Monday, November 29, 2010

Castles of the Casentino

In addition to my work as an ownership representative for Castello di Casole, I am a journalist for a newspaper in Florence for English speakers called The Florentine. As their Travel & Leisure writer, each month I spotlight a special Tuscan town, beach, island, ski resort, terme, abbey, whatever strikes my fancy really, and I try to go a level deeper than a guide book. My first two articles featured Volterra and Arezzo. For my November piece I was searching for something completely off the beaten path, so Daniela suggested we visit a mountainous region between Florence and Arezzo called the Casentino and offered to be my tour guide one Sunday in October. 

Mind you I had never heard the word “casentino” before. It sounded a bit dull, and frankly, my arm needed a little twisting. Little did I know I was about experience some of the most amazing scenery in all of Italy, turreted castles right out of a fairytale book, undiscovered churches adorned with precious art by Renaissance masters, and a massive national park with endless hiking trails. That day in the Casentino hit me deep in my soul, and I am still quivering at the memory of it all.
The easiest and most beautiful way to reach the Casentino from Florence is to drive east through Pontassieve, then climb the Passo della Consuma, a mountain pass that winds through a glowing green countryside sprinkled with enchanted forests and tiny villages with curious names like Omomorto “dead man”.

I had a feeling the drive up the Passo di Consuma was going to be particularly beautiful that fall morning, so I handed the keys over to Daniela who happily took the wheel. The views as we climbed the pass were simply stunning. About halfway up we came across a small log cabin right out of Vermont that looked like the perfect place to stop for a cappuccino. I couldn’t resist sampling the schiachatta con l’uva, a sweet, dense cake baked with overripe grapes on top, which I normally don’t like because the grapes have seeds. It was divine.

About ten minutes further up the pass we made a left-hand turn towards the town of Stia, historically one of the most important wool-making centers in Italy. We parked in the town’s main lot then headed up the lane along the river to Tessilnova,  a delightful shop teeming with vibrantly colored coats, hats, scarves, purses, slippers and other apparel made of the famous, nubbed “casentino” wool. During our visit one of the helpful salespeople explained how the nubs were originally formed by rubbing the fabric along rows of dried thistles.
At the end of the lane, I ventured into the Museo della Lana, a museum dedicated to preserving the history of wool-making in Stia. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the self-guided tour through the museum, open mornings 10AM-1PM and afternoons 4PM-7PM, has descriptions in English.

Of course we were starving after all that driving so we stopped for an early lunch at Ristorante Falterona “Gliaccantiti” in Piazza Tanucci, (the only piazza in the small town). My thinly sliced fresh porcini with arugula and pecorino was delicately accentuated with pink peppercorns. Daniela savored every bit of her beef carpaccio, which after living in Italy for two years still gives me the willies. Also on the menu is a bottled water produced by Pierre Cardin from the spring in Stia. Apparently the French fashion designer used to vacation here and loved the ultra-fresh water so much he bought the spring and sells the bottles at his restaurant Maxim’s in Paris and a few other select locales.

During our lunch, Marco, the owner, revealed one of the best-kept secrets of the Casentino- the Chiesa delle Santa Maria de Grazie, a sweet little church just down the road from Stia. On the way to the church we stopped off at the Castello di Porciano, also on the outskirts of Stia. I was completely charmed by this 11th-century castle, its walls, well and tower cloaked in lush, red ivy. It is there that I took one of my favorite photographs of Daniela.

When we arrived at Chiesa delle Santa Maria de Grazie, the sprightly, elderly caretaker, Antonietta, graciously opened the door to this wondrous shrine built in the 1430s. Inside five beautifully preserved ceramic reliefs from the famous 15th-century della Robbia school exude purity and grace in their signature colors of pale blue and white. I was also amazed to find a fresco by Florentine Renaissance painter Domenico Ghirlandaio I actually studied in an art history class in college.

Our next top was the fairytale-like Castello di Romena, complete with a drawbridge and a prison tower that was allegedly the inspiration for the circles of hell in Dante’s Inferno. Built back in the 10th-century by the Counts of Guidi, the castle had fourteen towers and was the most powerful in the region. The little museum inside is moderately interesting but for me the views from the dramatic Cypress-bordered grounds alone were worth the €3 entry fee.

