Friday, May 28, 2010

Stage 19: Passo di Mortirolo

Today is the first of two outrageously difficult mountain stages, which are both famous in Giro history. As I turned on the TV this morning, I saw narrow mountain roads, barely paved, with thick green forest all around, and cyclists in their bright kit rapidly descending. Another beautiful stage, but so different from yesterday! Today and tomorrow are like a one-two punch, and many riders will be knocked out, and the real winner will emerge. Today's stage finishes in a minor ski resort town, hence the picture above.

Watching it in Italian today, because even though I can barely understand what they are saying, they really know what they are talking about, and they are so excited! Sorry, Universal Sports, but your commentators are looking a bit tired and burned out. But the Italian commentators know they are watching the moments of truth, finally, and they are ready for fireworks!

Wow, looks like it could be Ivan Basso, aka The Smiling Assassin, as the Italian press have dubbed him. He looks good. So does Stefano Garzelli, he whose eyebrows are more nicely waxed and sculpted than mine will ever be. And a father of 3. Only the Italians would put the leader of the hardest race in the world in an entirely pink outfit. They have nothing to prove, having minted their own brand of machismo. Maybe they invented it with Romulus and Remus. Or maybe it was those guys in the 300 movie.

At any rate, while I was looking around the internet this morning to find interesting food and drink from this stage's area, I found this cute site for an agriturismo near Lake Como. Humble little farmhouse where they cook for you and serve organic wine. The menu looks amazing, the rooms humble but comfortable. And they have a sweet-looking dog. This is the kind of travel I am coming to love in Italy. Yes, it's easier for me to do it, because I have some halting Italian and understand it well enough to get by, but even if you only speak English, you must have the experience of the real Italian hospitality. The kindness, the generosity of spirit is just exquisite. And the home-cooked food is better than in any restaurant. The pride in Mamma's cooking is unbelievable, and well-deserved.

In Poggio Bustone we got to try a home-made digestivo or after-dinner drink made with gentian root and some other herbs. It came after a 3-course meal that included pasta, meat and an antipasto, all served with home-made unfiltered white wine. The tomato sauce had such delicate flavor, and the hand-made pasta was springy and just chewy enough. This meal was prepared in the fly by someone's Mom. It was delicious. The place had the red and white checkered table cloth that used to be the cliche of New York Italian restaurants. The chairs were plastic garden furniture. The chef also made jams, jellies and jarred pickles. She came out and spoke to us and introduced us to her son and daughter and grand-daughter. Such genuinely welcoming folks!

So as the lions of Italian cycling, Basso, Scarponi, Garzelli and Nibali, turn themselves inside-out climbing mountains, I'm thinking of reason #1 to love Italy—the people.

Forza Italia!

A domani!

Check out the site: Agriturismo Al-Marnich

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Stage 18: Along Lago di Garda to Brescia

Too bad it's raining today, because the terrain of this stage is just ridiculously beautiful, in full sun it would be like a dream you had once. 18th century castles, monasteries with campanile topped by the curly gothic cake frosting-like turrets of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Medieval basilicas. Cyprus trees, piers leading out into the lake. Today you just watch the race for the helicopter shots. It's so pretty, it almost hurts. A lot of it looks like Naboo. And if you don't know what that is, you aren't as big a Star Wars geek as I am. Which is good, because if you were, someone might need to plan an intervention.

This area is midway between Venice and Milan. A lot of the towns around here began as Roman resort towns, and a famous Roman poet, Catullus, had his villa here. This area also had strategic value because it's close to the Brenner pass, which leads up into Austria.

In Lombardia they make a fizzy wine called Franciacorta--see above, and the pastries are supposed to be particularly good--see the columba pasquale above--an Eastertime sweet.

Wow--okay, I just want to be done with this blog post, because this stage is gorgeous! Watch it! They are re-running it on Universal Sports again later. I bet if you visit Lago di Garda you won't find your typical busloads of American tourists in the white sneakers and fanny packs. I bet the shopping is unbelievable.

I know what this landscape looks like to me--the Greek myth part of the movie FANTASIA! It looks like some animator's fantasy of Arcadia. Cue Beethoven's La Symphonie Pastorale!

Oh, my. Just watch it!

Viva il Giro! Viva Italia!

A domani!

