Text: Claire Lessiau
Photographs: Claire Lessiau & Marcella van Alphen
Known for its hot springs since the Roman times, Bagni di Lucca used to be a hotspot for intellectuals of the romantic period such as Lord Byron and Mary Shelley in the early 19th century. This is also when Princess Elisa Bonaparte, the sister of Napoleon, who reigned on Lucca between 1805 and 1824 used to come regularly, renovating the baths and turning Bagni di Lucca in the summer meeting point of an international and influential community, enjoying the first casino in Italy, the cooler climate and its healing waters. Today, if the quiet Tuscan village has lost its world prominence, it has become a gate to many white water and outdoor adventures, just a stone’s throw away from the historical towns of Lucca, Florence and Pisa.
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After a beautiful ride up the mountains, through perched hamlets, we start a short hike geared up in our thick wetsuits, helmets, harnesses, carabiners and ropes. Daniele Croci’s eyes lit up as soon as we reach the start of the Selvano River. His eyes match the light blue colour of the water of the deep pools created by thousands of years of erosion. Kayaking expert and canyoning guide, Daniele has travelled the world to tame white waters from Nepal to South America. Still, he decided to settle in the Lima Valley where he co-owns the Rockonda white water adventure centre in Bagni Di Lucca. Amongst the outings available in the area, Daniele thoroughly enjoys this specific one that regularly makes it to the Top 5 of Italy’s most beautiful gorges and best canyoning adventures, tucked away high in the Apuan Alps where wolfs still roam freely.
The Rio Selvano is his playground and he knows every waterhole like the back of his hand. We follow his instructions, either jumping into pools, wading through the torrent, repelling down waterfalls or sliding down natural toboggans. In the late morning, the sun lights up the canyon and shades of turquoise blue of the crystal-clear waters merge with the greenery of the surrounding vegetation. Higher up, endangered eagles have decided to nest in this untouched terrain. Only a few ruins here and there and a nicely renovated old water mill by the end of the 2-kilometre canyon are a reminder of precious settlements.
Invented in Alaska, a pack raft is a foldable and inflatable individual kayak. Weighing only 3 kilograms, it is very easy to manoeuvre and carry making it a great water exploration companion. The white waters of the Lima River are ideal to try out this new sport while discovering the surrounding nature. The sturdy boats take the rapids really well and are great fun even with low river flow rates. Once down the rapid, we walk back up carrying the small pack raft on a shoulder to take them again just for fun. Contrary to rafting where one follows instructions and does not necessarily feel in control individually, pack rafting even though easy and suitable for beginners is an exhilarating adrenaline-packed experience as the rafter is fully in charge of its vessel. Paddling in calmer section, we pass by former paper mills before landing on the river bank to enjoy a swim in a large waterhole. Once down, we simply deflate and roll the pack rafts to carry them back to the road where a pick up awaits.
Zip lining and Stand-Up Paddling the Lima Canyon
A short section of the Lima River is particularly breath-taking with emerald green waters down a deep and narrow canyon. There are two options to take it in:
Above the canyon, an adventure park with zip lines and other acrobatic rides is great fun to enjoy the canyon without getting wet.
To get into the canyon, which waters are fairly cold even in the middle of the summer, stand up paddling is a great option. The waters are calm and it is a short and easy ride to explore the stunning gorge. For more adventurous SUP, white waters are close by!
White-water Stand-Up Paddling
Indeed! Around the same area or a bit further down on the Serchio River that waters Lucca, SUP can be taken to the next level and turned into a thrilling white-water adventure. Geared up with life jackets, closed shoes and helmets, we are following Tommaso Pucci’s lead as he enthusiastically guides us on the wide waterway. The owner of ToscanaSUP scouts each rapid carefully before instructing us on the best route to conquer them. Either on both knees for the best stability, on one knee for a challenge, or standing for an adrenaline rush, everyone has fun taking these sturdy and light boards down. Calmer stretches are a good opportunity to practice the paddling technique and learn from the expert. Quiet beaches, swimming spots, paper mills, a few fishermen, kingfishers and herons are some of the unexpected discoveries in the very close proximity of the city of Lucca. “This 7-kilometer stretch is great for a half-day refreshing adventure, but we can continue all the way to the sea via Pisa and over three days!” Tommaso explains… Maybe next time!
Mountain biking, hiking & river trekking
Many hiking trails run through the mountains leading to perched villages. Mountain biking is also a great activity, most often using the steep roads to go up and trails to go back down. An interesting loop takes you to the Pelago River gorge. Starting in Bagni di Lucca, the steep road leads bikers through hamlets and chestnut forests with views stretching from the Apennine Mountains to the sea and the Apuan Alps. Spring water is available at ancient fountains in every village providing a refreshing break. Montefegatesi is the last village before biking down to the gorge. Alternatively, it is also a starting point for a beautiful hike to Monte Coronato. Once down at Ponte a Gaio, it is time to freshen up exploring the canyon and its fauna and flora protected by the nature reserve of Orrido di Botri. Open at first, it narrows over its two kilometres, and forms waterfalls and turquoise pools that are fun to wade through. The way back uses the old road through the chestnut forests passing a few ruins of former chestnut dryers before going back down to Bagni di Lucca on exhilarating trails.
The perfect recovery: the millennium-old renowned spa of Bagni di Lucca
If Bagni di Lucca has lost many of its spas, one keeps exploiting the properties of the local thermal waters that are a great way to recover from all these activities. More specifically, the small cave of Elisa Bonaparte is a magic and intimate setting to relax by two hot springs before cooling off in the resting area where the millennium-old Roman constructions and medieval stones are still visible. Before you leave, make sure to check out the room where the first casino of Europe was set up. The project started in the Middle Ages and its profits were used to maintain the baths and help the poor. Then it was developed further within the most important spa complex of Europe and the high European society used to come and gamble on the ancestor of the roulette, invented here.
- For beginners, a short initiation canyon is feasible as a 2-hour adventure with Rockonda. Rockonda also organises white-water rafting (when the water level allows), pack rafting and canyoning.
- To enjoy the Lima Canyon, go to Canyon Park, organising zip-lining, SUP and more.
- For SUP adventures around Bagni di Lucca, or also in the Arno River in Florence, Toscana SUP is your best bet!
- Stay at Park Hotel Regina in Bagni di Lucca. This comfortable 3-star hotel is where Puccini used to stay when he was vacationing in the thermal resort.
- The meeting point of locals and outdoor enthusiasts is the family-owned and run Topo Gigio bar. Nothing fancy, but a nice crew proposing simple and good fares in a low-key atmosphere.