06 April 2012

A side trip to Italy

I would have written but I was busy eating in Italy
I ate my way through Pisa and Florence. After a hiatus to Italy I am back in Belgium, with my niece in tow to attend the Paris-Roubaix race this Sunday in France. In between races in Belgium/France, I decided to hop a Ryan Air plane to Pisa, Italy, to take advantage of not traveling with a cumbersome bike case. My intent was to visit my niece Kristina who is studying Architecture for the year in Florence and later Switzerland. Little did I know I would fill my time walking what seemed like 20-miles a day and eating everything in site.

How could I not - it was Italy! The land of gelato, espresso, sandwiches, enotecas, chocolate mouse, and strawberry tiramisu.

I drove to the Brussels-Charleroi airport in the early morning last Wednesday and boarded the plane to Pisa. By choice I sat next to two smiling women, it turned out they were mother and daughter from Livorno. Once on board the plane, I pulled out my guide book to begin reading about Pisa. Erika and her mother instantly began to offer me helpful tips on how to get around Pisa. Before long Erika simply said "come with us, we will take you there." Next thing I know we are disembarking the plane onto the tarmac in Pisa, where Erika saw a good friend (or a cousin) who works at the airport. Exuberant greetings, hugs, and introductions followed. We walked into the terminal where more hugs and another introduction was given - "this is my papa," Erika said. Well of course it is!

Soon I was in a car buzzing towards the central train station of Pisa blocks away from the leaning tower of Pisa with the friendliest family in Italy, loving life. After asking if I am on Facebook, Erika stopped the car in the road and explained to me as if we had all the time in the world, "ok you walk there, then you come back here and get on the train over there to Florence." By now I am beyond grateful and so thrilled to have had the best possible introduction to Italy.

Feeling jubilant I decided to celebrate with my first scoop of delicious Limone gelato (my favorite) and walk the streets of Italy enjoying the sounds of the Italian language and peering into storefronts.

Carrying only a small backpack for my side trip to Italy, off I walk to the leaning tower of Pisa. I decided to visit last minute, I've only been through Pisa once before, to make a connection to a cycling tour in Tuscany. I had never been to the famous tourist site. This site is so touristy, there is no point in acting like anything but a tourist, so I too had an attempt at straightening the tower like most of the hundreds of tourists that filled the courtyard. A young group of girls from Australia took this photo of me (below), afterward they asked, "would you like a normal one now?" "What, that wasn't normal," I responded - they laughed realizing, yup it's totally normal - when you are in Pisa.

I arrived just in time to keep it from falling over
Relaxing as a tourist
Most of the buildings in the field of miracles tilt slightly
Remember the post I did from Paris in 2010, the day before the final stage of the Tour de France (Ah Paris!) well Italy does tacky souvenirs too.
Putting an 839-year old structure back in place took some effort - it was time to eat again. A crudo (dried ham) and cheese sandwich with a hot espresso was easy to find before the soft rain signaled it was time to hop a direct train to Florence.
I arrived in Florence to familiar sites, yet finding Kristina's small apartment was slightly confusing.
view from Kristina's apartment
We didn't waste any time - we needed wine! And some fresh food from the market to cook dinner. Kristina cooked a wonderful cauliflower fennel and onion creme pasta with a bib lettuce salad with pear, apple, and roasted nuts. I really enjoyed watching Kristina carry her empty wine bottle to this Enoteca and order a Montalcino wine, her Italian is now excellent.
at the enoteca
After our delicious dinner with Jessica, we met up with Korey, another architecture student from San Luis Obispo, CA, and walked for 3 hours around the city of Florence enjoying - you guessed it - more gelato (there are a lot of flavors that needed to be tasted)! The city of Florence at night is magical.
Grom gelato
Santa Croce
Ponte Vecchio
The next day involved a visit to see Michelangelo's David at Academia, a delicious sandwich and chianti at Fratellini sandwich shop, an espresso americano with views of Palazzo Vecchio, buying flowers for our dinner hostess that evening, a walk to see the view from Palazzo Michelangelo and listening to the choir in a nearby church. All before we caught a bus out of town for the most delightful home made true Italian family dinner with Kristina's "Italian Family" - the Boncianis. The conversation was almost entirely in Italian. The evening a delight.
Fratellini's - a delicious sandwich and wine shop in Florence
Views of Florence, Italy
By day three it was time to head back to Belgium. We arrived and instantly Kristina was taken with the architecture in the area.
travel shoes and bags at the airport
"Can I go touch that building," she asked, "Sure."
windmill in the countryside of Flanders
Cycling museum in Oudenaarde
City of Oudenaarde (the new finish town of the Tour of Flanders)
Relaxing with dinner and wine at our hotel this evening - we are back in Kortrijk
Disappointingly I missed a chance to meet Gregg and Holly from The Chain Stay Belgian Cycling Tours and Co-op Lodging in Oudenaarde, we were late in arriving into the area and internet in Italy was almost nil. Gregg and Holly are Americans living in Belgium, they and their clients were located 30 meters from me the other day on the Kwaremont, but I missed them there as well. Maybe they will need to come to Colorado to see me. I wish them well, they are having a busy few weeks creating special experiences for their guests.

We are back in Kortrijk for 3 nights. Although I am not crazy about the city of Kortrijk (Oudenaarde or Leper have much better small city character / Gent and Bruges are larger cities), Kortrijk has a central location good to take in all the sites in the area. This time we are at a very nice hotel with easy access on and off the autoroute, but no restaurants within walking distance. Still the room and breakfast are very good (Bell Expo), probably better for tourists than cyclists. Tomorrow we head to Brugge for the day before the big race on Easter Sunday - the Paris-Roubaix. I am so excited.