Experiencing the Farm and Bike Life in Tuscany, Italy
I received an invitation to a wedding abroad in Tuscany, Italy and decided it would be a perfect opportunity to ride in that region of the country. The dates of the wedding were also in the same week as the annual Eroica festival (October 7th), the celebration and ride centered around vintage bicycles and Italian bicycling culture. It has become a global sensation with Eroica events in places such as California, South Africa, and Uruguay. This could prove as an opportunity for us to attend the festival and get some photos of the riders, and in addition, stay a few days to ride bikes on the famous ‘Strade Bianche’ roads. My husband and I decided to book an 8-day trip in Tuscany with 5 of those dedicated to experiencing the Tuscan countryside by bike. In preparation for the trip I explored a map of the surrounding area of the wedding venue as a starting point. The event location was the bed and breakfast “La Selva Giardino del Belvedere” in Montevarchi, a town in the province of Arezzo, 50 miles southeast of Florence. Chianti, the city for which the wine gets its namesake and the site of the Eroica festival, is only about 40 miles away from Montevarchi. Our friend, and the bride-to-be, arranged all of the accommodations for the last three days of the trip in Montevarchi, so we needed to find some budget-friendly lodging if we wanted to extend our trip and include cycling.
When looking for lodging, Air BnB was a great resource for finding accommodations at a reasonable price. One option that stood out in my searches were listings for “agriturismo” stays. Agriturismo, or ‘farm stays’ in English, are usually situated on working farms and are run by a groundskeeper or land owner, like a farmer. Farm stays have been popular for years in Italy for their affordability and location to nature. Unlike a typical B&B or hotel experience, farm stay vacations allow you to enjoy the rural Italian life at a slower pace. Prior to our stay, I was unfamiliar with the concept of ‘agriturismo’ and learned that it is not yet a popular tourism option in the USA.
I came across a highly rated listing for a Madonna di Pogi agricultural farm in the heart of Val d’Ambra, on the Florence-Arezzo line, in a small town called Poggio, or Pogi (po-gee). It’s 12 miles from Monetvarchi and 3 miles from the town of Bucine. The Madonna di Pogi sits on acres of lush shrubbery and farmland and has accommodations for a variety of guests, including wooden caravans and tents. A 2-person caravan was listed for about $20/night, which included complimentary fresh eggs from the farm chickens each morning. This type of self reliance is a little daunting so far from home, but I didn’t want to miss out on the chance for a unique cycling experience. I booked us a 15 sqm caravan that included a room with double bed, living area with stove, table, chairs and small refrigerator. As an additional bonus, the Bucine Train Station is less than a mile away from the campsite, so we’d be able to take the train directly from the airport in Rome to arrive at our destination. By eliminating the necessity for cars or taxis, we were able to cut some costs in our budget.
Most of the work in planning travel of this kind should be done well in advance before departure. On the list of important travel tasks, finding out how to acquire a bicycle while in Italy was the next to check off the list. Having heard some horror stories of losing bikes (precious cargo) on planes, I determined that renting some when we got there would be the most convenient option. Our farm stay offered a few mountain bikes for rental, but I wasn’t sure if the bike would fit me properly, and the last thing I wanted to deal with was body pain due to a poor bike fit. I found a bike shop in Chianti called Tuscany Bikes that offered quality bicycles for rent and drop-off if needed. Since our accommodations were in a very rural area, we scheduled for a drop-off on the day of our arrival. The total price tag to rent two bicycles for 5 days, including the price for drop-off, was $370. We paid a 30% deposit up front and were guaranteed two Bianchi Intenso carbon bikes, equipped with Shimano 11 spd, in the frame sizes 50 and 57 cm – light and reliable.
Lastly, the day before the trip I organized all the necessities needed for a proper bike vacation. Since I would be biking for 5 days, and we would be in a location that did not have a washer and dryer, I packed 3 cycling kits, 5 pairs of socks, gloves, a cap, waterproof windbreaker, and long cycling pants. Since I would be riding a road bicycle, I packed up my clipless pedals, a mini air pump, and Giro Civila Shoes. Bringing along my pedals and shoes would guarantee that my ride on the Bianchi would be comfortable. And of course, we would couldn’t forget our helmets, which we stuffed in our carry-on.
