Published on: 2 February 2014 | Last updated: 6 January 2020
The Val di Merse is the area of Toscana to the west of Siena. It’s only a short distance from Siena, and you could easily combine this route with a visit to the city, but it feels like a world away. This is a route to go for if you want to explore an unexplored part of Toscana.
The Grand Tour goes past one of Toscana’s most iconic places, the ruined Abbazia di San Galgano, but its main attraction is the countryside and the cycling - but there are also some attractive and interesting villages to visit along the way.
The route is a total of 159 kilometres long. It mainly follows quiet local roads - at some points extremely quiet - on one section I went for an hour without seeing a car. The total climbing is about 2500 metres, there are a couple of short sharp climbs at the southern end of the route.
Officially, the tour starts at Sovicille and goes anti-clockwise. I did a long section of it heading clockwise and this seemed to work fine, but it is only signed in one direction.
The route is the result of an initiative by local cyclists (the Gruppo Ciclistico Val di Merse) who planned the route and persuaded the local authorities to put up the signs.
An extended version of the Grand Tour is also used as the course for a one-day Audax race. Cycle tourists will probably want to take the route over two or three days. There are three campsites along the route, but these are all concentrated at the southern end of the route, other accommodation is available but isn’t as plentiful as it is in the parts of Toscana that are more on the tourist track.
Bear in mind that the tranquillity comes at a price - there are sections of the route where services like shops and bars are few and far between.
The SS223 (E78)
The Strada Statale 223 runs between Siena and Grosseto and through this area. It is in the process of being upgraded to a dual carriageway superstrada. At the moment a long section out of Siena is off-limits to bikes and it is very likely that as the rest of the superstrada is completed, bikes will be banned. Unfortunately I’ve no way of staying exactly which sections are off-limits as this is likely to change. Google Streetview is no help as the images are a couple of years old.
If you stick to the tour route you will of course be fine.
Map and altitude profile
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Variants and options
The official version includes 12 kilometres of unsurfaced road and track - including a section of the Eroica - although these can be avoided. I’ve suggested a couple of variations if you want to avoid the sections of sterrata.
- ━━━━━ Main route: section on surfaced road
- ━━━━━ Main route: section on unsurfaced road
- ━━━━━ variants
You could combine this route with the excellent Grand Tour della Maremma cycle route by taking the very scenic road through Roccastrada. Here’s a map showing the two routes and the links between them: show map in overlay show map in new window.
You could also incorporate sections of the route into a longer distance through route - for example heading south from Siena via Murlo and Montalcino.
The Grand tour’s website has a selection of day routes in the area. At the moment the route descriptions are only in Italian, but there are maps to download. The book The Val di Merse by Bicycle includes descriptions of a number of day-rides.
Route description in more detail
From Sovicille to the Abbazia di San Galgano
North from Sovicille after Trecciano you come to a turning on the right with the first section of sterrata (3.4 kms and about 200 metres of climbing). I haven’t done this section of the route, but from the pictures on Google Streetview it seems to be a section of smooth strada bianca. If you want to avoid it just continue on towards Ancaiano and from there follow the road to Pievescola where you can rejoin the official route.
At the end of the strada bianca the route follows a minor road (the SP 101) continuing to climb for another couple of kilometres through woodland to the high point at a little under 600 metres. After that there’s a long 8-kilometre descent, turning left off the SP 101 onto a minor road through vineyards towards Pievescola.
At Pievescola you need bear right onto the SP52. There’s a bar in the village and a fontanella (water fountain) on towards Ponti di Pievescola where the road crosses the rail line and then comes to a T-junction with the SS541. The route follows the SS541 towards Firenze before taking the first left towards.
From here the route climbs for 26 kilometres - but pretty gently: the altitude gain is a relatively small 230 metres. At the 28-kilometre mark there’s a left onto the SP 107, and another blissfully quiet road, towards Chiusdino (543m), at the 42-kilometre mark, and the Abbazia di San Galgano 8.5 kilometres further on.
