2017 September 10 to 17
A Gay Travel Italy Biking Tour Through Tuscany
Italy was made for biking! Join this gay Italy bike tour and enjoy the friendly Italian people, varied landscapes, world-famous cuisine, castles and splendid palaces, Etruscan tombs, museums, and medieval villages that make each day of cycling a new adventure!
Our gay Italy bike trip begins in Tuscany, in the fabled Renaissance city of Florence, and home of Michelangelo’s “David.” The next morning, we bike into the heart of Chianti Classico, a region famous for both beautiful landscapes and superior wines. Refresh yourself in the charming hilltop towns of Impruneta, Greve in Chianti, and Panzano. Our two-night stay in Radda offers many options: Walk to the nearby medieval village of Volpaia, bicycle to the castles of Meleto and Brolio, or simply explore the historic streets of Radda itself.
From Radda we follow a winding, panoramic route through the charming walled village of Castellina, with a stop to visit ancient Etruscan tombs, on our way to San Gimignano. You’ll spot the fairy-tale skyline of this remarkably intact medieval town, sculpted with 12th-century towers, from miles away. Our layover day again offers several choices: Our recommendation is the scenic bike loop to Volterra, dramatically set against craggy hills and surrounded by walls dating from the Etruscan era.
The road from San Gimignano to Siena passes through multi-leveled Colle Val d’Elsa and the ancient walled city of Monteriggioni. Our gay travel adventure ends with two nights and a sightseeing day in Siena, considered to be one of the two jewels of Tuscany (along with Florence). Explore the maze of crooked streets, splendid palaces and museums.
After the first night in Florence, we spend two nights at each hotel, allowing time to get to know each region in more depth. Tuscany has hills, and part of the fun of this trip is riding over the hills, and enjoying the vistas as you descend the other side. On the last day of the trip, we leave our bikes behind so we can explore the medieval wonders of Siena on a guided tour.
Although primarily a biking vacation, this trip will also appeal to those looking for a wider mix of activities. On three days, you’ll bike from one Tuscan location to another. During layover days in Radda and San Gimignano, you can choose between biking, hiking, or simply relaxing in a beautiful setting. At the end of the trip, we have a guided tour of Siena, after which you can roam the streets, plazas, and historic buildings of Siena, one of Italy’s most beautiful towns.
Our starting point, Florence, is home to many of the most celebrated works of the Renaissance, including Michelangelo’s famous statue of David. You’ll need at least two or three days to see even the highlights amongst the Florentine museums and plazas. We suggest either arriving early, or staying in Italy afterwards, if your schedule allows it.
This day-by-day itinerary relates a typical week. Accommodations occasionally vary, and you always have a choice of following our suggested routes, or selecting your own biking routes.
Day 1: Florence, Gem of the Renaissance
Our trip officially starts at 6:00 pm, giving everyone a chance to arrive in Florence if coming from other destinations. Early arrivals, and those who have already been here a few days, are invited to join us at 3:00 to try out their bikes, and at 4:00 for an optional walking tour of the city.
Time permitting, our walk takes us to Piazza della Signoria, where an outdoor sculpture gallery features David himself, along with the works of Cellini, Donatello, and other Renaissance artists. We’ll walk across Ponte Vecchio (Old Bridge), built in 1345 and encrusted with jewelry shops, and stop at the massive Duomo, the ornate 14th-century cathedral that still dominates the city. And you’ll have your first opportunity of the week, but hardly the last, to savor one of Italy’s real delights: the rich, full-flavored gelatos.
After an orientation session at our hotel, we’ll go out for dinner. Tuscan cuisine is famous for its creative use of fresh, flavorful ingredients. Throughout the week we’ll find new ways to savour Tuscany’s traditional specialties.
For tonight, we know a restaurant that makes great ravioli speckled with black truffles. Follow it up with a glass of vin santo, the famous dessert wine, and cantucci biscuits. After, those who wish can explore Florence’s gay night life, while others get a head start on their sleep.
Day 2: Into Chianti Classico Country
It takes us only twenty minutesto bike across the river and on to Porta Romana, where we leave most of Florence’s traffic well behind us. Soon we’re biking along rural roads, winding past vineyards and orchards.
