Best Friend Found

As part of a series of wins, I had a chance to spoil myself on a European vacation with my wife. We took it. Thinking back over the last couple decades of constantly catching up and recovering from the latest life decision, hopping an airplane with my wife was a welcomed adventure.

La Pizzeria de Stella
Ducati North America stomping grounds – La Pizzeria de Stella

We chose to visit Italy. It was my home away from home while employed with Ducati North America as their Training Manager. As successful as that project was, the separation had much to be desired. That is why it is so refreshing to visit the old friends at home-base in Bologna. But a trip halfway around the world needs a better draw than visiting a motorcycle factory. We turned up the heat.

Racing the Spartan in Orte, Italy

As a celebration of last year’s weight loss, I had pre-registered for the Spartan race of Orte, Italy. Just minutes from the race location was a Bed and Breakfast with a well-done website and good photography to lure us in. I booked it. Next, we booked the flights on Delta to get us to Rome. Would my wife’s first trip “across the pond” be just Southern Italy? No! We penciled in a few days up north in Bologna with a flex day on the end for Florence (Firenze). It was September of 2017, and the plans were laid well in advance of the race to be held in May. This may be the most I have ever planned an event?!?!

Office buddies – Keeping the training on point.

As the months, weeks, and then days crept up to take off I found myself becoming more and more relaxed at the prospect of getting away. I’ll be honest here. I love being a dad, husband and productive member of my team at Suzuki Motor of America, but if I am completely transparent sometimes it just stacks up. “Dad, the WIFI is down. Dad, the printer won’t print. Oh… did you need milk?” – on top of the work that is work, there is also the dreaded Highway 91, SoCal commute. It’s amazing how 26 miles can take 1.5 hours, or raise your pulse as you lane-split for 45 harrowing minutes, each way. In the big picture, I know that I know I am blessed. In the brief shot, an escape from this grind had become a necessity.

In anticipation of the journey, I had reached out to a dozen or so former comrades at Ducati Motor Holding – most of which still employed by the iconic company.  The excitement was palpable. A reunion of sorts with Ducati Sales and Service teams while introducing my wife to the best of Italy would be fantastic – not to mention I had lost a bunch of weight and increased my confidence… at least in regards to completing the Spartan event.

Preparing for the trip meant consistently exercising to maintain the weight loss, but also increase endurance. As a preview of what to expect, I signed up for and completed the SoCal Spartan in January of 2018 (Story Here). With the exposure at the first event and bicycling 45 miles/week added to running 10 miles a week… I knew I’d be ready for the challenge. With the trip only a week away, things began to fray. I began to feel an outbreak of Shingles coming on. This is previewed for me by a nerve like pain in my left hip. As the days rolled by prior to the trip, the pain increased adding to my discomfort. I began a regimen of Antibiotics and Ibuprofen to take my mind off of it… but now reducing stress was the focus.

Heidi was awesome. My bride of 15-years stood by my side and remained flexible in adjusting plans to meet my needs. With stress reduction the focus, I even began to unplug a little at work and take some of the menial tasks less seriously. Not one to back down, we got up at 4:30 am on Wednesday morning and took Lyft to the airport. I may not run this thing on Saturday, but I am going to drink Montepulciano wine in Italy! As far as flights go, we had it made. We had a 2-seat row all to ourselves from Detroit to Rome. Our row-partners across the aisle were a young couple looking at $8,000,000.00 homes in the L.A. area. They had a small child and a Pomeranian that sat on the husband’s lap the entire flight. The old pup was adorable and a good row partner.

Four or five movies later, we were on the ground in Rome. Wow! Immediately we set to find the rental car area. This was the first time I tried using Italian in a couple of years and boy was I rusty. I fumbled over “Excuse me, where are the rental cars?” multiple tries before getting directions that made sense. Once there, we found an Enterprise Rental Car sign and went with what seemed familiar. Earlier I had looked online to pre-register a rental but was anxious about the International Driver License clauses and fees. Doing it in person turned into a huge blessing. Firstly, the representative at the counter spoke great English. Then there is the idea that renting over the counter was about 80 Euro cheaper than pre-registering online.