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Stage 17: Brunico to Peio Terme

Today it's another mountainous stage in the Alto Adige—this time, a road race rather than a mountain time trial like yesterday. It was nice to see Stefano Garzelli take the stage at Kronplatz. He did so well in the Giro last year, and he hasn't been so dominant this year. But then, he is a mountain goat. Evans and Basso seem to be clawing their way to the top. Most of the sprinters have dropped out of the race by now. It's climbers and peaks from now on, all the way to the final day in Verona.

When Mussolini's Italy took over this area from the crumbling Austro-Hungarian Empire, some 90% of the people spoke German, and he tried to force them to learn Italian and encouraged Italian speakers to move in. But about 30% still speak German as their native language, and you can eat Germanic desserts like "kaiserschmarren" above, and drink wine, like the above Alois Lageder Pino Bianco. The grape is familiar, but the style of winemaking will feel more German.

I think in America we tend to think of Italian and German culture as very different from one another, but one thing we know less about is this Alpine culture that crosses the mountains and embraces the multilingual Swiss, the Germans, the Italians and the Austrians of the highlands. Borders have changed so often in this area, that folks must be more likely to identify themselves by their home villages rather than by their country. This is true in most of Italy. The views of this area shows high mountain meadows striped with vineyards and fields of hops. Roofs of the houses here have deep eaves. Wow, this is a pretty stage!

For those just starting to read this blog, yes, the Giro takes 3 weeks! So does the Tour de France and the Vuelta a Espagna. This is the definition of a Grand Tour in cycling—It is 21 days with 2 rest days per week, usually, and it includes time trials, possibly a team time trial, flat days for the sprinters, mountain stages, "cronoscalate" or combination mountain and time trials stages like yesterday's, and circuits. Just imagine how tired the riders are! No sporting event lasts longer, and, in my opinion, requires more endurance! It is brutal, and that makes it exciting.

Someday I'll go snowboarding up there! Can't wait to go someplace in Europe to see what it's like. I'd love to ski Mount Etna, but there are no trees. I bet around Bolzano it's just gorgeous, and the cheese is amazing. Yes, peanut butter is the ultimate mountain super food, and I'm pretty sure they don't have it there, but I'll live.

Viva il Giro! Viva Italia!

A domani!

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Food Truck Heaven

VizzTruck is rich French-inflected Med-Asian fusion, all on a bed of truffle popcorn. Weight Watchers would not approve. But Yummy.

Check Out the Menu

What's with all the gourmet/gourmand food trucks L.A.? Don't you know I'm trying to look good in a bikini in Cabo in August? Not fair.


Stage 16: Plan de Corones Kronplatz

Today's time trial is so high up the mountain that they can't wear the TT helmet, use the aerobars or the solid back wheel. Part of the stage uses an access road for a ski resort--gravel and dirt. Nuts, but wonderful. We are among the highest peaks of the Dolomites, in the region of Italy called Trentino-Alto Adige. Trentino is the southern part. We are in the Alto Adige--the upper part of the Adige river.

Here they still speak Ladino, a German-influenced Latin. Even though we are in high altitude, there is an ancient tradition of winemaking here. It was first introduced by the Greeks, and then the Romans. In the Alto Adige the wines are made by small family producers and are drunk locally or exported over the border to Austria and Germany. As such they are Germanic in style. A typical bite would be Canaderli and Speghetti--speghetti and meatballs with local herbs and spices. One thing we discovered in Umbria is that in the different parts of Italy there are also unique herbs that are used in cooking, and they really do have their own flavors so you would have trouble trying to fake them at home.

No, you can't just buy the same stuff at home. Just like you can't find rainforest orchids growing wild in Griffith Park. It's called terroir, ladies and gents--local unique diversity in product due to unique local earth composition, microclimate, history and culture. And it's one of the most satisfying reasons to travel the world. To try new stuff, meet new folks, get a fresh perspective on life. You never come back quite the same as when you left, and that's a good thing.

To get the sense of the wine style in this region, you can sample some from Bevmo--see below.

Tramin Pinot Grigot at Bevmo

Viva Italia! Viva il Giro!

A domani!

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Stage 15: Up to Monte Zoncolan

So I was wrong-yesterday's stage was Stage 14, and today's, a brutal uphill dramatic stage, is 15. There is the face of the Smiling Assassin, Ivan Basso. Always liked that guy, but it's a bummer to watch our Hobbit Cadel Evans is cracking on Monte Zoncolan, which has an average grade of Ouch! Go, Hobbit, Go! What an awesome stage! Basso looks good, and Liquigas is on fire!

