The sun warmed our skin just as it warmed the grapes and olives on the gnarled tree branches we passed as we biked through the Tuscan countryside. Our wine tour was among my favorite experiences on my round the world trip. Priced higher than many activities at Euro 60 for the day, it allowed the chance to leave Florence and spend a day among the rolling hills and beautiful wineries. We had spent our first days in Florence at the Boboli Gardens, and absorbing art and culture at the Uffizi and the Accademia. We had picked a great hostel in the city; it was affordable and central. Since we hadn’t splashed out on our own place, we found a beautiful biking tour that would spend a full day biking on a loupe on the country roads outside of Florence, stopping at notable wineries and giving us breads, fresh olive oil, and other treats.
Is the Van Ever Coming Coming?
My best friend Jenn had joined me from the trip, and my cousin was still traveling with me, so the three of us woke early and hoofed it to the outskirts of Florence to meet our tour leader for the day. Jenn’s not a morning person, so she was bleary-eyed while we wandered confusingly for a bit and rubber-necked from a curb. We had been told that a van would meet us at this rendezvous point. We found several other confused Americans waiting for the vehicle, and concluded we had all found the right spot, we had just arrived too earlier.
A few minutes later, and a large van scooped us from the curb for a short drive away from the bustle and chaos of city life, and into the heart of Italy’s wine country.
Our tour company was run by an American expat who has lived in Italy for decades, and it’s funny how at home I felt on the tour. It was a gorgeous experience, and one that an Italian might have run differently, but I found it met and exceeded all of my expectations. The tour company provided us with well-maintained ten-speed bicycles, a sturdy bike helmet, and a water bottle. Our route would take us through 12 miles of sloping hills, so the water bottle was an important detail we were grateful for in the heat of the day.
A Tuscan Wine Tour & Intriguing Statues!
Once we were kitted and fitted four our bikes, we started out for our Tuscan wine adventure. It started quickly! Just ten minutes after pedaling out of the bike shop, we stopped at the ritzy Villa Mangiacane Winery. After a tour of the grounds, we stopped in the tasting room for a sampling, too. Tasty!
The property is stunningly pretty. It has a five-star hotel on the premises, and perfectly manicured grounds. As we walked through the property, we discovered a number of beautiful sculptures and paintings scattered throughout the winery — the naked ladies statues were added for an artsy European calendar that was photographed on the estate.
Normally, I would have assumed that a wine tasting at a winery of this caliber is out of my budget. I would have never known to visit if I hadn’t booked the tour. And I was so glad to have visited! Although the estate produces just a few wines, they are delicious. The red Estate Wine was gorgeous and flavorful; it didn’t have the strong burn of alcohol that I find common in the cheap wines I can most often afford. The rose wine was light and sweeter; it was my favorite of the two. Our table also had a complimentary sampling of the house olive oil and crusty soft Italian bread.
Under the Tuscan Sun: Our Wine Tour
After touring the grounds — and with a tiny, lovely wine buzz from the estate’s generous samples — we pedaled back into the country lanes of Tuscany and continued to the next stop. Just as imagined, Tuscany is gorgeous. It’s everything you see in the movies and the photographs. As a romance-movie aficionado, visions of Under the Tuscan Sun filled my head as I biked my way through large wineries and quaint estates. The acres of olive groves give the rolling hills a muted green color, the neat rows of grape trees create symmetrical patterns on the hilltops. And being summer in Italy, the golden sun glinted over leaves and kissed the budding grapes and olives.
The bike tour was structured but not rigid. Our guide, Jillian, would announce our next stop, and then give us leave to explore the countryside at our own pace. We could amble through the country lanes, or fly down the hills, or take a gentle speed instead. With gorgeous views and sweeping vistas, we only had to pay enough attention that we didn’t get lost in all that beauty!
We rode for a bit of time until we reached our lunch spot, a gorgeous Italian cafe called Cantinetta del Nonno. This is another area where I rarely splurge on each course. When I studied abroad in Italy, I often met with friends from my university and indulged in the long lunches. As a budget backpacker, I’ve been more frugal. This meal, however, shaped up as completely memorable. We started with glasses of red wine and we nibbled on balsamic vinaigrette, oil, and bread. Three courses followed, a tasty salad, a main dish, and panna cotta for dessert, which is among my favorite desserts of all time! At the end, we sipped coffees and enjoyed the slow leisurely Italian style lunch, which had Jenn almost nodding off for a siesta by the end! At that point, none of us were quite sure how we would continue another two to three hours on the bike!
I am a Turtle! AKA How to Bike Uphill
Full from lunch, we could only hope that Jillian’s assurance of a gentle ride would bear out. She had assured us that we would have time to digest before hitting the hardest part of the bike ride — two kilometers up a steep hill. With the promise of a leisurely ride, our group spaced out and began exploring independently. There is so much beauty in nature, and it was charming to pedal through the rolling hills and muted-green landscape. The fresh air blowing over my skin on the breeze. I found my own groove and then got lost in the experience of biking through the countryside and taking in all the sights and smells.
Eventually, however, we reached the hill. I don’t enjoy steep inclines, it makes my lungs burn no matter how fit I am. But the hill had to be conquered, so I applied the same strategy I have used in long distance hikes: “Be the turtle.” As the adage says, slow and steady wins the race and there no prize waiting for the first one up the hill. Which is never me. Instead, I am a turtle. This mantra got me up the 3,200 meters of my Himalayan trek, and it served me well here too. With only the briefest pause for walking, which allowed me a moment to even out my breath, I pedaled to the top and hydrated in a tiny gazebo while the others made the steep climb.
Oh Gelato, How I Love Thee
Once the group reassembled at the top of the hill, Jillian gave us one last surprise — a trip to the gelatería! We were all thrilled with the prospect of creamy, ice-cold gelato after the long, hot bike ride.
After our tasty treat, we had just a breezy, ten-minute bike ride back to the bike shop. From there, they drove us back to town. The owner of the property — a dashing older Italian man with very little English — gave the three of us a lift back to town because the van was too full to hold the whole group. We pulled out of the driveway in his beautiful Mercedes, all of the windows down, hair blowing in the breeze and he pumped Guns and Roses until it pulsed through the car. Then we flew through the winding roads on our way back into town. Kinda perfect.
Quick Tips: Traveling in Tuscany
Where: The Dany House Hostel in Florence is highly ranked and a good option for a base in the city. I used Florence as my gateway to exploring Tuscany. But there are other hostels and guesthouses actually within the Tuscan countryside, and you could do a search using the map feature to discover one right among the rolling hills!
Plan: We used a guidebook Jenn had brought from the States; the Rick Steves Florence & Tuscany has a good deal of history and walking tours and is perfect if you’re headed just to the Florence and Tuscany region, otherwise I prefer the general Rick Steves Italy. Although the Lonely Planet is the best for budget travelers, usually, the European guides form Rick Steves have better details for tours and culture and such.
When: It’s always a good time to go to Italy! Tuscany was gorgeous in the spring, and I’ve also traveled there in late June, and I loved baking in the warm heat with a glass of wine and pretty vineyards.
How: The bike tour I used is no longer in operation, so your best bet is asking at your guesthouse or reading reviews on TripAdvisor. They are all fairly similar, but some will pick you up from your hotel, and give a few little extras (more wine and gelato!), so shop around.