Bicycling and Ballooning in Italy, June-July 1996
A pre-journal note from Alf:
Here we are on June 16, all together at our last preflight meeting. We're gathered in Jean's backyard; departure is just four days away. Pictured, from left to right: Allyn, Lara, Denise (Good Grief, Charlie Brown, isn't Denise the dark-haired girl waiting in the wings?), Lee Anna, Alf, and Jean. Inside, Denise and Lee Anna check the itinerary over a glass of wine.
What a day, what an adventure! Mother nature was in the pilot's seat! Bad lightning storms delayed our takeoff in Fort Lauderdale, therefore causing us to miss our connecting flight in Atlanta. When we finally arrived, we had time to look around the airport. Lee Anna's significant other had some artwork displayed there, so we went to go look for it. Three cheers to Joe Walters! Then we caught our flight to New York. Again, bad weather delayed our flight, so we had to circle Virginia for a while.
Because of our delays, Alf decided to give us a little treat! We decided to spend the night in New York and then take the CONCORDE, yep that would be the really fast Concorde! the next morning. So we took a taxi from Laguardia airport to the N.Y. Hilton. And I'll tell you, you haven't lived until you have seen your life flash before your eyes in a NYC taxi! We got a nice tour of the 'hood; our cab driver got lost and left us in the car while he went to ask directions, but other than that it was very enjoyable. When we finally got to the hotel, the people checked us into the wrong rooms, where there were other occupants already in bed. Whoops! Finally we got to go to sleep!
After catching the bus to JFK Airport (and talking with a very nice, very cute Englishman), we proceeded to get ready to board the Concorde. I have never been so spoiled rotten! Well this is the way to live! As soon as we got onto the plane, barely in our seats, the steward cam by with a Mimosa (champagne and orange juice) and I'll just tell you that the glass was never empty. We were then served caviar, figs with cream cheese as appetizers. Then they brought us a fresh fruit plate and a cranberry scone. We then had our choice of entrees. I ordered (ordering on a plane, this service was so good it was just silly!). A delicious omelette with seafood in it, served on my tray complete with a linen napkin, real silverware, and a fresh rose.
This all took place as we were comfortably cruising along at Mach 2 (that's twice the speed of sound, for you non-scientific folks); the altitude was approximately 55,000 feet. You could actually see that the earth is really round, and when you look up out of the window you see dark, because it's space, right there outside the window. The closest you get without working for NASA.
After a tour and pictures with the crew, we then arrived at Heathrow Airport in London. By the way, Heathrow was a pretty nice airport and I marvel at how they really drive on the left side of the road there. In any event, we boarded Alitalia for our final destination, Milan. A couple of hours later we arrived and rode a bus in from the flight field to the airport building. We found our driver and began the bus ride to Padova. Finally we went to sleep.
We woke up and went exploring, wince we had driven in at night and you couldn't really see. There was a marketplace in the middle of the square a couple of blocks from our hotel. Lots of vendors with fresh fruits and vegetables. Lee Anna and I stopped at a little restaurant and had the best vegetarian sandwich. Then, with the rest of the group, we made our way to the first hotel, the Villa Michelangelo. Our guides Laura and Alex quickly proceeded to explain our bikes and the route to us, and we went out for a warmup ride. Unfortunately it rained and we got soaked, but it was fun anyway. After the ride, the group got together for cocktails and then went over to the next hill to eat at a restaurant called Zamboni. The food was excellent, we returned to the hotel, had a nightcap and went to our rooms and slept!
It was cold and rainy, we went biking around town and went to go see Palladio's villa - La Rotunda. Chris Mason, a Butterfield and Robinson guide, was kind enough to show us around the villa and explained a lot of the history and circumstances surrounding the construction. There are four beautiful staircases on each side of the villa so that you can look out each side and take in the outstanding view.Following the tour, we proceeded to bike further. Later in the afternoon the group met at Teatro Olympico in Vicenza and Chris showed us around the theatre. The entire theatre was constructed out of wood and has beautiful plaster moldings on the walls. Inside there are sculptures of Palladio as well as several other prominent figures from the time. After the tour was over, Alf, Jean and I decided to go have a beer in the square and do a little bit of people watching. We went to dinner at Zamboni, the restaurant we had eaten at the night before with the B&R group, and the food was excellent!
