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The Beach, Italian Style

Aldo Rossi

Photo: Aldo Rossi

I first went to Forte in the early eighties with Giorgio Armani, for whom I was working at the time, and his partner, Sergio Galeotti, who was born and bred in Viareggio nearby. It had been Sergio's dream to own a house in Roma Imperiale, the most elegant part of Forte dei Marmi, and as soon as they were successful enough, they bought the biggest villa they could find. The actor Michael York and his wife, Pat, had also been invited that weekend. I don't remember much of what happened except that I was driven down from Milan by Sergio in his new Porsche at 145 mph and nearly died of fright; I had my first taste of fish baked in a crust of salt; and we sat for longish stretches on the terrace of Forte's main café so that all the locals might have a protracted view of Giorgio and Sergio in the company of Michael York.

The new house had a fence, and a gatekeeper in a guardhouse to man the electric gate. Beyond it, one drove for an entire minute, past perfectly clipped green lawns on either side of the driveway, before reaching a sprawling sixties construction. Behind the house was an Olympic-sized swimming pool surrounded by pine trees, with more lawns and dense laurel hedges all around.

Hedges are everywhere in Forte dei Marmi and are used as walls. They are the perfect height and bulk to protect people's privacy while affording passers-by a peek at the houses and gardens. After all, if the owners really didn't want to be seen they would build solid walls. But Forte life is based on somnolently watching, and overhearing, how people live, through half-closed lids while lying on the beach or riding by on a bicycle at a leisurely pace. Villas constitute the mystique of Forte; in and around them the summer days trickle out like grains of sand from a sandbag. Their architecture—from the Liberty period's marble intarsias and geometric stained-glass windows in pastel shades to a domesticated fifties Modernism—suggests how one is to lead one's life of leisure: the many porticoes, terraces, and balconies invite one to recline. The gardens, well maintained and, if anything, too tame, are a civilized continuation of those terraces. Porch swings and wrought-iron garden furniture covered in plump upholstered pillows seem to promise an endless series of moonlit dinners.

It is called Forte dei Marmi, "marble fort," because of the quarries that lie beyond it—there are accounts of Michelangelo escorting mules and horses laden with large slabs through the steep and narrow passes of the Apuan Alps—and the fort that is right in the center of town. But Forte dei Marmi is better known today for its beaches, barely an hour from Florence on the blue-gray Tyrrhenian Sea, and even more for its bathing establishments and the languid life that goes with them in summer. It is the only place I've heard of where the municipal administration has decreed three daily hours of silence, from lunchtime through the afternoon siesta.

For at least three months a year people convene here from all parts of Italy (Germans and Americans are beginning to infiltrate the scene) to lie beneath canvas tents whose color and design vary according to the different establishments, though they always follow a nautical theme—whites, navy blues, and so forth, with turquoise and kelly green as the only acceptable departures. You won't see any pinks, flowery prints, or loud patterns here. No, Forte is a most unobtrusively elegant resort, evoking a time when creatures faced the waves wearing clinging black things down to their knees, often with black rubber inner tubes around their waists.

I RETURNED TO FORTE A FEW MONTHS AGO. MY FRIEND FRANCESCO, AN ANTHROPOLOGIST, said I might use him as a "native informant," since he had spent every summer of his childhood and adolescence here. He remembered his grandfather turning up at the beach in a dark three-piece suit and a hat in the middle of summer. This very grandfather acquired a piece of land facing the shore, graced by what he had decided was the best view of the Apuan Alps, in the hope that it would provide his family and their offspring with a place in which to gather. His scheme has been successful for more than half a century. To this day, Francesco's cousins are all to be found in their separate houses hidden in the dense forest of tall pines on that very plot of land. They still meet on the beach, to which they once had exclusive access. When it too became a bathing establishment a few years ago, they were granted a spot on the sand and the use of an honorary ombrellone.

