The flavour of the trip was to combine cycling, touring, eating (and drinking), with a couple of weeks away from "the smoke", rather than an epic "voyage".
Our party was two (Claire and myself), with our own bikes and equipment, and the trip was taken as a two week vacation (to fit in with work). We travelled on our own (ie not part of any organisation), and were camping. While not being particularly "budget", we tried to be sensible with the costs.
While cyclo-touring (or what ever you like to call it) is fairly popular elsewhere in Europe, Tuscany is perhaps not the place for one's first cycle tour!! Having said that, a number (at least one) company runs organised tours (the kind where you pay lots of money, but the company sorts out routes and hotels, and carries you bags for you).
We have our own tourers, and have panniers, tent, sleeping bags, etc.
Another cyclist we encountered was using the appropriate Michelin orange series (1:400 000). This is a bit too small for my taste, although they do show the campsites listed in the Michelin guide.
We have a lightweight 2-man tent - a Macpac Minaret (brilliant), and middle of the range sleeping bags (the sleeping bags we have are 3 season, and you could save a bit of weight using much lighter bags. But these are the ones we have). A few tools, a change of T-shirt and we were off. Actually, the panniers weighed in at more than we expected (approx 12 kg for each of us). No cooking stuff, but a plate knife and fork each for picnic lunch. And of course a cork-screw! and the trusty cycle-computer.
A note on the description - When referring to the climbs, remember that the bikes were tourers, not mountain bikes, and laden with two weeks worth on panniers. We are probably fitter than the-man-in-the-street, but far short of someone in regular training. So if I describe a hill as steep, Indurain (and Jobst Brandt) would probably cruise up before breakfast, as a warm up!! But in our defence, the days started at about 30 degC, and didn't get much cooler. And we were carrying a bit of weight.
Also, someone has borrowed my guide book, so apologies if some of the places are spelt incorrectly.
And then the search for the campsite. As Caprese is in the valley, we thought that the campsite would also be there. So at 5pm, we thought we had done a good first day, and were counting on a cold beer by about 5:30. Wrong! After climbing out of the valley for about an hour (?1km) (with no hint of a campsite) a passing local informed us that we still had 2..3 kms (up) to go!! There appeared no clues on the map as to where this campsite may be, so we abandoned the search, and decided to Firenze (as this campsite really did exist!). We never worked out where the Caprese campsite really was. (My suggestion that we could find a local guesthouse, and not camp the first night was dismissed by my partner as "cheating"!)
We arrived at Firenze in the dark, on the cobblestones, after a bit of travelling the wrong way down one-way streets (well, the locals do it). We knew where the campsite was (at 100m) - we had a local street map from a friend who had visited the previous month - just as well, as there were no signs until right outside -, and rolled in, exhausted at 10pm. 74 miles for the "easy" first day!
In retrospect, probably the sensible thing to do would be to missout this bit - the roads we took were fairly flat and uninteresting, and had quite a lot of heavy-ish traffic - and catch the train from Pisa airport straight to Firenze.
Firenze, and hence this campsite, is a major stopping point on the Inter- railing/ Backpacking/ Driving-a-clapped-out-Combie-van-around-Europe circuit, and we met/ bumped into/ overheard people from all over the world. The facilities are excellent - not luxurious, but functional. It had a sign that they were booked, but turning up on bikes meant that our tent must be small, so they let us in. We have encountered this before, and have yet to be turned away, as (especially if staying one or two nights) we can squeeze in pretty well anywhere.
On Wednesday we loafed about the campsite in the morning, and then went off to look around Firenze. We stayed on the south side of the river, and had lunch at a place on the Piazza St Spirito. The restaurant caters for the tourists (doesn't everywhere in Firenze), but less obviously than many. After lunch we meandered around the Bobbili gardens - as walking the streets in the afternoon sun was a deemed to be too much like hard work. In the late afternoon (as the both the throngs, and the heat of the sun had abated) we wandered across the Ponte Vecchio, to the Piazza de Signoria, and while looking around picked up a current camping guide from the tourist information office.
Wednesday night was the Football World Cup semi-final. Everywhere was pretty quiet, until after the match (Italy won!). The town then erupted with an unbelievable noise of scooters and horns, as the locals drove around in noisy and pointless circles, making as much noise as possible. Still, we were still tired, and got to sleep eventually.
The plan from there was to go towards a campsite believed to be near S. Giovanni Valdarno, about 15km further up the valley. So after lunch, eaten under a less than comfortable tree on the side of the road, we set about the search for the campsite. One marked in the camping guide (du Lac) was closed, and looked like it had been for some time. (Quite why it was listed in the camping guide history does not make clear!) The other looked like it was up in the mountains - we never found out exactly where it is, but suspect it's at the youth hostel at M.S.Michele, at a mere 892m. This may have been possible (just) if we had known that at the time - we could have cut across from Poggio and not descended into the valley. So much for the camping guide.
