The areas around stations in Italy are often not the tidiest (or safest) parts of town and whilst you should keep your wits – and your wallet – about you in Florence’s Santa Maria Novella, the newly renovated piazza is a complete contrast to what many people expect. Exit from the station and go south and you enter the piazza along the side of the church. Here you can plant yourself in one of these cafes that have yet to display the ridiculous prices of their counterparts in piazze such as Signoria – where €20 for 2 cappuccini is not unheard of – and do some people watching.
The church can be entered from the north side of the Piazza and frequently there is a tiny queue here when the queue for the Duomo is very long indeed. Since the grass was added in 2010, the piazza is a much nicer place to sit out, especially in the evening. It now feels a more complete part of the city and demonstrates that although Florence was the central light of the Renaissance, the city continues to develop and adapt to the modern visitor.
Tuscany Bike Tours offer a one day bike tour in the Tuscany Hills – or Colli Fiorentini around these parts – just south of Florence in the heart of the Chianti wine region. They offered me a chance to go out with them, take some video, try some wine and olive oil, get some great views, eat a nice lunch and, oh yes, do some cycling.
The single day bike tour starts at Castello di Poppiano, a charming 12th century medieval castle which is home to a Count and Countess. Once you arrive, you are taken on a tour of the Castle and its wine making facilities and up to the amazing views from the tower. There was so much to see, I had to do a separate video which you can see here:
We started our Tuscany bike tour with helmet fitting and a short safety talk. then Keith (the Irish one), Andy (the Scottish one) and Alessio (the Italian one) handed out bicycles ensuring everyone had the right seat height and was comfortable. I had “James Bond” – each bike is named – whilst one of the girls on the trip was delighted to see that she was, erm, riding Brad Pitt. The morning’s riding started gently and took us on a breathtaking cycle through the hills of Chianti passing vineyards, villas and olive groves.
The morning flew by and before long, it was time for a lunch break. We sat down to a full lunch at a quaint family owned restaurant nestled amongst the Florentine hills. There was a choice of pasta dishes, salad, dessert and coffee. Though I had opted for the fruit rather than the ice cream, I was ready for a nap but there was no chance as we moved on to the afternoon ride. More vineyards and lovely scenery plus a hill. Ah, the one downfall of cycling in beautiful Chianti: hills. And, more specifically, going up hills. But it’s no problem as there was a man with a van waiting at the bottom! The more sporting-inclined can brave the ascent while anyone who doesn’t fancy it can put their bike on a trailer and drive up. Very civilised.
But, what goes up… So, after a well deserved (for some!) rest at the top of the climb, there is a more downhill flavour to the second part of the afternoon which was welcome. This ride includes what is, in my opinion, one of the best views from a road in Chianti; you can see it in the video.
Castello di Poppiano is a hill-top Tuscan castle that is the base for Tuscany Bike Tours. After meeting at the bike shop in the centre of town (on Via Ghibellina), we went on a short minibus ride into Tuscany. The journey out of Florence takes you through some spectacular scenery along the Via Senese – or Siena Road – which winds itself through steep curves out of the city. To the south, the town of Galuzzo quickly gives way to a rustic rural setting with olive groves and grape vines that have been grown here for centuries.
The castle itself has been a property of the Guicciardini family for almost nine centuries, a claim documented by an inheritance act of 1199. Here, amongst such a depth of lineage, they grow grapes for their own wines: Chianti (naturally) but also the much respected Vin Santo sweet wine. If you come away with just one purchase from a trip to Castello di Poppiano make it a bottle of Vin Santo.
The bike tour of Chianti starts with a guided trip around the castle: through the wine making facilities, the huge barrels containing hundreds of bottles of wine and rising through the tower, past the Vin Santo area and finishing with a 360 degree vista of the surrounding countryside. There’s plenty of time for photos (or video ) before heading down to the courtyard for some wine and the exceptional Extra Virgin Olive Oil that is produced locally.
Now, for an English guy, the idea of just oil on bread was a bit strange when I first arrived here. However two years on I can totally understand the concept and even flatter myself to believe that I can taste a difference between oils. And there is a difference: just a few months ago I went to an oil party where each person brought a different fresh pressing of the year’s olive oil. Putting the oil on low salt white bread allows the flavours to come through. The best part is that small taster bottles are available to buy for the lightweight traveler!
A short video of the lovely Tuscan town of Arezzo to accompany the slightly longer Arezzo Market video.
With the luxury of living in Tuscany comes the benefit of being able to see places through the seasons. As it is an hour or an hour and a half away (depending on the train you take), Arezzo is a great choice for a day trip from Florence and this video was taken in the height of summer. Generally, Arezzo is less of a tourist trap than some other towns in Tuscany though it has – in my opinion – more to offer than somewhere like Cortona: made famous of course by cinema. So, until they shoot a film in Arezzo, take advantage and make it one of your stops in Tuscany.
The town is arranged around main pedestrianised street running up to the church on top of the hill. With these roads and the narrower alleys that connect them, Arezzo is perfect for wandering or, if you are there at around 6pm una passeggiata – the traditional evening stroll taken in the more traditional Italian towns and cities.
Once a month, there is an antiques market in the Tuscan Town of Arezzo. Some friends of mine visited on a Sunday and commented how quiet the town was. But this is definitely not the case on market day when the streets are packed with locals and tourists. It has to be said that most are browsing and the event is mostly an excuse to go out and people watch. Oh, they love that here and Arezzo’s Antiques Market guarantees that there will be plenty of people to see!
As we went in winter, it is quite romantic as the sun goes down and the town gets dark. Like many towns in Tuscany, they have gone to some effort to light the place well. Although the Flip doesn’t do well on low light so you’ll just have to believe me! And, if you like the idea of visiting here, have a look at Arezzo in the Summer.