Discovering the secret Riviera of Tuscany, the cradle of the Italian Renaissance
It’s late afternoon on Bagno Carducci beach and all around, tanned Italian families are starting to pack their raffia bags. Tuscany may be beloved by Brits for its cypress-topped hills and glorious fields of sunflowers, but for Italians it’s the Versilia Riviera, a short drive from Pisa and Lucca, that’s the attraction. star.
And in pole position is Forte dei Marmi, a seaside resort perched atop the coast where Bagno Carducci is just one of its many beaches.
Attracting affluent Italian families as well as fashion royalty – billionaires Miuccia Prada and Giorgio Armani both have vacation homes nearby – Forte dei Marmi’s seaside heritage dates back to the early 1900s, when it became one of the premier holiday destinations in Italy.
With calm waters, golden sands and a picturesque backdrop framed by the Apuan Alps, it’s no surprise the little town has been dubbed Fabulous Forte. The resort’s posh reputation was cemented in the 1960s when celebrities from around the world decamped there for the summer.
These days the town has a neat but modest atmosphere, unlike other more flashy hotspots in Europe, for example Saint Tropez or Marbella.
In the centro storico, the old town, you can pick up a stracciatella ice cream at one of the many craft shops, as well as browse the little outposts of designer brands. Dolce & Gabbana, Prada and Gucci all have stores there.
For shopping without breaking the bank, however, the Wednesday market in Piazza Marconi, with locally made cashmere, ceramics and linens, is a must.
To feel completely immersed in la dolce vita, Hotel Principe Forte dei Marmi is the perfect place to check in. The 28 rooms have a sleek, modern feel, and there’s the bonus of the private Dalmazia Beach Club. Here, you can people-watch from the elegant gazebos on the beach and enjoy authentic Tuscan dishes at the open-air restaurant.
Rooms cost from £300 per night.
Sculpted in an Art Nouveau villa, the Byron hotel, meanwhile, dates from the end of the 18th century and bears the name of the English poet who adored Tuscany.
Regulars return for its beachfront location and Michelin-starred restaurant.
You can take trips to the artists’ studios near the ancient town of Pietrasanta, known for its marble heritage, as well as boat trips to the villages of the Cinque Terre.
Rooms cost from £383 per night.
For the full Italian beach experience, however, there’s nothing quite like the buzz of Viareggio. Warning: if you are looking for peace and quiet, book in hand, this is not the right place. Its miles of sandy beaches are dominated by Milanese and Romans who play volleyball, water sports and of course, gossip profusely.
The early evening passeggiata – the Italian tradition of strolling with friends and family – is practically an institution here and is practiced along the seafront promenade.
Stop for an Aperol spritz at Gran Caffe Margherita, once the favorite haunt of opera composer Giacomo Puccini, the area’s most famous son. For opera lovers, it is well worth a visit to Torre del Lago, where Puccini lived and wrote many of his operas. His mansion, carved out of a former watchtower overlooking Lake Massaciuccoli, is now a museum, while the lakeside outdoor theater hosts a summer festival celebrating his work.
The Plaza e de Russie, built in 1871, is the oldest hotel in Viareggio. Located on the seafront, it is the ideal base for discovering the city’s lively beach clubs, as well as its carnival, which takes place over several weekends in February and March.
Rooms cost from £238 per night.
If the northern coast has all the sparkle of a Fellini film, southern Tuscany exudes the complexity of an oil painting by Giovanni Fattori, where the dull greens of the olive groves merge with the turquoise hues of the sea. .
South of the port city of Livorno, the coastline becomes wilder, the crowds recede and it feels like a forgotten corner of Italy.
This is the Maremma region of Tuscany, a timeless destination where tiny bays, accessible only on foot or by boat, are lined with pine forests and driftwood-strewn beaches.
Much of this jagged stretch of coast is within the protected Bandite di Scarlino Nature Reserve and the beaches have an otherworldly feel, surrounded by oak forests and scrubland. While wild boars roam the hinterland and egrets fly overhead, you can swim in wonderful clear water.
