There’s a danger to visiting Italy. It’s not the danger one faces in visiting Afghanistan, Tripoli or the depths of Kurdistan. The risk will never make any State Department travel advisory. No one with a healthy respect for risky situations will fix you with a sober eye and say, “Don’t go.”
However, I will: Don’t go.
Don’t go unless you want your world to change. Don’t go if you like thinking that the Super Bowl is the pinnacle of sport, that big box retailers are the natural order for shopping, that a meal at a restaurant can be conducted in an hour—or less. Don’t go if you consider a whole afternoon spent sipping coffee in a piazza, wines with the pleasant mystery of a Bond villain or ingredients plucked from a local garden to be luxuries. Don’t go if you like to commute to work by car and can’t imagine walking to work or enjoying lunch at home.
In my first trip to Italy, I joined Bill McGann, then the proprietor of Torelli Imports (these days he’s publishing books under the imprint McGann Publishing). Bill was such a lover of Italy that he had based his entire business on sourcing Italian products of impeccable quality and bringing them to cyclists he hoped to implant the same rabid love of the Lombard craft he suffered. The financial services industry might say he had taken a long position on Italy. Such is the nature of understatement.
For me, the experience was tantamount to sharing a tent with someone infected with Ebola. I never stood a chance, which, as it turns out, is exactly what he planned. He was Hannibal and I was Rome.
I developed a taste for the walled city, blood orange juice, living so locally that it made my former New England town seem to sprawl like Los Angeles. I marveled at towns like Siena, a place decimated by the Black Plague 500 years ago, a place where new construction halted and yet the citizens had the good sense to look around, realize they had something special and then, in a stroke virtually unknown to Americans, decide there was no reason to change it.
Beyond the walls of Siena, city gives way to countryside with the same sudden shock as the final notes of a symphony yielding to silence. A handful of buildings reverberate with the brick of the city before all that surrounds you are rolling hills. Inside the city—if you can truly call Siena a city for it is smaller than many college campuses—the signs of modernity come in the tiniest details. TV aerials sprout from tile roofs, wiring ivies its way down buildings to bring electricity, cable TV, phone lines, even the Internet.
My companions and I had dinner in the Piazza Il Campo, the site of what is arguably the world’s most famous horse race. Yes, the world’s most famous horse race because, unlike the Kentucky Derby, the Palio has been held for roughly 450 years. It didn’t matter to me that it may be one of the more corrupt and rigged sporting events known to man. As I ate, I sat captivated, staring out on the plaza and tried to imagine horses being raced around us, the plaza filled to standing room and if it’s rigged, well then that’s part of history … and I’d take that in stride—just to see those horses race.
In Assisi we would wake in the spring dark, feast on yesterday’s bread (yesterday’s because we were up at an unthinkable hour for a genteel hotelier), coffee and blood orange juice. We would roll the cobbled streets out of town just as smoke began to rise from homes. If there is one unmistakable memory I have of those rides, it isn’t the suffering, it’s the perfume of Italian homes—wood smoke.
Bill won’t abide a leisurely stroll on a bike. No, we drilled it, each and every ride. Though I’d have preferred a 39×25 low gear on my custom Antonio Mondonico-built Torelli for the longer climbs, the speed Bill was going meant I would never have had the chance to downshift out of the 23. On the hill into Todi, Mauro Mondonico—Antonio’s son and assistant—pulled over on the 20+ percent grade and put a foot down. A car pulled alongside him. Stopped. The passenger rolled down the window. The driver turned to Mauro, held up a single finger and said, “Sei squalificati”—You are disqualified.
The driver gave a knowing smile to us when he crested the hill, but we were unaware of what had taken place below. When Mauro finally reached us, he related the events as we laughed until tears fell on our handlebars.
Riding back into Assisi three hours later I marveled as the farm fields yielded to smaller gardens, then houses, the city gate and over the cobblestones up and up and up, hundreds of feet to our hotel perched high above the fields, perfect for defense. I felt as if I was riding through the very creation of the city itself, the taming of a landscape.
It was April first and that night I called my mother, relating the days events, from the disqualification to the taste of the rich cheese within finest tortellini I’ve ever eaten. I then wound yarn for my mother, telling her how I had been offered a position in media relations with the Italian Trade Commission, that I would market Italian bicycle products to bicycle magazines, that I would live part time in Italy and still be able to travel back to the States regularly, that I’d met a beautiful Italian girl, how her parents owned a vineyard.
My mother asked about my new girlfriend back in LA.
“We haven’t been going out that long. I’m sure she’ll understand.” I’d played my hand far enough.
“Mom? April Fools.”
The next day she requested a quote from a band of Ninja for a contract killing.
We boarded our plane home with legs shattered by nearly a 1000kms of riding and belts not a single hole snugger despite all that riding. As I exited the plane, I thought of my contact at the Italian Trade Commission; perhaps they really could use someone with an American perspective on marketing, I wondered. I was ready to move.
Don’t go. I’m telling you: It’s dangerous.
Originally published in Peloton Magazine.
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