With the festivities behind us and fitness trackers strapped to our wrists, two cyclists reveal the perils and pleasures of biking in and around Florence. One thing’s for sure, it’s time to move!
URBAN / Shauna Kavanagh
It took me almost a year of living in Florence, navigating the historic city centre entirely by foot, before I braved the cobbled streets on my bike. Up until that point, I had always considered bike travel in Florence to be a mode of transport only for the most courageous fiorentini. These fearless folk peddle their way calmly, but with purpose, through the narrow ways of Florence, never hesitating to calculate how much of their route is contromano, as if the skeleton of the city is already etched on their brains.
The fact that I now bike everywhere in the city is not to say that I have since become one of these confident Florentines that I have long admired—I simply realised that I can sleep an extra 20 minutes in the morning if I cycle to work. Once I’d acquired a bike, bell and trusty helmet, taking my first wobbly journey in bici, I noticed that Florence opened itself up to me in ways I hadn’t anticipated; the most notable being my new-found friendship with my biciclettaio, otherwise known as my guardian angel and trusted bike advisor.
I’m not the most spatially aware person and I was once told by a friend that I was the “most tragically clumsy person” she had ever met. People who know me were understandably worried to learn that my new favoured mode of transport was a two-wheeled contraption that goes very fast and is generally quite fragile. At first, my bike needed a lot of maintenance. I punctured tires, twisted spokes and dislodged brakes. Although exasperated each time I came to him with a different bike-related issue, the kind man who owns my local bike shop remained patient and always fixed any problems arisen from whatever scrape I’d gotten myself into that week. When I crashed on my bike several months ago and managed to break so many spokes that the front wheel needed to be replaced, I’d almost given up on my dream of cycling around Florence entirely.
Slowly but surely, though, I’m making fewer visits to the bike shop. These days, I jump on my bike and weave through the streets without thinking about the route. I dodge groups of tourists as if it’s second nature and turn up to most social events with my helmet tucked under my arm (the Florentine custom of riding without one is something I will never adopt, considering my poor safety track record). If I’m without my bike, I feel as if I’m without my right arm. With it, I’m free, independent and can reach anywhere in the city within 15 minutes (being from London, this is an unimaginable luxury). As I cycle through the streets on my way to work, exchanging a friendly buongiorno with the postman, I feel myself becoming more fiorentina by the day.
UPHILL / Eibhlin Priestley
If you are anything like me, a city gal at heart balanced by a need for time in nature and a decent leg stretch, the cooler months are the perfect time to grab your bike and explore the abundance of the Florentine hills.
When I first moved to Florence I was training for a big ride across Italy but had no cycling pals, information about routes or local geography. In this predicament, I discovered the freedom of solo cycling, of setting off half-blindly with a bottle of water, a couple of snacks, my phone for a bit of Google Maps if the going got tough and a vague idea for where I wanted to get to. Nearly always I would reach my destination, enriched by soaring views, chats with locals and a sense of plucky independence. It can be daunting to break out of our comfort zone and out of the city walls, however if you’re curious of what lies beyond Gavinana, Campo di Marte or San Frediano, challenge yourself, and those pins of yours, to find out. As Ernest Hemingway wisely said, “It is by riding a bicycle that you learn the contours of a country best, since you have to sweat up the hills and coast down them.”
For this 11-kilometre uphill cycle to Villamagna give yourself an hour and a half—hybrid and road bikes recommended. Join the newly expanded red cycle lane starting at Ponte alle Grazie and head out south down the river until you get to Legnaia garden centre. Cycle through Nave a Rovezzano and turn right when the roads splits onto via delle Sentinelle. Stick on this road until it meets via del Padule. Turn right here and continue as far as viale Europa. Whilst this road is frequently used by cyclists it is a main road, so keep your wits about you. Once you get to the lights, turn left and after a couple of minutes turn right when you get to via Villamagna. This is your first opportunity for a pit stop at the delightful Alimentari Innocenti, where a coffee and piece of schiacciata all’uva, focaccia impregnated with grapes, is the perfect fuel for the climb up to Villamagna.
Suitably refreshed, turn left out of the café and head up the hill. The road from Candeli up to Villamagna is quiet with just a few cars, making it a relaxing ride; for the most part, it feels like you have the road to yourself.
Be prepared for some uphill action, but nothing too steep and there are plenty of little downhills to help you catch your breath. As the city slips away and you pedal up silent country lanes lined with olive trees, bright green ferns and cypress trees, enjoy the feeling of your mind beginning to slow down. Thirty-five minutes later, after passing through sun-dappled woods and soaring views, you’ll roll into sleepy Villamagna. Here you can plonk yourself on one of the benches in the piazza with a packed lunch, head to the circolino at the beginning of the town for another caffeine boost or treat yourself to lunch at Trattoria Antico Forno. Whatever you decide to do, it’s downhill all the way home.