Here are Italy’s most unspoiled beaches, such as Cala Violina, poetically named for the musical sound the sand emits when you walk on it.
Adding to the Maremma’s wild appeal are the butteri, or cowboys, who have worked this land since Etruscan times, herding the distinctive-looking longhorn cattle.
Agriturismo a Gelsomino has a riding school that offers horseback riding with butteri along the coast and through the surrounding hills.
One of the jewels of the Tuscan Riviera is Castiglione della Pescaia. The small fishing town is dominated by a 15th century castle and has kept its medieval walls intact. You can stroll through its narrow, cobbled streets before exploring the nearby family beaches.
Spiaggia Fertilia beach is renowned for its kitesurfing and windsurfing, and is also a great place for the little ones to hunt for shells and sea urchins in its necklace of rock pools.
A short drive inland will take you to the romantic L’Andana Resort. The Villa Medici turned into a hotel was where Grand Duke Leopold and his court used to camp during the summers at the end of the 19th century. Set on a 1,200 acre wine estate, it still offers royal Tuscan appeal. As well as a lavish spa, a highlight is the Michelin-starred La Trattoria Enrico Bartolini, overlooking the vineyards. B&B costs around £375 per night based on two sharing.
Go even further south and you will reach the peninsula of Monte Argentario, connected to the mainland by three strips of land, one of which crosses the lagoon of Orbetello.
These 4,000 hectares of marsh are inhabited by grebes, rare migratory birds and some 4,000 pink flamingos. The two main towns on the promontory are Porto Santo Stefano, dominated by a magnificent fort, and Porto Ercole, which has a charming old town and a port.
Along the waterfront of Porto Ercole, seafood restaurants and artisan workshops are carved out of old fishermen’s huts. There’s nothing better here than a bowl of local tagliolini with prawns, clams and zucchini.
In Porto Santo Stefano, Trattoria a Casa Paolo e Rosita offers an extra dip in local cuisine, which naturally focuses on an abundance of seafood, as well as seasonal ingredients such as wild mushrooms, wild boar and chestnuts .
Connoisseurs rent villas in Monte Argentario for the summer to enjoy happy and quiet days. Agrumento Dell’Isola Villa is a pink-painted two-bedroom stone farmhouse surrounded by olive, orange and lemon trees. In addition to a swimming pool, it enjoys access to its own secluded beach. It sleeps four and costs from £2,108 for a week, starting September 24.
You can spend your days here hiking the highest peak of Punta Telegrafo, taking a glass-bottom boat trip to the nearby islands of Giglio and Montecristo, or biking along Via Panoramica, a road which offers cinematic views of the archipelago.
Divers can explore shipwrecks around the small crescent-shaped island of Giannutri, such as the Roman ship Punta Scaletta, and see the stunning vertical walls of multicolored corals and sponges, as well as a kaleidoscope of marine life beneath the form of barracudas, scorpion fish, dolphins and fin whales. For a legendary coastal stay, there’s nothing better than Hotel Il Pellicano in Porto Ercole – arguably Tuscany’s most glamorous hotel, which opened its doors in 1965.
It has a breathtaking setting perched above the Tyrrhenian Sea. Guests can also access a very hip beach club by taking an elevator that plunges you down the side of the cliff.
At the hotel’s Bar All’Aperto, start your evening with a Pellicano martini, prepared with a splash of local tangerine liqueur.
Michelin-starred chef Gioia oversees the main restaurant, Il Pellicano, where he elevates the bountiful amounts of local produce on offer to stellar levels.
A five-night trip to the Tuscan Riviera, including flights, car hire, two nights at Hotel Il Pellicano and three at Hotel Byron, B&B, costs from £5,400 pp.
Perhaps most importantly, Hotel Il Pellicano is a master at what the Italians call sprezzatura, meaning it exudes a certain nonchalance about its obvious appeal. In other words, just like the Tuscan Riviera itself.