topics: Tuscany, University student life in Pisa, Bicincittà (Pisa and Roma), reducing traffic to maintain ruins; jump to dispatch

BikeAbout Log


Rider Notes: May 22-24, 1998

Food of the Day: "Buffa" pepperoni sausage... picante!

The family of Francesco Buffa (see Person of the Day has a tradition of making, among other things, delicious and spicy pepperoni sausage. Francesco learned both the recipe and the nuances of preparation (one of the secrets is to use just the right amount of dried and crushed peperoncino) from his grandmother.

Recently, after rearing a piglet he received as a present, he knew it was his turn to make the sausage on his own. After slaughtering the pig, cutting up the meat, mixing together all the secret ingredients and then stuffing it into its sausage container (in the old times this was intestines, while today it is something synthetic), he smoked it for three-four days and then stored it for six or more months.

We appreciate his labor both as a custom that keeps young people close to the land and their heritage... and because it makes for GREAT spicy sausage.

Person of the Day: our hosts, Francesco and Nicola click to view a photograph

Our host in Pisa was none other than 23-year-old Francesco Buffa click to view a photograph, the President, Treasurer, and Secretary of AEGEE-Pisa. (You may remember our Athenian escapades with the European AEGEE network of student exchanges.) AEGEE Pisa is a small group, as Pisa is quite a small town and its universities don't draw that many foreign students. Francesco formed the Pisa chapter of AEGEE two years ago after he had a great experience with the Florence chapter, and because he believes in the value of intercultural learning. He felt that Pisa could benefit from the same "spirit of exchange" and the shift from only Italian culture to a more "European" flavor.

We were welcomed with much enthusiasm by Francesco and his roommate, Nicola Chiumiento, pictured here second from the left. click to view a photograph As with many students in Pisa, neither Francesco nor Nicola is originally from Pisa. In fact, it's only because their families live so far away that they both hold down their Pisan fort on the weekends while their four other roommates go home. Francesco's hometown, called Catanzaro, is in the very far south near the ball of the foot on the "sole" of the Italian boot. Nicola is also from the south, near Salerno (not far from the Amalfi Coast), but is settling into Pisa for another four or five years studying aeronautical engineering. Francesco studies ground-vehicle mechanical engineering (translation: cars and motorbikes), but is almost finished with his six-year program.

Our time in Pisa was an incredible mix of pleasures enjoyed in the company of these two friends... and their friends. Despite the importance of their studies and a constant awareness of impending exams, both were tireless in their willingness to share Italian culture with us in all its forms. They cooked for us. They accompanied us to lunch. They showed us around town. They shared information and ice cream with us. They even played ping-pong, computer games, and watched television with us. And all when they should have been studying and we should have been working. We fear that we were all mutually distracting to one another. But we hope that the joy we felt is something they shared and that, in the end, as little harm befell their scholastic plans as befell our trip schedule.

We wish the best of luck to both our new friends, in their studies and in all other areas of life.

Place of the Day: Piazza dei Cavalieri, Pisa

The Piazza dei Cavalieri is the pleasant square that is home to the highly decorated Scuola Normale Superiore click to view a photograph and the Chiesa di Santo Stephano dei Cavalieri click to view a photograph, the latter having been inspired by one of the groups that were of the Order of the Knights of Malta.

This piazza, commonly chosen as a rendezvous point, was also the meeting place for Sunday's Bicincittà in Pisa, a national bike rally and tour happening simultaneously in 150 Italian cities, which in the end was postponed in Pisa due to the rain. The purpose of the event is to call attention to the value of the bicycle in urban environments, as well as to raise awareness of and funds for local health organizations, such as diabetes foundations and muscular dystrophy research. (See the Rider Notes for more about Bicincittà in Pisa and Roma.) The same bike time and same bike place were set for one week later, however, and we're sure it will be loads of fun.

Tech Fact of the Day: closing streets to auto traffic to save historical monuments

In more and more large metropolitan cities, especially in Europe, automobiles are prohibited from certain main streets on certain days as a step toward reducing urban pollution. This was the case 3 mornings a week in Napoli, where residents told us they could actually SEE the difference! For some places, however, it's necessary to stop or reduce the rapid disintegration of historical monuments, ruins, and architecture. Such is the case in Roma, and in Pisa as well, where a flood of bicycles can be found in the historic center (in parts of which cars are rarely allowed).

Group Dispatch, May 22-24
picture of Corinne

After a late night of trying to finish dispatches before leaving Roma, we awoke and left for the train station. Having afforded ourselves another day in Roma to take in a few more sights and enjoy the overwhelming hospitality of Giovanni and Paola, we knew that we couldn't bike all the way to Pisa and stay on schedule. So we had agreed to train ahead and get back on track. Arriving at the huge Roma Termini train station, we jumped the first train that would take bikes (and was leaving almost immediately), and had no choice but to avoid the very long lines at the ticket windows and pay on the train (with a slight but worthwhile penalty).

