Healthy and Happy Holidays!

With another holiday right around the corner and many people, athletes especially, hard at work trying to burn off the extra winter weight it can be a little daunting to pull yourself up to the dinner table again without a side of guilt.

Trust me, I’m right there with you!  But it doesn’t have to be all or nothing if you play your cards right.  I often tell my patients and clients that there needs to be a balance. A little treat or indulgence is completely OK as long as you balance it out with healthier choices along the way.

So here are a few tips for this weekend to keep you from chasing away that diet-sabotaging bunny…

  1. Healthy Hacks: If you are hosting this can be quite simple since you know the menu and have some control over the ingredients.  As the host, your guests might come to expect certain standards such as a sweetly delicious ham, creamy mashed potatoes, and sugary desserts.  You can still manage to sneak in some healthy hacks without altering the deliciousness of the meal. You’ve probably heard this before but add mashed cauliflower to those potatoes!  As much as half of the classic potato side dish can be replaced with steamed and then mashed cauliflower while still maintaining the flavor. In mine I also sub in unsweetened almond milk, coconut oil, salt, pepper and nutritional yeast in place of cream, butter and cheese.  It’s delicious and my family has never complained!
  2. Offer plenty of veggies: Include a huge green salad on your table, this year I’ll be bringing a Kale salad with slivered almonds, roasted beets and mandarine oranges tossed in a light vinaigrette dressing.  You can also serve up some healthy veggies sides like roasted Brussels sprouts tossed in extra virgin olive oil and minced up garlic, or asparagus sautéed in coconut oil with lemon and thyme or rosemary. Either way the more veggies on your plate, the less likely you’ll fill up on the less-healthy sides.
  3. Prioritize your splurge: as I mentioned above, it’s all about balance!  If you’re really looking forward to a slice of carrot cake or a piece of pie, keep your dinner plate a little on the small side to make up for it.
  4. Stay active: Before the big meal, do something active.  Get in a quick ride or plan a family hike before everyone sits down to eat.  This way there’s no excuses afterwards to skip it…we all know that happens! A little pre-meal burn earns you some of those extra calories and lessens the damage done.
  5. Quality over Quantity: If you’re going to indulge in some of the Easter basket treats make them the best treats you can find.  Skip the cheap chocolate and go for something gourmet and dark! There are plenty of options here and you often don’t need to go to a health food store to find them.  So get the good stuff and savor every small bite rather than gobbling down a boring old milk chocolate bunny 😉

I hope everyone enjoys their weekend and some of these tips help you along the way!

Dr Cassie Maximenko, also known as “Dr Max”, is a Chiropractic Physician at Dembski Chiropractic in Southbury, CT.  She has been practicing there for over 8 years and has Masters degrees in Sports Health Care and Nutrition. As a physician, Dr Max focuses on treating the whole person not just the pain so she also offers nutritional counseling for a variety of issues and for sports performance.

She is involved in the cycling community as a professional cyclist, primarily competing in Cyclocross events across the country and coaches a local kids mountain bike team through the Connecticut Cycling Advancement Program.  Dr. Max also coaches a small group of adult athletes through her small coaching business, TriMax-Training.  From beginner triathletes to professional level cyclists, she works with anyone looking to improve their performance and attain any goal big or small.

Outside of her practice and coaching she is also a dog lover who enjoys hiking and mountain biking with her cattle dog, Azura and her husband of 11 years, Michael.

Helpful Tips to Get Your Kids into Mountain Biking

Many of us are lucky to have experienced the amazing benefits that mountain biking has to offer. It’s only natural for us to want our children to reap the same rewards we have benefited from. Mountain biking is an excellent way for kids to connect with the outdoors and nature at an early age, it provides them a great outlet to stay active and healthy, and is an awesome way to see friends and meet new kids! Mountain biking is also an extremely effective way to increase self esteem for youth. Biking stands out from other team sports because it is much less competitive. There is a perfect balance between fun and setting personal goals to improve, which is perfect for kids! What’s really awesome about this sport is that kids can start riding at early ages and both boys and girls can participate together.

