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Travel

Todayville Travel: Spring in Italy – Riccione and the Tuscan Hills

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12 minute read

Second in the two-part series ‘Spring in Italy’.

“My head was down, focused on my churning bicycle pedals and the relentless climb up a twisting cobblestone road. What was I doing here? I’m not even fond of biking.”

The Most Serene Republic of San Marino is located smack dab in the middle of Italy. At 62 sq. km. it is one of the smallest nations in the world. Although only a few dozen kilometres from Italy’s Adriatic Coast, San Marino’s summit is almost 800 meters above sea level. And crowning this mountainous micro-state is the medieval Fortress of Guaita. My destination.

But I wasn’t looking up. My head was down, focused on my churning bicycle pedals and the relentless climb up a twisting cobblestone road. What was I doing here? I’m not even fond of biking.

I needed the exercise. We had been in Italy for almost two weeks and had yet to actually earn any of the fabulous meals we had devoured.

It was a tough three-hour slog to San Marino’s pinnacle – but an easy glide back down to the coastal town of Riccione, and the Belvedere Hotel where we were ensconced for four nights. The Belvedere is a “biker’s” hotel. Marina Pasquini, the proprietress, is a dynamic effervescent woman. Marina exudes the qualities of both caring mother and astute businesswoman. Her staff love her – and feed off her magnetism. This osmotic energy carries through to the guests – who are treated like family.

Marina is a wonderful cook. So after a gruelling 70-kilometre ride, I felt justified in accepting a second helping of her traditional Friday night paella. Marina is also an observant woman (I wouldn’t try stealing any silverware from the Belvedere). When we checked in she noted I was toting a ukulele:

“Would you like to play at lunch this afternoon? You’ll be biking up to a farmhouse and winery in the hills.”

“I can’t carry the ukulele on my bicycle,” I replied.

“Don’t worry, we can bring it up for you,” she said happily. “It will be wonderful.”

How could I say no?

Marina and her Friday night paella

On the ride up my wife Florence had bike problems. Her chain kept falling off. Our guide Dani-boy was nonchalant and pleasantly attended to each messy repair. When we arrived at the farmhouse his hands were black with grease.

Thanks Dani!

During lunch I scoured my brain for an appropriate tune to entertain a group of bicycle aficionados in the Rimini hills of Italy. After a four-course meal, a sweet dolce and plenty of vino di casa, the group was rambunctious. I tentatively plinked the ukulele.

An exhausted Gerry enjoys the view from the summit of San Marino

My truncated version of Dean Martin’s “That’s Amore” went over well.

Then I recounted Florence’s bike chain maladies by singing (with apologies to the Beatles):

“Chain, my baby’s got a tangled-up chain,

And it ain’t the kind, that you can cl-e-e-e-an,

But Dani-boy, fixed her chain for me. Yeah.”

The crowd went wild. Bike enthusiasts can be real nerds.

Dani-boy had a genuine tear in his eye. Despite their hot-blooded temperament, Italians can be surprisingly sentimental.

On our last Belvedere morning, as we checked out, the skies opened up. Disheartened cyclists, decked out in jerseys from around the world, sat and scanned the dreary sky. The ride was off for the day. Rain, steep narrow roads, zany Italian drivers and over-enthusiastic bicyclists do not mix well.

Marina was in the foyer to bid us arrivederci, offering a genuine hug – and a request that we soon return.

We were off to Tuscany, the final leg of our month-long stay in Italia. The GPS indicated that our AirBnb in Lucca was three hours away. But as per our usual modus operandi we took the road less travelled and turned what should have been a short jaunt into a seven-hour odyssey through the twisting narrow country roads and unsurpassable beauty of Tuscany.

The road less traveled

I enjoyed driving in Italy. Despite their crazy reputation, I found Italian drivers really get it (unlike some folks piloting cars on Alberta’s highways). I survived a month driving in Italy without incident: no fender-benders on narrow cobblestone streets, no roundabout collisions – and not one Italian offered a gesticulation as to where I might go and procreate.

