This year’s adventure takes place in Tuscany, Italy. We spent a total of 15 days swimming, hiking, eating, and drinking our way through the countryside.

Our journey began and ended in Torino, from October 4th to the 18th.

The next few pages attempt to capture this experience of a lifetime, but I really think you have to experience the sights, sounds, smells, and the people firsthand to appreciate how wonderful this country really is.

Take a walk with me through the portal of antiquity. Ready?

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Florence (or Firenze) is an hour by train from Certaldo, our base city while in Tuscany. Florence is a busy, crowded city, even in the off-season. By far, the highlight for me was seeing Michelangelo’s “Statue of David “. I still have a hard time imagining how someone can turn a block of marble into the most detailed, beautiful sculpture, 5 metres tall (17 feet!). The material is of the highest, purest white Carrara Marble. Michelangelo was only 26 when he started the project. The history behind the statue is quite fascinating. I didn’t know this before, but there were two other sculptors of the statue. Michelangelo, was the one to finish the statue, after the block of marble sat unfinished for 26 years. When Michelangelo started his work, the statue was only roughly shaped, and supine. It took him 2 years to finish it. I was literally moved to tears by the fine detail in the carving. You can read more about this fascinating tale here.  https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_(Michelangelo) We would later visit the Carrara Marble Quarry, and marvel at how such a hug block of marble was transported from the mountain to the city of Florence. This would be an incredible feat today, let alone in the year 1464.

There is so much to see in Florence and I imagine you could spend a week there and not see everything. Our one-day visit didn’t do it justice, but we did see a lot by just walking around. The architecture alone is stunning. I’ve been using the website http://www.discovertuscany.com and found several excellent walking tours listed. I also supplemented that with Rick Steve’s walking tours which were extremely helpful to navigate the narrow alleyways of the city. Rick Steve’s “Audio Europe” iPhone app was great because you can either read the text or listen to his narration while you walk around the city.

Our day started from the Santa Maria Novella train station. We walked from there to Piazza del Duomo, about 1.5km from the station. From there we followed Rick Steve’s tour, with a stop at the Galleria dell’Accademia to see Michelangelo’s David, crossed over Ponte Vecchio to Oltrarno (which literally means “the other side of the Arno river”), passed Piti Palace, to a lovely square called Santo Spirito where we had lunch. The square is overlooked by the Church of Santo Spirito, built by Brunelleschi. I was struck by the austerity of the facade. We didn’t go in, but apparently it houses many “artistic treasures”. There are many restaurants lining the square, and we enjoyed a glass of wine, some wild boar pate, and wood-oven pizza at Borgo Antico.

 

https://www.visitflorence.com/florence-monuments/piazza-santo-spirito.html

We topped off the day with an obligatory gelato before heading back to the train, and home to Certaldo.

These are some of my favourite photos from Florence.

Next stop – the Leaning Tower and the beautiful, Etruscan walls of Lucca.

CaptureCertaldo is a small town in Tuscany, central to Florence, San Gimignano, Siena, Pisa and Lucca. This would be our base for the next 7 days.

Our small apartment, called Casa al Cantone, was within the walled 14th century castle on the hill, built by the Boccaccio family. It was quite a climb up to Certaldo Alto, as it was known, but the effort was well worth it. People are very friendly, the architecture is stunning, and there are several exceptional restaurants in the old city. It was also a 10-minute walk from our apartment to the train station.

Upon our arrival, day 1, we used good old Google Maps to navigate from the train station to our apartment on the hill. After bumping our roller suitcases up a steep, cobblestone path we arrived hot and very sweaty to a beautiful, medieval, walled town. We later found several easier treks up the hill, including a funiculare which went from the city centre below up to the castle.

Here are a few photos of Certaldo.

Path leading up to the castle.

Outside of our apartment “Casa al Cantone”.

Inside out apartment, and our little balcony.

One evening we made the acquaintance of Alfred Kramer, who owns “Alfred’s Restaurant” in the Il Castello hotel. Alfred is a piano player and drummer.

Alfred kindly invited us to a private jazz quartet evening which took place in the cellar of the castle. This turned out to be one of the highlights of our trip. The intimate setting included Scott Hamilton on sax, Alfred on drums, rounded out by a piano and bass. The room was part of the wine cellar in the basement of the hotel. The room was complete with a baby-grand piano.

Alfred’s Restaurant and Bar, Hotel Il Castello.

We found several excellent restaurants here. I think the best pasta I’ve ever had in my life was in Certaldo at Pizzeria Boccaccio. We also enjoyed a lovely meal al fresco at Antica Forte, on a patio overlooking Certaldo Basso.

