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September 18, 2014

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Making a wrong turn of biblical proportions in Florence

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John Katsilometes

A view of the Tuscan countryside.

The streets of Florence

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The rolling hills and vineyards of the Tuscan countryside.

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A church in Impruneta in the Tuscan region of Italy.

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Laundry hanging in dwellings in the village of Impruneta in the Tuscan region of Italy.

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As photographer Denise Truscello records video, the Moreno brothers (from left, Tony, Ricky and Frankie) sing a song they just finished writing.

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It's Hugh Grant! Wait, no, it's Bellavista Ristorante proprietor Mateo Becucci.

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With Mateo Berucci enjoying a nice Chianti and an employe stoking a fire, Frankie Moreno sings in the kitchen of Bellavista Ristorante in Impruneta, Italy.

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A look at Piazza del Duomo in Florence. Note the absence of motor scooters.

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A street in Florence leading to Piazza del Duomo.

As we cut a corner onto one of the cobblestone streets leading into Piazza del Duomo (or, Cathedral Square) in Florence, the insistent words of the gentleman who rented us our motor scooters suddenly rang through my head.

“Do not drive scooters into square! Stay out of square!”

Too late for that. We were driving scooters into square.

This episode was now playing out like a scene from “Bourne Identity,” any James Bond film or “European Vacation.” We were riding scooters into the heart of Florence’s storied public square, obviously and entirely against the written law. Breaking and accelerating in frenzied confusion, we slalomed through hundreds of pedestrians striding toward the glorious church, museum and meeting place.

The square is a spot for visitors and locals of all ages and heritage to convene. Somehow we had hardly encountered baby strollers in the four days we’d spent in Florence, but now the city was positively teeming with infants buckled into little carriages, and danged if we didn’t routinely swerve into the path of these innocent toddlers. The numbing reality had set in: We’d made a wrong turn, or several, and wound up riding through the precise locale we’d been warned of -- we had no clue as to how we got there, no idea how to get out.

Unluckily, the early evening crowd was particularly heavy with pedestrians. We’d entered the thickest walking traffic we’d seen yet in the city. We dodged those on foot, often brushing past folks who were furious and fearful of our four-scooter phalanx.

There was not much else to do but weave our way to safety, wherever that was. We called out “Scusi! Scusi!” while bouncing along what was intended and designed to be a stone-laden walkway when it was built several centuries earlier. “We’re from out of town!”

We made yet another random turn and were suddenly motoring through San Lorenzo market, a vast stretch of merchants that is laid out on the perimeter of Basilica of San Lorenzo. We buzzed through there, too, and if you think there was not praying happening as we steered around shoppers and shopkeepers, think again.

We finally hit a roadway where we were, gratefully, street legal. We asked a woman walking what looked to be a Chihuahua how to find the street where we could return this quartet of death toys, and she chuckled and made a wide circle with her arm -- back toward the square and on the farthest side of the Duomo, saying very clearly, “Do not drive in square!”

Oh, yes. Got it.

The experience reminded of the saying, “There are no atheists in a fox hole.” Good Lord, it was terrifying. Embarrassing, too, as we had done a fairly commendable job of not behaving as the Ugly Americans through this trip through Vienna, Venice, Florence and (on this day) the country’s Tuscan countryside. But all that goodwill came unhinged, as did a fair measure of our composure, on our scooter sojourn through Florence.

The idea to scoot-scoot boogie through Italy was bandied about for a few days leading up to the trip, and if you’ve been following the chronicles of this adventure, you know the group: the Moreno brothers of Frankie, Tony and Ricky; Peggy Ann Armstrong of Houston, who is a friend of the Moreno family and a world traveler even if it means riding on the back of a scooter for 6 hours; and the great Las Vegas photojournalist Denise Truscello.

The brothers have been writing songs, I’ve been writing -- but not songs, Denise has been shooting photos with great energy and frequency, and Peggy has been (mostly) giggling at our frequently comedic conduct. The development of these new songs is to be a story unto itself, so look forward to that odyssey.

With sky-high expectations of adventure, we rented the scooters from a little storefront near our hotel, Il Guelfo Bianco (and you won’t believe this, or maybe you will, but just around the corner from our vacation dwelling sits a McDonald's, and it is said to be the greatest of all Florentine McDonald's). We were driving these motorized beasts from Florence to the Chianti hills and through the famed vineyard region of Tuscany. We planned to have lunch along the way and visit a winery (and I darkly relished the opportunity to tell the proprietor of any vineyard in Tuscany that I don’t drink), then return to Florence before nightfall.

On paper, it was a winner. A surefire hit.

We picked up our motorbikes around noon and needed to have them back in the hands of the business owner (who greatly resembled a cross between Anthony Bourdain and former CineVegas Director of Programming Trevor Groth), by 7:15 p.m.

Nessun problema!

We barely had an idea of how to even leave the city, but such matters of logistics are handled by Ricky, who unfolded a map and perused its colored, zigzagging lines before we headed in the general direction of the Chianti hills.

We’d reached a village in that region, pulling to a halt at a stop sign, when something happened that, on any other day, would have led this column: I crashed on my Honda.

Attempting to make a hard left turn from a complete stop, I laid the bike down, as real bikers say. Left it on the ground. I just lost it, totally.The scooter and I slid for several feet and nearly rammed headfirst into a concrete wall on the opposite side of the street. I had pulled too aggressively on the throttle while jerking the handlebars to the left, and whap-kathumpa-thumpa-thumpa.

