Thursday, 25 April 2013

Escape to a Beautiful City (well, Florence actually!)

These days the weather in Milan is quite grim and unpredictable. One day the sun shines but then for the following 3 days it rains practically non-stop. While I don't mind riding in a bit of rain it begins to get frustrating when you get drenched for hours while apparently "doing your favourite outdoor activity!"

Feeling a little tired of the wet stuff and the greyness in Milan I made a snap decision to travel to the nearest place I could get to and back in a day at reasonable cost and where the sun would be shining. The answer was Florence.

So, at the crack of dawn I jumped on a Freccia high-speed train* to see Giotto's bell tower. By 9.30am I was pedalling through the old narrow streets of the "city of lillies". Already, just being in one of the most beautiful cities in Italy made me feel good. Not only had the sun come out but the temperature was also a good deal warmer than in Milan. I also realised quite quickly that Milan is not Florence! The well-kept streets were bordered by beautiful architecture and neat shutters characteristic of the local area. There was also a distinct lack of graffitti on the walls and dog poo in the streets. Furthermore the Florentine air was clearer and the sunlight was brighter than the usual haziness experienced in Milan.
Don't get me wrong - Milan is nice, but Florence is delightful!
By 10am I was coasting along the strada provinciale in the sun heading for the Tuscany hills. My route was a small loop that went east to Pontassieve and then around the hills and woodland of the Vallombrosa area, and then back to Florence while taking in a northern detour via Fiesole. I was looking forward to riding this route as I found out that parts of it would coincide with stage 9 of this year's Giro d'Italia (San Sepolcro-Firenze).

My intention was not to specifically ride the exact route. For me, just getting a feel for the area and experiencing a few of the local hills on this sunny day would be good enough. From Florence to Pontassieve the road was flat and fast, and provided a good warm-up. Once past the interchange at Pontassieve East the roads become quieter, narrower and started going upwards.

My work began by tackling the long climb from Pontassieve to the summit at Passo della Consuma. For me that meant more than an hour and a half of riding uphill, with just mountains, vineyards and crickets for company! I didn't see many cyclists riding up in the same direction as me. Either they were so much slower than me and much further back down the mountain, or they were alot faster than me and had left me for dust. It was probably the latter! However, I saw so many cyclists coming down in the opposite direction that this led me to believe that people had chosen to experience the climb to La Consuma in the same direction that the pros will on May 12th. Also the way that cyclists were cheering me as I ground up the hill, and they sped down the hill suggested that they may have been impressed that I was riding up to La Consuma via the harder side. I definitely had my work cut out for me!

The distance from Pontassieve to the summit was around 10 miles with a climb of around 7% in gradient. In practice the first 7 miles were harder than 7% and it was only in the last 3 miles that the false flat gave me any respite. The terrain was initially quite open with various cute guest houses and farms producing local items like olive oil and wine. Then further up, the scenery became a little more dramatic with higher mountains coming into view. The snow on the roads made me think I was travelling to another country. In fact the summit of La Consuma was no longer in the province of Florence, but in Arezzo. Despite the presence of snow, the place still felt springlike in the March sunshine.

Near the top of the climb was the right hand turn to Vallombrosa, but I chose to pass this turning and continue to the Passo in order to admire the beautiful views of the Tuscany hills. I must say the summit itself was not anything special. It was just like alot of other summits really - a mountain top with a sign covered in stickers from a multitude of cycling clubs, a car park and a cafe nearby. I guess it's only really when all the excitement of the spectators, the media, the promotional caravan and of course the peloton comes through that the place comes alive. I imagine this place will become something special on May 12th.  

Next I took the descent through the most beautiful part of the route, the Vallombrosa region. This ancient forested area with lots of beech trees and fir trees interspersed with mini rivers and streams was like a cyclist's dream with roads that constantly rolled gently downhill. These descending roads meant there was no need to pedal, and the slight slopes meant braking and cornering were easy enough so I was able to admire the spectacular woodland and rock formations around me. On a summer's day this would really be a lovely place to stop for a picnic. Vallombrosa village itself is very small but quaint. Its abbey and museum provide an attraction for quite a lot of visitors judging by the number of people stopping there. The main square is also big enough to welcome lots of spectators on the big day as the riders (hopefully) do a circuit around it before zooming onwards.

For the time being, my work on riding uphill was done as I continued to drop right down into the valley at Pontassieve while passing lots of pretty villages with various artisanal woodworking and furniture shops. On approaching Pontassieve the roads became a little bit busier and it was obvious that this was a big crossroads area for people going to different parts of Tuscany.
At this point, I was tantalisingly close to Florence and it was very tempting to take the 10-mile main road back to beautiful Firenze and get a gelato in the main square. But I quite fancied heading up to Fiesole of "A Room with a View" fame!

I therefore took a right hand turn through Compiobbi and asked a woman how far I was from Fiesole. "I'm not sure, she said - about 8km, but it will be all uphill. I hope you are ready!" I had to be. The first 2 miles were very tough and I had to grind hard out of the saddle. There were a few American tourists walking down through the nearby woodland area and they egged me on as I struggled my way up. Soon the road levelled off as I arrived at Montebeni. Thank God! This was probably the hardest climb of the day. It is not actually on the Giro d'Italia route. The stage 9 route would have been a road slightly to the east of where I was, but probably equally steep since it was in the same valley. I just hope the racers will enjoy the views!

After Ontignano the road became a false flat, and all along the way, my view to the left consisted of a beautiful panorama of the city of Florence below.
Eventually the road dropped down and I arrived in Fiesole. The last time I was in this place had been roughly 10 years ago. I remember it being a very quiet, peaceful village. It is a shame that the place has since fallen into the arms of a tourist trap and nowadays the square is littered with a stream of coaches dropping off and picking up tourists from all over the world. Still, the views of the Duomo of Florence and the surrounding churches and monuments had not changed at all. When I was last in Fiesole I went up by bus. Today, I could zoom down the switchbacks on my bike and really sense the smells, the sights and the sounds of the area as well as enjoy the process of Florence gradually revealing itself and delivering me all its splendour once I arrived in this majestic city.

Finally arriving in the main piazza in front of the Duomo just as the sun was setting, I was able to enjoy my well-deserved ice cream while watching folks taking their passeggiatta.
Alot of people who cycle in Tuscany focus on the Chianti area and places near San Gimignano and Volterra, but I would definitely recommend a jaunt around the roads in the Province of Florence. And the beauty of routes around here is that you can start and end your ride from the heart of this amazing city.

The route I took can be found here.

*Bikes can be carried on Freccia high speed trains as long as they are in a bike bag and can be placed on a large luggage rack. Once I arrived in Florence I folded up my bike bag and put it in left luggage at the train station. Bikes can be carried on regional trains unwrapped, though you may need to buy a 24hour bike ticket.

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