Welcome to Italy
We planned our flight to arrive on the day before the last day of the Eroica festival. Our trains into Tuscany were connected to the airport, so we hopped on after we landed. The flights from Rome airport, though farther to our destination than the preferred Florence (Fiuminco) airport, were considerably less expensive than the alternative. Though, the constant changing of transportation ended up being exhausting. By the time we dropped our luggage in our caravan, we’d only had about a total of 10 hours sleep within a 48-hour period. As much as we wanted to drift into sleep, my arrangements with Marco from Tuscany Bikes to acquire the bikes was within a few hours of arriving.
After a couple of hours, Marco arrived in his van with the Bianchi’s. His english is very good (though my Italian is very bad) and it came up in conversation that he has some regular California customers who rent bikes while visiting. He said the Californian’s love to ride the hills of Tuscany. We also learned that Marco is one of the founding riders of the original Eroica event. As he explained it, the ride started with a small group of friends who were enthusiastic about vintage bikes and group rides, that would conclude with pasta, vino, and a lively retelling of everyone’s experience. After setting us up with our Bianchi bikes, we planned to meet up with Marco the next day at Eroica. Theoretically, we would wake up at about 6 am the next day and ride our bikes down to the starting line, a seemingly achievable 28 miles. On the contrary, we woke up at 3 pm, the time when everyone was finishing up. Unfortunately we missed the event because our bodies could just not stay awake any longer. We learned the hard way that we should have given ourselves a full day to recover from our hectic transportation experience. We ended up riding our bikes around the camp grounds and playing bocce ball in the garden (and winning, in my case).
The caretaker of the Madonna di Pogi, Stefano, generously provided transportation from and to the Bucine train station on the tight and winding roads lined with cypress trees. The property looks hidden from the road besides a wooden sign in the bushes, but the land features over 120,000 m2 of forest. It includes a large chicken coop, bocce ball pits, picnic tables, barbecues, and a small lake for swimming in the summers, accompanied by an organic garden with squash and tomatoes ripe for the picking. There are a couple of large public restroom/shower areas scattered around, which were sparkling clean. Our particular caravan was situated in a corner that overlooked miles of hill tops as far as the eye can see. We also learned that Stefano built and designed all of the caravans himself to be eco-friendly. Beyond a wire fence that lines the property near our caravan, was a where a white and chestnut colored pony grazed. He was friendly and eager to nibble on grass and hay from our hands. Every morning I’d walk to the fence and call out the pony and he’d come running to me. It was a great way to start the day if you’re an animal lover.
A little bit further from the site of our caravan, past a creek and through the trees, there is a chicken coop where dozens of hens are kept. Stefano feeds them every day, and emphasized to us the importance of feeding the chickens nutritious and organic food. He said that the quality of the egg depends on the quality of the chicken feed. He spends a lot of the day in the common room plucking feathers and dirt off eggs from the chicken coop, or assisting visitors with their travels and transportation. He shares many anecdotes and wisdom from his years of farm labor and work. If you do visit, you’ll be lucky enough to have the pleasure of chatting with Stefano.
On the Bike in Tuscany
For the majority of our visit, we rode at least one nearby trail a day, sometimes the same one. Near the Madonna di Pogi are a handful of hiking trails that loop around the olive groves and vineyards of Pogi, which are often utilized in national marathons and mountain bike rides. The common room at the farm was fully stacked with maps and tourist itineraries so we were able to plan out our route quite successfully. The week before we arrived, there had been a national marathon for runners in Italy. Luckily, the organizers left arrow posters posted up around nearby trails so we were always able to judge our direction.