However… it will be a miracle if the post office doesn’t eventually deliver a slew of photo-radar tickets and one-way street infractions. It is not an understatement to suggest that compliance with Italian driving laws is impossible. And Italian roads require super-human navigating skills. Florence (and our GPS) performed admirably – we were lost fewer than a dozen times.

When we arrived in Lucca our hostess met us outside the town walls, helped us park and escorted us to her lovely apartment in the heart of the Old City. (Our AirBnb experience throughout Italy was amazing. Our hosts were uniformly friendly, helpful – and available. Many even stocked the fridge with Italian delights for our arrival.)

Lucca

One fine afternoon we signed up for a wine-tasting tour in the famous Brunello region of Montalcino, near Sienna. En route we passed vineyard after vineyard, interrupted only by ancient olive groves. And it seemed every Tuscan hill was topped by an alluring fairytale-like village – with stone spires guarding the verdant fields of Italian spring.

“Mario loves making vino, his passion for sixty years. He has a certain – pardon my French – joie de vivre.”

Mario Ciacci is the octogenarian who founded and still oversees Abbadia Ardenga winery – although these days Mario’s role seems limited to entertaining customers, dancing with the lady guests – and sipping a little of his own beautifully-aged Brunello. He proudly walked us through the vintner’s process – and his priceless cellar – before serving us a simple lunch coupled with a multitude of his Abbadia vintages.

Mario Ciacci woos the ladies – when not making wine

Mario loves making vino, his passion for sixty years. He has a certain – pardon my French – joie de vivre. Mario is also a seasoned salesman; in addition to my traffic tickets, any day now we’re expecting an overseas shipment of Brunello wine.

After three nights in Lucca and four in Sienna we moved on to Orvieto for our final few Italian nights. In each of these towns the itinerary was simple: explore the narrow, confusing streets of the city core for a day, then hop in the car and tour the surrounding countryside for a couple of days.

Ponte Della Madallena near Lucca

“The gold-gilded façade of the Duomo is spectacular at sunset.”

All of these walled cities have their unique character but Orvieto is perhaps the most charming – and interesting. Built atop a flat butte of volcanic tuff, the town has remained impregnable for millennia. Its high walls provide a natural defense that could not be breached. The city was also immune to enemy siege. Water was drawn from the ingeniously designed well of San Patrizio and food literally flew in through the windows: the people farmed pigeons. Thus both food and water were readily available without leaving the protection of the fortress.

Orvieto is home to one of Italy’s most striking Gothic cathedrals. The gold-gilded façade of the Duomo is spectacular at sunset. And beneath the streets an ancient labyrinth of tunnels was carved into the tuff, designed for quick escape. (Perhaps flight from this siege-proof city would have been necessary had Orvieto been infiltrated by stool pigeons?)

Duomo in Orvieto

We’ve been home for some time now and the traffic tickets have yet to arrive – but I take solace in the fact that when they do there will be a hearty glass of Brunello at hand to ease the pain.

If you go: The Belvedere Hotel specializes in hosting bike enthusiasts from around the world.

Gerry Feehan QC practised law in Red Deer for 27 years before starting his second life as a freelance travel writer and photographer. He says that, while being a lawyer is more remunerative than travel writing, it isn’t nearly as much fun. When not on the road, Gerry and his wife Florence live in Red Deer and Kimberley, BC. Todayville is proud to work with Gerry to re-publish some of his most compelling stories from his vast catalogue developed over more than a decade of travel.

Gerry Feehan

Read about Gerry’s adventures in Hawaii

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Business

WestJet sets sights on low-cost leisure with purchase of 42 more airplanes

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WestJet is making a substantial addition to its fleet with the purchase of 42 aircraft as the airline plans to expand its low-cost offerings, with plans to add routes to sun destinations from cities across Canada.

The Calgary-based airline announced the agreement with Boeing for the purchase of the 737-10 MAX planes on Thursday.