Lunch across from Coliseum

Once we got in the car – vacation mode was full-forward. It was almost simultaneous in how Heidi and I adjusted to our new life forecast for a week. First stop – the beach. The airport in Rome is so dang close to the beach, how could you not hit the beach. We did a short walk, hand in hand and decided to go see the Roman Coliseum, and have an authentic Italian lunch.

We lucked out. We found a parking spot up the hill from the Coliseum and walked down to the main tourist area. There was a wide selection of restaurants – we chose the Pizzeria (Ristoro della Salute directly across the street from the Coliseum. Win! The winning was added as the staff was outgoing and complimentary of my ill-spoken Italian. The forced smiles of my bride were gently turning to excited grins, and I found ourselves falling into the “fantasy” of global travel.

Next was the trip to Orte, via car. I tried to get the Tom-Tom to find our Bed and Breakfast. Note to self – never pay to use a Tom-Tom again! Finally, between the Tom-Tom and Heidi’s Android phone, we had a direction of travel. The trip was beginning to take its toll on us and the bed at the bed and breakfast was the prescription we were seeking.

The drive was fine to me as the driver, but near torture for an over-tired spouse forced to play passenger for 90 minutes.

The main piazza of Orte, after the Spartan

As we rounded the corner to Orte and the city on the mountain appeared, we both found new life. How gorgeous? How historical? It felt like a postcard. The GPS had us drive under the city around the walls to a side road that led to the countryside. Ten minutes later, we were on a long gravel driveway to Locanda La Chiocciola.

The choice of our journey was solidified by Maria-Kristina (Kristina) as she greeted us in reception. She knew the name and just where to take us. Her English was amazing. She showed us to our room, described the spa, and welcomed us to walk the grounds. This place is a slice of Heaven. Vistas on every side of the building as she is crested on a hillside. Rolling green, deep green, really green landscape, ripe with butterflies, birds and the sweet songs they make. We rested just a bit and readied ourselves for dinner. The Locanda has a restaurant on site which would become our home base. The first dinner was so good, we decided that we’d be home for dinner each night, trusting local fare for lunches.

As the sun was setting over the Railroad tracks in the distance, we posed like high school lovers at prom. My best friend is in there somewhere – waiting to burst forth. As we were lovingly enjoying each other’s company, we met Bill and Claudia. Two other Americans, also from California. They visit here often and had a wealth of knowledge and experience to share with us about the area… but also of other regions. Their propensity to travel and have this verbal library of experience to share was inspiring.

For dinner, we ordered a bottle of Montepulciano Wine with an appetizer of assorted meats and cheese. I love Italian hard cheeses. Then we had pasta dishes – Primi Pasti. The al dente pasta was cooked to perfection as the creamy sauces for both Heidi and I danced on our tongues. Trying not to be gluttonous, but enjoying our vacation, we elected to share a Secondi – the main meat dish. We ordered the stuffed veal and split it. The veal was rolled with fennel from the surrounding field and the robust flavor of this flame touched young meat was incredible… but soon to be outdone.

At breakfast, the next morning – fabulous by the way – Kristina came to our table very excited. But first, let’s cover what breakfast is. We were greeted by a large table adorned with fresh cakes, pastries, cheese, and meats, with fruit and yogurt available as well. As we were helping ourselves to some super sweet orange juice, Kristina offered to make us eggs. The orangy-yolked eggs were delivered with a small basket of bread. This with the cheese from the table – to die for. When she realized we were willing to freeball the journey, she stepped in with a plan. She poured out her local knowledge and very emphatically recommended the Cascata De Marmore, the tallest falls in Europe. She said it was possible to hike the falls, so we were in. Then she said we had to visit the beautiful lake at Lago Di Piedieluca. Bill and Claudia had raved about the Medieval city of Amelia, so we knew that had to be on the list as well. With a full tank of gas in the rental car and full bellies of fresh eggs, pastries and the lovely Italian coffee – we were off.