A few kilometers below Castello lies one of the most beautiful Romanesque churches in all of Tuscany-the Pieve della Romena. As we descended the hill and rounded a bend in the narrow road, seemingly out of nowhere this gently rounded, neatly columned church emerged in shades of soft grey. The locals speak with great affection for the priest, Don Luigi, whose Sunday sermons draw more than a hundred people from the Casentino and beyond. When we entered the church’s bare, graceful interior it became immediately apparent to me why people from all over the world venture to this scared place for either a brief visit or to attend one of Don Luigi’s weekend spiritual retreats.

Next we decided, perhaps against out better judgment, to take a rather perilous, winding road through the Parco Nationale delle Forreste Casentinesito to the hermitage at the Benedictine monastery at Camaldoli. As we drove deeper into the eerie forest, the fog around us thickened and the temperature plummeted and when we finally arrived at the hermitage we felt as though we were smack in the middle of a dark, snow-filled cloud.  At the hermitage, 125 or vegetarian monks who grow their own food live in silence in a cluster of small cottages. 

When we opened the doors to the plain white church, we both gasped. Inside, every square inch of the walls and ceilings, decorated by Vasari, are brilliantly frescoed and whatever isn’t frescoed is gilded. The entire space is a joyous symphony of color and light. As we walked around in stunned silence, we discovered a tiny chapel with an exquisite ceramic relief by Andrea della Robbia. The church at the 11th-century monastery a few kilometers down the hill has three oil paintings by Vasari and a little farmacia where you can buy honey, soaps and other products made by the monks.

During a subsequent visit to the Casentino, this time with our dear friend Karen, we visited the picturesque town of Poppi, the most important historical center in the Casentino and my new favorite town in the region. As we climbed the road leading into its city center, a grand gazebo beckoned us to take in the views of the countryside under its elegant dome. In the main piazza, an inviting little six-sided chapel is lavishly frescoed. The abbey of San Fidele at the end of the porticoed lane in front of the chapel features a crucifix by Taddeo Gaddi, a prize student of Giotto.

Atop the hill, the commanding and remarkably well-preserved Castello di Conti Guidi looked vaguely familiar to me. Later I learned that its right half was designed by Florentine architect Arnolfo di Cambio, architect of the Palazzo Vecchio, my favorite building in Florence. Inside the 13th-century castle opposite five ceramic coats of arms from the della Robbia school, an exquisite stone staircase curves up to a striking dark wooden balcony. At its top a stands a statue of one of the Guidi counts who is said to haunt castle’s halls. I caught my breath as I entered the castle’s small chapel and found myself surrounded by a series of faded frescoes on its vaulted ceiling and walls recounting the “Story of the Gospel” and painted by Taddeo Gaddi.

That day we lingered over a long, delightful lunch at L’Antica Cantina Ristorante on via Lapucci in Poppi. Cozy and refined with 14th-century barrel-vaulted ceilings, L’Antica Cantina is the perfect spot to spend a crisp fall afternoon indulging in great food and wine with friends. I ordered the “Autumn Fantasy Salad” but I was particularly tempted by the chestnut flour tagliatelle with bacon, walnuts, pine nuts and raisins, and the savory veal filet with figs and gorgonzola. Daniela loaded up on porcini mushrooms while Karen opted for the melted tomino cheese wrapped in thinly sliced speck. All of this paired quite nicely with a bottle of Crognolo from the Tenuto di Setteponti winery down the road in Arezzo.

I fell in love with the Casentino after my first visit. The raw, intense beauty of its landscape and the kindness and generosity of its people have been calling to me ever since. I can’t wait to return in the spring, after the snow has melted and the roads are accessible, to visit to the La Verna, a thriving monastic community where St. Francis is said to have received the stigmata in a nearby cave.

