Archive for January, 2010

The Dumbarton Loop Saturday, January 23rd, 2010

Up the San Francisco Peninsula over the Dumbarton Bridge to Newark, Niles, Fremont, Milpitas and back through North San Jose,  Alviso,  Santa Clara and home, Sunnyvale. About 70 miles.

In my world there are boxes. Many, many boxes ordered in rows and columns. They are bonded together by a force which emanates from my being. They are re-ordered according to my interests, current needs and desires, my hopes and dreams, my successes and failures. They grow as I grow. This reticulated pattern is not static but in constant motion as I navigate through the ebb and flows of life. The rows undulate and the columns elongate but the bonding force brings all back in order. There are times, though, that this delicate and beautiful symmetry is disturbed and all is rendered in ghastly oranges and shadows and confusion and disjointedness and stress and distorted faces of anguish. That’s when I am at the edges of control, at the nadir of confidence or from another angle, my bios are low. My boxes are crashing into each other. There is no symmetry, or beauty, no ebbs nor flows. When I find myself in such a state I embark on my ‘happy ride’. No, not drugs or booze, but a simple bicycle ride which takes me far enough away to put perspective back in my life. Order to my boxes.

The South Bay Area. What a magnificent place. I suppose that from my perspective it’s a love affair. During the last forty five years I’ve gone through all the phases of love. I’ve been infatuated by it, I’ve grown disenchanted. I’ve hated it. I’ve abandoned it. I’ve missed it and been miserable without it. And I’ve returned with deep understanding of what it truly is and intention never to leave it. I love living here and now I delight discovering its bits of history which go unnoticed by the hectic bustle of high powered business.

Gorgeous U. Santa Clara Campus & Mission

Gorgeous U. Santa Clara Campus & Mission

I first came to Santa Clara Valley, the future home of Silicon Valley, in 1965 to attend the Jesuit run University of Santa Clara. With my laden four door, green Chevy Biscayne I traveled the hour and a half  from Marin County down Bayshore Freeway. Now it’s eight lanes of continuous traffic…but, back then it dwindled to two lanes with traffic light at the Santa Clara exit where I would drive through apricot, pear and prune orchards to exit onto El Camino Real to the university. The cities to the north, Sunnyvale, Cupertino,  Mt. View, Palo Alto, Los Altos were all separated by orchards as opposed to today’s continuous suburban growth to San Francisco.

Some of us are not cut out for the corporate life. You know, the meetings, the image and perception, the appearance of bus-i-ness and stuff. It was not me. So, one day, an associate and I bought a bankrupt bar and restaurant. We knew a little and were ignorant of a lot. But the place was smack dab in the middle of what was to be ‘Silicon Valley’ and after some experimental iterations we found the profitable formula. Silicon Valley literally grew around us and we prospered. We catered to Atari, Lockheed, Northern Telecom, National Semi, AMD and scores of other  nascent technical companies who would write Silicon Valley history. It was wild, unpredictable and always exciting. Money flowed freely and we were having the times of our lives. This era, of course, is one of the bonding elements which cemented the affection which I have for this little piece of the world which I now call home.

So, when I ride it’s more than physical exercise for the health, although that is important. It’s more than the enjoyment of the sights and sounds which the road presents. It’s more than the feeling of freedom which only an open road with no schedule can produce. It’s a link with the past, the discovery of the history, an appreciation of what life was like when there were only native Indians about the Bay, or the Spanish and Mission era or the agrarian roots of the early twentieth century, the railroads, the ferryboats from Alviso to San Francisco, the bordellos and hunting clubs of Drawbridge, the present effort to refurbish the eco-system of the Bay and many more. All layers which are there, real, waiting to be discovered and integrated into one’s consciousness and appreciated as one rides.

It had been a tough week of negotiations to close a real estate deal for a good client. The agent I was dealing with was combative and recalcitrant and made a simple transaction difficult and unpleasant. But….in the end my client got a good deal, the transaction closed and I was left emotionally spent. The stage was perfect for my ‘happy ride’.

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Steven’s Creek Trail

I began slowly on a breezy, sunny, Sunday morning. The air was washed clean from ten continuous days of rain. The bank and a bit of cash for lunch was my first stop on El Camino.  Then…onto the semi deserted roads of tech area of Silicon Valley to Steven’s Creek Trail. Slowly I would focus on lush vegetation and bushes in bloom, and a tidy unlittered path and occasional happy voices filtering through from nearby paths and…best of all the tension in my body eased and soon disappeared. I breathed deeply and filled my lungs and smiled as I began to think of the day’s itinerary. A full day of adventure and discovery. How exciting!

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 As I neared the Bay the path rose to provide a fine view of Hangar One and Moffet Field. Hangar One, built in the early thirties to house helium filled dirigibles used for reconnaissance, was the home of the U.S.S. Macon till its crash and demise off the coast of Monterey in 1935. During its brief history the Macon was used as a flying platform for its five ‘Sparrowhawk’ Biplanes which would be launched and retrieved mid-air using a hook and trapeze system. During WW II the hangar housed a small fleet of derigibles  used for submarine reconnaissance off the California coast. Since those days the iconic hangar has functioned in conjunction with NASA-Ames whose technology paved the way for Silicon Valley. Now it stands as a unique piece of architecture reminiscent of another era and visible from many spots around the Bay.

