Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Oatmeal in the rice cooker

I was told I should stop eating the highly processed, instant oatmeal and switch to real, steel cut oatmeal (such as McCann’s which you can get at Trader Joes). Not wanting to wake up to a complicated/lengthy cooking task, I recalled hearing something about rice makers being able to cook oatmeal. So, I dug out the rice maker and made a batch. I loaded the water and the oatmeal, changed to the “porridge” setting and about an hour later, a decent serving of oatmeal was ready.

The next day I thought I’d try the quick cook option to see how much faster it would be. Apparently that setting is only for rice as after a short while the oatmeal started bubbling out the steam vent, down the back of the rice maker and all over the counter. What a mess. Won’t try that setting again.

A few days pass and I give it another go. This time I either forget to choose porridge or I intentially tried one of the regular rice settings. Again, oatmeal out the vent and all over the place. I decide to stick to the instant oatmeal for a bit longer - I certainly purchased enough of it.

A few weeks passed and I’m finally starting to run low on the huge supply of instant oatmeal so I figure its time to start adding the real stuff back into the rotation. With the timer on the rice cooker, I can get everything ready to go before I jump in bed and wake up and have the oatmeal hot and ready to eat. The first night, everything went perfectly! I added some honey and cinnamon and enjoyed my breakfast. But, last night the machine ended up back on its default setting for rice (yes, I forget to double-check) and I woke up this morning to another wonderful mess. I’m hoping that writing this down will help me remember to check the setting every time!

So - if you are looking to use your rice cooker for oatmeal, it can and will work great - so long as you put it on the proper setting! Otherwise, look out...


I’m doing some work in ColdFusion. It’s amazing how many different ways there are to serve up a web page. So far, don’t see anything real compelling about CF - I’m guessing its existence today is a result of it being one of the only alternatives to Microsoft’s ASP back in the day. But, time has passed and CF seems to be stuck in time - a bit like playing an Atari 2600 while your friends are playing the Xbox 360. But - it does get the job done. Probably the biggest annoyance is debugging is back to using the equivalent of printf’s in various parts of the system to see what’s going on. Not terrible, but certainly not state of the art. There is a nice plugin for Eclipse that makes the Eclipse editor CF aware (just wish I had a bit more memory on my laptop to keep all these java based tools happy).

Garmin Edge 305

After reading many good reviews, I broke down and purchased the Garmin Edge 305. You can get it with a cadence monitor, heart monitor or both - I got the cadence monitor (I can always add the heart rate monitor later if I want). Purchase price was only $245 at NewEgg. Not sure why they’re selling it for $100-$150 less than everyone else, but they are (this is what also helped push me over the edge and buy it).

First thing that struck me on opening the box was how really small the unit is. I saw many pictures, yet somehow it seems smaller when its actually in front of you. But, even though its small (and light) - it has a nice large display screen. Setup was mostly straight forward. Plug the unit in to charge it, install some software on your computer and use some quick-ties to fasten a mount to the handlebar stem. The only slightly tricky part was getting the cadence/speed detector and the two magnets all lined up. First problem was that the spoke magnet doesn’t fit my spokes - so I ended up re-using the cateye magnet that did fit. The second problem is that there are supposed to be lights that flash on and off when everything is set properly, but I couldn’t see them - maybe it was too bright. In any case, it appears that cadence detector is working - not yet sure about the speed (as the speed is picked up from the GPS when you have a satellite lock).

The first thing I did was check the Garmin site and update the firmware to 2.40 (unit shipped with 2.30). Probably fine with the older version, but I figured its best to start with the latest. This was very easy to do using Garmin’s WebUpdater software - it auto-detected current installed version, latest available version, prompted to confirm install and then managed the download, update process.

Once you turn the unit on, there’s some basic setup that you do (enter some basic information about you and your bike) and then there’s a load of config/display options you can tweak to your liking. It tracks lots of information, each of which can be made to appear on one of several display screens in any location on that screen. This is really cool - not only the flexibility, but the fact that you can have so much displayed at once and still have it be readable/usable at a glance. Stepping out to the back deck, I was able to get a satellite lock very quickly. So, everything looks good for the first ride!

I head out for the standard Bedford and back ride (22mi). Only thing to get used to is hitting “start” when you want it to start recording and hitting “stop” when the ride is over. For the most part, the speed seemed accurate and responsive (ie, no huge lag in what it displayed). However, there were times when it seemed to be wrong (too low) - perhaps it lost satellite due to some trees and flipped to the magnet sensor? Will keep an eye on this on future rides. Distance seemed extremely accurate.

The fun really begins when the ride is over. This is when you get to download your data and re-live your ride as well as do all kinds of post ride analysis on the ride and the rider. How was your pace/speed? Was that hill as big as it seemed? What cadence did you ride at? And, of course, there’s the GPS data that you can superimpose on various maps or load into Google Earth. The accuracy of the ride when viewed in Google Earth was quite amazing - it was clear which side of the road I was riding on. Another interesting stat that it captured was how much time was spent not riding - very useful as the wait time at the street crossings can vary from ride to ride. In addition to the software that comes with the unit, you can also sign up for (for free) or try SportTracks. I’m sure there are others that I’ll find over time as well. These additional programs add plotting of ride statistics against each other vs. time or distance, often allowing altitude to be overlayed as well so you can get a sense of how the terrain is impacting the ride stats. Some of the charts are difficult to read as the speed data looks a bit noisy (even when “smoothed”), but they’re still good enough to give you a sense of how you did on the ride.

Here’s the link to the MotionBased analysis for this ride.

Things I haven’t yet tried are some of the training features - target cadence, virtual partner, courses, etc. I’m already pleased, so if these make it even more fun, all the better!

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Artichoke Dip Recipe

Over the weekend I made the artichoke dip that was such a hit on Easter. Once again, it turned out quite good. Here’s the recipe.

You’ll need 2 cans of artichoke hearts packed in water (not marinade), about 8 ounces of grated Paremesan cheese, a cup or so of mayonnaise and some jalepeno peppers (I used some that I grew last summer and pickled). Preperation is easy - grate the cheese, chop up the artichoke hearts, dice the peppers and mix them all together with the mayo. Add more mayo if the mixture seems a bit “dry”. Bake for about 25 minutes at 350 degrees. While baking, prepare a sour dough boule by slicing off the rounded top and then hollowing out the bottom to form a bowl for the dip. Slice the top into bite size pieces that can be used in the dip (no need to toast these as the crust gives them enough firmness for dipping). Slice and toast what was scooped from the boule. When the dip comes out of the oven, scoop/pour into the boule and serve with the bread slices, carrots, celery or anything you wish for dipping.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Orbea Onix

Orbea Onix
Originally uploaded by pdbreen.
A picture of the new bike - complete with the VBT water bottle!

Boston Organics

I signed up for a weekly food delivery from a company called Boston Organics.  The first delivery arrived last week and contained a mixture of fruits and vegetables (I signed up for the 50/50 option).  Each week the content changes based on what's in season so opening the box was fun (though you can see what's coming by looking on the website).  The first delivery had bananas, oranges, apples, strawberries, pineapple, grapefruit, tomatoes, potatoes, spinach, lettuce, eggplant, zucchini and carrots (and probably one or two other things I've forgotten).  The only downside was that I was away for several nights right after the delivery arrived so eating everything while it was still fresh was a problem for this week.  Other than that, getting things that I would probably never buy myself and then figuring out how to best prepare and cook them is turning out to be a lot of fun.  The customer service has also been very responsive to a few delivery changes that I needed to make (changing to weekly delivery of the smaller, $25 bin).  So, if you're looking for a steady supply of fresh, organically grown produce delivered direct to your door, you should definitely check them out!

Next year I may change to purchasing a share at a local farm, but most shares were already sold out for this year.  Though I did consider working 1 day a week at one of the farms in exchange for a share.  In addition to the food, I might actually learn things I could use in my own garden!

This year's garden...

With another spring comes another attempt at getting some food to grow in the backyard.  Last year I planted corn, 2 types of peppers and cherry tomatoes to go along with the strawberries and raspberries that return every year.  The corn yielded only 1 or 2 ears so I won't be trying that again.  The tomatoes were productive early in the season, but seemed to have trouble later in the year.  Of the two peppers, the hot peppers (I forget the specific type) did extremely well.  The strawberries are getting old and although the plants are green and sturdy, not much fruit is produced - I'm sure the bed is in need of a good thinning and fertilizing.  And, the raspberries did ok - only problem with them is that you don't get that many and they are ripe almost all at once.