Getting There: From Florence, head east along the Arno to via Arentino, which eventually becomes the SP70. After Pontassieve, where the road merges with a larger highway, veer right following the sign to Pontassieve (even though you already passed through it) not straight towards Ruffina. A few kilometers later turn left onto Passo della Consuma.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Appreciating Arezzo

My first visit to Arezzo was with a colleague of mine at Castello di Casole a few summers ago. The town was only an hour and a half away and neither of us had ever been, so we grabbed a guidebook, jumped in her convertible and headed east. Upon arriving we walked around the city center, poked our heads into a few churches and shops and admired the main piazza. Then we had a nice lunch and left. It was a pleasant enough experience but I wasn’t feeling the urge to return anytime soon.

Fortunately, my dear friend Daniela is from Arezzo and after several trips there with her over the past year I now have a whole new appreciation for it. We always stay at her parents’ house where she grew up which is a real treat for me, especially when I am feeling homesick. Her mother, Giuliana, dotes all over me and she even hems my pants. She is an excellent cook (are there any Italian mothers who aren’t?!), and she looks visibly crestfallen every time Daniela and I go out for lunch or dinner during our visits. As for Daniela’s father, Pietro, you name it, he can fix it. Last time he welded the handle back onto a sterling silver purse a friend got for me in Thailand. Another time he washed my Ford Focus wagon, which is always caked in inches of dust, and buffed it to a sparkling shine with a hand towel.  

Last month, on the first Sunday in September, Daniela invited me to join her for the Giostra del Saracino, a spirited medieval jousting festival that has been entertaining crowds in Arezzo since the mid 1500s.  The Fiera Antiquaria, an antique fair of more than 500 vendors that descend upon the Piazza Grande the first weekend of every month, was happening as well so it was an ideal weekend to visit.

On Sunday morning, in order to be sure we could park, we rode into the city centre on her father’s motorbike. We thought we looked pretty hot in our little dresses and helmets until we saw this photo ...

Daniela has to start and end each day in Arezzo with a stop at Coffee O’Clock (on the main shopping street called Corso Italia), one of the most interesting and inviting cafes in Tuscany. You can plug into its wireless Internet, view the abstract art on exhibit and catch up on the latest news in the International Herald Tribune. The owner Massimo has a booming coffee roasting business and distributes his beans all over Italy and the café has an unusually wide and creative selection of coffee drinks. 

My favorite is the Espresso Shakerato- a martini-style espresso, shaken not stirred, and poured into a thick glass made of solid ice. Catering to its international clientele, there is also a nice selection of infused and loose leaf teas which are almost impossible to find in Italy. That morning I opted for the memory-enhancing blend of yerba mate, orange rind, ginseng, cinnamon, cloves, pepper and rose to be extra sure I would remember the exciting events of the day.

After fueling up we did some window-shopping along Corso Italia, which has several stylish high-end boutiques- L’Albero for shoes and handbags and Sugar with the latest apparel from Prada, Dolce & Gabbana and other Italian designers. Along the way we ran into Daniela’s friend Roberto, the owner of Viaggiando, an upscale sporting goods store right out of Boulder, Colorado. Roberto is an avid outdoorsman who leads hiking expeditions all over the world and upstairs his guidebook and map-reading room beckons adventure seekers with an inviting, weathered brown leather chair.

Continuing up Corso Italia, we ventured into Arezzo’s largest and most beautiful church – the 12th-century Santa Maria della Pieve. Inside and definitely worth seeing is the famous gilded Virgin with Child and Saints painted by Pietro Lorenzetti in 1320, and the glimmering gold and silver bejeweled bust of San Donato, patron saint of Arezzo. Above, the wooden beams are adorned with the Stemma- the white horse symbol of Arezzo. Even more stunning is the church’s crumbling exterior with its striking square tower and its exquisite rounded and columned backside that faces the Piazza Grande.

In the Piazza Grande, where the famous antique fair, the Festa Antiquaria, is held the first Sunday of every month, colorful coats of arms decorating the facades of the buildings and the dark wooden balconies set this piazza apart from all others in Tuscany. 

