BUCKETRIDE – THE bucket list mountain bike experience. Roman and Claudi have been on the road with this concept for 3 years, wrapped up in mountain bike camping adventures. Read on as they take you on a journey and show you one of their absolute favourite spots in Tuscany.
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A loud bang startles me and wakes Claudia from her sleep. We are on our way to Tuscany. This time, we’re not in our trusty mobile home “Hanz”, but a VW Grand California from CamperBoys. That gives us the chance to try something new. It’s dark, which makes it impossible for us to spot the potholes in the road in time to avoid them. The frequency of the rumbling grows. It’s a sign that we’re almost there. The worse the road, the closer you are. That doesn’t spoil my mood, though. We’re Claudia and Roman from BUCKETRIDE and we’re on the way to one of our favourite bike spots in Tuscany, Piombino. We usually come here with guests on our mountain bike and camping adventure trips. However, this time we’re visiting our friend Matteo from Tuscany-Bike and want to see if anything has changed. Because we’ll soon be hosting the next BUCKETRIDE here. We’re always blown away by this region and its many facets. To us, the combination of the sea and excellent trails, which often end in deserted bays that are so romantic it’s almost cheesy, is as perfect as it gets for a mountain biking spot. This Mediterranean pearl deserves more recognition, so we would like to share it with you and introduce you to the spot in more detail. Because it has more to offer than “just” awesome trails – but more on that later. To be precise, this is not just one, but several small spots that are grouped closely together. Perfect for anyone travelling in a camper. Besides, the region keeps evolving, and you can look forward to a new, very special highlight next year. So, it’s worth reading on and sticking with us until the end.
When you think of Piombino, you’ll probably think of industrial chimney stacks and the ferry that connects the mainland with the island of Elba. That’s basically true. There are a few nice alleys in the centre with small bars and restaurants, but the city of Piombino in itself doesn’t have many tourist highlights to offer. But on the other side of the hilly landscape bordering the city, you’ll find a beautiful bay. There are no ferries or factories here. This is also where the trails are.
Camping on a farm
We reach the bay of Baratti late in the evening, where, along with a few very small campsites, you won’t find much accommodation. On the first night, we park the bus in the immediate vicinity of the beach. We love the feeling of having arrived, the smell of the warm sea breeze in the morning and listening to the sound of the waves breaking on the shore. It’s got a very special vibe to it.
The next morning, after our first cup of coffee with an unobstructed view of the bay, we check in at the Podere Etrusco campsite. We’ve become well-acquainted with the campsite operator Francesco and always enjoy returning here. It’s a so-called agricampeggio. Francesco lives here with his whole family and runs a farm. Visitors can buy the produce, olive oil and wine, directly from him. Of course, we can’t resist buying a 5 litre can of freshly pressed olive oil.
If you drive down the small gravel road to the campsite for the first time and stop at the agricampeggio, you might ask yourself if you’ve come to the right place. The main building, the family home, is a simple farmhouse, which may not seem all that inviting to some at first glance. Also, the reception isn’t always occupied, as the family is often out in the fields. It can take a few minutes for someone to come by with a tractor and get you booked in. On the upside, the campsite is open year-round, which is an exception in this area.
There are a few reasons why we love Francesco’s campsite. We like the rustic, informal charm, and the proximity to the beach and the Piombino trails is unrivalled. There is hardly any shade on the campsite, due to the lack of large trees. But everyone has an awning on their vehicle these days. It certainly never bothered us. Sure, we’re yet to come here in the midsummer, but it’s too hot for biking then anyway.
Biking on an ancient island
After an extensive breakfast and a quick chat with Francesco, we get ready for a short ride to the Promontorio di Piombino. “Promontorio” means promontory or foothills and it’s right here, in the hilly region, that you’ll find the Piombino trails. The chain of hills connects the town of Piombino with the port of Baratti and is peppered with small paths and trails. At their highest point, the Monte Massoncello stretches 284 m above sea level. Not quite as high up, the small town of Populonia is probably the most striking place in the foothills of Piombino. The Castello di Populonia towers high above the harbour, offering a magnificent view of the bay of Baratti, the Val di Cornia, and the island of Capraia. Today, the area lies on a peninsula, but long ago it was an ancient island, forming part of the Tuscan archipelago. Over time, the sediment washed up by the Cornia river has connected it to the mainland. Perfect for biking – with that island feeling!
