The bicycle is the most efficient form of transportation. We gathered with a group of friends to celebrate that fact and cycle through Tuscany hill towns and coastal roads last week. In the movie, Rocky Balboa, Rocky comes out of retirement to fight an exhibition match. How can he do that at his age, he is asked. He replies, “I still got somethin’ left in the basement.” Let’s see what we have there. Let’s go on a challenging ride.

I know that Italy totters on the brink of a Grecian style economic collapse. I know that the social programs are unsustainable. I know there is no scenario whereby Italy will even be able to  service the interest on its debt. I know these things, yet the experience of being in Italy contradicted the gruesome news. It is a happy place.

We arrived in Florence Wednesday afternoon. Two couples who arrived a day earlier called us for a walk. From our hotel by the train station we walked to the Ponte Vecchio. Mark and Lorna wanted to look at leather coats. I watched the sculls on the river while they tried on coats. The store owner complained that the Euro had ruined the leather business in Italy. When Italy had its own currency, the Lira was weak and Americans lined up to buy. He said that he’d only give an American ten minutes to make up his mind, since there were so many customers.

Mark ended up buying coats for Lorna and himself, but only the next day, and he got substantial discounts on the coats. The Euro is strong, and that is a mixed blessing. The coats are costly and the retailer had to give a discount to make the sale.

Walking across the bridge we looked at the gold jewelry, out of our budget with gold flirting with $1800 or $1900 an ounce. Bad news for Italian goldsmiths. We walked up the hill to the plaza celebrating Michelangelo and posed in front of the bronze reproduction of the David sculpture.

The next day we took a walking art tour, saw the actual David and other famous sculptures and walked through charming narrow stone streets. My wife bought purses for our daughter and herself. I bought a fine Italian yogurt. Friday we began our riding.

The riding was pleasant and exciting. A new country. I hadn’t been in Italy since I traveled Europe as a student forty years ago. Olive groves and grape vineyards lined our paths. Fig trees siren-like beckoned to us. I grew up eating figs from a tree in my parents’ yard, but most had never seen a fresh fig. One of our group, when I offered her a purple fig, said, “This doesn’t even look edible!” But, bless her, she tried it and pronounced it ambrosia.

Each day we rode around thirty or forty miles over many hills. Challenging! Vermont Bicycle Tours (http://www.vbt.com) organized our tour so there is a van that circulates along the bike route. If anyone is tired, they can ride in the van. Our group named our support vehicle, “The Van of Shame” and  no one rode in it.

On the fifth day, there was a fifty-four mile ride, up over the mountains and through Etruscan towns built on the tops of hills. The Etruscans felt that a good defense made good neighbors. Hence the Macaulay poems, Lays of Ancient Rome, glorifying Etruscan and Roman battles. I had studied Horatius at the Gate, and even had a copy I read at night. It was thrilling to run across towns and areas mentioned in the poem.

A group of folks from Maryland had joined our group. They were strong bikers, and if they passed me on the road, I would feign outrage, crying out “The shame! Mountain people being passed by flatlanders!” They laughed, so my joke worked.

At night I told the group a daily joke and recited some poetry. Randy would express disgust at my poetry and jokes, adding to the fun. But he did laugh at some jokes, which caused the whole group to hoot, “Randy laughed at a joke!”

Each place we stayed at seemed to have a goal to overfeed us. The food was delicious. It was abundant. Antipasti were a complete meal, yet only appetizers. Desserts were constantly offered, clever and original, delighting the eye and the tongue.

We are told that money itself is a very weak contributor to happiness. While most people assume this would not apply in their own case, the fact is that we are all part of a whole, and the experience of the whole is that money doesn’t bring much happiness.

But there are at least two exceptions. People who use their money to help others are happy with their efforts. People who use their money to experience memorable times are happy with their memories. I am happy with my memories.

Daily challenges of biking. We are happier when we challenge ourselves and achieve goals. Group cohesion, laughter, shared exploring, solidifying friendships. We are happier with broader and deeper relationships. Daily adventures in eating. A modest amount of pleasure contributes to happiness. Admiring how our guides anticipated problems, helped us to not get lost, took care of mechanical problems with the bikes added to our happiness. Admiring the David in Florence, admiring the endless Tuscan arches and stonework and cobblestone streets, admiring the beauty and gentleness of the land. Beauty makes us happy.

On the long, fifty-four mile over-the-mountains day, I pushed my wife’s bike on some of the steeper uphill sections. That was fun, we’d speed up and she laughed. I pushed Liz’s bike sometimes, and she thought that was fun. At Sassetta we rested, snacked and admired the mountain top town, then across the mountains and slightly downhill. After lunch I rode with Paris, a flatlander who was perhaps the strongest rider of the group. We had a headwind, and I had offered to my wife to ride ahead and let her draft me, but she didn’t have the confidence to do that, so I sprinted ahead and caught Karl and Paris. Reading our maps, we stopped at tricky intersections to make sure the group made the turn. Then on the flat, we pushed ahead. I asked Paris if he minded leading so I could draft, and we took off. I stayed about eight inches behind his rear tire, and he’d look back and was surprised to see me there. For about eight miles we flew across the plains, stopping only to check our maps at intersections. “I think we go straight.” “I agree.” Off we’d go.

We were first to arrive at our hotel, an Agrihotel. That is an Italian hotel that grows a certain amount of the food served right there on the property. We were a good thirty minutes ahead of the rest of the group and I felt joyful. I waited at the turnoff for the hotel, finding an occasional ripe yellow fig on the tree next to the road, while Paris rode on down to the facility. I drank my water and felt grateful for the day. The interminable uphill that we conquered. The pleasant snack at Sassetta. The delicious lunch at a trattoria along the road. The sprint to the hotel, ending with another agonizing hill climb. I felt good about the day. Learning is good. I learned about myself.

I’ve still got something left in the basement.

Lorna’s photo blog of our trip: http://lornabrower.blogspot.com/