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What I especially enjoyed about about Certaldo was its authenticity. This is a place where locals thrive and there are not many tourists. We made the acquaintance of our next door neighbhour, a lady with a friendly cat named Doo-doo.

Certaldo seems to me to be one of Tuscany’s best kept secrets. Pretty, friendly, central to other cities, on the train line, great food, and…well I could go on and on, but Florence awaits!

 

 

One of my objectives for coming to Italy in October was to complete an epic ocean swim race in Bergeggi, which is on the Italian Riviera between Savona and Monaco. The 8th annual “Swim the Island” is part of the Global Swim Series of races. This was a spectacular two-day event that included many swims of various lengths. There were kids races, relays, family events, sprints, middle distance and long distance swims, which attracted over 3400 competitors over the 2-day event. I opted for the “Classic” Swim which was 3.5km on Day 2. This swim started from the beach in Bergeggi and followed a course along the rugged shoreline, back around a large island, and then zig-zagged back to the beach.

Here is a photo of the island, which I took just outside our hotel in Spotorno, a small town about 2.5km from the race site. More about the race later.

To get to Spotorno, we flew into Torino via Frankfurt and then travelled by regional train on Friday, Oct. 4th. Spotorno is quaint, with ruins of a castle dating back to the 1300’s. We had a few days to explore Spotorno and the seaside.

Walking around the narrow cobblestone alleys of Spotorno in search of espresso we found a small coffee shop called “Caffeteria Dolcetti”. We went there several times during our stay and got to know the owners, Andrea and Manuela. They were very nice and taught us a bit of the history behind Spotorno, and of course helped us with our Italian pronunciation. Andrea and Manuela divide their time between running the cafe and leading safaris in Kenya.

On Saturday we climbed the steep streets up to the castle ruins. From there we had a lovely view of the town, Isola Bergeggi, and the next town called Noli. Noli also has medieval castle ruins so we decided to stroll the 2.5 kilometres over to Noli. At one time, well before Italy was united, Spotorno and Noli were independent and bitter rivals.

The climb up to the Noli castle was steep.

After visiting the castle we decided to follow Google Maps directions home, along a path less traveled. This turned out to be a bad mistake. We turned off the paved road onto a gravel path leading down the hill. The path soon became narrower and thick with thorny brambles.

Ever optimistic that Google is always right, we pressed on. Soon we decided we were lost and perhaps in danger of tumbling down the hill so we backtracked through the brambles, through someone’s backyard to a road.

Here are various scenes from Spotorno.

Sunday was race day for me. I was excited to swim because the water was crystal clear, warm, and full of marine life. The island and coast were beautiful. I thoroughly enjoyed the swim because we could see the volcanic rock below and many fish and luminescent creatures.

Here are a few photos from the race.

At times I forgot I was in a race and just enjoyed the experience. With 1,037 swimmers in the race, the course was crowded at times and the zig-zag was a bit hard to navigate, but I was happy with my time of 1:07:28. My pace of 1:55 minutes/100 metres was typical for me. By comparison, the person who won my race, Emanuele Bottino from Italy (19 years and under), did it in a time of 00:40:19 which is an unbelievable pace of 1:09 min/100 metres.

The next day, after the race, we boarded the train in Spotorno and began our 5-hour journey to Certaldo, Tuscany.

After 5 separate regional trains we arrived in Certaldo in the afternoon of Oct. 8th.

Today was a long day. We got up a 6:00 am local time Wednesday and went to bed at what would have been 3:00 am Friday morning Auckland Time. Our journey back to Toronto took us via Sydney Australia and Vancouver. It was hard to sleep on the plane so we both arrived home exhausted. The -11c temp and snow at the airport confirmed that the sub-topics that had been our home for the last 6 weeks was now a memory.

We are both thankful that we had the opportunity and the means to live this amazing adventure. We are thankful we made it without incident – no accidents, no road rash, no sickness, not even a headache. We are thankful for being healthy and physically able to complete our journey by bicycle. We are thankful for all the wonderful sights, sounds, and tastes we experienced.

I’m personally grateful for everyone who read my blog and for the comments received.

I’m glad to be back and eager to see friends and family and share our experience in person and catch up on everything everyone has been doing while we were away.

I may do one more post on this trip. I think it will be interesting to see how many kilometres we travelled by the various means of transportation. Until then I have a hill of laundry to climb.

We said goodbye to Christchurch early this morning and flew back to Auckland. The first day in Auckland we walked a lot, venturing down to the North Harbour. Auckland is a busy city with crowded streets and heavy traffic. The streets wind around following the complex coastline, natural harbours and volcanic hills.

The Auckland Museum is best accessed by a stroll through the ‘Domain’, a large expanse of parkland that is used for cricket, rugby and presumably football (soccer).