Let’s go! Leaving the campsite, we follow a tar road along the plain, just a few metres from the sea. Things get steeper when we reach the foot of the hill just five minutes later. It doesn’t take long to wind our way up towards Populonia, with a total elevation gain of 150 metres. Before we reach the Castello, we turn left at a parking lot for hikers and follow the ridge along a rough gravel road that dips and rises over the hills. We keep catching short glimpses of the sea, arriving at the trailhead after climbing another 100 metres in altitude. The flowy descent initially runs alongside the gravel road and makes its way down towards the coast shortly thereafter, putting a grin on our faces as we pick up speed. Expect to be surprised by the occasional freshly shaped double. However, we’d advise against hitting them blind. Further along, rhythmic berms alternate with fast chutes, some of which can get super rough. Towards the end of the trail, you can already see the turquoise sea between the trees, but don’t let it distract you. There are still some tight, steep switchbacks ahead before the trail spits you out at the water’s edge in a small romantic bay. Time to take a break. We cool our feet in the clear water and let them dry in the warm breeze blowing in from the sea before tackling the challenging uphill trail awaiting us. Starting from the bay, biking is the only reasonable means of getting back to the top. You might have more fun aboard an eMTB, but that’s not to say it isn’t doable with a non-motorised mountain bike, albeit more challenging. Generally, the region is ideal for eMTBs due to the numerous, often technical uphill sections. This is one of the reasons why we choose to ride the Specialized Levo SL. The terrain offers the perfect playground for these types of bikes.
After the climb we make a small detour to the Castello and reward ourselves with a delicious gelato. We’re in luck. The café is open, which isn’t always the case, depending on the season. We enjoy the ice cream in the shade of the fragrant Mediterranean pine trees and take in the view of the island of Capraia. Returning to the campsite, we opt for the most direct descent. To get there, we must pedal along the ridge for some time. This is followed by a left turn and a short, punchy climb up to the start of one of our favourite trails. It just has everything you could want. Tight, steep turns, roots and rock gardens, and a few jumps. It’s a dream, as the name of the trail – „sogno” (italian for dream) suggests. Since the trail ends in a valley, we must do some more climbing. First pushing, then riding we reach a final short trail, flooding our brains with endorphins with its flowing lines and insane panorama of the bay of Baratti. On our way back to the camper, we make a short detour to the beach and end the day’s ride with – what else – an Aperol Spritz at the beach bar. Salute! It takes just two minutes to ride back to the Podere Etrusco campsite where we’ll spend the night, showering, cooking, unwinding, and then happily falling into a deep dreamless sleep.
Always follow the coast
The next morning, we meet Matteo and his girlfriend Shirley for breakfast at our place before heading out on a group ride. Our route leads us through the foothills once again, but we opt for an alternative trail going up. Zigzagging back and forth, the path quickly winds upwards. We only just repaired this trail during our last visit with Matteo. Already exhausted by the technical ascent, we follow the ridge line even further towards Piombino. A final ascent brings us to the highest point of the region where we can begin our first proper descent of the day. It starts off curvy, then picks up speed through some rough sections and tight, steeper corners as the path leads rather directly towards the ocean. A short traverse with amazing views connects you to the last section of another trail. This takes you through a canyon with a reddish hue before finally arriving in the small bay of Fosso alle Canne, offering a feeling of boundless freedom. Still slightly intoxicated by the thrill of the descent, we let our hair down and stare out at the horizon in the distance and the island of Elba, which looks close enough to reach out and touch.
After having refuelled body and soul, we commence our tour. Our relaxed muscles and slowed heart rate thank us on the first steep sections of the climb, getting our blood pumping after the break. The following section of the route runs along the coastline to the outskirts of Piombino to Cala Moresca, which is a popular bathing spot amongst the locals. We’re happy to find the bar open and treat ourselves to a panini, an ice-cold coke, and an espresso. Our strength regained; we disappear back into the hills. The Zio Robbus – a giant tree – marks the next stop. The picnic tables in its shadow provide the perfect spot for a quick breather and to pull up our knee pads. Because this is the start of the penultimate descent of the day. This relatively new route consists of a mixture of flow and berms, as well as some steeper sections and jumps. What it lacks in length it makes up for in fun. In an effort to extend the descent, we take on a few more technical climbs to get to the second half of our favourite trail from the day before. We tackle it as enthusiastically as we did yesterday, and we look forward to enjoying the post-ride drink on the beach together.
Ride and Chill – Time to relax
Tomorrow is our rest day. But don’t worry, we’ll have plenty of the finest bike action after that, and there’s a highlight in store for you at the end. Moreover, resting doesn’t mean simply putting our feet up, because we can hardly keep them still ourselves. Fortunately, there are plenty of alternative activities to fill the day. It certainly won’t get boring. We wake up early to work on our laptops before breakfast. Since the sun gets hot quite early in the day, we decide to head to the beach and cool off in the sea.
