Over the course of fourteen summers, Tom and I along with several friends, took many weeklong bike trips. They were almost entirely in Western Europe but also one in Canada and one in Nova Scotia. I’m incapable of remembering routes, towns we passed through, or which restaurant was in what country. It’s only moments and specific events that stand out in my recollection, and those bring back laughter.
This bike life began when friends invited us to do a trip with them in Italy, from Florence to Venice. I was game, Tom wasn’t. When he was 11 years old, he was riding his bike and was hit by a car, causing big trauma and one growing leg to become slightly shorter than the other. He never rode bikes after that.
So I went on the trip, and then met Tom in Paris for a week of planting our four feet solidly on the ground, and eating. I told him the funny stories from the trip, like the renowned Hollywood producer who hired a limo to follow him while we were all biking, until he became weary or bored and continued the day’s route stretched out in the vehicle.
Afterwards, I was so ecstatic about the experience that Tom and I made a deal: He would go back to bike riding at home to train for an adventure the following summer, if I would do something he relished but which terrified me: scuba diving. Reluctantly, I agreed. We kept our bargains, riding together on the Venice beach bike path, and diving a mere 10 feet to the bottom of a swimming pool, accompanied by my scuba instructor.
For the next summer we created a European trip, using a company who created these cycling travels. We enlisted six friends, buddies from Chicago, New York and LA, some college pals of mine. We biked through the sublime Loire Valley in France, staying in antique chateaux, overeating, and on occasional afternoons stopping at vineyards for a wine-tasting. We were given spittoons, discouraged from swallowing the wine so that we’d be able to continue the ride sober. Sometimes we’d listen to our guide’s advice, frequently we got sloshed and had to travel in the van for the rest of the day. How does one go to a vineyard in France on a hot summer afternoon and not guzzle the Merlot?
The next year, our same group met in Amsterdam and began the easiest trip of all, since Holland is flat. We rode through the streets of Amsterdam where it seemed as if there were more bikes than cars. One of our gang was Marilyn from Santa Barbara who was not a rider, although her husband was in top shape from careening the hills around their home. By mistake one day, instead of going left as instructed by our guide, they turned right onto probably the longest and steepest terrain in the country. Marilyn felt proud she’s navigated the entire hill and her trepidations disappeared. For the rest of the trip she insisted on riding first in line to guide everybody.
The bits of memories I’ve unearthed in reliving these biking adventures collapse sometimes into one long recollection. My falling off my bike on a street in Montreux on the first day of our Swiss trip, breaking a rib which taunted me for the week; our newly divorced friend Elliot becoming besotted with our 21 year old guide, Marianna, and carrying a mountain of our luggage from the van into the hotels to impress her; the dreadful food in the Czech Republic, all brown sauce on the overcooked meat. We mostly survived on fries until we reached Austria, where the food improved dramatically. The hotel in Lucca, Italy which was kept air-conditioned only during the day, when nobody was in their rooms, and then was turned off at night. This was during a heat wave, so we all went to an appliance store, and bought small fans which lived on our beds while we slept.
Our group of friends made several trips to Italy, riding from Venice to Florence over ten days and 150 miles. On another, we rode from Venice to Bologna. In France, we cycled through the Burgundy Valley and spent a few days wandering around the wine capital of Beaune; another trip was from Prague to Vienna. And more…. We adored each journey, riding through green hills and charming towns, and up on the walls of Lucca that surround the city. We went one night to a cooking school in Bologna, run by sisters who were celebrated throughout Italy. We made our own pasta for spaghetti Bolognese. Another day we went to the town of Vinci, to the complex, fantastic Leonardo de Vinci Museum. From there, many of us decided to bike back into Florence rather than taking the van, which after encountering massive traffic and crazy drivers, seemed like less of an exciting idea but a major accomplishment.
We rode our bikes to Montecatini, a medieval town famous for its thermal healing waters. Italians travel there from all over the country to drink the variety of waters to cleanse. Cleanse the liver, the bladder, bowel function, reduce cholesterol levels. They do their liquid treatments early morning so they can spend the day – after many inevitable evacuations - shopping in the streets lined with fancy stores. The second floor of the spa was filled with dozens of toilet stalls. Several of us went to the spa about 7:00 one morning, after getting a required note from a local doctor approving the treatments, and we were astonished by the men visitors dressed up in suits and ties and the women in long skirts and high heels. It was the oddest place ever encountered on any bike trip. Maybe any trip anywhere.
Most memorable to me of all the years of adventures was being with a gang of close buddies, biking side by side, laughing through much of the days and nights, gasping at the breathtaking countrysides. Unforgettable…
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