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This piece was originally published in the May 2011 issue of Dream of Italy.

When asked to recall my most perfect memory of absolute bliss, I immediately picture myself floating on my back in the tranquil sea off Baia Santa Lucia, the sun beating down on my face and limbs, the buoyant water sending my thoughts drifting into oblivion. Several years prior, I had spent two months as a student at the dance festival Pro Danza Italia, and I had now returned to Castiglioncello—located on the Tuscan coast just south of Livorno—to teach a Pilates workshop at the same festival.

 

All the teachers were given lodging at Villa Santa Lucia, a spacious home perched high on a cliff, with thatched-roof gazebos spilling down the hillside to a sandy cove below. Like an unwanted stepchild banished to a fairytale tower, I was given the closet-sized room on the roof. Although it had no bathroom (I had to go down the outside stairway to get into the main house), my roof-tower room was truly paradise. The door opened directly onto the roof, an open terrace with panoramic views of the sea. I remember watching sunsets fill the sky with shades of fuchsia, periwinkle, and crimson, and I often woke during the night just to see the moonlight sparkle over the horizon.

During my free afternoons, I would spend hours at Bagni Italia—a beach club on the town’s largest bay, Baia del Quercetano—lunching on fresh marinated anchovies and tender fried calamari, then relaxing in the sun on a rented lounge chair. When the summer’s heat became too intense, I could cool off in the gentle waves. On the way back to the villa, I would pause for a late afternoon snack, which always entailed at least three flavors of gelato at nearby Gelateria Bocelli (owned by singer Andrea Bocelli’s second cousin Rossano).

Nearly a decade later, I found myself dreaming of Castiglioncello’s rocky coves and sandy beaches, so I returned once again, seeking to relive some of those early, carefree memories. This time I stayed at the pink Hotel Baia del Sorriso, overlooking the bay where I had years ago spent so many afternoons sunning and bobbing in the waves. My old haunt Bagni Italia was no longer serving a full menu (or perhaps things were not yet in full swing, seeing as I had arrived just at the cusp of high season), and I was disappointed to find that Signor Bocelli had sold his gelateria (I’ve heard a rumor that he is now a butcher in nearby Rosignano). But I was consoled by the fact that, being a decade older, I could afford to treat myself to some spectacular restaurant meals…and I had planned my trip to coincide with the annual Festa del Pesce.

The “Festival of Fish” began forty years ago as a casual get-together between a few hungry friends and a pot of fried fish. As curious passers-by were invited to join the party, word spread throughout their tiny, coastal hamlet, and soon this innocuous meal had grown into a full-fledged bash. The event was repeated the following year…and the year after that, gradually evolving into what is today an enormous feast for tens of thousands of visitors. Held annually on the second Sunday in June, the Festa del Pesce celebrates the beginning of the summer season with music, street markets, and—most importantly—plenty of seafood.

The scene is Caletta, a peaceful town nestled between the comfortably trendy resort of Castiglioncello and the more industrial Rosignano Solvay. This charming slice of the Tuscan coast is lined with pine forests, turquoise bays, and a rainbow of umbrella-dotted beaches. Farther north, the winding coastline ascends to a stretch of rugged cliffs, while to the south lies the town of Vada and its vast Spiaggia Bianca, where the sand is implausibly white. A short distance inland, the hill town Rosignano Marittimo offers a sweeping view of the verdant countryside and endless shores.

On the menu at the Festa del Pesce, I found a number of local seafood dishes, including porpo bria’o (octopus cooked in red wine), cozze alla pescatora (mussel stew), risotto ai tre scogli (shellfish risotto), crespelle alla calettana (seafood-filled ravioli), penne alla bua de ‘orvi (seafood pasta named after the nearby bay Buca dei Corvi), spiedini di gamberoni (grilled shrimp kebabs), and cacciucco alla livornese (Livorno-style seafood stew). The main attraction, however, was the frittura, a mix of fried calamari and shrimp. The frittura was cooked in a massive frying pan that spanned 13 feet, held 160 gallons of oil, and fried 1000 portions an hour.

