Early, but not too early in the morning, I heft the panniers onto my bike frame and check the brakes. I oil the chains and try to think of anything I might have forgotten for a night away. Once the bike is ready, a smile spreads across my face, and I make for the train station. It only takes forty minutes by train from Florence, and thanks to the regional services transporting my bike is both ecological and sustainable.
Getting off at the little station of San Miniato, I switch on my GPS navigator, and treat myself to a lavish breakfast at a nearby bar. I’m immediately on the Francigena and climbing up to San Miniato, a tarmac surface but fairly steep. This is not any pedestrian road, but a pilgrimage route, where joy and fatigue have always gone hand in hand, inseparable.
The view from the hilltown over the Fucecchio plain is breathtaking. I cross the main piazza and thread through the narrow streets, which run together into a road, at which point the houses end. It’s just me, the hills and my bike, mere minutes after setting off. A few kilometres on, a U-turn compels me to exchange the road for a dirt track and start the real point of my excursion. The wheels begin to squeak on the stones, the vibrations get stronger, and the handlebars become more fun to handle. One at a time, vineyards, olive groves and farmsteads which hark back to the time of Grand Duke Leopold come into view.
On this first leg of the journey, up to Gambassi, your wheels almost never touch asphalt. There is one stretch of it running through a vineyard, and in rain it becomes a little greasy, but the rest of this section is pure dirt track; paths really, but all completely manageable. There’s one portion, which I won’t locate precisely lest I ruin the surprise, where I find myself in front of hills with a high concentration of clay: in spring, the dark earth brings forth flowers of every kind, and the steep slopes resemble a meadow. At the end of summer, meanwhile, the overturned fields are bare and brown and absorb all the light except that reflecting off the road, which, being made of a lighter, more compacted earth, is visible among the dunes. The route is lined with abandoned houses, which somehow makes this journey even more introspective, and finally I can feel the silence that I’ve been longing for, impossible to find in the city.
The dirt track comes to an end and a length of asphalt takes us towards Gambassi Terme, via the Pieve di Santa Maria a Chianni and the Ostello Sigerico. We have to scale one more hill before we arrive, but I strongly recommend stopping to have a look at this enchanting place. The structure of the Ostello, apparently very old, has an internal courtyard which leads into a garden studded with ancient olive groves. Here you have a stunning view of the village of Gambassi.
The managers of the Ostello are hospitable people, and you can charge your batteries here if you’re travelling by E-bike, or have a coffee and recharge yourself after the climb. Back in the saddle, we come to the church of San Jacopo and Santo Stefano, which I highlight for two reasons. Firstly, you can see how the building has been restructured over the centuries, its Romanesque origins being replaced by a nineteenth-century pastiche of medieval glory. And secondly, in front of this church I ate one of the best porchetta schiacciatas that I’ve had on my various Tuscan trips. I made a mental note to tell you about it, because by the time you arrive at this church your greatest desire in the world is to munch on something.