We crossed the piazza and walked under the famous Loggia del Vasari designed by Giorgio Vasari. After the second restaurant on the right there is a hidden staircase that leads up to the Passeggio del Prato, a lovely, English-style park with lots of shady trees and panoramic views of the valleys below. Since on that particular day the Piazza Grande was being set up for the jousting festival, the vendors at the Fiera Antiquaria were sprawled all over the park displaying their wares. We wandered around the fair for awhile and it really is quite impressive, but you can only look at so many armoires and pocket watches... 

At the top of the park is Arezzo’s lurking sandstone Cathedral of San Donato. Inside the Duomo’s famous 16th-century stained glass windows and under its vibrantly-colored ceiling lie two tombs worth taking a look at- one houses the remains of Pope Gregory X, record holder for pope who took the longest to be elected by his fellow cardinals (three years). The other tomb of Bishop Guido Tarlati, which some believe was designed by Giotto, is decorated with reliefs depicting stories of his life and one featuring a miniature theatre. Next to this tomb is a famous fresco by Piero della Francesca of Mary Magdalene holding a crystal pot of ointment.

Back outside, we headed left out of the church and down via Cesalpino, stopping at Galleria Cesalpino, a cooperative featuring local products from the province of Arezzo, including the extra-warm, nubbed wool jackets, ponchos, handbags and hats from the Casentino (a mountainous region between Florence and Siena) in bold, cheerful colors.
Just up ahead in its own piazza on the right we entered the most important church in Arezzo- the Basilica of San Francesco. It was inside this simple Franciscan edifice in the 1450s in honor of a treasured wooden crucifix by Cimabue that early Renaissance master Piero della Francesca was commissioned to paint The Legend of the True Cross (based on stories of how the timber relics of the cross on which Jesus was crucified came to exist and how the cross helped the Christians win battles after his death).

Happily, it was lunchtime, which is always a highlight for Daniela and me. After briefly contemplating trying something new, once again we ended up at our favorite spot for a mid-day meal, La Formagierra, which specializes in gourmet cheeses from Italy and France. I happen to love cheese more than any other food on the planet so this place, tucked in an alley between Corso Italia and Via Cesalpino, is pure heaven for me. Depending on how decadent I feel, I either go with the mixed greens with fresh and aged sheep and goat’s milk cheeses, or I forgo the greens entirely and sink into the heaping platter of hard and soft cheeses served with a basket of fresh-baked bread. The last time I was there Daniela, who sadly for me does not eat cheese, ordered what looked like pulled pork with white beans and relished every bite.

Now it was time for the procession of the Giostra del Saracino, the famous contest which reenacts the jousts between the Crusaders and the Moors from Africa in the Middle Ages. Throngs of Aretines were lined up and down the streets cheering on representatives from their four neighborhoods proudly marching in medieval garb and leading the knights on horseback up to the Piazza Grande for the big competition. 
I happen to have a bit of a problem with crowds and long parades are a form of torture for me. However I must say that the flag-bearers of Arezzo, which are among the most famous in the world, were incredible.
Daniela and I didn’t have tickets to watch the tournament in the stands, thank god, so we gathered around a television outside a bar to watch the spectacle in the piazza. You would think that the knights would be racing towards one other trying to knock each other off their horses, right?   

Not so. Basically there is a dirt path of a few hundred yards and on the far end is an oversized Moorish man made of black metal holding a sort of bulls-eye. There are two knights for each neighborhood, and one at a time the knights race at high speed with their long, smudge-tipped lance pointed directly at the bulls-eye. Depending on where the lance hits they are awarded points, and if the lance breaks they get double points. This year the neighborhood from the city centre, which none of the other neighborhoods particularly like, beat the underdog when the knight broke his lance. 

After the rather raucous crowd in front of the television eventually dispersed, Daniela and I decided it was time for an apperitivo at Terra di Peiro in Piazza San Francesco.  This quaint little enoteca has an impressive list of wines by the glass and delicious snacks. We sat at a little table outside watching (depending on which neighborhood they were from) the gleeful or dejected faces of the passers-by.

With a bit of time to kill before dinner and knowing how much I love to shop, especially when a good deal is involved, Daniela brought me to a fabulous women's clothing boutique close to the train station on Via Niccolo Arentino called G-Loft. The owner, Giulio, has an eye for elegant, fashionable, one-of-a-kind pieces. He carries only Italian designers and the prices range from moderate to high. I was pleasantly surprised to find several special pieces still on the sale rack from July.

