Tuscan hilltops take your breath away

Suzanne MorphetThe West Australian
The historic town of Castelvecchio is at the top of a winding mountain road. Few people live here today.
Camera IconThe historic town of Castelvecchio is at the top of a winding mountain road. Few people live here today. Credit: Suzanne Morphet

Perspiring and with my heart pounding as I pedal up a steep gravel road, I’m having second thoughts about the wisdom of cycling in Tuscany. It’s clear now that those hilltop towns that look so inviting in travel brochures were built for a reason — to keep people away.

But as the views grow, my doubts recede, and after making the final push to the medieval town of Montecarlo, I soon forget any discomfort. Climbing the tower of the town’s 13th century fortress on foot, we see the greenhouses of Pescia far below, filled with flowers, olive and lemon trees, that we cycled past an hour earlier.

Tuscany has long been known for its enticing landscapes as well as its Renaissance art and architecture, and memorable food and wine, but now it’s making a name for itself as an adventure destination too.

Did you know that you can ride horseback with “butteri” the cowboys of Italy — in the marshlands in the southern part of Tuscany? Or go tandem paragliding with a pro in Garfagnana in the north-western corner of the region? Zip-lines are everywhere these days, and adrenaline-lovers can find them here too, along with whitewater rafting and canyoning in Appennino Tosco-Emiliano National Park, a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve.

Contemplating all these possibilities, I settle on a bike tour, partly because Tuscany’s quiet back roads are well suited to cycling, and partly to prove to myself that turning 60 a month earlier isn’t a sign of impending decrepitude.

Based in the spa town of Montecatini Terme, four of us set off each day, guided by a local who knows every option for reaching a given destination, then lets us decide the route we prefer.

After catching our breath at the top of Montecarlo the first day, we discover how beautifully it’s been preserved. Narrow streets are lined with shuttered buildings in pastel shades of orange and red. Down one lane we admire one of the smallest theatres in Italy — Teatro dei Rassicurati — an intimate space that Italy’s celebrated opera composer Giacomo Puccini once frequented.

Setting off again, we coast down a winding road — this is more like it — past terraced vineyards and stone farmhouses. It’s a gorgeous October day, unseasonably warm and we relish the sun and the breeze. We stop to admire an oak tree that’s so old it would already have been mature when Michelangelo carved David at the beginning of the 16th century in nearby Florence.

Spectacular in its own right, the tree has gained fame as the setting for the murder scene in The Adventures of Pinocchio. Author Carlo Collodi is also said to have written several chapters of the book while sitting under the tree’s magnificent branches.

Collodi lived in the nearby town of Collodi — hence his pen-name — and that’s where we head next. Pinocchio Park, opened in 1956, isn’t in the same league as today’s theme parks, but we enjoy the baroque garden and modern butterfly garden at Villa Garzoni, where Collodi’s mother worked as a housekeeper in the 19th century.

By the end of the day we’ve cycled 29km, a cinch for a serious cyclist, but the most I’ve ever biked in a single day. As we head to the nearest train station to ride the rails the rest of the way back to Montecatini before dark, Tuscany’s hills are suddenly feeling surmountable.

The following days we explore more of the surrounding countryside and villages, stopping often to photograph the picture-perfect landscapes that roll past; farm fields with the last of the season’s hay crop, narrow roads lined with cypress trees, olive orchards laden with ripe fruit.

But we see unexpected scenes too. The biggest marshland in Italy lies just outside Montecatini Terme. Over the centuries Fucecchio has been drained and contained with canals and port systems, but it still spans 1800ha and is an important wildlife sanctuary. More than 200 species of birds live here, including cranes, storks and seven species of heron. Up until a century ago, small boats — barchinos — were used to carry goods from the Arno River. Today, visitors can take a tour of the marshland by barchino.

Somehow, it escaped my attention on earlier visits that the region is blessed with hot springs. Our home base of Montecatini Terme was built as a spa resort, but there are other spas here too. One afternoon, after visiting the hill town of Vinci — birthplace of Leonardo — and touring the Leonardo Museum (with dozens of machines modelled on his detailed drawings), we pedal to the Grotta Giusti Spa in Monsummano Terme.

Giuseppe Verdi called this ancient grotto the eighth wonder of the world. I suspect Verdi wasn’t all that well travelled, but the steamy cave, studded with stalactites and stalagmites, is certainly inviting, particularly ‘Hell’ (the hottest section) where we gladly recline in chairs and inhale the hot, humid air. Later, we cool off in the resort’s outdoor thermal pool.

Oddly perhaps, our toughest day is also my favourite. Slowly but steadily, we climb for 10km to the mountaintop village of Castelvecchio, one of 10 castella — villages with houses made of typical Italian sandstone. The gurgling Pescia River, dotted with old paper mills, keeps us company for much of the way.

These villages are largely abandoned and not even tourists visit, although there’s plenty to recommend them. In Castelvecchio we explore two historic churches, a museum of traditional tools, and a grotto with religious murals.

In the village of Sorana, where the prized Sorana bean grows, we stop for a well-deserved lunch. Feasting on warm crostini smothered in paper-thin slices of lardo (pork fat aged in marble) and mounded with beans, we toast our choice of destinations with one of the region’s best wines.

Sated, I climb back on my bike with a smile knowing it’s all downhill from here.

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