Bike Across Italy - Day 4 - Genga to Gubbio (32 miles)

Gubbio: The annual Candle Race (La Festa dei Ceri) starts day before with all Gubbio townsfolk in festival dress
Towns: Grotto de Frassasi, Sassoferrato, Scheggia, Ponte Calcara, Gubbio

MAY 15, 2007


WE STARTED the day with a visit to one of the most spectacular limestone caves in Europe - the Grotto de Frassasi (10 Euro pp). You enter through a long, damp tunnel with portcullis-like doors that slide open and shut behind you. Like 'Get Smart' meets 'Batman'. This natural wonder is indeed wondrous. A yawning subterranean cavern that could hold the entire Duomo of Milan and then some, with rivers, lakes and ravines, spiked by fantastic butterscotch-colored pillars sprouting from the distant roof and floor.

One's sense of perspective is completely flummoxed in this place. The guide pointed to a stalactite called the Madonna, that looked, oh, about 4 feet tall, and told us it was 24 feet tall. A series of thin, foot-long spaghetti tubes were the newest formations, yet had taken 100 years to form by a slow drip of water. How did they measure that stalactite waaaaaayyy up there? With a helium balloon on a string, of course! The walkway and lighting throughout suggested some spelunker had probably died and gone to heaven fitting this joint out. You're not allowed to touch the limestone, but a grubby pillar here and there shows how irresistible it is to do so.

On exiting, we were greeted by Dana holding out a plate of soft, fresh made cherry cookies ...

'THE MOST gentle passage through the Appenines' said the route card.

It was indeed a gradual climb, but if the weather had been cool, it would have seemed a lot gentler. However, as this was now Day 4, and all of us were already feeling stronger and grimacing less.

The scenery was not unlike Oregon, with the road quietly winding through wooded mountains and occasionally shaded roads. There was an extra 7-mile loop for the dedicated but I stuck to the scenic regular route that wended through very peaceful and verdant countryside at a lower altitude, dotted with lipstick-red poppies.

The optional 10 Euro lunch was served by a family with a roadside house and eaterie in Ponte Calcara - basically a tiny a place without a postcard. The eaterie was largely an extension of their kitchen. Rice salad, salad, cold meats, bread, fruit shortcake, coffee, wine. The produce was picked fresh out of their garden just a few steps across the road.

More climbing and a massive descent led into the ancient walled city of Gubbio - a National Geographic photographer's dream. Pushing the bike up the steep cobbled streets, you really feel like you're an extra in one of those medieval epics with fantastic sets - only this isn't sheet rock and scaffolding and fake beards. Our hotel tonight was the 5-star Relais Ducale, an amazing castle-like setting right on the Duomo central plaza, and resembling a giant balcony overlooking the countryside below.

We were greeted by a stylish thirty-something who looked like he'd stepped out of Esquire, the Italia edition of course: navy pinstripe suit, pink shirt, red tie, slicked back hair. He offered to take our bikes but I was determined not to get grease on that immaculate pink shirt.

"Don't worry, I already moved all the other bikes."

Hello, an American accent?

He was from Pennsylvania, and had married an Italian girl - who just happen to be the owner of the divine hotel. In fact, she also owned Albergo Bosone down the road, where Dana, Andrea and I were lodged.

Was this gent homesick for the strip malls, big box stores and parking lots of PA? I didn't bother to ask.

After stashing our bikes in a cobbled courtyard, we all disappeared into the labyrinth-like bowels of this fantastic edifice, surfacing on the rooftop garden bursting with flowers. I asked for a sandwich from the bar, intending to eat it upstairs in front of my laptop in one of the ornate lounges. The Boss Couple said it was OK. The splendidly suited attendant at the desk was aghast, and told me it was impossible. Clearly, I've been slumming it in stripmallandia way too long!

Europe is very 'proper'. I pondered why a certain NY customer from Germany, who divides her time between the USA and a spectacular other life in one of the choicest spots in Europe, wouldn't just delete America from her life's itinerary and stay in Europe sipping cappucinos, ski, cycle ...

'Ah, Europe is too strict, inflexible,' she said. 'America is still more free.'

The meal this evening was in an extremely classy and historic hole in the wall called Taverna del Lupe, a scenic totter down a twisty lane and through a little red door.

The menu tonight was a fruit and arugula salad with a vinaigrette, veal and vegetables, with a dessert of a blob of cream with wafer and chocolate sauce. The dessert had previously been advertised as something quite different, involving ice cream and berries.

For some reason this meal was voted the best yet by many of the group, yet I thought it more a 'tourist' menu, with the opening salad the only real highlight. The portions were more appropriately smaller, however, that our last few utter blowouts. I think most of the flavor was provided by the ambience - a bricked ceiling curved overhead making us feel like we were in Don Corleone's private vestibule, with an impressive wine annexe behind a scrolly wrought iron door.

The dessert in particular seemed very hastily put together - a blob of cream with wafer, choc bits and chocolate sauce - hello? Having worked as a trainee 'chef' in few fancy restaurants in my travels, you have to forgive me for jumping on these details. The service however, was outstanding, as we have come to expect in every restaurant we've eaten at in Italy.

Dana and I secretly concurred that the unusual and regional meal served in Urbino, with those strange fat home made noodles ... was our favorite.

Tomorrow: a rest day in Gubbio to witness the mad, mad, mad, mad La Festa dei Ceri, or Candle Race.

And finally ... Wendy's How To Keep on Keeping on Climbing tip: chew gum! It keeps your mouth well lubricated with saliva, she insists.

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