We all seem to have a bit of both elements in us. The travelers part that wants to find the little restaurant or discover the back road spot that locals favor, well off any guidebook radar, versus the camera around the neck, bad shorts and hat, and rube-like gaping awe at sights we've seen a million times via images in those very same guidebooks. Although I will confess to taking a picture or two of our smiling band of yahoos in front of such sights as the Trevi Fountain and St. Petes in Vatican City, we followed the travelers route for the most part. That is where most of the interesting adventures and interesting people are found and we did find a few. One of the most interesting experiences of the trip was at a truck stop in a mountain pass south of Bologna.
We had spent a few miles driving on the autostrada, the freeway, north of Firenze on our way to Bologna. It is depressingly like a freeway here and we unanimously decided to get the hell off, even though the VOR and GreenThumbChef were wary and critical of the way I put the Fiat 6 spd manual sedan through its paces on the curvy mountain roads. In my defense, I was just trying to blend in with my Italian motoring brethren and their love of actually driving a car in a proper fashion. I did revert to grandpa driving mode however, and we enjoyed the back road from Firenze to Bologna which was twisty, mountainous, and unbelievably beautiful. I later discovered that this was roughly the route that the allies had taken to get from Firenze (Florence) up to Bologna in WWII and a key part of Field Marshall Kesselring's Gothic Line. Finding this out when I returned was timely since it could have resulted in history stops slowing us down even more than my prudent and sedate driving already did. We were nicely stocked with wine, bread, cold cuts, and cheese and planned on a picnic but then the Ristorante "Passo della Futa" Albergo Bar appeared at the top of the 1000 meter Futa pass.
The joint was classic truck stop and surrounded by trucks parked kind of haphazardly along the road. I did a quick U turn and we slid into a spot and strolled in. A sure sign of local color is when the full body stare is received from all patrons and staff, like walking into a northern Wiscosnsin bar, when entering the place. Good smells, long tables, rustic atmosphere, and reasonable costs seem to be truck stop modus operandi the world over and this place was no exception. A large jug of the house wine and homemade bread were awaiting us without asking and we settled in. As we looked around it was apparent that bicycle racing was the theme of this establishment. Trophies, cups, ribbons, pictures, and jerseys were all over the place. We realized that our genial host, a spry, effervescent, gray haired fellow that seemed to be in his early 70's, was the owner of the ristorante and also the young man in the vintage bicycle racing pictures, apparent winner of all the displayed hardware. He was making the rounds of all the tables, slapping backs, cracking jokes in Italian, and keeping the water glasses and bread baskets full. After a great lunch, featuring meat sauce, Bolognese style on pasta, along with some fine anitpasto and of course dolce (dessert), we talked to the guy at the counter who turned out to be a son. His dad, Vittorio Poletti, was a pro cycle racer in the early '60's and had raced both the Tour(s) de France and Italy as well as hundreds of other races. We tried to ask a few questions but could not penetrate the language barrier so reverted to tourist rube mode and asked Vittorio, mainly by pointing and gesticulating, if we could take a picture. He nodded but then had his son pour two shots of grappa, a grape based paint thinner substitute that has quite the alcoholic bite and content. Apparently we had to drink the grappa in order to get the picture. This was a sure sign that we were well off the beaten tourist track........"you can take my picture but you have to drink a shot of my homemade hootch". Our arms needed zero twisting, the shot was drunk, and the picture was taken by the VOR. He seemed genuinely happy that we had stopped in his ristorante for lunch.
It was a great lunch and an even greater experience. Moments like that define traveling for me and I remember them far longer and with considerably more fondness than staring up at a painted church ceiling with my neck craned, several dozen of my 'closest friends' crowding me, and zealous guards barking 'no photos!'. The bicycle connection was great as well, both because our travel group and most readers of this blog are people powered sports fans, and also because No1 son is in da bidness as they say, out in Portland. Here in the Twin Cities we have the Bike Expo this weekend at the State Fairgrounds, sponsored by the Bicycle Alliance of MN. Click on the link in the site for all the info on the Expo. The ice is melted on most lakes, the roads are clear, and spring is in the air. It's time to get those bikes and kayaks back into regular usage folks.