Having abandoned this, we headed back to Figline, to the Girasole Club (which we knew existed). Even so, this was not easy - it was out of Figline, on the road to Greve, so after a full day's cycling another climb (to approx 250m) to finish. But its amazing how quickly a tent can go up when there is a cold beer as a reward!!
This was probably the hardest day's cycling of the trip.
Girasole is nice if you like camping "on-mass" with lots of families from northern Europe (Germans, British, Dutch, etc. - Eurocamp have a stack of tents there, and run bus trips to see the sites of Chianti). The mums and dads get drunk on the local wines, while the kids play in the pool. Not surprisingly, we ate at the campsite restaurant (not keen on a pretty serious climb after dinner), which was average, and not bad value. And just as we were going to bed, our fellow campers were touching up their makeup for big night in the campground disco!
Note that Girasole is not "just outside Greve-in-Chanti", as the Rough Guide would have you believe.
As this was not really our cup of tea, we left promptly the next morning (Friday). Being fast learners, we took the (sensible) precaution of phoning the planned next campsite before setting of, to establish exactly where they were!! This was to be in Castellina-in-Chainti, which would mean a mid morning arrival in Sienna the following day, with plenty of time to look around the town. A good move to phone, as the campsite wasn't where we thought - it was closer to Monteriggioni. But at least now we knew. The Italian camp-site guide lists the campsites by the nearest significant centre (which must be a administrative centre for the area), which is not necessarily anywhere near the campsite. There are usually other clues, giving the exact locality, but these are often so local so as not to be marked on the maps (especially at 1:200 000).
On the road (after this) by 9am heading west, with after a bit of climbing to get the system going (to 532m - for a spot of breakfast from the remainder of Thursday's lunch), a long descent into the Chianti valley to Greve-in-Chianti (236m) (aren't these descents great, especially if you know you've earned them), where we stopped for postcards, and the bank. At Greve we were on S-222, the "Chanti way" (or whatever its called), as we turned south towards Sienna. This road is in pretty good condition, and not busy enough to cause any concern - most of the traffic appeared to be Germans on holiday, as the busy (and heavy) through traffic uses the Autostrada. As a bonus, the climbs and descents in the main are a "manageable" slope, and certainly less than we met on some of the smaller roads the day before.
It was on this road we met other cycle tourists - a Dutch couple, also on their way to Siena. He said he was from Arnhem, which is one of the few parts of Holland which is not completely flat! We stopped for a Cola with them at the next road side cafe (I think at Pietrafitta), which turned out to be an attractive restaurant. Lunch there was a tempting option, but we pressed on to Castellina-in-Chianti (578m); they had run out of ice for the Gazpacho (sacre blue!). Lunch turned out to be a sandwich and a Cola at a local bar, watching the gelati man make his delivery, as the supermarket was closed for lunch. (I don't normally like Cola, but with a slice of lemon and lot of ice its just the thing in these cases. Probably something to do with the the sugar content.)
As we had made good progress, we decided to head straight for Siena, arriving late afternoon. From Castillina it was downhill all the way!!.
Another hard day, and probably the most enjoyable day as regards cycling - the ascents were not particularly steep, but they just kept on, and on, and on. The descents were great!! As this was Chianti country, there was a mixture of grape vines and olive groves in the countryside, and picturesque villages, which made for pleasing scenery.
A tremendous thunder storm blew up in the late afternoon (we had just got our tent up, and so cowered inside), but it had completely cleared up when we left the campsite for dinner.
We caught the local bus into town - (with a map from campsite office). Late afternoon is a good time to get to the centre - the hottest part of the day had passed, the tourists were heading back to their hotels, and the locals were coming out. Dinner was in a restaurant selected from the Rough Guide, and due to a failure to read the bus timetable correctly we had missed the last bus back to the campsite, so we caught a taxi (can't remember how much it was). Next day (Saturday), we treated ourselves to a bit of opportunistic tourism (if you run into something worth looking at, have a look around, but don't make a big effort to look at things just to tick them off the list), having spent the morning loafing about. As we were about to leave for the nominal sightseeing, we bumped into a fellow cyclo tourist, and (over a beer in the campground shop) shared the woes of the hilly terrain in the heat (especially on the small roads) and finding campsites, and poured over maps (he had a different map from us). We plotted a couple of possible routes for him - he was going south - and then finally left for town, with Lloyd much encouraged.
Sightseeing consisted mainly of sitting in Il Campo (the main square), watching the goings on (we were entertained by a wedding emerging from the palazzo). We also looked at the Duomo, and wandered across the Forte di S. Barbara. Such is opportunistic tourism. Great place.