Another day of wonderful biking. Lee Anna, Alf, Jean and I went biking. Our course took us to Citadella. We ate lunch at the most wonderful restaurant, Trattoria ai Gardini, and I had two bowls of the most wonderful, scrumptious, perfect spaghetti ever! After lunch, we decided to take advantage of B&R's hospitality and catch a ride in the van with our guide Alex. He took us to the hotel in Asolo. There we took some time to walk around the town and I discovered Gelato (one of Italy's most outstanding creations!) We spent some time in the beautiful garden at the hotel and were recruited by Michael Liss and Frank Viva to be participants in the photos that were being taken for the upcoming Butterfield and Robinson catalog. We then joined the group for a wonderful dinner in the hotel restaurant. I really cannot say enough about the food here. It's excellent and lots of it!
Well I will have you know, dear reader, that Mother Nature, unlike ourselves, was not on vacation! In fact she was working overtime. Day six was rainy and COLD! Equivalent to a deep Florida winter! But, everyone's spirit was good and the rainy weather didn't really bother anyone all that much. Because I didn't have any foul weather gear (bad prior planning) I ended up wearing a plastic garbage bag (I'm always on the cutting edge of fashion!) and quickly earned myself the nickname "bag lady". We toured another one of Palladio's villas called Villa Barbaro. Inside were beautiful frescoes and on the outside there were about 40 scrappy but very cute looking dogs running all around the property which were very popular with our group. We then toured Villa Emo. After a wonderful Palladio filled day, we changed gears and visited a cemetery designed by Carlos Scarpa for a local family. It was very interesting and considered a masterpiece of modern architecture, quite different from the traditional Italian cemeteries. Later that evening, we attended a wine tasting and sampled several different local wines, and then had another excellent meal at the hotel restaurant.
This morning it was cold and rainy again! Lee Anna and I rode to the first stop at Canova's museum, full of the original plaster models for many of his most famous works. These sculptures are, in a word, Amazing! Today our gracious guides Laura and Alex surprised us with a beautiful picnic. The group was very happy and the food was, as always in Italy, excellent! I tried a unique Italian thing called Grappa today. It's like a really harsh shot of something really nasty reminds me of rubbing alcohol. rumor has it you are supposed to sip it. But one whiff of the stench rising from my glass and I decided to take it American style and drank it like a shot. All I know is after two shots I was ready for bed. For dinner we experienced an Italian pizzeria which was good and I had a "funghi" (mushroom) pizza. Finally the menus in Italian are beginning to make sense! I also had the first Coke in several days and was very happy to taste that beautiful caffeine - sugar blend.
Today was a much better day as far as weather goes. Finally Mother Nature started accepting the bribes we had been promising her! The Sun finally came out from hiding and it warmed up! During our ride we passed a charming waterfall and a little watermill, and our there our awesome B&R had watermelon and other tempting treats! Later that evening we had dinner at a castle and Laura and Alex were dressed up in appropriate costumes for the evening. They looked great! And for an additional surprise, our tour guide from the Palladio villa, Chris, showed up in costume (a dress) as well, and was causing all kinds of mayhem! A good time was had by all. The wonderful hosts at the castle fed us so much food we thought we would burst!
This is our last day with our B&R group we have come to know and love. While most of the group biked, Alf, Jean and I chose to gain a new perspective and walk the last 20K of the route. We had a good time, had lunch at a pizzeria and finally arrived at our final destination in Porto Buffolè. We had a very nice "last supper" with our group and our guides surprised us for one last time with pictures from the trip and poems about everyone in the group.
Venice! Today we ventured into Venice! Laura and Alex brought us to the train station in Venice and we walked from there. We got to visit the Dali and Picasso exhibits that happened to be in town as well as soaking up some of the local shops along the way. We also visited the Peggy Guggenheim Museum as well as getting a peek at the outside of St Mark's Cathedral. We caught a train back to Portodone and then a taxi back to Porto Buffolè.
Today we rode into Siena to begin the next part of our adventure: Ballooning in Alf's balloon and Buddy Bombard Adventures. The van came to pick us up in the morning and we had a beautiful drive through the countryside and mountains to Siena. When we got to Siena, we spent the afternoon outside on the terrace relaxing, drinking beer and wine, and being silly. We had a lovely dinner, and the C/Kathryns joined us for the day of ballooning that was to come!
