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Rays of sunlight filtered through the mist as I pedaled my e-bike through Italy’s Casentino Forest National Park in eastern Tuscany. Back down the winding road I had just ascended lies the ancient monastery of Camaldoli, home to a small community of monks whose existence has been linked to the forest for more than 1,000 years. The mystical quality of the light seemed entirely in keeping with this spiritual connection.
This magical ride was just one of the highlights of the week I spent exploring Tuscany as an adventure travel destination. Even those familiar with the region’s classic attractions may be surprised at how much more there is to discover.
Here are four regions of Tuscany brimming with active and off-the-beaten-path experiences that blend history, nature and local culture.
Casentino ValleyThe hermitage of Camaldoli was founded in 1012 by St. Romuald, a nobleman-turned-monk from Ravenna. For centuries, the monks of Camaldoli managed the Casentino forest, which provided the raw material for building projects such as the famous dome of the Florence Cathedral.
Now a national park and recently designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the forest has some of Italy’s richest biodiversity, including red and roe deer, wild boar and wolves.
The Casentino Valley, which includes the park, has abundant opportunities for outdoor recreation, including hiking, biking, ziplining, canyoneering and winter activities. It’s also perfect for exploring local culture and history, with numerous medieval castles and towns.
Elba Napoleon spent nine months in exile on Elba, but for modern visitors, time on the island is the opposite of punishment. The largest of the seven islands of Tuscan Archipelago National Park, Elba is an hourlong ferry journey from Piombino on the mainland.
Elba’s indented coastline and clear waters make it an outstanding destination for activities such as kayaking, snorkeling and diving. Onshore, its rugged terrain provides excellent hiking opportunities, including trails to the top of 3,343-foot Mount Capanne, the island’s highest point.
My group hiked from Fetovaia to Pomonte along a coastal trail that boasted views of steep cliffs rising from turquoise waters, with Montecristo and Corsica islands on the horizon.
The Etruscan CoastThe roughly 50-mile stretch of coastline from Piombino to Livorno takes its name from the ancient Etruscans, who inhabited the region starting in the ninth century B.C., predating the Romans. The area is rich in archaeological sites, vineyards producing some of Tuscany’s finest wine and charming villages such as Bolgheri, where I enjoyed a local lunch at Enoteca Tognoni.
To get to Bolgheri, we took a glorious 19-mile bike ride from the hills of Canneto through forests, the medieval village of Castagneto Carducci and the arrow-straight Avenue of the Cypresses, which is lined with vineyards.
One group member opted against biking in favor of a “coasteering” excursion along the Etruscan Coast’s rocky shoreline — just one of the many types of adventures available in this small but fascinating region.
Via FrancigenaA medieval route leading from Canterbury, England, to Rome, the Via Francigena was once used by pilgrims, traders, armies and other travelers. Now, it has been developed as a long-distance international hiking and biking path, with 16 stages (routes) in Tuscany. Both pilgrim-style hostels and tourist accommodations are available.
The Via Francigena enters Tuscany through the Cisa Pass, then cuts through the Apennine ridge and descends to the enchanting town of Pontremoli, which boasts a 10th-century hilltop castle that houses a museum of stylized stone statues dating back as far as 5,000 years.
Continuing south, the route passes tiny villages, historic towns, castles, monasteries and a variety of landscapes. Andrea Lombardi, vice president of the Tuscan Association of the Via Francigena, recommends the stretch between Lucca and Siena for its mix of towns and wilder areas. This section covers 83 miles and takes about five days of walking.