I was happy to be introduced to Francesco's extended family—for years they had been a dozen names that occasionally surfaced in our conversations, with more or less colorful anecdotes attached to them. On our first afternoon at the beach, in front of the Hotel Augustus & Lido, where I was staying, Francesco drew the family tree for me. After I'd had a chance to study it, he grilled me on it and of course I got everyone mixed up. But as we rode our bicycles over to the estate, the whirring of the spokes did much to soothe my anxiety. It was on the beach that we found the clan, most of whose members—venerable professors, attorneys, theologians, and philanthropists—would have been invited into the Académie Française had they been French. Fortunately, I discovered that they were eager for a taste of the "other," which I could provide. After all, they had been exposed to the delights of Forte since they were tots, so they couldn't be all that unremittingly serious.

The very first relative I encountered on my coming out, or rather into the family, was Francesco's cousin Professor Giovanni Cassano, one of Italy's most renowned psychiatrists, whom I'd met at the Bagno Piero the day before. He remembered being summoned from the water to lunch by the sound of a gong emanating from his family's house across the vialone, the avenue that separates the beach from the town. As we ate fried mozzarella and steamed vegetables doused in olive oil, many of his acquaintances came to shake his hand, and it was clear they would happily have kissed his feet.

The Bagno Piero is the most exclusive of Forte's bagni, as these establishments are called, where some of the guests have been renting a tent or a deck chair for decades and others come just for a day. Here, seven-year-old girls in pastel bathing suits with ruffles at the hips sat seriously around a table discussing the afternoon's plans, chaperoned only by a dachshund named Leopoldo (in honor of either Leopoldo Pirelli, founder of the tire company and an early Forte Marmino, or the Grand Duke Pietro Leopoldo, who in 1785 had the fort built on the beach to protect the stores of marble from theft). A huddle of Muslim ladies in black veils indulged in a late lunch by the pool, in sharp contrast to a slew of scantily clad women, well-heeled even in their bare feet, who paraded back and forth. One would have wished for detailed captions listing their hairdressers, dermatologists, favorite boutiques, and exercise routines, although I came to the conclusion that exercise is a dirty word, or at least a clandestine activity, in Forte dei Marmi. Riding along on my bike, I never saw anyone throwing a Frisbee or a ball. The only areas of feverish activity were the red clay courts of the Tennis Roma, which looked like something out of The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, the Vittorio De Sica film set just before World War II.

A FLORENTINE LADY I MET at the Bagno Perché told me that it was thanks to members of the Florentine bourgeoisie, who built the first houses in Forte, that the town has remained so unspoiled. They were much too careful with money, she said, to do anything as costly, time-consuming, and fatiguing as "develop" their properties. And for decades they didn't. Later, laws were passed to protect this inadvertent conservation impulse.

A pioneer of "Forte far niente" was a certain Admiral Morin, who built a house in 1896 and named it Villa Costanza after his wife. It is a grand two-story red-brick Art Nouveau affair with heart-stopping views of the shore, where the different emblems and colors on triangular flags hoisted on tall poles signal the position of the various bathing establishments. There are rows of wonderfully old-fashioned wooden cabins painted white and blue (or green or orange), and a zigzag of sloping roofs.

Villa Costanza was purchased in 1926 by Edoardo Agnelli, son of the Agnelli who founded Fiat. He thought it a perfect place for his children to spend their summers. This is how Forte's social reputation began to grow. Agnelli had a tunnel carved beneath the vialone. You could descend into the tunnel from the grounds of the villa and emerge, after a brief walk, on the beach.

If you stay at the Hotel Augustus & Lido, once the Villa Costanza (and later the Villa Agnelli), you can still do that. My room there was just what I had always dreamed of: a big square with turquoise and white candy-striped wallpaper, high vaulted ceilings, and shutters opening to reveal the beach on one side and pines and mountains on the other. Add to that lovely old furniture, such as a Biedermeier cradle bed, and an immense bathroom.

