Ciao bella Toscana: One last evening in the cycling heartland of Tuscany

The Giro d'Italia leaves for Umbria, and so do GCN. On our last evening, we got to know the local brewers in one of cycling's heartlands

Clock17:00, Friday 10th May 2024
The Tuscan hills, taken from the finish town Rapolano Terme

© GCN

The Tuscan hills, taken from the finish town Rapolano Terme

Today, the Giro d’Italia began in the region of Umbria, leaving Tuscany behind. The race was in the region for just a day and a half, but we were sad to leave. And so, after a long day reporting on the Giro, we spent an evening in the beautiful hilltop town of Rapolano Terme revelling in Tuscan cuisine. We expected wine and pasta, but by complete chance, we met a group of small-scale local brewers, who were keen to tell us that Tuscany is a hotbed for craft beer.

The Giro entered Tuscany half way through stage 5, and stayed within the region right through stage 6. That might not seem like long, but it was enough time for us to develop a fondness for the area. In fact, I think I loved Tuscany before I’d even seen it.

The rolling landscape is peppered with medieval villages and ancient vineyard villas. It's home to chianti, a famous red wine with a light body and savoury flavour. It is said to be the cradle of the Renaissance, and the works of Giotto, Donatello and Brunelleschi hang in museums in Florence and Siena.

More to the point, the roads are fantastic, and cyclists, often wearing a casquette, glide along them at speed. Somehow, Italians can even make lycra look stylish, especially when they are freewheeling through a town square, searching for a cafe.

Cycling here must be a joy; the hills roll, rather than bite. This is the region of the famous white gravel roads of the Strade Bianche. This year, they were in the Giro too, and they are fast becoming one of the true cycling heartlands — something to be sought out, as the cobbles of northern France are.

Read more: The timeless inner sanctum: Inside the Paris-Roubaix showers

But every incredible sight, sound and taste here is amplified by the power of the name itself. Tuscany. Toscana. To me, that name captures that dream of ‘real Italy’. It's a bit like how ketchup tastes better when it’s in a Heinz bottle.

And wandering around Rapolano Terme, the medieval hilltop town that was the finish for stage 7, it felt like I had found ‘real Italy’ in Tuscany. I took some photographs while I waited for GCN's George Poole, who was writing reports from the day’s racing from the press room. I decided we needed an evening of Tuscany: just a few more hours of culture, countryside and cuisine.

Much later on, I retrieved George from the press room. By this time, everyone else had gone home, and the event organisers had started packing away around him, as he was still frantically tapping away at his keyboard.

We wandered through the town in pursuit of food, but got sidelined by the last glimpses of the pink sunset, which looked quite beautiful from the raised platform of the town.

Built into the town’s ancient walls was a small trattoria, overlooking that spectacular view of the sun setting over the countryside. We received a warm welcome from the owner, who insisted we looked like we needed a beer — probably not far from the truth. A bowl of pasta wouldn’t go amiss either.

When the beers arrived, they came with two Italians, a man and a woman. The host explained that these two people, Gloria and Antonio, were local brewers, and we were drinking their produce. Apparently, they were at the bar enjoying a swift half, and after hearing someone had ordered their beers, they had come over to say hello.

They each pointed out into the darkening spread of rolling countryside.

“Mine is there,” said Gloria, pointing to an indiscernible spot in the distance. She grows her barley and produces her beers in the same hills as chianti wine. I was drinking her IPA. “His is here,” she says, pointing much closer. George had been enjoying Antonio’s blonde, grown and brewed 10km away.

A few minutes later, a third brewer came over. Francesco was a local brewer too — I wondered if he minded that we hadn’t ordered anything produced on his farm. Perhaps not, because he was very keen to explain the placement and ownership of the five breweries in this region, most of which were within sight of this terrace on a clear day.

We asked if they were rivals.

“No no no,” they insisted. “This would be like the war of the poor,” joked Gloria — given the small size of Tuscany, there isn’t much of a beer market to scrap over, apparently. And besides, their organic craft beers are just one part of what each producer makes. In this region, farms are diverse. They produce cereals, wine, fruit — apart from the major wine producers, few are mono-crops. In that context, beer is a common ground, not a competition.

I didn’t expect to find a thriving craft beer scene in Tuscany, but I was glad to find a group of people who were passionate about what they produced.

After our lengthy conversation dwindled, Francesco asserted proudly: “I am the only Tuscan brewer here.”

“Ah yes,” conceded Gloria with a roll of the eyes, “I’m from Bologna. He’s from Bergamo,” gesturing to Antonio.

Low food mileage is valued here, but true heritage tops all.

After finishing our truffle pasta and crusta (followed by a delicious Torta della Nonna) we left Tuscany and entered Umbria, a region that we are told has its own beautiful landscape and delicious cuisine. Even so, it will have to be damn good to beat Tuscany, that somehow managed to fulfil and even surpass that fantasy of ‘real Italy’.

For everything you need to know about the 2024 Giro d'Italia, from the history of the race to this year's route and start list, be sure to check out our dedicated race hub.

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