We were feeling good. We arrived at our apartment in the town of Lerici as the sun was going down. Above: tiny wisps of cloud lit from beneath like pink fish bones. Below: the village, with its ocher- and sienna-washed buildings and beachside promenade teeming with tiny people eating invisible gelato cones. The air smelled like the sea and Italian flora. No one got sick in the car on the highway and no one had had an ear infection in nearly two days. We got out of the Fiat Panda and stretched. Except Finn, our baby. He just sat strapped in to his car seat, screaming, “Outta here! Outta here!” But man, the air did smell great. Like the summer, only with finer cologne.
Lerici is stacked vertically upward from the Mediterranean—the Gulf of Poets, as this inlet is called—like a dense, upper-middle-class favela. The villa we had booked over the Internet was here, notched into the hillside maybe 300 yards above the town. Bathed in the sounds of cicadas. Shrouded in flowering bush. No matter how many pictures you look at, you never know what you’re going to get when you rent a place through a site like VRBO.com. But so far, so good. We unloaded the kids from the car, the portable crib, the 647 pounds of luggage, and set off to find the front door.
We had been very deliberate in our selection of Lerici. It’s a midsize beach town on the southern coast of Liguria, a region best known as the home of Portofino and pesto. It is a place that hits a delicate balance: easy to get to but not too easy; technically part of the Italian Riviera, but not the part of the Italian Riviera where one can only find Russian oligarchs or living, breathing ads for men’s perfume; beaches neither too close to a cement/sardine-processing factory nor to a luxury resort that features a pool sommelier/place where Justin Timberlake might get married. Excellent views, brilliant summer weather, great native summer wine (Vermentino) and seafood (they will blow your mind with some crudo) and a population dedicated to the very pursuit we meant to learn in one week: the modestly fancy Italian family beach vacation.
There are many things the Italian people have not figured out. A balanced budget, for instance. Overnight delivery. Politics, diversity, gay rights, the global economy, procreating fast enough to keep their population from shrinking. But anyone who knows anything about Italy knows they have figured out lifestyle. Lunch. Naps. Working hours. And, though it doesn’t get nearly as much play as wine or pasta: going to the beach. Having lived in Rome for a year not long ago (but longer ago than I’d like), I translated the national psychology as: Hey guys, no one is ever going to get their act together on a societal level, so let’s go small bore and construct our daily lives as perfectly as possible, let’s make sure we have good coffee and never eat a tasteless tomato and throw ourselves with extreme prejudice into the pursuit of the vacation, let’s suck out all the marrow of life. I had brought my wife and my two children—ages 1.5 and 3.5—here with a tacit entreaty: teach us, pesto eaters, teach us how to love the beach more purely!
That was the hopeful energy we inhabited as we humped our gear toward our VRBO villa. We had a week, and it was going to be perfect; we were going to put the plane ride behind us, not to mention the cost of the tickets. And how long did that hope last? I’d say about 40 yards. The villa was up what seemed like 6,000 steps from the road—metal fire-escape-style steps screwed into the hillside. We jettisoned luggage on the way up, like spent booster rockets. The Pack ’n Play first, then the rolling suitcase. When we got to the villa things just seemed…different. I mean, it wasn’t like they used fraudulent pictures on VRBO. But the cold-water hot tub (what is a cold-water hot tub, anyway?) sure looked like a pool in that slideshow. That was the outdoor deck all right, but I hadn’t noticed the sheer drop down the cliff behind it in the photograph, maybe not perfect for a human who is just learning to walk. It was fetid in the (smaller than we imagined!) condo. We opened the windows. “No,” screamed the owner of the property, who was showing us around. “There are many mosquitoes.” What about screens? we asked. A look like: what is the meaning of...screens? We sat down in the backyard. So where do we park to use the beach in town? we asked. Oh, you can’t drive your car into town unless you have a resident permit. Okay, how long is the walk? Thirty minutes, up and down a hill via another 8,000 steps. At least there was a beautiful tree with pink blooms right here at the edge of the deck—my daughter being obsessed with both flowers and the color pink. “Nooooo!” screamed the villa matroness as my daughter picked one. “Pink oleander! It’s poisonous! She will die! She will die!”