Some may think that getting kids into mountain biking can be difficult, but it’s not always as hard as people think! There are many tips and pointers to help out in this process, here they are:

  • Dont push your kids into something they don’t want to do. Let them initiate interest first. But plant the seed by mentioning how fun riding is! The earlier you plant the seed, the better. let things happen naturally.
  • Ask them if they would be interested in trying it out. You can see if they would want to try it out with a friend first, or go one-on-one with you, or even take an Instructional lesson. Just make sure they are comfortable in their decision.
  • Safety is always first! It’s very important to provide appropriate gear for your children so they feel comfortable. Don’t forget about protective gear, providing pads is an awesome way to boost confidence.
  • Once they get the hang of pedaling and riding doubletrack, gradually increase the difficulty. Progression is key.
  • Use pump tracks for practice, so they can understand bike and body control.
  • Patience is a virtue.
  • Provide encouragement. And never lead them into something that will deter them or their confidence.
  • Always remember that it will happen naturally, if they really want it, they will achieve their goal in the end.
  • Preach safety frequently.

And before you know it, you’ll be trying to keep up with them! Have fun, and see you on the trails!

Alex Greco  

Being a Mountain Bike Instructor Is My Dream Job

When I was 15 years old I remember taking a different mindset in life. It all started when I was constantly being asked what I wanted to be when I was older. Every time I simply just answered “I want to be happy.” This was different than the answers from my peers. Some people did not take me seriously, but I was not trying to be amusing. For me to achieve happiness in life I had to live life to its full potential by living every day and all day.

At an early age I developed a strong interest in the outdoors through mountain biking and skiing. Mountain biking quickly became my passion and my drive in life. And here we are, seven years later after being asked the infamous question “what do you want to be when you are older,” I have found it with my first job out of school. I am a mountain bike instructor and guide for Kingdom Cycling and Experiences, and doing this work has brought an immense amount of fulfillment and happiness to my life. I have done a lot of thought into what makes this job stand out from others. First off, I don’t view it as a “job,” I view it as a career. I can easily say I want to be doing this for the rest of my life, whether I am guiding or just working in the mountain bike industry, this is where I want to be. Another reason why this job stands out is because of the values and passion that everyone has here at Kingdom Cycling. Whether it’s Collin and Caitlin, or any of our Instructors and guides, everybody is passionate and believes in the mission of what we do and the value of our work. I call this the “why factor.” The “why factor” is the purpose which stems from our passion.

Mountain biking has done a lot for me in my life. It has developed into something very important to my way of life. I was able to find myself through cycling and now it’s my identity. Mountain biking has benefited my life in countless ways. To name a few, riding allowed me to achieve a better understanding of my relationship with the outdoors and nature, it also surrounded me with an amazing community, helped me form many connections and deepen friendships into lifelong relationships, as well as provide an excellent and efficient way to keep my body and mind healthy. These are benefits that can seriously improve quality of life. What really makes this my dream job is that I get to help others out everyday by introducing them to this great sport. As an Instructor and guide I am motivated to provide memorable experiences through mountain biking so my clients can achieve the same benefits I was able to. Working at Kingdom Cycling and Experiences has allowed me to hack the system, because everyday when I wake up, I can’t wait to get to my dream job.

Thanks, and see you on the trails!

Alex Greco

Why Cycling is a domino effect of awesomeness for your children’s health!

By Collin Daulong

There is no denying the physical benefits of cycling and regular exercise in general, but some of the most profound benefits are now being shown in relation to mental health.
The cardiovascular nature of cycling helps to boost your brain’s neuroplasticity.

Neuroplasticity is the ability of the brain to form and reorganize synaptic connections, especially in response to learning/experience, or following injury. A brain that is more capable in terms of neuroplasticity has been show to help kids and adults alike with stress management and memory, as well as help with learning disabilities and overall brain performance. 

With the brain functioning more capably, your children will be able to deal more efficiently with the ever increasing daily stresses that modern life entails. The time spent on the bike will also physically separate your kids from their screens! It has been proven that an increase in the amount of screen time has been linked to depression and anxiety. 
Cycling also has been shown to leave children with a flood of endorphins, both during and afterwards, leaving them relaxed and happy. Who doesn’t want that!? This is also highly correlated to better, deeper sleep which helps fuel the cycle of brain health. 
Studies have also shown that cycling in groups can be beneficial to aid in the positive socialization of children. 