Tom-Tom and I argued a bit, but in the end, we found Marmore. The road weaved and wound through a tiny near vertical little town. In fact when we got to the final turn to get to the top of the falls. We were behind other tourists making U-turns assuming their GPS had to be wrong. But then in the dirt, Heidi spotted a sign that said “Cascata”. I pointed the tiny Toyota at the narrow driveway and blindly entered a closed-in area of old homes and 90-degree tight turns. We came around one of the corners and “Boom” there we were. A small shopping village with very limited parking. A gelateria, a general store, and a bridge to cross the stream. We crossed the stream to find the ticket vendor, which led us back past our parking spot to the trail that would be Cascata De Marmore. What a sight!

As soon as we began at the top of the falls, we had realized that Tom-Tom took us where few go. Most start at the bottom and hike up. We were at the top and hiking down. Six of one – right?

We hesitated for a moment at the top of the falls taking it in from afar but decided to do the hike. It started off moderately enough, but as we sang “Buongiorno” to upward hikers their appearance and reaction told us the hike would gain difficulty. Sure enough, it turned into a stair-stepper in nature. The mountain oozes water from all over with thick vegetation. Each rest along the way provided another vista of this wonder. The noise, the view, the impression of power as the water pushes and roars down… then what’s this? A Cave?

They have a tunnel dug into the mountain where you pop out of the other side, in the falls! Right where one of the fall splashes is, there is a ledge – or patio, where hikers are encouraged to step out and get blasted by the falls. Would we fall for this tourist stunt? Heck yes. The rest of the walk down was less of an adventure but just as enjoyable. Now we just had to hoof it back to the top. Our incentive for this goal was gelato. Come on ice cream!

Next was the Lago trip. It was super close to Marmore, so we plugged in Tom-Tom which promptly took us to the wrong side of the lake where there were just a few rural homesteads and a restaurant in the woods. The cool part was seeing where we wanted to be from across the lake. Tempted to skip Piedieluca we doubled back and were pointed toward Terni and Amelia when at the last second we thought “That little town is probably just down to the right”.  We pointed the Toyota right and headed to Lago di Piedieluca. Stupid Tom-Tom.

This little town was basically shut down. There were residences and a little cafe at one end, and a cafe in the center that was open… but for the most part, the town was very quiet. It lent itself to hand holding and relaxing by the lake. As we strolled around the peninsula of the town at the lakeside, Heidi spied a church up the hill, so we decided to check it out. Translating the posted sign I read that the church was named after Francis of Assisi. This was Heidi’s first glimpse of an old European church and the impression was immediate.

All that has been absorbed today and we still have Amelia to visit on the way “home” for dinner. We head back toward Orte with Amelia in our sights. Amelia is every bit as steep as San Fransisco and the Toyota Aygo is complaining the whole way. We followed a car into the city, not knowing where we were going only to find out later that we weren’t supposed to be there. Amelia is a restricted city to cars unless you have a special permit. As we were asking a local in Italiano if we could park on this tiny street, a woman in perfect English told us “No”, but then proceeded to walk uphill ahead of our car to the next street and find us a spot we would not be ticketed in. We thanked her from the car and drove up to park – she disappeared.

The panorama view from Amelia

Intent on thanking her properly and complimenting her command of English, we went hunting a bit and found her in her art studio. Turns out she is also from California! A series of life events led her to a separate – much smaller Medieval city to live but her art studio is in Amelia. Not only that, but her partner has a son that loves working on Motorcycles which led to a great discussion of dream chasing and being where you want to be.

On her prompting, we left the car and hiked to the top of the city by foot. Here we toured the ancient church that began a remodel in the year 600 AD! This also put us at the very top of this Medieval city giving us a bird’s eye 360-degree view of the surrounding countryside and villages.

