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!

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