Toscana Trip

22/11/18 – 26/11/18

For Marta, her mum and her dad. Grazie. 

It is hard to believe that it is now almost two months since Marta and Hannah’s heads appeared in the windows of our apartment in Pisa as I pulled up after my second round of shuttling panniers across the city. It was both surreal and brilliant to see their two smiling faces after three and a half months on the road. We’ve been so lucky to see familiar faces every month since we left (seeing Grace O’D on 30th December made it five months out of five), and seeing Marc, Tim, Hannah and Marta, and spending a long weekend adventuring together, was just perfect.

‘The guys’ arrived on a sunny Thursday. After hugs all round (initially just a cordial handshake for MOJ as he’s not super keen on bodily contact) and an outpouring of gifts, mostly in the form of Soreen Malt Loaf and Yorkshire Teabags (an unbelievable mini MOJ and my favourite shower gel from YN too), Marta hurried us all out into the sunshine and we took a leisurely walking tour of the town, chatting all the way, catching up on all things great and small. 

Marta secured us some free tickets for fifteen minutes in the Duomo and so we had a look around, oogling at the high ceilings and frescos whilst Olly – quietly – mocked Marta for having pointed out the baptistery and explaining that this ‘where people are christianised’. 

After the Duomo we were all keen for food and Marta found herself some salty, Italian focaccia and introduced Hannah to cecina (the Tuscan word for farinata, I think), whilst me, Marc, Olly and Tim went straight in for gelato – Marc and Tim opting for the three-scoop grande option: when in Italy.

We mooched about, including nosing into a very dark church, before heading to the supermarket in order for Marta to cook up an Italian feast for us that night. ‘The guys’ had requested carbonara and we happily agreed. Marta’s parents arrived soon after we returned from the supermarket and it was great to meet and thank them for everything they had done to ensure Olly was back on two wheels in no time at all. I’m confident that Marta got a croggy from her dad, honorary Bastley Rider, Guglielmo, on the Genesis in order to go back to their car to pick up Marta’s bike and the spare parts, but the atmosphere got very giddy and excitable and I’m not too sure what happened, I just know that after a shower I smelt really good for the first time in a good while, probably since pilfering shower gel from Bear in Switzerland (thanks again, YN)!

As soon as the wheel arrived, Tim and Olly were off in their own world, talking in a language the rest of us didn’t understand! Marta and her parents were busy in the kitchen cooking up a storm, whilst Hannah, Marc and I snacked on malt loaf and chewed the cud. It was just brilliant to be back beside two of my Astley amigos. The feeling around the dinner table that night was one of real happiness. We shared stories, Marta acting as an amazing translator, as she did all weekend – a tiring job. Then, with full stomachs, having sampled some tasty Italian sweet treats that Marta picked up at the supermarket including cantuccio, and tired eyes we started to prepare for the journey the following day. Me, Olly and Tim loaded up bikes and transported the majority of the luggage to Marta’s parents’ car so that we could ride easy the next day. I did not fail to notice how carefully Guglielmo’s bike was placed in the car, wrapped in cloths, and how many of our bags were placed on top of the groceries, but not the bike! Rightly so, said Olly and Tim. We darted back across the city, to our apartment just behind The Leaning Tower, and went to bed. We slept so soundly in the presence of our friends. 

We were up early the next day and the first thing we all noticed as we opened our eyes was not a sight, but a sound: the pouring rain. It would have been a 90km day and so the decision to take the train part of the way to where Marta and her family have a little holiday home in Monteverdi Marittimo seemed like a doubly good idea. Marc, Hannah and Tim had hired bikes from Smile & Ride, Pisa and the owners opened up especially for us. There were smiles all round despite the rain as the guys tried out their new wheels, perhaps smiling more so because Olly got shouted out by the guy cleaning the floors on a funky machine: wherever Olly stood he was in the way! To the station, then, where me, Marc, Hannah and Olly watched and laughed as Marta flew into a rage buying the train tickets walking back and forth from the queue to the machine: Tim followed obediently behind, ready with his credit card. He told us he’s used to it! Tim and Marta work together and along with Olly are climbing friends. One of Tim and Olly’s favourite pastimes is mocking poor Marta! 