As you can see getting your kids into riding is like putting them on a UPWARD spiral to life long mental and physical health…not that we are biased or anything but it’s science!

Why even non-racers could benefit from a cycling coach

As I sit here in a coffee shop sucking down a espresso and chowing a pastry I cannot help but reflect on my life as a coached person. Yes I said it –  coached person! I do not consider myself to be a racer; I have raced maybe a dozen times in my life but I am more of a deeply passionate trail rider. Now the fact that I am not a racer doesn’t mean I’m not competitive or don’t push myself; I would actually consider myself to be fiercely competitive and tend to push myself to the rev limiter on a regular basis, but for one reason or another I never caught the racing bug.

Over the past 10 years or so I really started taking my riding more seriously and putting a lot more effort into it. I would ride at any chance I had and usually go as hard as I could because it would give me such a rewarding, positive feeling afterwards. After some years of that though I started to develop stress related injuries during peak times of riding and I was in hard denial about it being because of the riding. My internal feedback loop would go something like this: ride hard, and keep riding hard until I blow up and then take a couple days either off or slower than usual, then pound my body until it exploded again. Being someone that is obsessed with performance in all aspects of my life this sucked because it had to be probably the most counterproductive cycle I would ever find myself in. Finally after my last stress related issue (shingles) I knew I needed to change what I was doing and exchange it for something that would allow me to pursue the sport i love for a lifetime.

Knowing (after years of reinforcement) that I was not disciplined enough to not ride hard I reached out to one of the slowest guys  I know, Neal Burton at MTB Burton Coaching, to get his secrets on how to ride mellow. Now, just to clarify, Neal is one of the strongest and fastest riders i know, he has been a top pro-XC racer in new england for as long as I can remember and now at the prime age of 42 he is still crushing it. What I really want is longevity in performance and health like he has and knew it was a combination of the right workouts at the right time, ample recovery and discipline, all of which I knew intellectually but not how to combine them to get the desired results.

So I reached out and explained my goals that started first and foremost with “not to blowing up”. Beyond that I put some cycling events and big rides that I wanted to do but none of which I knew if I could actually take the time to do, however  it is always good to have targets. So after a chat about goals, cycling history and the amount of time I had to ride weekly, Neal crafted a specific plan for me that would keep me on track.

We use training peaks which is an awesome resource for coaches and athletes to plan and communicate. It shows me every day what I should or should not be doing and then allows me to upload my rides as well as give feedback to neal so that he can keep an eye on me.

In the first month with Neal I have not ridden so slow or mellow in as long as I can remember. When out with my usual cronies I  would literally find them riding circles around me, to the top of the hill and looping back down to come back to me and then riding up again in the time that it takes me to get to the top of the hill now, and I am ok with that. I am ok with that because just after a month of sticking to my prescribed plan I have never felt more energized or excited to get back to riding hard again. I have found that motivation and energy again that I had back when I initially started taking riding seriously.

Now I know I am only about a month in but I can safely say that I am beyond ecstatic with the results thus far. Before starting this plan I was feeling seriously tired, demotivated and just bummed on my energy levels in general and now I feel like I have addressed those 3 things all while riding MORE than I was before, just smarter.

Now I am not saying that coaching is for everyone but what I am saying is that coaching can be for a lot more than just racers. Whether you ride a lot or a little having a good coach will help you ride smarter, not harder and be able to make cycling a lifelong pursuit.

Non-cyclist’s guide to the KT/Burke area

We get asked ALL THE TIME for suggestions on things to do for the non-cyclists. Maybe you are traveling with your SO or another family member that doesn’t ride, maybe you are injured and need to take a break from riding, or maybe you are just heading to the area and aren’t necessarily interested in the cycling element. Read on for some great things that the area has to offer!

A day in the neighborhood  

Start the morning with pancakes and  local Vermont coffee at Juniper’s at the Wildflower Inn. If you can, get a table on the porch right by the window – the views are gorgeous no matter the time of day.