The Abbazia is one of the iconic places of Toscana - you’ll see photographs of it on postcards all over the region. The nearby Eremo di Montespieri is also a must-see.
More about the Abbazia di San Galgano and the sword in the stone
San Galgano came from Chiusdino. From a wealthy family he had led a dissolute life, at the age of 32, after a dream in which he saw the Archangel Gabriel, the came to live as a hermit on the hill beside the abbey, plunging his sword into a stone, to form a cross. A series of miracles followed and he was made a saint soon after his death.
The sword in the stone echoes the legends of King Arthur. There are a couple of other coincidences: the first book of stories about King Arthur date back to about the same period; and Galgano/Galvano is the Italian equivalent to Gawain - the name of one of the Knight’s of the Round Table. The similarities are intriguing, but really that’s as far as they go.
The eremo hermitage of Montesiepi was built, with the stone and sword at its centre. While you can see pictures of the Abbazia on postcards throughout Toscana, the eremo is gorgeous: with a dome constructed using 24 concentric, alternated rows of white stone and bricks. There is also a series of frescos by the Sienese painter Ambrogio Lorenzetti - sadly badly damaged over the years.
The eremo was the original home of the monastery, but in 1218 the monks decided to build themselves a new abbey.
The Cistercians were (are) a monastic order set up with the aim of bringing about a return to the original ideals of Saint Benedict with the emphasis on a simple lifestyle: the monasteries were often established in remote areas with the monks supporting themselves through work.
The ideals were reflected in their buildings which avoided decoration, and often walls were left bare. This left the focus on the materials, and on the architecture and space and light, and simple proportions.Cistercian sites are among the most beautiful relics of the Middle Ages.
The abbey took 70 years to construct, but its glory days - like those of Siena were short-lived: it never recovered from a famine in 1329 and
the plague in 1348. The abbey went from being an independent community to a benefice to be awarded by the Pope to his supporters, who siphoned off its wealth, culminating in the removal of the lead from the roof. By the beginning of the 17th century there was only one monk left. The abbey was deconsecrated at the end of the 18th century.
The abbey and eremo are open all day every day - check opening hours and ticket prices
As you head from the Abbazia di San Galgano towards Monticiano look out for the Roberto Ciulli sculpture park on your left as you approach Monticiano. the park was created by the collector and sculptor Marco Ciulli in memory of his father. Some of the works were specially created for the site. Admission was free (or at least, I went in and wandered about and no one asked me for money.
Services on this section of the route
There’s a bar at Montalcinello on the way to Chiusdino and shops, bars, restaurants and accommodation at Chiusdino, the Abbazia, and Monticiano. The first campsite (the Agriturismo Le Fontanelle) is 16 kilometres further on from the Abbazia at the 58-kilometre point
From Monticiano to Casciano di Murlo
At Monticiano you have the option of heading south on the road to Roccastrada, where you can join the Gran Tour delle Maremma.
After Monticiano the next village is Iesa (marked as Lama on maps) where there is a bar-alimentari (bar with a grocery shop), and then no services until you get to Casciano di Murlo some 30 kilometres (and a fair bit of climbing) further on from Monticiano.
There’s also a sculpture park near the village established by the Swiss sculptor Kurt Laurenz Metzler in the grounds of his villa. There’s some more information and some pictures at the ecomuseovaldimerse.org website. You can visit Metzler’s website klmetzler.com there are pictures of the works in the park but I couldn’t find any information about opening times etc.
After Iesa there’s a descent and then a 200-metre (altitude) climb over four and a half kilometres, followed by seven-and-a-bit kilometres of saliscendo (up and down) before a 5 kilometre-descent into the valley and then the last major climb on the route: a 6-kilometre climb (320 metres of altitude gain) to Casciano di Murlo (480m).
There are plenty of shops and services at Casciano plus a nice campsite on the route just before you get int the village.