A picnic lunch in the tiny village of Greti gives everyone a goal for the morning: Crusty breads, thin slices of prosciutto, several types of cheese, fresh salads, and an assortment of pastries. A wedge of pecorino cheese on a slice of ripe pear seem like the perfect dessert — until the pastries appear.
From the wine town of Greve-in-Chianti we have a choice: A more direct route into Radda, or a longer westward loop that brings a couple extra hills, but also good scenery. As will happen throughout the week, some take the left fork, others go right. Nobody’s disappointed with their choice. Those taking the longer route will quickly be challenged by a long hill with a reward at the top: The forgotten village of Montefioralle, so small it doesn’t even appear on the map. This sun-drenched cluster of narrow lanes, ancient stone homes, and gnarled oak trees feels as if nothing has changed for 500 years. We wander amongst the shuttered homes of this quiet town, cool off under a fountain, then continue onward.
Both routes rejoin in Panzano, a town as pretty as Montefioralle, yet far livelier. We stop in the church, where five elderly parishioners wait as the priest dons his robe. Colorful laundry hangs from one window, and three kids watch from their own bikes, as we search for a spot on these narrow streets where we can park ours. Then, it’s on to Radda-in-Chianti.
We’ll spend two nights on the outskirts of Radda, at a site known as Castelvecchi. These old stone villas sit on a hillside amidst forest and fields. Castelvecchi’s hillside location presents the only negative thing that anyone can say about this charming spot: It’s halfway up a hill, and we’re not.
Two stops en route make the climb more bearable: A lake where we can cool off after a hot day; and tiny Santa Maria Novella, a Romanesque church built in the 12th century.
Day 3: The Castles
Two castles and an 11th-century abbey lie on today’s suggested biking loop, but the roads themselves provide an enjoyable day of cycling, their roadsides adorned with the pastel polka-dots of blue chicory flowers, and shaded by oak and cypress trees.
Castello di Brolio, owned by the same family for nearly a thousand years and still inhabited, is a sprawling estate of gardens and vineyards, with the castle rising in their midst. From the terrace, we have sweeping panoramas of the Arbia valley.
After lunch at an outdoor cafe we continue to the elegant Castello di Meleto, dating from the 12th century. After walking the grounds, we can sip their estate-made grappa, a strong grape-based liquor that can be harsh, but becomes mellow with proper aging. Now we continue biking, past vineyards of Sangiovese grapes destined to become Chianti wines, to Badia Coltibuono, an abbey founded in the 11th century, set in a picturesque woods.
We pass close to two other castles today, both on lonely hilltops, in varying degrees of decay. In many parts of the world, these sites would be surrounded by parking lots and visitors. Here in Italy, with the better-maintained castles of Brolio and Meleto nearby, you can have these ruins to yourself. But only if your legs will get you up the hills.
Radda was the capital of the Chianti League, 600 years ago, and remains a center of wine production. In fact, we usually stay outside the actual town, at Castelvecchi, one of the region’s many small wineries, and will have an opportunity to tour their cellars. Wherever we stay, the Chianti Classico wines will add to our enjoyment of Tuscany!
Biking is optional today, since we’ll have two nights at the same location. If you’d prefer a day of hiking, you can make an enjoyable loop by walking south, through vineyards and forest, to the center of Radda, where several restaurants serve lunch. From there, return northeast to Volpaia, a tiny fortress-village rooted in medieval times, just across the valley from Castelvecchi. A walk through the wooded valley then brings you back home.
Northern Italy is known not only for wine, but also for its white truffles, which — at prices of up to $100 an ounce — rank as one of the world’s most expensive foods. The shrinking of forests in Italy, Spain, France – around the Mediterranean areas most suited to truffle growth — have resulted in a dramatic shrinking of the world’s truffle supply, to only 1% of what it was a century ago, thus adding to the scarcity, price, and cult status.
Wild boar, too, live in these woods, but you won’t often see these shy creatures, who have learned to be wary of local hunters.