Head over to Burke Mountain and prepare to take in the sprawling vistas from the top. If you’re feeling up for it, hike up the toll road, taking in the numerous look out spots the road offers. The hike takes roughly an hour to an hour and a half, from top to bottom. It is not particularly beginner-friendly, though, so avoid it if you’re not up for the challenge. Email us if you’re looking for a more beginner friendly hiking route; we’d be happy to point you in the right direction!

On your way back down the mountain road into town, do not miss stopping off at Auntie Dee Dee’s for some truly exceptional baked goods.

Take a drive to Sanderson’s Wooden Bowls, located on an idyllic farm. The owners are super friendly and will gladly go into detail regarding their woodworking process. An added bonus is that their farm also houses donkeys and Nigerian dwarf goats, making this stop fun for the whole family.

Next up is Burke Mountain Confectionery, a delightful chocolate shop in East Burke. Their truffles are out of this world, so be sure to take some home!

Just up the road is D-N-D Stables, which offers guided horse rides for those with no experience, and also non-guided horse rides for those 12 and older with previous horse riding experience. It was also named a “quintessential Vermont experience” by Trail Riding Magazine, so definitely not be missed for horse lovers!

After all that activity, it’s time for a drink! Head to the Hub Trailside, and sit outside (preferably just around sunset) overlooking the Willoughby Gap. It’s a truly perfect spot!

For dinner, take your pick of one of several great restaurants in the immediate area. Some of our favorites, in no particular order are:

Juniper’s (their salmon is delicious and we can never resist a slice of Elaine’s daily pie)

Cafe Sweet Basil (rotating specials, delicious burritos, and insane drinks & dessert)

The View Pub at Burke Hotel (delicious pub fare with creative drinks)

Foggy Goggle (their pizza is our favorite!)

Day 2 – A little R & R

Start your day with a delicious, local, and organic breakfast from the Freighthouse. We love their avocado toast topped with an egg, and their vegan protein balls. They also do delicious smoothies and have a great organic market for some goodies to being home with you.

From there, head to the Serenity Spa for a facial treatment and massage. Their facilities are brand new and their massage therapists are fantastic and can help you choose the perfect treatment for you.

After your massage, grab a good book and head to Cafe Lotti. Hunker down for a few hours  – their coffee, espresso, tea, baked goods, and panini are fantastic!

If you’re meeting up with your significant other after their ride, surprise them with a unique experience at the Willoburke Nordic Spa. You can book a private experience for two, which begins in their Finnish wood barreled sauna to stimulate blood circulation. The next step is immersing yourself in your own private cold tub, which closes your pores and helps boost the immune system. The final step is to take a dip in your private hot tub, then repeat the process!

Thanks for joining us on our weekend guide to the Burke area for non-cyclists! Please let us know what you would like to see next.

10 unique things you didn’t know about Iceland!

  1. Iceland is the safest & most peaceful country in the world! According to the Global Peace Index, Iceland is the most peaceful and safe country in the world, for the 8th year in a row! Iceland has no army, navy or air force and is so safe that, as a tourist, you can access the president’s house and even take photos outside without being met with much security.
  2. There are no mosquitoes! Iceland is one of the two places on Earth (the other being Antarctica) where mosquitoes simply do not exist.
  3. The sun never sets. Well, not quite, but almost! In August (when we will be traveling to Iceland), the sun will “set” for 6 hours, (called nautical twilight) which will resemble sunset more than it will complete darkness.
  4. Iceland is roughly the size of Ohio.Iceland clocks in at roughly 39,000 square miles.
  5. Last names don’t exist. Icelandic “last names” are actually made up of either the father or mother’s first name, combined with “-dottir”, which means daughter or son. In fact, the Icelandic phone book actually lists people by their first names.
  6. Don’t call their traditional horses “ponies”! Icelanders do not appreciate their horses being called ponies. They are Icelandic horses. They actually have two gaits in addition to the typical walk, trot, and canter/gallop commonly displayed by other breeds. The first additional gait is a four-beat lateral ambling gait called the tölt.
  7. Icelanders take their names seriously. All first names must be approved by the Icelandic Naming Committee. If they don’t approve, you need to find an alternate name. The purpose of this is to preserve the traditional Icelandic language, which is derived from ancient Norse.
  8. Iceland inspired Led Zeppelin. Traveling to Iceland inspired the “Immigrant Song”
  9. Reyjavik is both the northernmost and westernmost capital city in Europe.
  10. The only mammal native to Iceland is the arctic fox.

