In this period, the air is becoming gray and mysterious, like it’s keeping a secret. The Romagnoli have started wearing their insulated down jackets as if cold weather is already here. But it’s not — even if everyone’s running around in their puffy coats saying, “Winter is coming” like they’re extras on a Game of Thrones set.
The knowledge that winter is closer to our doors than next summer imbibes each sunny day with that it-might-be-the-last kind of feeling. I suppose it was this that spurred my trusty steed Penny and I to undertake a mini, backyard bike tour. That and the Spirit of Adventure which, upon the first semblance of calm and routine, is tapping me on the shoulder to say, let’s go to Asia or California. On second thought, perhaps Croatia. Or how about another trip to Mexico or Bulgaria?
Or Dozza — a medieval hilltop town — where a fellow English teacher friend named Victoria owns a pastoral airbnb. From her farmstay, it was possible to march straight uphill and right into Dozza, teetering above. We’d have to shut the gates so Victoria’s excitable Jack Russel terrier, Frank Sinatra and his black, more docile counterpart Nina Simone couldn’t follow us up through the fields and vineyards.
Same went for the two orange and white kittens that I fell in love with the first time I set eyes on them, asleep on the woodpile and curled around each other like matching, gloved hands.
But I didn’t know any of that yet as I turned off known roads outside of the terme (or spa) town of Riolo Terme. I was searching for Via del Monte, a road that would quickly make good sense of its name as it took me up and over to the next valley. Once I made the turn, I started climbing up through apple orchards and past the uniquely eroded, sharply ridged calanchi hills typical of this area.
I was heading into the Parco Regionale della Vena del Gesso Romagnola, basically a regional park situated around and showcasing this badland-like area and its aforementioned formations of rock. The park in general is a cave-dotted and also rather sparsely-populated slice of Romagna. I hadn’t yet explored the Apennine valleys I had been sweating in as I climbed — exactly the idea behind this tour.
The higher I got, the more rural the route became. At the top, the road morphed into a steep dirt road and I began to wonder who’d planned that route… Eventually, however, it leveled out and afforded me a splendid view across the hills and into the pianura, or flatlands that lead to the Adriatic sea.
By the time I reached the charmingly forgotten hilltop town of Tossignano with its crumbling castle and twisting medieval streets, my legs were feeling the challenges of the route so far. The last couple kilometers up to Tossignano were literally a paved ramp; a mountain biker shooting down the slope I was grinding up gave me a thumbs up and an appreciative nod.
After Tossignano came Borgo Tossignano, the typical, modern and commercial part of the town. Here I steered right and downhill, onto busier roads that I ached to escape by taking one of the numerous shortcuts I found on Googlemaps. Like usual, this turned out to be a huge mistake…
But that’s bike touring! In the end, finding myself on a glorified tractor trail, I backtracked downhill towards the outskirts of Imola. An eventual left turn spat me right back into the countryside again to a more docile road and a steep driveway. Parking Penny outside a whitewashed farmhouse, I was greeted by the aforementioned animals named after well-known jazz singers.
After a suitably hot shower and a brief reprieve, my host/friend Victoria and I headed into Dozza courtesy of the grassy scramble. The original plan had been lunch, but we settled for aperitivo, since Googlemaps had obviously had other plans for me…
When it was time for Victoria to return home and prepare dinner, I dipped into a local Osteria. I sat contentedly alone in a softly lit corner amidst a sea of couples whispering over romantic dinners. We were surrounded by old postcards and vintage pictures of both Dozza and a host of Italian movie stars.
To the amusement of the friendly waitstaff, I ate like three people after a day of bike touring, ordering strozzapretti con speck e rucola followed by verdure grigliate and for dessert, a caffe affogato con nutella e panna.
In the morning, I awoke surprisingly hungry. Victoria had made porridge, which was a mutually beneficial situation: her family hates the stuff and so refuses to eat it but I was happy to eat pretty much whatever, as usual. Over our steaming bowls, we chatted.
“So, I know I said just one night…” I said, adding more brown sugar to my bowl. “But is the room available tonight, too?” The next day’s weather was all sunshine and safe passages back to Faenza and for once I had no pressing agenda. There was no reason not to linger.
“Absolutely,” Victoria said and I was filled with the joy of having nothing to do then but ride up through the sun-soaked Vallelustra, whose slopes birth such wines as Albana and Sangiovese.
After breakfast, I started up the rural, Cyprus and vineyard-lined valley so dear to Imolese cyclists. It quickly became evident why: despite most of the pavement having survived some sort of apocalypse (except the top, which was shockingly perfect in contrast), the climb was surprisingly consistent and therefore pleasant.
