Touring Tobago… the unconventional way.

It sounded like a cool vacation-type day, exploring the coastline, dreamily driving through the quaint villages, stopping to take some pics, experimenting with the local cuisine, and finally dipping your toes in the ocean, relaxing on some secluded beach sipping on your favourite beverage.  Life in the tropics.

That’s one way to tour Tobago – Trinidad’s charming sister isle.  But I met a bunch of determined, strong-minded, never-give-up, leave-no-man-behind kind of tourists, who took Tobago by storm – on their bikes.  Oh, and I am quite sure there must have been some level of ‘crazy’ in them as well – but that’s another story.

Before the sun could rise, vital supplies were packed, bikes prepped, minds set and off we went.  And by ‘we’ I mean, me donned with my camera in a vehicle, and the rest of the group on their bikes (just to be clear). What initially seemed like a cool, slow, leisurely ride around the island quickly turned into a gruelling test of will, strength, preparedness and sheer gut.  They pumped their way up and down, up and down some of the steepest hills, with sharp hairpin corners, in the hot midday sun.  Stopping only to refuel, regroup and start all over again.  Their minds set on the finish line and the oh so rewarding moment when you realise that you have just completed a 102km ride, climbing 2,700m, some sections with a gradient of 15-18%, 5-7 hours of riding your heart out.

I learned a lot on this tour.  I learned that your mind is probably your most powerful tool.  I learned that your body can endure far more than you give it credit for.  And quite unexpectedly, I also learned a few choice words to add to my ever-expanding vocabulary.

Who won? They all won.  If nothing else, they won my complete admiration.

The day did end with the ‘sipping on your favourite beverage’ part, near to a body of water. Not to mention the telling and re-telling of the many personal stories of the day.  There was laughter, camaraderie, relief and most of all a great sense of accomplishment.

You people are all my heroes.

(I’ve included a short video for those wishing to see the heroes of the day)

Cycling through the Nature Reserves…

Cycling through the stony trails of the Milwanee, Mikaya and Mbuluzi Nature Reserves, gives you not only an exhilarating work-out manoeuvring the undulating terrain, but a closer look at the wild animals living there. Hmmmm… I keep saying ‘wild’, but in essence these ‘wild’ animals exuded nothing but peace. They went about their business as if we were not there – for the most part anyway.

They allowed us to traverse their territory once we respected their space, respected their needs. And that’s fair enough. At no time did we feel threatened. Quite the opposite. We felt grateful that we could get a glimpse of their daily lifestyle. And to be honest, it seemed to be pretty much one of leisure. Grazing, laying in the shade, glancing at us only briefly just to acknowledge our existence, I imagine – then continuing on as if we were not there.

Before I left on this vacation, my eldest brother, out of concern for my safety of course, mentioned simply that I didn’t need to be the fastest cyclist, just not the slowest on the trail. At no time however did I feel threatened cycling through the vast open spaces, or sometimes scary single-track paths.

The journey was exhilarating and challenging to say the least. All the while though, giving me a great sense of accomplishment, peace and oneness with nature.

The excitement of single track biking…

As if my cycling through the Patagonia region had not already been filled with a lifetime of experiences – first of all sharing the journey with a group of random adventure seekers who became friends sharing their passions, their life stories all wrapped up in a great sense of humour.

Crossing through the varying terrains of both the Chilean and Argentinian landscapes that make the region the legend that it is.

Climbing the still active Villarica Volcano in Pucon – one of the most mind blowing and triumphant expeditions I’ve ever accomplished.

Exploring my own personal strength and endurance through the cycling adventure itself, learning the bike, mastering different surfaces and building my own confidence in managing the long distances crossed.

Then at the very end, pumping my adrenaline through the exciting opportunity to ride on the single track runs through the National Araucania Park – narrow trails filled with unexpected ups and downs, twists and turns – having to manoeuver encroaching trees and low hanging branches and constantly on the lookout for the odd tree roots and rocks to jump over. May sound scary but with a strong heart and lots of determination to succeed, we all came out triumphant, exhilarated and fired up.

…. and now on to my next adventure, whenever and wherever that may be. Hoping we will continue to explore together…

Crossing the Andes…

Starting in Chile at 1300m and at a temperature of 11 degrees C and after having lunch in the snow, we descended on our bikes through amazing views of the Andes to 700m warming to 19 degrees C, slowing to breathe in the fresh air, stopping at times to capture the different scenes permanently. Quite an exhilarating way to cross the Andes.