The purchase, which was on top of an existing order of 23 aircraft, includes the option to add 22 more planes depending on demand.

The purchase is a part of the airline’s plan to expand its low-cost offerings and offer sun and leisure flying across Canada, said WestJet Group’s chief executive officer, Alexis von Hoensbroech.

Earlier this month, WestJet said in a press release that it would be suspending several routes to Atlantic Canada, including flights between Halifax and Montreal, as of Oct. 28. Spring flight schedules are not yet available.

WestJet chief commercial officer John Weatherill said the decision was difficult but will help in the long run, as the airline shifts more of its eastern routes to sun and leisure destinations.

However, he said WestJet is not stopping Atlantic flights completely; instead, von Hoensbroech said the airline plans to ramp up its cross-country flights and flights from the East to leisure destinations including the Southern U.S. and the Caribbean.

“What we will do less, is flying within the East,” said von Hoensbroech. “So flights between Montreal and Toronto will decrease but Montreal to Cancun will increase.”

“We are a low-cost carrier and we want to improve our low-cost positioning,” said von Hoensbroech.

Supporting this move is the pending Sunwing acquisition, given Sunwing’s focus of servicing Eastern Canada’s leisure market, said WestJet’s chief executive officer.

Brought with the incoming aircraft is the need for more cabin crew, ground handlers and pilots,  a challenge recognized by WestJet’s chief executive officer, as staffing levels have been an industry-wide problem after the return of domestic and international travel.

While some roles are more challenging to fill, von Hoensbroech said that he is confident WestJet will find enough staff for the expansion and said it will create hundreds and thousands of additional job and career opportunities within WestJet.

“If you’re a pilot and you are joining an airline that is growing, this will give you a faster track to become a captain than if you are joining an airline that is not growing as fast as we do,” said von Hoensbroech.

WestJet says the Boeing 737-10 MAX provides the lowest cost per seat among mid-range aircraft and is part of the airline’s plan to offer more affordable flights.

The order will start delivering at the end of 2024 through to 2028, expanding the fleet by 65 aircraft over six years.

WestJet wouldn’t yet say whether the 42 additional aircraft will service WestJet alone or if they will also fly under Swoop, the airline’s ultra-low-cost carrier.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 29, 2022.

Caitlin Yardley, The Canadian Press

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Business

Canada’s low-cost airlines expand services, announces Flair and Lynx

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Announcements from two of Canada’s largest low-cost carriers propose expansion in the budget leisure market.

Flair Airlines chief executive officer Stephen Jones announced a deepening of focus to current routes with daily frequency increases to locations including Calgary, Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver.

The Edmonton-based airline said it plans to expand its fleet to 30 aircraft, up from 20, by the end of next year, with planned service to 70 routes and is a step toward Flair’s five-year plan to reach 50 aircraft.

Calgary-based Lynx Air also announced plans for expansion in 2023 as the airline will begin offering flights to the U.S. market starting early next year.

The U.S. routes will include year-round flights from Toronto to Orlando, Fla., Calgary to Phoenix, Calgary to Los Angeles, and Calgary to Las Vegas, said Lynx chief executive officer Merren McArthur.

“We know that Canadians love to chase the sun in the winter and we want to give them an ultra-affordable option with Lynx,” said McArthur.

More domestic destinations are anticipated to be added to Lynx’s flight offerings said McArthur as the airline hopes to one day be Canada’s No. 1 low-cost carrier.

For now however, McArthur said that Lynx is “not really here to take market shares from our competitors, but really to grow the market and empower more Canadians to travel and fly.”

Flair also proposed more flights to sun destinations Wednesday, as Jones announced they would be extending the number of flights to Mexican destinations, including Cancun, Cabo San Lucas and Puerto Vallarta.

Flair plans to be Canada’s third largest domestic airline by next summer, said spokesman Mike Arnot.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept, 28, 2022.

Caitlin Yardley, The Canadian Press

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