So, I arrive at the Bay. Some folks are taking fotos of nesting areas set in the marshes. Others are jogging or bike riding. A stream of cars head for the nearby Shoreline Golf Course beside the looming Shoreline Amphitheater. Off in the distance is the graceful rise of the Dumbarton Bridge fading into the eastern foothills of Alameda County. As I ride the levees water fowl rise and settle in nearby reeds and the occasional goose yields the path without concern. Placards with historical notes and various species to be observed are set at vantage points. I wind my way through a busload of senior tourists lead by a docent. Some seem to be annoyed with me as I weave though the lissome crowd. ‘There are sloughs and estuaries and nesting areas and ponds and such. I stop and smell wild anise growing in clumps with tender shoots and a wonderful sharp, fresh scent. The air is clean and a cloud cover casts a somber tone to the scene.

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Enjoying a nature walk on a Saturday morning.

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Southern Pacific track constructed in 1910 for trans-bay-East Palo Alto to  Newark-passenger service was closed in 1972.

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Safe and secure bike lane on the Dumbarton Bridge provides bird eye view of the South Bay.

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South Bay from Alameda foothills.

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 A dash of beauty along the way!

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 Along Paseo Padre Parkway in Fremont. A sea of mustard today…industrial park and hi-tek firms tomorrow!

So, I leave East Palo Alto, the city that never quite made it, and head over the Dumbarton Bridge to Niles, now a section of Fremont but formerly a town with an iconic history and a distinct flavor. The height of the bridge, the segregated path, the undulating waters below, the gusts of wind, the smells of the bay, the distant shoreline with noticeable landmarks all provide a surreal setting…a setting for the mind to wander untethered by the realities of life. The KGO radio station with its tall antenna stands on the east side and I wonder if it’s still in operations as it looks rather deserted. How does that work? Perhaps the studios are in San Francisco and this is a transmission point with the best vantage spot for the Bay. Levees meander in sweeping curves and separate and unite at the abandoned rail line with drawbridges upright and deserted buildings and all fade into the grays waters and mist.  Must be remnants of the salt ponds and are now being restored to eco friendly wetlands rich with water fowl and amphibian life and marsh creatures. Behind are the opulent cities of the San Francisco Peninsula, Stanford University, the upscale shopping centers, the folks who compost, the vegans, the politically correct, the upwardly mobile, the intellectually elite, the globally concerned, the multi culti and the greens and ahead are the rolling hills, a country feeling, less pretentious and more relaxed, not so manicured but more real. I stop in center of the span and look south towards Alviso but can’t see much…to the right I spot hangar one, small but distinct. The winds are quiet but in the afternoon they’ll be strong and traveling to the west will be challenging.

The Baylands along Paseo Padre Parkway, north of the bridge towards Union City are being prepared for the next extension of Silicon Valley. The roads with wide sidewalks and bicycle lanes and future road junctions are already in. There is convenient access to major road networks and are close but removed from the bustle of Silicon Valley. I muse that this would be a great investment in real estate if one had a long time horizon. I saw it happen in Silicon Valley and this has all the same earmarks. Now I enjoy the fields of vibrant mustard swaying to the gentle breezes and ride comfortably on the desolate road to Niles.

I approach the town from the north on Niles Boulevard. It’s main street lined by storefronts with nary a familiar chain to be seen. The architecture is western and Victorian with wide sidewalks and train station at the center. The sidewalks are not so tidy, the storefronts not so upscale and the residential neighborhoods just behind main street not so modern. It feels comfortable and interesting and a refreshing contrast to nearby areas. I ride into town slowly and survey each store and note distinctive names. My first stop is the Essenay Museum which is only open on weekends.

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Docents at the museum take you through Niles’ role in the silent movie industry from 1912 to 1916. Co-owner of Essenay Studios, ‘Broncho Billy’ Anderson with a troop of fifty descended on the town, built studios and housing and put Niles on the motion picture map, for a brief moment. He shot and starred in scores of short cowboy movies both in glass enclosed studios and on location in nearby Niles Canyon.  The museum hosts silent films on week ends and displays period fotos of buildings and stars of yesteryear along with clothing and props of the early film industry.

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During the 1912-1916 film period Charlie Chapman came to Niles too. Here he made three films and developed the ‘Little Tramp’ character. These images adorn buildings on main street.

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At the center of town is the old train station now renovated and turned into a museum commemorating the importance of rail to the area. Niles was an important junction point from the north bay and the central valley to San Jose. Its rail history began in the 1870’s with the narrow gauge, steam powered South Pacific Coast Railroad which was eventually acquired by Southern Pacific and expanded to Los Gatos, Boulder Creek and Santa Cruz.

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 Main street, Niles. Storefronts on one side and railroad on the other. A true western town. In my travels I tell many folks of this little town and, and….no one has ever heard of it!

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In the center of town I lunch at Broncho Billy’s. How appropriately named. The walls are adorned with old cowboy movie posters and western props. It’s a perfect midpoint stop to refresh. A hearty sandwich and a glass of wine!

From Niles, Mission Boulevard provides a wide bike lane and rolling terrain. Long climbs and descents provide fine views of the hills and the bay. This was the home of the Ohlone Indians who fished and hunted about the bay-lands and traded with other tribes from the now Napa, Sonoma and Monterey Counties. During the ‘mission period’ they were organized to work on the Mission San Jose lands.  Unfortunately during the secularization of the 1830’s the mission was  closed and the Indians were left to fend for themselves. The Mission went into disrepair but was rebuilt in 1982. And… a fine structure it is!

fremont mission 001

 I exit Mission Boulevard onto Paseo Padre Parkway and ascend into the foothills and upscale neighborhoods of Fremont with fine vistas of the bay. The climbs are pleasant and so are the refreshing breezes and eucalyptus scents; it’s a fine way to ward off the effects of lunch. I sweep back into the lowlands via Warren Boulevard and head south at Milpitas’ Dixon Landing  towards Alviso on sparsely trafficked frontage roads.

Dixon Landing??? Well, it seems that way back during the gold rush a guy, Matthew Dixon, built docks here  to ship hay via flat bottomed boats and two masted schooners to San Francisco. So, the name stuck!

At the bottom of the bay I follow Zanker road through rural bay-lands used to house water treatment plants, garbage dumps and other unsavory city functions. In a few miles I enter the streets of Alviso with its eclectic mix of ramshackle buildings and new housing developments. In the early 1800’s Alviso was quite the town with ferry boat service to San Francisco. It was the center of the south bay. But, with the railroad to San Jose in 1865 it lost its zing.

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A wall map highlights Historic Alviso. Note the railroad and small island in the bay. The railroad was the South Pacific Coast Railroad which connected Niles, Newark and north-bay and central valley to San Jose. The island was Drawbridge. It began with one employee living there to operate the drawbridge. In subsequent years there were duck clubs, and hotels and gambling and bordellos and saloons. It was quite the uproarious place and officials from nearby Santa Clara and Alameda Counties left it alone. The last permanent resident of Drawbridge left in the early 1970’s. Now the island sports decaying buildings  holding the many stories of its racy and colorful past.

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Looking out towards Drawbridge at the southern tip of the bay.

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Bayside Cannery operated in the early twentieth century and now  is a colorful relic.

 I’m now a few miles from home. So, I lean my bike by the back entrance of Vahl’s Restaurant and enter the old fashioned establishment for a brew. I love this place…not for the food, or the drinks, but for the ambiance. This place is Alviso. Established in 1940 and let me tell you, neither  the menu nor interiors have probably changed. It’s like and old book with dog-eared pages or heirloom furniture with a patina. It’s different and comfortable. I blend into the dark bar and chat with the bartender and friendly patrons. And…I reflect what a wonderful day it has been and how lucky I am to have experienced it. And…the cold beer, how good it tastes!!


The Cycling Tuscan

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Placerville & Apple Hill! Thursday, January 14th, 2010

Thanksgiving Trip

Placerville-November 22-25, 2005

After a painful period of failing health and change of residence into Cedar Crest Convalescent facility Marge Schantell died. Patricia had undertaken the major responsibility of making the arrangements of housing, paying of bills, ordering medicines, health care arrangements, laundry and on…… We held the funeral last week and it was a dignified affair. Short and dignified. A brief ceremony was held at graveside after-which we all met at the Blue Pheasant for cocktails and a light lunch. It turned out to be a pleasant affair; the food was good and the setting was bright an uplifting.

Arlene had invited us to spend the Thanksgiving  holiday at her home in Placerville. Patricia had instantly accepted with relief at not having to prepare for the usual affair at our house especially after the funeral. She was exhausted and emotionally rung out. A change of scenery up in Placerville was just the right thing.

We packed our Jeep with golf clubs, bicycle and dog in crate. The “dog in crate’ thing was more difficult than usual. Domino, I suppose, thought the incarceration to be an insult. After a few promptings I picked up the eightyesh pound dalmatian and deposited her into the crate. She barely fit.

Dale had made arrangements for us to play golf on Friday and I had also intended to ride the roads of Apple Hill just east of Placerville. I had plenty of stuff to do so I was rather looking forward to spending the time in the gold country. We, or as usual, Patricia drove and I read most of the way. I have to read. If I watch her drive it tends to infuriate me. And…even though I attempt to use all my self control, after some time stuff tends to escape from my mouth. The type of stuff which usually begins a tiffy joust. So, today I read Bat Ye’or’s Eurabia. And…keep my mouth shut. Till the wind mills that is! Then I made my usual comments as to why they are never working and why not. Also, the vertical ribbon ones. What happened to them? They must have proved to be inefficient. Graceful but inefficient. And…as with all inefficient things—they are doomed to the way of dinosaurs.

Once beyond Sacramento I marveled at the growth that had taken place in the sweeping valleys and rolling terrain of Cameron Park and El Dorado Hills. All the usual suspects were here too. That is, Home Depot, Sam’s Club, the cookie cutter restaurants and the slews of familiar retail shops. We turneimage001d off of U.S. 50 at Cameron Park to visit Steve and Michael. I had mentioned that we would stop at their house when we saw them at the funeral. Pat wasn’t crazy about it but she had reluctantly made all the arrangements. I had looked forward to seeing Bass Lake Golf Course which Steve was managing and had spent the last five years rebuilding. Every holiday at our house we would discuss his progress and problems and so I was well acquainted with the depth of his image003work and wanted to see for myself the progress. When Patricia said that we were going to their house only, I was naturally disappointed. But, as luck would have it, just before lunch Steve’s boss from the golf course called and soon Steve and I were off to the course. He fixed the ball machine and we soon were in a cart viewing the fairways, greens and lakes. It was a nice course, not a great course by any stretch of the imagination. The setting was charming. The putting greens were true and smooth. The fairways neatly clipped. The clubhouse remodeled and sharp and the driving range convenient and comfortable. All in all it was a nice facility and I would certainly use it were I a close by resident.

We arrived at Arlene’s house in the late afternoon. I greeted Dale and Nicholas and Cassidy and Arlene but very soon I found myself in the back deck seated on a comfortable chair with a hefty glass of Syrah and map of Apple Hill on the table before me. I reviewed the route I was to take the very next morning.

It was just before nine. The sun spread its soft golden winter rays on the foothills of the Sierras. I finished my coffee and was somewhat annoyed when MIK, the symbol of Michael’s Stores, ran across the NYSE ticker tape. I had been faked out! Had waited patiently till it had dropped to 35 and bought it, and then with the Katrina and oil crisis had watched it drop to below 32. I had become too influenced by the too depressive media and sold out at 32. There it was, I thought. A good idea wasted. Today the tape read 38 ½ .  But…I focused on the mountain vista just outside through the back window revealing the richness of the terrain—oaks drooping with Spanish moss, madrone trees, pines and thick underbrush everywhere all highlighted with rich shafts of golden light. I laced my bicycle shoes and headed out the front door towards my bicycle resting under the protection of the front porch.