As the festival coincided with the year’s first heat wave, the beaches were packed with bronze sun-worshippers sporting miniscule bikinis and nearly naked toddlers learning to swim. Instead of joining the crowds, I decided to take a walk along the lungomare, the seaside promenade that winds around tiny coves from Caletta north to Castiglioncello’s promontory, Punta Righini.

As I approached Baia di Portovecchio, I was stunned to see a shipwrecked Lebanese vessel looming over the tufa rock beach. (The abandoned ship has since been demolished.) At Baia dei Tre Scogli, the promenade was briefly interrupted by the pineta, a cliff-side park lined with pine trees and home to a children’s playground, a movie theater, and tennis courts. At the north end of the park, I climbed down a set of stairs to Baia di Castiglioncello, arriving just in time to watch the embarkment of a festival-sponsored sailing regatta.

The final stretch of the lungomare circled halfway around the Punta Righini. Along the way, I passed La Baracchina where I had dined the night before. Located on a stretch of rocks jutting out into the sea, the restaurant gave the appearance of a casual beach shack. In the evening, however, the interior was enhanced by elegant yellow and white linens and the romantic glow of candlelight. Floor-to-ceiling windows encircled the dining area and let in a refreshing breeze. While tucking into a deliciously grilled sea bass, I had been mesmerized by the 180-degree view spanning the electric, pink-and-blue horizon and the darkening coastline punctuated by gleaming specks of light.

When the paved promenade ended, I continued exploring further—walking over and between boulders, following a makeshift path to its ultimate end at a privately owned beach. When I could go no further, I backtracked through the town, stopping to admire two of Castiglioncello’s landmarks: the Torre Medicea, built by the Medici family during the 16th century as a guard against the raids of Saracen pirates, and the Castello Pasquini, built centuries later by art critic Diego Martelli to house his entourage of writers, poets, and Impressionist painters. In recent years, the castle has provided a stage for numerous dance and theater performances, including ones by Pro Danza Italia.

Still craving some beach time, I headed back to my hotel for a swim. While Hotel Baia del Sorriso does not have an actual beach, they do provide a concrete landing with a ladder for easy access into the crystal clear water. As I leisurely swam from one end of Baia del Quercetano to the other, I felt that sense of sun-drenched elation return. Although I will always miss my rooftop tower and private beach at Villa Santa Lucia, I discovered that bliss could still be found in Castiglioncello.

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This piece was originally published in the May 2011 issue of Dream of Italy.

Stunning beaches and glowing sunsets attract countless vacationing Italians to the island of Elba, located off the coast of southern Tuscany. While July and August are the busiest months—and perhaps the ones to avoid—there are plenty of spots to escape the crowds (and heat) during the less sweltering months of May and June. In fact, all the major sights are open from April to October, so consider an off-season trip for maximum tranquility. Feel free to spend your vacation in exile, enjoying il dolce far niente—but if you begin to yearn for a bit more exploration, here are ten terrific things for you to discover.

1. Mountain High

From the hill town of Marciana, take a cabinovia to the 3343-foot summit of Monte Capanne. Any fear of heights will be seriously challenged during the twenty-minute ride over steep granite cliffs. The yellow, open-air baskets are barely large enough for two people and sway precariously in the breeze. Once at the summit landing, climb the steps to the rocky peak for a panoramic view that will take your breath away. On a clear day, look for the isle of Corsica on the western horizon.

2. Tale of Two Villas

An exiled Napoleon called Elba home for a brief ten months before escaping back to France. His two villas are open to the public: Villa dei Mulini, perched between Forte Stella and Forte Falcone on Portoferraio’s hilly promontory, and Villa di San Martino, his slightly larger summer home in the nearby mountains. Faded trompe l’oeil rooms offer a glimpse into the ruler’s life, his ego (the letter “N” appears everywhere), and his solitude. If you prefer more solitude yourself, escape the tour-bus crowds and explore the ruins of the indomitable Fortezze Medicee, just steps from Villa dei Mulini. Built by Cosimo I de’ Medici in the 16th century, these bastions offer a bird’s-eye view of the harbor below.

