If you’re looking for a miniature Tuscany, the Pisa area is a find. Drawing an imaginary circle with a 50-kilometre radius (which translates to a half-hour drive) with Pisa at the centre, you can reach mountain peaks and wild beaches, skirting past hills that are reminiscent of Tuscany at its most bucolic, lakes, swamps and coastal pinewoods. In just one day, visitors can make the most of a wealth of environments equipped to offer eclectic experiences.
In the north, the Apuan Alps stand tall, so called because the shape resembles their northern European brothers, which despite “only” reaching 2,000 metres should not be underrated, zigzagged with trails and mountaintops for all. Dropping down from the highlands, we come to Lago di Massaciuccoli, one of the largest lakes in Tuscany, where canoeing and birdwatching slow down the pace in a breathtakingly beautiful setting. Massaciuccoli Lake deserved to be visited in all its glory, surveying the expanse of water from the hills before exploring the nooks, crannies and swamps in a canoe. Along the coast stands San Rossore, a nature park that is as unique as it is rare. Over a fistful of kilometres, the scenery switches between broad-leaved woodland and waterside foliage, where the colours change every few steps and with them, the scents, finally happening upon a wild coastline vaunting blissful beaches.
On our return to San Rossore we venture up to Monte Pisano, where hiking and biking are a must. Mountain biking consists of uphill climbs on tarmac roads and descents down former cart tracks and fire break paths on enduro or downhill bikes. These trails are popular among riders from all over Italy as well as overseas cyclists because of the stunning scenery and the allure of adrenaline sparked by high-speed descents.
Surprise and wonder go hand in hand during a visit to the Pisa area, especially when attached to an instructor for an enthralling paragliding experience. Takeoff occurs in the easy-to-reach mountains above the spa town of San Giuliano Terme. Long supplying Lucca and Pisa with water, the Nottolini and Mediceo Aqueducts now furnish a fabulous backdrop for hiking and biking, independently or in the company of a tour guide.
The itinerary continues in the Pisa hills, which boast a centuries-old winemaking tradition. Local wineries are open for tastings, a welcome break while hiking and biking in the scenic Tuscan hills. Further south, just beyond Livorno, marks the start of the Etruscan Coast, lined with equally beautiful beaches.
Human endeavours and natural wonders happily coexist in the Migliarino, San Rossore, Massaciuccoli nature park. Certain fauna and flora species were introduced to the reserve: the House of Lorraine brought deer, Elizabeth Bonaparte encouraged wild deer to up the park’s animal population and the Medici had the stone pine planted so that the ruling family could obtain pine nuts. But the distinguishing feature is San Rossore’s relationship with water.
The entire coastline was lined with swamps, which alternated between wetlands and dry areas, since sandy coasts teem with life at a geomorphological level. Up until about a century ago, the Pisan coast was ever expanding and retreating as two important rivers, the Arno and the Serchio, carried considerable debris. Removing water from the sea and creating new land, the dunes stayed behind the sandy shore and were cultivated with flora. That’s how this wooded dune area was formed, seamlessly switching from low to high zones. This fact, combined with the swamp dynamics, ensured that the area behind the dunes, often filled with water, created an environment awash with waterside vegetation.
Walking from the estate and heading for the sea along the first tarmacked avenue in Italy, at San Rossore it feels like you’ve gone back in time, a history lesson in motion, marked by today’s coastline and the centuries-old dunes representing the past. The time travel changes every few metres, from verdant vegetation to the driest shrubbery.
Massaciuccoli Lake’s closeness to the coast serves up striking scenery. Just a couple of metres above the waterline provides views over the two kilometres of pinewoods that separate the nature reserve from the sea. The double sunset is a sight to behold as the sun, often a stunning shade of African red, reflects in both the Tyrrhenian Sea and the lake. Massaciuccoli is a nature reserve that’s home to an array of European water birds, making it a promised land for twitchers. Binocular lenses land on non-migratory species like herons, waders and tiny passerines in the rushes as well as birds that stop here during the migration season. A fun fact: the purple heron, which breeds in Africa and nests in Massaciuccoli boasts the biggest colony in Europe here with almost 800 specimens. Also watch out for the “swamp falcon”, which actually belongs to the Circus genus.
When you’re finished on the feathered front, go wild watching for insects and other animals while canoeing in the lake’s calm waters installed in a canoe or boat as part of a guided tour. Landlubbers can amble around the piles, leading to viewing platforms and a small-scale museum about the swamp’s environment, which vaunts a touch system for the visually impaired that’s equally useful for educating children.
The Oasi di Lipu nature reserve is situated on the eastern shore, extending from Massaciuccoli to the Meloria shallows, covering 20,000 hectares of water and 17,000 hectares of swampland between the Pisa and Lucca provinces. Open 365 days a year, the lake teems with history. Navigating its waters offers the perfect opportunity to reflect on what inspired composer Giacomo Puccini, who loved to spend time hunting and sailing at his villa in nearby Torre del Lago.