So, this year the strawberries and raspberries will be joined by grape tomatoes, cayenne and jalapeno peppers, bush beans and red leaf lettuce.  Unfortunately I bought everything before the weekend but didn't get things planted and the watering setup until yesterday.  This definitely stressed the lettuce and tomatoes - though it looks like the tomatoes have recovered fully and the lettuce may make it as well.

I had hoped to get some herbs planted this year as well, but I might have to leave that until next year as there isn't any space left in the tiny garden.  Then again, I might be able to use planters.  Guess this still needs more thought.

Half Century Completed

I finished a half-century ride yesterday.  The route was down the bike trail to Bedford, down Rt 4 to Great Brook Farm, back to Concord, Rt 62 to Bedford (what a terrible road for riding - it needs to be repaved!), down 225 to Kimble Farm for some ice cream (still amazed at what they consider a small!) and then retrace the route down 225 to Bedford and the bike trail back home.  Total mileage was 50.08 miles.  Ride time was 2h40m (excludes ice cream time) with an average speed of about 18.7 and top speed of 35.5.  Unfortunately, I have no idea how this compares against the general biking population... 

Only issue during the ride was my lower back getting a bit sore near the end - need to figure out if this is just a result of getting used to the new riding position or whether there is some tweaking I can do to the seat & handlebar positions to eliminate this.  I also need to tune the shifting - its a bit flaky going in and out of the top gear.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Another ride

I was able to get another 22-mile ride to Bedford and back in today.  The winds were high again - though there was a bit of a tailwind on the ride back.  Overall time was 1h10m (18.9 mph avg).  I definitely think I'll ride my first (and maybe several?) centuries before I can finish this ride in under an hour...


Originally uploaded by pdbreen.

I know I've been to Nantucket at least once before - when I went flying with John O'Grady we briefly landed at the airport here. But, we never left the airport. At the time, that was kind of fun by itself since there was a sitcom on that focused on life at Tom Nevers Field. I don't recall if I ever sailed here with my family before that. If I did, it was before memory took hold and the stories must have been quite bad as they've never been retold.
So, I didn't know quite what to expect or what to do when I arrived (other than attend the wine festival which was the reason for the trip). In some way, I expected the island to be a bit like a bigger version of Block Island (where I spent many summers and remember well).
In retrospect, it is. The area around the harbor and ferry landing is quite built up - lots of stores, inns, B&Bs, restaurants and shops. Most are independent - but you do see a chain here and there (Polo, Grand Union, Blackdog).
Once you walk away from town (which doesn't take long), you enter the "countryside". What is different from Block Island is that Nantucket is much larger which means that you can't walk from one end of the island to the other in a few hours. However - there are many bike trails and bike rental shops to help out. But, since I was with Nuke, I didn't rent a bike and could only explore what was within walking distance.
Fortunately, this meant all of the downtown area, both ferry docks and the beach next to the Brant Point lighthouse. We also ventured out a few miles on Cliff Rd and discovered a wonderful open space that was very dog friendly. Nuke had a good time chasing sticks and tennis balls as well as just exploreing the paths and greeting the other dogs.
And, its definitely true that Nantucket is dog friendly. I don't think I've ever been on walks where people have stopped so often to great Nuke (who is always happy to accept attention). I also assumed that I was able to bring Nuke into the stores with me and was never told otherwise (though I did end up leaving her outside when I was shopping in the two dog stores - Cold Noses and Sandy Paws - as I couldn't hold her back and shop at the same time).
Nantucket is a truly wonderful, relaxing and friendly place with great shopping and restaurants. And, it does capture some of that European sense of a city where the people and the stores are what makes it come to life. But when I look at what it costs to live on the island (seems like everything is in the millions), the price seems much too high.


Nantucket Wine Festival

Originally uploaded by pdbreen.
Nuke & I went to Nantucket this past weekend for their annual wine festival. A number of firsts - my first wine festival, Nuke's first time staying in a hotel, Nuke's first boat ride, my first time to Nantucket that I can recall (other than a brief stop at the airport when I went flying with John O'Grady). It also turned out to be the first time I had an oyster. I have always avoided them as they don't look that appealing. But, as I was waiting to board the bus to the afternoon tasting, people were comparing notes on the best food at the morning tasting and everyone agreed that the oysters shouldn't be missed. Having paid $50 to get in to the tasting - I certainly wasn't going to miss the one thing that people were talking about!
The minutes pass, but the shuttle bus never arrives so most of us end up walking the mile or so to the festival. Probably a good thing as I think the food at the festival is much more interesting and much more of a reason to go than the wine. But I'm sure those more educated than me would argue that there was a good selection of wines available for tasting.
As for the food, I was able to pretty much have dinner there both days (though it would be easy to argue I didn't eat healthy meals). I had lots (and lots) of cheese, smoked salmon, cookies, sushi, shrimp, bagels, brownies, chocolate... Basically, lots of finger food. The only thing that was meal-like was the end product of the cooking demonstrations (which were quite good).
And, I did have an oyster - actually several. They had selections from 5 different farms that varied in salinity and sweetness - so not only did I have my first oyster, I had several and now also know something about the differences in where they're raised. I preferred the sweeter ones over the salty.
Sampling the wines was actually difficult for me - knowing so little about wines, the conversation pretty much boiled down to the following:

PB: Can I try some of X?
Vendor: Here you go.
PB: Thank you. [Sniffs. Tastes.] Wow. That's good. Has X been turning out to be a good year?
Vendor: Yes.
PB: [Takes another sip.] Ok. [Pauses] Thank you! [Walks away]

It seemed neither I nor the vendor were much for small talk when the wine tasted was nothing special. What's the proper way to say there was nothing special about what I just tasted? There were a few execptions. The most notable in the show was Four Vines. The blends were amazing and the vendor/winemaker had somewhat of a punk demeanor which was refreshing.
There were 4 grand tastings - 2 each on Saturday and Sunday and each lasting 2 hours in total. I had tickets to the afternoon session on both Saturday and Sunday. The Saturday session passed quickly (other than food, I focused on red wines, especially those from Tuscany). On Sunday, I switched to whites, but got bore about an hour in - I had already tried much of the food on Saturday and the wine makers were definitely visibly tired and much less engaging as well. Some booths just left the bottles behind so you could pour your own.
Overall, going to one session is very enjoyable with lots to take in - in terms of wine, food, audience and cooking demonstrations. Another session seemed excessive. For those people that spent 2+ hours at all 4 sessions - more power to you! I don't think I could do it...

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

For your safety, stay behind the fence

Spent the weekend on Nantucket with Nuclear. We took the high speed ferry to the island (Hyannis to Nantucket in about an hour). Nuke was fine until the boat started moving - then she seemed to turn a little green - she wouldn't lie down, her tail wasn't wagging, her mouth was closed and her ears down. She seemed to be doing all she could to not get sick - though I may be reading too much into her body language. Once we got to the island she was fine and enjoyed numerous walks through town, around town, on the beachs and in some of the wonderful open spaces on the island (including the one pictured).
The return trip on Monday was a bit more interesting. The 9:30 high speed ferry was cancelled due to the high winds and seas. Uh oh - looks like the trip back will be worse than the trip over... The next high-speed ferry is at 12:30. Good thing I checked back a bit early as that one was cancelled as well. But, the regular ferry was leaving at noon for its 2-hour crossing. Now I'm really nervous - it sounds like the seas will be worse and we'll be on them for twice as long. Not much I can do but hope for the best and we get on board. I get a seat inside as close to the center of the boat as possible thinking that the rocking will be less and by being inside she might be more inclined to lie down. Turns out the trip back went fine - she did end up lying down for most of it and there wasn't much rocking either.
Details on the Wine Festival will follow.

Friday, May 19, 2006

Bike Ride - finally!