Best off the beaten path spots near Kingdom Trails

While you might have come to the area for Kingdom Trail’s exceptional trail network, there is so much more to see if you have the time! Maybe you are traveling with your family and they don’t want to spend the whole day riding, maybe your significant other doesn’t ride, or maybe you want to explore what the area has to offer! Read on below for our favorite off the beaten path destinations near Kingdom Trails.

Lake Willoughby

Lake Willoughby is stunning. Seriously, this is a spot you don’t want to miss! Sheer cliffs tower over deep blue water – you’d have no idea you were in Vermont! There are two beaches, one on both the North and South sides, and we recommend that you check out both. Pro tip: make an afternoon out of it and take the scenic route back to Burke by way of Parker Pie. Eat pizza on picnic tables in the middle of vast farmland surrounded by endless fields.

The Flume Gorge at Franconia Notch

The drive through Franconia Notch alone is worth the drive from Burke! The Flume Gorge  is an absolutely beautiful and impressive piece of natural architecture. Keep in mind that the Flume Gorge does charge an admission fee, and is not dog friendly. However, there are several other hiking spots (the basin, for one) in the area that are totally free and dog friendly. Pro tip: make it a day trip and stop off in Littleton before or after for a bite. We love Chang Thai for delicious thai food, or head to Bethlehem and stop in at Rek-Lis brewery!

The Newport Bike Path

Ok, this one is really under the radar but is one of our favorite things to recommend to clients! Newport, VT has an exceptional bike path that follows the natural path along Lake Memphremagog. The views are stunning, and the path is very beginner-friendly, making it perfect for a family outing. Make sure you park at the hospital as opposed to the center of Newport in order to cut out cycling through some traffic.

Protip: Bring your passport! Go through the border crossing by bike (such a unique experience) in Beebe and head into the town of Stanstead for some crepes at Le Tomifobia. We also love Cafe Chansons pour Elle. Both are easily  accessible via the main road as you cross over the border.

Photo by Cory Tanner on Unsplash


Photo by Thomas Tucker on Unsplash

Why You Should Go on a MTB Skills Weekend

So…you’re considering a mountain bike skills weekend, but you don’t know what to expect and you don’t know if it’s right for you. You know that you want to improve your skills (regardless of your current skill level), but how do you know if a skills weekend in the right way to go about it?  Read on for some reasons why you might want to consider a mountain bike skills weekend!

You Get Uncomfortable or Intimidated Riding with Other People

Riding with big groups of people, people you don’t know very well, or people who you know are more advanced than you gives you serious anxiety. You don’t want to hold anyone up or negatively impact their ride, but it’s hard to find people that ride at your exact level. This is where skills clinics come in! Our coordinators ensure that you are in the perfect group for you – with people who ride at your level! If you are a woman and you aren’t a fan of riding with groups of men, we have women’s specific skills weekends.

Increase Your Confidence

Increasing your confidence is THE key to enjoying your riding more! When you feel defeated or too challenged by something, your confidence will decrease and your enjoyment will go down. Our # 1 goal with our skills weekends – besides safety – is that when you drive away on Sunday you feel infinitely more confident than when you arrived. Improving your skills and then successfully applying them  to terrain which was previously challenging – this guarantees increased self-confidence on your bike! This is also why our skills weekends are riding heavy (no standing on a field doing drills all day!) – you cannot increase your confidence without repeatedly utilizing your new skills on varying terrain.

You Can’t See Yourself When You Ride – but your instructor can

It is incredible what targeted instruction can accomplish! Trying to improve on your own through study and repetition will result in micro-improvements, but the fact remains that it is impossible for you to see your own blind spots. Having an instructor watch you while, for example, you go through a cornering exercise means that you will receive targeted advice on things that you otherwise wouldn’t even realize you needed to improve upon.

