ExperiencePlus! - Bicycle Tours since 1972

Travel Stories

A Day at the “Farm” the ExperiencePlus!...

by ExperiencePlus! - Tuesday, July 27, 2010

by Sylva Florence

The cherry orchard near the back of the farm.

Aperitivo: espresso.

Someone – half awake – spilled espresso grounds everywhere. Waking up just like the rest of us, the little black espresso machine groans and sprays a fine mist on the counter. Soon, it warms up and the beautiful melody of espresso shots pouring fills the air along with the rich, roasted aroma of liquid caffeine.
Antipasti: work, a fresh apricot and fennel tea.

A distant rumble like hornets in a glass jar announces Igor – the bike fleet manager — has arrived on his Honda motorcycle. Computer bag slung around his shoulder, he waves hello to the bike mechanics, Pete and Tyler, who are decked out in bicycle grease stained t-shirts. The mechanics are setting up for the day, clamping bikes into tall stands (they’re tall too, especially by Italian standards) while “Shambala” by the Beastie Boys blares on the speakers.

In the office, Bea – queen of all things logistical and a two-legged Encyclopedia on all things Italy – has arrived with several tubs of yogurt for the communal shelf in The Farm begin_of_the_skype_highlighting     end_of_the_skype_highlighting’s quirky, over-stocked fridge (breakfasts are included for employees – usually biscuits, espresso, juice, yogurt and muesli or cereal). Quick high-heeled footsteps are heard heading towards the office, where Monica (the company’s co-owner) and her boyfriend and tour leader Michele have also arrived on bike, after their eight kilometer commute from their apartment in Faenza.Freccia, the ExperiencePlus! Italy office cat.

Jonathan – tour leader and Country Coordinator for French tours – is already at his desk, looking slightly bleary with a cup of steaming Earl Grey at his side. Already, the Skype on his computer is ringing, and he dons headphones and begins to speak quickly in French.

Soon, I have joined the mix, opening my Windows Outlook mailbox to the glorious sight of 54 unread emails. The Office Orchestra is in full effect: four pairs of typing hands create a steady rhythm, punctuated by the sound of papers shuffled and stapled by another tour guide, Cristina and the muffled beat of one of the mechanics tapping a seized up bearing.

Outside the open window, gusts of wind build up to the chorus as the phone rings three times and Bea answers, her voice rising and falling like a soprano soloist. From the hallway, Igor is yelling a question to Bea and their voices mingle like a duet. A new beat is added like a sharp snare drum — Rick and Paola emerge from their rooms and another tour guide, Javier goes out to hang laundry, their doors shutting in concert. The phone rings anew, and Bea’s voice rings across corridors.

At the front door, the Farm cat, Freccia, meows to be let in during every quiet moment. A black and white cat with a crooked tail and aloof nature, Freccia – which means “arrow” – was aptly named because (as legend has it) he followed the chalk arrows laid on the road to guide bikers during a tour.

“Oh gosh, when was he found?” Monica muses. “I think 2001 in Tuscany in Volterra, because someone wanted to call him Volty. He lived in the van for two or three days.”

Primi piatti: lunch, bread, a big salad and fresh cherries

Suddenly the front door opens, and Freccia darts inside. Pete walks out, his arms laden with tablecloths, cloth napkins and silverware. Igor follows with an army of cups and pitchers of water and the “salad bar,” a well-worn little boat of condiments that is a requirement at every meal. Soon the tables outside are covered and salads laid out, festive under their garments of buffalo mozzarella, carrots and cherry tomatoes. Fava beans and green beans from the garden are sprinkled on top. Next to the salad bar is a bowl of shiny, red cherries picked from nearby trees.

I run around the house yelling “Five minutes!” to everyone after the table is set; ten minutes later, no one has arrived. Pete and I run around and yell “Mangiamo” (let’s eat), until everyone trickles outside.

The sound of crunching lettuce emanates from the table as giant leaves are cut into bite-size portions. Olive oil is drizzled, followed by a dashing of salt and pepper and a cap full of balsamic vinegar. Simple bread – comprised of water, flour and maybe a bit of oil and salt — has been tossed onto different spots on the table. In Italy, bread is a tool used with salad to scoop greens onto a fork; little bits of crust and bread area always left on the table after a meal.

A typical staff lunch at "The Farm".

Two cars pull up out back – Stefania and Sara (two more tour leaders) have arrived to load their van for a tour. Bea has made beds for them in one of the spare rooms; they’ll depart in the morning.