We disembarked at Grosseto and biked 94 km (58 mi) to Donoratico. The road more or less paralleled the main highway, winding around it here and again, back and forth from one side to the other. As usual, or at least what seems like it is usual, we were pointed straight into the teeth of the wind.

Of particular note was that we had finally entered the famed region of Tuscany, one of the most important (and expensive) areas of Italy, due to its fine foods and wines, and the crucial role it played as an historical and artistic center at the time of the Renaissance. In fact, Tuscany, an area where many prominent thinkers, philosophers, and artists both flocked and flourished particularly during the 15th century, is considered to be the very birthplace of the Renaissance. The Renaissance, of course, was a marvelous and crucial period of rekindled interest in classic thinking and art (following the renunciation of the previous rigid and dogmatic systems of the more Medieval and Gothic times). Some of the more famous names we identify with this period are: Michelangelo, Raphael, da Vinci, Bernini, Machiavelli, Bramante, Donatello, and the great de Medici family. Much of the foundation for "modern" western thought and artistic growth can be traced back to the Renaissance in Tuscany. Even today, the "Tuscana" remains a hub of artistic and intellectual activity.

But back to our much more mundane contemporary journey into this fascinating land. With us, unfortunately, confronted by so many kilometers to cover, the most interesting element to the day was after our very late lunch, when Ethan went ahead to look for a bank. That's when we lost him. The plan was to meet on the road out of town, before the main highway but on the secondary route we intended to take, in about 15 minutes. Padraic, Anthony, and Corinne waited on what they thought was the most obvious exit from the town for nearly an hour... but no Ethan. Finally, we decided he must be ahead of us, and proceeded onward. It was already fairly late. Ethan, it turned out, had never found an open bank and also waited at what he thought was the most obvious exit from town. Obviously, there was a difference of opinion...

However, all four riders having reunited down the road in San Vincenzo, where we had decided to stop for the night, we discovered that there were NO reasonably priced rooms available in this seaside resort town. It was after all Friday night; the weekend had begun.

This put us straight back on the road in search of an affordable hotel that would also take credit cards. It may not sound like it, but this prescription can be a challenge to fill. Fortunately, a successful find in Donoratico, 18 km (11 mi) further on, was a welcome relief. We dined and, with 18 fewer kilometers to do the next day than we had expected, we stayed up a little late working. And didn't rush out the next morning, either. Ethan was even able to download email from the hotel room, which is a big luxury for us.

In fact, a very important email had come in from someone in Pisa. Another student, Francesco (see the Person of the Day), from the AEGEE network had written and offered to help us find places to sleep in Pisa. What luck! It was perfectly timed as well, since Corinne had mistakenly written that we would be arriving a day later. Calling to confirm that we would be able to meet our hosts that night in Pisa, Corinne was not too surprised by the general reaction from Francesco's roommates: "TONIGHT?!?" A little phone and language shuffling established that we should call back later. However, we had understood that basically all would probably be well.

We were understandably excited about Pisa. While it is famous for its Leaning Tower - a monument we wouldn't miss - we were also eager to see this surprisingly small town. And our contact with students was all the more encouraging. Pisa is a city kept busy by thousands of students attending the prestigious University of Pisa, the esteemed Scuola Normale Superiore, and the excellent Academy of Fine Arts. Plus, it is a city for cyclists. The many bridges over the Arno River continually zoom with student traffic on bike and moped, as it's the cheaper and easier way around traffic.

On this extremely lovely bike day to Pisa from Donoratico, as opposed to hugging the coast, we passed, for a change, through slightly inland little towns and rolling fields. Whereas, during the Middle Ages, when Pisa was on the shores of the Ligurian Sea (part of the Mediterranean), it was a great port city (and one of the four great maritime powers of Italy, also including Venezia [Venice], Amalfi, and Genova [Genoa]), today, silting caused by the waters of the Arno River and the sea itself have sent it inland and stolen from it the maritime glory of its past. So, climbing into the farm areas and amidst the hills, the roadside weeds, grasses, and flowers towered above us at points, and a few tunnels brought us out onto one green, mountainous view after the next.

Around 1 p.m., we stopped for sandwiches, fruit, cookies, and iced tea in a little town called Cecina, and watched the town's park and playground clear out click to view a photograph and every shop shut down for the afternoon. click to view a photograph Ahhh, Italy. You see, in Italy, people keep very regular hours that can be infuriating to those who find them difficult to follow. Basically, everything - EVERYTHING - but restaurants shuts for a few hours at some point between 1 and 4 p.m. To us this has meant that if we do not shop for lunch stuffs before 1 p.m., we stay hungry until the earliest store opens (usually around 3:30). So we always try to make a break before 1.

