Parma is hopping.
The young and beautiful and well-dressed lounge on the grass and stroll down the pedestrian streets lined with beautiful clothing stores and some familiar shops found in the nicer shopping centers in the US.
This is see and be seen. And no looking frumpy here. Heels and little dresses and gorgeous boots and lots of accessories. And everyone is out on a beautiful afternoon. This is clearly a wealthy part of Italy.
The bars and streets and cafes are packed. There are long lines for gelato. And these aren’t all tourists – they are locals enjoying their city and their day off for May Day. I’m writing in a little bar before I find dinner with a glass of the local Parmesan white wine. Despite the Red Hot Chili Peppers in the background, this is one of the quieter spots I found to write.
I am here for the beginning of my solo traveling by bike. I chose to start here in Parma because it’s the center of foodie Italy. And its location is a great starting point to ease into a self-supported bike ride with a fully-loaded bicycle … manageable rides between cities and flat terrain in cycle-friendly territory.
Everyone bikes here. There are public bikes for rent. Bikes are tied to every street corner and are lined up in rows outside buildings. And bikes navigate the streets carrying the old and young and glamorous and business like and families with kids strapped on the back. There are bike lanes and closed areas for only bikes and pedestrians. And the city historical center is closed to cars … it makes an enormous tangible difference in the feel of the city.
This entire area has miles of bike trails and marked bike paths throughout the countryside. I plan to go explore more tomorrow.
The last couple of days with my group of friends in Lucca were fun. I felt like I’d exhausted the riding around Lucca that interested me (and was within my abilities), so I researched and helped organize a group ride further south in the Chianti region. We took an early train to a town just north of Sienna and biked up to Castellano and then back down to Sienna with stops for a wine tour, food and general scenic beauty along the way.
This was gorgeous riding. Not easy riding … Chianti is basically all hills though they were all manageable. We pedaled along past the black cockerels marking the wineries making Chianti Classico. Past the olive groves prepped for harvest with nets strung underneath. Past the vines that were lined up and down hillsides in geometric angles that made valleys patchworks of greens and terracotta earth. Past the stone houses and farms that rose from the green painted yellow and orange and blending into the Tuscan landscape.
We toured and tasted at a famous Chianti winery Fonterotoli which is owned by the Mazzei family who have made wine on that ground since 1435 and eventually ended up in Siena. Strolling around led to dinner and then led to gelato which ultimately led to missing the last train out of Siena which – surprisingly – is only 9 pm.
Missing the last train meant we needed to find a hotel in Siena. Ultimately I was finding it hard to get too upset because – gosh darn – we got to spend another day pedaling around a beautiful area of Tuscany and exploring medieval hill towns. Luckily everyone else handled this with grace and we all had a great time the next day, too.
The two-day Chianti ride was a nice way to finish up a group trip. Setting out without a clear agenda or plan or exact knowledge of all the details (like how does it really work to get a bike on the train) sends some people into a meltdown. Many people panic without structure of knowing where they will be when or a precise schedule. For the most part, this group handled the unknown with a sense of openness and adventure that made for a fun and fulfilling two days.
Traveling with a group is so different than traveling alone. You are treated differently by locals when you are alone – and usually more kindly and openly than when you are surrounded by your own kind.
I’ll probably always gravitate towards solo travel because I find the time spent alone out of the context of my regular life so precious. But I’m learning to be a more gracious group traveler. And I learned from traveling with these folks and am better off now for having spent time in Italy with them.