“There are only two directions in Tuscany, up and down,” laughed local mountain bike guide Bruno.
Bruno is talking about the toughest slug of Italy’s longest signposted cycling trail, The Via Francigena. The full route actually starts in Canterbury and after passing through France and Switzerland, it (like all roads) leads to Rome.
An archbishop known as “Sigeric the Serious” first charted this ancient pilgrim route in 990AD when he walked 1,700 kilometres to Rome to receive his cloak of office. His diary of the 79-stage return journey to Canterbury, which survives to this day in a British library, served as the guide when the Italian section of the trail was resurrected and waymarked in 2009.
Agnostically speaking, whether hiked, biked or hopscotched, for days or weeks, travelling through Tuscany on The Via Francigena is one of the best ways to experience everything the region has to offer.
I picked up some trails outside Florence with local mountain bike guide Bruno Baldini before joining Tuscany’s section of the Via Francigena at San Gimignano, which took me through to Pienza, roughly 200 kilometres on a mix of gnarl, gravel and some tarmac.
The trail passed through treasures such as Sienna and across the UNESCO listed Val d’Orcia. I lingered in more piazzas and scoffed more pizzas than I can remember. Despite the Chianti, I do recall being pleasantly surprised by the number of bike friendly Agriturismos (farmhouses), boutique hotels and B&Bs en route.
At times, Tuscany is a renaissance painting: Cypress trees stand sentinel over fields criss-crossed with vines and blankets of wildflowers. Be aware though, this rolling romantic idyll is regularly interrupted by sustained climbs to reach those sun-kissed medieval hilltop villages. And the region is capable of throwing spectacular stormy spats, so don’t forget to prepare for that.
Still, the testy side of The Via Francigena doesn’t deter me one iota from the idea of perpetually looping Tuscany – I know I would never get bored and how else would I burn off my pizza, gelato and truffle pasta?