Corinne took advantage of the pause to call Francesco again and see if the house had calmed down enough to accept the sudden and early arrival of the BikeAbouters. Sure enough, he said he would help, by offering the beds of his roommates who had left for the weekend. After another quick explanation of who we are and what we're doing, a time was arranged and we looked forward to meeting Francesco and his flatmates.

Biking the remaining distance into Pisa, we were still bent into the headwind, which had not abated since yesterday, and we all arrived in Pisa sweat-soaked and salty. This was unfortunately our best foot forward when we met Francesco at a busy roundabout at the southern edge of town. But he didn't seem to mind. Besides, he seemed to understand since he had ridden his bike to meet us and then lead us straight to his room, friends and roommates (oh yeah... and his shower) at the Rosellini Student Residence. click to view a photograph He explained right away that technically guests are not allowed, but he routinely made exceptions to the rule. It helps that he's one of the student supervisors of the building.

That evening and throughout the weekend we learned a lot about student life in Pisa. This was all in the spirit of an abundance of hospitality that we greatly enjoyed.

First, from the very beginning, Francesco, his roommate Nicola, and their friend Vanessa click to view a photograph, using family recipes for pizza, pasta sauce, and sausage, carefully and laboriously prepared a wonderful meal. The special "Buffa" sausage (see the Food of the Day) that was served at the end of the meal was handmade in the local tradition by Francesco (Buffa) himself from a pig he had reared himself on his family's property. We felt guilty about keeping them from their studies, but the meal was beyond delicious. Both Francesco and Nicola, our People of the Day, are engineering students and have to work hard. Students in Italy are like students everywhere in that they must think about their grades. And for Francesco and Nicola, who study at the University of Pisa, which specializes in engineering and medicine, it's an even tougher job. For example, the Rosellini dorm building is not just a regular dorm. It requires its residents to earn extremely high marks just to maintain their flats!

In fact, the Academy of Fine Arts and Scuola Normale Superiore are also known for their competitive and high-ranking test score requirements. But this is all in the Tuscan tradition of excellence. Galileo, born near Pisa, was a Professor of Mathematics at the University of Pisa in the 16th century. He purportedly demonstrated his famous gravity experiment from the Leaning Tower of Pisa. The physicist and mathematician Evangelista Torricelli, who in the 1600s made significant contributions to calculus, geometry, and mechanics based on Galileo's findings, was from this area as well. And there are plenty of artists and architects who contributed to the charm of the city, which has survived mostly intact despite damages rendered during World War II.

However, if ever a visitor feels that Pisa is too small, or a student just needs a break from studying, he or she can make a quick jaunt to Florence, the main hub of Tuscany, for big city flare and fun. We didn't have a chance to visit Florence ourselves, but we hear it's a pretty wild time, full of even more cultural and artistic life.

Sunday the 24th was supposed to be a big media and public exposure day for BikeAbout, as there was a countrywide bicycle advocacy event in which we would participate in two cities simultaneously. (Remember, we first learned about this when we were in San Giorgino di Nogara?) Called BICINCITTÀ (BIKESINCITIES), the goal was for bicyclists in 150 cities of Italy to take the streets on Sunday morning, bike tour around their town, and raise funds and awareness for a variety of causes. Ethan took a train to Roma with his bike - leaving at 4:30 in the pouring morning rain! - to make a BikeAbout presence there and push for some media attention from the many expected television, radio, and newspaper journalists.

Suffice it to say that nothing went as planned. When, at 9 a.m., Anthony, Padraic, and Corinne arrived at Pisa's Piazza dei Cavalieri to meet Alfredo Bismuto click to view a photograph and the other Bicincittà activists and bicyclists, it was still raining. We were a little early, but it was already obvious that the turnout was low. Lingering for a little while click to view a photograph, we BikeAbouters were ready to see Pisa rain or not, and looked forward to the guided tour on bike since it's such a great way to explore nearly any town. However, after some time, Alfredo decided to reschedule the event for the following Sunday morning, in hopes for better weather and more participants. click to view a photograph

Meanwhile, in Roma, Ethan also experienced a bit of a disappointment at the Bicincittà there. The point of his adventure to Roma was to join the event in Italy's capital and largest city, reach out to the press and public, and man a presentation table at the event. However, the low turnout in such a vastly populated city, and minimal media presence, made the effort greater than the reward. The 10-km (6-mi) tour through Roma was worth it, though.

Ethan, after his hazy and moist ride on the train back to Roma, set out across the city to the event's starting point. He was looking forward to meeting again with Fabio Mariotti click to view a photograph of UISP Roma with whom he had met a few days earlier. He was also excited about the principle behind the nationwide experience. Designed, among many other things, as a means of calling attention to the bicycle as a tool that helps improve urban air quality and fosters good health amongst people too often caught in time- and resource-wasting traffic jams that only cause respiratory diseases and decrease the quality of life in cities, Bicincittà is an event with its heart and motivation in the right place.