It finally stopped raining long enough so I could get a decent length ride in on my new bike.  I figured I'd start with the 22-mile ride to Bedford and back along the Minuteman trail as its a ride I've done many, many times on my previous bike.  What fun!  Even with what seemed to be a fairly strong cross-wind, I was able to complete the ride about 10 minutes faster than I've done in the past (just under 1h10m with an average speed of 19mph).  The "hills" also seemed to vanish completely.  In the stretch from Lexington to Bedford, I dropped to the lower hand position and was averaging just about 25mph.  On the return, I did the same on the stretch from Trader Joe's to Arlington.  At one point I exchanged drafts with another rider which was fun as the draft took away all effort required to maintain a 20+ mph speed.  The bike remained comfortable throughout - no hand or butt fatigue or pain during or after the ride.
The only downside is that now I have two goals - the first remains to complete a century ride (100 miles).  The new goal is to complete the Bedford round trip in under an hour.  This may be a bit of a stretch, but isn't that the point of having goals?

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Yelp - local reviews that actually work?

I think I heard about this site a while ago and probably thought it would be a great idea - but only if they can get enough people to actually take the time to submit reviews and reach a critical mass.  Recently, reviews on Yelp have started turning up in Google search results and I've found that there are now enough reviews for them to be very helpful when choosing where to eat or shop.  So, I signed up myself and found it quite easy to get addicted to submitting reviews for all the neighborhood places I frequent.  The mapping feature is quite handy - the review page gives a small Google map of the area, highlighting the place being reviewed along with 4 others in the area.  This makes it very easy to discover new places that you haven't been or remind you to rate those other nearby places that you have been.  They're also doing a decent job trying to build some community around the site. 
If nothing else, its a convenient place to store all my own reviews so I remember what I liked or didn't like.  If others get benefit from this, then all the better!

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Create your own books with Blurb

Can't recall how I first heard of this company, but somewhere along the way I signed up for notification when Blurb would be available.  It sounded like an interesting idea - provide some simple template-based page layout software along with a backend fulfillment service that can create hard-cover books and keep the price low enough that it can actually compete with 4x6 prints either done at home or via one of the many service providers. 
The timing was such that I received notification that the beta version was available when I returned from Italy - it was the perfect time for a test as I had several hundred pictures that I wanted to share.  The book creation process had a hiccup or two, but the support staff was very responsive, helpful and seemed genuinely interested in making sure I succeeded.  Once past the minor problem I had, I was off and running.  I created an 80 page photo book with probably close to 300 pictures in total.  The process from start to finish probably took close to 2 hours - but I chose to layout each page individually rather than have the software "auto-flow" the photos.  So, much of the time was in the creative process of choosing which photos to use, which templates would work best for them and then minor touch ups on the photos themselves (mostly zoom/crop type edits).  The total price, including shipping was a little over $40 (for comparison, I would probably use about $40-60 in ink and paper costs to print a similar number of 4x6 prints).
Purchasing the book was easy, though lengthy.  I'm guessing it packaged up all my photo's and sent them on to Blurb for printing.  Given that the book contained approximately 300 pictures - each one 8 megapixels - it took some time to upload the entire book for printing. 
A few days later the book arrived - complete with shrink wrap.  I almost didn't want to open the shrink wrap as it was kind of cool to hold a professional looking book listing your name as the author!  The book itself was very nicely done - I'm sure the binding is not as high quality as some professional books and there is some very minor unevenness to the page edges - but these are extremely minor nits.  I'm now able to share my vacation with others very easily, highlighting the handful of really good photos on pages all their own while still keeping many of the others, but at smaller sizes. 
I will definitely be going back through some other photo collections and creating some additional books!

Thursday, May 11, 2006

New Bike

Many on the trip asked why I was riding a hybrid instead of a road bike.  I told them that's what I road at home, so its what I asked for on the trip.  I don't think I've ever done any serious riding on a road bike - I think I had a BMX style bike when I was young and got a mountain bike my first year of college (which I still have).  About 2 years ago, I bought the Trek 7200 hybrid - a "comfort bike" - as any riding I was doing at the time was always on paved bike trails or on the roads.  It was (and still is) a very decent bike for the money ($350) and its all I've ridden recently.  During my "training" for the trip, I took it on a few 45+ mile rides and felt good about covering this distance with growing ease and quick recovery when the ride was over.  I also did numerous shorter rides to Bedford and back along the bike trail (about 25 miles) trying to improve on my best time or not shift below certain gears to build strength.

Apparently, the training paid off as I was one of the stronger riders on the trip, was able to climb all of the hills that were offered to us and recovered well from day to day.  Seeing this, those that had more riding experience suggested that I should really look into a road bike when I get back.

So, on Saturday (having returned from Rome Friday night) I stopped by Ace Wheelworks to take a look at what they had to offer.  Given that my last bike cost $350, I was thinking I could probably get a decent bike for $1000 - and if there was truly a benefit to paying a bit more, was prepared to go a bit higher. 

Seeing my confusion, Jason (one of the store reps) starting guiding my selection process.  I'm sure he was telling me all kinds of useful information, but I didn't fully speak the lingo so much was lost.  In any case, he started selecting a few different bikes for test rides.  The first was an aluminum '05 Cannondale R1000 ($1800).  Wow!  I think the others were right.  The responsiveness and speed were much (much!) different than what I was used to.  At this point, I'm just about certain that I will get a bike - so the process is now fully deciding on which one and hopefully finding one that costs a bit less.  Next I ride a Specialized Roubaix.  It was closer to the price I had in mind ($1200), but the ride was boring compared to the Cannondale - it was like I was riding through molasses.  This one is out of the running.  Jason then pulls a fully carbon fiber '05 Orbea Onix out of the lineup.  I've never heard of this brand and he gives me some history of the company and some success they've had.  Riding this bike was simply incredible - it seemed all power when to moving you forward and it begged to be ridden at a sprint pace throughout - even up the hills.  After a few loops, I was actually quite winded.  I finished the day with another ride on the Cannondale.  I left with plans to come back during the week in more appropriate riding attire for some additional evaluation.

The break also allowed me to do some research.  Now armed with a little bit of info, I could hit the web and check out reviews of the various bikes and become educated on the pluses and minuses of each.  Who knew buying a bike would soon become so complicated!  I quickly found that which frame material made the best bikes was a highly opinionated topic.  Steel, aluminum, carbon fiber and titanium are all in use.  Given the price, I was leaning towards the Cannondale, but found there are many that say aluminum bikes are unforgiving and really beat up your body on long rides.  There are others that say the latest designs and addition of carbon forks and seat posts make this no longer true. 

Not knowing what to believe I check in with a former co-worker that is an avid rider.  He says to avoid aluminum and suggests that I take more bikes out for a test, making sure to include several steel frames.  So, I visit a few more bike stores, have a few more conversations and go for a few more test rides.  None of the bikes felt as good as the Cannondale or Orbea - and the service and friendliness at Ace was also far superior (I never felt like I was getting "sold" as I did at other stores).

I return to Ace in riding gear for some additional rides.  Based on the first set of rides, I thought the Cannondale was extremely twitchy when I was out of the saddle, but seemed to do very well at maintaining speed.  I was concerned that the Orbea required constant sprinting and would not be good for long rides.  First the Cannondale - twitchiness is definitely an odd feeling that I don't like and riding over some bricks, I got a sense of how much road was transmitted through the frame.  It's tough to tell on a short ride how uncomfortable it would become, but it was noticeable.  Next, the Orbea.  No twitchiness out of the saddle - that's a positive.  It also did a better job at dampening the ride over the bricks (very subjective of course).  On this ride, I was careful not to ride at full throttle the entire time and was pleased that I was able to hold speed as easily as the Cannondale.  So, it seems on all fronts this was a better ride.  Only one concern left - I read that the Ultegra 10 speed was a bit better designed/nicer than the 9 speed which the Orbea had.  Ace checked inventory and they had the same framesize/color available with the 10 speed for $100 more (~$2700).  We fill out the paperwork, bike will be ready the next day.  So much for the budget.

I return to pick up the bike and was pleased to find that in addition to the 10 speed build, the bike also had better rims and tires.  In looking up some of the component prices, it seems like a very good deal.  Here's how some of the major parts break down - Ultegra 10 speed build kit - $1350, Mavic rims - $750, tires - $100, FSA carbon crank - $250.  So, at this point I'm happy with the purchase - but it hasn't stopped raining so I haven't yet been able to ride it!!

