It’s a calm morning on the Arno river when we paddle out in our kayaks. We’re in Tuscany’s Valle dell’Inferno e Bandella Nature Reserve, near the Levane dam.
The name translates as ‘Valley of Hell’, which doesn’t seem appropriate for the tranquil scene before us. But before the dam was built here, when log rafts navigated the river towards Florence and Pisa, the area’s steep rapids and rocky gorges were treacherous.
We glide along a calm stretch lined with dense trees with green and gold leaves, the scene doubled by the reflections mirrored in the still waters. The nature reserve is home to rich bird life and the air is filled with lively song. A grey heron stands motionless on a river bank while a hawk cruises silently above. We pass rocky banks and under the remaining arch of an ancient Roman bridge.
Most people know this region of Italy for its art, wine, rolling hills and cypress trees. But more recently, adventure sports have been taking off here, too – from hiking the ancient Via Francigena pilgrimage route that linked Canterbury and Rome, to mountain biking in places like Monte Amiata. But with miles of rivers, lakes and coastlines, I’ve decided to explore Tuscany through its waterways, a world away from the tour buses operating routes to the crowded cities of Florence and Pisa.
Our guides are Sebastian Schweizer and Enrico Pini Prato from watersports company T-rafting. I met Schweizer by chance six months earlier, when he and a group were inflating rafts on a bridge outside Colle di Val d’Elsa in Siena, about to take to the sparkling turquoise waters of the Elsa river.
Intrigued, I spoke to the group. Schweizer explained his passion for exploring the area through its various rivers and tributaries, which were used for navigation long before roads. ‘To travel Tuscany discovering its waterways is like exploring the heart, veins and the arteries of the landscape itself,’ he told me.
‘Not only do you enter a different dimension, but you grasp and understand the importance of the waterways through the centuries – the reasons for the location of settlements, the rise and fall of entire towns. As soon as you go on the water, everything changes too: sounds, temperature, perspective are so completely different.’ I had immediately vowed to return and explore these watery corridors.
After a morning of kayaking, we set up a picnic on shaded wooden tables in the nature reserve and tuck into a typical Italian spread of cured meats, cheeses and fresh tomatoes. There are jars of olive paste, tuna fillets and artichoke hearts, with fresh bread, olive oil and wine.
At the village of Loro Ciuffenna, 12 kilometres north, an archway leads to tiny streets where stone houses have pretty shutters and pots of colourful flowers. An 11th century water mill sits over the rocky Ciuffenna river gorge, where the flow of water can be regulated to maintain the level of the lake above. We meet the mill keeper’s son Fabrizo, who takes us to the small stone millhouse above the mill wheels and shows us how a chain is pulled to open a water gate and harness the power of the river. This was an important flour mill in the past and it’s still used each winter to grind chestnuts into flour.
Next day, we hit the coast to kayak around the Piombino promontory that faces the Tuscan archipelago. It’s a hot and sunny Sunday and locals are swimming and fishing from the shale beach when we set off into the blue waters of a crescent-shaped bay at Calamoresca to navigate the eight kilometres to the Gulf of Baratti.
We paddle along the shore for a couple of hours. It’s all thick green forest and sandstone cliffs, passing the Baratti and Populonia Archaeological Park which has Etruscan and Roman tombs. Small green dwarf palms dot the cliffs, while we pass anchored motorboats and secluded coves.
We stop at a small stony cove, Cala Galera, and gather around on logs for another picnic, of olives, salami, bread, red wine, apples and grapes. Some locals arrive in their kayaks and sit chatting to us before taking a dip in the sea – which is a warm 22°C. As I envy the locals doing this every Sunday, the phrase la dolce vita (‘the sweet life’) comes to mind.
My next aqua adventure is packrafting, where you hike with a small inflatable raft in a backpack before crossing a lake or river. The sport is believed to have originated in Alaska, and was introduced to Tuscany last season by T-rafting. We set out one morning to hike from the Bosco ai Frati convent through the forest to the man-made Lake Bilancino in the Mugello area, with our rafts tucked into backpacks.
The rafts weigh three to four kilogrammes and the one-kilogramme paddle folds neatly into four pieces. At the edge of the lake we unpack and inflate the rafts, setting off for a peaceful paddle across the water. When we’re finished, the rafts are easy to deflate and repack.
After a few days exploring wild coastline, rocky coves and tree-lined river banks, we drive towards the city of Florence. At Lungarno Serristori, again on the river Arno, we ditch the road and launch a large inflatable raft from a sandy bank.
We paddle slowly up the river, and before long the yellow and golden buildings of Florence come into view. On the buildings there are coats of arms, stone balconies and painted shutters. Neat cypress trees and ornate street lamps line the bank. We pass under a bridge and in the distance, I catch my first glimpse of the famous Ponte Vecchio and its covered buildings.
As we float under the arch, we open a bottle of prosecco and sip bubbles in the sun. It’s my first time to see Florence and what a way to arrive. Tourists look down at us enviously from the famous arched bridge and take turns to snap photos from the crowded viewpoint.
We’re due to have a guided walking tour of the city later in the day. But looking up at the crowds, and then back down the river towards patches of trees where the peaceful Tuscan waterways beckon, I know which way my heart wants to go.
Try These Other Watersports in Tuscany
Go sailing on the Tyrrhenian Sea to discover the seven islands of the Tuscan archipelago, including Elba Island, which has beaches, sailing and surfing. Click here for day trips or charters.
Try diving or snorkelling along the Etruscan coast, taking in the sandy beaches around the Gulf of Baratti, the rocky coastline of Maremma, or dive from the island of Capraia.
Experience canyoning down a riverbed, which includes abseiling, jumping and sliding, with Toscana Adventure Team.
Discover where to go stand-up paddleboarding (SUP), whitewater rafting, swimtrekking (snorkelling and hiking) or rivertrekking with T-rafting.
Tuscany is full of free natural hot springs, perfect for relaxing muscles after adventures. Some of the best are Cascate del Mulino in Saturnia and Bagni San Filippo in south Tuscany.
Cathay Pacific flies to Milan and Rome seven and four times a week, respectively