You Can ALWAYS Improve – No Matter Your Skills Level

So you’re an advanced rider who has been riding for years. There is no way you will benefit from skills instruction, right? WRONG. You can always find something to improve upon, and, like we mentioned above – instructors will illuminate to you things you otherwise might not be aware of. Skills weekends offer the best bang for your buck in terms of hours of instruction and riding to relative cost per hour.

You Will Have Fun and Make New Friends!

Finding like minded people to ride with can be tough. Make new friends, eat great food, experience beautiful Vermont trails and sunsets, and spend a weekend doing what you love to do! What could be better?

We are offering several skills weekends in 2019 at Kingdom Trails. Our Queens of the Kingdom skills weekend is women’s specific, and Conquer the Kingdom is a unisex skills weekend. As always, please reach out to us with any questions at all!

We hope to ride with you soon!

Italy Calls Part 3

By Karen Wilson

Here I go again reliving my call to Italy. This blog will take you along the final stretch from the heel of the boot in Puglia to Umbria, which is smack center and the only region not bordering the sea or another country. I had to download 3 separate maps, but when I put in the destination it showed us the way (over 7 hour drive ). We chose the shorter route even though it brought us back to the outskirts of Rome. We never had any traffic jams, just tolls and race car drivers startling us every now and then. The landscape changed drastically from flat orchards of olive trees and ocean views to green hills and mountains. The farther north we went the more vineyards, wheat fields and old hilltop villages we saw. Ancient castle towers randomly scattered along the hillsides triggered my imagination to ponder all the history and people that lived in this amazing place! After hours of driving we finally exited the autostrada in Fabro and drove another 45 minutes north to the village of Citta’ della Pieve . You could see the two tall towers among the surrounding ancient red brick walls of the city. We curved around the outside of the town and the GPS took us down a steep, narrow gravel road until we saw the sign “Cimbolello” next to an old wooden wagon and I knew this had to be the place. As we pulled up to the casa, there was an outdoor table full of merry making people laughing and enjoying dinner and drinks together. Francesco and Luisa gave us a warm welcome and introduced us to their American friends from Seattle who were leaving the next day after a five week visit!. This was their third time back and they already booked their next visit for Oct. 2019. Boy, that says a lot, staying a week here was a good choice!. We settled into our adorable accommodation built into the lower part of their living space.We were again surrounded by a stone exterior, plaster interior and high quality beautiful wooden windows and doors. The gardens, ivy walls and sheltered wisteria covered pergola was enchanting! The two dogs and cats made us feel like we were old friends! That night we had a great dinner at a hotel restaurant suggested by the Americans and later settled into our firm all natural bed with all cotton pillows that felt odd but did the trick for rest. That night the dogs barked for quite awhile. Later we learned that the wild boar had been the reason.

We were ready to explore Citta della Pieve first thing in the morning. A 20 minute walk to town led us to narrow roads, open vistas and decent espressos. There was an open market going on where we purchased some gifts,fruit, wild boar sausage, pepperoni and cheeses.This fed us light meals for the week ahead along with some awesome yogurt, wine, beer and other goodies from the little store in the town Centro. I thoroughly enjoyed watching the older Italian men and women. Words can’t quite describe the stories that their faces held. The way their eyes looked and the way they walked spoke volumes of all that their lives had experienced and the contrast to the current generation walking past them almost made me sad in a strange way. Later in the day Francesco showed me his garden and gave me some red lettuce and fava beans which I used for a dinner salad that night along with their homemade olive oil from the farm. We also enjoyed their farm eggs and I loved taking the compost out to the chicken house. It made me so at home. Luisa provided the best lavender soap/shampoo and after a few days there I even learned how to use the bidet! (that topic alone would make for an interesting BLOG) Each morning the cat and dogs would greet us looking to see if were going to spoil them with treats, which we didn’t as requested.

