The Tops in Touring: Road Cycling's Best Spots
There are those who say that humankind has reached its peakculturally, artistically, intellectually, gastronomicallyin the northwest Italian province of Tuscany. And who would argue? Florence may have more great art and architecture per capita than any city in the world, and the surrounding countryside is an idyllic expanse of rolling hills, vineyards, winding country lanes, plush villas, centuries-old farmhouses, and villages where old men still sit around the piazza playing checkers and drinking coffee on Sunday mornings. It's the kind of simple yet highly cultured place where the village baker also happens to be an accomplished opera singer. (Does your village baker sing opera? Do you even have a village baker? Do you even have a village?) Many an American has returned from Tuscany with the feeling that, for the first time, they have glimpsed life the way it ought to be lived.
A bicycle may be the ideal way to see Tuscany. For the most part, the roads are lightly trafficked, though on weekends you may be buzzed by a peloton from the local cycling club out on a brisk century ride. In the open air, you'll smell the camomile, fennel, and witches broom and hear the trickle of streams and the churchbells. At the same time, one can cover plenty of groundthe ancient walled city of Siena to Arezzo is one day's ride for a fit, ambitious rider.
But walking is a close second. Tuscany is laced with foot-trails and farm roads that will take you though the same astonishing landscape at a more leisurely pace.
Independent cycling is easy: just pick a back road on the map and start pedaling. It's virtually impossible to go too far wrong. Walking on your own is a bit more problematic. Since this is not really a wilderness area, there are few designated hiking trails as such. Instead, you'll stroll along farm roads and neighborhood footpaths that may not appear on maps. You're much more likely to wander around and get lost on footbut isn't that part of the fun?
Tuscany is geared for visitors; most towns and many villages have hotels, and the countryside is dotted with villas and cottages with rooms available. Don't expect to get off cheap, however. Modest guesthouses and small village hotels typically run $75-100 per night for a double, while the fancier villas can go $300 a night. Superb food is of course another highlight of Tuscany; it seems that every tiny hamlet has a superb restaurant. Again, it ain't cheap. Figure $10-25 for lunch, $20-40 for dinner at your typical neighborhood eatery. If you're inclined to go upscale, the sky's the limit.
If you're taking your family or a small group, rental villas, also called agriturismos, are everywhere in Tuscany, with prices typically running from $800-$1500 per week. (For on-line listings, search "agriturismo.") Rental villas are a better option for hikers than cyclists, who will have to content themselves with riding day loops. If you're cycling, check that your villa is not located near a main highway, or at the end of a mile-long rutted dirt road. Also, beware of July and August, when prices are highest, and crowds are biggest. (Also, many shopkeepers close up in August to go on holiday.).
If you're inclined to travel with a group, there is a plethora of choices. Virtually every tour company that runs European hiking and/or biking trips features Tuscany as a destination. Prices range from about $150 per person per day for camping or two-star minimalist trips to $500 plus a day for a super-luxe excursion with the likes of Butterfield & Robinson or Abercombie & Kent. (What is it with these double-name outfits?) About $200-250 a day is typical.
Below are two of Europe's major cycling tour operators, but there are loads out there. If you go with a less-reputable outfitter, request a client list and get some opinions from people who've gone, and remember to inquire on their cancellation policies and maximum number of cyclists per group.
Backroads (801 Cedar Street; Berkeley, CA 94710; 1.800.GO.ACTIVE; www.backroads.com) is the Microsoft of bicycle touring. The company has the nicest catalogs, the shiniest vans, and one of the largest tour selections worldwide28 countries in all. If you're looking for a reliable trip that offers high-quality accommodations, easy pedaling, and a top-notch van-shuttle service, Backroads is an obvious choice, but this kind of quality will carry a high price tag. Also, be sure to get a firm quote on the number of people in each group; their popularity means that sometimes the numbers can swell to up to 20 riders.
Euro-Bike & Walking Tours (212 Sycamore Road; Dekalb,IL 60115; 1.800.321.6060; www.eurobike.com) is a bit like a bicycle supermarket: Pick a place in Europe and they can take you there. All guides are multilingual, and they really know their way around. Founded in 1974, Euro-Bike Tours has one of the strongest track records in Europe, with well-chosen itineraries and reasonable prices. Accommodations are very good, but not super-luxurious. The cuisine never disappoints, howeverone reason why Euro-Bike enjoys many repeat customers.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication