Monday 31 December 2012

Baffin Island

Eastern coast of Baffin Island looked clear and chilly this morning under a full moon. I find it incredibly impressive to fly over northern Canada and just get even the smallest appreciation for the rugged beauty and vastness of it.

Milan Power Shopping

Before coming, I polished up a couple shoes and a belt that'll find a new life and took them out of rotation. We dropped off some ten year old suits (am I even allowed to say that?) at the drycleaners... will give those away too. I try to keep 10 going so they only get worn once per two weeks, but still, ones since university I've finally pulled the plug on even after saying I would for the last 2 Christmas's.

Guy shopping is easy. We stop into a store that is the vendor of my favourite suit in my rotation at home. Coincidentally, it's Italian, and a giant store is a block from our hotel. I've got new space for a grey/blue/black after retiring some. Their tailor works sundays... so I get three cause it looks like it'll work out to about 25% less here per suit, and less if we can get this VAT refund going in the morning at the airport, which I think gets over another 10% back. The tailor measures for totally minor pant length as I'm off the rack proportions generally. On top of that, I grab a pair of jeans on their holiday sale. 55 minutes from walking in to check out, including a tailor whom I've never seen put pins in faster, like darts! Instructions are to pick up half hour before close which is easy given proximity to hotel.

Then we do Cindy's stops, but first get snacks by the Duomo. Women don't get three suit colors to pick from. The permutations and combinations are infinite. We sort of have a hit list of things to look for, but each store has about a 30% hit rate of what works from shelf to changing room. There's a marked difference in "niceties". At "my" store, Cindy was offered water, coffee, a nice chair, chocolates and a magazine. In the girls shops I range from being run over by Italians/tourists/girls/ladies rummaging hard, to acknowledgement that my presence could perhaps warrant a chair, to a couple places that were pretty nice to chat with. It's funny to watch - universal across the stores they want Cindy to put on tighter stuff. Italian style is fitted. And they could be partly right if we can cut back after the pasta bingeing. But I think too they're not picturing actual sitting and work being done as much as just walking around and looking good.

All in, if you're looking for clothes in addition to sight seeing, Milan is a great place to do it. The selection is unbelievable. The competition it produces is apparent too.

Last ride around Florence

Beautiful roads are easily found within minutes of the center of town, with vistas to many unexplored roads beyond in the nearby valleys. It'd be hard to go wrong. Our Calgary style of adventure riding, perhaps with very light duty cyclocross tires, would open up a lifetime of terrain. Beautiful area. Better start buying those lotto tickets!

Cindy's Birthday Cycling Tuscany

We navigated out of town, which was also a tour of the city. It's beautiful, feels like a warm August afternoon despite being winter. I tried to get us on back roads and had luck right off the start - the classic 12 foot wide road dwindled to crushed rock. Went to Settignano first. We got climbs as steep as we could do standing in easiest gears, and beautiful forests and waterfalls. No wind, just warm sun and beautiful hillsides. Only an hour in I know this is by far the nicest cycling I've ever experienced in my life, let alone the rest of everything being so charming. I used to only want to do races; now I see the point of skipping an entry fee, putting it towards pasta and a nice hotel, and just riding random roads here.

We take back roads to Ontignano then Compiobbi, where we snap a few photos at a beautiful little waterfall and vinyard looking back where we came from. Compiobbi is a flatter road on a river, bunch of cycling teams out. I would have liked to have ridden tempo with them for a bit (esp on the flats given their waists) but I was already winning by riding with Cindy in Tuscany. We made it to Molino del Piano for a coffee stop, then up to a small castle on the way to Santa Brigida.

From there we climbed to just before Olmo, stopped for a snack and a view of the setting sun, then back to Firenze on a downhill fast enough that even the kids on motard bikes couldn't really pass until towns.

All in, only about 60k, but we spent 5h enjoying it with picture and view and coffee stops. And the plethora of steep climbing makes it hard.

With the density of little towns, rolling hills, and innumerous little roads, you could be finding new routes for years here. They're all fine to ride with smooth road tires, but a 'cross tire could make some of the downhill gravel roads a bit more fun. I'm sure there's a thousand recommended cycling routes in Tuscany, but by total fluke, this is beauty on day 1 shows that finding routes is no harder than booking a ticket to Florence and riding right out of town. Just amazing!

Sunday 30 December 2012

Italian Cars

Why oh why do we want/need/have such large vehicles in North America? Life functions just fine without large hunks of depreciating steel.

I've seen bikes in so many little cars here, that I wonder why I buy big ones too. And I even try not to buy the biggest (and have stuck to my rule to never own a car with a V8... Or perhaps more accurately, one that needs a V8 to get it moving, which leaves a small future loophole for an overpowered little sports car, but I digress).

