This is Val di Merse Words/images: Paolo Ciaberta

More than a dozen towns and villages, including Radicondoli, Monticiano and Sovicille, are touched by the Grand Tour della Val di Merse, places from a distant past rich in history and culture. The first sensation you get when cycling in this area of Tuscany is that of being out of time, catapulted into an ancient era of stone villages, churches, castles and abbeys that emerge like islands in a sea of green. Fortunately, there are still places like this that give the pleasure of having to be discovered and, in some ways, conquered.

The Val di Merse is perhaps the most understated of the areas near Siena, but what it can offer in terms of nature, art and culture is invaluable. It provides a pedal journey far from the major tourist flows of Tuscany, far from built-up areas and vehicular traffic. The valley extends to the southwest of Siena past the dense wooded chain of the Montagnola. It’s like a green lung that combines the Mediterranean landscapes and scents of the Maremma with those of Siena and the Val d’Orcia, a territory that thanks to its tranquility and grace has always attracted thinkers, hermits and peaceful travelers.

About 90 percent of the Grand Tour’s itinerary is on back roads, which we chose to navigate over several days to fully enjoy the pleasure of a journey based on slowness and discovery. The changeable landscape has great variety in a dense network of secondary roads, which are like natural cycle paths immersed in silence where the contact with nature becomes spiritual, and where the crunch of autumn leaves on the ground and our rhythmic breathing break the silence of sweet landscapes that seem designed by Renaissance artists. The territory’s routes vary considerably, mixing asphalt roads with dirt paths in terrain made up of steep climbs that are never excessively long.

The Val di Merse tour was realized by a magnificent group called the Terre di Casole Bike Hub, whose specialized guides are fine connoisseurs of the area. More than ever, these passionate professionals are necessary in discovering the secret beauties of the valley. The entire route is about 230 kilometers long, half on dirt, the rest on asphalt, but always on low-traffic roads. The total elevation difference is an impressive 4,500 meters (almost 15,000 feet) in what we Italians call mangia e bevi (a territory of continuous ups and downs) that has its biggest hills in the eastern part of the valley. The unspoiled nature has Mediterranean scents arriving from the nearby coast; and, on clear days, it’s possible to see the blue horizon of the Tyrrhenian Sea. The route here becomes a little more challenging, both for the gradients and the road surfaces, characteristics that make the area particularly wild. An essential stop is the Abbey of San Galgano, an outstanding example of the Gothic-Cistercian style, a place steeped in mysticism that seduces the visitor.

Moving onward, the hills soften and the woods merge to vineyards, cultivated fields and meadows. The villages enchant like silent guardians of authentic Tuscan culture: everyday life, food, wine, arts and crafts. But the Val di Merse is also a territory that contains large amounts of biodiversity, with several natural reserves protecting a heritage of woods and wildlife. The predominant vegetation is the characteristic Mediterranean one of chestnut, oak, cork, holm oak and broom. Within the reserves are oaks that risked extinction from deforestation linked to the expansion of agricultural areas.

In an increasingly frenetic world, where everything is fast and chaotic, the slowness of our riding allows us to link harmony and intimacy with the environment we pass through. Terre di Casole Bike Hub is the first Italian bike hub and, with passion and foresight, it wants to enter the world of quality cycle tourism. This is an ideal destination for enthusiasts looking for a tailormade experience through a network of people and places placed at the service of slow and responsible cyclists.

Crossing the Val di Merse by bicycle is the best way to appreciate the treasures that this wonderful area is able to offer, a land with a pure and reserved character, immersed in a quietness that is a sincere invitation for those driven by interest and curiosity.