If it rides as I expect it will, I should be doing my first century ride (100 miles) before the month is over.


'05 Orbea Onix

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

How I lost 70 pounds in 4 months...

Late last year I made some changes to my eating and exercise habits that resulted in going from 230 pounds and a 38" waist to 160 pounds and a 30" waist. When people hear this, they are curious how I did it.

Part of the success stems from having such terrible diet and exercise habits prior to making any changes. I paid little to no attention to what I ate or portion sizes, justifying the approach by saying the lack of stress caused by not caring more than makes up for the benefits of worrying about such things. A typical day would not include breakfast, a good sized lunch and either takeout or some kind of microwave meal for dinner - along with a beer or two. Regular exercise was non-existent. Living this way, my weight held at about 220 for a year or two, but seemed to start climbing again last summer.

The next key thing was having some form of motivation to make a change. For me, there were a couple of things that triggered the desire to do something. I went for a bike ride sometime in July and although I completed the ride, I felt extremely out of shape - especially on the hills. I was at my brothers house when my belly appeared from beneath my shirt - he took the opportunity to rub it and point out how large it had gotten. I attempted to play tennis and could not move well on the court and tired extremely easily. My 38" jeans were starting to feel tight and there was a psychological barrier crossing into the 40's. My reflection in the mirror was difficult to look at - was I starting to grow breasts?

So, in early August I decided to make some changes. On 8/8 I bought one of those scales that can measure body fat. I wish I wrote down the initial reading - I think it was something like 25 or 26% (definitely in the "fat" category). Even so, my initial goal was modest - just avoid the need to buy the 40" pants. The initial changes to my life were also modest - when I came home from work, I spent about 30-45 minutes on the stationary exercise bike rather than having a beer or two. In fact, I vowed not to have any beer during the week. On the weekends, I also made an effort to get out in the kayak or go for a bike ride.

Fairly quickly my weight stabilized and started to go down a bit so I stayed with it. After a week or two, I added some strength exercises using one of those inclined ramp and pulley systems that Chuck Norris was selling a few years back. The weight continued to drop and I started to notice my pants feeling a bit looser.

At this point, luck probably played a role as Shaws had a sale on yogurt and instant oatmeal. The lid of the yogurt happened to include information on how diets that included dairy products (such as yogurt) would help burn fat and reduce your waistline. The oatmeal touted all the health benefits that it offered. Intrigued, I did some digging on the Internet and found similar information - as well as tidbits such as never skip breakfast. So, breakfast of yogurt or oatmeal became part of my daily routine after being absent for many, many years. Somewhere along the way I also came across something touting the benefits of green tea, so I switched from drinking coffee in the mornings and at work, to drinking green tea.

After a few more weeks, I was surprised to find that my 38" pants no longer fit. Good thing I still had some of the 36" pants I had outgrown a few years earlier. I also extended the exercise a bit more to include sit-ups and even started running for the first time in something like 20 years. I signed up for a 4 mile run on Thanksgiving morning, so I had a goal to train to.

A few more weeks and I had to dig deeper through my old clothes to find some 34" pants. The success continued to inspire me to learn more about how to eat properly as well as take much more care when purchasing foods. I primarily shopped for foods with the lowest calories from fat. I also started buying fruits (primarily bananas and grapes) for snacking. Yogurt had now fully replaced ice-cream for my after dinner craving for something sweet. I found that adding different cereals to the yogurt gave it some texture and crunch and made it more fun to eat. Although I really like some of the GoLean cereals, my body doesn't do well with the soy proteins so I pretty much stick to adding Cheerio's now.

A few more weeks (late Oct/early Nov) and my 34" pants don't fit. So what started as a modest effort to avoid buying new clothes resulted in the need to buy new clothes anyway. Though, I didn't feel as bad buying the smaller sizes - first 32" and finally 30". My X-Large shirts also no longer fit - medium and even small were now much more appropriate. Around this time, my weight also stabilized at 160 and I started to receive some comments along the lines of "is everything alright?", "are you dying?", "you could stand to gain some weight".

Now came the part I feared. Having lost some weight in the past only to have gained it back (and then some), I was (and still am) extremely nervous about maintaining my weight. However, a big difference this time is that I'm not skipping meals and the meals I'm having are both enjoyable and filling. I'm also continuing to learn more about what types of foods to eat and how to enhance/improve my diet even further. And, so far, I'm continuing to get exercise on a regular basis. The good news is that after 2 trips to Europe where food, beer and wine was plentiful, I returned each time at the same weight at which I left!

Summary of what worked for me:
- its easier to lose a lot of weight when you have a lot to lose
- motivation or some kind of trigger was key for me
- eliminate beer during the week, light beer only on weekends (I now drink regular beer on occasion as well)
- change from coffee to green tea (I now drink some coffee again)
- yogurt instead of ice-cream or other sweets for desert
- snack on fresh fruit
- don't skip breakfast, oatmeal is my standard now
- look for foods lower in fat calories when shopping
- exercise - a mix of cardio and strength is best

Monday, May 08, 2006

Tuscan Coast - Final Thoughts

Originally uploaded by pdbreen.
Here are some end of trip reflections, lessons and observations:
- VBT does a good job with the biking portion of the trip, but you're likely better off getting the land only option and making your own arrangements for before and after
- don't bring a computer on a bike trip through the countryside
- men don't where shorts in Italy (Europe?) so no need to bring any
- don't bring so many guidebooks, a local map, tourist info booth and the hotel concierge can provide all the information you need
- write down the names of wines and other products at the time you have them - don't trust that you'll remember the names later
- spend time learning as much of the local language before travelling as possible - it will make the trip all that more enjoyable.
- as I watched the news on a local station in Rome, I saw that someone had robbed the Pitti Palace and someone had attempted to rob the Bulgari store in front of the Spanish steps by driving a tow truck through the window. Was trouble following me?


Rome - Trip Home

Originally uploaded by pdbreen.
I was picked up from the hotel on time (9am) and was once again amazed at the traffic in Rome. Even miles from the city the traffic was heavy. A minor car/motorbike accident only added to the delays at one stretch. However, once the driver was on the highway and past the accident, we were zipping along to the airport at over 100mph. Can't say that I've ever travelled that fast in a taxi before!
My plan to do last minute shopping and gift buying at the Rome airport was foiled by a lack of selection and limited time. The remainder of the trip home was uneventful - the flights were on time and I was at Logan aiport at about 5:30pm on Friday. In flight movies were King King which was much different than I expected and enjoyable and Fun with Dick & Jane which was pretty much what I expected, but also enjoyable.

Rome - Day 3, Afternoon

Originally uploaded by pdbreen.
After St Peters, I returned to Compo Di Fiore and see the market. It was actually a bit smaller than I expected - with the market in Florence being more interesting both in size and variety in products offered.
From here, I headed back to the ruins hoping to find the way to get into the Palantino which I didn't come across when I first walked through. This time I found it and also found that the ticket that gets you in to the Palantino also gets you into the Colleseum. That was a nice surprise as I no longer had to debate whether it was worth paying money to enter.
It was nice to walk through the Palantino area as it offered some nice vistas looking out over some of the other ruins. It was also a great day and it was just nice being out for a walk.
Even though I claim no talent in this area, I tried to get a little creative with the picture taking - here's an interesting mix of geometries, colors and shade that I thought came out OK.
After the Palantino I headed to the Colleseum and realized that by buying the ticket at the Palantino ticket office, I was able to bypass the long lines at the Colleseum ticket office and walk right in. So, keep that in mind if you ever find yourself in Rome.
Nothing too impressive on the inside, though the building itself is impressive in its scale. I would imagine it was even more impressive in the age that it was in active use.
I have lunch at an upscale pizzeria chain called PizzaRe where I had the best pizza of the trip.
More wandering and shopping (though no buying) in the afternoon, before settling into a cafe for a very large beer (I think the glass held 1 liter). As the day was hot, it was nice to relax in the shade, read the paper and watch people go by.
Oh, I should also mention that at some point the day before I returned to the Trevi fountain and tossed two coins in over my shoulder as I had forgotten to do so on my first visit.