 The climb began instantly up the rather steep driveway. This is no way to wake up, I thought. In a jiff I was on the smooth and neatly kept roads of Greenstone. It’s a private development some ten miles west of Placerville with exclusive homes on one acre plus lots. Homes are beautiful and well maintained. We always enjoy the setting when we come to visit Arlene and Dale. Beyond the front gate I proceeded on Green Valley Road towards Placerville. The road is narrow and winding with no shoulder. Traffic is bothersome and somewhat speedy. The country is rural and vistas are rich with detail.  I climb and descend and generally am on the white stripe at the very edge of the asphalt. I note Missouri Road and make the final climb to Placerville Road which leads me to a highway entrance which I decide not to take. I return to Ray Lawyer Road and cross US 50 onto the south side and follow mountain roads to Placerville.

I take this town and savor it slowly. I ride ever so slowly and note the shops—a gun shop, a funky garage, the coffee house that I had stopped at during my last ski trip, the myriad of restaurants lining the entrance to town. It was Hangtown but now is Placerville. A checkered past it had and is now proud of its colorful history. At the first intersection I park my Giant Bike on a post and focus my Olympus for pictures. The light is soft and photos should be good. I try a couple of shots but the camera won’t co-operate. It must be the batteries. Chasasm! Rats! @#$##!!, I thought. I walk my bike a few paces and scan the storefronts for help. Across the street I note a familiar sign, iconic of the past and art deco to boot. It’s the Rexall oval with the familiar orange and white.. Maybe this is why I relish these bike trips in that I make connections with my youth. I see atavistic symbols which unearth periods of my life long since forgotten….till now that is. This Rexall sign reminds of the days in Fairfax in Marin County during the fifties. I cross the street with bike in tow and lean it on the window so that I can see it from within. I hold up my Olympus and motion to the young blond girl behind the counter, “Batteries, please!”

“How come you only run out of batteries when you need them?’ I ask.

She laughs and hands me four double “A’s” lithium batteries for $11.50. She said these last a lot longer than the regular ones.

I continue my adventure taking pictures with one hand and guiding my bike with the other. There are people walking about and traffic is continuous on main street. But…the town is cool and the architecture is reminiscent of its rich and wealthier history. There is the Liar’s Bench, a bar across the way with bright, orange neon. And.. the Hangman’s Tree, a historic spot with a human figure dangling by the neck on a rope. There is a tower, the court house, brick buildings and western store fronts with rich pediments and Victorian decorations. I take pictures and note the details. Later I’ll have reminiscences and combine the photos with my recollections. Together they combine to create the richness of my experience. It’s comfortable and cool and my senses are heightened by this sense of adventure. I hear the waters of the river behind the row of store fronts. I see the mountains above the roof tops. People walk by and nod or smile. I think they are friendly….perhaps I’m just happy and they are reacting to a smiling face with a camera in one hand and a bike in the other.




Scenes of vintage buildings on Main Street in Placerville.

On the eastern outskirt of town I take a left on Carson Road which climbs through residential neighborhoods onto mountain terrain leaving the hubbub of town life behind. The road is narrow and the slope is steep at times. But….there is little or no traffic and each turn reveals the visual gifts of Apple Hill.

Ah! Yes, Apple Hill, a hidden gem on the outskirts of Placerville and just below the serious snow of the Sierras was the place I had wanted to explore for some time now. It was begun in the early sixties by the owners and glowers of the pear orchards in the area. At the time the orchards were devastated by a rampant disease and literally were wiped out. The growers put their heads together and decided to plant apple trees to compete with those of Washington State. In the early days the lore has it that the growers met informally at each others’ farms and commiserated over how bad the business was and drank some good stuff too.  But…with time and marketing effort and the relentless growth of California the area was discovered by tourists and its popularity increased. Now it’s well organized with a good web site and well marked maps and roads.

I climb the peaceful and shaded road winding its way through the lush underbrush. Over a rise I see a sea of rust, golds and reds. Waves of color undulating to the contours of the earth. It’s a vineyard and I stop to absorb the lush colors and take pictures. I ponder what the life must be like running a vineyard, surveying the splendor of the vines in the different seasons, the excitement of the harvest, the pride when the labels are affixed, the tasting of the wine with friends over a sumptuous meal served on the back deck overlooking the southern slopes of the vineyards. Ah, but this is just the romantic adventurous notions of a novice looking from the outside. I’m sure that many feel the same way about the restaurant business as they dine in some romantic or iconic spot. But…I’m on an adventure and I allow myself the luxury to let my imagination wander without the pall which reality would cast over the notion.


The first stop on the apple quest is The Farm and number 55 on the Grower’s Association Farm Trail map. I enter and explore the interior and products and also think about buying some apple cider but quickly decide to purchase some water instead. It’s a rustic and hearty interior with wonderful aromas of apples and bake goods permeating throughout. A “Johnny Appleseed” type of guy with a heavy grayish beard and a rough exterior nodded and smiled and watched me walk to the next area. He must have been the owner or a wacko or something. Before I left I had recounted to my pals at Chili’s about my proposed adventure to Apple Hill. They had laughed and counseled me to be careful in that those folks in the mountains might take a shine to me in my Lycra-spandex bicycle tights and repeat a scene from “Deliverance”. I looked back at the guy who was still in the back entrance and I chuckled to myself as I paid for the water and returned to my waiting bike.