We secured our tickets and in cannon made our way onto the platform, up and down, up and down in the lift. Somewhat predictably, the train was delayed and so we munched on the focaccia that Marc and Hannah had been to buy the day before and that we had leftover from dinner. They had looked quite sheepish when they walked in with the brown-paper-wrapped bread. I asked what was going on and Marc said he thought they’d been sold the remnants from the day’s trading and that the focaccia seemed hard, stale and salty. They’d tried a bit on the way back to the apartment to check that it was edible and were worried they’d been ripped off. They handed the package to Marta who beamed! Perfetto! I laughed a lot. 

Stood on the platform, the man from Smile & Ride caught up with us and said he had a gift for me and Olly. He knew the train would be late (!) and so after having spoken to his wife about our adventure, she scolded him for not having given us a momento. As such, he presented each of us with a t-shirt portraying a smiling, bicycle-riding, Leaning Tower of Pisa. We wore them proudly for the rest of the weekend. It was nice to wear cotton again after so long in merino.

Smile & Ride tshirt

The coast quickly appeared as we sped along on the train heading further into rural Tuscany. We got off at a little stop along the coast and were due to meet Guglielmo en route for lunch. He met us much before that and we cycled along in Bastley blue before stopping at a local, little bar, where pictures of dead boar lined the walls. Filled with tasty cheese rolls and an espresso, we set off to Monteverdi Marittimo where Marta’s mum was busy cooking lasagne for tea (Jonesy was delighted!). Along the way we stopped at various little villages to have a look around and Olly and I especially enjoyed the largely traffic-free cycling. This was more like it! 

We were joined for dinner by Marta’s aunt and uncle and with ten of us around the table the atmosphere was euphoric! Marta hadn’t been in Monteverdi for four years, she told us, and we know it was very special for her to be back in Tuscany with her family. After discussing the popularity of wild boar hunting at lunch time, Marc and Tim were excited to sample some boar sausage as part of an incredible antipasti that Marta and her family prepared. Corks were popped and prosecco consumed and then delicious, unlabelled bottles of local red wine were passed around freely. We all revelled in the warmth and familiarity that night.

The next morning we’d agreed to meet for an early-ish breakfast in order to get out on our cycle and make the most of the day. The four of us downstairs woke up with four minutes to spare and so dashed around in a bid to be on time for Marta! The table was covered in a breakfast feast fit for a king! Despite how much we’d all eaten the night before, we hungrily spread homemade jams onto delicious, artisan bread and munched on mulino bianco biscuits: Marta’s mum had bought her favourite.

Decked out in Bastley blue we set off on our 65km circuit, Guglielmo leading the way. It was such a nice bike ride and for me and Olly it felt liberating to be pedalling without panniers and for pure pleasure. A really notable feature of the day was all of the geothermal activity: jets of steam rose into the air and Dr Seuss style pipes snaked across the landscape and the hills we climbed formed the ladders of this Tuscan board game. At a particularly impressive spot, Hannah decided she’d poke her hand into the steam only to immediately retract it as the boiling air left her scolding!

Silly Montana!

Our lunch stop was spectacular! We went in to a little bar, similar to the day before. In all honesty, it didn’t look like much from the outside. However, the antipasti spread that was put on for us was incredible! There were meats, cheeses, olives, artichoke hearts, bread, chips: enough to go around and then some. We were joined for lunch by Marta’s mum and her aunt and it wasn’t only the sudden downpour that delayed our getting back on the bikes, once again the atmosphere was so genial and convivial that we didn’t want to leave.

With a break in the weather we dashed out and back onto the bikes, down a hill and across a closed bridge (we simply moved the road blocks). We contentedly wound our way around the countryside, chatting or not, it didn’t matter. We arrived back in Monteverdi Marittimo just as the sun was setting, it was beautiful. 