Rome - Day 3, St Peters (cont)

Originally uploaded by pdbreen.
Next up was a climb to the top of the dome. A small line here, but was on the stairs on the way up in about 10 minutes. I opted to save 3 euro's and use the stairs for the entire climb. Only problem was the group in front of me was going very, very slow. About half way up, I was able to move past as they stopped to rest. As I reach the final part of the climb, I find myself once again behind a very large woman that is climbing the stairs every so slowly...
Finally, the top! It was a beautiful morning and the views of Rome were quite nice. On the way down, I stopped at the halfway point and took this picture of the statues that overlook St Peters sq. Kind of looks like a rock band waving to the crowd!

Rome - Day 3, St Peters

Originally uploaded by pdbreen.
The last full day of the trip! Although I didn't want the bike riding to end, I did feel 2 1/2 days in Rome was enough to see highlights of the city.
Another early start today as I plan on heading back to St Peter's to get a look inside and climb to the top of the dome. I get to the square a little after 8am, stood on the magic location that causes all of the columns in the square to magically turn into a single column (I was actually standing on the wrong magic spot when someone spotted me and yelled out "It's the other one!") and was then able to get into the church with no wait at all.
My expectations were rather low as I've been in so many churches throughout Europe that they no longer fail to impress. St Peters was definitely an exception. The interior was truly magnificent and the scale was immense. It was also actively in use with probably have a dozen sermons taking place in various naves within the church - and there were still enough other locations for probably a dozen more!
The visit was further enhanced by the way the sun illuminated the interior from the windows above the entrance.

Rome - Day 2

Originally uploaded by pdbreen.
I get up for an early breakfast (nothing special about this hotel's breakfast - primarily cereals and pastry) and set out for the Vatican - about a 20 minute walk from the hotel. As I get close, the sidewalks start to fill with others so I start following them, assuming we're all headed to the same place. As I get in line, I'm confused by the large number of groups in line and others carrying instruments. Seems a bit odd for a museum visit. I was also confused by the location - I was in St Peters Sq and I thought the museum entrance was somewhere else. A check of the guidebook and asking of others indicates that I'm in line for the weekly Wednesday mass with the Pope. While that would be fun as well, I leave and head around the corner looking for the museum line. A few turns away and I find it - growing very rapidly as people are coming in from all directions and getting in line. And, there's still close to an hour before the museum opens!
A little bit later, David spots me and he and Jennifer join me. Before leaving the hotel, I ran into one of the couples that went on the walking tour of Rome. They shared horror stories of how bad the guide was and how many people were leaving the tour very shortly after it started. As Jennifer had warned about this guide, I passed along the story about how right she truly was.
The museum opens right on schedule and they actually do a tremendous job getting people through the screening and ticket buying process so we are in the museum fairly quickly. And, given the size of the museum which is spread through many rooms in many buildings, its not that crowded.
The place is amazing. Each room or courtyard is filled with fresco's, paintings or statues. The scale is also impressive - the map room/corridor (pictured) seems to go on forever with a tremoundous ceiling and walls filled with paintings of various countries or regions, highlighting the locations of all the churches. It was fun to explore the map of Italy and re-trace where we rode our bikes as many of the towns were old enough to be on these maps.
We toured the first part of the museum at a good pace, wanting to get to the Sistene Chapel before it became too crowded (though not so fast that there wasn't time to stop for an espresso or cappucino at the museum cafe before entering).
Entering the chapel is truly amazing. The scale of the room and the paintings are hard to convey in pictures. We may have spent close to an hour in here looking at the various works that adorn the ceiling and walls. Our necks ached from merely looking at it - its hard to imagine actually creating the painting on a daily basis. Climbing up and down whatever scaffolding was used during its creation to check dimensions and perspective must have been a huge daily workout on its own.
And, in another chance meeting, while in the Sistine Chapel we run into the couple from the VBT tour that I was talking to earlier in the morning about the horrific walking tour. They shared more of how bad it was - though we had to be constantly reminded of keeping quiet in the chapel.
After the chapel, we view some of the other famous statues and paintings in the museum collection and backtrack a bit through some of the earlier rooms.
After about 4 hours, we had about all we could absorb and headed out. We walked around the corner hoping to get into St Peters, but the line was extremely long and didn't appear to be moving much. So, on to lunch.
We headed in the general direction of Campo De Fiori - a piazza that is supposed to have a wonderful open air fruite and produce market along with some interesting shopping streets nearby. On the way, David spots a small restaurant with some outdoor seating on a quiet side street, so we sit down to a nice leisurly lunch (mussels and salad for me).
After lunch and a brief exploration of a nearby supermarket (I still love going into local markets in all the cities I visit), we part ways and I continue exploration of Rome on my own.
On reaching Campo De Fiori, the markets had already been packed up and left the square, so I'll need to return earlier in the day tomorrow.
The remainder of the day is spent pretty much on random walks and exploration of various streets and stores of Rome. Since it was already quite late in the day, I figured getting in line for any other tourist activity would be wasted effort.
On return to the hotel, I tried one more time to get connected to the Internet from my room. I popped open the laptop and sat as close as I could to the window. Success! I found that if I was reasonably still, I could hook up to an unprotected WiFi for no fee. After quickly checking e-mail, I was able to get the majority of the photos posted to Flickr and some of the earlier notes I had typed posted to the Blog.

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Rome - Day 1, Afternoon

Originally uploaded by pdbreen.
With map in hand, I explored a number of the Piazza's, walked by or through a number of the ruins, walked by the colleseum and entered the Panthenon. I'm not sure exactly what I was expecting, but the walk and the sights were a bit of a let down. I probably should have done a bit of reading on Rome's history to get a bit more out of my exploration.
I continued to explore, ending up at the Trevi fountain where I hear someone call out my name. I turn and see David & Jennifer! Kind of random occurrence to be in the middle of a large, foreign city and cross paths with someone you know. As they opted to do the "land only" portion of the tour, they were staying in a different hotel than the rest of the group. We chatted briefly and made plans to meet in the morning in the line for the Vatican museums.
On to the Spanish steps where I enjoy an overpriced beer while watching the crowds go by (and up and down the steps). I had a light dinner tonight at a wine bar and decided to head back to the ruins after the sunset as they were supposed to be dramatically lit making Rome at night very different from Rome during the day.
I found the colleseum to be pretty much the only thing that was worth seeing at night - it seemed like the lights were either not on at the other ruins or the guide books overstated how wonderful the walk would be.
Time for bed.

Arrival in Rome

Originally uploaded by pdbreen.
Its about a 3 hour bus ride to Rome. Actually, it's about 2 hours to Rome, with another hour spent in the traffic that seems to grow exponentially as we approach the city. There were also a large number of motorcycles and motorbikes zipping in and out of traffic using pretty much any open pavement they could find - even it meant riding into oncoming traffic for brief stretches. Navigating a full size bus through the busy, narrow streets of Rome was a bit of an adventure. At one point, we took the side mirror off of a car that tried to squeeze past on the left. At another point, we tried to back up on a narrow one way street with cars queued behind us and motorbikes trying to squeeze past. Lots of honking and people on the streets looking on in amusement (good thing the windows were slightly tinted!). After a few loops and detours, we finally stop in front of the hotel and are able to unload.
This part of the trip was not well organized. A hotel concierge and another gentleman were there, but it was only after a while that we realized the gentleman was the VBT rep and it was only after a bit more questioning that we found out that our luggage would be taken care of and that we should check in and then assemble for a brief orientation. As Ted was not staying for the Rome extension, they juggled rooms a bit which meant that I had a room to myself for the stay in Rome.
The first part of the orientation consisted of a map and some pre-printed information on the hotel and a few nearby restaurants. The accent and speed at which the rep talked made it a challenge to keep up, but he was pretty much just reading through what was on the handouts. About halfway through the orientation, Frank, the rep that was supposed to meet us arrived.
It turns out that this is the same rep that greated Jennifer on an earlier VBT trip in Italy that she took. She had nothing but terrible things to say about him.
Rather than orienting us, he spent time selling an optional walking tour that he hosted that cost 30 euro and telling us that the best way to get through the vatican is to pretend to limp with strained breathing. Although joining the tour was tempting (with many others deciding to take it), I opted to head out and explore on my own.

