"The traffic rules in Italy aren't so much rules as suggestions," our tour guide says at our pre-ride briefing. "You can pass cars anywhere, just do so safely. Drivers here don't care; in fact, they expect it of you." Despite my lingering haziness, brought on by a sleepless overnight flight, his inspiring words sliced through, ringing loud and clear. Giving Kathy a wink, I could tell by her expression that she had already read my mind.
Emerging from the tiny and chaotic baggage claim area of the Florence Airport, I quickly spot our contact. The tall, lanky guy holding the Edelweiss Bike Travel sign introduces himself as Axel Papst and welcomes Kathy and me to Tuscany. His reddish-bronze complexion and mussed hairstyle, somewhere between wind-blown and perpetual helmet-head, immediately give him away as a motorcycle tour guide. Having had our fill of airports in the last twelve hours, we're more than happy to follow his lead to the doors and make our departure. Once outside, we're hit with a warm breeze that seems to magically carry us above the noise, fumes, and hectic pace of the busy terminal. And though we've often heard that Tuscany is an enchanting land, we were hardly prepared to surrender immediately to its spell.
After tossing our bags into the big blue van, we climb aboard with several other couples, our fellow turisti, and head for the hills outside Florence. The lively banter in the limo indicates a fun group, and once we're off the motorway, we begin to get a sampling of roads, the antipastos of pavement we'll get a taste of in the next seven days. Axel deftly wheels the van through the tight corners while doing his best to field a non-stop barrage of questions about the upcoming trip. He has to be wondering how a group of jet-lagged Americans still manages to have so much energy, and the chatter does stop briefly, giving way to a chorus of "oohs" and "ahs," as we enter the gates of our tour's home base and roll down a narrow, tree-lined drive to the front entrance of the Villa Pitiana, originally a monastery built in the 13th century. It's handsomely aged, stone walls wear generations of old cracks and chips with a gentility that was oozing history long before any of our group's ancestors stepped foot on American soil. As soon as Kathy and I enter our room, we throw open the tall windows and stand transfixed by the beauty of the sprawling hills below. But without the cool, fresh air flowing in and the impending prospect of some fine wine and hearty cuisine, my exhaustion would have pulled me right then and there to the sheets.