If not for the narrow win for republicans in the Italian referendum of 1946, the most beautiful part of the 60,000 acres of San Rossore park would still be the private estate of the Italian king and given the culpability of the House of Savoy in all of Italy's problems in the first half of the 20th century I'm surprised the result was as close as it was. Long before the unification of Italy in 1861 when Vittorio Emanuele II first got his hands on this remarkable property, the Medici family in the 16th century used it as a hunting reserve, taking full advantage of Florence’s dominion over Pisa at that time.
The park’s boundaries today stretch from just north of Livorno to the southern edge of Viareggio straddling the provinces of Pisa and Lucca and encompassing much of the land and shoreline between the autostrada and the sea. It’s a flat low lying area with very diverse terrains. Marshland predominates in the northern part around the large lake of Massaciuccoli and there are magnificent pine forests near Pisa in the southern part which formed the king’s estate. The coastline itself is mostly preserved in its natural state of sand dunes and Mediterranean scrub with only a few access points. In fact it’s not the easiest park to enjoy because of this limited accessibility and to get into the most remote areas you either need to walk a long way or book an organized tour by the park guides.
However there are plenty of shorter walks you can take, either along the beach or down the main avenue of pine trees or on the wooden walkways over the lake which attract birdwatchers in particular.
Furthermore, the northern part includes the community of Torre del Lago, famous as the home of Lucca’s most famous son, Giacomo Puccini. It sits on a strip of land between Lake Massaciucoli and the sea and is home to the Puccini opera festival, held outdoors every year in a very atmospheric location right on the water. From 1891 Puccini spent most of his time at his home in Torre del Lago and it is here that he wrote his famous operas over a thirty year period.
Two rivers thread their way out to the sea through the park. The Arno, which flows through the centers of Florence and Pisa, and the Serchio which is Lucca’s nearby river that starts in the mountains half way between Lucca and Parma and flows down through the Garfagnana.
For this article we’ll describe three places that you can reach easily by car and enjoy without miles and miles of hiking. Longer walks we’ll talk about another time and for guided tours or boat trips the Park’s website is the best source of information. www.parcosanrossore.org
1. Via del Gombo. This is an impressive avenue of pine trees (top photo) at the main entrance to the park which is just a couple of miles due west of the Piazza dei Miracoli where the Duomo and Leaning Tower of Pisa stand. You can see them in the distance just as you enter the park.
The Viale delle Cascine leads directly from the Piazza dei Miracoli underneath the autostrada to the park entrance. Drive as far as you can until you reach the park office at the furthest car park and from here to the sea is a walk of about 2 miles but to admire the pines it’s not necessary to go more than a few hundred yards.
2. Spiaggia della Lecciona. There is no more than about 2 miles between the northern end of Viale Europa in the Marina del Torre del Lago and the southern end of the same named street in Viareggio so you can choose to walk along Lecciona beach from either direction (the photo above is looking north towards the shipyards of Viareggio and the previous beach photo towards the top of this article was taken looking south).
This stretch of coastline is undeveloped and mostly undisturbed because it's officially within the park and in fact in summer it's the only large beach along the entire Versilia coastline that is not transformed into a mass of deck chairs and umbrellas for paying customers. Because it's a 'free beach' it's certainly well used in hot weather but it's very wide and if you're prepared to do some walking there are plenty of open spaces.
Out of the high season it's never particularly crowded once you're a little way away from either town and it's a great beach for strolling. In winter the constant backdrop is the snow covered Apuan Alps making it hard to recognize for most people as being part of Tuscany.
Recently the park organization started a guided walk here on a newly created nature trail that lasts 2-3 hours and explores the Macchia Lucchese, which is the name for the woods, sand dunes and natural vegetation of the Lecciona reserve.
The walk starts in Torre del Lago in front of the Villa Borbone which was built in 1822 as a hunting lodge by the Duchess of Lucca, Maria Luisa di Borbone. She commissioned her favorite architect for the building, Lorenzo Nottolini, who was shortly thereafter to commence work on his design of the Lucca aqueduct, later to become his most famous work.
3. Lago di Massaciuccoli. This is the largest remaining wetland in Tuscany and just outside the small village at the ‘LIPU Oasi’ there are hundreds of yards of wooden walkways that stretch across the wetlands in various directions with wooden ‘blinds’ or ‘hides’ for birdwatchers. Specific boat trips and guided tours can be booked here. Massaciuccoli is also a great area for cycling because the flat land provides a welcome respite from all the mountains around Lucca, though there is one hill above the town which provides great views of the lake.
The village of Massaciuccoli also has some interesting Roman ruins which are worth a visit and a good seafood restaurant called Le Terme, both right in the center. We’ve eaten at Le Terme at least a dozen times over the years because in the winter they host some interesting wine events and the food has always been good and the wine list very fairly priced.
Surprisingly I couldn't find any really great drone videos of the park. The one below is quite good for the first 3 minutes and then the drone operator loses focus and starts chasing deer for the last couple of minutes instead of showing more of the park, but it will give you some idea of the huge scale of San Rossore and the changing terrain. Best to view it on full screen and there's a nice soundtrack too.