After this treat, we set off to explore the Parco Archeologico. There is a lot to discover about the culture and history of the Etruscans. The entrance to the park is located opposite the port of Baratti. The port of Baratti was the only port, and Populonia the only Etruscan city on the coast, forming the largest iron processing site in the entire Mediterranean at the time. The iron ore originating from the island of Elba was shipped to the port of Baratti for further processing. If you look closely and in a certain light, the ground of the park and the beach in Baratti Bay sparkles like it’s littered with small diamonds. This is due to the hematite remains, which was used to extract iron. The park extends from two necropolises at the foot of the mountain to the Acropolis with small paths leading through a beautiful forest. The Etruscan buildings and temples can be found in an exposed position very close to the Castello, offering an impressive panorama over the Gulf of Baratti and the promontory of Piombino. There are various trails to view all the different sights, which you can also combine with each other. You could easily spend the whole day in the park if you want to explore all of it. Today, however, we decide to limit ourselves to one part and vow to do the rest when we come again. We then extend our small cultural excursion with a hike to the Buca delle Fate, which, directly translated, means fairy hole. With its fantastic name and magnificent views, the place is characterised by an impressive rocky plateau directly on the shore. You’ll even find sport climbing routes with different grades of difficulty. Instead of climbing gear, we brought our bathing equipment, taking a short stroll to a small rocky bay just a few metres away. Besides biking, the entire promontory offers ideal conditions for beautiful hikes along the cliffs. There are numerous other leisure activities you can pursue in the immediate vicinity, too, such as wine tasting, diving, snorkelling, freediving, sailing and spearfishing.
After our hike and swim, we meet Matteo and Shirley back at the castello for dinner. The two are already there since Matteo has an appointment with Ottavio, the lord of Castello di Populonia. We all meet in the large alley right behind the castle gate and Ottavio invites us to an aperitif with him and his family. It’s still some time before dinner and we’re happy to accept his invitation. We are warmly welcomed by his wife and daughter in his simple but cosy castle rooms and treated to good wine and delicious snacks. We enjoy the cuisine and the good company and could stay for a while. However, the table we reserved in the Osteria Torre di Populonia calls. The restaurant is run by the Ciminelli family, specialising in seafood and fish dishes. The ambience and the quality of the food are outstanding and our very friendly and stylish host, Antonio, gives us a detailed and humorous explanation of the dishes on the menu.
During the meal, we discuss our plans for the next two days with Matteo. He tells us about the progress he’s made on his latest project, a new spot in the hinterland, which is located on a private property. There’s something very special in the pipeline here – and he wants to show us. Tomorrow, however, we want to do a little ride at another backcountry spot first.
In the hinterland of Piombino
The next morning, Matteo comes with his van to pick us up at the campsite. We load the bikes onto his trailer and drive to Campiglia Marittima, about 20 minutes away. We continue to Monte Calvi by bike. Unfortunately, two out of the five trails aren’t rideable due to tree felling, Matteo tells us. Even in Campiglia, the climbs aren’t for weak legs. The slopes on Monte Calvi, on the other hand, have a completely different character. After a short break, we head down the first trail. It starts out quite playfully with a mixture of shaped berms and jumps as well as natural features such as roots and small rocks. At the bottom, its character changes and the trail becomes steeper, rockier and the turns get tighter. The descent is extremely varied and tons of fun! As in Piombino, there are multiple options for getting back to the top and it can seem confusing when you’re in the area for the first time. We choose a combination of forest service roads and uphill trails that are easy to ride even without the assistance of a motor. The second trail on the agenda is very natural and rocky, making it rather technical to ride. The ground is partly hard-packed and partly loose, but never very steep. We’re met with some stunning views along the way, so we just stop and enjoy the panorama. We wonder why the trail name translates to “hole of a cow”, but even Matteo has no real answer except for a grin. The last descent for today is steeper and more demanding than the other two, requiring our full attention. On the way back to the car we add a little detour through the centre of Campiglia and treat ourselves to a coffee and gelato at a bar. Once again, a perfect end to the day.
Attention: spoiler alert!