3. Fish Food

Cacciucco, the fish soup made famous in the Tuscan province of Livorno, is a must for dinner. Some restaurants will require the dish to be pre-ordered when making reservations so that they can stock up on the requisite five types of seafood (one for each “c” in its name). Trattoria La Barca, in the old town of Portoferraio and one of the island’s best seafood restaurants, offers cacciucco daily on their regular menu. Bring a dining companion, or at least a hearty appetite, for the portions are plentiful.

4. Medicinal Mud

Nestled in a vast eucalyptus wood just outside busy Portoferraio, Terme San Giovanni is an oasis of relaxation, specializing in mud treatments and thermal baths. The rich mineral composition of the island provides a unique therapy said to cure many ailments, including rheumatoid arthritis, eczema, and bronchitis. Even if you don’t suffer from such maladies, the spa is a great place to pamper yourself with an algae facial mask or underwater massage.

5. Pebble Beach

Marina di Campo’s long crescent of white sand is perhaps the island’s best beach, but it can be overrun with hordes of vacationers during the summer months. While access to the beach is free, it will cost to rent an umbrella and lounge chair. Pebble beaches such as Le Ghiaie (in Portoferraio), Cavo, and Chiessi are often less crowded, and there is no need to reserve a spot. Better still, rent a boat or kayak to seek out a secluded cove of your own—the coastline is dotted with hidden slivers of paradise.

6. Underwater World

Though not on the world-class scale of such aquariums as Monterey Bay and the Great Barrier Reef, the Acquario dell’Elba is Italy’s second largest (Genoa is number one). Housed in a former discotheque in the hills outside Marina di Campo, the aquarium boasts a collection of 150 species of fish and crustaceans. The main draw is a walk-around, octagonal shark tank, below which lies a display of shark jaws, swordfish swords, and a stuffed blowfish. In another tank, moray eels play hide-and-seek in giant urns.

7. Mine for Iron

The island is famous for being one of the world’s richest sources of minerals—particularly iron—and several towns in eastern Elba offer activities for the gem enthusiast. In Porto Azzurro, ex-miner Emilio Giacomelli runs La Piccola Miniera, a Disneyland-style train ride through underground caverns that offer a glimpse into the authentic mining experience. For a less staged tour, visit the Parco Minerario. Small groups hike to nearby quarries to explore and learn about local minerals. If your passion for gemstones is still not sated, there are notable rock and mineral collections in the towns Rio Marina, Rio nell’Elba, Porto Azzurro, and Capoliveri.

8. Dance the Night Away

Situated on Elba’s southeastern peninsula, Capoliveri could easily be mistaken for any hill town in Tuscany, save for the clear view of the sea on both sides. Of Elba’s many sedate hill towns, Capoliveri offers the most action. During the daytime, browse the numerous shops for jewelry made from the island’s gems and minerals; then, after sundown, visit one of the town’s popular nightclubs for some disco fun. In the summertime, Capoliveri hosts many outdoor musical events in the spacious, terraced Piazza Matteotti, where you can enjoy jazz, rock, or blues overlooking terracotta rooftops and the distant horizon.

9. Drunken Cake

Sample some of Elba’s typical pastries, the most famous being schiaccia briaca, or “drunken cake.” Made with raisins, pine nuts, hazelnuts, and candied fruit, then soaked in the local dessert wine Aleatico, this crumbly confection can be found in nearly every pastry shop on the island. To try a wide variety of Elban specialties, including torta corona, sbrisolana elbana, and sospiri di Napoleone, visit Pasticceria Lambardi Giorgio in Marina di Campo.

10. Island Gems

Legend says that when Venus emerged from the waves of the Tyrrhenian Sea, she dropped her necklace, and those gemstones became the seven islands of the Tuscan Archipelago. As part of the Parco Nazionale Arcipelago Toscano, the largest marine sanctuary in Europe, these islands enjoy unspoiled coastlines, pristine waters, and a remarkable wildlife habitat. While Pianosa—a former prison site—is the only island directly accessible from Elba, ferries run to the other islands from the nearby mainland. Capraia is particularly stunning—at its southernmost point, Cala Rossa, red and white cliffs plunge dramatically into the turquoise sea.

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