It has been said by those who have been in motorcycle, or even motor scooter, incidents that the series of moments plays out as if in slow motion. This was not my experience. One moment I am having a terrific ride, feeling like Peter Fonda while cruisin’ through Italy. The next I’m splayed ungracefully across a Tuscan village roadway.

All I could think after the bike and I slid to a stop was to get my scooter and myself upright so not to cause any undue drama. The next was to make sure the ring on my right hand was still in place and not damaged, as it belonged to my grandfather, who was Sardinian and would have found it just hilarious that I wrecked or lost the family heirloom in a scooter rollover in Tuscany.

“Check yourself,” was the first words I heard, from Ricky. “Don’t be a tough guy. Make sure you’re OK.”

“I am not a tough guy,” I said back, “and I am completely embarrassed.” A few scrapes on the shins and knees, a nicked-up hand, contusions on my shoulder and back and a bruised psyche was the laundry list of very minor maladies.

Order restored, we were off again, and winding through the Tuscan countryside in one of the more invigorating experiences one can imagine. The sensation feels as if you have ventured into a painting, the hills lush green and rolling for what seems forever. We pulled into the village of Impruneta, about 6 miles (or 10 kilometers) outside Florence. It began to drizzle, or just mist, as we pulled in, and that was about the last development (aside from a deflated tire or a local law enforcement official) that I cared to face.

The restaurant and hotel we happened upon was Bellavista, a fourth-generation family business that opened in 1906 and now operated mostly by Mateo Becucci, great-grandson of the original proprietor. He looks a lot like an Italian variation of most characters played by Hugh Grant, an affable and highly likeable gentleman. We were seated next to an Italian family, loud and proud, celebrating the second birthday of one of the brood’s children. This was remarkable as it was the first (and only) dining experience on this trip where our table was not the loudest in the restaurant.

We told Mateo about ourselves and ordered a mess of different pasta dishes and sides. I had the bread soup, a famous dish in the region, and splashed olive oil into the bowl. This olive oil was so fresh it seemed to have been bottled just minutes before our arrival. Incredible. I also had the truffle ravioli, even though Mateo advised, “Some people, they do not like so much truffle in their dish.”

“I do not want these people near me,” I said back.

When I’m asked what is the best meal I have ever eaten, it will likely be this late lunch in Impruneta. We ordered so much food, we were seriously concerned Mateo might cut us off -- from eating. As has happened at various outposts on our trip, Denise shot video and photos of the brothers working out a new song they wrote during our time in Italy and Vienna. They have logged five in 10 days, a remarkable outpouring of creativity, and they are really good. They played and sang the tune they had just finished on the restaurant balcony. Mateo makes a cameo, in the background, sipping from a glass of his family’s Chianti and gazing out at the Tuscan hills.

Yes, this is quite an effective setting. Mateo also invited us into the kitchen, where he asked an employee to start a fire, and the brothers sang once more, again with the restaurateur and hotelier imbibing just a bit. He’s planning to visit Las Vegas in May, over Memorial Day weekend, and it’ll be a kick to have him hit Moreno’s show at the Stratosphere.

Afterward, we jetted off in the general direction of Siena, stopping again on a side road as Denise fired off more shots of the brothers. At that moment, I thought, “Hey, we’ve been out here for a while” and noticed that it was just past 6 p.m. We had to ride back to town, at once, and often facing directly into the setting sun.

There were arguments -- brother, there were arguments -- about which road to take back into Florence. I’d been told about a previous visit when the Morenos, with their parents along for the ride, actually took the scooters for several miles on Highway A1 leading into Florence after making (yes) a wrong turn. We followed signs pointing to “Firenze,” and Frankie honked at Ricky, who was leading the pack, and shouted, “We are making the same mistake we made last time!”

Ricky responded by asking if Frankie had any suggestions, and I interrupted, “How about a helicopter?” We ended up riding full throttle … onto the highway. Or almost. We stopped a few hundred feet short of the toll station, cars whizzing past as we pulled into a landing area reserved for those who forgot or cannot afford the toll fee. We understood there was a way to get back to Florence if we crossed the highway and drove in the opposite direction to a ramp that would lead us, on city streets, back toward Florence.

This was dangerous, foolish, inadvisable to travelers of any age or motorcycle experience, and our only option. We raced across the highway, drifted into the near lane of traffic heading the opposite direction, cut across three lanes (or maybe four; it was all a blur), exiting at the proper off-ramp and descending back to safety.

I couldn’t tell if the rapid thumping I was hearing was the Honda’s motor or my own palpitating heart. Still racing the clock, we were not finished with the high theatrics, being carried by the traffic to the rim of Duomo Square, then turning into the thick of the crowd.

By now, the scooter ride was no longer a joyous vacation activity. These little bikes were mere transportation, and third-rate transportation at that, just a cut above skateboards. I would have given my bruised right arm for a Yugo.

We finally found the scooter shop, more than a half-hour late. But the owner was still there, as was his little boy. I pulled off my helmet, and he smiled, asking, “You have fun?”

I blinked and told him, “You have no idea.”

Follow John Katsilometes on Twitter at Twitter.com/JohnnyKats. Also, follow “Kats With the Dish” at Twitter.com/KatsWithTheDish.

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