Unlike Sardinia, mainland Italy is not known for its beaches – but coves and deserted stretches can be reached without taking a ferry. In Tuscany and Maratea, and on the Adriatic, I check out the best
Wine and surf in Tuscany
There is one stretch of coastline here that is probably the nearest thing to a deserted beach in the whole of central Italy: the seaward side of the Monti dell’Uccellina nature reserve, south of Grosseto and not far from the region’s upcoming Morellino di Scansano red wine zone. The only motorised access is from the Marina di Alberese visitors’ centre, at the northenmost end of the reserve. Most people cluster within 10 minutes of the car park – so if you’re prepared to walk south along the beach for an hour or so, you can get to some lovely sweeps of grey-buff sand, backed by the dense Mediterranean macchia of the Uccellina hills. Bring cover, food and plenty of water, as there are no facilities.
Near Alberese’s tiny train station, La Nuova Dispensa serves up tasty Maremma dishes (Maremma being the name given to this stretch of Tuscan coast and back country): wild boar crostini, pappardelle in hare sauce. Stay at Le Versegge, a scatter of pretty-pink former farmworkers’ cottages on the Roccastrada road north of Grosseto, which is geared towards weekly rentals. Mid-season rates for a medium-sized, two-person apartment start at €550 per week. Rooms are bright, cheery and contemporary, lawns are manicured, and the large pool offers a decent alternative to that drive and slog along the beach. In what was once the piggery of the Versegge estate, the modern Re Sugo restaurant has sharp designer décor, but the kitchen focuses on hearty Maremma classics such as filetto lardato – Chianina beef fillets layered, lasagna-style, with two strips of Colonnata lard.
Beyond the Amalfi Coast
How come so few visitors from abroad know about Maratea? Maybe it has something to do with the difficult-to-get-to location of this historic town in the southern region of Basilicata, which surveys a rocky coast studded with tempting coves from its lofty, walled perch. The only way to do it is to fly into Naples and head south for a couple of hours (if you’re lucky) on the notoriously jam-prone Salerno-to-Reggio Calabria motorway – or approach it from the sea via yacht, like many of the well-heeled Romans and Milanese who have bought summer houses here in the past 20 years. The effort of getting there is amply repaid, because Maratea is a real find – a more laidback, unspoiled version of Positano. Laid out in the 17th and 18th centuries after an earthquake put paid to the previous settlement, the old town is a tight warren of houses, with one main street lined with bars and gelaterie where the evening passeggiata unfolds.
It has one great place to stay: the stylishly converted former nunnery La Locanda delle Donne Monache (doubles from €120). It has an excellent mid-priced gourmet restaurant, Il Sacello. Down by the coast, Fiumicello and Acquafredda (the latter a 15-minute drive away) are the best beaches – though if you hole up at the Santavenere (doubles from €280), a bright and airy luxury retreat surrounded by lush gardens, you can use the hotel’s own rocky private beach, complete with bar/restaurant. My favourite place to eat around these parts is Il Giardino di Epicuro in the tiny hamlet of Massa, just beneath the huge Rio-like mountain-top statue of Christ that is the area’s main tourist attraction. Here, chef-owner Michele offers an amazingly good-value spread of local specialities such as gnocchi in wild fennel sauce or grilled steak of podolica – a prized Calabrian breed of cattle.
Adriatic beach culture
Italy’s Adriatic coast is – apart from one or two natural obstacles, such as the Po Delta – one long beach. Between Venice and Puglia’s Gargano peninsula, there is scarcely a mile that is not occupied by at least one stabilmento or beach franchise. Every year, loyal clients head back to establishments with names like Kursaal or Paradiso and rent the same gaily-painted changing-room cabin, the same deckchairs under the same ombrelloni, and nod to the same annoying neighbours from Milan, or Bologna, or Verona. Italians are good at high-density living – and many feel rather lost without it.
If you want to join them, head for Rimini – not only because this historic resort has developed Adriatic beach culture to a high degree of refinement (some stabilmenti have wi-fi, masseurs, yoga instructors, and small libraries) but because, when you’re bored of the beach, the town is worth exploring. Don’t miss the Tempio Malatestiana, Sigismondo Malatesta’s monument to himself and to the spirit of Renaissance humanism. Nearby, Osteria della Piazzetta has tables outside in a cobbled square around the corner from the fish market. In the rural back country, head for Santarcangelo di Romagna, with its quiet piazzas, good restaurants (try La Sangiovesa, housed in the cellars of an ancient aristocratic palazzo) and ancient linen-printing worshops.
In Rimini, shun the seaside grand hotels and put up in the futuristic DuoMo (doubles from €120) – a no-holds-barred design hotel styled by Ron Arad, opened in 2006. Its NoMi bar has become the place in town for aperitivi.
Osteria Nuova Dispensa (+39 0564 407 321, www.ristoranteosterialanuovadispensa.com ), via Aurelia Antica 11, Alberese. Average €28 a head without wine. Closed Tue.
Re Sugo (+39 334 775 9095, www.leversegge.it), località Versegge, Braccagni. Average €35 a head without wine. Open daily.
Il Giardino di Epicuro (+39 0973 870 130), località Massa, Maratea. Average €28 a head without wine. Closed Wed.
Osteria della Piazzetta (+39 0541 783986), vicolo Pescheria 5, Rimini. Average €30 a head without wine. Closed Sun.
La Sangiovesa (+39 0541 620710), piazza Balacchi 14, Santarcangelo di Romagna. Average €30 a head without wine. Open daily, evenings only.