So here we leave the Veneto and enter the fascinating region of Friuli Venezia Giulia, where they are strongly influenced by Austrian and Yugoslavian culture. Here you can eat wurst and strudel, as well as polenta--the poor family's savior. Up here they are famous for pig butchery. They slaughter the pig with a ritual, and use every part of it. And let me tell you, every part is yummy! They eat a soup called Yota, made with beans and pork and saurkraut. Sounds good to me right now.

Look at the crowd! The mountain is blanketed with people! Look at the alpini hats! The crowd is just nuts! The Alpini troops are protecting the route!

Oh, and drink the Ribolla Gialla vino—a white single varietal they have been growing up here since the 12th century.

What a finish!

Tomorrow a rest day, and then on Tuesday, a mountain time trial!

Viva il Giro! Viva Italia!

A martedì!

ATOC Shack Signatures

Yes, those are the signatures of Chris Horner, Levi Leipheimer, and Johan Bruyneel of Team Radioshack!

And we could have gone and found Cav at the HTC Columbia car, but frankly we were too excited and plotzing like crazed teenage girl fans! So we simply forgot!

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Stage 13: Ferrara to Asolo

I've been so distracted with the Tour of California that I woke up this morning not realizing that today is the Asolo Stage! I have biked here, down from the town--not up a 7% grade to Monte Grappa, as the riders did today, but I've been here. And I've biked here just at this time of year.

A strange thing I remembered yesterday--climbing up the 2-mile hill that wound back and forth to Asolo and as I got slower I could see that wild strawberries were growing out of the stone walls on the right--and they looked ripe. Of course I was up on the pedals just trying to drag myself up the hill and worried that when we were done with this climb, Stoney was going to kill me. It had been our longest day--50 miles, and it was in the middle of a heat wave. But by the end of the day, following our directions on paper inside a plastic sleeve attached to our handlebars, we knew how long a kilometer was in the flats, just by feel.

Before we got to the climb up to Asolo we made our way towards the foothills of the Dolomites through fields, some ploughed, some green, some full of yellow and red wildflowers. On that day we noticed there are field planted with neat rows of young trees--they must be there to break the wind, but they looked surreal. We came across old men on bikes going to churches and weddings in suits. It was Sunday and it was May, and apparently there are many weddings in the Veneto in May.

We'd visited the Villa Emo, a villa designed by Palladio in the mid-1500s, and it's pretty much the first time in house archeticture where you see the modern house--no fortifications, no slits through which to pour hot oil and melted lead. Just a house--but it's based on ancient Roman architectural element, so the main part looks a bit like a temple, but inside the proportions are so comfortable. The frescoes inside are ridiculously beautiful, so it's not that this place isn't an extravagent country house, it's just that we could imagine hanging out there and having a great time. You can visit many Palladian villas in the Veneto. This area was the part of Italy most often ruled by Venice. I say most often because in times past, Venice, Florence and Milan would pass these towns back and forth during times of war.

During this time period the wealthy families of the Veneto built villas in the countryside so they could get out of Venice during the pestilent summer. Now tourists flock to Venice in the summer. So do the mosquitoes. It's much better in the early spring--after the big floods--and the late fall.

Today, have some prosecco. The Bortolomiol bottle above shows the traditional bell-shaped bottle for Prosecco, but you can almost never find that bottle here in the states. If you find a bottle like that, buy it. For the uninitiated, Prosecco is a naturally sparkling Italian wine. It's dry and delicious. Should not be too sweet. Get the Brut-style, which is like champagne, except, in my opinion, is much better!

Or have a spritz--a coctail made with one of 3 possible kinds of bitters, and prosecco, and maybe a splash of club soda, and a slice of orange--blood orange, if you can find it. The 3 bitters are, from sweetest to most bitter: Aperol, Campari, and Cynar. These are all kind of like the bitterness of orange peel, except Cynar is made with Artichokes! All are an acquired taste, but once you acquire it, that bitterness is very refreshing on a hot day. And we had lots of hot days in the Veneto.

Stoney and I did a wine tasting in the Valdobbiadene area, which is one of the two areas where real prosecco is made, and we were greatly surprised to be trying 6 varieties of prosecco that all tasted quite different. They had filled one of each bottle with earth from the region that the grapes were from, and even the color of the earth was different. Those fields of prosecco grapes climbing up cliffs, row upon row upon row.

At every breakfast in the Veneto they had meats and cheeses, and the best cured meat was the speck, which is the leanest and smokiest part of the prosciutto ham. It's called speck, a Germanic word, because it's basically an Austro-Hungarian style of cured ham. It's a great morning pick-me-up before a long day in the saddle.Once Venice lost its Mojo sometime in the 18th century, its territories were often conquered by the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and so in this area, the higher you get into the mountains, the more folks speak a kind of local German. There is also a small area around Cortina (fancy ski resort) where people speak a language called Ladin. Ladin is supposed to be the closest surviving language related to Latin. This area had a pass used by the Romans to get into Germania, and they left this language behind, and then this area was cut off from the rest of the world effectively for thousands of years. This kind of stuff just blows my mind. It's like a real Shangri-La or Brigadoon.

The Veneto is also studded with very moving monuments to the WWI and WWII battles and casualties. It was from the Dolomites that the Italians defended their land against their enemies, and many were lost, and people still live there with memories of battles and devastation we can barely imagine. The Alpini are mountain troops--local soldiers, and they wear hats that, I swear, look like Peter Pan's--with feathers. They are much honored still in annual parades, and Alpini fly into this area from all over the world to be part of it.

Truly a rich and fantastic part of Italy. Don't go there. We want it all to ourselves. ;)

Viva il Veneto!

Viva il Giro! Viva Italia!

A domani!

Friday, May 21, 2010

Stage 13: Marco Pantani and Romagna

Today's pairing is a glass of Aulente Sangiovese di Romagna, with some local salumi--cured meats, and some great local pecorino--sheep's milk cheese from Romagna.

I'm watching Stage 13, which ends in Cesenatico, the home town of Italian cycling legend Marco Pantani. He was a phenomenal mountain climber and was able to beat Lance in his prime. But he suffered from depression and drug abuse and was brought low by doping allegations, some of which were proven. He died of a cocaine overdose on 2004. He is the classic Italian tragic hero, named the Pirate because of the bandana and earring he wore. Today's stage is dedicated to him. Did I mention that each stage of the Giro is dedicated to an Italian cycling legend?

This stage mostly hugs the Adriatic again, passing through Pesaro and Rimini, to veer into the foothills of the Appenines before a downhill finish in Cesenatico. Rimini is the beach resort hometown of Federico Fellini, the ultimate Mamma's boy with issues, who filmed I Vitelloni in Rimini. If you've never seen a Fellini film, rent 8 1/2. Marcello Mastrioianni is wonderful as the tortured spoiled director. The fantasy sequences and the music are so evocative. The misogyny is palpable, and somehow charmingly quaint.

Pesaro was the duchy of Giovanni Sforza, the first husband of Lucrezia Borgia, and Lucrezia spent many festive weeks there, out of the orbit of her Pope father, Alexander VI, who was wreaking havoc between the royal families of Milan and Naples, and playing the kings of Spain and France against each other.

The climbing part of today's stage shows hills blanketed with green patchwork fields, and stone houses with uneven terra cotta tile roofs. So typically Italian. As I said to my husband after one too many climbs over softly rolling green hills--boy was I tired after 5 days of cycling--"Yeah, Italy—it's LOUSY with beauty." It's important to stay hydrated when you go on a cycling vacation. Maybe the midday bottle of prosecco wasn't such a good idea during a heat wave. But it sure was delicious and refreshing! We each had a water bottle in a cage on our bikes, and in every town there was a fountain or a spigot with wonderful natural spring water. This is a wonderfully civilized thing. They also have drinking fountains shaped like lovely curvaceous green women all over Paris. We need that here. Not some sketchy tap water coming out of a fountain that just won't give enough water to quench your thirst. Just for the record, Bike Riders said the Veneto is flat. It isn't. 2 miles straight up into to Asolo. Oy.

Lots of attacks and still 22k from the finish. Some fisticuffs between Cadel and a Lampre rider yesterday. What's that all about? The Hobbit is on edge. No one expected this year's Giro to look like this. It's been completely unpredictable. But I think the mountains will change that. Or maybe not. Keeps it interesting.

This past fall I visited Ravenna with my family. It was not what I'd expected. So much brick everywhere. Late Roman brick? The Byzantine Empire ruled Italy from there, and you have to see San Vitale--the soaring circular church with colored marble and alabaster stone windows. The glimmering gilded mosaics of Justinian and Theodora, who ruled the Empire in the first half of the 6th century. I always find this era hard to grasp and visualize. I'm reading a book called "Sailing from Byzantium" that talks about how learning and high culture was preserved in Constantinople. Cool stuff. To think that in a way, the Roman Empire never really fell--it just moved east and survived until finally, Sultan Mehmed II and his army of Turks ended it all in 1453. Another way to think of it is that the Roman Empire continued in the Catholic Church, and so it has never really fallen at all.

10k to go and the cyclists wind through olive groves and vineyards. Maybe those are San Giovese grapes, but the wine won't taste like it does in Tuscany or Abruzzo. Each area has its own unique clones of the grapes, and they make the wine in their own way so when you go to any region of Italy, you will find wine you simply can't buy here. The locals drink it and don't export it because it's so good they don't need to export it. There isn't any left. In Venice, we fell in love with a drink called a Spritz--it's prosecco and Campari with a slice of blood orange. We drank it all through the Veneto. But then we took the train down through the Appenines to Orvieto. We tried to order a Spritz there, and they had no idea what we were talking about. So we had to try the local Orvieto classico. Which paired so well with the slices of cured filet of wild boar. Yummy! Such wonderful cultural diversity. It's called Campanilismo in Italy, which means not knowing or caring about anything that goes on beyond the sound of your own village church bells. It is a wonderful wonderful thing, although Italians complain about it. But it preserves local food and wine, and even local language and crafts.

Viva il Campanilismo!

Viva il Giro! Viva Italia!

A domani!

P.S. Manuel Belleti won today's stage. He's 24. He was born 10 miles from the finish line. It's his first professional win ever. A stage of the Giro d'Italia. He is clearly flipping out, and as he takes the top step of the podium, gets the silly mountain goat stuffed animal and the kisses of the podium babes, he is openly weeping. I love this sport! I love this Bel Paese!

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Say it ain't so, Lance!

OMG! I am going to the Amgen Tour of California Time Trial in Downtown L.A. Saturday.  Can I just say how devastated I am that Lance crashed out of the race today?

And Floyd’s ‘Roids, what a crappy day for cycling, IMHO! If you can’t improve the sport, then STFU, Floyd!

Get better fast, Mr. Armstrong! Go Levi!

A domani!

Stage 12: Along the Adriatic

Today's stage could end in a sprint finish where we are sure to see our friend Tyler Farrar and Garmin hitting it hard.

This is a flat stage, along the lovely Adriatic, which, for much of its modern history was ruled by the Republic of Venice. Venice, so influenced in its heyday of the 11th, 12th and 13th century by the Byzantine Empire. And so, in San Marco--on famous Piazza San Marco, the center of Venice, there are those glimmering gold mosaic tiles, so wonderful at reflecting candle light.

A game I like to play with myself whenever I'm in Italy is to find a monument and project myself back in time to when the monument was built. So in the Pantheon in Rome, I imagine men in togas followed by their retinues of slaves, paying homage to their pagan gods. In Venice, I imagine Casanova in the decadent late duds of velvet, lace and powdered wigs, or Piazza San Marco swarming--like it is today--with people from all over the world. Except I imagine the turbaned turks, the clerics in long red robes and wide-brimmed red hats. Today people complain about the pigeons in St. Mark's square, but imagine it with refuse of all kinds. How did they keep it clean, say, in the medieval era? Venice today is great in the early morning, when workboats full of all of the basics of life--sodas, oranges and other produce, and almost anything else a tourist could need, enter the floating city to refuel it after its night of revelry.

The tour heads into Le Marche, where they drink Verdicchio--a grassy white wine, and where they grow all kinds of cereal crops and have a thriving cattle industry. This area was part of the Medieval and Renaissance struggle between Pope and Holy Roman Emperor that produced the Guelphs and the Ghibellines. They say that Le Marche is a great place to buy yourself a house, now that the Brits and wealthy Americans have jacked up housing prices in Tuscany and Umbria.

But I've driven down from Ravenna through the Appenines, and those mountains are really formidable--high and even the autostrada seem to be winding and perilous. I might need to buy my house in Lazio so I wouldn't have some huge mountains in between me and my beloved Roma.

Yesterday the GC competition blew apart bigtime and most of the top ten are newbie twentysomethings on their first Grand Tour. They will not make it through the mountains. The only seasoned GC guy in range is Carlos Sastre. He was amazing in the mountains last year, particularly on the Vesuvius stage. My money is now on him, although I treasure a bit of hope for our Hobbity Cadel Evans. Would love to see what he can do in the the Dolomites. Can he climb back up from being 11 minutes back? Probably not. It will be awesome to see him try.

Next week is a stage from Ferrara--Italian bike city--to Asolo, which is a gorgeous hill town in the Veneto, and I've been there. Guys in their seventies ride bikes up there every morning, dressed in fancy hideously garish bike kit, and they are in better shape than I will ever be.