Casciano di Murlo to Sovicille (54 kms)
From Casciano the route heads for Vescovado di Murlo (where there’s a hotel) and then a detour to Murlo itself. Murlo is a nice place to visit in its own right (and there’s a decent restaurant) but the main reason to visit is the curiously-named Antiquarium di Poggio Civitate (opening hours). The museum holds the remains of an Etruscan villa recovered thanks to the work of generations of archaeology students from the University of Massachusetts spending their summer vacations labouring under a Tuscan sun (University of Massachusetts Poggio Civitate Excavation Project). Almost everything we know about the Etruscans we know from the remains recovered from their tombs - so information about their daily lives is something truly exceptional.
At Murlo you could opt to head south towards Buonconvento and from there to Montalcino, or to San Quirico and Pienza.
If you stick with the Grand Tour della Val di Merse there is then a section unsurfaced road which forms part of the Eroica course. This section doesn’t present any particular difficulties, but further on there is a short climb on a section of unsurfaced track which could be problematic if you are on a full-loaded tourer. You could always opt to push, for a hundred metres or so. Otherwise, if you want to avoid both sections you will need to take the road that connects Casciano di Murlo with Grotti crossing over the main SS223 near La Torre and from there, via Sant’Andrea a Montecchi and picking up the official route near San Rocco a Pilli, and then head for Sovicille via Ampugnano.
After San Rocco a Pilli there’s another brief section of unsurfaced road before the route comes out onto the main road (the SP99) leading to Rosia. Rosia is the main town in the area and the road is likely to be, relatively, busy.
On the way to Rosia (well on the way with a bit of a detour) is the Monastero della Santissima Trinità e Santa Mustiola with its cloister - the only one in Toscana to have maintained its Romanesque character. The monastero is still a monastery but it is visitable on Monday and Friday mornings between 9 and 12. I wasn’t able to visit but you can see what I missed on the Comune di Sovicille website.
There’s also the Ponte della Pia - a Roman arched bridge reconstructed in the medieval era. The bridge across the Rosia torrente formed part of the ancient Via Massetana that linked Siena with the coast. Although it features in the promotional photographs for the route it’s actually a short way off the route.
Maps to print out or view offline
About the maps
The maps are in two versions: A4 portrait format - for printing and maybe also for viewing on an iPad, and A5 for smaller tablets and smartphones. (A4 and A5 are international paper sizes).
Links open in new windows unless you ‘save as’ etc.
- Grand Tour della Val di Merse gps files
(.zip file containing 7 gpx track files plus waypoints)
- Italy Points of Interest
POIs are like waypoints, but while you can usually only store a limited number of waypoints on a device, you can store thousands of POIs. These files include information about campsites and hostels, bike shops, train stations, drinking water sources as well as warnings for tunnels and roads where bikes are banned. Please check the ReadMe file for instructions. Updated April 2018. The file format is only compatible with Garmin GPSes .
Places to stay
Hotels and B&Bs
The Grand Tour website has a listing of bike-friendly hotels and agriturismi.The website terresiena.it has a useful database of bike-friendly accommodation in the area, but the version on grandtourvaldimerse.it seemed more comprehensive and up-to-date. I stayed at the Albergo Ristorante Da Vestro in Monticiano which I booked via booking.com.
So far as I know, the only hostel in the area is the Siena Hostel in Siena (also known as the Ostello Guidoriccio).
There’s also a good site at Siena (The Colleverde).
Transport and services
The nearest rail station is at Siena.
The route has its own dedicated website (grandtourvaldimerse.it) in Italian and English. As well as a description of the route (Italian-only) and a Google map, there’s a listing of bike-friendly hotels and agriturismi along the route and listing of restaurants and bike shops are planned. In addition to the main route, the website has a selection of day routes in the area. At the moment the route descriptions are only in Italian, but there are maps to download. These include a loop to and from Siena.
The routes are also available in a neat little book (The Val di Merse by Bicycle). I bought my copy from the helpful America lady in the tourist office in Sovicille, but it’s also available from amazon.it and the publisher’s (ediciclo editore). If you are planning on staying in the area, or just want to get the most out of the route, it would be 12 euros well spent. It’s also available in Italian.