Hiking Orrido di Botri and Bagni di Lucca
Tucked away on the eastern slopes of the Serchio valley in northwest Tuscany is a nature reserve with the Orrido di Botri as its centerpiece.
The Rio Pelago has cut a dramatic gorge through the limestone of the Appenine mountains. This canyon is a mixture of soft greens of trees and the white/grey walls of limestone. The hike is not a long one - perhaps an hour and a half to two hours - but it presents the opportunity to enjoy a side of Italy other than the tourist-clogged streets of Florence or the crowded trail in the Cinque Terre.
There is a small bar across from the park entrance. They can prepare sandwiches for you to take along on your hike. After hiking in to the second signpost ("Prigioni" or prisons, much nicer than it sounds) you can pick a sunny spot and listen to the canyon. If you opt not to picnic, you can stop in Bagni di Lucca on the return trip.
Actually, a stop at the bar in the "piazzetta" on the main road (Via Umberto I) is a great way to end the day after a hike. This village was once a place frequented by the high society, with a casino and thermal baths; today, it is a quiet wayside worth visiting for its pretty villas, the casino, baths and, best of all, a restful meal.
The Orrido di Botri is a natural reserve and requires a ticket and the donning of safety helmets, both of which may be taken care of at the Italian equivalent of a ranger station. Admission to the reserve is a mere 2 euro per person, including the helmet (and a cute headliner cap). Guided visits to the Orrido di Botri are 13 euro, with reductions for children under 11 at 7 euro.
The "trail" is often the stream. As you start the hike you'll pass through a gate next to a house with a sign reminding you that you must have a ticket to take this trail. You wander down the trail to the stream and parallel it, crossing the stream every now and then. Eventually you are left with no other choice but to hike in the stream.
You won't want to hike this stream bare foot - the rocks are a bit too large for barefoot comfort. Tivas or hiking boots without socks are better solutions. The best would be neoprene booties that combine good traction, foot protection and warmth in the cold water.
There are two main sections that require you to take to the stream. The first is about 80 meters long leading to the "Prigioni" signpost. The second is longer - 500 meters - and leads you to the end of the non-technical portion of the gorge. Travel beyond this point requires scrambling skills and ropes. A guide is recommended should you wish to extend the hike beyond this point.
Upon your return to the ranger station you'll turn in your helmets.
Montefegatesi and Bagni di Lucca
You can leave the reserve on either of the two roads described below. The rougher route takes you past Montefegatesi, a nearly abandoned but dramatic hamlet clinging to its hilltop. It is certainly worth photographs from the road, but wandering through its steep narrow lanes is even better.
Beyond the hamlet, the road drops you into Bagni di Lucca where beer, gelato and prosecco wait to refresh you after your labors. Bagni di Lucca is stretched along the torrente Lima and is worth wandering through for its casino and thermal spas.
Bagni di Lucca also has a newly refurbished suspension bridge - the Ponte alla Catene, built in 1840. It is remarkably modern looking and is reserved for pedestrian traffic. The casino is in this same area. A block west of the Ponte Serraglio on Via del Casino at number 10 you'll find "Ristorante Da Vinicio" for pizza.
To Get There
Take the SS12 north from Lucca, staying on the SS12 at the roundabout at Marlia - take the second exit from the roundabout, following the signs to Bagni di Lucca. SS12 will turn off to the right 14.2 km beyond the roundabout. Do not take that turn. Instead, take SS445, toward Castelnuovo di Garfagnana. However, if you happen to end up on SS12, watch for turns to your left into Bagni di Lucca rather than reversing course. Once in Bagni di Lucca you may either turn right to take the Difficult route (see below) or turn left and return to SS445 for the Easy route.
Two roads - one easy, one difficult, take you to the Orrido di Botri.
The Difficult trail
The difficult route takes you through Bagni di Lucca and Montefegatesi before it becomes a white road to reach the Orrido di Botri. While very scenic, it is not recommended for those with a low clearance car.
To take this route follow the first Orrido di Botri sign at the roundabout after the exit for SS12. That sign, apparently placed there by the Bagni di Lucca tourism bureau, directs you to take the first right off the roundabout. You'll pass the casino on your left and the Ponte di Catene on your right. As you drive through the town continue to follow the signs to Orrido di Botri. You'll start climbing, and climbing until, finally, you see Montefegatesi from the road. Just past Montefegatesi the pavement will end: this is indicated by the orange line. Follow the white road for 3 km to the bottom of the hill where you'll find a left turn into the parking lot for the bar. Park there. You reach the ranger station by crossing the bridge and walking uphill to the right.
The Easy trail
For the easy route, take the second exit off the roundabout after the exit for SS12. Drive through Fornoli and into Granaiola on the SS445 and take the Orrido di Botri signed road to the right. This road is wider and smoother than the first route and involves no white road. From the turn off it is about 15 km, through Tereglio (a picturesque village) and Margeglio, to the right turn to the entrance of Orrido di Botri Nature Reserve (Riserva Naturale Nazionale dell Orrido di Botri). Drive across the bridge, park by the bar and return to the ranger station on foot.
If you didn't already visit Montefegatesi on the way in, and if you have a vehicle with moderate ground clearance, you can take the white road to Montefegatesi by turning right as you leave the bar parking lot. Otherwise, return by way of the easy road.