Dinner was somewhere else from the Rough Guide - towards S. Maria del Carmine. We got the timetable correct this time, so caught the bus back.
We took the minor detour off the road, to Monteriggioni, and apart from the quaint features the guide book told us about, the locals were cleaning up the mess from the previous night's celebration - probably wild dancing in the streets. The descent down the unsealed road out the other gate was a bit hairy on laden touring bikes, especially the hairpin bend. Claire came off second best, and ended up with a nasty graze on her knee.
After a mid morning ride through the old part of Colle di Val d'Elsa and an "off piste" detour down an overgrown walking track (a bit of a mistake), we arrived in San G campsite around 1pm. This was the smallest campsite we found on this trip, and we were completely taken aback that the little shop was closed for lunch, and that refreshing, cleansing beer on arrival had to wait. And there were mutinous rumblings about any possibility of cycling the 5 miles back into town, so we set ourselves up, and rested for a couple of hours :-)
As the hottest part of the day past, we hitched up the steeds, and went into town. A minor blow on discovering that although we'd bought our locks, we'd left the keys back at the campsite. So our opportunistic tourism was further limited by the need to wheel the bikes around, and keep an eye on them. Still, in such a pretty little town this was not a problem. We had a gelati from what was reputed to be the best ice-cream shop in the district (we found no reason to disagree), and splashed out mildly for dinner. Actually, the town is so tourist conscious that there was little choice for cheap eats. We found the local wine speciality as good as it is reputed to be.
It was also the football World cup Semi-final; Italy v someone else. We stopped to watch the start (and first half) in the main square, were the locals had all gathered on the steps of the church, and in rows of seats to watch on a big screen. One half was enough for us, and we headed home, and almost managed to lose each other in the dark on the way back to the campsite (I'd not brought lights, as it was summer, after all!). After going to bed, we guessed that Italy had lost (and thus was out of the competition), by the lack of continuous noise through the night. The glum faces on the staff next morning confirmed our assumptions!
The campsite was pleasant - we bought a bottle of wine at the little shop, and had a rather leisurely lunch. Just as we were snoozing off, another group of cyclo-tourists appeared, these people being a family of Mum, Dad, Daughter, and ?boyfriend (sorry if I've got the family details wrong). They had caught the bicycle bus from Holland, and had been cycling around Umbria, and were heading back to Pisa, to be picked up in Lucca (or Viareggio). 3 weeks in all. Umbria is hillier than Tuscany (by all accounts), but they had pretty low gears on their bikes (that's my excuse - we didn't see them on the road). Mum looked pretty glad to have stopped for the day, though.
That evening we wandered into town, and had a good look around the Duomo (we remembered the key for the bike locks this time!), and a pizza upstairs in one of the less obviously touristy restaurants.
The campsite here at Guardistallo is actually half way to Cecina (we rang forward for directions) - a pleasant but slightly incongruous campsite, slanted towards German family holidaymakers. We suspect that it was a small campsite recently, but was being expanded to an all-facilities provided bungalows + caravans campsite (complete with swimming pool). The meal was good, though, and included a Grappa on the house (probably because we looked like we were enjoying dinner!).
We headed straight through Livorno. This is a busy port (we decided not to bother seeing any of the sights), and the only obvious non-motorway route north (that we found) is along the back of the docks, leading to a pretty harrowing ride for a few miles, dodging the heavy goods traffic.
But we survived unscathed, and rolled into the beach area west of Pisa (the Teunta di Tombolo).
We considered the various campsites (after looking at the S. Lucia campsite half way between Tirrenia and Marina di Pisa) and judged them all to be too far from the restaurants of the villages for dinner, so we headed back to our starting point at Pisa. So we passed on the opportunity to laze on the beach!!
On Thursday (our last day) we started with a bit of a lie-in, and then an excursion north for lunch to along the Medici viaduct and the Monastry. The makings of lunch were bought from a little shop (alimentari) in Pisa, and made as good a picnic as we had had all trip, and a little better than the supermarket (as you would expect).
When back at the campsite, and while we finished writing the postcards, we watched as two Canadian couples rolled in (one on a tandem) - they had been further north (Lake Como?), then to Venice for about three weeks, and were coming to the end of their trip. They had a story about putting their bikes on the train to Venice, where they had had one of those frustrating conversations, as the railway man tried to convince them that Venice was all water, and bicycles were of little use, and they were wasting their time taking them there! But the message must have got through in the end. The tandem in the Tuscan hills must have been a challenge.
As this was the last night, we splashed out a bit for dinner, to the Mescita restaurant (The Tap-Room), and had a real treat (got the credit card onto that one!). Genuinly good Tuscan food, and excellent service.
The next day (Friday) we packed up, purchased the last minute postcards, and were home on the plane (with the inevitable delay - air traffic control no doubt) without incident.
LONDON, UK SW15