Day 4: The Turrets of San Gimignano
We enjoy a welcome and well-deserved descentas we roll out of Castelvecchi.
Just eight miles away lies Castellina in Chianti. From the crenellated castle here, we enjoy sweeping views of the countryside. Just outside the town lies Monte Calvario, a large mound or tumulus that covers four Etruscan tombs dating from the 4th century BC. Although tomb robbers have long since cleared out the contents, each chamber remains open. Heads slightly bowed, we can explore the long slabstone corridors.
Then comes another delightful descent, through a forest preserve. Today’s picnic is at a Romanesque chapel located in the midst of this preserve on — where else? — a hilltop. We’re headed to San Gimignano, known as “the city of beautiful towers” for its 14 towers, preserved from medieval times. The distinctive skyline is visible long before we reach this enchanting town. Some cyclists will probably want to bike directly into town to explore the narrow streets, shops, and rampart walls. Others, if there’s still energy in those legs, can bike to Sant Appiano and Linari, small, quiet, and charming Italian villages, each crowning a separate hill, that seem perfectly-preserved reminders of a simpler era. Or if you prefer to explore the area on foot, you can leave your bike at our comfortable hotel, just outside of town, and walk back.
San Gimignano positively bustles. The busloads of visitors that descend each day have disappeared, but the city still has energy far greater than its population of 7,000 would suggest.
Dinner tonight is an extravagant Tuscan delight. Maybe rabbit flavored with saffron, or sausage made of a wild boar that forgot to be shy. Vegetarians need not worry: Tuscany is equally famous for its flavorful cheeses, savory pastas, fresh produce, and aromatic herbs. For dessert, try one of the pastries, or a regional specialty: almond biscuits called cantucci, dipped into the local dessert wine known as vin santo.
Day 5: Volterra
The ancient city of Volterra,high on a windswept plateau, was an Etruscan stronghold for five centuries, but ultimately fell to the Romans in 295 BC. It houses the Guarnacci museum, with one of Italy’s finest collections of Etruscan artifacts. Stone walls 2500 years old still stand on the outskirts of Volterra. So do the columns of a Roman theater, built in the first century BC.
For those who would prefer to shop: Since Etruscan times, Volterra has been famous for its alabaster carvings, using rock quarried from a nearby hillside. Local artisans still work the translucent stone into sculptures, vases, and dishes, and Volterra’s narrow streets offer plenty of shopping opportunities. A converted 12th-century convent houses a museum of alabaster sculptures. The ride to Volterra is an all-day affair, about three hours in each direction, leaving us a few hours in the city itself.
Anyone who prefers to hike today can follow quiet roads and mule tracks from San Gimignano, through olive orchards and vineyards. One tempting destination is Castelvecchio (no relation to the Castelvecchi near Radda), once a sprawling castle and home to at least a hundred people, now evocative ruins on a lonely spar of rock south of the town.
Whether you spend your time hiking or biking, you’ll build up an appetite. Carnivores can go nuts tonight: One Tuscan specialty is bistecca alla fiorentina (Florentine steak). This tender T-bone steak, grilled and served with lemon and fresh herbs, is usually split between two people — which means they still get roughly a pound apiece.
And as long as we’re tossing those diets out the window: San Gimignano and Volterra, like most towns in Italy, have superb gelato shops. According to legend, the Romans invented ice cream, by mixing snow with berry juices. Modern day Italians have perfected the technique. Today, savor the rich chocolate and hazelnut flavors. Tomorrow, try the robust fruit flavors: pungent lemon, rich strawberry, and a more subtle pear.
Day 6: Two Hilltops
A graceful, solitary umbrella pine adorns the skyline as we begin our descent from San Gimignano for our last full day of biking. Further along, the horizon is broken by a row of tall cypress trees. Today’s biking route takes us along the Elsa river valley, with stops at two old villages, both perched on hilltops, yet utterly different.
High in the village of Colle di Val d’Elsa, surrounded by 16th-century walls and iron gates, lie the medieval mansions, arches, towers, and cathedral of the old town, known as Colle Alta. Today the graceful stone buildings host modern glassworkers, who create sparkling crystal goblets and brilliant glass flowers. A dozen workshops and display rooms line the streets, each with their own specialties.