Dinner that night was off the chain again, and in my mind – although not feeling 100% – knew that if I didn’t give Spartan a chance in Italy, I would regret the decision. So I re-dedicated myself to that mission for my Saturday. I also dedicated myself to the mission of taking my bride to the spa afterward.

I’ll save the Spartan write up for another post. That was a whole other adventure.

Post Spartan run, I was tired. Really tired. Heidi and Kristina were the answers to the fatigue. When our appointment for the spa had arrived, Kristina had some paperwork to fill out followed by a tour. The Spa is self-run by the patrons and done in stations. There is a standard shower, an infused shower, a sauna, a steam room and a hot-tub. The idea is to run 15-minute stations of each feature – sauna, steam room and hot tub with an infused shower in between. The shower is a cold massaging shower surrounded by stone and tile, with LED lights, infused with eucalyptus and mint. WOW! Now, let me be the first to tell you – don’t put that stuff in your eyes!!

A welcomed spa visit after the Spartan

We had a blast. We ran from feature to feature, admittedly spending much more time in the hot-tub than prescribed. When you have your fill of the features, there is a sitting area to the side that is glass enclosed and equipped with a tea set-up of bottled water, herbal teas, hot water, and sweeteners. The glassed area faces the sunset and warms the heart as the tea warms your chest. With our third dinner just minutes away in this paradise, we finished the tea and made our way to the room to get ready.

Bullet train rolls at 200MPH

Sunday is our day to drive back to Rome, return the rental car and take the train to Bologna. Bologna is a completely different set-up. Instead of ancient luxury on the mountainside, we have an apartment rented a block away from the Two Towers in Bologna Central. We would ride the 200 MPH train to Bologna, grab a taxi and get there by 5:00 PM. Success! Now to take a quick walk around the city and orient ourselves. The first impression of Bologna after Orte is immense. The city is popping, as their Festival for May 1 is this coming week. I decided it was a good time to share the Pizzeria De Stella with Heidi. It’s the go-to pizza place for all people Ducati. I love it there. The server even somewhat recognized me and with a little prompting, all the puzzle pieces connected. More wine and delicious pizza.

Taking the taxi back to Bologna Central, streets are blocked, vendors setting up, musicians on corners entertaining the masses. Its a party, and almost, unfortunately – we are in the center of it. We barely get any sleep as the young party crowd is screaming outside our open window as we have no air conditioning. In fact, distinctly at 4:00 AM we were shocked awake again by the joyous screams of a toddler. We both thought “Who the heck keeps a toddler out overnight?!?!”

Determined to treat this trip as a vacation and not a marathon, we tried to sleep in. The party was in a lapse so we stole some winks. Once up, we head downstairs and hit the streets looking for a worthy cafe. My recipe is to find a cafe that has customers. I wanted a small breakfast with a strong coffee. We found it. An adorable little cafe with good customer traffic and pleasant atmosphere. This led to a walk around the city taking in some of the sites, doing a little purse shopping and seeing how the Italians run commerce. We grabbed some fresh strawberries and meandered wherever inspiration took us. It was this day that Heidi confessed she had seen enough churches. Impressive as they are – there’s more to see and experience.

Breakfast in Bologna

As we neared our apartment, the popular outdoor cafe – 16 Labs – was beginning to show activity. We decided to grab a table, do some people watching and enjoy lunch. Well, the server brought me a fabulous pint of “White” German beer. This was probably the best beer I’ve had in years, so it was quickly followed with a second. Heidi enjoyed a Corona and we both shared each other’s panini sandwiches, one with prosciutto and one salame-based. A post-meal nap and we’d be ready to meet Michael for a drink and plan dinner.

Cheers to 16 Labs

We reached out to a friend of mine I had met on another trip to Bologna. Michael publishes a tourism paper in Bologna and has lately been on the radio promoting a new political party. We met him prior to dinner at an ex-patriot stomping ground… the Celtic Druid. After a couple of pints, Michael called ahead for us and made us a reservation at a restaurant he recommended. Trattoria Tebbi was the choice for us as soon as Michael described a Vegetable Buffet. We hadn’t had many veggies on this trip and were jonesing for the deep flavors of Italy in the veggie matter. We were not disappointed. Once to the restaurant we were greeted and seated. We, of course, got the wine flowing, ordered our main courses and helped ourselves to the veggie buffet – a table of fire roasted veggies. The staff took our plates and offered to warm everything up for us. Oh so good.

