the charming town of Altopascio that has a beautiful cathedral and carry on towards Vinci.
The last bit of my ride goes over the undulating countryside draped with vineyards that produce the region’s famed Chianti wine. It is hard work, and just as I am taking solace in the fact that without my super-equipped bicycle it would have been excruciating work, an old man pedals past me with a nonchalant wave on a bicycle perhaps older than him.
Vinci is where Leonardo da Vinci was born, and it is a nice enough town to explore on foot. My agriturismo (farm hotel) is on the outskirts of town and set in a vineyard. The pool is so tempting after my hot ride that I forsake the town for the cool waters.
The next morning, my cycle is picked up by the company and they drop me off at Empoli station from where I hop into a train with my luggage and head to Florence, 35 minutes away. Florence is where Renaissance blossomed and shone across the rest of Europe ending the Dark Age. Today, the city is as beautiful as ever with its red-domed duomo and marble clock tower. The city’s many pretty piazzas are bustling with tourists, and later during the day I am once again awed by the splendid location of my Hotel Lungarno. It sits right on the banks of River Arno, and I can see the duomo across the river washed orange by the setting sun, and a whole series of elegant bridges across the river.
This sight is imprinted in my mind as a lasting image of Florence, of Tuscany, of Italy.