The next day we toured the Maritime Museum which is logically located down by the harbour. At the end of the day we met up with cousin Ian and had a lovely visit on the wharf.

After a delicious dinner of roast lamb we headed back to our hostel. New Zealand lamb is so much more flavourful than Ontario lamb. In New Zealand it tastes fresher and milder.

Tomorrow we fly back to Toronto via Sydney and Vancouver – about 25 1/2 hours of travel including layovers.

Here are some photos of Canada Street, the ‘Domain’, public beanbag Chairs, the North Harbour.

We will miss New Zealand and all its landscapes, wonderful food and wine, and it’s people, but in those famous words ‘…there’s no place like home..’

Today is our last day in Christchurch. We have gotten to know the city a little bit and I think we will miss it here.

This morning we had a very healthy breakfast of soaked chia seeds and coconut milk, served with fresh fruit.

It wasn’t a particularly fancy cafe but as you can see from the photo the food was nicely presented. I only remark on this because in general the food in New Zealand has been healthy, and attractive no matter where we have gone.

Also today we found the Earthquake memorial and the ‘185 White Chairs’. Both of these public spaces are dedicated to the 185 people who lost their lives as a result of the 2011 earthquake. There is a marble wall engraved with all the peoples’ names, in English and their native language. There are some words of explanation in both English and Māori. These are found alongside the Avon River.

The 185 Chairs I found especially moving. The chairs are all different and painted white. They include kitchen chairs, school desks, a baby’s high chair, a wheelchair and even a bean bag chair. They were set out on 185 sq m of land and they are not secured in anyway. This means that they blow over in the wind and would be susceptible to theft if one were so inclined to take one. No one had. The installation instructions invite observers to sit in any chair they like. Several chairs had blown over, and I suppose like most people who came before me, I felt compelled to set them up out of respect for the deceased. This is a bit strange really, because they are just chairs. They are not people. But since each one represents a real person, one can’t help but feel that each chair has importance.

In the afternoon we relaxed, napped, read and watched TV.

What we were really craving was some live music. I think we are spoiled living in Toronto as music can be found anytime, any day of the week.

We were lucky to locate an Irish pub called ‘The Bog’. The band, was called Black Velvet. Irish music is a lot of fun and reminded us both of Newfoundland. Some Irish dancers appeared spontaneously from the crowd. Topped off with Irish Stew, roasted veg, and a Guinness our last day in the city ended on a very pleasant note.

Tomorrow we head back to Auckland for our last days in this beautiful country.

We spent 4 days in Christchurch. It was a bit longer than planned but we filled the time as there is lots to see and do.

Christchurch is a city in transition and now is a good time to visit because we gained an appreciation for the huge effort required to rebuild after the devastating earthquake of 2011.

At 12:51 pm on Feb 22nd, 2011, Christchurch was struck by a magnitude 6.3 earthquake. 185 people died, 164 were seriously injured, and the city and surrounding area suffered major damage.

Almost 7 years later the city is still in transition. There is a constant buzz of machinery, hammering, and beeping as construction crews work long hours even on weekends.

We saw empty spaces that used to house buildings, historic old buildings in the midst of preservation, new buildings under construction, signs of hope, memorials to the tragedy and everywhere optimism for the future. We witnessed innovation and creativity in dealing with temporary structures and we could see the quake-proof designs engineered into the buildings in progress.

It sounds like it is taking a long time but when you see the extent of the damage and consider the physical and financial resources required, one can understand why it would take so long. It also seems like the city has prioritized and planned the reconstruction in an organized way.

As we toured the city I couldn’t help but feel compassion for the citizens who not only lost loved ones, but they also lost jobs, homes, workplaces, heritage buildings, places of worship, and social gathering sites. Many people would have been forced to leave, and perhaps would never return.

As a result of the extensive devastation of buildings and infrastructure, Christchurch is now a unique combination of very old architecture living harmoniously with the very modern.

On our first day we visited the Restart ‘Mall’ named for the ‘Restart the Heart’ initiative (as in restart the heart of the city). The outdoor mall is a conglomeration of shipping containers turned into cafes. It is slated for dismantling although we understand some entrepreneurs want to keep it going as a funky feature and tourist attraction.

We spent a few hours in the Canterbury Museum learning about the indigenous people of New Zealand. A stroll through the Botanic Gardens is a must, especially the rose garden. We took a trolley ride around the city, walked a lot, spent an afternoon at the beach, ate some amazing food and saw some interesting public art. I think it is wise that Christchurch invested in public art during the massive reconstruction. Art has the means to provide hope and inspiration. It is inexpensive and easy to install in spaces that might otherwise be vacant and can easily be moved later if necessary. There is quite a bit of graffiti which I consider an art form. Many of the installations were made from debris from the damage. For example the sculpture made from street lights.