End of biking, on to Rome

Originally uploaded by pdbreen.
After breakfast this morning, we reluctantly say our goodbyes to our guides - Franco, Claudio and Luigi - as we board a bus that will take us to Rome.
The guides did a wonderful job during the tour ensuring that any issues were dealt with (even small things like letting me borrow a pair of sunglasses for a few days until I could buy my own) and that the supply of water, fruit and cookies was always available when needed during the ride. With one of the guides in the van and the other 2 riding with the group, there was no need to worry about anything other than enjoying the ride. If a problem did occur, they were there to take care of it. On one of the rides, Ted got a flat and they quickly arrived with a complete replacement wheel in the time it took to take the flat tire off the rim. All of this will be missed on my rides in Cambridge!

Biking - Day 6, Evening

Originally uploaded by pdbreen.
Dinner tonight was a barbeque which started with a wonderful buffet of appetizers - very similar to the Meditteranean lunch of the other day. The buffet included octopus once again, but this time it was sliced, mixed with a few other items and served as a salad. I took a bit to try and it was much better than expected - not as chewy as calamari.
Allesandro told us his parents opened the hotel with the philosophy that guests should feel like part of the family. This was accomplished - all of the staff was very friendly and engaging, his father gave David & Jennifer a ride when they got a little lost while exploring and the parents ate with the guests at the barbeque. Even their dogs joined us, but were well mannered enough to stay out of the dining area until after the main course was served.

The Oak Tree - "We will never understand why"

Originally uploaded by pdbreen.
After the ride, there was time to explore the 300+ acres that the hotel was located on. It turns out that 300 acres is a lot of land, so I actually only explored a small portion of it.
The gently rolling land included horse stables & trails, grape vineyards, olive tree orchards, the beautiful owners house perched on the top of the hills and an old lone oak tree perched on the top of another. In his introduction to the hotel & property, Allesandro mentioned that this was a favorite spot for meditation and reflection and that there was a small sign beneath the tree that he encouraged us to find & read. It was a simple wooden sign with the following phrase chiseled in "We will never understand why". The sign was created after Sept 11, but placed in a setting like this it could just as easily refer to our existence and the natural world that surrounds us.
The tranquility of sitting there on a wonderfully warm evening with a 360 degree view of the landscape in all directions, the hills dotted with small towns, listening to the birds sing and reflecting on the wonderful rides of the past week was magical.

Saturday, May 06, 2006

Biking - Day 6, Morning

Originally uploaded by pdbreen.
The final day of riding. Has it been a week already?
Of course, finishing with an uphill yesterday means we start the day with a nice downhill. That's a good thing as many choose to do an optional ride to Vetulonia. This was a climb of a little over 1000 feet in 4km with no oportunity for rest on the way.
After some exploration of the town at top, we headed back down - but weren't able to fully enjoy the ride down as we had to stop several times for a bike race that was heading up the hill.
On reaching the bottom we learned that the restaurant wasn't going to hold the reservation and we had about 30 minutes to go about 20km (12.5 miles) to the seaside town of Castiglione della Pescaia.
Though we gave it our best, we didn't quite make it. The good news is that seats were still available at the pizzeria when we arrived. Another good pizza and I'm starting to really enjoy salads with oil & vinegar dressing.
After some exploration of the town after lunch followed by a gelato, we hopped on the bikes for the final ride of the trip. The ride ended with the same hill as yesterday, but it was a bit easier today - must have been more fatigued than I realized yesterday. When we reached the hotel, no one was happy as we turned the bikes over to Franco & Claudio for the last time - everyone wanted the rides to continue for at least a few more days.

Biking - Day 5, Evening

Originally uploaded by pdbreen.
It was nice to be staying in the countryside again. The view from the hotel window compares with any you would find on a postcard!
Tonight we're greated by the son of the hotel owners who is in charge of the daily operations. He gives a history of the property and the many products that they make - including the various wines, one of which we sampled during the talk.
Can't remember everything we had for dinner, but the dining room was quite nice and I ordered a Brunello di Montalcino - one of the better wines of the trip. And, any dinner that ends with tiramisu is always a good (though I preferred the version served by the Elisabetta hotel earlier in the week).

Biking - Day 5

Originally uploaded by pdbreen.
Today is another transfer day - leaving the spa to arrive at another agritourismo by days end. It's also the longest ride of the trip at about 75km (about 47 miles). But, first a return to the wonderful breakfast buffet at the spa. No chocolate croissants! Jennifer keeps checking in with the kitchen and just minutes before we need to leave for the daily briefing, a waitress brings out several piping hot croissants fresh from the oven. Even better than yesterday!
A long gradual uphill in the early morning is rewarded by an incredible ride in the late morning - a long stretch of winding road that is mostly downhill. Traffic on all the roads throughout the trip has been very light (VBT did a good job scouting places to ride) which meant that it was possible to get moving pretty darn fast on this stretch of road for a good long while. This is another stretch of road it would be fun to do over and over again.
After some coffee in another Tuscan hill town, we continue on for a few more miles before stopping for lunch at the Tuscan equivalent of a "biker bar" - only all the bikes were pedal powered. Lunch was simple, but quite good (possibly enhanced by hnuger) and the wine was quite good - though none of us can recall the name.
All through lunch, the sky threatens rain, but it holds off and we all leave for gelato in a town a few miles away. Although each day is somewhat similar to the day before and each of the towns we visit somewhat similar to one we've been through before, the repetition is in no way boring or dull - its a routine that would be easy to follow for weeks on end!
Back on the bikes for the last bit of the ride to the hotel. The finish was tough - a bit of a headwind followed by an uphill just prior to the hotel entrance. Everyone was thoroughly exhausted when we reached the hotel.

Biking - Day 4, Afternoon

Originally uploaded by pdbreen.
Our ride today takes us to an olive mill and farm where the owner gives us an overview of how the oil is made along with a tasting of the oils produced from the trees on his farm (as well as instructions on how to taste the oil). In the process, he dispelled a lot of myths about what "extra virgin" truly means.
After the tour, we were treated to a fabulous mediterranean lunch - with most of the dishes prepared using olive oil in one way or another. Although each dish was relatively simply, this was probably one of the best meals of the trip (though the wine wasn't that great).
After lunch quite a few of us opted to add a few extra miles that started with a killer uphill section. It was the steepest yet and kept rising for a while. But the views were superb and we were able to visit another typical Tuscan hill town.
After exploring the town on foot for a bit, we headed to another fun stop - a local bike shop where everyone had a good time buying authentic Italian biking shirts. I found 2 I liked and was also able to get a pair of sunglasses to keep the bugs out of my eyes (I forgot to bring my own).
Dinner is on our own again tonight and Ted & I again join up with David & Jennifer. We tried to join up with another group, but they couldn't seat us all together. I had the ravioli which was good, but everyone agreed last nights restaurant was better (though tonights restaurant had a great view of the sun setting over the beach). After dinner I tried the grappa - and I still don't like hard liquor.

Biking - Day 4, Morning

56 Meeting
Originally uploaded by pdbreen.
The buffet breakfast at the hotel has quite a selection - including 3 different types of honey from 3 different types of flower. One of the stores earlier in the week had over a dozen different types of honey. And all these years I thought there was only one type! But, the highlight of the breakfast were the chocolate croissants - still warm from the oven.
A bit of a prank was organized the night before for the morning ride review - we all showed up in our robes claiming that we were going to spend the day in the spa and not ride any more. Not missing a beat, Franco and Luigi quickly went and put on there own robes before briefing us on the days sights and ride instructions.

Biking - Day 3, Evening

Originally uploaded by pdbreen.
The new hotel we arrive at is quite a change from the last. The Grand Hotel Tombolo Talasso is located on a white, sandy beach and offers all kinds of spa treatments. As it was still raining lightly, we thought it would be nice to swim in the indoor pool.
After changing, we head down to locate the pool. We're greated at the spa entrance who takes us on a "tour". We're allowed to look through a glass door at where the pool is located, but we need to pay 40 euro and make an appointment if we want to swim in it. We continue the tour...
We walk past massage rooms, saunas, relaxation rooms and end in a combination Roman and Turkish bath. She says we can use this for free which sounds more like it. Before she leaves us, we ask about the outdoor pool. She indicated it would be cold and dangerous do to the rain and lightening.
After spending some time in the steam and dunking in the cold water tank, we decide to take a chance and risk swimming in the outdoor saltwater pool. After a bit of searching, we locate it - and find no one else there. The water is a bit chilly, but no worse than New England beaches in the summer so we go for a relaxing swim in the pool.
Dinner is on our own tonight, so Ted & I join David & Jennifer at a local pizzeria (many others from the group are also there). Pizza is a lot better than we had in Florence.
During dinner I learn that even though my meals have improved tremendously from what I used to eat, I still have a lot to learn to truly eat healthy and nutritious foods. Some changes - switch from instant oatmeal to stone cut oats from Trader Joes; don't add raisons, they're not great for you; switch from fat free yogurt to low fat; use oil & vinegar instead of packaged salad dressings; cut down on (eliminate?) canned soups. I'm sure there were a few other lessons that I've already forgotten...