Although Guglielmo had made no fewer than three comments about my eating habits that day (I was carrying the wafers on behalf of everybody, I promise), he was forgiven when he said I should shower in the main house that night. The night before the water temperature in the shower in the garage conversion where we were sleeping had been a little temperamental, and I’d been fighting for shower time with the boys! I gathered my bits and bobs and headed up to the house where Marta, her mum and Hannah were chatting. I gladly joined in and we decided to have a girls tea and snack session before the boys joined! However, none of them took so long showering and so it wasn’t long before the boys arrived smelling fresh and clean and we were sitting stinky, though happy as we sipped tea and ate biscuits and truffles. Later that night, when we went back down to the garage, I went to the loo and started to laugh hysterically. Marc had already given me a ribbing for stealing the communal shower gel, but I didn’t realise that for a substitute he’d use the ‘intimate wash’ from the bidet!

Marta’s mum once again cooked up a storm for our dinner: delicious polenta and stew. I kept offering to help, but Marta explained she’d been shooed away too: the stirring of the polenta is traditionally the job of the eldest lady in the family and Marta explained that her mum hadn’t really been making it all that long as her grandma also upheld the Italian tradition. Anna and Giovanna joined us again and the evening was another warm and cheerful one. 

The next morning we woke up to intermittent, torrential rain. We were going to cycle, we weren’t, we were, we weren’t. Marta and her family were so keen to show us the best of the area, but we eventually decided we’d be cycling in the rain for the sake of it and not because anybody particularly wanted to. We stayed inside and played cards before we drove to Anna and Giovanna’s house for lunch. We had a veritable feast of local and homegrown products. Marc sometimes gets very emotional around food and I think we both felt it that afternoon. We were truly spoilt. Everything was delicious. 

We also met Anna’s two donkeys, Don and Bosco, and chatted with the three geese too. We looked at the vegetable patches and Giovanna’s self-made thermal pool. Marta and her family kept explaining that the garden and the landscape are so much more beautiful in the summer, but I couldn’t disagree more. Being shown a landscape by locals and sharing in small and quiet moments, such as washing up with Hannah, driving around the countryside with Marta, passing Tim the jam at breakfast time without his having to ask, and cycling alongside Marc in companionable silence, make for the most cherished times. It is these small, quiet, everyday moments with friends and family that I think we might miss the most. 

Citrus fruits

After the most incredible lunchtime feast, Olly and Tim giggled as they lit up the lightbulb on top of the colander by using the exercise bike (!) and Marta’s uncle showed us his interesting and unique rock collection… We said goodbye and grazie mille to Anna and Giovanni for all they had done for us over the past few days and then we drove through the cloud-shrouded countryside to the small town of Volterra for a walk around. As we walked across cobbled streets the cloud started to lift and we were rewarded with some magnificent and atmospheric views. 

As night rolled in, we headed back to Monteverdi for our final feast. A cheesy dish called pizzoccheri from the mountains where Marta’s mum grew up and that MOJ loved, despite it being filled with cabbage! Marc was gifted a jersey from Guglielmo’s home club and I laughed a lot (again) when Marc whipped his shirt off in the kitchen to try it on! Although sleepy, the happy kind of sleepy after a fun-filled day, I was saddened to close my eyes for the next morning we’d all be parting ways.

Monday morning had materialised. We had a wonderful breakfast, eating up everything, and packed up the bikes. It was time to say goodbye. Marc said he felt he hadn’t really had chance to talk to me and Olly, but the truth is we’d been talking all weekend, it’s just that we’d simply picked up where we left off. Olly and I had told a few tales from our travels, but mostly we all just chatted as if it was only yesterday that we’d last sat and drunk tea together. After a lifetime of long, emotional goodbyes, I have come to prefer short, efficient ones as they’re easier for me to manage; “see you later” being my favourite form of farewell. At the top of the road, the guys turned left and we turned right. Onwards we all went. Our wonderful weekend together was over, but the memories, we’ve got them forever.