Farther along our route comes the fortified hilltop town of Monteriggioni. Encircled by a thick well-preserved stone wall and 14 towers, Monteriggioni was built by Siena in 1203 as one of their defenses — ultimately unsuccessful — against rival Florence. Today, it presents a dramatic silhouette against the blue Tuscan sky. Two restaurants provide an excuse to linger within these walls. We propose bruschetta, thin-sliced Italian bread topped with fresh chopped tomatoes, then pasta with truffle sauce, melon and prosciutto, and a fresh salad.
Now just another hour of biking takes us to Siena, Florence’s long-time rival, and indisputably one of Italy’s most beautiful cities. Our hotel for the next two nights is near the heart of the city.
Day 7: Siena, frozen in time
Five centuries ago, Siena and Florence were deadly enemies. When Florence finally defeated its rival, the Florentines banned new buildings in Siena. That defeat, in certain ways, became a victory. Today Florence is larger; it’s wealthier; and it has more famous works of art. But many visitors find that Siena, frozen in time, has a mystery and a soul unmatched in Italy. This morning, we offer a guided walking tour of Siena, then the afternoon is free for you to explore this magical city on your own.
Built on seven hills (or three, or four — like the towers of San Gimignano, it all depends on your definitions), crunched within the old city walls, Siena is a city of narrow, shadowed streets and towering ochre buildings that gave their name to the color burnt Sienna. Any visitor soon becomes aware of Siena’s three most famous features: A cathedral, a plaza, and a horse race.
Work began on the Duomo, the elegant marble cathedral, in 1136, but was not completed until another nine generations had passed. An alert visitor today can trace the architectural styles of that era, as the rounded Romanesque arches at the bottom give way to Gothic at the top.
The fan-shaped Piazza del Campo, considered by many to be the most beautiful public space in the world, is Siena’s heart. Open only to pedestrians, the plaza pulses with human activity: Restaurants and vendors, tourists and businessmen, friends and lovers, all pass through as they circulate around the city. After a week of biking, it should be a simple matter to climb the 505 steps to the top of the Torre del Mangia, high above the plaza, and look at the striped black-and-white marble columns of the nearby Duomo.
Twice a year, in July and August, this plaza hosts the celebrated Palio: A horse race where the city’s close-knit neighborhoods compete in a no-holds-barred competition, as bareback riders circle the plaza three times. The first horse to cross the finish line — with or without the jockey — is crowned the winner, and for weeks before and after the Palio, Siena’s streets come alive with flag-waving pageantry, festive parades, and costumed celebrations of the winning neighborhood.
Tonight’s dinner is a festive affair during which we get one last chance to enjoy some of our new favorite Tuscan dishes, and also try some new delicacies. How about pasta with a sauce of walnuts and garlic? Or a delicate chicken dish with shavings of white truffles.
Then, we toast a week that seems to have gone by too fast, and new friendships, before a final celebration of the flavors of Tuscany.
Day 8: Departure Day
The hardest thing about our trips is saying goodbye to new friends, and to a charming region of Italy.
Price includes: Comfortable hotels each night; Services of two tour guides; Use of 21-speed hybrid bike; All breakfasts, 2 lunches, and 5 dinners, with wine included; Five biking days, and a sightseeing day in Siena; Transportation to get luggage (and tired riders!) to destinations; A wine-tasting; Map of Tuscany and detailed routes. HE Travel provides complimentary Medical & Evacuation Insurance for every US Resident on our group tours who does not have other coverage.
Not included: Travel to Florence and from Siena; 4 lunches; 2 dinners; Souvenirs, snacks, admissions; Gratuities for guides.
Optional Tour Choices:
$920 Single Supplement (for solo travelers who wish to enjoy a private bedroom and bathroom)
$600 Single Supplement (most but not all nights)
$100 Dining and Walking Tour of Florence on Day 1.
