La Bellezza di Far Niente
Imagine you travel over 4,000 miles and literally run into someone you know – in an outdoor café, in a tiny piazza, in a random hillside village.
It seems unlikely but this is exactly what happened as we turn up a corner into the heart of Castelnuovo Berardenga, an enigmatic little Sienese town adorned with murals, giant gourds, and reams of pastel laundry drying in the autumn sun… and spot Heidi Swift.
By our account, the mere act of jumping on a bike in these parts automatically catapults you into a kind of global community whirlwind – where tourists and pros, cycling industry veterans and weekend enthusiasts, journalists and photographers all somehow arrive at this magical intersection. While their culture and bragging rights are worthy, there may not be as great a mass appeal to tackling the gritty cobbles in Flanders, the unforgiving climb up the French Alps, or the brutal beauty of crossing the Andalucian dessert as there is in the laconic roll of the Etruscan hills.
This is the beauty of Tuscany.
This past October we spent four days filming with a boutique cycling tour company in the hills just south of Florence. While much of our year is spent chasing bike racers around Europe, the culmination of the 2013 Road World Championships marked the beginning of the much needed off-season for us. The timing was perfect to take on a new project and spending a few days leisurely meandering through vineyard-lined roads seemed like just the kind of gig we were seeking.
As it turns out, a media colleague of ours, Peter Easton, runs Velo Classic Cycling and had a special Tuscan trip lined up for the week after the race. It was specifically designed for several of his longtime clients and he was eager to have someone there to capture their adventures along the way. So as we reassembled our cameras, dried off our mucked up rain gear, and put on some fresh faces we made our way into the rolling hills of the Provincia di Siena to meet up with Peter’s group.
The first thing we noticed was the impossibly steep gravel road leading down to their villa… the likes of which bring up visions of a springtime Strade Bianche with plumes of dust enveloping the wayward voyager. But at the bottom sprawled out an unassuming but luxurious “cascina” where meals were taken on the veranda overlooking the valley and the hosts’ cooking was something to pine over after a long ride.
The first day we spent with them was an exercise in letting the journey unfold organically. While we made the same professional effort to “chase” them on their ride as we would shoot any bike race, we still managed to lose the group several times down one-way roads and unpredictable turns.
Jim and I eventually began to settle in to the capturing of their experience with the idea of recreating everything they might see from the bike, while whizzing by. We kept vigil for the details, the passing scenics, the velvety road surface, the musky clusters of late harvest grapes.
We were at their sides for the cypress-lined roads, the much anticipated lunch stops, the mid-ride cultural visit to the Gino Bartali Museum, the coffee breaks, and the afternoon sun on their grins after more then 90 kilometers in the saddle.
Back at the villa, relaxation set in nicely with a cool dunk in the glistening pool, frosty Moretti beers, and the aromas of dinner wafting from the kitchen.
In those four days we saw the heart of Tuscany and a glimpse into the seduction of riding there – one guest described the roads as being “made for cyclists first and foremost.” We understood the allure of so many passionate riders taking to those rural stretches.
We encountered each other on perfectly serene climbs, wildly rugged descents, leisurely little paese where a moment’s repose was a great excuse to take in the big vista. In Italian they say this is la bellezza di far niente literally meaning the beauty of doing nothing, being utterly in the moment and basking in it.
In the end we concluded that spending so much of our time photographing bike racing can sometimes mean we forget what it’s like to just get on the bike and ride – for the love of it, without a ticking clock, and without a finish line.
And where better than in such a timeless place as Tuscany; where the rich soil wraps around ancient vines, old stone villas nestle in the hillside nooks, and the cuisine and wine lingers in your memory long after it leaves your palate. It may be the easiest place to spend a week on and off the bike. Period.
And who knows, you might just run into someone you know.