Biking to work today. Stopping at a pitstop to maybe win me a Dahon folding bike. They have the coolest machines--one with a front hub that will power your lights, and your iPhone! That one's for me! Wish me luck!

Viva il Giro! Viva Italia!

A domani!

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

L'Aquila in the Rain

That yellow rain vest sure does clash with Vinokourov's pink jersey. I
just can't get excited about a doper in pink. This year not so much
with the fully matching outfits for the various jersey competitors.
Must be the economy. Today's is the longest stage. Must really suck in
the rain.

Helicopter shots show still so many ruined buildings. Italian word of
today: terremoto=earthquake. You can't easily retrofit say, an entire
village built in 1293.

Uphill finish. 13k to go. Every guy looks exhausted and soaking wet.
They have to eat more to keep warm.


Sent from my iPhone

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Stage 11: Bike Schizophenia

So this is Bike to Work Week and this morning the Giro stage was pretty exciting, so I only had time to get my bike and bike outfit ready, pump the tires, oil the chain and get on the road. So no morning stage pairing.

Tomorrow the stage winds up along the Adriatic from Lucera in Puglia to L'Aquila. Lucera was the last stronghold of Muslims in Italy in the 13th Century, before they were thrown out. At the time, most of the farmers were Muslims and so once they were gone there was a deadly famine there. Score one for diversity and karma being a naughty naughty girl. Saffron is a big export of Lucera, as it is in most parts of the Mediterranean where Arabs have held sway.

For wine I chose a Copertino, a lovely Pugliese red, and a wonderful kind of vegetarian lasagna, called Tiella della Suocera--mother-in-law casserole. It's potatoes, tomatoes, eggplant, cheese. What could be bad?

Looking at the list of wines officially recognized in Puglia could make you dizzy. I haven't mentioned yet this year, but I need to do it--in Italy there are some 3500 different species of grapes used to make wine. 3500 that they know about. This number is shrinking as more big consortia buy out the little guys and reduce the number of kinds of grapes that are grown, but you have to think that somewhere a grandfather is passing vines on to his granddaughter or grandson, and those species are going to live on in someone's local backyard vino.

Another thing I need to mention this year is this, wherever you are, just order the house wine. It's better than anything else. And it may come out of a spigot in the wall. It may be unfiltered, but it is magic. Cheap and good. You don't need to eat fancy food in Italy, because the best food is what Mamma makes, and where the Carabinieri eat. If you are fancy and need to go to fancy places, maybe you should stay in the USA, or go to France. But in Italy there's no reason to spend money like that to have an awesome dining experience. And why spend a lot? You already spent a lot just getting there! Try the walking around pizza, the panino in the case, the fried rice balls stuffed with mozzarella. Or if you must sit down to eat, just order the appetizers. They are the best thing on the menu anyway. There's that rant done.

L'Aquila, tomorrow's finish line city, had a devastating earthquake in 2009. One of the major Italian cycling teams had "Abruzzo" stamped onto their uniforms and donated a portion of their proceeds--such as they were--to rebuild the town last year. The picture above shows how terrible the damage was. George Clooney moved the production of a film he was working on in order to help L'Aquila out. Italy loves George Clooney. And he loves it right back!

L'Aquila was the second city of the Kingdom of Naples, which for many years in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance and Baroque eras was ruled by Bourbon kings. When it wasn't ruled by relatives of the Spanish royal family. When a King of Naples died, the Pope decided who should next get the crown. Which made the Pope even more powerful than you would think the Pope would be. Because he was, after all, the Pope. This network of royal families all vying to dominate parts of Italy is just fascinating to read about. It's a soap opera on a grand grand scale!

Watching stage 10 as I write this. Lots of fans out on the course today. RAI is doing its thing and showing the faces of pretty local girls in between shots of pedaling skinny guys. It's a different experience watching it in Italian. You don't get the real sense of the race if you only watch the American feed. I love the clips of folks waiting and partying at the finish line in their silly hats and outfits. Yes, I'm a cycling nerd. Deal with it. The peloton pushes forward through rolling fields of olive trees.

So in the Giro the leader in each jersey competition at the start of each stage gets a girl--very hot--wearing a dress in the color of that jersey and carrying a parasol in that color to shield him from the sun as he waits for the stage to roll out. This makes for some nice looking TV pictures. My husband likes that.

Bike to Work Week, the Giro d'Italia, and the Tour of California, all in one week! This is bike schizophrenia. Maybe next year I take a staycation on this week to deal with all my biking commitments!

