Along with the Via Francigena, the Volterrana is one of Tuscany’s oldest roads. It unfolds through the hills of the Val di Pesa and the Valdelsa, round strongholds and sweeping bends. Coming back from a pleasant day at the beach, the Volterrana offers – not only to Florentines – a perfect, fairly traffic-free alternative return journey.
Set your GPS for: Volterra, Vicarello, Gambassi Terme, Castelfiorentino, Montespertoli, Cerbaia, Galluzzo.
Volterra’s roots extend down through three thousand years of history. This ever-enduring city of art is embraced by a severe circuit of walls and some imposing gateways (such as Porta dell’Arco and Porta Diana), old fortress-houses (Palazzo dei Priori), opulent churches like the Duomo and museums of great prestige: the Etruscan museum, the civic museum and the Pinacoteca. Walking through the historic centre is like walking through time. And when it’s time for lunch, Volterra brings the best of Tuscan cuisine to the table.
But the SP15 calls you back to the road. The route starts off by launching into a tasty hairpin bend, which looks over the church of San Giulio and San Clemente in the Le Balze locality. Then you drop down into the valley, with olive and cypress trees flanking your way. You cruise on, remembering to brake at a couple of bends: pass the SR4398 and, once on the SP4, you start climbing again and regain the panoramic views. 53 kilometres in, the province of Pisa cedes to the province of Florence. You find yourself among the hills and Mediterranean shrub of a welcoming, restorative landscape, where you can happily take a break.
If you have time when you reach the SP62, flick your indicators on right for the historic gem of San Gimignano; the handlebars, however, you point left. You cut through the vineyards of Chianti DOCG, climbing through the gears until you come to Gambassi Terme and its health-giving hot waters. Put the stand down, maybe give it a top-up of petrol, and visit the parish church of Santa Maria Assunta in the neighbouring hamlet of Chianni. This church is dedicated to the Madonna del Buon Viaggio, or Our Lady of Safe Travel.
Near Montaione, a neighbouring village that produces high-quality wine and olive oil, stands the Jerusalem of Italy, one of the most famous cult sites in the whole country. There is no more excitement until you reach Castelfiorentino, which sits on a hill along the ancient Via Francigena: its Benozzo Gozzoli Museum, not far from the railway station, is worth a visit.
Back in the saddle, you come to a junction with the SS429. From here you should head in the direction of upper Certaldo, which in July becomes home to the Mercantia, an international festival of travelling theatre. After some exhilaratingly fast ups-and-downs you catch sight of Montespertoli, known as a capital of wine production. Once out of the town, a long, rounded curve precedes a junction, where you turn right for Poppiano and the Guicciardini castle.
The journey winds on, bend by bend, castle after castle, until Montegufoni appears: an old dwelling and an appealing agriturismo farmstay. Montagnana, meanwhile, has different things to recommend it: a radar gun to measure your top speed, and a frittelle festival in April. A few more twists and turns through the olive groves and you are soon at Cerbaia. Now the SP4 narrows, enters the woods, wags rhythmically from side to side and then suddenly squeezes itself into a bottleneck in order to cross a bridge. A road lined with pine trees encourages you to drop down into lower gears, and even allow yourself a schiacciata break at the gates of Chiesanova. One final turnoff for the parish church of Sant’Alessandro in Giogoli, and from then on be prepared for a succession of demanding bends that writhe downwards towards Galluzzo, affording a view of the monastic charterhouse.