Beyond the Tuscan Sun

The classic beauty of the Tuscan landscape that attracts thousands of tourists a year

The classic beauty of the Tuscan landscape that attracts thousands of tourists a year

Italy, my adopted home, is a well-loved tourist destination, both for its incomparable cultural wonders and splendid landscapes. Due to these treasures, Italy is, in fact, the highest tourism earner, and fifth most visited country, in the world.

Italy is also a leading country in world trade and exports, with a manufacturing sector focused on the export of niche market and luxury products. For example, Italy is famous for its creative and high-quality automotive industry. Lamborghini and Ferrari have long been household names, and now, since the provocative commercials (suggestivehistorical and farcical) and associated hype, the Fiat Cinquecento is all the rage too.

Lesser known, however, is the extent of Italian aircraft design and production. The history of which actually traces back to Fiat who, after World War I, consolidated several small Italian aircraft manufacturers to produce military craft. Since then, a series of mergers have led to the creation of Alenia Aermacchi, the current primary Italian aircraft manufacturer.

My previous life: Italian arms dealer

Life as an Italian arms dealer

Before my life as a globe-trotting, cycling tour-leading nomad, I spent five years leading a corporate, buttoned-up life working for Alenia Aermacchi. When I was hired, I was surprised to learn that the parent company, Finmeccanica, was not only the leading defense manufacturer in Italy, but also the eighth leading defense manufacturer in the world. I often wondered how my arts-centric upbringing and liberal arts degree had led me to work as an “Italian arms dealer”, as my friends would casually joke. But, in fact it was the same thing that pushed me toward my current gig: speaking Italian.

Working for a Finmeccanica company meant that I was linked to production facilities and customers all over the world, but above all, in Italy. The job gave me the opportunity to see the everyday business activity that lay just around the corner from so many of Italy’s most popular tourist destinations – places I had only previously visited on vacation and while studying.

My first trip to Italy with the company was to Naples in support of the C-27J cargo aircraft that had been purchased by the U.S. I had visited Naples once previously, while I was a student in Italy, but this time I saw it from a very different perspective. The task of entertaining board members took us to the best hotels and restaurants and on private boat trips to Capri. At the age of 24, I was punch-drunk in love with this blossoming adult life that brought me back to Italy. I teetered around in skirt suits and heels, initially naïve to the effects of my presence on my hot-blooded, Italian male colleagues.

Hard at work or hardly working en route to Capri

Hard at work or hardly working en route to Capri

Surrounded by men on all sides, I relished our epic, marathon meals at Rosiello, located on a vineyard outside the city and at Il Riccio with the stellar sea view looking out over Capri’s famous Blue Grotto. The impeccable food (and homogenous company) continued, even in the canteen of Alenia’s facility, as we ate elbow to elbow with the droves of operators in their company logo jumpsuits. I toured this first facility wide-eyed, taking in every nut and bolt of the impressive military craft that sat in a hangar out of view from the tourist’s eye, but not far from a leisurely, seaside lunch.

Life on the C-27J cargo plane

Life on the C-27J cargo plane

A year later I spent two weeks flying from one military base to another in one of these very cargo planes in order to educate and create rapport with the airmen that would be operating them. I accompanied a motley crew of (mostly) male pilots, military airmen, salesmen and even an FAA official. Our transport quickly became known as the “vomit comet” as we handed out airsickness bags and watched them get filled by the administrative base personnel who were not accustomed to stomaching the tactical maneuvers that our pilots would demonstrate with us all in tow. Somehow I managed to survive those weeks gracefully, despite the waves of nausea and innumerable amorous advances from droves of men in uniform.

Now, while leading cycling tours in Italy, I’m occasionally reminded of my glory days on the “vomit comet” when I see a C-27J flying overhead. The Italian Air Force’s  46th Air Brigade operates twelve C-27Js out of Pisa, which lies just 100 kilometers west of the vineyards of Chianti – a place that has become my backyard cycling playground.