For dinner that night, Daniela chose Saffron, a Japanese trattoria serving sushi, sashimi and “international creative” cuisine.  Opened in 2004 by a young woman from Arezzo who was attracted to the Japanese mentality and worked at a sushi restaurant in Florence, Saffron is a welcome break from the bruschetta, pasta, and wild boar dominating the menus in Tuscany. As I eagerly blended my soy sauce and wasabi, preparing for my first bite of raw tuna in six months and taking occasional sips from my glass of cold sake, Daniela whipped up her own concoction of olive oil and Balsamic vinegar into which she dipped each piece of raw fish followed by a taste of Chardonnay. I winced at the travesty but let it pass. Arguing over what constitutes “good food” with an Italian is one battle that will never be won.

Daniela, who happens to love the desserts at Saffron, was visibly dismayed when I told her I wasn’t in the mood for “dolce.” But I didn’t need any more sugar. Our day in Arezzo had already been filled with plenty of sweetness.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Digging Deeper in Volterra

Owners and guests at Castello di Casole often ask me which towns in Tuscany they should visit, and whenever they do, I recommend Volterra. One of my favorite places in all of Italy, Volterra has a good thousand years on the other Medieval towns in the area and there is so much to see that very time I visit I discover something new. The approach to this magnificent monolith, rising starkly from a high hilltop at the summit of a sharply winding road, is stunning. The city centre is easy to navigate, parking is a breeze, and it is mercifully free of the throngs of tourists crowding the streets of neighboring San Gimignano.

After several visits, I had wanted to dig deeper into the soul of Volterra, and I needed to write an article about the town for The Florentine, a newspaper for English speakers in Tuscany. So I was thrilled when my colleague Raffaella introduced me to Lisa Halderman, a fascinating American woman who lives in San Gimignano and leads walking and hiking tours with Wilderness Travel.  I recently had the pleasure of spending a day in Volterra with Lisa who generously shared her knowledge of the history and local lore.

Before we began our tour Lisa gave me a little background on the Etruscans - those ingenious, indulgent, superstitious metalworking masters who chose Volterra as the site for their biggest outpost back in 800BC. No one knows where the Etruscans came from and their language as not yet been cracked by scholars. All we know about these people is what has been found in their tombs, which are located in pockets all over Tuscany, many still undiscovered.

We started our adventure from the parking area at Porta Docciola, which is free and always has plenty of spaces (see below for directions). From the medieval gate there are two sets of stone stairs that ascend to the city centre- we took the steps to the right into Piazza San Michele. (Directly across from the San Michele church, Enoteca Scali has an impressive selection of wines from the region). Then we headed up Via Matteotti, the main shopping street of Volterra and a popular spot for the evening “passeggiata” (stroll), for a cappuccino at L’Incontro. A favorite bar among the locals, elegant L‘Incontro serves homemade gelato in the summertime and in winter handmade chocolates formed into little sarcophagi.

 We bypassed the Duomo and all of the main sights I had already seen several times and stopped at the Tourist Office in the Piazza de Priori to pick up a map of the town. On the way Lisa pointed out the local sandstone called “panchina” used in the buildings and pavement around town. When I looked down at the gritty grey stones under my feet, right there staring up at me was the perfectly preserved fossil of an ancient seashell.

Since I was interested in learning more about the history and art of alabaster sculpting, our first stop was the Alabaster Cooperative in the piazza, which showcases the talent and range of local sculptors and is definitely worth a visit. I learned from Lisa that alabaster is so soft it can be carved with woodworking tools, and since it is water-permeable, it is used purely for decorative purposes.

Lisa then took me to two shops that represent the two extremes of modern-day alabaster sculpting. The first, Opus Arts, in Piazza Minucci across from the alabaster museum, features the work of Giorgio Pecchioni, a next-generation sculptor who is not only keeping the ancient art form alive but pushing it to new extremes with his life-sized electric guitar and a complete drum set. (Later that day Lisa brought me to Giorgio’s studio, where the artist was at work, sporting his signature newsprint cap, his tools, the floor and his body blanketed in inches of white powder).