 The Barn #55image019Smokey Ridge Ranch,  #133

 The route I had roughly carved out for the day was along Carson Road which paralleled U. S. 50 in an easterly direction towards Lake Tahoe and joined Pony Express Trail just beyond Cedar Grove. I had intended to go as far as my energies would take me. I looped north on North Canyon Road and would rejoin the Pony Express Trail some miles east. I traveled leisurely, more interested in the scenery, the architecture, the signs and local culture than getting to a specific spot in good time. My mind was relaxed and clear and in a receptive state. The warm rays of the soft sunshine warmed my back and provided a soothing and romantic aura to the scenes before me. The colors were muted and gentle, the lines were soft and highlighted by nuances of shadows barely noticeable. Abel’s Apple Acres appeared just above a rise revealing a full parking lot with parents and children scattered in every direction. I entered and noted the bake goods- pies with crumb crusts neatly displayed, pastries, strudels, cookies, jams, butters, and apple recipes covering shelves all along the entrance wall. The back of the building opened into a spacious patio overlooking a fine vista of the valleys with winding road and orchards and vineyards. It was a bucolic scene, although…..somewhat contrived as one began to note upon closer inspection the black and white spotted cardboard cows placed at intervals down the slope towards the children’s play area. Suddenly shrieks captured my attention. To my right was a family with this kid. About ten, I would say. He hated life, the world, his parents, this apple stop and in the top of his whining and shrill voice screamed that he wanted to go home. All the while his doting mother was trying to assuage his feelings. If ever I wished to punch someone’s lights out this kid would have been a prime target. I hated the whimpering mass of spoiledness instantly. On my way out, there was the mother and grandmother soothing the brat.


 Abel’s Apple Acres  #38

 I resumed my blissful journey. There was Boa Vista Orchards, and Hillside Tree Farm and Sun Mountain Farm. There was solitude and harmony. Not a car to be seen; just a two lane road winding its way through sweeping valleys and gentle hills. Without effort I found myself walking through the trees of a nearby apple orchard. With camera in hand I focused on the remnants of the harvest probably overlooked or at the time not yet ripe.


  Lush and ripe and conspicuously hanging on the leafless tree. I wished to pluck one and crunch it right there in the orchard. But I just took pictures. Who knows, the folks here may not take kindly to apple plucking.image027    Sun Mountain Farm #28

More placid thoughts, more effortless miles, up some inclines and into a dense forest I heard German ump-pa-pa music blaring through lush vegetation. Around a bend the shaded road lead me to the front of Bavarian Hills Orchards with a delightful delicatessen and beer garden in front overlooking the road. All the while German beer songs blared in all directions. How very delightful! It was open  but could not see anyone except the owners off loading a truck. It looked as though they were just opening for the day.

 image029Bavarian Hills Orchard #11

This place would make for a perfect outing on a later visit to Arlene and Dale’s house. A little ride to Apple Hill and a cozy lunch in a recessed and quaint nook. A Bavarian nook at that!

 image031An iconic spot!

 It was noon or thereabouts! The few apples that I had photographed looked delightfully luscious and had brought to mind “hunger”. Yep, lunch was a good idea. I completed a descent and North Canyon Road intersected Larsen Road which was the center of an expansive valley and home of Larsen’s Apple Barn and Bake Shop. Just perfect. I explored the grounds and noted the large water wheel at the edge of the parking lot.

 image033Larsen’s Bake Shop #9

 I settled on the back covered deck and ate my turkey and avocado on french roll with potato salad.  A simple lunch overlooking fine countryside is savored especially when lunch is your first meal of the day. I sat and looked and reminisced the many lunch spots on my travels which produced these special feelings. Perhaps it’s a moment of contentedness, a mind at ease and an outlook able to appreciate the simple and the valuable. The water wheel turned lissome and silently just behind. There was an occasional car which would make a rushing noise as it passed close to the deck and only to disappear with the road diving into the tree line. Two ladies appeared in the field across the valley a few hundred yards away taking pictures of the splashes of wild colors unleashed by the caressing November sun. I wrote in my journal in between bites but it was useless. The beauty of the valley commanded my entire attention. All else was a wasted effort. So, I let my body go limp against the chair and gazed without focus and let my mind wander.

 Later, much later I resume my ride along Larsen Drive. Slowly, with little effort I proceeded at a measured rate. Some farms were closed, or had signs out that they had “sold out”. It’s late in the season and the tourist push was over. It was the best time to be here. Denver Dan’s Apple farm caught my eye. A large Quonset hut sprawled in the valley to my right with a festive and funky sign cresting its apex. Farm machinery and work trucks were parked around its side. Houses randomly hugged the road line—not houses with modern lines or trendy architectural details but houses that showed wear and designs of a time gone by. They were functional houses as were the farm buildings. Not the gentrified, multi gabled, ornate windowed designs of the more affluent areas of California. It was refreshing to see function over style. Perhaps this is the charm of this area. It reminded me of Napa Valley before it got yuppified. Of Monterey and Santa Cruz before the big bucks of Silicon Valley moved in. Contrived, neat, orderly and modern. Nice but no character.  I’m sure that this is the writing on the wall for this area too, not too far off in the future. But…for now it was pleasant to pedal in this pristine area and to realize its measured time and appreciate it.

image035Denver Dan’s  #14

image037Bolster’s Hilltop Ranch & Winery #45

The loop, the trek, the adventure was approaching the end. They all do. The enthusiasm and excitement and curiosity and wonder yield to pragmatism. It’s getting late; days are short in November; how far am I from home? My musings transformed into reality as I rejoined Carson Road at Cedar Grove by U S. 50. The ride back was fast, downhill and amazingly quick into Main Street, Placerville. My mind was content with the richness of the day’s experience and the scenery passed by with nary a sound or effort or sense of weather. I was a spectator coming back to reality from another world. At the house Dale was sweeping the garage, Nicholas on the porch with his toys, Cassidy at the computer chatting with her cyber friends and Patricia and Arlene in the dining room redying all for the Thanksgiving dinner. It was good to be home.