“This trip combines outdoor exercise and culinary excellence. It is well planned and executed with perfectly selected accommodations and guides and hosts in every city/town who make you feel welcomed and comfortable. Although my legs smiled when we said goodbye to the bikes, my heart was saddened…I truly did not want it to end!” — Brian P., Trinidad and Tobago
“Along with the wine and the beautiful Tuscan scenery, the new friends I met made for the best adventure.” — C. Burks, Sarasota, FL
“I had high expectations going into the trip and [HE Travel] exceeded every one of them. This trip has spoiled me for all future vacations, because the bar has been raised so high.”— Jeff Welshans, Harrisburg, PA
“Flavors of Tuscany featured all the things I’ve come to love about [HE Travel]: great sights, intimate views, action-filled days, and great people. The trips are a good value for the money.”— Dane d’Alessandro, San Francisco, CA
Tuscany has hills! This is a trip of moderate difficulty, for cyclists who can comfortably bike 35 to 40 miles a day over rolling terrain, and who have basic map-reading skills.
We typically supply 21- or 27-speed hybrid bikes. We find them ideally suited for cycling trips of this sort. They have upright (rather than dropped) handlebars, and a low “granny” gear for hills. The brand and model can change from one location or season to another, and we cannot promise a brand name in advance.
We also supply a lock, spare tube and patch kit, and a handlebar bag or back rack for carrying a few small items.
The seats on most bikes we use are a standard size, neither the narrow racing seat nor the wide touring seat. Therefore we recommend medium-sized gel seat covers if you wish to bring one along.
This tour starts in Florence and ends in Siena, Italy. Each bike trip officially starts at 6:00 p.m. on the starting date given on our schedule and trip overview. We’ll have a reception and briefing, followed by dinner. For those who arrive early, we offer an optional walking tour of town (along with a chance to meet other early arrivals). Finally, when our guides’ schedule allows, you can give your bike a test ride at 3:00. On arrival at the hotel, please look for our sign in the lobby giving details.
Each trip ends after breakfast. There are no group activities on that day, so if you have tight travel connections, you can get up and leave as early as you wish. When your schedule allows it, you’ll probably want to spend some time sightseeing in town, with others from the trip, before departing.
Our “7-day” trip thus consists of 6 full days and two partial days. Some companies promote a trip of this length as being 8 days since it includes pieces of 8 different days. We feel it’s more accurate to refer to this as 7 days.
Florence has an international airport with flights to London, Paris, and Frankfurt. If you can get a good fare to one of these cities, then connect to Florence, that may be your cheapest and most convenient choice.
Pisa Airport (PSA), which is about 60 miles west of Florence, is treated as the same “city” in airline computers, and you can take a bus from Pisa Airport directly to the Florence train station. They depart about every 90 minutes and cost 10-15 euros. You could also visit the Leaning Tower and then take a train to Florence.
Or, there’s good train service into Florence from Milan, Rome, Geneva, and many major European cities. Note: Milan has 2 airports. Both have bus transfers into town, but the smaller Linate airport offers much easier access to the city and train station; from the international airport, Malpensa (MXP), it will take longer.
From Siena, where we end, you can make train connections to your final destination. Or you can take a bus back to Florence.
You can get up-to-date railroad schedules, as well as information about the many different railpasses available for Europe, from the RailEurope website. For smaller rail lines, you may also need to check the website for Italy (Trenitalia).
Because this trip ends in Siena, which does not have an airport, and is not on the high-speed rail line, it is difficult to get to an airport early enough to fly home on the last day of the trip. Therefore, we strongly recommend departing after breakfast on the last day, then taking a leisurely trip to the city you are departing from, and maybe even staying a couple of days to explore your destination, such as Florence, Rome, or Milan.
If you want to travel from Siena to Florence at the end of our tour, the bus runs more frequently than the train and is faster. It also has the advantage that the bus station is near the center of Siena, while the train station is 2 km away from the city center.
The bus operator is called SITA, and buses run between Siena and Florence every 30 minutes during the day. Select a bus that says “Firenze Rapida” (Florence is Firenze in Italian). The Rapida buses take about 1 hour, 10 minutes to reach Florence, while the FIRENZE DIRETTA buses make more stops and take one and a half hours or longer. The cost is Euro 6.50.