Through the arch to the left and in sharp contrast to Opus Arts, the Rossi family has been sculpting classical alabaster works at Rossi Alabastri since 1912. Walking into this gallery is like entering a museum, its shelves lined with exquisitely carved urns, vases, bowls and other decorative pieces. We peeked into the studio to the right of the shop and there was a member of the Rossi family sawing into a piece of stone before a captivated crowd.

Lisa wanted me to see the reproductions of Etruscan gold jewelry at Fabula Etrusca on the way to the Roman amphitheatre so we stopped in for a look. During my first visit to Etruscan museum in Volterra several years ago, I remember being awestruck by intricacy and minutia of these exquisite gold artifacts. To think that the Etruscans were capable of crafting such exquisite, finely detailed necklaces, bracelets, earrings and cloak pins over two thousand years ago without the aid of magnifying glasses is truly astonishing.

I was immediately captivated by the reproductions at Fabula Etrsca and was thrilled to be invited into the studio next to the ship to see first-hand how the intricate gold pieces are created using modern-day tools and techniques. I inquired about a particular pendant that caught my eye and learned that it is a reproduction of an Etruscan flask found in a tomb discovered just three years ago on the outskirts of town.

Lisa guided a reluctant me out of the shop and we continued further down the street to the Roman amphitheater and baths that date back to the first century. We were able to view the partially recreated site perfectly from this vista. Lisa told me that the amphitheater functioned as the town dump for centuries until an archeologist discovered ruins underneath and patients from the insane asylum in town were enlisted to dig out the trash.

The panoramic views stretch to the Tyrrhenian Sea and on a clear day you can see all the way to the Cinque Terre. The San Giusto Clemente church off to the left was built in the 1600s in honor of two brothers- Saint Giusto and Saint Clement. Legend has it that during a particularly savage barbarian raid, the brothers persuaded the Volterrans to throw bread over the walls to their enemies, fooling them into believing they had enough food to last for months. The disheartened barbarians retreated and the town was spared.

At the end of the street we headed right and circled back through Piazza San Michele and on to Via Gramsci. As we strolled down this pleasantly wide shopping street leading to the Guarnacci Museum, which houses the largest private collection of Etruscan artifacts in Italy, we stopped to chat with a colorful coat-of-arms artist who looked like he stepped right out of a Renaissance painting. 

We stopped by a delightfully aromatic coffee roastery and visited the shop of weaver who was sitting at her loom forming fine strands of wool, mohair and cashmere into a brightly colored scarf when we arrived. We couldn’t help but admire Anna Maria’s wonderful selection of one-of-a-kind sweaters, scarves, blankets and hats all lovingly handmade.

I didn’t have time to visit the Guarnacci Museum, where I seem to always end up on the top floor admiring the gold collection, so during lunch I asked Lisa for an update. She said that the most exciting new addition is a helmet found alongside that flask found in the tomb I mentioned earlier. She also told me about the “lacromato”, tiny vases in the vase collection which were used to collect tears at funerals. Perhaps the most famous Etruscan artifact is the tall, dark and skinny Ombra della Sera, “the Shadow of the Evening” which you will see reproductions of in shops all over town.

Speaking of lunch, we were both quite hungry after a morning of intense sight-seeing so I asked Lisa to take me to a place that locals love and tourists would be hard-pressed to know about. She certainly delivered with Trattoria da Badò. Located on Borgo San Lazzero, the main road into town across from the COOP, da Badò is know for its simple, extremely fresh, seasonal Tuscan menu. 

Lisa, whose visits are an obvious pleasure for the attractive male wait staff, started us off with a wonderful surprise that was not on the menu- “cipolle frite,” sweet red onions deep-fried in tempura batter. I had not had onions rings in over a year and a half and I went to town on those sweet, crispy morsels, calories be damned. 

Next up for me was the fried baccalà, a surprisingly tender white fish served piping hot under a hearty tomato sauce with a side of chick peas. Lisa opted for the tortelloni with ricotta and spinach in a veined pecorino sauce and we were both sad when the last bite was gone. We didn’t have time or room for the second course but judging from the smiles on the faces of our neighboring diners, the grilled meats are cooked to perfection.