Assortment of small car photos. Lots of Fiats. Surprising number of electric cars. Traffic is chaotic and fast, but entirely respectful and polite. Toot toots to let you know they're there. Not a single pass by a car has felt menacing - they just execute and move on. It's amazing. I've oft heard that narrow roads and roads without bike lanes are the reason for cyclist and car "accidents", but this disproves that to a degree. I qualify that with speeds are slower here with the small streets, and cars are smaller. But it's really just attitude and approach to things.

There's tons and tons of Smart cars here, plus there's innumerous scooters. There's also handfuls of cars that make Smart cars look big. Mini's look like estate wagons!

Speaking of small and awesome, I heard an enthusiastic engine revving behind me while riding, but had no time to pull out the camera. A guy went zipping by, in loud but not obnixious fashion (little engines revving here seems so normal) in an origina Fiat Abarth 750 painted in... the colors of the Italian flag of course. He cooked around a mountain road corner, and it just looked right instead of reckless. There was room for me, him, and probably half a peloton worth of bikes on the road it was so small!

The bus pictured is shorter than a Ford F350, is electric, and could take dozens of people when packed full.

Cindy and were also impressed that full sized coach stile tour busses could also fit down these streets, and the driver didn't even seem fazed when a Renault Megane hatchback was pulled over with two wheels on curb, yet two still on street, and the bus just inched by with a tiny space to spare on both sides.

Italian Trains 2

For the trip from Florence back to Milan, we got on a nicer train that does Rome-Florence-Bologna-Milan and back at high speed. It seemed to top out around over 300kph, but I only paid enough attention to the display to snap this photo - the countryside really moves at that speed. most of the times was in the 270-280 range though. It still has conventional tracks, but very smooth and relaxing overall. First class tickets were about €75/$100. Then you get off and walk/taxi/bike/or do Smart car rentals or like a Car2Go type system. Just seems so modular, smart, efficient.

Uffizi Gallery

The Uffizi gallery museum is one of the oldest museums of the western world, having begun construction in 1560 (open to the public since 1756).

We packed in as many hours as we could of Italian art and sculpture, including works of very famous artists such as Sandro Boticelli, a painting by Michaleangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael and Carvaggio.

Snack on their roof top patio which was just beautiful.

Friday 28 December 2012

Birthday dinner

We went to a restaurant that was a small place with 8 tables featuring only ingredients from Tuscany for Cindy's birthday surprise dinner. Unable to decide, we elected for the tasting menu, and of course were not let down. Cindy got a birthday cake with a candle at the end. Cindy's brother also touched up one of our photos of the day!


Firenze, or Florence, has stolen our hearts. That's not a bad thing to have stolen on vacation.

I've been to places with good cycling. I've been to places with accessible language/culture to outsiders. I've been to places with good food. And I've been to a few places with rich history... and Florence has all of them combined, and in quantities beyond what I ever expected. I can't think of a place I loved being anymore than this.

We did some shopping, mostly window shopping, but did get a few things. Huge fashion and shopping district here. Beautiful streets full of people at night. I get why Italians believe in god so much - there was a shop selling whispy scoops of the clouds angels sit on in a hundred different flavours, so we decided to partake in some gelato of unearthly goodness. Wow.

With all the fashion pics everywhere, we decided to part ways for a while with the "look at the camera and smile" approach in exchange for an aloof look of Italian-ness portrayed by models in ads. Cindy is doing her best!

Again, a random spot for dinner was beyond what our taste buds have been used to their whole lives. At home I never really craved going out to Italian restaurants, or even trying at home. Mario Monti has a lot of issues on his plate right now, but he should send in cooks to set Mercato ("Italian" restaurant down the street from our house) straight. A noodle can have layers upon layers of flavour, or it can taste like boiled water with a slight burn. The Italian national food police wouldn't approve. Parmesan cheese in those Kraft cylinders from a grocery store are only an approximation, it's like saying a Wal-mart Huffy and a creation of Ernesto Colnago are the same. Whether its cars, or food, or wine, or art, or fashion, or I'm sure dozens of other things, the Italians have pushed far past adequacy to make utter refinement available as well.

I've splurged a bit on hotels, and this one is the best yet (using one chain in the three cities to simplify reservations). The Relais Santa Croce Florence is a 24 room small hotel that was originally a house the Pope's treasurer Marquis Baldinucci built for himself in the early 1700's. Their web promo photos will do more justice than our phones. Perhaps a second statement of the obvious... but the guy with his hands on the Pope's treasury, in Italy, 300 years ago didn't seem like he was short of money. It's like staying in a museum. But really, all three of their properties we've stayed at are close to where the cool attractions are, only a few minutes walk, so we could skip taxis and stuff in each place we stayed. The top floor has a window showing through to the truss construction that has held the arching ceiling in the music hall up for 300 years. I need to wait for daytime to get a picture for Jon and Craig to see.

