Three great Italian beach holidays

by Lee.Marshall

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, ), via Aurelia Antica 11, Alberese. Average €28 a head without wine. Closed Tue.
Re Sugo (+39 334 775 9095,, 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.




I've lived in Rome since 1984. For the last fifteen years, I've made a living as a travel writer specialising in Italy (I'm a contributing editor for Condé Nast Traveller UK and the US travel and lifestyle magazine Departures). But that's really just an extension of the way I live in places and the way I travel: I've never been the kind of person who always goes on holiday to the same place, or who settles on one favourite trattoria and never eats anywhere else. So if I have any authority as a Rome expert, I suppose it's because - in addition to my passion for my adopted hometown – I'm just plain curious.

I arrived in Rome with my partner in September 1984, fresh out of university in England and with no clear idea about how long the stay might last (was it a holiday or a serious move? Neither of us were sure). It was touch and go at first, and fate took a hand in our decision to stay: on the day the money ran out, we both found jobs teaching English. Then came the sheer effort of finding somewhere to live, assembling all those bits of paper that Italian officialdom is so fond of, getting to grips with a new culture, a new language, a new job. All of this gave me an unusually intense and untouristy introduction to Roman life.

I’m ashamed to say that it was four years before I got around to looking inside the Colosseum – by this time I was an honorary Roman, and so I had the same slight resistance that a New Yorker might have to visiting the Statue of Liberty. But it was probably also something to do with the obviousness of the attraction – by this time my wife and I (we got married in the Rome registry office on the Campidoglio in 1988) had visited most of the city’s Medieval churches, toured the lesser Etruscan sites of Lazio, been to Ostia Antica (easily my favourite Ancient Roman site in Italy) three or four times. It’s the richness of Rome that I’ve always loved: ten different visitors could spend ten days in the city and not overlap once.

Not long after the birth of our daughter Clara in 1990, I gave up English teaching and became a freelance writer, soon specialising in two of my great passions – film and travel. In between the major film festivals, my wife and I worked on updates of the Time Out Rome guide and I wrote article after article on Italy for Condé Nast Traveller and other publications.

But it has always been a special treat to be able to write about Rome – I think I put more or myself into these pieces, because I'm working out on paper how it was that I came to think of this city as home. It’s difficult to analyse one’s love for a place. There’s the food, and the wine, and the weather, and the sheer beauty of the city – all those things are important. But the draw for me has a lot to do with Rome’s air of theatricality – all those Baroque stage sets that just happen to be piazzas and churches; and all those locals who walk and talk and gesture with the innate confidence of people who are always on camera. After more than a quarter of a century and plenty of run-ins with reality, I have never quite got over the feeling that my life in Rome is one long film (shot, or course, in golden evening light).

These days I divide my time between an apartment in the Testaccio district of the city and a house in the Umbrian countryside, but for all the charms of la campagna umbra it’s still Rome that really stirs my soul. I hope I’ve been able to communicate something of this passion in my Rome Expert guides and blog for Simonseeks. Personally I don’t think anyone can ever claim to be a real Rome Expert: there’s just too much to see, do, eat, study and drink. But I’ve built up a decent Rome radar in the last couple of decades – and I’m going to give it my best shot.

My Rome

Where I always grab a coffee
My local is a buzzy place called Linari (Via Zabaglia 9) in the down-to-earth Testaccio district. They know just how I like my cappuccino (in a small glass, with less milk than usual), and their cornetti (breakfast pastries) are some of the best in Rome.

My favourite stroll
Rome backstreets in general. I love working out routes across the city that take me down Medieval lanes and across Renaissance piazzas, avoiding the traffic. It makes you realise that there’s a secret city out there that those in cars never see.

Fiction for inspiration

The great Rome epic novel has yet to be written – but I enjoyed When We Were Romans, written by my friend Matthew Kneale, which gives a very evocative and dramatic child’s-eye-view of the Eternal City.

Where to be seen this summer
The hot ticket will be Zaha Hadid’s new MAXXI contemporary art and architecture museum (, due to be inaugurated towards the end of May. It should breathe new life into the rather sleepy Flaminio quartiere north of Piazza del Popolo, where cool bar/restaurant chalet Tree Bar (Via Flaminia 226) currently gives a taste of how the area might evolve.

The most breathtaking view
Rome spread out like a 3-D diorama from the main terrace of the Gianicolo hill above Trastevere.

The best spot for some peace and quiet
Rome’s Orto Botanico, or Botanical Garden, is perhaps not the world’s best kept, but it is a lovely green oasis on the edge of Trastevere (Largo Cristina di Svezia 24, tel +39 06 4991 7108, entrance €4, closed Sun).

Shopaholics beware!
I love the quirky mix of shops in the lanes that lie just one or two blocks north of Corso Vittorio Emanuele. Artists’ supply shops, designer chocolate, creative jewellery and accessory boutiques, vintage clothes stores, shops selling modernist antiques, my favourite no-brand jeans brand, SBU (Via San Pantaleo 68-69, tel +39 06 6880 2547) – this is a great area for alternative shopping.

City soundtrack
Load Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater on your MP3 player, and use it as your background music. It’s pure Baroque drama – just like Rome itself.

Don’t leave without... looking through the keyhole of the gate into the garden of the Knights of Malta HQ on the Aventine hill (Piazza Cavalieri di Malta). The cupola of Saint Peter’s is framed at the end of the rose walk, with the rooftops of Rome on either side. Where else in the world can you see three sovereign states through one keyhole?