Our tour is over, but it’s not the end of the day’s activities. Instead, Matteo takes us to his trail construction site. We’re super excited as we leave Campiglia and drive a bit further north in Matteo’s Van. We keep gaining elevation, the road becomes increasingly narrow. When we finally stop the car, we continue aboard our ebikes. Matteo leads us through the dense and wild forest. We can’t yet identify an existing network of paths and the place seems rather lonely and abandoned. We’re curious to see where Matteo takes us. We eventually turn off somewhere, and turn again, then we find ourselves in the middle of the forest and there’s no hint of where the path continues. Matteo gets off his bike, so we do, too. We push our bikes through the thicket in the direction of a small hill directly in front of us. When we get to the top, we can hardly believe our eyes. On the other side, we see an artfully designed jump trail, and it looks like a bikepark. The jumps and berms are beautifully shaped and just look perfect. It’s like a painting. And it’s in the middle of nowhere. We’re impressed. Matteo, who actually is an architect by trade, lives up to his nickname “trail architect” once again. Of course, this isn’t his work alone. He got his buddy Emiliano to support the project. Emiliano owns Tasso Trail Solutions, and he usually takes care of the construction and maintenance of the routes in the Amiata Freeride Bike Resort. Later, we meet him in the forest where he’s busy digging up and shaping another trail. There are two tracks currently in progress and more to follow, Matteo tells us. The routes will consist of a mix of machine-made bike park lines and hand-built natural sections.
We’re incredibly stoked and can’t wait to ride here. But “currently everything is still under construction,” Matteo slows our enthusiasm, so we’ll have to wait a little longer. How does the saying go? Anticipation is the greatest joy. We say goodbye to Emiliano and pedal back to the car with Matteo and Shirley. We would probably have gotten lost on our own. That evening we drive with the two of them to the city centre of Piombino to eat at “Mamma Carla”. However, we must stop every ten metres on our way to the restaurant. Matteo seems to be more famous in these parts than the pope himself. But that doesn’t surprise us. When we finally make it to the restaurant after several Italian small talk stops, we’re warmly welcomed by the chef. Of course, Matteo knows him, too. The restaurant is small and cosy and especially popular amongst steak fans. Here you’ll find a reasonable choice of excellent meat and selected Italian homestyle cooking. We talk a bit about the new project as we dine and are already looking forward to our next visit, during which we can hopefully ride the new routes. We spend the rest of the evening enjoying each other’s company, along with fine delicacies and good conversation. Back at our campsite, we say goodbye to the two of them and promise to come back soon. There is one last thing on our bucket(ride) list that needs to get checked off…
Information about the region
Best time to visit
The Bay of Baratti is very popular with Italian holidaymakers and therefore quite crowded in the summer months from approximately mid-June to mid-September. But it’s way too hot to ride during this period anyway, so it doesn’t matter. As such, we recommend skipping the summer months. Generally, the area is great for biking from mid-September to the end of May. Even if we’re in the middle of winter further up north, here you can ride in temperatures of around 20 degrees with a little luck. Unfortunately, almost all the restaurants and bars in the bay are closed during that time. The months of September, October, April, and May are better in that respect.
For camping fans, we can wholeheartedly recommend the agricampeggio “Podere Etrusco“. In our opinion, the location is perfect and it’s also open all year round. If you don’t have a camper van but would like to try it out, you can rent one from CamperBoys. For non-campers, the aparthotel “Poggio all’Agnello“ is ideal. However, the facility is only open from April to October.
If you have any problems, it’s best to contact Matteo from Tuscany Bike. The workshop and shop are located on the grounds of the Poggio all’Agnello.
BUCKETRIDE offer camping and tour packages for German-speaking and camping-savvy riders on specific dates, or for groups on request.
Individual guided tours and bike rentals are available from Tuscany Bike.
You can get a snack for lunch in the Baracchina di Baratti, directly in the Castello, or at the Bar Gattarossa. Make sure to check the opening hours first! After the ride you can reward yourself with a refreshing drink at the Sun Beach Bar or at Bagno Baratti right on the beach. Our dinner highlights are the Osteria Torre di Populonia in the eponymous Castello (they serve fish only!), or Mamma Carla in the centre of Piombino. Alternatively, you can get a good pizza at the Pizzeria Cascina del Poggio in the Poggio all’Agnello, at the Pizzeria Andrea, at Re e Regina in Venturina Terme and at the Dispensa Desideri in the Castello di Populonia.
To mix things up, a visit to the Parco Archeologico Baratti e Populonia is worthwhile. Those who need a little more action and want to explore the underwater world can do so at Baratti Diving. The dive centre is located at the port of Baratti. Here you will also find motor and sailing boats for rent, as well as freediving, snorkelling, and fishing trip providers, like Katabasis.
There is a small supermarket offering baked goods, sausage, and cheese in Populonia Stazione, about 5 minutes from the campsite by bike. Larger supermarkets can be found in Venturina (about 10 minutes by car). If you need anything from the hardware store, such as cables, adapters, batteries, etc., you will find it at Brico Io in Fiorentina.
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Words: Roman Beckord Photos: BUCKETRIDE