Neither of us said anything, my wife nor I. You can complain about little things when you’ve blown your yearly vacation allowance on a trip to Italy—shades that let in too much light in the morning. Or: the coffee at the breakfast buffet is French press, and I hate French press! But when you sense that you will spend the waking hours of your vacation hoping that you could just go home, you want to bury that information very, very deep. I can live with this! My wife said. It’s not too bad, I said. It wasn’t until later—after I’d come back from shopping with these biodegradable grocery bags that seemed to have a half-life of about three minutes, after all seven of these bags began to disintegrate one by one on the hillside staircases, after I’d ferried the food up and down the steps in armfuls of single, orphaned yogurts and crushed cartons of milk—that I said to my wife: This sucks. I know it makes me a spoiled brat that, while we’re here in this beautiful Italian beach town where the sun is setting with the gentlest brilliance while a gentle breeze blows off the gentle Mediterranean, I’m saying: I can’t stay here. Oh my God, she said, in love with me again after all these years, I have been waiting for so long for you to turn into a spoiled brat. We got on the spotty Internet posthaste. And so it was that we decided to go into debt so we could have the lifestyle we wanted—and thereby became truly Italian for the first time.
Beaches 1 & 2
The Fiascherino beach club and Lido di Lerici
It was our second day. It was morning. And it was nigh ten o’clock by the time we were driving along a cliff above the blue Mediterranean, the Fiat clinging to the sea-facing edge of the road. This particular road was just due south of Lerici and led us on this sun-dappled morning toward a new beach experience. In front of us was the hamlet of Fiascherino, where we’d been told there was a beach club. The whole of the Gulf of Poets is lined with coastal towns, Portovenere at the western tip, just a few miles from the Cinque Terre, then La Spezia (which is a legit city, complete with a naval base and heavy industry), then around a rocky bend are Lerici and Fiascherino, and finally at the end the tiny town of Tellaro. The beach club we were going to was recommended as a place for Italians. More specifically: Italian families from, say, Milan or Parma (which is just a couple hours away in Emilia-Romagna) who come here year after year to avail themselves of their nationally allotted beach time.
A sign for Fiascherino appeared suddenly on the right. A steep driveway cut downward at a precipitous angle, and so we plunged the Fiat seaward.
This was our second beach experience. The first had been yesterday, in Lerici. We’d had to spend one night in the Villa of Death and Malaria before we found a new place. In the morning we’d climbed down the walking path into town. We strolled along the boardwalk that stretches a mile and a half from one end of Lerici to another until we selected a beach club we liked. We rented four chairs at the Lido di Lerici, a hotel with its own stretch of beach.
Lerici is divided up by its beach clubs. Each one is marked by its own color of umbrella—canary yellow or Baltic blue or Italian-flag green. From the boardwalk you could see them staking out sections of coast, phalanxes of umbrellas cordoned off like the encampments of competing armies (of people in bathing suits). The Lido’s umbrellas were blue. A maître d’beach brought us to our chairs, wedged between a family from L’Aquila and a couple from Rimini. Some of the people seemed to know each other from years past. There were zero Americanized beach activities—Frisbees; volleyball; giant castles built by show-off dads. People were content to smoke cigarettes, read the newspaper, stand in the surf. One lady just lay where the sea met the rocks and let herself be tumbled gently like driftwood. The population density took some getting used to. My daughter walked to the water to collect stones, then wandered back to the wrong chair. She looked up to discover hundreds of identical chairs manned by hundreds of slightly hairy 40-year-olds who looked almost like but were not her dad.
Today at Fiascherino—hotel and beach club—it would be a different sort of experience. It was more out-of-the-way, quieter, tucked into a cove inaccessible except to whomever could fit into their small parking lot. Terraced up the hillside facing a quiet lagoon were 14 guest rooms arranged at various elevations, as well as a huge seawater pool with lounge chairs, restaurants, and a stretch of beach. Since we weren’t staying at the hotel, it cost $90 for the four of us to spend the day—pool, beach, wherever we liked. We were given locker keys and shown to the changing area.
The changing area: here we find our first cultural artifact of the Italian beach. In Italy, you do not dress to go swimming when you leave your house in the morning. You change when you get there, and then walk down to the beach with only a towel, sandals, and maybe the Corriere della Sera tucked under your arm—as if you were strolling out of your own beach house.
Next to me as I put my son into his swim diaper was an Italian grandfather who looked as if he had spent the last decade of his 70-year life dedicated to transforming himself into a walrus with horn-rimmed sunglasses. He insisted on carrying my son down to the beach, and my son instinctively knew this was a good arrangement. When we got down to the water, he was given an almond cookie.
