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Seeing Florence the freewheeling way

Give the slip to traffic and long lines at historic sites. Take a day, or even more, to tour one of Italy's loveliest cities or the Tuscan countryside astride a rented bicycle.

By BARRY SHLACHTER

© St. Petersburg Times, published July 1, 2001


Give the slip to traffic and long lines at historic sites. Take a day, or even more, to tour one of Italy's loveliest cities or the Tuscan countryside astride a rented bicycle.

FLORENCE, Italy -- It was our second morning, and my 12-year-old was museumed-out.

We had arrived the previous afternoon from Rome, where we tramped to the major sights and spent a good part of the day in the Vatican museum, after a punishing two-hour wait to buy tickets. And although Zack himself had set the itinerary for his first trip to Italy, he couldn't bear another long museum queue -- and yet more rich art -- without a bit of recovery.

What salvaged our stay -- and indeed became a highlight of our travels -- was simple: We rented bikes and spent a day tooling around Florence's maze of medieval streets, across its bridges and through its open-air market and splendid piazzas, dodging crowds of pooped tourists.

Zack was reluctant at first.

"Let's take taxis," he implored, unmindful of the difficulty locating a cab at every stop and of the expense. But once we got going on the bikes, he would not let up.

We got wind of a family-run enterprise, Florence by Bike, which charged $10 for 24 hours for a new street model. It was our best bargain in Europe.

Provided are two chain locks -- apparently The Bicycle Thief was not a figment of filmmaker Vittorio De Sica's imagination.

Zack's hesitancy to ride the streets of a strange city vanished in minutes. There was little vehicular traffic in the smaller streets, and when things turned hectic at rush hour, it was made up mainly of motor scooters, whose drivers knew how to steer around cyclists.

The bikes allowed us to make numerous trips through the main market street, where hawkers sell heavily discounted leather goods, silk scarves and, to Zack's delight, counterfeit jerseys of top Italian pro soccer teams.

We peddled over to the Boboli Gardens, chatted with a sidewalk artist and sampled our umpteenth Italian ice cream. Later we zipped to the restored synagogue and then repeatedly orbited the city's famed cathedral, the size of an ocean liner and decked in white and green marble.

Without bikes, Florence would have been bad news, Zack decided. "The lines were too long."

Barry Shlachter is a writer who lives in Fort Worth, Texas.

If you go

If we had had the time, we would have taken one or more of the guided tours of the Tuscan countryside run by Andrea and Marika Sebastiano, Florence by Bike's friendly husband-and-wife owners. Included are stops at family-run Chianti wineries and olive oil presses. The guided bike hikes are rated by difficulty and run from 9:30 a.m. to about 4:30 p.m.

There is also a guided three-hour city tour that cost about $22. The one-day countryside trips have a 117,000 lira price tag, about $55, including the bike and lunch. But the Sebastianos will also supply free self-guided tour maps. Their business is open from March 1 until early November.

More information can be obtained on their Web site, www.florencebybike.it. The e-mail address is ecologica@dada.it. Telephone or fax is 011-39-055-488992. Or write: Florence by Bike Eco-Logica s.n.c., Via San Zanobi 120/122 R, 50129 Florence, Italy.

Another Florence outfitter, I Bike Italy, also arranges one- and two-day tours of Tuscany. Information is available on its Web site, www.ibikeitaly.com. Bookings can be made through its Florida-based agent, reachable by calling (561) 388-0783.

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