Igor jumps up from the table to grab two more plates; the rest of us scoot around the table like ants around a picnic basket, making room.

Lunchtime is when the gaggle of people at The Farm feels more like a family and less like a group of employees. The hammocks sway in a stubborn spring breeze and plates become empty as conversation flows in a mix of English and Italian. Once in awhile, the conversation returns to Freccia, as there is constant discussion over whether he is fat, or is just “big-boned.”

“I think he’s just a big cat,” Monica says, gesturing for emphasis. The notoriously non-cat person Michele rolls his eyes.

Every day, someone is in charge of making sure a meal is made – one day big salads, the next homemade pesto, or baked fish with tomatoes and olives, or eggplant and zucchine risotto. As the days grow warmer, the garden yields more delicious produce – strawberries, onions, several kinds of lettuce, fava beans, potatoes, squash, parsley, tomatoes and more – planted and cared for by our neighbors and also by Paola and Rick.

Afterwards, the flurry of clean-up: no one returns indoors empty-handed; the table is stripped of table cloths, the chairs tipped up in case of rain. The dishwasher is loaded and larger dishes piled high on the counter to dry.

Secondi Piatti: espresso, again.

But before heading back to work, there is another round of steaming espresso. Bea and I grab tiny flowered espresso cups, sugar, whole milk. The large espresso maker on the stove announces a fresh batch of caffeinated employees with little, hot splashing noises.

Contorni: work, three squares of dark chocolate and a glass of water.

Outside, Stephania is standing on top of a half-loaded Mercedes Sprinter while Sara hands bikes up to her. Bea is yelling to Igor that John – a tour leader and Colorado native with a keen knowledge of really good wine – is on the phone. The doorbell rings; there is a package at the front door. The sound of spinning bike wheels comes from the mechanic’s room and outside, Paola is sweeping the porch.

Outside, we load the van with all the provisions Stefania and Sara will take on tour: a cooler, first aid kits, jerseys to sell, hats, luggage tags, a detailed binder of pertinent information, pens, highlighters, tape, a big bin of granola bars, a toolbox, bike stands, a floor pump, extra seats and pedals and helmets and countless other objects that Bea and I have put together over the past week. Last, I drag out the tour library, a bag full of pamphlets, helpful books, guidebooks and novels taken from the Farm’s library.

Digestivi: the library, peppermint tea

A regular patron of libraries as a child, I was instantly enamored of the Farm’s collection when I arrived in March. There are shelves of novels left by customers at the end of tours, nature books like “Mediterranean Flora” and “Birds of Great Britain & Europe,” pamphlets and donated coffee table books from hotels and tourist offices.

Pedals from the cherry trees after a storm.

“We bought a lot of novels that related to tours,” Monica said, picking up a copy of “Granite Island: A Portrait of Corsica,” picked up because ExperiencePlus! leads a bicycle tour among the cliffs and mountains of Corsica. “Or we pick up books while we are out somewhere, like a book about ceramics while we’re at a ceramics shop.”

Other books claim shelf space because they are favorites of the Malpezzi-Price family, such as “The Italians,” a book which describes Italian culture and was printed in the early 1960s and “Travels With a Donkey in Cevennes,” which inspired Rick and Paola to buy a donkey and travel – and Cevennes is visited on every Provence bicycling tour.

Just on the other side of the hallway is The Farm’s collection of maps, pamphlets and other informational brochures. One can find information on every region in Italy, from Lombardia to Sicilia – and on worldwide destinations from Iceland to Costa Rica, Bulgaria and even Africa. The map section continues to grow almost daily.

“Everyone knows it’s pretty much a crime not to return with pamphlets for Bea,” Monica said. “Whether they are maps, information on agriturismi (B&Bs) or pamphlets on restaurants.”

Fields of red poppies surround the farm in

Dolci: the end of the day, one biscuit with Nutella

Igor has gone home on his motorcycle to go skateboarding with friends. Bea left early for a Spanish lesson in Forli. Monica is still madly typing away on her computer while Michele crafts something ridiculously delicious on the stove. Freccia – fat or just big – is begging. Tyler and Pete washed the grease off their hands; now they are on their computers in the kitchen, discussing weekend mountain bike plans. Stefania, Sara and Cristina are in town getting pizza with Jon, John and another tour leader, the easy going Greek Yorgos. Rick and Paola are working in the garden and I am heading for the hammocks.

That’s life at The Farm: another day, another euro.


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