The next day we decided to take a short trip to Chiusi where we went on a tour of the ancient Etruscan tunnels, which was all in Italian and a bit boring, but still amazing to see what this pre Roman culture had created. The village was another beauty to take in like so many as we walked the stone narrow roads and marveled at an amazing church with artistic creations everywhere you looked. There were people scattered in the streets dressed in their Sunday suits meeting with friends for coffee and conversation. The atmosphere was timeless and down to earth. We stopped for a gelato – Eric loved the lemon and I really loved the pistachio! Later that night we went to another place in Citta’ Della Pieve called Brunnos and had another huge meal. This time we brought back enough pasta for a second meal! Our waiter brought us a complimentary digestivo of limoncello -yum!

The following day was our first bike tour that I scheduled quite a while back. We met our guide Daniele (founder of Greenways Italy Tours) in the tiniest old village called Torre Del Cotte just outside of Bevagna. His charisma, big smile and positive vibe was instantly evident. He gave us a tour of the village which has a population of 13 people! He and his girlfriend being two of them. There’s an amazing hostel they just started here along with a communal garden, BBQ area and small pool in a lower terrace. We took off around 10:00 and made our way over to the beautiful village of Borgagne where fabrics were draped across the roads in preparation for their upcoming medieval festival. In the piazza stood a fountain and opera house that we toured. We were told how it had been reduced to rubble in a huge earthquake years before but was rebuilt. There were girls practicing their ballet moves and I thought to myself how cool it would be to see a performance here in this very intimate setting with individual balcony seats layered up about 6 levels high. We continued through the valley on flat ground surrounded by distant mountains and the city of Assisi. Daniele took us up to the top of the village of Spello, another

very beautiful hill town with amazing views! On our way down the steep narrow cobbled streets we stopped at a craft brewery and met a cool guy with long red hair who introduced us to their beer. We bought a bottle and continued to a spot where we met Jennifer and the lunch she had prepared. She is a well known American chef from Philadelphia. She prepared a cold lentil salad, meats and cheese, bread salad with olives and other chopped veggies along with a frittata . The white wine we had was amazing and made for a relaxed ride back to Torre del Cotte until we hit the hill. Danielle set us up for a shower and we hung out in the gardens (in hammocks) and sipped on the beer we got at the brewery. We covered about 50K on mostly flats so it made for a pretty leisurely ride. I asked Danielle about mountain biking and since his business is just getting started he hasn’t invested in the bikes. He did say if people had their own bikes he would take them up in the surrounding hills on all kinds of trails! On our way back, we had to stop in Assisi. Walking into the chapel our ears were adorned as vespers had just begun and the monks were in motion. There was a spiritual energy here that brought tears to my eyes. Maybe it was Francis of Assisi’s spirit and his love of nature and God that I sensed.The outside of the cathedral against the backdrop of the countryside was a favorite piece of beauty like no other.

Still wanting to explore the area we set out for Orvieto, the next day, famous for its HUGE Cathedral full of unbelievable frescos dating back to the1300’s. For fun, we took some back roads getting a little lost on some steep dirt roads and hairpin turns. We parked in an underground parking lot which houses the many tourists that come to visit this place. But before finding the parking lot, our GPS took us on the most crazy goose chase in the old city through streets the car could barely fit through. Inside the cathedral we saw statues, detailed architecture, art and endless reflections of history that were hard to comprehend. We sat down and looked up to a ceiling higher than any I’ve seen and to think that the artists spent hours suspended there to create masterpiece after masterpiece.

That night we joined our airbnb neighbors for a pasta making experience and dinner with Luisa and Francesco. These two sisters raised on Oahu were so fun! One was a filmmaker who just left Dubai looking for her next calling. She had scheduled a meditation retreat in Assisi for one week to help her find her way. The younger one was a playful, childlike sweetie pie loving every minute spent with her sister. We had a great meal of homemade pasta, wine from the farm, cheese from the sheep on the farm and homemade jams made with figs, turmeric, quince and other spices along with bread to soak up the sauce Italian style. Then came the most amazing tiramisu made from their sheep ricotta cheese. I couldn’t turn down a second serving. We finished off the night with another homemade digestivo of walnut liqueur and cognac. Sitting at the long wooden table under the pergola, sharing stories (regardless of the language barrier) with laughter into the evening will be a cherished memory.