Luciano J. Ercolini

The Cycling Tuscan

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The Northern Valdinievole Sunday, January 3rd, 2010

Chapter 4, The Northern Valdinievole

From The Seat Of My Brother’s Bicycle

November, 2003

Itinerary: Molin Nuovo, Villa Bellavista, Borgo a Buggiano, Castello a Buggiano, Massa e Cozzile, Montecatini Alto, Montecatini Terme and a visit to my Brother’s work, Masini Butcher Shop

image002Moreno had already left for work by the time I began dressing at sevenish. I tiptoed to the bike and today I slipped by the dog unnoticed. Towards Bar Shanghay I deliberated over the day’s adventure. In a few seconds I was decided; it was to be Villa Bellvista and then north towards Buggiano and the mountain towns and roads skirting the north edge of the Valdinievole.

When the lady behind the counter saw me parking the bike she began to fix my cappuccino. In a minute I was at my usual table by the window munching on a croissant and reading one of the many daily newspapers available for customers. She slid the cup of capuccio next to my newspaper and quietly walked away. The bar owner was a middle aged lady, slender with short brown hair and glasses. She was friendly and business like. She’s always dressed neatly with wool skirt, crisp blouse, leather shoes and a spotless white apron. Today I was reading “La Nazione”. It’s kind of nice at the bars. All the daily newspapers are available-La Nazione, Il Terranio, La Toscana. Half dozen guys had gathered at the tables for coffee before their day’s work. There was always a group as some would come and others would go. Later there would be the older retired guys.  I read all the fifty or so pages of the paper and barely noticed the idle chatter about me.  On my way out the lady said, “You are a very dedicated rider to go out riding every day”.“Yes”, I said, “it’s the best way to see Tuscany”. I paid 2 euros and was on my way.

Today was overcast and gray but there was no fog nor was it cold. The road was familiar so I rode lazily just watching the morning scenery go by. Just north of Molin Nuovo is the imposing Villa Bellavista recessed behind iron gates and a narrow Cypress tree and statue lined road leading to the ornate baroque entrance. The imposing structure is atop elevated terrain and is visible from miles around. Moreno would tell the story about our grandfather, Raffaello, doing the weekly shopping. The poor man would walk the four miles from our farm by this Villa onto Borgo a Buggiano to do the weekly shopping for our family. He would return with two heaping large bags filled with food for the family of eight.  I remember him but barely. He was rather short and bald. As I took pictures of the villa and the regal entry I envisioned my grandfather’s burdened figure slowly walking this same road some fifty, sixty and seventy years ago.

The entry gates were rusty and chained shut. It looked as though they had not been opened for years although I had read on the web that tours were available daily to see the interior of the Villa. This is very Italian, I thought.

I began to ride towards the mountains but noticed a small road following the right side of the villa. On a whim, I wound my way around the huge structure with ornate exaggerated cornices over weathered mustard paint. The rear of the building was equally impressive withimage004

Villa Bellavista


View from the rear as the peasants would have seen it!!

remnants of geometrical gardens, a double stairway and landing, and oodles of french doors and windows with a narrow, narrow white striped road leading straight back through the rust leaved vineyards. I followed this threadlike road to gain proper distance for pictures. As I turned and focused on the façade I envisioned seventeenth century nobility dressed in their fineries withcarriages, teams of black groomed horses and servants waiting by the sides of the stairway. Absolutely a miniature Versailles set amidst the vineyards.

This Villa had been commissioned by the Medicis and an arrangement was made with their favored nobility to cement feudal allegiances. There were some fifty farms which the feudal lords of this Villa managed and profited from. Mills, stables and wineries were built. This particular system of feudal farms continued and evolved into the system into which my brother and I were born. In our day it was called “Mezzadria”, a form of sharecropping. The peasants were absolutely poor and economically tied to the land. It was just like the feudal system in many ways.  Fortunately, our family owned our farm. But, we were definitely in the minority. My uncle had to share everything with his landlord. When he butchered a pig the landlord was there for his half. When he would make wine the landlord would take half of the barels. When the wheat was processed, the landlord would haul off half the sacks. The Mezzadria came to an end in the mid sixties and many of the peasants along with my uncle were able to purchase their farms through benevolent government programs. My cousin still lives there.

I thought of the splendor of lifestyles which this villa represented and also of the misery which the system inflicted on the poor peasants. Now, this villa is mostly vacant and in a state of severe disrepair while many of the descendents of the indentured peasants of the surrounding lands are prospering. My brother being one. How ironic. How just.

I worked my way to the north side where I found and open gate. In spite of the rusted no entry sign I walked in for a closer look. If caught I could always plead ignorance.  Old doors and windows were stacked against the side of the building seemingly ready for a restoration effort but obviously postponed or canceled. The front was truly majestic although in a severe state of decay. A large circular fountain, the centerpiece of the entryway, formed a grand approach to the front door and amazingly was working.  Multiple gray columns framed the dark wooden doors which were in pretty good condition. I looked in one of the adjacent doors and a polite young man in navy blue uniform appeared. He informed that the building was used by firefighters and now the museum was closed.