So what happened? Well, Ethan made it to the flag- and banner-spangled starting line click to view a photograph where he was indeed warmly met by Fabio and others. The organizers and every one of the 40-50 gathered riders were milling around seemingly waiting for others (hundreds?) to show before beginning. click to view a photograph click to view a photograph But they never did. So, after a short delay, final announcements were made click to view a photograph and the small group followed a very busy and very effective police escort through the city. Sometimes on bike paths, sometimes on usually busy streets, the parade of eager morning cyclists, initially and very briefly led by a colorful group of tricyclists click to view a photograph click to view a photograph, wound through the city and some 45 minutes later ended up on the Via dei Fori Imperiali not far from the Coliseum. (This usually busy street was closed to traffic... which made it a joy to pedal up and down. click to view a photograph)

There, tables full of pamphlets had been set up and introductions were made using a loudspeaker. Free Gatorade (one of the event's sponsors) was distributed and local groups did a bit of networking. The Associazione Diabete Infantile e Giovanile (Juvenile Diabetes Foundation in Italia), one of the major collaborators, was particularly active. Basically, every effort was made to give the area a feeling of joyous actualization, the final celebration after months of planning. (The tricyclists played an important role in encouraging a festive air.) While Ethan and the cyclists did enjoy themselves and Ethan spoke to a few reporters and local organizations' representatives, the small size of the group was still a visible disappointment to many of the UISP organizers. It was much more a reflection of the Roman mentality about bicycling in the city than it was of the considerable organizational effort and months of planning that had been put into the event. (For more information about the great work being done by UISP in Roma and all around Italy, please see tomorrow's dispatch.) Ethan was certainly happy to have met the small number of dedicated people who turned out for the event.

After the official event tour, Ethan serenely wandered the city by bike, a luxury since inner city roads were closed to cars on this particular Sunday (perhaps every Sunday?), but completely open to bike and pedestrian traffic. This helps in a small but significant way to reduce pollution in city centers, as well as "preserve" (or rather reduce the rapid disintegration of) the many different ruins, architectural masterpieces, and other relics which provide such a magnificent picture of Roman history. Closing streets to automobile traffic for the sake of historical ruins is our Tech Fact of the Day, and a model for more and more cities to consider. Pisa is also a historical monument of sorts, which is why it is also prime for bicycling. Many areas are prohibited for motor vehicles, some of which are quite close to the University buildings. This would explain the proliferation of bicycles and increasing bicycle traffic in town.

Back in Pisa, Corinne, Padraic and Anthony, unable to bike as planned, instead ran off to spend the morning getting a first glimpse of the town themselves, and caught this picture of the Tower, just as it was falling over!! click to view a photograph Just kidding... But it sure looked funny leaning over so far. click to view a photograph

In the early afternoon, Francesco and Nicola took us to lunch with them at the Mensa, or student cafeteria, and we were caught up in the frenzy of trying to find a place where we could lock our bikes. click to view a photograph Every space in or near the bike racks was occupied click to view a photograph, but there were also other designated areas for bikes, as indicated by a fairly creative means click to view a photograph and so we joined the ranks. click to view a photograph

The student cafeteria services nearly 40,000 students from all the universities in Pisa, and thus is a continually bustling place. click to view a photograph Because it was the weekend, we had less trouble than we hear is normal in finding a table. click to view a photograph Settling down for our lunch, it was another opportunity for us to learn more about our hosts click to view a photograph in an environment where BikeAbouters do what they do best: eat! click to view a photograph

After lunch, despite his very demanding school and social schedule, Francesco gave us a walking tour of the area. Right around the corner from the Mensa was the Piazza dei Cavalieri, our Place of the Day, and the spot where the Scuola Normale Superiore click to view a photograph and the buildings click to view a photograph of the local chapter of the Order Knights of Malta, called the Knights of Saint Stephen, are located. Nicola also accompanied us on this mini-tour, and easily led us to the best gelato place in town click to view a photograph located on the Piazza Garibaldi. click to view a photograph Did we mention how much we liked Nicola? A lot!

Back at our hosts' pad, Padraic and Anthony spent the afternoon watching the Giro d'Italia and other goodies on cable TV, while Corinne and our hosts plowed into their respective homework.

In the evening it was yet another wonderful meal prepared by our hosts. Ethan arrived just in time to rescue his serving from our plates and share some details about our days. Before the meal was over, we decided to spend yet another day in Pisa, as we still weren't caught up on dispatches, and had yet to explore Pisa in full. There's so much to see, and we hope for a clearer day to take it all in tomorrow.

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