Our lodging for the night in Villa Angostura gave us just a glimpse of the exquisite views we were to experience in the days to come. Perched on the lake, we took the opportunity to explore the rocky beach, watched lazily at those engaged in fly fishing and spent the evening feasting on the renowned Argentinian steak and wine. Not a bad way to experience the Patagonia region first hand.

It was the first time…

“It was the first time, and it wouldn’t be the last”…

… I thought, as I clicked my feet into the pedals and rode my bicycle behind the group of cyclists – all of us on a quest to conquer the course ahead. We were but a small group of strangers at first. A small group of travelers intent on experiencing a new country as close to the people as possible. A small group of adventure seekers willing to take on the challenges of unknown terrain, one hill at a time – excited to learn about the country, one village at a time – anxious to capture the essence of this new world, one photograph at a time.

What we managed to do however, unknowingly and, one person at a time, was build relationships with strangers from different parts of the world. Persons who by the very nature of the tour, were open to new experiences and new cultures. Open to willingly sharing our personal journey, exchanging notes and tips, with the primary objective of learning, giving and receiving.

So as we traversed the different scenic terrains, we learned more about a country, a people. We met and bonded with strangers who became our friends. We conquered the course and secretly built our self confidence, each one of us vowing to continue this type of adventure, together or with other like-minded wanderers.

It was the first time, and it hasn’t been the last…

Taste of Tuscany – Siena

Certainly Siena is the most impressive of the Tuscan towns. As we climb our final ascent into Siena we are filled with pride and a great sense of accomplishment. Along the way we are tempted to take the short and easy road but stay our course and continue along the long and narrow pathways to our final destination.

And well worth the journey – Siena rewards us with its magnificence, grandeur and imposing strength as we meander to our hotel Il Chiostro del Carmine – a former monastery equipped with a small chapel and a welcoming courtyard where we eventually spend cool peaceful pre-dinner wine tastings.

We celebrate the end of our journey with the now expected Prosecco and pasta, but even better we are serenaded with the ringing of the bells from the Santa Maria de Asunto Cathedral. The following day we venture further as we explore the town and its amazing Cathedral – a magnificent showcase of craftsmanship, artistry and simple dedication, with intricate details of biblical history throughout. We are fortunate enough to celebrate a small mass therein the following day.

The stairs within the Museum lead to an amazing view of Siena and we are once again entranced by the beauty of this city and its surroundings.

The days are hot but the nights are cool and we engage in pure Siena hospitality as we embrace the culture of ‘liming’ in the Piazza after dinner, just simply enjoying the moment, the environment and the company.

Happy to be there, happy to be a part, proud of our accomplishments. What started as a simple adventure through the Tuscany Valley, ended with stronger bonds, greater sense of self and one’s own physical ability, and of course, memories that would last a lifetime.

Thank you my friends for sharing your time, determination, good nature and self with us. We look forward to many more exciting journeys together.

 

Taste of Tuscany – Asciano

A rest day is always welcome. And where better to spend the day than lazing around a hill top hotel overlooking one of the most spectacular views in Tuscany. As with many of these establishments located on vast acreage, the pasta served was freshly made as was the honey, as this is part of their own industry.

Leaving was a bit difficult but knowing that the first part was primarily downhill was certainly an incentive. The Tuscany region once again did not disappoint with its smell of the pine trees, gentle rolling hills and intermittent gravel roads, you truly feel one with nature and the environment as you pass along perfectly manicured vineyards and small towns on the way.

We skirt off course momentarily to visit the Monte Oliveto Maggiore. This is a large Benedictine Abbey located just 10km south of Asciano. The monastery is accessed through a drawbridge which leads to a medieval palace in red brickwork. This structure began in 1393 and was only completed in 1526 and restored in the 19th century. After the entrance you are greeted with a long alley lined with cypress trees surrounding a botanical garden. Strolling through this peaceful place calms you and at the same time energizes you for your journey ahead.

Asciano is a small town with just about 7000 inhabitants. Typical of Tuscany’s history Asciano became the centre of attention between Siena and Florence in the 13th century eventually being won over by the Sienese after the bloodiest battle in the Italian medieval history in 1260.

As usual we arrive at the hottest time of day when all are indoors and the place is quiet and filled with an eire atmosphere. Later in the evening, we are thoroughly entertained by our multitasking receptionist, come bar man, come chef, as he Kariokes the evening away to our personal enjoyment.