I walked around the back and inspected the grand stairway and landing just off the main ballroom. It too was crumbling but the vista of the narrow carriage road disappearing in the vineyards was magnificent. A flatbed farm wagon in faded Prussian blue was parked at the corner of the building. A data plate from the manufacturer revealed a 1910 vintage from Verona. For some reason as I looked at this wagon, pictures of war came to mind. Napoleonic or Austrian or Prussian troops with wounded carried by such a wagon. Perhaps it was a scene from one of such epic movies. Or perhaps it was a mental picture derived from reading Hemingway’s “Farewell to Arms”; but that’s what I though at the time. The imagery was strong.

A couple of miles to the north is Borgo a Buggiano which is the developed economic extension of its medieval nucleus, Buggiano, perched above on the mountainside. My brother would tell the story that Borgo was only accessible by boat from the south as that area was all


image009Old wagon waiting restoration!

 Train station at Borgo a Buggiano

 marshy swampland. That was many years ago though, probably in the early nineteen hundreds. But even now as I look at a map it shows the route of old railroad which makes a wide loop from Montecatini north to Borgo a Buggiano and then south to San Salvatore and Altopascio, thereby skirting the wet swamplands.  I was familiar with the roads as I had explored Borgo in depth a few days before when I accompanied my brother as he played bridge at the Bar Centrale. Now I dreamily rode through the city streets by the semi abandoned railroad station and wound through the underpass as a train lumbered by. On the other side was a fine view of the nineteenth century station buildings which must have been quite fashionable in their day. The facades were bold and dramatic poised next to the platform and the tracks. Nowdays, overgrown bushes, graffiti and missing doors and windows were the first glimpses to meet the occasional passenger arriving at Borgo. Most trains would speed on by without stopping, though. I clicked a couple of pictures and could only see the elegant station which I remembered when leaving for America some forty years ago. I was nine then and was leaving my world of the Valdinievole, my father and brother. It had been an emotional moment as I boarded the train hand in hand with my aunt, Mary Alice, leaving the lone sad figure of my father with beret in hand on the station platform. I took another picture and smiled as I also reflected what a grand stroke of luck it had been for me. America gave me a new life, great opportunity and a superb education.

I left the station behind and proceed to Buggiano. The road was steep with no respite and estimated the climb to be around 12 degrees.  I was out of the saddle most of the time and was breathing pretty good. Nets and barrels were spread about under the olive trees on either side of the road. All seemed ready for the harvest. Just in front of the Buggiano walled gates I stopped to rest and appreciate the grand vista and the noticeable outline of Villa Belvedere. Buggiano was a fine example of a medieval walled city and typical of this area in the fifteenth century. Now, it


Magnificent view of Buggiano from sister city Stignano


Another quiet afternoon in a medieval hill town!

and most like towns have become bedroom communities as there is no industry or jobs within their medieval walls. Inhabitants drive to the valley towns for work. For me, this was perfect.  I meandered through the town at a leisurely pace taking pictures, talking to the occasional resident, admiring restored homes, reading antique plaques set on side of buildings or in the pavement, feeling the cold Tuscan stone of bell towers, inspecting large cathedral doors, and always marveling at the beautiful scenery of the surrounding valleys, mountain passes and other walled towns wedged in the distant mountains. It’s a rather surreal experience with man, a bicycle, his thoughts, beauty and medieval history all in a setting of antiquity.

From Buggiano the road follows mountain ridges along the northern border of the Valdinievole with panoramas leading to the Arno Valleys. I maintained a pretty good pace through the climbs and descents stimulated by my thoughts and reflections. Many new villas were being built. Heady mustards, soft peaches and rich rusts were the colors of choice. Lots of arches with blends of wood and tile adorned inviting entries highlighted with beds of vibrant colored flowers. These family oases were set in olive groves and steep mountainsides commanding serene panoramas.

Colle a Buggiano came quickly. Once through the walls at the main gate I was met with a central square, a cathedral on the opposite end and government buildings with coat of arms. Those of the Florentines become easily recognizable as most of these villages came under its dominion.  Beyond the square are the cobbled, narrow streets and alleys lined with two and three story residences. I walked one of these alleys following the rear walls of the town built on the mountain’s edge. Tiny cars are parked in every nook and crevice and garages with seemingly impossible access are set in ancient facades. The doorways are always interesting and the eves too. Some of them are exotic and ornate probably signifying the wealth and status of the original


Walled piazza at Colle a Buggiano


                                               Friendly, but don’t get too close!

occupants. I wound through a maze of these streets and never saw a soul. With the exception of automobiles it could have been the year 1500.

As I ride, I keep passing dogs and interestingly enough, they are never on a leash. They don’t pay much attention to me and never give chase. Thank goodness! Many seem to be going somewhere. One day on the way to Borgo with my brother we saw a dog attempting to cross the road. It stopped and looked both ways. Then it crossed smartly. My brother said “that one must have left some fur behind”. Said in Italian it’s much more poignant. We both laughed. Patricia and I first noticed and were amused by these independent dogs when we visited Montepulciano a few years ago. We would be doing sightseeing and a lone black dog would be trotting down a street, another up an alley and a third crossing the square. All were traveling at a pretty good clip and seemed to be moving with purpose. At the sighting of each new dog we would look and laugh. Just outside Colle a Buggiano I passed two golden retrievers which were in front of their house and noted my passing ever so nonchalantly. They were cute and apparently gentle so I stopped and rode back to take their pictures. At the second picture they moved closer and began a throaty growl. I turned my bike with camera in hand and sped off. So much for cute I thought! One bite, and my riding adventure would be finished. “Adios, dogs”.

Massa e Cozzile was the highest point of my ride overlooking the sprawling suburbs of Montecatini Terme. A sign posted on the doors of its church bid me to go in. Amongst other things the sign counseled parishioners, “It serves no purpose to light a candle unless one also changes his heart.” It was a simple country church with many side altars. I sat alone and meditated for a while. Ah, yes, I also lit a candle. Directly across a small angular piazza was a bar and food store. A few people could be seen inside. I went in for coffee and a warming Vecchia Romgna. How good it is when it’s chilly.