Had I not had to rush back to Florence, I would have taken a walk through the lovely gardens in the Parco Arceologico situated below the massive Fortezza Medicea, an operating prison since the 1400s where many a Mafioso has done time behind bars. But being the working girls we are, Lisa and I had other responsibilities to tend to so we said our goodbyes and agreed to make plans for a future adventure together. 

Before heading back to Florence, I had to make one final stop. There was simply no way I was leaving Volterra without it....

Getting there: Take the Firenze-Siena highway towards to the Colle Val d’Elsa Nord exit and follow signs west to Volterra another 20 kilometers. The best place to park is the lot at Porta Dioccola. As you approach the town, pass under an arch and look for a COOP grocery market on your right. Take the next right and follow the tree-lined street along a stone wall, bearing left at the first intersection. A large dirt parking lot will be on your right.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Beach Baby, Beach Baby

Summer arrived late in Tuscany this year after an unseasonably cool and rainy June. And when it finally arrived, it came with a vengeance. July has been roasting hot in Florence so far and the only real way for me to get some relief is to head to the countryside where I work selling the most beautiful farmhomes in all of Tuscany at Castello di Casole, or hit the beach. So in order to stay cool this summer I have made it my personal mission to frequent as many beaches as possible on my days off.  Here is a little introduction to two very different stretches of sand I recently discovered.

One Saturday in early July Daniela and I decided to drive to Viareggio, a bustling urban beach town only an hour by car from Florence and an hour and a half by train. Viareggio is home of the famous carnival of Viareggio which dates back to 1873 with its paper-mache floats that parade along the Promenade of shops and cafes that parallels the shoreline in the weeks preceding Easter. It being a weekend I was expecting to encounter hoards of people but I was pleasantly surprised at how easy it was to find a parking space. The beach was certainly active and lots of people were walking along the water’s edge, but it was nothing compared to beach in Riccione on the Adriatic Sea which I will write about in another story…

What I really like about Viareggio, and what distinguishes it from its more upscale counterpart, Forte dei Marmi just fifteen kilometers up the coast, is the way the beach resorts or “bagnos” that line the beach are situated right behind the shops and cafes along the Promenade in the center of town.  Each bagno has its own sets of cabanas, rows of lounge chairs and brightly colored umbrellas, a little bar and a restaurant as well.
A day at a bagno in Viareggio costs anywhere from 15 to 30 euro, and you can pay by the day or month, or like many Italian families do, the whole summer. Some of the bagnos even have swimming pools. The key is to get chairs as close to the sea as possible where the breeze is the strongest. In order to do so, you need to arrive early or even call a bagno to reserve your space ahead of time. Food always being a priority for me and Daniela, we walked past bagno after bagno until our stomachs stopped us in front of a little café on the beach at Bagno Guido. 
After a light salad with tuna and mozzarella, we parked ourselves on two lounge chairs and relaxed in the sun all afternoon. Then we walked along the beach, which stretches for miles in either direction, to the next little resort town, Camaiore, and ventured down its long white pier that stretches out into the sea like the prow of a big ship.

Back at the bagno Daniela took a little nap while I did some yoga under the shade of our umbrella. At the end of the day we threw on our beach cover-ups and took a stroll along the Promenade. Noticing that the July sales were in full swing, we couldn't resist poking our heads into a few shops along the way. I found a great summer dress by one of my favorite Italian designers, Massimo Rebecchi  (you can never have enough dresses in Florence) and Daniela bought some blue Tom Ford sunglasses that she was particularly excited about and which happen to look fantastic on her.

Due to its proximity to Florence, its accessibility and its lively combination of beach, shops and cafes, Viareggio is an ideal place to spend a hot summer day, especially for families with kids. My advice is to scout out the bagnos right behind the shops in the city center for one that feels the most appealing and has the most desirable lounge chair/umbrella location. Those seeking a more luxurious beach experience might want to check out the new bagno “Teresita" which costs around 100-120 euro for the day.  