 

Taste of Tuscany – Buonconvento

Life does not begin until you’ve had a close up view of a field of Sunflowers. My journey could have ended today and I would have been the happiest person alive. If you’ve been following my blogs you will surely have noticed that no matter where I am, there will always be a flower that catches my eye. Well the sunflower fields were my heaven-on-earth experience.

The ride today was a bit more challenging to say the least as we scrambled up steep gravel trails, pushed our bikes up some 16% grade hills, cursed the Tuscan heat, and endured the trials and tribulations of cramps and flat tyres.

In the midst of it all though, a small quiet town with a water oasis calmed and relaxed us. Gave us the energy and willpower to carry on and we arrived safely at our destination – weary, weary and did I mention weary?

But as usual the recap of the day, the local wine and beer and the cool breeze that accompanies the amazing sunset, lifted us and we ended the day once again triumphant of what we were able to accomplish and experience.

Stay awake Tuscany – we have not yet finished our journey.

 

Taste of Tuscany – San Gimignano

No matter who you speak to – whether they live in Italy, visited Italy or even heard about Italy – San Gimignano is on the top of the list of places to visit in Tuscany. And I now join this long list of fans, for San Gimignano is one of the prettiest towns I’ve ever seen. But I jump ahead. Let’s get back to our journey.

We are excited, nervous, anxious but most of all rearing to go as we pack up our cycle gear and leave Volterra – the Tuscany valley ahead – our dreams of cycling through its most famous towns finally coming true. We have decided, in the interest of flexibility of time, to opt for a self-guided tour as offered by Saddle Skeddadle. You are pretty much left on your own, given details of your journey, accommodation in each of the towns is pre-arranged, your luggage transported as you meander along at your leisure from city to city. I mean how difficult can this be, right?

S T O P ! – our self acclaimed leader shouts from the back of the group – We’ve missed the very first turn. Now, picture this. We are a group of wanna-be cyclists, who have ‘trained’ for this vacation, and are traveling down hill with the wind in our hair and smiles on our faces. You can imagine therefore that the thought of stopping and turning around uphill, is not very appealing – to put it mildly. We stop, we deliberate, our leader takes one for the team and retraces our tracks.

Minutes and minutes go by as we wave to passers-by who are probably wondering why we’ve decided to take a break on the corner of what has turned out to be a very busy road. We wave none-the-less pretending that this is part of our plan. Our leader returns and we are finally relieved to learn that we are on the right track. Smiles once again confident that we can do this, and we are on our way.

The day passes without another hitch. We amble through the recently harvested fields of wheat, stop for much needed refreshments (Prosecco and beer, of course) along the way and quietly skirt through the small towns and villages along the way.

It’s a tough first day of 36km – the sun is hot, the undulating terrain challenges our new found cycling skills as we are faced with an uphill stretch of 12km at the very beginning. One or two of us take our first bike spills, and, did I mention that the sun is hot. We are undaunted however. We laugh through it all as we continue our exciting journey.

We arrive in San Gimignano, sun scorched, starving, discussing the day and as we push our bikes through the welcoming arch we are left speechless – not because we are exhausted but oh my, this place is priceless – the quaint streets, unusual shops, towers, the charming square – warm our hearts and we are immediately relaxed. The challenges of the day immediately forgotten.

We are happy, exhilarated and most importantly triumphant. One day down, four more to go. We celebrate with Prosecco and pizza and, as the sun sets, we are surprisingly entertained by street musicians in the main Piazza.

Smiles are back on our faces and we look forward to another glorious day.

 

Taste of Tuscany – Volterra

In our infinite wisdom, my husband and I decided to tour the famous towns of Tuscany using our favourite mode of vacation transportation – bicycle. You see on two previous occasions we travelled through the picturesque terrain of Austria and northern Italy and then, before trekking to Machu Picchu on another holiday, we cycled from Cusco to the Amazonas – two exciting and extremely rewarding vacations.

This time a group of our closest friends decided to join us on our Tuscany excursion. Over the next few blogs I will attempt to take you through our very exciting journey.

After meeting in Pisa (see La Torre Pendente di Pisa) we bussed it directly to the romantic city of Volterra. Volterra offers a glimpse of the architecture typical of medieval times and is filled with small alleys, squares, palaces and towers. And much like other towns in Italy, the window boxes filled with flowers and the charming shops lure you into a lifestyle that is simple, inviting and oh so relaxing.

As the sun sets you are drawn to the magnificent views which surround this important city and the cool evening breezes transport you to that peaceful place you’ve always longed to be. A perfect start to our Tuscany adventure.