Just after noon, the pool suddenly cleared out—lunchtime. We found most of the people from the pool at a buffet set in the open-air dining area just above the beach’s retaining wall. For the next hour we went back and forth between our table and heaping plates of farro salad, bruschette, salade niçoise. We ate squid-ink pasta with shrimp, mussels, and tomatoes. We ate fish tartare, drank white wine and espresso, and then, like the rest of the Fiascherino-ites, went back to fall asleep beneath umbrellas. I got to talking to a Milanese man, Giuseppe, as we sat after lunch with our feet in the pool. We bonded. I’m pretty sure his job was fascinating—he was either in real estate or furniture, the Italian words are similar, but either way I was riveted. He had lived briefly in Boston and had spent time on Cape Cod.
“What is funny to me about Americans is how ambitious you are,” he said. “Even at the beach. You must do your activities, apply your sunblock. Even when you are doing nothing you’re always doing something, digging in your beach umbrella or body surfing. Look around. This is how you do nothing in a civilized way.”
Beaches 3, 4, and 5
Plus: a word about Italian beach theory
While we’re getting theoretical about Italians and the beach, let me bring you into a kind of cultural photo-negative situation I found myself in several days later. I’d left the family to head north to bushwhack around other parts of Liguria. Camogli (beautiful pastel houses; amazingly crowded beach), which is a working-class-ish alternative to the more tony spots nearby. Portofino—speaking of tony places, it’s fun just to look at the Ferraris on the street here. San Fruttuoso—a tiny townlet accessible only by ferry built around a stunning seaside abbey, which is worth a trip for lunch. In Camogli, I ate at a famous old place right off the boardwalk called Porto Prego—I had plates of two kinds of native anchovies, some raw with lemon and some salate (salt cured). They were delicious.
“You’re American,” a voice said to me as I was finishing. I looked up and there was a woman. Her eyes were a little too energetic. At home, I avoid getting pinned down by crazy conversationalists at all costs. But this time I figured, why not.
It turned out she was a linguistics scholar who had left her professorship to follow a cardiovascular surgeon who lived not far away from Camogli—they were recently married.
“How did you know?” I asked.
“You’re reading a book at lunch,” she said. “An Italian wouldn’t do that. An Italian wouldn’t be so self-conscious about eating alone. He would tuck his napkin into his shirt and eat and be happy that all he had to do was eat.”
I told her the purpose of my trip, and she said, listen, the Italians are different about the beach. “Up and down the coast, there are beach clubs,” she said. “Dozens of them. Hundreds of them. And you know what’s insane?” And she explained the dark side of the Italian dedication to tradition: “They’re all reserved. All of them! For next year, too. Probably for years and years!”
A Mountain Sojourn
That night, that first night. That night when we sat up in the Villa of Death and Malaria, looking for another place to stay. My wife and I huddling over laptops, searching villa-rental sites and TripAdvisor and e-mailing friends of friends. In the back of my mind there was a voice, quiet but insistent, that said: Here you are in Liguria, a place that, not long ago, you did not know existed. And you are complaining because your hot tub isn’t hot enough? I admit: thinking about this still fills me with shame. What lessons will my children draw from this kind of behavior? What kind of hysterical, high-maintenance freaks am I turning them into?
But let me counter it with this. How do you feel when you check in to a truly great hotel? Or find out the rustic farmhouse you rented isn’t pretend rustic but really, transportingly rustic? When you walk into your house swap and it appears to have been extracted from unnamed fantasies buried deep in your subconscious that have to do with simple picnics had in a backyard garden? After being turned on to a woman named Merrion Charles, a British expat and purveyor/agent for extremely tasteful houses the world over but especially in Italy, we found a place nearby. It was, in fact, her house, just inland from Lerici in an area called Lunigiana. We e-mailed Charles and miraculously she e-mailed us right back. The house was empty, by chance, for the rest of the week. We could have it for a few hundred euros.
On the one hand: it was a few hundred euros we didn’t have.
On the other hand: we’d already spent all our money to get here. How do we not spend a few hundred euros to right the wrong? To paraphrase John Kerry at the end of the Vietnam War: how can you not ask a few hundred euros to be the last few hundred euros spent to correct a mistake?