If you go by bus, you can buy your ticket in any tobacco store, newspaper stand or any shop that has on display the sticker Tra.in
The terminal for the bus from Siena is at Florence’s main Santa Maria Novella train station (Firenze SMN). To get to the airport, change to a VolaInBus run by the Florence bus company ATAF to get from downtown Florence to the airport. It’s about a 20 minute ride, and there is frequent service.
If you prefer to take the train, you can take Siena city bus #17 from Piazza del Sale to Siena train station, about 2 km from the city center. The hourly trains depart Siena at 18 minutes after the hour most of the day (except 10:18 am).
And if in doubt, ask our bike guides what they recommend. They can certainly tell you how to get to the bus or train station for your onward travel.
For selected trips, including cruises, we will charge half the single supplement if you request a roommate but we can’t match you with someone.
The support van and driver fill several functions: Carrying your luggage to the next hotel; shopping and setting up a picnic lunch on selected days; and helping cyclists who have encountered unexpected problems, be it fatigue, a mechanical failure, or one too many pastries at lunch.
The specific van schedule varies day to day, based on a number of factors: the route, whether there’s a picnic that day, and whether riders are all likely to be on the same road, or off on different options. Typically, the driver stays with or behind most of the group until about lunchtime (or earlier, if there’s a picnic to set up), then drives ahead to deliver luggage into your rooms.
If most of the group is likely to be on the same road, the driver may then circle back to see if anyone needs the van. However, we suggest various optional routes each day, and many people on our trips like to explore independently. That means cyclists may be spread out over many miles, and over several routes. In most cases, we find that a cyclist who needs help will get it fastest by calling the driver at the hotel or calling their cell phone, rather than waiting for the van to patrol all the spots where cyclists could be riding.
We’ll go over the details in more depth at the briefing when the trip starts. On paper (or on a computer screen) the system can seem uncertain because so many variables are involved. In practice, it works out well. There are many weeks when no one ever needs the van. If you do need assistance, generally you’re able to get to a cafe or other comfortable spot while you wait for help.
No. Tuscany’s hills will be discouraging for anyone without good cycling experience.
A perfect trip for couples with different levels of cycling experience is The Provencal. It includes two layover stops (when biking is optional, as we don’t change hotels), during which your partner can shop, hike, or go sightseeing, while you loop through the hilltop towns of the Luberons. On the other days of this trip, our “official” route from one hotel to the next is fairly short, but (as with all our bike trips) we’ve planned enjoyable longer options for those who want more biking.
Our two Loire Valley trips are also ideal for less experienced cyclists, yet offer longer route options and other activities for those keeping a faster pace: See Big Loire Little Loir and Valley of the Chateaux for details.
Tuscany is known for its generally mild, Mediterranean climate. Many people will find July and August to be too hot for active vacations such as biking and hiking, but in May, June, and September, you can expect weather that’s comfortably warm, without being too hot. (But don’t be surprised if the temperatures hit the high 70’s once or twice.)
While you should always be prepared for rain, and it’s not uncommon to have a light rain for half a day during the course of a week, it’s unlikely that heavy rain will greatly interfere with outdoor activities between late April and late September. Precipitation increases in October, and reaches its peak in November and December.
Somewhere around the 10th to 8th centuries BC, the people known as Etruscans settled in what is now northern Italy. Some historians believe they sailed over from Asia Minor; others that they descended from a tribe in northern Italy.
For half a millennium, the Etruscans developed their own art, culture, weapons, and political systems. Then they lost out to the growing power of Rome. The Etruscans vanished as a civilization, but many of their religious customs and architectural styles were adopted by the Romans.
Most Etruscan buildings apparently were made of wood, and did not survive. But some of their cities, such as Volterra, Cortona, and Chiusi, live on. The Etruscans developed elaborate burial rituals, with massive stone tombs and burial chambers. Although robbers have long ago looted these tombs, we can still walk inside them. And, of course, the Etruscans survive in the present-day name for the region where they lived: Tuscany.
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