Tuscany Should Be Your Next Adventure Travel Destination
Under the Tuscan Sun has given us a certain vision of idyllic Tuscany. But beyond its pretty looks and tasty food, there's outdoor adventure for everyone.
When you think "adventure travel," Tuscany, Italy is probably not the first place that comes to mind. It might not even be the last place that comes to mind. Even though it's one of the world's premier destinations for food, wine, art and history, somehow the secret isn't yet out that it's a great place for outdoor adventure, too.
That's good news for you. On a recent trip there, in mid-September, I was shocked by the lack of crowds in Tuscany's scenic small towns and by the near-total absence of tourists on hikes around the region. In response to that, Tuscany's tourism board has started to focus on adventure travel to funnel travelers into its less-explored areas, which are little-known hubs for all levels of adventure. There are dozens, if not hundreds, of guiding companies who engineer hikes, rafting trips, diving adventures, week-long sailing trips, via ferrata hikes, cave exploration, helicopter tours, paragliding, kayaking, cycling, mountain biking, ski trips and more. But until now, this has all been largely overlooked by foreign tourists who haven't realized it exists.
Cycle Through Iconic Scenery
Cycle through postcard-perfect scenes along Tuscany's hilly, windy roads, and you'll quickly find that you're never too far from world-class wine. In the summertime, you can take your bike up the chairlift at Monte Amiata, a dormant volcano, and ride down through gorgeous beech forests. Twenty-five miles north, in Montalcino, you'll find the Tuscan scenery you've always imagined, along with hundreds of winemakers. Reward your long ride with lunch at Casato Prime Donne, a Brunello winery that's been in the same family for 500 years.
Explore a Marble Quarry
The pure, white splotches atop the Apuane Alps aren't glaciers—they're marble quarries. Visit the Carrara quarries and you can see where Michelangelo sourced stone for his statues. The quarries are still active today, fueling a local debate over the scarred mountains. Take a Jeep tour up the mountains to see 2,000 years of mining history up close.
Go Skiing—For Cheap
Forget the sky-high lift ticket prices at Vail and Aspen, Colo. In Tuscany, you can ski for relative pennies. Lift tickets at the resort in Abetone, a quaint ski town that's now a sister city of Aspen, are less than $45 a day. The mountains might be smaller here than they are in the American West, but the views are no less stunning. Consider staying at the Albergo Sport hotel where the cozy fireside lounge will immediately make you feel at home.
Like many of Tuscany's greatest attractions, you must stomach sharp curves on narrow mountain roads to get to Grotta del Vento. But that means big tour buses can't make the trip, and you won't have to deal with those crowds. There's an impressive "tourist cave" you can explore, wandering past massive stalactites and mineral pools so clear you'll think they're empty until you catch your reflection. But the real excitement is on the adventure tours where you'll wear a harness and clip in to climb up ladders and shimmy along narrow ledges and mineral formations high inside the cave. To get down, you'll have to rappel—up to 80 feet at a time.
Snorkel or Scuba Dive in the Tyrrhenian Sea
Sail or take a ferry to one of Tuscany's many islands, and you'll find ultra-clear water ideal for snorkeling or scuba diving. You've likely heard of Elba, where Napoleon Bonaparte was exiled in the early 1800s, now home to thousands of people, but Capraia is smaller and much quieter—home to just 400.
Sail Around Elba Island
Sail along the coast of Elba, and you're likely to spot mountain goats grazing on the island's steep slopes. The island is well-known for Napoleon's jaunt here, but the natural beauty easily rivals the historic appeal. Instead of going out for a three-hour tour, consider springing for a multi-day trip, and let the gentle Mediterranean waves rock you to sleep.
Hike Ancient Trails
Throughout Tuscany, you'll find well-worn medieval roads and paths carved in stone to connect ancient cities. The mountains are full of uncrowded hikes, especially in late summer and early fall. And no matter where you go, you'll find something deeper than just pretty views. These "Vie Cave," for example, aren't natural canyons; they were carved thousands of years ago by the ancient Etruscans and connect necropolises and temples. To this day, historians and archaeologists can only guess at what inspired these roads.
The majority of people who travel to Tuscany might visit Pisa or Florence, or both, and stop there before moving on to other regions. But some of Tuscany's most incredible history is outside the cities, and you have to hike through it to grasp its magnitude. It's in the hills near Pitigliano where the ancient Etruscans carved canyons to serve as roads, called Vie Cave. You can walk along these routes in silent wonder for hours with high stone walls on either side.
It's in the countryside where you find those views worthy of remembering. The best ones are those you have to work for by walking through narrow towns, down hills and through vineyards. You might need a stomach of steel to drive some of the steep mountain roads, riddled with hairpin turns. But that's where you'll find enchanting beech forests reminiscent of fairytales and natural hot springs where you can soak after a hike.
