Galloping under the Tuscan Sun: A Saddle-Sure Culinary Tour of Italy

A while back, Frances Mayes' memoir Under the Tuscan Sun captured the imagination of many an armchair traveler. Not to take anything away from her pastoral ruminations, but this gem of a book only captured a slice of this Italian west coast province. Yes, the food and wine in Tuscany is some of the best in the world. And yes, the Tuscan approach to life is less-rigorously paced than the 9-to-5 rat race in the States. But you introduce a group of sure-footed Maremma and Sicilian horses (two breeds native to the region), and the Tuscan pace becomes more in synch with your active impulse—whether it be to walk, trot, or full-on gallop.
The best equine excursions are spread from Florence down to the region's southern borders with Umbria and Lazio, with the exception of the Mugello region in north-central Tuscany. Home to Machiavelli, Michelangelo, and the Medici, the city of Florence makes for an ideal gateway to the Tuscan region. Then set out for the Mugello region, home to some of Tuscany's most traditional villages. A horseback ride along the River Sieve takes the saddle-savvy traveler through one of the best wine regions in Italy.
Steady your steed and continue south into the famous Chianti region between Florence and Siena. The nearby towns of Castellina and Radda are home to several local wineries, and don't forget to check out the Tuscan specialty, bistecca al fiorentina, a grilled t-bone that's easily big enough to appease two saddle-weary appetites. The crown jewel of the Chianti region, however, is the earthen-hued oasis of Siena. Start with a ride through the olive orchards and vineyards surrounding the city, then stable your horses and head into town. Medieval and Gothic buildings fence in the city square, and a literal treasure-trove of medieval art hangs in the smaller churches and museums. And if you can make it to Siena on either 2 July or 16 August, you will quickly appreciate the calm pace set by your horse. On those dates, Siena is overtaken by the Palio, an enormous festival featuring medieval pageantry and a mad horserace around the city square.
Northeast of Siena, the medieval walled town of San Gimignano beckons to travelers with its soaring stone towers. If you have the time, hit San Gimignano and then head south to the Abbey of San Galgano, home to the legend of the Sword in the Stone. Oenophiles with little time to spare should forego San Gimignano and head due south from Siena to Montalcino, where the world-famous red wine, Brunello, is created.
A number of smaller medieval towns line Tuscany's southernmost edge, nestled atop the region's rocky cliffs. Sovana, Sorano, and Pitigliano are home to Etruscan ruins and intoxicating views of the countryside. But perhaps the best feature of these towns is their proximity to Saturnia, each less than 12 miles away, where hot springs and thermal baths invite saddle-sore travelers to rest their weary bones. After all, a hot bath and some wine can make even the best ride even better.
Regional outfitters exist in most of Tuscany's major cities, but try to make arrangements before departing for Italy—this assures you'll get healthy steeds and guides experienced in both the routes and the local food and wine of the region. First-time horsepackers will find the conditions ideal; expert riders may find the terrain less challenging (meaning they can avail themselves to the gastronomic delights without shame).

Published: 30 Jan 2003 | Last Updated: 14 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

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Berchielli Hotel Florence
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Villa Olmi Firenze - MGallery Collection
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Starhotels Tuscany Florence

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