Alberto Bettiol was a man in demand in Belgium on Sunday. The Tour of Flanders…
It is the final days of spring in the rolling Tuscan countryside near Florence. Meadows of bright red poppies punctuate the olive groves and vineyards of Chianti, and dandelion clocks float on the breeze. Every hill is capped by a town built in ochre plaster and terracotta bricks, and every hilltop town is dominated by a castle, a legacy of the centuries-long rivalry between the city states of Siena and Florence.
On the roads are the remains of the graffiti sprayed by the tifosi – Italian cycling fans – commemorating the passage of the Giro d’Italia a few days earlier, and the streets of the small town of Castelfiorentino are still decorated pink. In an apartment in a modern suburb, has just hung his training bike up in the garage and has changed into a one-off ‘Tour of Flanders’ T-shirt designed by a friend. Then, ever the hospitable Italian host, he warms up the espresso machine and makes us coffee, while Mama Bettiol unwraps a dishcloth filled with freshly picked cherries. Alberto Bettiol
Church bells and birdsong, listen to Sunday overlooking Florence.
Bettiol has lived here since he was born. His was a normal upbringing in one of the most beautiful places in the world, one that attracts millions of visitors every year. Despite his familiarity with the place, can he still see the beauty?
“I travel perhaps 200 or 250 days a year, and at the beginning I was excited to leave home,” he says. “I still have this desire to explore, I look forward to seeing new countries, but the more the years pass, the more I miss my home. These roads, this landscape, they’re my office, but when I come back from a long trip and I’m back training, I still stop and take pictures of things I’ve seen a thousand times. It makes me think how lucky I am to live in this place, how lucky I am to see things that people are happy to see once in their life. I have the opportunity to see Tuscany whenever I want, to see all the beautiful monuments and churches, or just walk around Florence.”
Florence sits in a cradle of mellow Tuscan hills, surrounded by opulent villas and farms, and towns and villages whose names you might know from the labels on high-end bottles of wine or olive oil. But the main attraction is the historic walled city itself, on the north side of the River Arno. Florence was the birthplace of the Renaissance, and 600 years later it remains a dizzyingly dense cultural and architectural jewel. Its treasures are all still on show, from the cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore with its famous red duomo, to the Palazzo Vecchio and the open-air sculpture park outside the world-famous Uffizi art gallery.
It’s the kilometer zero of European culture.
Galileo Galilei was from here. Brunelleschi, Michelangelo, Giotto, Dante… In Florence was born the first version of the Italian language.
The Tour of Flanders star embraces being a tourist at home, and he takes us on a tour of Florence. He threads his bicycle through the crowds that flock here from all corners of the world, past the Palazzo Pitti, the Renaissance palace where every June the world’s fashion industry insiders gather, then over the Ponte Vecchio, with its jewelry shops spanning the river, around the duomo and up to the Piazza di Santa Maria Novella, where he recommends Shake Café for a perfect chocolate or pistachio gelato and an espresso. We forego the treat. We’ve already had our morning break at local favorite Harat’s Pub for refreshments and to watch the day’s Giro stage finish. Instead, we head back south for an incredible margherita pizza, with light, crusty dough, fresh tomato sauce and creamy mozzarella at Neromo.
“The most characteristic thing in Tuscany is this simplicity,” Bettiol says. “The food, the fashion, but also in general. The best things in Tuscany are the most simple. It’s easy to make things complicated, the really difficult thing is to make them simple.”
Perhaps, despite the hustle and the bustle, this is the essence of what people come to Florence to find: beauty, tradition, simplicity. After Flanders, Bettiol was invited to become a global ambassador for Tuscany by the regional council, but he laughs and says he hasn’t had the time yet to formally receive the award. A bike racer can’t stop moving. “I would love people to understand our tradition and to come visit, because when I say Florence is the most beautiful city in the world, I really think it’s true,” he says. “I’m lucky to visit a lot of other cities in the world, thanks to cycling and to EF, but Florence is the most beautiful.”