On the way down the steep and winding road I had to stop to put on gloves as it was rather cold. On the outskirts of Montecatini I recognized Le Panteraie which was a ritzi swim club which we had frequented on prior trips during hot summer days. Montecatini Terme was renowned not only for its thermal waters and mud baths but also the saline mineral waters for their purgative and cleansing powers. Vacationers came for the season and would take up residence at the many hotels and pensiones located throughout the city. Night clubs, restaurants, bars, horse racing, ice cream parlors and avante garde shops dotted every corner of the city. In the evenings people make the “passeggiata” and sit in outdoor cafes and bars all dressed in the latest fashions. In the summer months the town is packed. The streets are filled with the very latest of luxury automobiles from all over Europe. It’s an exciting place and we would come after dinner sometimes just to be part of the hubbub.

At the north end of town I picked up the signs for Montecatini Alto. Yes, this was the medieval counterpart perched over Montecatini Terme and connected by a steep funicular railway. My climb proceeded up the winding road through mostly mountain suburbs. At the mid point signs indicated “road work” or “road closed” but it was not really clear so I continued. As I approached the road workers and machinery busy at work no one seemed to pay much attention to my motions to be waved through. Hoisting my bike over my shoulders I trekked over an adjacent field to resume my ride on open road.  The last stretch was steep and dotted with rustic mountain architecture. Gray stone facades highlighted with forest green wooden shutters and tidy little gardens marked the presence of stores, residences and restaurants at many of the mountain road intersections. With the off season and the windy weather shutters over windows and doors were shut tight.

The incline was steep and I could see the walled city looming large up ahead. I was




                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                     climbing with little or no effort now. When I slowed I just rose from the saddle and would attack. Automatically so, never breathing hard. I could be out of the saddle for what seemed miles and never be winded. Was I having a good time or what? Absolutely, the very best! I wish Patricia was here to see all this, though.

            The road wound around the town walls twice, spiraling higher and higher. Me and my bike walked the narrow streets and found the main square. It’s the size of a football field lined with bars and restaurants and hundreds of chairs for outside seating. As I walked towards the central fountain it was rather eerie. I was the only one in the entire square. And with seating ready for hundreds. Ah! The pleasure and luxury of travel in the off season. In the summer this space would be jam packed with crowds and the road around the wall I had just traveled would be lined with cars. But, today it was all mine. To possess it; to take pictures at my leisure. To ponder in solitude. Or just to walk about as the Brits would say.

When I had my fill I hopped on my bike and began the descent, smoothly and carefully. It was time to visit Moreno at the butcher shop in the center of Montecatini Terme below. My pals, the road workers were still there. I motioned to one and he sleepily waved me through.

Soon I was weaving through the streets of Montecatini Terme filled with traffic, sounds and vibrancy, completely the antithesis of its counterpart above. I visited a couple of old spots which had personal meaning. The Ercolini Savi Hotel, in front of which I had taken Gina’s picture when she was little, was now the New Savi Hotel. Gina will laugh when she sees the change. “We’ve been ousted” she’ll say.  In the central square at the beginning of the boulevard adjacent to all the luxury thermal hotels and in front of the oddly modern cathedral was a very old tree whose trunk had naturally hollowed and the interior had been painted crimson. Standing inside the trunk I had taken pictures of Gina and Patricia at different times over the past twenty















years. Now there was a large sign just in front of it. What’s up with that? They wrecked our tree. Also from this vantage point was the finest view of the central boulevard framing Montecatini Alto atop the mountain. What pleasure it is to visit old familiar places.

At the Masini Macelleria (butcher shop) Moreno was behind the counter in his white jacket waiting on customers. This little independent butcher shop is one of the few remaining in operation. Large chains and behemoth cooperatives have replaced many of the small shops and certainly most of the butcher shops. This one struggles on, but barely. Moreno, since his shop in Chiesina closed, works here three days a week. I took pictures of my brother in action. He is very good with people with his free and easy manner and warm smile. As we chatted the young lady who owns the Calzedonia shop next door entered in a burst of energy. She had a new neon sign in her window installed and thought it was crooked so we all surveyed it and rendered our opinion. Patrizia was dressed in a mini-mini skirt with knit top, bold panty hose and mod shoes. Just out of Carnaby Street from the sixties, I thought. She was very slender and it looked good on her but also she was a walking model for her shop. She owned a franchise of Calzedonia, a trendy pantyhose and stocking shop. Every time I would visit Moreno I noticed a new window display at Calzedonia and would always pop my head in to say hello to Patrizia. She was spunky and fun to talk to. Before my departure I went in and bought pairs of beautiful black pantyhose with muted tapestry floral patterns for our daughters, Chelsea and Gina. This is the type of stuff they would go nuts for, I thought, and it’s not in America yet. I had bought them youthful leather purses too and stuck the stockings inside; I was right, both the purses and the stockings were a big hit.

Back at the house Giovanni had come for lunch along with his dog, Ty. We chatted for a while as we waited for Moreno. I slipped downstairs to use their new shower with instant hot water. This was a family newfound luxury and it was a bit of heaven after a strenuous mountain ride.

Lunch with Moreno, Nina and Giovanni is always a happy occasion. We ate fresh tortellini with a very light herb tomato sauce, slices of braised beef, spinach sautéed in garlic and for dessert Giovanni had brought a semolina torte which was light and delicate. We laughed, drank wine and retold old stories which we all relished.

Luciano J. Ercolini

The Cycling Tuscan

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