Biking - Day 3

Originally uploaded by pdbreen.
Today is a transfer day meaning that we ride from one hotel to the next (with the van taking all our luggage). The morning starts with breakfast and our ride briefing and we head off - again riding with Ted, David and Jennifer. Just prior to lunch, we add a few extra miles by riding up and down the cypress alley immortalized by Giosue Carducci in the poem Davanti San Guido. We have lunch in Bolgheri, another hill town. While exploring the shops prior to lunch, David found a place that sells Sassicaia by the glass. This is a famous wine that sells in Tuscany for over 100 euros a bottle. We all had a 1/4 glass which cost 10 euro. The result was that none of us though its worth the high cost (though its nice to have sampled to be able to say I've tried it). We all had wild boar for lunch, another traditional Tuscan meal. I had it with wide pasta and it was quite good.
As we linger over lunch and in town, we are the last to leave. This turns out to have its good and bad side. The good is that being the last group, we get to ride with Claudio which means we don't have to worry about following directions or getting lost. The bad news is that it starts to rain just as we leave town. After a few kilometers it stops and we cheer as we think we're past the worst of it. We couldn't be more wrong. We seem to be travelling just on the fringe of the rain the entire way. When we arrive at the hotel, Franco confirms that others arrived mostly dry. Oh well, it didn't seem quite as bad as yesterday - or perhaps I'm getting used to it?

Biking - Day 2, Evening

Originally uploaded by pdbreen.
Tonight's event is a wine tasting and tour hosted by Luigi, the hotel owner (different Luigi than the guide). We sample 2 whites and 2 reds. Everyone loves the last red - La Marze. The parmegian cheese was also quite good - though not quite as good as the sample in the Florence market. In addition to explaining differences in the wines, he also walks us through the process in which its made and explains how the additional labor and materials required to make the better wine result in its higher price (for example, the oak barrels can only be used 3 times and the wine in the barrels needs to be mixed and placed back in the barrels several times during the aging).
Dinner is very similar to the night before - though this time not as impressive as we now know what to expect. The antipasta and desert buffets remain the highlights.

Biking - Day 2, Lunch

Originally uploaded by pdbreen.
There was an option for some extra miles on the morning portion of the ride, so we all took it. The first part was mostly uphill - though the effort was rewarded with wonderful views and a truly wonderful long, gently winding downhill stretch. All of us wanted to do that downhill over and over again! Instead, we faced another uphill before reaching the town we stopped in for lunch.
The town was a small hilltop town (you could walk around the entire town in just a few minutes) and the restuarant had a nice outdoor patio where we all gathered. I had a spicy pasta which I liked and the house wine was a bit better than average. Was that thunder in the distance?
The ride back started with a downhill, though not as nice as the one in the morning and then a steep, but short uphill that was rather tough after the meal. Shortly after the hill I lost David, Jennifer and Ted, but had soon caught others that left lunch before us. Then it started to rain. Not too hard at first, just enough to wet the road. But, then we were back in the pine forest which is a dirt trail so I'm starting to get a bit muddy at this point. To make matters worse, the 8 pages of instructions is starting to take its toll - people are becoming less and less confident they are going the right way. At times I pass people coming from the direction I'm heading. I decide to press on anyway in hopes that its the right way. I made a few wrong turns, but luckily when the distances were short so they were easy to correct. There was one 5km+ stretch through the pine forest that was making me very nervous, but it turned out I was heading the right way.
As I exit the forest, the rain is really coming down (on the positive side, the mud is being washed away). Claudio is in Cecina guiding people to the gelato of the day - at this point I'm soaked and a bit cold so I pass on the gelato and continue to think about getting into the shower at the hotel.
The rain lets up as I reach the hotel - maybe it would have been better to have the gelato and wait out the rain afterall! In any case, it was good to be dry & warm again. As others arrive and share their stories, it sounds like everyone had an eventful day. Ted, David & Jennifer were riding with Luigi (the guide in training) and they ended up getting lost a few times - but they did stop for the gelato!

VBT Van Support

Originally uploaded by pdbreen.
A little bit later in the ride, we exit a bike trail in a pine forest that we have been riding in and find the VBT van waiting for us (again, proving we are still headed the right way). The van is much more than a place to refill your water bottle - its filled with fruit, cookies and other goodies. Its quite an impressive spread - and very different to have this available in the middle of a ride!
As we continue the ride, I find out David also works in software at a company called Ab Initio. It turns out there is a bit of overlap as a number of folks from Merrill interviewed there when the Merrill office closed. It was fun to have a bit of shop talk while riding through Tusdany!

Biking - Day 2, Morning

Originally uploaded by pdbreen.
Today the real biking begins. The daily routine that's established today ends up being mostly the same for the remainder of the biking days. Here's a typical day:
- 7am wake up
- 8am breakfast
- 8:30am - briefing on local history, where we will be biking and a detailed review of the instructions for the days ride at
- 10am - morning riding
- 1pm - lunch, exploration of town of the day
- 2:30pm - gelato of the day
- 4-5pm - return to (or arrive at) hotel
- 6pm - shower, prepare for dinner
- 7pm - event or other gathering
- 7:30-8pm - dinner

After last nights dinner, it was nice to see breakfast was a bit more ordinary. It was still buffet with plenty to choose from, but it was much easier to show restraint and eat normally. Today's ride is a loop - we will end at the same hotel we are starting from. At least that's the plan. There are 8 pages(!) of directions. They are good about highlighting which turns are tricky - but with that many turns, it will definitely be interesting.
Ted and I ride with David and Jennifer - a couple from Newton, MA that are also strong riders (they did 3 loops the prior day). It takes a little bit to get into the rythym of the ride - there's a desire to talk to get to know one another, but with turns coming sometimes every 100 meters on unfamiliar roads, its often difficult to do so. Shortly into the ride, we stop at an old Roman bridge - the first true Roman ruin I've seen (also good as this means we are definitely going the right way).

Florence Day 4/Biking Day 1 (transfer day)