Here are just a few of my favourite photos from our stay. Below you can see construction in progress, restoration, public art, doors used as barricades, sculpture made from street lights, Sumner Beach, penguins melting on a wall as a result of global warming, and the Botanic Rose Gardens.

My personal favourite is this neon sign on the side of the Art Gallery, reassuring us that ‘Everything is going to be alright’.

Next blog – our last day in Christchurch and a visit to the Earthquake Memorial.

We took an early morning bus from Dunedin to Christchurch. The day started out overcast and raining. The road out of Dunedin is busy with heavy traffic.

The bus trip takes about 6 hours and I thought the scenery was not very interesting. With the possible exception of the town of Oamaru, the scene is mostly pastures and somewhat industrial.

I was happy to be on the bus and not on my bike today.

Oamaru is on the coast, about an hour and a half drive from Dunedin. It was an opulent town in its day. It was a thriving port at one time. It was also the source of limestone for many buildings, for example the Dunedin Train Station, built in 1906. Oamaru was first surveyed as a town in 1859. An aqueduct was built in 1880 that channeled water for 50km through the hilly farmland to a reservoir. This provided much needed pure water and energy for powering industrial machinery but the expense to build it almost bankrupt the town. The aqueduct was decommissioned in 1983. There are about 70 officially recognized Heritage buildings in Oamaru and if one had the time it would be a splendid town to explore.

Unfortunately we only caught glimpses of Oamaru from our bus window. We also were not able to see the Moeraki Boulders first hand. Moeraki is about an hour drive from Dunedin. The ‘boulders’ are perfect spheres of rock that dot the Beach. Even though we didn’t see them in situ, we saw the large one that was relocated to the Otago Museum in Dunedin. That one is about 6 ft in diameter. Here is a photo I copied from Moeraki boulders.com (by Oliver Dietschi).

One thing about blogging is it’s making me do research on many subjects. Here is what I found out about these rock formations. The Moeraki boulders are examples of ‘concretions’. They are not so much stones as they are hard deposits of rock between softer particles. Erosion then exposes the concretions, and so more are emerging as time goes on. They are protected in New Zealand now, but in the past people used to take the smaller ones home for souvenirs and garden decorations. You can learn more about the Moeraki Boulders here. https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moeraki_Boulders

Concretions are rare, but not unique to Moeraki. In fact there are several places around the world where one can find similar formations including Kettle Point, Ontario which is on Lake Huron. These are known locally as ‘kettles’, and they are examples of cannonball concretions.

We got dropped off at the Christchurch Airport Bus stop because we had to return our bikes to Natural High, about a 5km ride away. I really enjoyed the Natural High experience. The staff are great and the bikes were light but sturdy and quite comfy for a long trip. I recommend them if you are planning a cycling trip to NZ anytime soon.

We then took an Uber to our hostel – YHA Christchurch. The next few days in Christchurch were quite interesting. Stay tuned for the next blog on that. Here is a sneak preview.

We woke up to an overcast day in Dunedin. The first order of business was coffee and breakfast. The Ironic Cafe and Bar had 4 1/2 stars from google so we tried it and they didn’t disappoint us. I enjoyed some raw muesli with coconut milk. On our way to the cafe we passed the iconic Dunedin Rail Station. We went back after breakfast for a look. The station is of Flemish Renaissance design, dating back to circa 1900 and was constructed of two types of local stone. One is dark volcanic and the other is limestone from Oamaru, which is up the coast from Dunedin. We would later travel through Oamaru on our way to Christchurch. Interestingly the columns were made from granite, shipped over from Aberdeen, Scotland. The station is as ornate inside as out.

Here are a few photos of the station.

Next on our list of things to see was the Botanic Gardens, a 30 minute walk from the station. I was impressed by the rose garden. About 20 minutes farther we found Baldwin Street, which is considered the steepest residential street in the world (according to the Guinness World Book of Records).

At its steepest it has a gradient of 35%. Here is a photo looking up from North Road.

Mic the Aussie cyclist we met in Curio Bay had a goal of riding up the street on his mountain bike. Maybe we will connect with him again one day and find out if he made it. That would be pretty cool if he did.

On the way back we stumbled upon two ‘whispering dishes’ in the park by the Otago museum. If someone whispers into a concave dish at one end of the park, their voice can be heard quite clearly at another concave dish at the other end of the park.

We didn’t do much else in Dunedin except stroll around the Octogan and have Turkish food for dinner.

We had an early start the next day for Christchurch.

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