Midway through my time at Alenia Aermacchi, my focus shifted to a different aircraft, the M-346, that Alenia was marketing to the U.S. Air Force for their jet training program. This was an exciting shift for me as my role, and my travel budget, expanded. One day I was crafting a promotional video for this aircraft, and the next I was managing the development of a flight simulation demo. I was soon taking off and landing flight simulators – even (and perhaps, better yet) in those provocative skirt suits and heels.

The early morning fog retreating from Varese

The early morning fog retreating from Varese

The M-346 aircraft was designed, constructed and tested in a facility (with another gourmet canteen!) nestled at the foot of Lakes Varese, Maggiore and Como, close to the Swiss border. This was an area I didn’t know and I immediately fell in love with the unique minutia of this region, just like every other Italian region I had visited before. In the mornings I would open the shutters to take in the views of the not-too-distant Alps as the fog slowly retreated. In the evenings, after a lesson in Barbaresco or scotch from my colleagues, I would return to that window to listen incredulously to the cuckoos in an adjacent pine (at first I thought their sound was coming from a clock!).

During my trips to the facility there, I was greatly impressed with what I saw. Meetings, fueled entirely by innumerable espressos, would fall silent to wait, in awe, as jets on the runway out the window would take off, touch and go, and land. I was even introduced to the contraption that would launch frozen chickens (I kid you not) at the aircraft to test their resistance to bird impact.

On the shore of Lago Maggiore

On the shore of Lago Maggiore

Besides my trips there, I learned a great deal about the area through the accurate, virtual reality of the flight simulators that I worked with. I learned to locate the facility’s runway by the big, dark patch of forest nearby and to recognize each lake by their shape from a bird’s eye view—flying over the three spokes of Lake Como and into the valley towns of the mountains beyond. And this, of course, is the same gorgeous backdrop the pilots fly into when taking off on a test flight from the facility. I have stood on the shores of Lake Maggiore on a sunny summer Friday afternoon and, catching the glint of an aircraft overhead, thought of the impressive flight operations taking place just a stone’s throw away.

Most importantly, however, my work on this program sent me to Puglia for the first time and I quickly proclaimed this southern region as my absolute favorite in Italy. I was hooked by the first meal (yes, more great food)—a light lunch followed by an impeccable cinnamon gelato—and that was in the tiny Brindisi airport! The subsequent meals, highlighting just-caught seafood (octopus, sea urchin, mussels…), handmade wholegrain pastas and the freshest hyper-local vegetables (chicory, fennel, fava beans…), solidified my first impressions. I admired the agricultural countryside outside the window as we drove between facilities across the Pugliese sub peninsula, stopping once (or twice) to pick and eat a tomato straight from a field.  I delighted in staying at the luxurious Patria Palace with the capacious sun terrace (that I may or may not have used to sunbathe in the nude), overlooking the glimmering pink-hued limestone of the Baroque city center of Lecce, “The Florence of the South”.

Checking out an MB-339 jet with an Italian Air Force pilot in Puglia

Checking out an MB-339 jet with an Italian Air Force pilot in Puglia

We visited a small airport outside of Lecce that is used solely for military training – the site being well-suited for flight training as it sees well over 300 clear, sun-soaked days a year (hence the nude sunbathing). Our primary interest was the installation of new flight simulators, but we spent considerable time observing the Alenia MB-339 training aircraft that operated there. Last year, my first cycling tour-leading assignment brought me right back to the glorious heel of the Italian boot that is Puglia and I immediately embraced its rugged, rural, seaside landscape as my home, even if only temporarily. Often, while cycling under the Pugliese sun, I would crane my neck toward the familiar sound of a jet ripping through the sky and spot the orange-tipped fuel tanks of an MB-339.

Like most ex-pats in Italy, I may never cease to be amazed by the countless postcard-perfect vistas, endless kilometers of ride-worthy hills, innumerable rays of sun to soak up, and, last, but certainly never least, that hearty, rustic, soul-quenching cuisine. I do, however, continue to be equally impressed by some of the other, less obvious, elements of Italian existence. I still feel a tingle run up my spine every time I hear an aircraft overhead in Italy and I think of the history, engineering, airsickness bags, frozen chickens, and, yes, even the fancy lunches that make up the story of that aircraft.

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