Those of you following my road warrior journeys have read of the many highs and lows of my work travel grind. Leisure travel is an entirely different experience. Even if you board a plane weekly like me, going to the airport to embark on an international vacation to Tuscany takes on a completely different energy. The drudgery ordinarily associated with going through security seems less onerous and making your way to the gate takes on a giddy expectation that, as a jaded road warrior, I haven't experienced in a long time. It still seems magical that you can be eating dinner in Houston one day and enjoying your morning cappuccino in Rome the next.
Landing in a foreign country is a sensory explosion. All of a sudden the signs are in a different language, the smells are unique and even the restrooms are peculiar. It is both confusing and exciting at the same time. But I quickly adapted to this new environment, my internal travel compass knowing the familiar layout of an airport no matter where I happen to land.
My first few days in Rome were a whirlwind. With limited time, I made a decision to hire a private guide to escort us through the top sites. We managed to see the Spanish Steps, the Trevi Fountain, the Roman Forum, the Coliseum, the Pantheon, and Vatican City including the Sistine Chapel. We blew past every queue, our able guide, Maria, flashing her credentials as if we were rock stars with a back-stage pass. Rome wasn't built in a day, but with a good pair of walking shoes you can see it in a day! Romans live with thousands of years of history as the daily backdrop to their lives. I was humbled by the ability to reach out and touch ancient artifacts as I meandered the city streets.
After a few days of indulging in the sights, sounds and food in Rome, we headed to Chiusi to begin the bike trip. A warm greeting from the bike guide awaited us at the train station before we were whisked off to the hotel, a beautiful compound in the hills of Montefollonico. If you've been to Tuscany, or simply seen photographs, you know it is one of the most bucolic and picturesque places in the world. The landscape is comprised of undulating hillsides, alternating in colors of gold, green and orange. Stone farmhouses that have stood for centuries dot the landscape. Every so often a medieval town juts out from the top of a distant hill. Tuscany has been blessed with a natural beauty that seems to extend as far as the eye can see.
Day one of biking and I pull on my spandex shorts after carefully slathering my underside in Chamois Cream. Logically, you would think the tour operators would allow you to gently assimilate to your bike, perhaps by picking a short scenic trail to start, with just a few rolling hills. Not a chance. The first day of biking was tortuous. The first ascent was a brutal awakening on a hill with a grade of 18% requiring a gear setting of one-one. This means you are in the lowest possible gear and the lowest derailleaur setting. If not, the gravitational pull of the hill is such that you could easily start to go backwards. I surmised they start you with this killer hill in order to quickly decide who rides in the peloton and who gets the yellow jersey. I was determined not to ride in the back. As I looked ahead, the people in front of me were two seasoned cyclists from San Francisco and a couple of 17 year olds who were riding in gym shorts! My goal was to stay in the front of the pack, regardless of the burn.
As predicted by the guides, each day of riding got a little easier. I could literally feel my body changing and adapting to the challenges of each ride. Beyond the first day, I took most hills in 2nd gear, pushing my legs to do just a little bit more than they did the day before. Over the next five days I covered 180 miles of steep terrain. I challenged my body with extreme hills and sometimes unbearable heat. I had to summon strength both physical and mental that had long been dormant. Some rides were so difficult the only way to reach the top of a hill was to stop the chatter in your brain and focus on one turn of the pedal at a time. The reward for doing so was a vista that displayed itself with majesty, and a quiet sense of accomplishment of making it to the top.
As I think back to my initial reluctance to undertake the physical challenges of this trip, I realize I was operating out of a vacation paradigm that was dated. My new attitude is vacations can be about adventure and relaxation. Challenging your body and taking it to new levels is just as replenishing as lounging on the beach. And not yielding to apprehension and embracing a new challenge is expansive both physically and mentally. In retrospect, I can't think of a more profound way to see the magical scenery and inhale the rarified air of the beautiful Tuscan countryside. What I also didn't anticipate was a new perspective awaited me, I simply needed to stop and smell the rosemary.