My "virgin" balloon flight. Alf, Jean, Lee Anna and I were joined by the C/Kathryns for our first ballooning flight of the trip. We met our balloon pilot Michael and our wonderful crew Jamie, Mark and Tim early in the morning outside of the hotel. They drove us to a huge wheat field in the middle of beautiful Italian farm lands and began preparing the balloon for take off This preparation process is quite extensive. First they have to unload the balloon from the back of the truck. Rumor has it that the balloon weighs a couple of hundred pounds (when inflated it is 8 stories tall!). Then they spread the balloon out over the ground and begin inflating it by using a couple of fans to blow air into the bottom part of the balloon. Then they eventually turn on the burners and set the balloon upright. From there we all get into the basket and await our departure. In my guess this whole preparation process from the times we got to see it takes about 20-30 min. Finally, we are ready to go. Our corkscrew balloon and the rest of Buddy Bombards entourage (three other balloons) set sail (so to speak). Michael turns on the burners (which surprisingly are pretty loud) and we gently take off.
It's not really like I expected it to be. I'm afraid of heights, or at least I thought I was, but when you are in the balloon, you forget and just get carried away by the beautiful visions. I must admit for the first twenty minutes of the ride, I didn't let go of the basket, but as I got used to it I was leaning over the side and moving about in the basket just like anyone else. It's not cold either. For one, the balloon is being carried by the wind, so there is no breeze, and secondly the burners kick out quite a bit of heat. Our first flight we flew over Siena, right over the Piazza Del Campo (the main town square) although we had to be careful to not fly too low.
In Siena there is an event called the Palio. This is one of the most amazing horse races I have ever witnessed. The Palio was to be held the very next day, July 2nd, and so if for some chance our balloon happened to spook one of the horses racing in the Palio, we would not be very popular with the residents of Siena, therefore we decided to play it safe and fly high. That evening, our group was invited to have dinner with the Eagle contrada. One of the participating contradas in the following day's Palio. This was a dinner for about 800 people and the tables were set up in the streets of Siena. After a small quantity of food and very large quantity of red wine, Alf, Jean, the Kathryns and myself decided to party it up a little bit with the locals. We headed down to the square and participated in the festivities happening during the eve before the much awaited Palio.
Ooops, one thing I almost forgot for this day, we got to eat lunch at a castle! The Baron and the Baroness were very kind and gracious hosts, they told us some of the history of the castle and the family it belonged to. We ate in a large hall, with beautiful tapestries and armor on the walls. The castle was situated on top of a hill and the view was incredible. Another coincidence, the Baron's nephew was in town and joined us for lunch. He was also very nice and took some time to show us a few things about the grounds that weren't on the scheduled tour.
The Palio Day! Today we got up and went into town with the group to see the Palio. I guess for your benefit, dear reader, I should explain the Palio to you. The Palio is basically a horse race. But for the people in Siena it is much more than that, it's like the Super Bowl for them, but much more. It would be like if our family pride, religion, and honor were all based on the outcome of the Super Bowl. The horses are chosen randomly and only one is given to each contrada. Contradas are made up of different areas of town and you are a member of the contrada that you are born into. The horse is very carefully guarded up until the race. Depending on whether you were given a good horse or a bad horse in the drawing is how the Contrada decides to spend its money. A contrada with a good horse will try to buy the best jockey available, however if the contrada receives a crummy horse, they will spend their money instead on trying to bribe one of the jockeys from another contrada to lose the race, or push another jockey off the horse, etc... etc... It's not the jockey that wins the race but the horse, so even if the jockey falls off, the horse is what really matters.
The events leading up to the Palio are amazing. There are several thousand people crammed into a teeny tiny space all waiting to see the Palio. We arrived at about 5pm and watched the pre-Palio festivities. There is a very extensive parade before the race, with elaborate costumes and tradition. Finally the track is cleared and the horses are brought out, as the race is ready to begin, the tension is incredible!! ten times greater than if there was a field goal about to be kicked in overtime during the Super Bowl. And then it begins, and the horses race around the square, and there is a winner. All of the people go crazy! Some are crying because they did not win, and others are crying because they did win, and people are kissing the horse, and carrying the jockey and singing and screaming and running all around. I have never seen such a display of emotion in my life ever. The Palio is truly an extraordinary experience!