Originally uploaded by pdbreen.
Its the last day in Florence - the bus picks us up at noon, so there is still time for some exploration. Florence is a wonderful city to just wander about - its not that large and it seems every street holds wonderful views, wonderful stores, wonderful cafes or all of the above. We head to Scuola del Cuoio (the leather school of Florence, which is in the monestary of Santa Croce. As you enter, there are a row of desks where a number of people are actively making leather goods by hand - quite interesting to watch. Given the pictures on the wall, many stars and politicians have also watched in the past. They sell what they make on site, but the prices are quite high - it was difficult to find a few items of reasonable cost to bring home.
We were close to the food market I tried to visit yesterday, so we stopped in. This was definitely a local market - clothing was being sold in bins for as low as 1 or 2 euro and there were plenty of fruits, vegetables, meat and fish. Its said this is where the restaurant owners shop in the morning prior to setting the menus for the night. As time was getting short, we had to rush a bit - I still needed to stop at the other market (needed to buy some more Amedi chocolate) prior to catching the bus at the hotel.
We pack our bags, head down to the rather small lobby and along with about 13 others, we wait. About half the people had arrived the day before (not taking advantage of the extra days in Florence), with one couple having their luggage lost by Air France along the way. It seems that all those that did arrive early for the extra days were all given the wrong information about which day to meet for the bus - with one couple trying to actually checkout. Noon approaches with no sign of the guides. Given the general confusion of the prior days, suspicion is growing on how well organized VBT really is.
A bit before noon the guides (Franco, Claudio and Luigi) arrive, though at the time it wasn't clear whether they were the guides or just drivers hired to take us to the next location. They quickly come in, give us luggage tags, take the tagged luggage out to a van and get us loaded on a bus. It seems that all of this happens in about 5 minutes. Claudio and Luigi (a guide in training, this being his very first tour) leave in the van with the luggage and Franco joins us as we drive a short distance to the train station to pick-up 4 others that are doing "land only" meaning they arranged there own travel. 2 of the 4 were quickly located. After about 15 minutes, Franco finds out the others will meet us at the hotel, so we are on our way again. Its about a 2 hour drive to the hotel, but Franco has brought along all kinds of fruit, water, cookies and chocolate. We were all quite content and Franco proved to be very easy going and humerous with some minor commentary along the journey.
The hotel is an agritourismo which means its a working farm that also has a hotel. Its quite nice - the rooms are in a few different buildings with olive trees and vineyards only a few yards away. We settle in quickly as we need to change into our bike gear for a general orientation and our first ride. This ride is only about 9 miles - primarly used to make sure everyone's comfortable with the bikes and how to use the cue sheets that tell us when / where to turn. Ted & I ride together and he proves to be a very able rider - we both ride at a fairly good pace and circle the route twice before returning to the hotel.
After the ride, there's some time to shower and change for a welcome reception and dinner. During the mingling I chat with two sisters and their husbands - it turns out there's a slight chance of a relation going back to Duffy's in Ireland (will check if the names surface in any of Mathilde's notes when I return). We were also treated to the salted fried dough and a few other appetizers along with one of the wines made by the owner of the hotel.
Dinner followed. Wow! It started with an anti-pasta buffet that was absolutely amazing. Lots of mushroom dishes, pepper dishers, tomato & mozerella, sliced meats and cheeses, breads and many other choices including a whole octopus (you slice off how much you want). All was very good and there was plenty available for second helpings (no - I didn't try the octopus). Dinner itself was a pasta dish followed by a breaded veal, both enjoyable.
Then there was desert. WOW! Another huge buffet with many, many choices (and no octopus!). The tiramisu was my favorite (though the strawberries were very good as well) and again, plenty available for seconds.

Florence - Day 3, Afternoon

Originally uploaded by pdbreen.
The guide for the Ufizi was much easier to hear and took us on a chronological tour of some works. For me, it was interesting to see the technical progression in the works - the change from wood to canvas, the change in subject matter and the change in paints that allowed brighter, more vivid works. There are many famous works here, and the tour included stops in front all of them. After the tour, we took a coffee on the outdoor cafe that sits above the Loggia dei Lanzi (an outdoor area next to the Piazza Del Signoria with a lot of famous sculptures). Unfortunately, there was only limited time to wander the remainder of the museum after the tour and we had to pass through the Da Vinci exhibit at a very fast pace - though I did get to see several of his notebooks, complete with drawings in the margins.
With the late lunch, niether of us was hungry for dinner, so we settled on another night in the hotel bar with a bottle of Vin Santo (a local dessert wine). Dipping biscotti in the wine was a wonderful treat. It was here I was able to capture details of the first days in Florence (posted earlier) - but without any Internet, I could not send them out. A brief journey out for a pint of Guinness at a nearby Irish bar while Milan played Arsenal in a soccer match ended the night.

Florence - Day 3, Lunch

Originally uploaded by pdbreen.
Lunch was at an outdoor pizzeria in the Piazza Della Republica where we had pizza and beer. The pizza wasn't great, but it did taste better the more you ate.

Florence - Day 3, Morning

Originally uploaded by pdbreen.
I head out early to ensure a good spot in line to climb to the top of the duomo. I'm actually out early enough that I have time to head to a food market only to find its closed due to the holiday (Liberation Day in Italy). I return back to the duomo prior to opening with a spot near the front of the line. One thing I hate about Europe is how people don't respect one anothers place in line - you literally have to defend you're spot or others will soon be standing beside you and then in front of you. The climb first takes you to a walkway within the dome where you get a great view of the inside of the church (which, upon greater reflection still just looks like the inside of a church - perhaps I've seen a few too many churches over the years to be impressed) and a close up view of the fresco on the dome cieling. The next part of the climb is interesting as it snakes its way in between the inner and outer domes (there are actually 2 domes, one within the other) before ending at a landing that wraps around the top of the spire outside the church. Given its only a few hundred feet from the tower we climbed the first day, the views are very similar - only now with morning light instead of afternoon.
From here, it's back to the Pitti Palace. On the way, I pass the Ufizi - the line is incredible! Good thing we paid a bit extra for the guided tour with guaranteed admission. Fortunately, the line at the Pitti Palace was small and I was able to get a ticket and get inside rather quickly. The rooms in the palace are filled with art - lots and lots of art. As one of the guidebooks said, the arrangements are sometimes more about matching colors in the paintings or hanging all of the round ones together, etc. This made it hard to spot which works were more important than the others (it didn't help that I was looking at the wrong page of the guidebook). I found the inlaid tables to be the most impressive part of the collection. There were many and the designs were incredible. For example, one was a still life of shells - it had a specked reddish marble as background on which a number of of shells were created from other stones, complete with shadows and shading where appropriate. Quite amazing that the artist had the patience to find the proper colors to make it all work. On leaving the palace, the line had grown quite large - good thing I got there when I did. Now, off to the Academie to meet Ted and see Michaelangelo's David.
It's getting close to the start of the tour, but no sign of Ted (who has the receipt for the tour). A bit later he arrives - turns out he got delayed by a parade crossing - part of the Liberation celebration no doubt! Another huge line waiting to get in, but the guided tour grants us direct admission. The guide was good, but it was difficult to hear her as the museum was a bit loud. The statue was truly quite impressive - and this is after having seen at least 2 full size copies in other parts of the city. Its difficult to describe why it inspires admiration, but it truly is a "must see". There are a handful of other paintings and statues in the museum (including many plaster models from which marble carvings were made), but David is definitely the main draw.
We have a number of hours before the tour of the Ufizi starts, so we wander the streets shopping - starting with another stroll through the open market (no major purchases on this pass!). We enter a pottery store where the father makes the pottery and the son runs the store selling it. After a bit of conversation - the son being incredibly engaging in describing the process in which the pottery is made as well as helpful in selecting pieces and explaining shipping options, we both end up getting a piece that will be shipped to the US.

Florence - Day 2 (cont)

(For this and the posts that follow, I'm recalling the details after the trip has ended.)  We leave the hotel bar for dinner at a trattoria that was recommended in a timely magazine article in Saveur.  As we reach the lobby, a small group asks if we are also with the VBT tour.  Turns out they were also told to meet at noon on Tuesday which also didn't make sense to them.  Checking with the hotel desk seemed to favor checkout on Wednesday - but they weren't 100% certain.  As we purchased tickets to enter the museums on Tuesday, we were going to stick to touring and if everyone was gone when we got back, we'd find a way to get to where we needed to be.
On finding the trattoria, we also find it full - so we wander a bit looking for another that looks good (there are plenty of restaurants, so there wasn't much concern of quickly finding an alternative.  After looking at a few menus, we find one with a decent selection and reasonable prices.  I tried the ribollita and a pork chop.  The ribollita (name means re-boiled) is a traditional Tuscan vegetable and bread soup - though its more filling than broth.  The pork chop was surprisingly plain in presentation - just a chop on a plate, but it was very thick, juicy and very tasty.  I should mention that bread in this region is made without salt - definitely a difference that's noticeable, making the bread a bit bland when eaten plain.  However, they also served a form of fried dough that was salted, hot and also quite good.  House wine was nothing special.  Service was interesting - although there were many tables in the restaurant, the waitress seemed a bit reluctant to seat us and less engaging than other Italians that we had met.  When others arrived, she seemed to know all of them so maybe it was odd for strangers to eat at this place.  One couple brought there dog in - he was very well behaved and sat under the table.  Another table ordered the steak - it was a very, very healthy portion - one of the largest I've ever seen.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Italy Pictures!

Pictures of the biking trip in Italy have been uploaded. I hope to add a "highlights" link soon as there are quite a few of them. For now, here's a breakdown by place. Enjoy!

Florence (day 1,2,3)

Elisabetta (day 4,5)

Tombolo Talasso (day 6,7)

Montebelli (day 8,9)

Rome (day 10,11,12)