To get to Viareggio, take the A11 west to Lucca where there is an exit for Viareggio then head north on the toll road until you arrive at the exit for Viareggio. Drive into the center towards the beach and make a left turn at the T-stop. You will see several parking areas on your right as you approach the city center.


On another steamy summer day, my friend Paolo invited me to spend an afternoon with him at Parco dell’Uccellina, a national park that runs along a six kilometer stretch of the Maremma coast south of Grosetto. The drive to Parco dell’Uccellina from Florence is about two hours, maybe even two and a half, but it’s worth every minute. The polar opposite of Viareggio, the park is wild, rich with natural beauty and there is not a bagno in sight. The sand is fine, the sea is cool and inviting, and there are little huts made of driftwood scattered along the beach where you can find relief from the mid-day sun. 

Since it was Sunday, otherwise knows as the worst possible day of the week to go to any beach in Italy given the traffic and the crowds, we decided to arrive in the afternoon. 3PM was late enough that we only waited ten minutes in the queue to park the car in the lot adjacent to the beach. Once inside we stopped to fuel up at the park’s bar and restaurant. After sliding into a parking space just steps from the beach, we headed south for about 15 minutes to a surprisingly secluded spot.

According to Paolo, the land that comprises Parco dell'Uccellina was once malaria-infested marshland. Then under Mussolini’s “bonificare” system in the 1930s the marshes were filled in with dirt for agricultural purposes. Now there are farms and horse and cattle ranches all over the area. The cattle ranches are home to the famous “Vacca Maremmana,” the white cows which Paolo says taste even better than the Tuscan Chianina because the cows are outside all day walking around and eating the special grasses that grow by the sea.
I was fascinated to learn from Paolo that there are cowboys in the Maremma called “butteri” who in the olden days used to wear velvet jackets and black hats while tending the cattle and sheep. Legend has it that Buffalo Bill and his circus came to the Maremma in the 1800s and challenged the butteri to a rodeo and guess who won??? According to Wikipedia, there are only five or six large herds still tended by butteri in the park today, however the tradition of the butteri lives on outside the park in small demonstrations in the region's rural towns and in the Italian equivalent of rodeos.
Thoroughly enjoying our secluded spot on the beach, Paolo and I talked, (or rather he spoke in Italian and I pretended to understand), read our books and took occasional dips in the refreshingly cool sea until dusk. The last hour or so was the best hour of the day because we were the only ones left on the beach. As we left the park the sun was shining brightly while a gentle rain began to fall and when we looked out the window to savor that magical moment, here is the sight that greeted our disbelieving eyes. Talk about a grande finale...
Fortunately Paolo had made a dinner reservation at Da Remo, a very special restaurant in Rispescia just five minutes from Parco Uccellina, Da Remo is famous all over Italy and it is virtually impossible to get a table in July and August without making a reservation well in advance. Remo opened the restaurant 19 years ago and he serves only fresh fish from the Maremma coast at very reasonable prices. 

We started with a mixed seafood antipasti featuring five different fish and shellfish, then we shared a tender white fish called corvina cooked Maremma-stye in foil with tomatoes, parsley, clams, mussels and juniper berries from bushes in the sand dunes all along the coastline. The waiter, who spent a good ten minutes perfectly fileting our fish tableside, recommended an unusual and unusually good Maremma white wine made from the French Voignier grape. I ate every morsel on my plate and drank every drop in my glass and proceeded to pass out for most of car ride home. Thank god Paolo was driving…

Parco dell’Uccellina is one of Tuscany’s many hidden treasures. I would highly recommend spending a day, or even two, at the beach as long as you bring an umbrella or get there early enough to claim one of the driftwood huts. There are many reasonably-priced agriturismos (bed and breakfasts on working farms) in the area or you could experience one of the most luxurious hotels in all of Italy at Il Pelicano in Porto Ercole a bit further south down the coast.

To get to Parco dell’Uccellina, drive south on the Firenze-Siena highway and head in the direction of Grossetto when the highway ends after about sixty kilometers. Pass Grossetto and continue for about 20 kilometers to the Rispescia exit. Turn right and you will see signs for the parking area up ahead on the left.