Riding in the country was my first experience riding gravel roads on a road bike, it was also the most climbing intensive riding I’ve ever done. In the 5 miles it took to get to the local grocery store we fulfilled 5,000 feet of climbing; the climb alone to get to our campground was 1 km long and 1,000 feet high. My riding goal at the start of the trip was to get up the hill to our farm without falling. The loose gravel that we had to contend with on many of these roads required a lot of technical maneuvering and balance on the bike. I had to work on not riding the brakes or leaning forward on my handlebars. After a pretty rough fall, I really focused on keeping the weight in my legs and leaning back into the saddle. Eventually, I started to feel more confident and comfortable riding on gravel. And not all portions of our ride was on gravel, the roads outside of the forest were paved smooth. Generally speaking, cars were very generous with space and cautious on speed.
We were about 10 miles into one trail ride when we hit a crossroads at which we made a left instead of a right. The path guided us until it stopped at a ledge that sloped down along a creek. While carrying our bikes down the ledge, we walked across the creek to an opening between two trees that seemed to lead back out onto the trail. Coming out the other side of the trees we quickly realized that we had arrived on someone’s private vineyard. It was at that moment that 3 terrier sized dogs came charging at us from out of nowhere. I moved my bike in front in case one of the dogs came at me, but the owner of the property drove up to us in his truck, forcing the pups back. The man, laughing with a hand rolled cigarette hanging out of his mouth, assumed we were “lost” when he saw us in lycra and using our bikes as a shield from his small fluffy dogs. Though we don’t speak Italian and he didn’t speak much English, he kindly pointed us back in the direction of the trail and drove off. Once we were back on schedule and in the saddle, my husband and I wondered how that scenario would have played out differently if we were in the United States and got stuck on someone’s property. Like this gentleman, most of the Italian folks we came across were laid back and hospitable.
Somewhere between mile 15 and 20 on this ride, we spotted a few older men in the grassy fields lining the trail. At first glance, the men swaying in the field looked like they were fishing with boating hats and pocketed vests on, but when we saw the metal detectors we realized they were searching for ancient gold. We would only see these men on one ride, which had me wondering what kind of Roman treasures they uncovered, sleeping underneath the Tuscan dirt.Though the only sound heard were our chains, the men never averted their eyes from the ground.
The trails were fun, and riding through the neighborhoods was some of my favorite moments. Not one home in Pogi wasn’t blooming with fruit trees and flower bushes in their front yard. While mostly empty during the week day, we encountered a lot of the older generation folks hanging around the neighborhoods smoking and chatting. On several different occasions we saw women who looked to be at least 70, pushing wheelbarrows overflowing with cabbages up and down the local roads. I’d guess those wheelbarrows were at least 50 lbs, and the women didn’t even appear to be struggling. Every person we passed by smiled and waved, whether that was because we were obvious tourists or because this is how folks greet each other in a rural town. I waved to a group of elderly woman carrying grocery bags and baguettes, and they shouted back “Ciao Bella!”
At the end of the day, we washed our kits in the showers and hung them to dry outside our caravan. For dinner, we rode 5 miles down to the local grocery store, “Coop”, and usually filled up our empty backpacks with dry pasta, arugula, a salami log or two, and a baguette. Back at the caravan, we’d use the utensils available to us and whip up a carbonara style pasta with fresh eggs from the chickens. This meal was great for replenshing after the climbing we’d put our legs through, and food from Coop is sourced from local suppliers, so everything is very fresh. Sometimes we’d stop in a neighborhood cafe for a sandwich during our rides, or we’d always ride a few miles in Pogi for our morning espresso, always spending less than a few Euros.
Though we missed the Eroica festival, our experiences in Tuscany will not soon be forgotten. What surprised me the most was how handy paper maps came in when we were lost. These days we’re so used to being able to reach into our pockets and navigate our way by phone, but when you’re in a location without service, a paper map may be your only lifeline. Riding in Tuscany invigorated my enjoyment for cycling and made me appreciate the possibilities available to you with a bicycle. I learned that preparation beforehand is essential for having a smooth cycling experience. Knowing that I had all the gear I needed helped me stay focused while navigating unfamiliar roads, and studying the maps beforehand gave me a better sense of the land. Most importantly, I kept my sense of adventure open for the possibilities while riding in Tuscany – even if I had to prepare for battle against a few farm dogs.
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