Soigneur Travel: Tuscany
On any given afternoon in the hills of Tuscany, you’ll see pelotons of cyclists out training on gleaming bikes, their limbs as tanned and lithe as pros’. Over white-gravel roads lined with cypress trees, past centuries-old villas and fortified towns, which top the olive groves and vineyards for which their native land is famous, they roll. Join them and they will be glad to chatter. Just try to hold their wheels on the climbs.
In few places is cycling so ingrained in the local culture as it is in Tuscany. Though the region only recently got a major classic of its own—the Strade Bianche—it has long been favoured ground for the Giro d’Italia. Famous racers such as Paolo Bettini, Andrea Tafi, and Alberto Bettiol all hail from the region. Mention Gino Bartali, another native son, or Fausto Coppi to a bartender and you will be treated to stories spoken in tones of hushed admiration.
For Tuscans, cycling is a way to connect with their land—the land that has sustained their people for countless generations. Although cities such as Firenze and Siena have been world-beating centres of art and commerce since the Renaissance, and are now often overrun by international tourists, Tuscany remains, on the whole, very rural.
From the western coast, along the Ligurian and Tyrrhenian seas, to the Appenines and the steep hills of Chianti, Tuscans revere their soil. They have charted the best places to grow every sort of vegetable, olive tree, and vine. Every village has its own special dish made from local ingredients.
Those dishes are simple, but of unsurpassed quality. From pappa al pomodoro, tomato soup made with stale bread, to Lardo di Colonnata, pork lard cured in local marble, they are made and served with great care. Tuscans look after their guests with pride.
They have charted all of the best places to ride bikes too. It took some keeping up, but we’ve learned a lot from them.
TIPS AND HOTSPOTS
Eat | Olive Oil
There is olive oil, and then there is olive oil. The old industrial fluid you can get at the supermarket for a few euros is a pale imitation of the greenish gold elixir that has been a staple of Mediterranean cuisine for over 6000 years. Tuscany’s steep hills are covered in olive trees. Most families who own a bit of land make their own oil. So do most wine growers. The best stuff is pressed from the fruit of particular groves, such as Il Cassero near Florence, where the trees are allowed to thrive with little human interference. When fresh, the oil has a pungent peppery and fruity character that differs from place to place and year to year. Hardly a meal begins in Tuscany without a dish of it in which to dip fresh, saltless bread. If you really pay attention, it’s sometimes the best course.
Drink | Vin Santo
While Tuscany is best known for Chianti, which can be very fine or plonk, and its nobler Sangiovese-based red wines, Brunello di Montalcino and Montepulciano, its less fashionable Vin Santo deserves far more acclaim. This orange-coloured, sweet and smoky elixir is best served after dinner with cantucci, Tuscany’s twice-baked, crunchy, almond cookies. Made from Malvasia ianca, Grechetto Bianco, and Trebbiano Toscana grapes, which are dried on well-ventilated racks before being fermented and aged in small barrels for at least three years, it is very concentrated, so a few drops should do. Tenuta di Artimino which is situated on an old Medici estate, is one excellent producer.
Art | Uffizi
Firenze’s Uffizi Gallery houses one the world’s greatest collections of Renaissance art. Wander its halls and you’ll stumble across paintings such as Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus and Leonardo da Vinci’s The Annunciation. It can get very busy here during the holiday season, so try to pick a quieter time to come.
Visit | Lucca
Surrounded by Renaissance-era walls, Lucca is one of Tuscany’s most beautiful cities, and it has yet to be discovered by the crowds that descend on more famous places such as Firenze and Siena. Once a wealthy centre of the silk trade, it retains much of its quiet splendour, with cobbled streets and wonderful piazzas and some of the best restaurants in the region. The Apuan Alps are also nearby. It should come as no surprise that so many professional cyclists live in Lucca.
Ride | Strade Bianche
Despite its relatively short history, the Strade Bianche is a monument in all but name. Raced in March over the white-gravel roads that twist up and over the hills around Siena, it is one of the most prestigious classics on the calendar and one every rider would love to have on their palmares. The day before the race, the organisers put on the Gran Fondo Strade Bianche on the same roads. Ride the course and then stick around to watch the pros.
Ride | Eroica
When racing bicycles were made by hand, no one made them better than Italians. Taking part in L’Eroica (eroica.cc) is the best way to witness the country’s cycling heritage. Participants may only use road-racing bikes built before 1987. That means steel frames, toe clips, and down-tube shifters. Riders are encouraged to wear vintage kit too. Wool jerseys worn by Fausto Coppi, beautiful old Colnagos with period-correct Campagnolo group sets, old pilots goggles—you’ll be amazed by all of the beautiful gear that people have in their collections. Don’t think L’Eroica is a dress-up parade though. The classic route is 209 kilometres long with over 3,700 metres of climbing. The festival is held on the first Sunday in November, but you can ride the route all year.
Stay | Terme di Saturnia
The story told by the Etruscans and Romans is that these natural hot springs were formed by lightning bolts thrown by Jupiter. Sulphurous, 37.5° C water bubbles up from the earth, forming natural pools and waterfalls, and is supposed to pacify humans who bathe in it. While the springs are accessible to the public, the Terme di Saturnia spa offers an even more peaceful experience. After a ride through the Tuscan countryside, relax in one of their plush hotel rooms, before going for a swim in the baths and heading to dinner. At their restaurant, you will experience some of the truly great meals of your life.
History | Gino Bartali
Two time Tour de France champion and three-time Giro d’Italia winner Gino Bartali was born in Ponte a Ema, a tiny hamlet just outside of Firenze. Bartali was one of Italy’s most revered cyclists before the Second World War. During the war, he worked with the Italian resistance, carrying secret documents in the frame of his bike to avoid the suspicion of the authorities. He also hid a Jewish family in his cellar. There is now a museum dedicated to him in Ponte a Ema. The Gino Bartali Cycling Museum houses a fantastic collection of racing bikes and memorabilia from the golden age of Italian cycling.
Shop | Tommasini
The Italian cycling industry was upended by the invention of mass-manufactured carbon frames. A few big players remain at the top of the market, though the likes of Colnago and Pinarello now do much of their manufacturing in Asia, but hundreds of artisan bike builders who had given the ‘Made in Italy’ brand its value with their custom, steel frames had to close up shop. Tommasini is a holdout from an earlier era. A family-owned business located in Grossetto, they still construct their bikes in their own workshop using traditional methods. They offer unsurpassed ride quality.
Drink | Coffee
In Italy, coffee remains unpretentious. Snobs might turn their noses up at the espressos served at roadside gas stations and bars. No one knows where their beans originate or the exact temperature at which they have been roasted. No one counts the seconds it takes to pull a shot, but those shots are unfailing decent and rarely cost more than a euro. Just don’t order a cappuccino in the afternoon.
Keir Plaice falls in love every time he goes to Tuscany. These are some of his favourite rides.
Easy | Leonardo da Vinci’s home roads
Starting and finishing in Vinci, birthplace of Leonardo, this loop will show you the some best of the Tuscan countryside.
Moderate | Gran Fondo Strade Bianche
Take on the white-gravel roads ahead of the pros.
Hard | L’Eroica
Riding L’Eorica is the very best way to to experience Tuscany’s cycling heritage.