12 February 2014

Tales of the Tuscan Coast

The village of Populonia overlooks the Bay of Baratti in Tuscany.
Photo Credit: Kathryn Ream Cook for The New York Times

A beautiful excerpt from an article by Ondine Cohane of the NY Times; painting an exact portrait of the lifestyle of the Tuscan Coast:

Finding Gems on the Tuscan Coast

The less-known Tuscan coast remains full of secrets like Bolgheri, part of a series of hilltop towns that once kept seaside invaders at bay. A bastion of well-preserved architecture, the beautiful villages are mostly free of the crowds that head to the beaches nearby. And they are the gateway to the Maremma, a land of wiry horses and huge white cows, excellent wines and seafood, chic ports and beach clubs and a region that in many ways is left to its own devices except in the brief high season (mid-July through August).

But when my husband and I first moved to Tuscany about six years ago, like most visitors we first turned our gaze to the interior of the region — toward the closest major city, Siena, to hill towns like Montalcino and Pienza, and to the beautiful landscapes of the landlocked Val d’Orcia. But as the crow flies, the Mediterranean is less than 50 miles from our home. Our Italian neighbors took off to the coast at every sunny opportunity, pulled like baby turtles in some primordial pilgrimage back to the sea.

Their favored launch points into the sea were whispered to us with almost religious intensity: white sand beaches like Cala Violina; Alberese, part of the large Maremma Regional Park; restaurants like the chic but laid-back Rosso e Vino; and long walks to the deserted coves below Populonia. I wrote down the names in my little notebook, and on days we could get away we drove to each. We sat among the sculptural pine trunks below the watchtowers of Alberese, watched a man on crutches make the almost milelong hike to the white-sand beach at Violina, marveled at the wind surfers of Fiumara and ate more plates of spaghetti alle vongole and grilled white fish than I can count.

We were especially grateful for the recommendations because the truth is, the inevitable growth of mass tourism filled the long, white beaches of Forte dei Marmi and Viareggio with tightly packed lines of umbrellas and daybeds for hire. But huge stretches were also preserved through the creation of parks donated mostly by noble families. (The Maremma park was formerly the land of the Grand Duke of Tuscany; the World Wildlife Fund park outside Bolgheri, part of the famous Antinori estate.)

Away from the region’s well-known beachfront playgrounds lies a more secluded world that stretches from north to south, often a stone’s throw from the discovered spots. In each section there is a gem of a preserved hill town (see accompanying sidebar below). In each there is some kind of wildlife sanctuary or park that provides a sense of what the coastline once looked like before it was developed. In each there is a beach or a beach club that we have grown to love. Even after years of experiencing these little encampments, I always find a new surprise — this season it was the beach club and restaurant Al Cartello, which features a grand piano set atop Oriental carpets in its outdoor (but covered) “aperitivo” section. So eminently civilized.

These spots are as much an insight into Italian life as they are to particular sections of the beach. From dawn to dusk, rituals take place outside. People read their newspapers and argue over soccer while drinking espresso. Daybeds are picked out, as though they are the most valuable real estate decisions ever to be made; in fact, families have often rented the same row for decades.

Generations of one clan lie in synchronized tanning positions and then siesta together. Lunch and dinner seem set to an alarm clock, with the same table reserved for three-course meals, wine on ice, or for stretching out picnics, lovingly created each morning. There is something very comforting in the regularity of the routine, particularly at this time when the economic future of the country seems shaky, at best. For one month, at least, most things are as they once were, and people will head home tanned.

Like the residents of our interior hill town, we now get positively grumpy without our coastal fix: we wind over the rim of our valley to the sea, have a swim, a lunch of spaghetti alle vongole, a nap, more swimming, coffee and ice cream, and return home or even stay for a night or two.

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Cohan, Ondine. “Finding Gems on the Tuscan Coast.” NYTimes.com. The New York Times, 18 June 2013. Web. 15 Dec. 2013. <http://www.travel.nytimes.com/2013/06/23/travel/finding-gems-on-the-tuscan-coast.html?pagewanted=all>.

Cook, Kathryn R. The village of Populonia overlooks the Bay of Baratti in Tuscany. Digital image. NYTimes.com. The New York Times, 18 June 2013. Web. 15 Dec. 2013. <http://www.travel.nytimes.com/2013/06/23/travel/finding-gems-on-the-tuscan-coast.html?pagewanted=all>.

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