After the Palio, the square eventually calms down and the restaurants in the square begin setting up for dinner. While they are doing that I took some time to walk around in the streets of Siena, in front of electronic stores there are large groups of people watching the reruns on television and the place is just buzzing! When I return to the group, who do I see but MEL GIBSON! Holy cow, what a perk! Yes, I kid you not, Mel Gibson! Apparently he was in town doing research for a movie about the Palio, we had read about it earlier in the paper, and all day we had been joking that we were going to find him, and there he was. He ended up sitting just a short distance from our table and I was lucky enough to have a unobstructed view! What a good day! I was not the only one who noticed, I saw many woosey women swooning when they saw him. I can honestly say girls, he is just as good looking (if not more) in person than on the big screen!
"The day of Rest": Today was the day of rest. Everyday so far on our vacation we have been running around doing things, so today we elected to have a day of rest. We had a light lunch and spent some of the afternoon by the pool.
Fourth of July - I know you all know that they do not celebrate Fourth of July in Italy, and it was missed, but we did watch some fireworks on CNN in our hotel room. Another day of ballooning. The great thing about ballooning is that it is never the same. You may take off near the same place, or fly over the same town but everything looks different and always from a new perspective. It's breathtaking! Today I got to play the Smashing Pumpkins while we were floating above the rooftops of Siena, and can I just tell you, that is one of the finest memories that I will always remember. Later on in the day, we attended lunch at a beautiful apartment in downtown Siena. Private citizens were kind enough to invite our group to join them for lunch at their apartment. This apartment is living good! Out of the windows you can see a lot. Many rooftops and countryside, the closest you can get to ballooning without the balloon!
Another day of ballooning. On of the fun things to do while you are on the balloon is try to find the chase crew. You see their jobs is not as easy as you may think. You see while we were having fun floating around in the balloon looking at things, they are on the ground with a map trying to follow us. Sometimes this is not so easy. Balloons have minds of their own and so we were really keeping these guys on their toes. One day we landed on the golf course at our own hotel, another day we crash (very minor crash, actually pretty fun) landed in a huge wheat field, you really never know. In any event, I promised to pay a huge worldwide Internet tribute to these guys who always got us back on the ground safely and so here it is:
A TRIBUTE TO THE CREW!! JAMIE, MARK, TIM!!
After ballooning, Alf, Lee Anna and I decided to go visit Florence. We hopped on the train (public transport is much better there than in the states) and we were on our way. In Florence, we saw the David by Michelangelo, the Gaberti Doors, The Duomo where Galileo and Michelangelo are buried, the Uffitze museum where the Botticelli work of Venus is displayed, as well as some of Raphael, Da Vinci and other prominent artists of the time. The museum is huge and I could have spent all day there! Outside of the museum I met some very cool guys: Keith, Marcel and Mike from Connecticut, who had just graduated high school and were backpacking Europe. I talked with them a while and wished them well. They were going to the Phish show in Pastoia, so they definitely had a good time. Alf, Lee Anna and I had lunch at Portoveccio, a wonderful little trattoria restaurant. Our waiter Johnny and Tony #1 were very nice and spent some time telling us about their travels in the states.
Again another day of ballooning. By this time I am beginning to get used to waking up at 5 in the morning, kind of. (Its amazing the effect a CokeCola will do for you at that time in the morning.) After the morning of ballooning, the group all got together to go eat at another castle, this time our host was a princess. She was outstandingly nice and of course the castle was very nice. After eating a huge meal in the dining room, the princess was kind enough to take us through the house and up to the lookout tower. From there you could see the winding countryside as well as the huge fields of sunflowers that were part of the princess's estate. After lunch, we went back to the hotel and had a luxurious vacation nap.
This morning I decided to take this ballooning thing from a different perspective. I decided to stay on the ground and see just what those boys do all of the time we are up in the balloon. Little did I know what kind of fun I was in for. After the balloons took off, the chase begins! The crew quickly repacks the trucks with the remaining equipment and off we go. Mark, today's chase navigator, sets our direction and tells Tim, the designated driver, which way to go. Following close behind are Jamie and myself in the luxury Previa van. I think the trick to successful chasing is good instinct, experience and a little bit of luck. Because in all honesty you really never know which way things are going to go.
