Sometimes a stressful travel inconvenience, like flying with Lufthansa Airlines during a flight attendant strike, can turn into serendipitous good fortune. Our seemingly hopeless connections to Italy turned golden when Lufthansa rerouted us to Florence two days earlier than we had planned and we were invited to a private concert by Italian tenor Andrea Bocelli in a Florentine cathedral. The acoustics were sublime, and it was one of those out-of-body type experiences. Bocelli even took a moment to say hello to me, and when I said that I was American, he said, "I know. I can hear that." It turns out that the largest-selling solo artist in the history of classical music is also a warm, kind and generous man.
Bocelli was asked to sing for a celebration marking the completion of the 27 year restoration project of the Gates of Paradise that decorate the Florentine Baptistery. Friends of Florence Foundation is a non-profit based in the United States that is dedicated to preserving the historical integrity of the arts in Florence. The organization has given more than 5 million euros to enhancing the cultural heritage of Florence; the majority of donors are from the United States. Through the generosity of people from far flung places, the restoration experts were able to painstakingly renew the artwork. The gates gleamed in the Florentine sunshine as long lines of visitors waited to get a glimpse of the gates beauty, substance and narrative.
The Bocelli concert was one highlight of a week-long Trek Travels road bike tour of Italy's Tuscany region. It was the beginning of a fabulous experience with 18 other cyclists and two great guides. We stayed in Palazzo Squarcialupi in Castellina in Chianti the first three nights, which was run by a lovely couple. After cycling, we did some yoga next to the swimming pool overlooking the rolling hillsides and relaxed in the spa complete with Jacuzzi, hot steam room and sauna. The old walled cities that we biked to were always on the top of prominent hills for defense and safety. One Etruscan door in Volterra was 2,800 years old and still standing strong as an entrance to town. Volterra's Roman ruins and theater were excavated and preserved by the locals, which is a huge draw for historians and tourists alike.
We cycled along roads lined with cypress trees, through the beautiful Tuscan landscape and discovered delicious local cuisine. There was fresh bruschetta, delectable savory raviolis with sage and cream sauce and traditional Bolognese lasagna. The undisputed favorite was hitting up the gelato store after each ride to treat oneself to a splurge after a hard earned climb up the hill. When I asked cyclist Joan Propp of Texas what her highlight of the trip was she replied, "I like meeting all of the people. The riding is extra; it allows you to eat what you want to eat and burn a few calories while you are on an active vacation." As physical education teacher, for her there is no other way to travel.
Centuries old vineyards greeted us as we discovered the tradition of Chianti Classico with a winery tour and tasting. We met Antonio, whose estate dates back to 1452. He makes incredible wines and olive oil with pride, carefully following family recipes. In addition to growing amazing grapes, Antonio runs a horse rescue shelter on the property. His tender care and nurturing has rehabilitated many horses over the years. The sprawling vineyards are his passion and joy, as well as his new baby girl. Antonio is living "la dolce vita," the sweet life.
After six days of cycling, walking through Medieval villages and enjoying the camaraderie of fellow travelers, the wonderful journey came to an end with fond farewells and a train ride to Bologna. There we ended our trip with a stay at the highly-recommended Hotel Porta San Mamolo, which truly felt like a home away from home with its lovely gardens, warm staff and tranquil spaces, all of which was near the bustling city's center. Ciao, arrivederci Italy.