When we got back last night from dinner, they had a concert violinist playing in the grand music room, so we sat 15 feet away and listened until he stopped. Simply magical how rich real sound is in a room like that, up close. And watching a violinist play is spellbinding like watching fire. It's so elegant, but making those things not squeal is beyond me... I'll stick to bikes. Makes listening to an MP3 like... well eating Kraft dinner vs. eating here. They said Mozart had played in that same spot too for the Pope and his crew. This was our little taste of old world charm. Cindy says there's nothing Italy could do to be more romantic than it is.

Italian Trains

The trains are quiet and smooth, easy to sleep on. Some are quite fast (160km/h). The coffee is strong and small. The handwipes can't have just soap and alcohol smell, they are perfumed beautifully. The trains are clean and run on time. The ticket checkers on the trains are like quad or quint-lingual and are helpful people. The trains aren't dirt cheap, but if you factor in the practicality of only needing to own one car, and probably a city commuter only, its a very cost effective add to your personal transportation mix. They go so many places - Milan to Rome is under 4h. The overhead luggage space is reasonable, but people also pile stuff up everywhere. There are rules on bikes that are actually workable when you know them, although asserting your rights is not always easy to do (doesn't work half the time in English at an airport either of course). The best 2 answers have been: "really? every other train I've been on said it was fine" and the one that the hotel concierge gave me "when I spoke to the guy, he said this size packing and these rules, so I got him to write his operator number down here - see?". Perfect!

Thursday 27 December 2012


The history, architecture, engineering, and just the premise of this place are so amazing its hard to grasp. It's very beautiful and unique. While once it was the center of an empire, it's now filled with tourist junk/trinket/fashion shops. That's fine I guess, there's enough unspoilt streets too, but it'd be amazing to see what this was like as a functioning city at the height of it's history. There are other mountains, other cosmopolitan world cities, etc. but there's only one on earth that is Venice. Wow.

We did a bit of a fancy dinner, which was kind of the only thing we ate all day. The food continues to amaze me. If I were a fish/shrimp/octopus in the Mediterranean, I'd be honoured to fill out my organ donor card to subject myself to an Italian chef upon my demise. The refinement of stuff that comes on a plate is just beyond me; I eat for function and sustenance, and here it's such an art what they accomplish with such apparent simplicity.


Abuse of causality arguments irks me. Media do it often through lazy reporting. Special interest groups do it often to promote their causes to less critical thinkers.

"Marijuana is a gateway drug that leads to x, y, and z harder drug use". Ok sure, sounds plausible. And in a select set of survivor bias cases, it's true.

But it doesn't make the progression true. Scientifically, I'd say there's an solid gazillion Mexican labourers, hippies gone baby boomers (or just boomers in general, regardless if they were hippies), and the people of BC, who haven't gone that A to B route, just the A. X percent of people had whatever in them where they were going to be in pursuit of mind altering substances, and they didn't start with heroin...

It's like saying breast milk and apple juice sippy cups get people started on a path to alcoholism (it's true that alcoholics start as infants and need nourishment of course...), but dumb to think that's causal.

1. Pick precursor you want to harp on.
2. Pick "undesirable" circumstance.
3. Wield poor argument.

French fries. Obesity. People who eat carbohydrates like potatoes will be fat. Sure, if dozens of other conditions are met. Or go check those Belgian cyclists/models dipping their fries in mayonnaise for a counter argument...

Just like we know that pedestrians who get hit by cars all know how to put their own socks on in the morning didn't cause their injury by pedestrianism, we need to know the remedy is adding percent correlation and frequency of occurance statements to a false (implicit 100% correlation) argument.

The trick for perpetrators is to say repeat such statements enough, quick enough, with other facts nearby (perhaps not even associated), such that the causality is swallowed whole. Don't fall for false causality arguments. And call those out who use them - ask if they are actually trying to be deceitfully manipulative or are just simple in the head (perhaps use tact though). And review in your mind what portion of those who complete the precursor don't join the speakers unfortunate ending condition.

Rant over.

Milan to Venice

We learned the ropes/jumped through the hoops of Italian trains with bikes. Made it of course, and got to people watch some poor parenting and 3 little kids that look cute, but turned out to be complete terrors on the way out. Flat countryside, industrial slant to it all. They have cow statues here too. Then... Venice from the train station. And lastly, an elevator that goes only up or right.