Oh oh – the wine is empty

We also made plans to meet with my old co-workers from Ducati. This always excites me as one of the people I stay in touch with has had a marvelous impact on me. He was my mentor at the factory and is my friend in life. Being able to put Heidi at a dinner table to meet my friends face to face is another one of those blessings. Piero took charge and ordered us all a “Tour of Italy” in pasta. He arranged for each of us to sample four different pasta dishes – each rooted in a different region of Italy. He always pulls out the stops when I see him, giving me the experience of an insider making my tour better. After dinner, he took us for a drive to see the church at the top of the hill overlooking Bologna. A quick walk in the brisk hilltop air and he drove us back to Bologna central for our walk home after some hugs.

A couple of the best folks I know – Piero and Marina

Our journey was coming to an end. It’s another train ride south to Rome. We had planned a walking tour of Firenze (Florence) but the weather was taking a turn. The whole trip was filled with sunshine and warm temperatures, until the last day. It was raining in Bologna, forecasted rain in Florence, but just cloudy in Rome. So Rome it was. I jumped onto and reserved us a spot a few blocks from the Coliseum. As the taxi pulled up to the Coliseum so we could tour the Roman Forum and Coliseum complex, he warned us about taxi drivers hanging out there to poach tourists.

The ruins in Rome

After hiking the entire complex with our backpacks, we welcomed the poaching and took the overpriced ride to our new home for the night. He pulled up to a dark alleyway – at the edge. He announced this was it, just up on the left and exited us from the taxi. It did not look commercially viable or pleasant in the least, but scooters were zooming up the little pathway as if it were a highway. We walked up a little, found the number over the door – a beat up, aged, white Fiat against the ancient building with graffiti. We called our hostess and she met us to let us in. What a surprise! Again, here English was amazing. Irene checked us into our room, led us to the tiny elevator, then foot-raced us up the ancient, circular, marble stairs to the fourth floor. Here she unlocked the thick timber, steel strapped door to our apartment. We had rented a first century one bedroom apartment, that while far from the charm of Locanda La Chiocciola, certainly had character.

Once situated, it was time to consider a meal. We popped in to visit Irene and ask her opinion on food in the area. She said to exit the building and turn left – WHAT!?! That’s up to the dark scary alley! Then turn left again at the corner. Well, when we turned left we passed a small bicycle shop with the coolest fixie, a mechanic changing a tire out front for a patron. “Buona Cerra, senore”. We get to the corner and a whole community of shops and precious views opens up to us.

We walk past gelaterias, a limoncello boutique, second-hand fashion shops, and finally to the restaurant that Irene had recommended. In English, it would be named “Home Made”. Fatto in Casa delivered a Pasta and Meatball plate to me that was like grandma’s… if I had an Italian Grandma! So good, plain, but flavorful, I savored our last meal of Italy.

Instead of fighting trains and taxis to get to the Rome Airport, we had Irene arrange a car. It was a Euro cheaper than a taxi ride and could be scheduled in advance. To our surprise, we shuffled down to street level and waiting for us at five in the morning was a shiny black Mercedes, with a well-dressed chauffeur. Our driver was awesome. He hammered it to the airport leaving us over an hour to spare.

I know this write up is long, and at times seems braggadocious, but I hope it inspires you. After airfare, this trip is cheaper and more fulfilling than taking my wife to San Diego for the weekend.  As long as this post is, it barely scratches the surface of the true experience. The whole bill at Locanda in Orte was less than seven-hundred Euro and that includes the wine with our 5-star meals and the spa appointment! Besides that, I found my best friend. Turns out she lives with me.