Time for bike trip #2. The Tuscan Dream Tour! Another scheduled tour got us out of bed early and on our way to Pienza over in Tuscany about an hour away. The drive was wonderful as we discovered why Tuscany is so popular. After a parking challenge we met our guide Andrea who we had all to ourselves due to others cancelling because of a few clouds in the sky. Once he figured we knew how to ride he took us on the ride of our lives! The e-bikes were heavy mountain bikes with motors that helped on the many hills. The goal was to not use all the battery before the hill back up to Pienza at the end. Our 50K tour turned into about 80K because we flew on the downhills and rode at a speed faster than any group he said he’d had. Okay, the scenery was absolutely out of this world! It really felt like you were in a dream. The beauty was beyond anything I’ve ever seen. This day was the climax of our whole trip. I’m so glad we did this! Riding the e-bike made it so easy to take it all in especially on the many steep uphills. The wildflowers were in full bloom and I was swimming in poppies like I always dreamt of doing. We took a private road at one point up to a castle, the dog warning signs kept us at bay but we could view it from a fresh cut hay field where we took some photos. We stopped in Buonvenetto (?) for lunch. Andrea told us that many American writers and filmmakers come here and have second homes to work on their craft. We had some white wine, melon with ham, and pasta with meat sauce. I’m beginning to get just a little tired of pasta by now and it was a good thing we had more riding to do. Most of the remaining tour was on small gravel roads with stunning views.We cut off to a side road leading to a small church on the hillside. We then proceeded on down a steep single track and up a washed out gully where our bikes got coated with mud. The owner Steffi was a little upset with Andrea but it was rather entertaining to watch her give him a hard time like a big sister. We shared our contact info with Andrea and hope someday we can take him on the kingdom trails! On our way back to our place we had a quick stop in Montepulciano but it was getting late and we were tired and hungry. We stopped for a few groceries and made a nice salad, with cheese, and salami, peppers and scallions and of course amazing olive oil! It was the perfect day in Italy!!!

Our last day of vacation. Feelings a bit sad that it’s all coming to an end but also so grateful for each moment left, we decided to relax and hang out. We meandered up the narrow gravel road to the village like we did on the first day, but this

time spied some wild baby boar! I cherished every moment enjoying a coffee and pastry at an outside cafe, once again watching people stroll through the small piazza. This town had a genuine local vibe that’s not altered by tourism. We set out to look for a few gifts and at the end decided to buy more olive oil, truffle mayo, dried tomatoes and another olive wooden spoon. Walking back, we couldn’t resist the sweet smell of a bakery that drew us in for an afternoon indulgence. Before our last supper in town, we finished the last of our wine, fresh apricots, cheese and pepperoni. We decided to dine at the same place we went the first night and had the same waiter. I had an awesome octopus salad and guinea hen with a local saffron sauce . Eric had a gazpacho soup with saffron cheese balls and slow cooked veal cheek with a balsamic reduction. A bottle of higher grade local white wine made this meal amazing. We had to finish it off with another tiramisu but it didn’t come close to Luisa’s homemade. Before retiring we had one last toast of limoncello. That evening there was a violent thunderstorm and later we learned it even hailed. Hmmm, what was Italy saying? Maybe “you better come back!”

Before our final trek to Rome we made one last side trip into town for a cappuccino and apricot croissant. The outside chairs were wet so we sat inside watching the workers prepare for the day ahead-one dusting off the top of shelves while greeting patrons entering the cafe. Life is rhythmic, calm and timeless here. I admire the warmth and hospitable spirit of this place as we drive through the ancient brick arch exiting Citta’ della Pieve for the last time.. Who knows maybe there will be a return trip someday. Our drive back goes smoothly and dropping off the car is a huge relief! I consider it a miracle from God that we drove over 1200 miles alongside so many crazy drivers on the narrowest roads and sharpest corners one after another without a scratch.

My eyes feel more open to all the places on this planet that I pray we can explore and experience! My ears will be listening to what amazing place will be calling out next! What distant land is calling you?