This morning it looked like Michael was going to land at the Park Hotel again (one of the previous days we had landed on the hotel golf course) but that did not turn out to be the case, so the good chase was on (dirt roads, plowed fields, all the fun of four wheeling and more!!). The chase led us into the middle of a huge farm, complete with long lines of vineyards. As the balloon landed, the farmer whose property we had dropped in on came out to see what the commotion was all about. He was very nice and invited us into have a bottle of wine and some grappa with his family at 8:30 in the morning! But we did, we offered him our champagne and he offered us wine and grappa that he had made himself. He has a beautiful daughter who spoke english and she chatted with us a while. Later that night Lee Anna, Lara and I decided to walk down to the local pizzeria for some pizza and a Coke. After dinner we went to Naninni for a gelato. (Lemon gelato is the best!) While we were walking back to the hotel, we stopped back at the pizzeria and ended up talking to some locals.
Today there was no ballooning, too much wind so we got to sleep in! I didn't hear anyone complaining about that! When we woke up we had a real breakfast! Eggs for the first time in a couple of weeks! After that we went into San Gimignano, did a little bit of shopping and then had lunch at a restaurant overlooking the beautiful countryside. It was Jamie's 19th birthday, so we all sang him happy birthday! After lunch we went to the Torture Museum, an interesting sort of place. Full of all kinds of torture devices from the iron maiden to the pear. (None of these things even looked remotely fun!) After we were done with the museum, some of us opted to have a quick cappuccino and then we were off back to the hotel. On the ride back I chose to ride with the guys and I got to experience Italian radio. I guess in Siena there is not much of a need for traditional American rock & roll / alternative, but there were a few peppy dance tunes. Alanis Morisette is very popular in Italy, as well as the old American TV shows including Full House and everyone's favorite, Beverly Hills 90210 complete dubbed in Italian.
Today I again chose to stay on the ground, my assignment in return was to promise to take many photos of the balloon from the ground. (Which I did!) FYI -Alf still has not seen the balloon from the ground. He has been in every single flight that I am aware of, and that is pretty amazing! I can't possibly tell you what fun all of this is! Driving around the Italian countryside chasing a hot air balloon, if you haven't yet and you get the opportunity, TAKE IT! After ballooning, we drove FAR to a nice little restaurant in what seemed to be the middle of nowhere. We had some very good spaghetti, though. After lunch, we visited a few things on the way back to Siena including a couple of stores selling ceramics and honey etc.. Etc...
The Last Day Of Ballooning! What a sad thing! We had a wonderful flight, and landed in perhaps one of the most picturesque places we had found during the whole trip! Right by a huge sunflower field! In the afternoon we had a wonderful lunch with everybody: Alf, Jean, Lee Anna, Michael, Jamie, Mark, Tim, Matthew and John (a guide we had been loaned for the day). Lunch was great but a little sad knowing that it was going to be a long time before I would be able to see my new friends again. After lunch the boys and I went out to a pub and played darts (I tried to play darts) and those who were allowed to drink beer did so. Later that afternoon, I packed my things and got ready for the return flight the next day.
The Return Trip Home - Now, as you may or may not know, the trip home is usually not as interesting as the trip on the way to some foreign location, but our trip began really early in the morning so we had the chance to watch one last Italian sunrise. It seemed especially beautiful this last morning, as if to say "Don't go home, just stay here," which I must admit I seriously contemplated for several days. The sun began to rise, lighting up the surrounding side as we made our way to Florence in the Mercedes van. Our bus driver was especially perky at four in the morning, and Lee Anna had a great time talking with him about philosophy, books and all kinds of other stuff. I, however, took a more quiet approach, sat back, listened to the Smashing Pumpkins and watched the sun gracefully rise.
As we arrived in the city of Florence, I recognized the streets and public artwork displayed there from the day I had come to visit previously. Our driver had a little treat in store for us: He took us to an outlook where you can see the entire city of Florence, just as the sun had risen enough to light up in bright red sunlight the marvelous city of Florence. What torture, to see one of the most amazing sunrises I have ever witnessed on my last day in Italy. The way I look at it though, it was just Mother Nature's way of saying "Hey, don't forget about what you have seen, tell people about it and come back..." This may sound really cheesy to you, but there is no possible way that my little account here or even the photos linked in can even give you a hint of the most extraordinary outstanding event I was just a part of.
So there you have it. That's the scoop, all of the highlights included. Just as I had finally gotten used to reading Italian menus, toilettes, crazy Italian drivers and all of those fun things, it was time to go home. But have no fear! I will be back! And for all of you readers that made it all the way to the end of my story here, just await the update from FRANCE in OCTOBER! Lovin it! Hey, if you have read my little ditty and have anything to say, you can E-mail me at: NIMBOT@AOL.COM!
Next: Alf Goes to Burgundy