Thursday 6 March 2008


Having missed the chance in 2006, due to the arrival of the young Cecily Grace, we could not wait to fill the car to the brim and head off to the west coast for a bit of beach action this summer. Leaving the vaguely threatening skies of Cortona behind, we hit the road, deeply glad that the superstrada to Siena was now complete to at least 90%; construction having started probably sometime before we were born. Being a weekday, we were lucky and escaped the usual misery of the Siena-Grosseto road; from June to the end of August only the Italian legal system moves slower than the traffic on this stretch. The route takes you through some of the most unspoilt and beautiful Tuscan countryside, blissfully unknown to the main tourist routes and offering splendid vistas towards the distant coast and the sprawling pine forests that characterise much of it. We were going, as the Italians can often be heard to say, al mare.

Loading ourselves up with the usual beach accoutrements, plus the half ton of extras necessary for the contentment of a small child on the cusp of walking, we head through the pine wood to the sand. We trudge past the umbrella-less youngsters on the free beach, me struggling with the “off-road” pushchair in the deep sand and looking for all the world like I was pushing a wheelbarrow full of near useless Weimar Republic banknotes, through a swamp, to the bakers. Time was that we would have been on that stretch of beach too; eschewing the costly pleasures of the Lido for the dubious right to free bathing without shade, clean sand or loos. But no, a combination of encroaching old age and parental practicality has us reaching for the wallet at the slightest hint of such discomfort; hence our beeline for the Lido Alessandro. On hearing the price of a day’s hire of an umbrella and two sun loungers, I consider asking the beach attendant if they accept wire transfer, or if perhaps there might be any holidaying mortgage brokers on this spread of beach who could hook me up with an instant loan. After all, I am only there to attain a slightly deeper hue of redness, with which to convince my contemporaries back home of the bella vita out here. After a swift call to the bank to arrange crisis funds, we settle back onto Alessandro’s sun loungers and wonder whether the great man moors his yacht at Cap Ferrat or Grand Cayman; we settle on both.

This trade in beach space is serious business; short of a major sea level rise, algae outbreaks or Etna obscuring the sun in a cloud of volcanic ash, nothing will stop the beaches being full to bursting point over the height of summer. Whether holiday makers actually enjoy themselves or not, seems to be up for discussion. Historically the Italians are a well traveled nationality, but these days only about a quarter of Italians take their holidays abroad. Of the remainder who stay at home, a large number will head for the same resort every year, most likely to the same hotel or campsite and possibly even booking the same sun loungers at the same Lido. This in turn creates a massive pressure to enjoy oneself, which one imagines to be difficult when faced with the same faces year in, year out. In many respects however, the Italians prefer familiarity and routine. This may have accounted for the episode I witnessed a few years ago, when a lady proceeded to inform anyone who would listen to her, as well as those who would not, that some young folk had had the effrontery to park their beach towels in front of her spot. I mean, can you imagine the horror? Awoken from my sun-induced slumber an hour or so later, I noticed that she had only just made it to the third row of ombrelloni, with no sign of stopping.

Of course, continuity does have its advantages; children can make lifelong friends at the beach, growing up together and remaining in contact even if their parents only see one another once a year for a fortnight. This is especially the case for the wealthier families, who for years have been sending wives and children al mare for most of the summer, with the husbands coming down for weekends. Due to the sheer number of kiddies, the beach proved to be an absolute winner with Cecily, who had an entourage of bronzed toddlers around her only minutes after we had made our contribution to Alessandro’s yacht fund. There is a spirit of camaraderie by the sea here that is difficult to describe, a sense that everyone is in it together. At the end of the day, this probably sums up life in Italy better than anything else.

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