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Tuscany: a leap into the unknown

For a first time canyoner, jumping off rocks can be a daunting prospect, but a great instructor and a bit of beginner's pluck are all you need in the Garfagnana valley

Published 6 Sept 2018, 10:11 BST, Updated 15 Jul 2021, 10:08 BST
Isola Santa in the Appuan Alps, Tuscany

Isola Santa in the Appuan Alps, Tuscany

Photograph by Alamy

Rattling through the Garfagnana valley, Simone is telling me about the time he tackled his first canyon; the formidable, and now famous, Orrido di Botri back in the winter of 1985. Driving to what will soon be my first canyon, his tale doesn't exactly put me at ease.

"I went there alone on my motorbike," Simone says, shaking his head with a wry smile. "I was young, and it was the biggest canyon in Tuscany. This was back at a time when no one else was canyoning, so I didn't have a wetsuit or any special equipment, just a boogie board to keep me out of the water as much as possible because it was so cold."

He survived the experience — clearly — traversing the three-mile gorge in eight hours. But somewhat ominously describes it as being "narrow, deep, dangerous — the type of place where animals fall down and die."

I gulp. Nervous head nods follow, and I barely notice the rest of the drive, over a scenic stone bridge and passed an old metato (chestnut mill), where native nuts from the Garfagnana were once dried and made into flour for a variety of delicious breads, pasta and polenta. But, by the time I've begun to think seriously about opening the minibus door and running in the opposite direction, we've arrived.

Luckily Simone has decided not to take me down memory lane — literally, anyway — and I open the door at Rio Selvano, a challenging yet entry-level canyon of limestone rocks and steep gorges, surrounded by Tuscan forest.

It's the ideal spot for beginners to test out this adrenalin-inducing sport, safe in the knowledge that there's always another way down.

While there are waterfalls and rapids aplenty here, there are also around-the-rock alternatives for anyone who baulks at the normal path of jumping, sliding and abseiling their way down.

I begin to relax a little. There's no doubt I'm in very good hands today. Having been a pioneer of canyoning, Simone is now president of the Italian Association of Canyoning Guides. His warm, nothing-is-impossible attitude is testament to 18 years of putting apprehensions at ease.

We heave ourselves into skin-tight wetsuits, harnesses, helmets and specialist rubber shoes, before waddling back into the van for the five minute drive to reach the canyon's starting point.

And then, we're off: slipping and sliding our way through the gorge. We tackle seven abseils in total, the highest of which is a little over 40ft, using ropes to feed ourselves down the waterfalls and cliff faces, sometimes backwards, sometimes staring straight into the terrifying drop.

At other points, we have to cross our arms and shoot down flume-like rock tunnels, or dive bomb into what I'm assured are very deep pools. All the time Simone is right there, joking with me, spurring me on.

A seasoned canyoner from Rome joins us. "Is this your first time?" she asks, as we wade through the water between obstacles. "Very brave," she says, smiling, as I nod in reply.

The journey takes around three hours, during which time we descend almost 2,300ft. Even I'm a little bit impressed with myself, having had a fear of falling for most of my life. A natural instinct, some might say, but it feels exhilarating not to have flaked out of any hurdles or taken the back route around the rocks.

More impressive still is the scenery in this cleft of the Garfagnana valley, where the Apuan and Apennine mountains meet. With its trickling water, limpid pools and tangled banks, the canyon has an exotic wildness I've witnessed in the jungles of Southeast Asia, but never expected to see here in Tuscany.

"In the Garfagnana, tourism is for Italian people who want to eat well for not a lot of money, but also appreciate nature," says Simone, as we dry ourselves off back at his office and refuel with red wine and crisps.

Indeed, after a successful canyoning experience, it seems only right to do as the Italians do, so we head off to the Molino di Fabbriche, an 18th-century chestnut mill that's still in operation today, and also serves up a sideline in delicious food. The carpaccio di cinghiale (thinly sliced wild boar) is as restorative as the gentle trickle of the Turrite Cava stream outside.

You're never far from good food in Tuscany — and never far from adventure, either. 

Q&A: Simone Cecchi

President of the Italian Association of Canyoning Guides, and volunteer for the Tuscany mountain rescue service since 1992

Favourite canyon in Tuscany?
The Rio Selvano because it's fun and not very difficult. It's perfect for both beginners and the more experienced, as it has jumps, slides and abseils running along the three-hour canyon.

Most challenging canyon?
The Rio Prunaccio in Careggine. You won't find this on Google yet, because it's the last unexplored canyon in Tuscany. My colleague Andrea and I discovered it last January — nobody else had passed through it before us. It takes four hours to complete and has 11 vertical obstacles, some very complex if the water is high. The highest abseil is 115ft and the last three are particularly amazing.

Advice for first-time canyoners?
Get ready to see, smell and touch nature. The only requirements are a reasonable level of fitness and the ability to swim. Since canyons are a natural, ever-changing environment, find an experienced guide. They need specific training, skills and enthusiasm to bring the canyon to life.

What has canyoning taught you?
I've been doing this for a long time and over the years I've taken people from all walks of life and of all ages canyoning. While canyoning isn't for everyone, it's for more people than you might think.

Garfagnana in northwestern Tuscany has several canyons to explore, suitable for all abilities.

Follow @LauraHoltTravel

Published in the Tuscany guide, distributed with the October issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK) 

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