The ski resort town of Abetone has dramatic landscapes in every direction full of trails for all levels. When you see the view from the top of the mountains, you'll see exactly why this small town is sister cities with Aspen, Colo. Venture to Mammiano Basso for a hike that crosses a river by means of a pedestrian suspension bridge 700 feet long and 115 feet high. In the summer months, you can take a lift to the top of the ski resort and hike or bike back down.
Throughout Tuscany, you'll find it's often just a short trek from one town to the next. And even within towns, you'll find scores of walks brimming with history. One of those is the "urban hike," if you will, to the top of the Forte Falcone in the Fortezza Medicea—Medicean Fortress—on Elba Island. Take a ferry here from Livorno, then walk from Via Della Regina to the lookout points in the fort's watchtowers. You'll be able to see the house where Napoleon Bonaparte lived when he was exiled to Elba. The walk is short, but the views are spectacular, so be sure to give yourself enough time to explore.
Padule di Fucecchio
Padule di Fucecchio is home to the largest inland marsh in Italy, as well as hundreds of species of birds. Bring your binoculars here to hike along trails and boardwalks canopied by leafy trees. A well-placed bird hide at the edge of the marsh will help you spy on the fauna.
Hike for a few hours or a few days on Monte Amiata, southern Tuscany's little-known volcano. Much of the mountain is shrouded in an enchanting beech forest covered in moss that will make you think you're walking through a fairytale. The Anello di Monte Amiata trail, about 18.5 miles, circles the summit. Consider staying at Le Macinaie in the charming town of Abbadia San Salvatore, right at the base of the mountain, where you can hike or bike from the front door. Le Macinaie also offers guided services for nearby adventures.
Citta del Tufo, Sovana
The ancient Etruscans carved canyons into soft rock thousands of years ago, sometimes more than 20 feet deep. These paths, called Vie Cave, connect necropolises and temples, like this one, and are pitted with caves carved into the walls. Archaeologists don't know exactly why the Etruscans went to such lengths to carve these roads, but if one thing is clear, it's that there's lots more we've yet to discover.
In 2004, a rainstorm caused a mudslide that revealed an elaborate tomb and stone sculptures just a few hundred yards from this temple, and there are likely scores more ruins waiting to be found just beneath the surface. Start at the archaeological park Citta del Tufo, then wander along the adjacent Via Cava to marvel at ancient engineering. There's something to be said for experiencing something spiritual like this on your own, but consider hiring a local guide, if you can. You'll appreciate having someone along who can answer your inevitable questions.
Via Francigena, Val d'Orcia
The Via Francigena is a trade route that stretches 1,000 miles from Canterbury, England through France and Switzerland to Rome. While there are stretches where you must hike along a road that's now shared with cars, you'll still find postcard views in every direction. And unlike the backpacking you'd find in the U.S., you'll come across towns—and, of course, vineyards—frequently, making it easy to spend a week or more traveling slowly through time. Hostels, hotels and restaurants are easily accessible from the trail, as are the countless churches you'll find in even the smallest towns in Tuscany. Wherever you start, make sure you take time to pass through the Val d'Orcia, one of Tuscany's most scenic valleys. It's also home to the village of Bagno Vignoni, known for its natural thermal waters and hot pools.
Bagni San Filippo
Monte Amiata might be a dormant volcano now, but there's still geothermal energy heating natural hot springs around Tuscany. Skip the developed pools you pay to visit at the Terme San Filippo in Bagni San Filippo and hike to the Balena Bianca, or "white whale," instead. Here, you'll find a massive calcium formation that looks like a waterfall, with hot pools below.
Thanks to the hot Mediterranean sun, the outdoor season in Tuscany is long. The region claims it's home to a "year-round coast," and thanks to the varied terrain, you could ski and snorkel in the same day if you wanted to. High tourist season in Tuscany usually peters off in August or September, but there's no reason for it to slow then. The weather wasn't perfect in mid-September, as heavy rain and choppy seas forced us to change plans a few times, but the weather was mostly good—hot, even, on a few days—and the places I visited were mostly empty. In Tuscany, Plan B is often even better than Plan A, as there's no shortage of things to do, no matter where you are.
For anyone who usually seeks culture or adventure on a trip, Tuscany offers the best of both worlds. If you're primarily there for the food, you can hike or kayak between meals to keep up your appetite, or you could ditch the car entirely and travel everywhere by bike. And after a long day of adventure, you can find a world-class meal without really trying. Conveniently, rural Tuscany is full of restaurants where all of the food is produced or grown on site or on neighboring farms, like at Montefabbrello on Elba Island and wineries like Casato Prime Donne, which has been in the same family since the Middle Ages.
Everything in Tuscany will always come back to the food. It's impossible to envision a trip there without heaps of pecorino, ultra-fresh mozzarella, salami, pasta and about 1,000 local wines to choose from. No matter how long your day was, you'll probably still find it hard to escape the dinner table in less than three hours. And that's OK. It gives you time to savor the new life you're temporarily living as if you can keep it forever.
From seasoned road tripper Mike Shubic to founder and CEO of RoadTrippers.com James Fisher, meet the panel of advisors behind Travel’s Best Road Trips 2015.