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Lucca to Monte Serra... and beyond

The panoramic view from Monte Serra
The outline of the fast descent into Calci is visible in the foreground left. On the right is the river Arno about to enter the center of Pisa.

If I had to pick my favorite out-and-back bike ride which has me home again in Lucca inside 2 hours then it would have to be le Pizzorne because the views from Matraia are better than those on the ride up Monte Serra, which in fact doesn't have any views at all until the top. Also the descent from le Pizzorne is more exhilarating and much faster than the ride back down to Sant'Andrea di Compito from Monte Serra.

Sant'Andrea di Compito near Lucca
Sant'Andrea di Compito at first light

However if you stretch your available time out to just under 3 hours then the ride I describe here has the advantage over le Pizzorne in just about every respect. That’s because the extra 45-60 minutes allows you to turn this ride into a loop instead of simply returning the same way, so after climbing the northern side of Monte Serra from Sant’Andrea di Compito you keep going and descend on the southern side of the mountain to Calci.

This is a fantastic scenic descent that can be done at high speed with good visibility and a wide road - a real reward for all the climbing. Then you can return on the mostly flat roads back to Lucca around the western side of the Monti Pisani going through San Giuliano Terme and Ripafratta.

Sunflowers at dawn on the way from Lucca to Monte Serra
Sunflowers welcoming the first rays of sunshine at on the way to Monte Serra

However, don’t be tempted to turn right at San Giuliano Terme and take the most direct route back to Lucca because it’s a very busy road that’s a little too narrow for my liking and there’s an uphill tunnel to go through that I’ve done once but never again.

The total distance covered by this loop is about 36 miles with close to 3,300 feet of cumulative climbing and the alternative descent from Monte Serra to Buti instead of Calci with the return to Lucca around the eastern side of the mountain has a very similar profile. Both le Pizzorne and this Monte Serra/Calci loop should be on your itinerary if you’re visiting Lucca because they offer completely different views of Tuscany and the best place to rent the perfect road bike or e-bike is Chrono Bikes in Corso Garibaldi where Paladino will get you fitted out properly.

Sant'Andrea di Compito at dawn
The view of Sant'Andrea di Compito from the start of the climb

Le Pizzorne shows you the entire plain of Lucca from the Ligurian sea to the hills of Vinci over half way to Florence, whereas the views from Monte Serra look towards Pisa, Livorno, the sea and the line of hills directly south that mark the start of the Maremma. On a clear morning you can also see the faint outline of the mountains on Elba just over 70 miles away as the crow flies.

One other advantage of this ride versus le Pizzorne is that the route out of Lucca becomes nicer sooner and there’s a pleasant warm up on gentle foothills as you go through the attractive villages of Massa Macinaia, San Giusto di Compito and especially Sant’Andrea di Compito before reaching the official start of the climb as you exit Sant’Andrea. This is south-east of Lucca and in fact is the next valley over from the final stages of the Aqueduct Walk as it reaches Vorno.

La Torre Spada near Lucca
The centuries old Torre Spada inexplicably standing right in the middle of the road

Starting in Lucca's centro storico you can either exit via Porta San Pietro and go through Verciano to reach Massa Macinaia or take the eastern gate, Porta Elisa, as I do, and turn right immediately after the railway tracks and meander through Toringo and Parezzana before passing the Torre Spada and then crossing over the appropriately named Via Sottomonte into Massa Macinaia.

The road up Monte Serra from Sant'Andrea di Compito
Cycling heaven - no cars, no houses, no people and a great road surface with a fresh water fountain half-way up

You can’t miss Torre Spada because it stands right in the middle of the road but when it was put there almost 500 years ago there were no roads and its purpose was to help boats navigate the canals and waterways that served as transportation routes through the marshes and wetlands that used to cover this large flat area south of Lucca.

It’s less than 7 miles from Lucca to the start of the climb which is at a nondescript right turn off Via della Pieve. It is signposted to Monte Serra but more visible is the Camellietum Compitese sign because just a little way up the road there is a public garden dedicated solely to camellias that was started 20 years ago and now has over 800 varieties carrying on a Tuscan tradition of cultivating these plants.

Camellias mostly bloom in winter which is why I never seem to see them in flower when I cycle through the garden because Monte Serra is not a ride I like in the winter as there is almost no sun to be had. However every year the garden expands and, though by no means yet fully mature, it already draws quite an international crowd of enthusiasts in early spring.

Most people reading this article won't get the joke painted on the tarmac in the above left photo. It's an Italian expression, of which the full version (in the singular) is L'hai voluta la bicicletta, ora pedala! but in everyday usage the last two words have become redundant because the saying is so well known. The literal translation is 'you wanted the bike, now pedal!' but the equivalent English expression would be: 'you made your bed, now lie in it'.

If you do this ride without a Garmin or something similar then the individual kilometer markings with the altitude shown in meters on the road surface are a very useful aspect of this climb (right photo).

Water fountain on the climb up Monte Serra

At 5.5 kms with almost 2,000 feet of climbing behind you there is a continually flowing water fountain in a shady area at the side of the road. This mountain water is so good that many people drive all the way up here with a trunk full of empty containers to get their drinking water for the next month.

The road up to Monte Serra from Sant'Andrea di Compito
Looking back towards the steepest section of the climb which is just before reaching the water fountain

From Sant'Andrea di Compito this climb is just over 5 miles at which point you'll reach a half mile flat section where all the great views are to be had.

the top of Monte Serra near Lucca

Then at the 9 kms marker you can simply turn right and start the long descent or you can go straight on and continue up to the official Monte Serra summit, an additional half mile or so.

The reason I usually don't bother with the last 250 feet of climbing is that it's a boring bit of track with nothing to see at the top except cell phone towers and other antennas and then you just turn around and come back down.

As you start the descent you will get more westerly views of Pisa and San Rossore Park. Directly north of the center of Pisa you'll just about be able to make out the Piazza dei Miracoli with the famous Leaning Tower and beyond that, towards the sea, you'll get a better appreciation for the sheer size of the southern portion of San Rossore Park.

View of Pisa, San Rossore and the sea from the top of Monte Serra
On the left is the center of Pisa and in the middle of the photo is the white marble Piazza dei Miracoli with the Leaning Tower

The first part of the descent has a very gentle gradient and you soon arrive at a fork in the road with a restaurant straight ahead (below left photo). The choice here is either turn left for Buti (below right photo) or turn right for Calci.

I always seem to turn right towards Calci and this is where the fun starts with some long steep sections and very few hairpin bends so you can really fly down the mountain if that's your descending style. It's also a wide open road with very few trees, even more so after some wildfires in recent years, and you'll notice that this southern side of the mountain is much more arid in summer than the heavily forested northern side that you just climbed up.

The descent from Monte Serra towards Calci
On the descent towards Calci

Towards the bottom of the descent entering Calci you'll see that the uppermost part of the town consists of one long narrow street with houses packed in close on either side so it requires a bit of care. As you exit Calci you turn right and continue more or less straight on for about 16 miles following the signs back to Lucca.

Looking up at Monte Serra from Calci
Looking back up to Monte Serra from Calci

Despite the tough looking gradients shown below in the middle 4.5 kms of this climb, it just doesn't feel nearly as hard as the equivalent middle section of le Pizzorne and as I climb both every week throughout the summer you can take my word for it.


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