Viva il Giro! Viva Italia!

Oh, and Go, Levi Leipheimer and Team Radioshack!

A domani!

Monday, May 17, 2010

Stage 10: Avellino to Bitonto

Tomorrow's stage takes the riders from the Tirrenian sea above Paestum to the Adriatic in Puglia. In the ancient world this entire area was a colony of Greece and so in Paestum there are ancient Greek temples, and the food, culture and music are still strongly influenced by Greece. But after the Roman empire fell, first the Lombards and then the Normans conquered these lands and exploited the local people.

Nowadays they grow lots of wonderful produce in Puglia--tomatoes, peppers, olives. And Bitonto is famous for its olive oil.

For this stage, have a calzone--a doughy turnover with veggies on top and cheese in the middle, and a glass of Primitivo--a simple but delicious IGT wine from Puglia. Or, if you can get it, try some sea urchin.

Viva il Giro! Viva Italia

A domani!

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Stage 9: Biking by Queen Amidala's Palace

I would like to thank Disney's Grand Californian for having speedy wi-fi, and for having Universal Sports on its cable lineup. I'm also very late to thank Universal Sports for airing every Giro stage live, so I can watch it in the morning before I go to work.

Tough stage today. Loved watching the sports director hanging out of the sunroof of the Saxobank team car shouting at stage winner Sorenson "Allez, allez, allez!"

Tomorrow's stage goes from Frosinone in the province of Lazio down into Campagna skirting Naples, Pompeii and Vesuvius to end in Cava de' Tirreni, which is above the Amalfi Coast. Should have some very challenging climbs, and hopefully the fog will lift so we can see some fantastic helicopter shots. The Giro will roll through Caserta, where in 1752 the Bourbon king of Naples built a palace to rival Versailles. It doubled for Queen Amidala's palace in the ill-fated Episodes 1, 2, and 3, which I refuse to rant about here. Also, it was a staircase in the Vatican in Mission Impossible III, and in Angels and Demons.

The real history of Rome and the Vatican is so much more interesting than Dan Brown even begins to suggest in that book. I'm reading this great biography of Lucrezia Borgia by Sarah Bradford. Picture this: the Pope's daughter by a previous mistress living with the Pope's current mistress in a fancy palazzo somewhere near the Vatican while all of the crowned heads of Europe send their ambassadors to shower the women with jewels and silks. Because they, above all others, have the ear of the Pope. Imagine the Pope deciding who gets to rule the Kingdom of Naples. All of this happened. Fantastic read! I'll talk more about it when there isn't so much cycling on TV....

So many kinds of food and drink to choose from inspired by tomorrow's Giro stage, but today I'm feeling the Limoncello from Sorrento, a little town on a spit of land reaching out across the bay of Naples toward the island of Capri. The lemons there are a specific variety and the soil is ancient volcanic earth--the gift of Vesuvius. The result is a thick-skinned lemon with an extremely flavorful peel. It only grow here. These lemons are special--they make the best Limoncello in the world. It's not too sweet, not too bitter. Put a bottle in your freezer and open it to sip on a summer's day. It's the essence of the Amalfi coast, the ultimate luxury vacation spot, where I believe Sophia Loren has a home.

To me this area brings to mind images of film stars of the sixties. White Capri pants, which I just can't own because they are so easy to stain, and I never avoid spilling stuff on them. Little gladiator sandals with a silk scarf and big Jackie O sunglasses. To me the Amalfi coast has a Burt Bacharach soundtrack with a Carol Bayer Sager lyric, sung by that girl with the guitar in Blake Edwards' "The Party."

You just have to see it before you die. The cliffs are a crumbly gray stone encrusted with green and almost look like they belong in a Chinese mountain painting. But the houses decorated with blue and yellow tile, the beaches, the men in loafers and woven shirts with complicated pastel stripes. The bougainvillea and wisteria climbing over endless staircases. The church domes with iridescent colorful tile patterns like exotic lizard skin.

What to eat there? Seafood. Above is a picture of a nice octopus salad with citrus. So yummy and refreshing.


Viva Italia! Viva il Giro!

A domani!