We drove out there in the morning and let me tell you: it was legit. The pool was saltwater and surrounded by shaggy lavender bushes. It was in the town of Cotto, which is not a town as much as a few structures on a hillside with a handful of cobblestoned streets and many farm animals—chickens and cows, mostly—wandering through town untended like old ladies on their way to buy lottery tickets. This part of the country is a corner where three regioni meet: Liguria, Tuscany, Emilia-Romagna—the land where prosciutto was born, not to mention Parmigiano-Reggiano and lasagna and balsamic vinegar, all just a day trip away. From our kitchen you could see the Apuan Alps, hilly in the foreground and jagged in the distance.
Beaches 6 & 7
There are many perfect beach days on the Italian Riviera. There is the Italian-cruise-ship perfect of the Lido; the quiet-Italian-family perfect of Fiascherino. There is another astonishing zone of perfection in Portovenere—beneath the beautiful church built into the rocky escarpment, on the giant stones that line the marina, is the most colorful assortment of Italian teenagers wearing tiny Day-Glo bikinis and smoking cigarettes and playing soccer. I am telling you, you’ve never seen haircuts like this. It’s a beauty school encyclopedia. Not to mention the tans. If I were either (1) 17 years old and loved club music or (2) Bruce Weber, I would never leave that place.
There’s also the perfection of Tellaro.
Tellaro is the last town on the eastern side of the Gulf of Poets. It’s tiny, hardly a town at all, and it’s nestled right against the sea, as if the rock of the coast had been chiseled into palazzi. You park your car at the top of the town, in a municipal space, and then stroll down. There’s a piazza at the town’s entrance with a quiet bar for espresso and sandwiches and cold beer in the late afternoon. You wend your way down, through streets too narrow for cars, right to the piazza that empties into the sea. Some of the fishermen launch their boats from here, but not many. Mostly it’s kids in little Italian swimsuits playing soccer. A few folks perched on the rocks overlooking the water. Some teenagers floating out on their backs in the crisp, mineral-blue sea, this Renaissance town as backdrop. There’s no train service here, but people say that if a train served Tellaro it would be the sixth town of the Cinque Terre. It wouldn’t be bad to spend a month here, walking to the grocery, walking to the beach, sitting out in the piazza at night having a beer.
But there has to be a winner of the Ligurian beach competition. There has to be a most perfect place. Picture this. There’s a hidden cove. Not visible from the road. Not visible even from the cliff overhanging it really, unless you’re really bending over to look down. It’s accessible only by a thousand-foot staircase or a tiny elevator that tunnels through rock and from which you may never be rescued should it halt unaccountably. There is only space for 20 or 30 chairs on the beach. Which is, you know, sorry to say, perfect. An apron of peastone surrounded by cliffs; little caves to explore where the water meets rock. There is a small restaurant, six hotel rooms, a shop where one can buy $300 scarves. The entire place is sandblasted flooring, sun-bleached wood, billowing with tastefully placed diaphanous white fabrics.
It is a place where you need look no further than the bathing suits to know you are in Italy. I am happy to report that even given the Europeanification of the American swimsuit over the past few years, the male bathing suit on the Ligurian coast is still exceptional in its clinginess and ability to both evoke and diminish the male member.
This beach, called Eco del Mare, is owned by a beautiful woman with salt-crunched chestnut hair. Whom you will find more often than not sitting at her desk, windswept, smoking a cigarette. Who is married to a famous Italian pop star. Named—I’m translating—Sugar. And they live on a farm in the Lunigiana. And the food here—the olive oil, the jams, the vegetables, the fruit—comes from the farm. Everything that doesn’t come from the sea, anyway. Even the Vermentino that you can drink barefoot as you eat lunch overlooking the beach.
Being here does something to people. For instance there was one Russian man with a worrisome tattoo of a Kalashnikov on his back on one of the mornings we were there. We grew nervous as he stalked up the beach in quick, menacing steps toward us. But whether or not he lived a life of crime and violence at home, today he was just incredibly worried that my children might encounter a jellyfish.
“You be careful, beautifuls!” he said to us. “They are floating sometimes close by.”
We spent the day there. We came back the next day. We wanted to go discover another beach on our last day but we couldn’t do it. We came back here again, ate branzino and drank wine and swam. As we gathered our belongings to leave for the last time, Francesca Mozer, the owner, came over with her datebook.
“So,” she said. “Let us book for you a spot for the same week, next year. We are already almost full in the hotel that week. It’s a tradition, what do you say?”