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 cafĂ© 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.