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Stage 8: Umbria

Watching stage 7 and the announcer is saying they are on the strade bianche for the first time ever in the Giro. Strade bianche means "white roads" and what they are is dirt and gravel--the kind of surface you had when they held the Giro in those first few years, and paved roads were scarce in Italy. The first Giro d'Italia started on May 13, 1909, which is why last year's edition was called "il Centenario." It's muddy on the strade bianche, though, and in Tuscany the roads aren't white but a reddish brown. It's going to be tough for any riders who haven't raced on this surface. Some of these riders have cyclocross experience, which will come in handy. Cyclocross is like a cross between road biking, mountain biking and some kind of steeplechase. It from time to time involves getting off the bike and carrying it over obstacles. Today the course is like the cycling equivalent of clay courts in the rain. Except I think in tennis when it rains they don't play on clay courts. I could be wrong.

One thing's for sure, though, with this rain, every rider will end the day with a big muddy stripe on his butt. Fenders add weight, but today they could use some.

Tomorrow's stage takes the riders through many of the places I visited this past October. Umbria, with its hills and mountains, tiny lovely hill towns, each with its own churches, many of which have frescoes by the greats of the Renaissance. The dukes of Perugia, the capital city of Umbria, were in the Renaissance, the bloodthirsty Baglioni, who underwrote a gorgeous chapel in Spello, where there is this fabulous enoteca. The owner buttonholed us and poured for all 5 of us 3 glasses of the most amazing wine I've ever tasted. And out came the paper-thin slices of salumi and cheese. So delicious. Salumi is the Italian word for cured meats, and this includes the prosciuttos and the culatella, the bologna, the mortadella, and the filetto di cinghiale--a cured loin of wild boar. Sliced thin it is ruby red and transparent, and so so good!

No, you can't buy it in the USA. But if you go to Umbria, take a side trip away from the more usual sites like Assisi and Perugia and go to Norcia, which is famous for having the best pork butchers in all of Italy. The main drag is lined by shops selling cured pork, black truffles, cheese, wine, lentils, and pasta, and you can sample many many kinds of cured meat, some you won't find anywhere else, even in Italy. In Umbria they have truffles year round. In early fall they still have the summer variety, which is much less expensive than the more aromatic winter kind.

And don't forget, outside of Norcia, each village has its own kinds of cheeses and meats. We once went to Orvieto, which is a great city to visit because it's next to a train station, and the train will take you to Rome in only about an hour. Orvieto has a great history and was a refuge for the Pope, Clement VII, I believe, when Rome was sacked in 1527 by Protestant troops. The Pope ruled from Orvieto, and sponsored public works, including the building of a deep well of St. Patrick so he could have good drinking water. Orvieto is on the flat toop of a mesa and was an Etruscan town conquered brutally by the Romans, who relocated all of the villagers to another town. But the filetto di cinghiale we brought back from this place! It lasted maybe 4 days because we couldn't stop eating it! Smokey, delicate, lean, flavorful. The wild boar wander the hills around Orvieto eating the plentiful hazelnuts. What a place! Umbria is like grown-up foodie Candyland.

And the wine. Montefalco is another small hill town right in the alluvial plain in the center of the region. It's famous for a kind of wine called Sagrantino, which is a unique variety of grape only grown in this region. You can pay about $40 for a half-bottle at Joan's on Third here in L.A., but when we were there, we found we prefered a blend of Sagrantino and Montefalco rosso. Sagrantino tastes a bit like Syrah, but it's sweeter and more minerally, so blending it with what I suspect is our friend Nebbiolo smooths it out and brings out its best characteristics.

In Norcia we had a plate of sliced salumi and it had maybe 9 different kinds of meats, including head cheese, which I actually liked! I always like the weird stuff. Why is that? Norcia is a gorgeous town--it was a Roman country village where Cicero had a home, and where Virgil's family came from. It would be a great place to spend a week in winter. You can ski around there, and then hang out eating meat and cheese and drinking wine by an ancient fireplace. Saint Benedict was born here.

So many places I could talk about near tomorrow's stage, but finally, it goes by the Cascate delle Marmore, which is a Roman-built waterfall. The technology still works, and they turn the waterfall off on Mondays, which was too bad, because that was the day we tried to visit in October, but we were on our way to Poggio Bustone because I wanted to paraglide over the beautiful lakes and valleys on my birthday week. And I did. I can't even describe what that was like. Stepping off the mountain and into the void, feeling feather-light, like a lot of dreams I've had.

Ahhh Umbria. I must say, I'm a little verklempt.

Viva il Giro! Viva Italia!

Look at Cadel Evans' face all covered with mud! Today's stage is brutal! It's going to be a big game changer because Nibali crashed with no team car in sight! And will they ever wash all the mud out of that pink jersey?

A domani!