For years northern Europeans have vacationed in the glorious hill towns of Tuscany like Montopulciano, Arezzo, and San Gemi- gnano. Americans learned about this Italian secret when Francis Mayes rebuilt a Renaissance house in Cortona and wrote, “Under the Tuscan Sun”.
Yet another Tuscany is on the Mediterranean with 3000 years of ancient history based on the Etruscan civilization. Our fixed-base bicycle trip began on this Tuscany coast. The nearby village names sound like a panoply of buon vino: Castagneto Carducci, Donaratico, and Suveretto. Our fearless leader, Syd Smoot, hails from Texas and with electronic efficiency sent us reams of information. Armed with these maps and route sheets getting lost seemed impossible unless you realize that we American cyclists must read Italian signs written in kilometers.
The Texas grandfather of this ride is George Hall. Now two Texans can be overwhelming for 44 cyclists especially when two-thirds of us hail from California. So the TALL men are assisted by a capable Scotsman, Tommy Glendinning (replete with kilt) who also functions as Court Jester. Since all men need a wise woman, Jean Smoot was our Athena of Tuscany.
Birthday factoids include the fact that two people out of 44 had a birthday on June 25th, yet in our Mallorca BAC group of 21, three people had that birthday. In the Tuscany crowd the big birthday month is November and amongst these Scorpios, three were born on November 17th.
Arriving at the hotel there’s a hub of activity as bikes are assembled, while rental bikes are fitted and adjusted. I am delighted to have a Colnago and quickly adjust to the lack of a cyclometer. Each night is a pre-dinner meeting to discuss the day’s adventures and the next ride. Breakfast and dinner are included at Hotel I Ginepreni. The food is superb but this is Italy where even the airport food is gourmet. Did I mention the excellent gelato that is found everywhere? Snacking on such ambrosia is a twice-daily requirement.
This section of Tuscany is bicycle-heaven. Small roads have courte- ous drivers and the acres of vineyards are interspersed by age-old olive groves. Intermingled among the trash-free country roads are pink stone villages reachable by climbs of varying length and height.
Several roads are shaded with tunnels of overlapping chestnut trees. Tall umbrella pine trees often provide another shady respite. On some rides, regal cypress mark our pathway while in the distance small mountains touch the sky. California’s pink and white highway flowers, oleanders grow everywhere.
Most days the climb is at least 2000 feet with an average distance of 30+ miles. The weather starts cool and after an hour or so heats up to well- over 80o.The high humidity requires frequent hydration, ingestion of salt pills, and water soaked clothing and hair. To this regimen add energy bars, and gels to keep body and soul united. Based on pace, attitude, need for food, and in some cases past friendships we form small cycling units.
One stunning hilltop town feels like our ‘hood since we bike through so frequently, Castagneto Carducci dates back to 1000 C.E. The five mile ascent is a downhill delight on our homeward stretches. Originally the town was Castagneto Della Gherardesca, after the family who owned much of Tuscany and ran their world in a feudal Cosa Nostra style. By 1907, the locals decided to rename the town to honor a famous short-term resi- dent, Nobel laureate poet Giosue Carducci and voilá Castagneto de Carducci. Considering that Carducci was anti-clerical and pro-Satan, one can only guess that fame trumps religion.
The lunch stop on the return ride through Castagneto Carducci is a highlight. The restaurant tables are outdoors, under cover and my favorite is a luscious Caprese salad (tomatoes, basil, Buffalo mozzarella) .As we sip espresso, our view extends to the sea over the pink stucco towns with red tile roofs and. We marvel at the beauty below.
Our most challenging and spectacular ride was off prescribed routes. Our intrepid group traveled almost 70 miles with 4200 ft of climbing to Volterra, a major tourist attraction for over 100 years. D.H.Lawrence traveled to Tuscany in the 1930s and wrote about Volterrra. Halfway up our climb, we understood Lawrence’s words.
On our “no-bike-day”, we returned to Volterra by car to delve deeply into this amazing town. It is hard to believe that we really climbed the four miles up to the town. Wow! Now we can explore on foot the renaissance plaza and tower. Like D.H. Lawrence, we see the seashells imbedded in the stone squares on the ground.
The Etruscan museum tells tales of an early pre-Christian civiliza- tion. Most of the information is from burial tombs that relate to the lives of the wealthy class. Nothing is known about the world of the peasants or craftsmen. An old Roman theatre and baths have been excavated but not kept well. There are also Moorish influ- ences in the black and white marble decorating some buildings.
A winery tour is scheduled on one cycling day. Our little quartet starts ahead of the group. We ride south on the coastal road through San Vicenzo and then onto a bike lane-running path. Our leaders Steven and Linda have some discussion about the correct turn and then we meet Franco, a 50 something Italian cyclist. He becomes our de facto tour-guide (although the winery is not on his itinerary). Instead we climb up to the hill-town of Campiglia. Franco points to the sea and we glimpse the edge of Elba Island. The tiny square has houses that range from medieval to renaissance complete with the requisite number of old men who sit near the church and comment on the world. After lunch, we walk our bikes up a steep, narrow to view the ruins of an old castle, water system, medieval farm implements and an amazing view. This castle too, once belonged to the Della Gherardesca family, clearly the Medicis of Tuscany. They ruled and owned everything.
Of course we did miss an amazing ultra-modern winery constructed from stainless steel and concrete. Vicki Romo, a fellow-cyclist and keen observer has supplied all winery facts. The owner of the Petra Winery, Vittorio Moratti, is in the concrete business. No expense has been spared beginning with the winery design. Signor Moratti engaged the Swiss architect Mario Botta, who also designed San Francisco’s Museum of Modern Art. The vineyard is on a steep hillside and produces three boutique wines and olive oil.
The last cycling day is a flat coastal ride to Poplonia. However, the final section — although less than a mile has several 18% grades. I make a few stops to catch breath.
A gorgeous aquamarine bay is below but the Etruscan settlement dates to 900 BCE and is the oldest ancient city of Italy. Excava- tions continue today. The ruins stand in sharp contrast to the 14th century castle and fortress which provide the gateway to the town.
Arrivederci Toscana e molti grazie Syd, George, Tommy, and Jean!