Bicycling Tuscany, Italy, May, 2005

The Tuscany region of central Italy is one of the world's most popular cycling destinations. The area is full of charming medieval hilltowns connected by scenic roads with generally light traffic. The towns are full of art and history, the food is excellent, and the people are friendly. While the summer and winter weather can be extreme, spring and fall offer excellent cycling weather. Here are some pictures from a tour I did with Vermont Bicycle Tours (VBT) in early May, 2005.

Click on any of the pictures below for a larger image (about 80KB each). The pictures will pop up in a separate window, so you should turn off any popup blocking software.

There are many companies offering bicycle tours in the Tuscany region of Italy. The companies have slightly different routes, but most focus on the hilly Chianti and Crete regions around Siena. Our route covered 40-50 miles and 3000 feet of climbing per day. The roads were rarely flat, but the steepest sections were generally short.

Our tour was organized so we spent two nights each in three different hotels. On the first day, we did a loop (or two) to nearby towns. On the second day, we rode to the next town while the VBT van shuttled our luggage. This arrangement worked well, allowing people to choose, if they wished, shorter loops on the layover days. On the transfer days, the van was available for people who wanted a shorter ride.

(Click on any picture for a larger image.) Route Map
Rental bikes are included in the VBT tour price. I chose a standard road bike (STI shifters and triple crankset), but hybrids are also available. The road bikes were a little heavy (Shimano Sora entry level components), but they were stable and durable and well maintained by our guide Enrico. The bikes come with a rear trunk pack to carry extra clothes as well as souvernirs. bikes
I flew from San Francisco to Florence (via Frankfurt) arriving Saturday, May 7. (See the end of this report for photos of Florence.) Our tour started on Sunday with a bus shuttle to the Villa Ducci which overlooks the medieval hilltown of San Gimignano.

Hilltowns like San Gimignano were founded during the middle ages (mostly 1000-1400 AD). After the Roman Empire collapsed, the locals moved their towns (and roads) to the hills and surrounded them with tall stone walls for protection from the roving barbarians. San Gimignano is the most famous (and popular) Tuscan hilltown, because of its many towers and also because of its easy accessibility from Florence. Here are some photos of San Gimignano.

We visited many other hilltowns on this trip, many just as pretty as San Gimignano, but much less crowded.

San Gimignano San Gimignano San Gimignano San Gimignano San Gimignano
On our first day at Villa Ducci, we fitted our bikes, then took a short warmup ride to check the bike fit and handling. On Monday, our ride involved two 20 mile loops, passing by San Gimignano twice. The morning loop was pretty easy, but the afternoon loop dropped down into the valley, then had a long, sometimes steep climb back up to San Gimignano. Now we know why they are called hilltowns. After that climb, the rest of the week was easy. climb climb
Sunrise and sunset from Villa Ducci. bikes bikes
On Tuesday, we rode to the pretty Colle Val d'Elsa for lunch. The town is perched above a lush river valley.

After lunch, we rode past Monteriggioni, which was once a heavily armed outpost between the fueding territories of Siena and Florence. The red poppies are in full bloom in early May. Unfortunately, the sunflowers were not blooming this year.

Colle Val d'Elsa Colle Val d'Elsa Monteriggioni Monteriggioni Monteriggioni
Our hotel is Villa Lecchi, up a (steep) hill with nice views overlooking the valley. Lecchi
On Wednesday, we ride through the Chianti region to the beautiful city of Siena. There is one hard dirt road that is not too difficult. During the middle ages, Siena was a rival of Florence. Since then, Florence has suffered from suburban sprawl, while Siena has controlled its growth and retains a very medieval atmosphere (except for the tourists).

Highlights include the ornate 13th century Duomo and the views from the 14th century Torre del Mangia overlooking the Piazza del Campo square. The 100 meter tall tower (second tallest in Italy) involves over 500 stairs, but that is easier than some of the hills we're climbing on our bicycles.

road to Siena Siena city gate Siena Duomo exterior Siena Duomo interior Torre del Mangia Torre del Mangia Torre del Mangia Campo square
On Thursday morning, we visit the Benedictine abbey of Monte Oliveto Maggiore. The abbey is full of 15th century frescos and our guides Melissa and Enrico explain their stories to us.

In the afternoon, we take a hilly ride through the Crete area of Tuscany and the towns of Asciano, Trequanda, Castelmuzio, and Petroio. Enrico says this ride has 73 hills, but most are very short; only a couple of them are more than a mile long. The street sign says the climb up to Trequanda has a 15% grade, but it feels steeper. Enrico helps push some of the cyclists up that hill.

Our next hotel is a renovated cloister in the town of Pienza. On the way into town, we pass a field full of red poppies and other wildflowers.

abbey hill hill Trequanda Trequanda Trequanda Trequanda Castelmuzio Torre del Mangia
Pienza is a quiet and pretty hilltown with just a little tourist traffic because of its association with Pope Pius II. Pienza Pienza Pienza Pienza
The last riding day of our tour is also the longest: 50 miles. The ride is mostly flat, however, with just one long climb up to the remote hilltown of Radicofani. Radicofani was built on an ancient volcano and because of the odd geology, we can see the medieval fort above the town from miles away. Today, there are no tourists in town, just some locals chatting at the town gate. Radicofani Radicofani Radicofani Radicofani Radicofani Radicofani
After Radicofani, our guides Melissa and Enrico prepare a nice picnic lunch of local goodies. In the afternoon, we visit the hilltown of Montepulciano with the giant church below the town, then back to Pienza for the end of our tour. On Saturday, we have have a bus transfer back to Florence.

After the bike tour, I spent 3 days in Florence before flying home. For some photos of Florence, click on the Florence link.

picnic cyprus highway Montepulciano Montepulciano Montepulciano Pienza

My thanks to our guides Melissa and Enrico for a great job of keeping our tour organized. The Tuscany hills tour is great for intermediate level recreational cyclists. While the daily distances on this trip were not great, there were lots of hills and hilltowns to keep it interesting. For cyclists looking for less of a challenge (or more sightseeing time in the towns), there were shorter ride options every day that were still very scenic. VBT also offers some much flatter tours (visiting different towns) along the Tuscany coast. I think they did a great job and will recommend them to my friends.

Some hints for people considering a cycling tour in Italy:

After the bike tour, I spent 3 days in Florence before flying home. For some photos of Florence, click on the link.

For more bike trip reports, please click on the link.

Please let me know if you decide to go on this tour because you found this web site. I'm curious about who reads this. Also, let VBT that you heard about them from me. Thanks.

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Copyright © 2005, Kenton Lee, Palo Alto, California. All rights reserved.