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La dolce vita on Tuscany's shores

A family touring the country takes a refreshing break for a week on a warm, sandy beach, with Rome's history and culture only a two-hour train ride away.

June 22, 2003|Rossella Brina | Special to The Times

Castiglione della Pescaia, Italy — WE were vacationing in Italy -- with Rome, Florence and Venice at our fingertips -- so why did we spend a week sitting on a beach?

Basically, because I knew my children, Christopher and Francesca, would embrace the idea. At 8 and 6, what's not to love in a place with an unlimited supply of water and sand? But my husband, Scott, had been hesitant. It was easy to understand why: At the top of his wish list was Rome, a city he had never visited.

My solution was the picturesque coastal town of Castiglione della Pescaia, a two-hour train ride from Rome. We could spend a couple of days in the Eternal City in the middle of our beach stay.

Our trip began in my hometown, the northeastern city of Ferrara, where my family still lives. From there we traveled across Tuscany, leaving Florence and Siena behind. The rolling landscape was an enchanting change for someone like me who had grown up in the flat Padana Plain. The Tuscan hills are dotted with ancient villages that top steep cliffs. Newer sections -- identifiable by their redbrick houses -- spill down the slopes. Occasionally the zigzagging lines of graceful cypresses could be seen flanking secondary roads. Cultivated land and deep green forests complete the palette of earthy colors that dominates the region.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday June 24, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 24 words Type of Material: Correction
Tuscan beaches -- A photo caption in Sunday's Travel section incorrectly identified an Italian beach as Castiglione della Pescaia. It is Porto Santo Stefano.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday June 29, 2003 Home Edition Travel Part L Page 3 Features Desk 3 inches; 106 words Type of Material: Correction
Tuscan beaches -- A photo caption in the June 22 Travel section that accompanied the story "La Dolce Vita on Tuscany's Shores" incorrectly identified an Italian beach as Castiglione della Pescaia. It is Porto Santo Stefano.

Castiglione della Pescaia, a town of Etruscan origin, is along the Tyrrhenian Sea at the southern end of Tuscany. Not unlike many charming towns we noticed during our drive, it is a medieval hamlet perched on a cliff and encircled by turreted walls. Crossing the ancient portal into the restored village was like stepping through a time warp. We walked through narrow stone streets to the top of the town's fortress. Here, on a clear day, the view of the coast extends from Punta Ala in the north to the Uccellina Mountains in the south, including the Tuscan archipelago, from Elba to the Giglio Islands.

The town, which has a port and a long beach, sits in front of a dense pine forest. The house we rented was in the middle of this forest of umbrella-shaped stone pines -- a tree native to the Mediterranean -- and had a great view of the sea. Our porch was a quiet spot where we could relax every evening when the sun went down behind the next hill. During the day, with temperatures in the high 90s, all we could think of was a refreshing plunge.

This stretch of the Tyrrhenian didn't disappoint. The golden sand felt a bit hot under our feet, but the water temperature was just right.

A beach full of baths

Italian beaches are known for being hot and crowded in the summer. That's why we chose to visit in June, when visitors are fewer and temperatures a bit cooler.

As is common in Italian seaside resorts, most of the beach is divided into sections, each with its own cafe and small office. Each section is called a bagno, or bath, and is set off by rows of umbrellas. Customers can rent them, together with lounge chairs, at the bagno's office. My husband loved the convenience of the arrangement -- what parent wouldn't like having food, showers, restrooms and beach equipment so readily available? We rented an umbrella and chairs, and the children set out for the water, returning only when hungry. Then they assailed us with the zeal of the Turkish pirates who once ransacked these coastal villages.

The beach was an entertaining baby sitter with activities our children devised for themselves, such as building sand castles and playing in the waves. All my husband and I had to do was relax on an inflatable mattress while keeping at least one eye on them. Score one for the Italian beach vacation.

Score another for our bagno cafe, which announced over loudspeakers when each pizza came out of the oven. With service like this, we never wanted to leave the beach.

In the evening, the downtown streets were abuzz with vacationers searching for a cool place to eat. They didn't have to look far. Castiglione has ample restaurants, some with outdoor tables. Menus feature mainly fish and Tuscan cuisine, with the catch of the day found in a variety of dishes, such as tagliolini with cuttlefish ink, clams and mussels; spaghetti with calamari; orata (bream) in foil; or baked scampi. Sidewalk cafes fill to capacity as customers stave off the evening heat -- temperatures decline a bit at night, but humidity doesn't -- with a gelato or a granita.

After dinner, the sounds of the modern world were absent as we walked through the centuries-old fortress. During our leisurely downtown strolls, we discovered two delicatessens, La Bettola and Riserva Naturale, that carried a wide selection of regional specialties, including prosciutto made from wild boar, mortadella, truffles, pecorino cheese, focaccia and other homemade breads, and local wines.

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