Bicycle Network: Ride On magazine
Tuscany by bike
Katherine Carroll unwinds in the beautiful countryside outside Florence and enjoys great pizza, stunning scenery and a festival with fireworks and dance
I am pretty sure that all of us reading Ride On at our desks dream of cycling holidays. Aside from the daily commute through inner city traffic, I have found a new way to link cycling with work. The secret? A conference took me to Florence, Italy.
I live in Sydney and commute from Kensington to Camperdown. With mixed on-road and bikeways riding I felt relieved by the idea of riding the back roads of Tuscany. I booked a plane ticket to Florence and searched the internet for the right bicycle tour company. I chose a small and locally-run company, Charnes Tours (www.charnestours.com) and chatted with the owner-operator, David Charnes. It was clear that Charnes Tours use quality biking equipment, have an intimate knowledge of Italian culture and the back roads of Tuscany, and most importantly offer a top price for the budget conscious tourist.
David was born and raised in Denver, Colorado, and after cycling across most of Colorado and the Rocky Mountains as a teen he moved to Florence in his early twenties. In Florence, he first worked as a bicycle tour guide for larger cycle companies and during the winter taught English to Italians in language schools. Never intending to stay in Italy, 25 years later David is firmly rooted in Florence and the Italian culture. This extends beyond his appreciation for world-class wines, cheese and cuisine. Classic bicycle lovers and die-hard Colnago fans will be envious to know of David’s growing collection of classic Colnagos. His oldest is a 1973 panto grafata featuring components that are uniquely engraved. This is kept company by a pristine 1974 Colnago which he will ride in the annual Eroica, a bike ride along the dirt roads of Italy. David’s 1979 Colnago Mexico is a real point of pride. Gold plated and given to Pope Jean Paul in 1980, he has one of the total of eleven ever made. His final collector’s piece is a 1980s Colnago frame with gold plated stays and forks.
This obsession with all things Italian and bicycle only flows on to benefit his clients. David is fluent in Italian, has cycled and hiked over much of Tuscany, and importantly has formed deep friendships with the owners of boutique hotels, cooking schools and wineries across the Chianti region. He is meticulous. He ensures his guests attend small family-run certified wineries and olive oil farms, recommends only the best trattoria to lunch in, and chooses hotels for his guests that offer beauty in terms of location and comfort after a day’s ride.
Charnes Tours offers fully guided cycle holidays, with luggage transfer and van backup support for weary legs or rainy days. I chose the more independent option and selected the “self-guided” tour. The self-guided trips in Tuscany range from three days to eight days, and I chose to ride a shorter tour from a small hill town outside of Florence called San Casciano, through Greve and finishing in Radda in Chianti, near Siena. Being the most cost-effective and independent option, your Italian-made Vicini bike is fitted with panniers and therefore you save on luggage transfer. I took off with a high-end bike fitted to my measurements complete with handlebar bag for camera and snacks, a map with detailed route notes and itineraries for each day of the tour. Charnes Tours arranged all my hotel, winery and cooking school reservations.
Each day averaged 25km of riding with at least two really great climbs followed by long winding freewheel descents (there are also optional extra rides you can take). On Day One I was thrilled to meet David in person. He picked me up in the centre of Florence in order to drive me to his garage in the countryside where I was to be fitted with my bike and route notes. David’s garage of over thirty Vicini bikes (made to specification on the east coast of Italy) is nestled amongst gentle hills dotted with villas and farmhouses and surrounded by vineyards and olive groves.
The ride from San Casciano to Greve was sufficiently challenging on the legs but a logistical breeze. David’s trip notes detail when to expect steep hills and where to turn. It is near impossible to get lost and the notes allowed me to take the day at my own pace. The only surprises were pleasant ones: the encouraging tolling of church bells as I sweat it out up a hill, blackberries growing wild at the edge of the road (which prove to be a convenient excuse for a rest) and views of the Tuscan countryside that continued to be breathtaking each and every time I rounded the corner of the road.
The site of my hotel for the first night in Albergo del Chianti was welcome. It stood on the bustling Piazza Matteotti featuring shops full of local produce, great dining, and best of all, a non-stop supply of moving scenes suitable for people watching. For a more tranquil pastime, the hotel also had a pool and fountain in the rear garden with sun chairs to rest upon. After a refreshing shower I found my way to Greve’s Casa del Popolo for dinner, a cheap and friendly place to eat and run by an Italian communist party! For a very small sum I left full of good pizza, salad and dessert.
The destination for Day Two was Radda in Chianti, a gorgeous Tuscan hill town dating from the medieval era (1300s). After a considerable undulating ride (which I later considered the warm up) I was greeted by a long winding climb. Half way up I was treated to a view of the house where the Mona Lisa was painted. This day was fun. With little traffic and a few other cyclists sharing the route I enjoyed the challenge of the hills, the speed of the descent and the freedom of wind in my hair. The arrival in Radda was spectacular and the hotel Palazzo San Niccolo was a superb location to explore the historic township.
As I walked around the perimeter of Radda I enjoyed sweeping views of the countryside and watched the light change on the landscape as the sun slowly dipped below the horizon. I was one of many people – locals and tourists alike – soaking in the romance of the setting sun with the happy sounds of the Festa del Perdono in the background. Every town in Italy has a patron saint, and I was lucky enough to cycle into Radda at the very time they were celebrating their patron saint with an annual four-day festival. This meant fireworks, a community dance and a mass of outdoor eating on long shared tables. As the chattering in Italian swirled around me I felt lucky that I chose two wheels to explore the smaller hill towns of Tuscany. Along with the help of David at Charnes Tours I was really happy to be able to take charge of creating my own Tuscan adventure. Self-guided cycling tours: just what the doctor ordered!