Hours went by, lost in ample sunshine and spacious views at the top of the ridges. I was in the sort of heaven one finds when not seeking to be anywhere else at all.
In the tiny town of Sassoleone, I went in search of water and found it in front of a church, as I often did. Behind the fountain was a tall, gray tower piercing the blue sky. A modest granite memorial plaque at its base had been recently draped in a garland bearing the colors of Italy: green, white and red.
Twenty-two names were listed and as I read the inscription my heart sank: these people were locked inside the old church and it was set on fire. All of this because it was 1944 and they had been Jews.
Not to get too political or serious — although maybe I shouldn’t apologize — but it was for me a sobering reminder in our own different but equally troubled times. Specifically, of what monstrosities humans are capable of committing upon each other. And how the hateful things we do never become any less hateful after fifty or a hundred years. Hate is hate, no matter the reason behind it.
Heading back, lost in my thoughts, I spotted two cyclists who appeared to be in their mid-fifties. Their bikes were lying on the bushy grass on the side of the road, although they appeared to be at ease. Just in case, I asked, “Tutto bene?” Everything ok?
I was rewarded by two smiles, twenty minutes of good-natured conversation and a handful of apples. The man pulled them down from a roadside tree for me, explaining that they supposedly only grow in that area of Italy. These fruits were small, crunchy and tangy and I was still finishing them the next day as I rode back to Faenza.
In the evening, I spent hours wandering around Dozza and enjoying the plethora of diverse and often whimsical murals the tiny paesino is famous for. Its compact medieval-ness captured whatever bits of my heart hadn’t been snatched up over the years by more of the same.
Over pizzas that evening, Victoria told me that every other year in September, Dozza invites artists to descend upon its cobbled streets to add more murals to the collection. The years when painters aren’t in town, Dozza hosts a popular fantasy festival that is probably the inspiration for one of my favorite murals in Dozza:
When autumn’s long evening shadows succumbed to darkness, Victoria’s husband retired to his impressive collection of records in the other wing. Meanwhile the three girls — Victoria and I and one of her daughters — watched an episode of “Bake Off Italia.”
I realized joyfully that not only was I able hang with an hour and a half of Italian TV, but I also easily followed the drama. It didn’t seem so long ago at all when after an hour of poorly executed conversation in Italian, my brain was as tired as the legs of a back-to-back marathon runner.
In the morning, I reluctantly packed up and pointed Penny back towards Faenza. I hadn’t actually decided which route to take back until I got to the end of the driveway… one way was up and over to Sassoleone again and down an undiscovered valley to the train station in Castel San Pietro. There, I could take a treno regionale back to Faenza.
But my wheels turned downhill with gravity and I gamely followed. Downhill at least to the outskirts of Imola, that is. I stopped to snap a picture of its impressive rocca, or fortress — Rocca Sforzesca. Again, a completely new area to me despite living just twenty-some kilometers away.
Post-castle, I succumbed to some serious route finding until I reached Via Bergullo, which immediately began to climb into the sunkissed colline, or hills. An eventual right on Via Lola sent me on a nose dive off the ridge and into a sea of vineyards.
Then came another ramp which I definitely didn’t remember seeing on Googlemaps — probably because I never even looked. Planning was definitely of low priority on this trip; I preferred to go where the wind blew me and the result of this was unexpected climbs and sore legs. And splendid views saturated with that fall light that is so sweet it makes your heart hurt.
Back in Faenza, I pulled Penny into the bottom of the stairway, pulled off the panniers and carried first them and then the bike up the long flight of cobwebbed stairs. In the apartment, I had a to-do list a kilometer long, an empty fridge, recycling to take out and English lessons to plan. Adulting, in other words.
Starting laundry, I found myself transported back to a day when I was about fifteen. It was another autumn and we’d just finished dinner — maybe my mom’s well-worn and still delectable “Pasta Florencia,” laden with pesto, chicken sausage and sundried tomatoes. After doing the dishes, she and I had one of those hormone-induced, door-slamming fights and I remember thinking, “I can’t wait to be an adult!”
Of course, as an adult, I would think back with a wry grin to nights like that. I’d wish I could revert back to the days before bills, health insurance, divorces, broken vehicles, unforeseen dental work and life-wasting, brain-sucking phone calls with AT&T.
Opening the window to let the fall air waft in, the sound of the pealing bells from nearby Chiesa della Commenda echoed off the high ceilings in my “grandma apartment.” I call it as such because it was decorated by a grandma and everything she chose, I now use.
I smiled as I began unpacking my bike panniers, which kind of wreaked like fine French cheese but were just full of dirty cyclist clothes. I’d been thinking that clueless teenage me must’ve somehow had a premonition, because being adult Sylva is nothing less than a dream.