Nearly all the oldest and grandest villas have been turned into hotels and are the ideal places to get a taste of a villeggiatura. The Florentine lady set me straight on the difference between a villeggiatura and a vacanza. A villeggiatura involves residing in a villa and leaving it only to go to the beach or to town, returning for a siesta during the "silent" hours of curfew, or to change for dinner. "A holiday, a vacanza," the lady grimaced, "is an exhausting tour de force packed into a few days during which one must visit sites, scour museums, get an education, be with one's traveling companion twenty-four hours a day. By the time it's over, one is exhausted and in need of a villeggiatura."

Here is the rhythm of a villeggiatura: people wake up late, have a cappuccino and a brioche and read the morning paper at a café in the center of town, then head for their open-air lounge on the beach where they lie on a canvas cot, their legs protruding into the bright sunlight so they might become suitably bronzed. After a couple of months of this, even women in their eighties start to look girlish, especially when they swing one leg over the seat of their bicycle and ride off without so much as a wobble. A villeggiatura was something women did (before they had careers) for three months with their children, and for which their husbands joined them on weekends and for at least part of August. The justification for taking so much time off—not that Italians, unlike more puritanical cultures, really need one—is that the iodine in seawater is indispensable to good health.

The Florentine's daughter, who had a tiny pig-face tattooed on one ankle and a butterfly on her back, just above her bikini top, told me gravely that she stayed up almost every night till six in the morning, usually talking with her friends at a bar or at the Bagno America. I went to the Bagno America much later that evening. When the rhythm from the one-man band became really irresistible—the performer sang Italian pop songs and his synthesizer made it sound as though there were three of him, each one soulful—the jeunesse bronzée sort of jiggled to it while continuing to talk and sip their drinks. A girl danced in front of a man as he spoke to her, but he continued to stand impassively, as if she weren't swaying her hips an inch away from his. Men favored funny beards that seemed to have been drawn by a mouse tail dipped in ink, and wore white shirts (no longer emblems of corporate convention) outside their trousers and with the collars turned up.

To break the routine of Forte, it has become fashionable to spend the evening in Pietrasanta, a hill town only a few miles away. It was always a mecca for sculptors the world over (the name means "sacred stone") because of its marble workshops and skilled artisans. Years ago, Saddam Hussein had an immense monument of himself carved there. One can have dinner right on the cobbled main street at a restaurant called L'Enoteca, which started as a wine bar and specializes in delicate appetizers, and one can even stay at the Albergo Pietrasanta, a Renaissance mansion, where the main halls are decorated with modern art and every room is in a different style.

Young Forte Marmini go to sleep eventually and do not reappear until the early afternoon, to have a light lunch with their parents on the beach. Though delicious pastas might be had, lunch is all about ascetic renunciation, for one is in a bathing suit. The only indulgence permitted is Italy's "diet champagne," which consists of flat and bubbly mineral water mixed together. As the girl with the tattoos told me, Forte dei Marmi is rilassante, relaxing. Life in Forte seems to have been modeled after the old Roman proverb, "We are born tired and life is made to rest."

And rest one does. The local people of Forte have a reputation for wanting to cram a year's work and earnings into three summer months so as to loll the remainder of the year away. I see nothing wrong with this plan. Angelo Maccarone, whose bagno is called Angelo Levante, uses the winter months to go fishing and to help his children with their homework. He has also become interested in restoring the dunes to their original savage splendor, replanting the tall grasses that suddenly bloom into white, plumelike dusters (most other bagni favor the more conventional, though decorative, bushes of pink and white oleander).

Forte Marmini are sticklers for order, which accounts for the prices: a month's rental of a spot on the beach, or ombrellone, may cost as much as an apartment in Rome or Milan. But it is the equivalent of paying dues to belong to a club. Most bagni are very exclusive, or, rather, tend to draw people of the same tastes and social standing, who are also, quite often, from the same city. Bagno America, with delicious light meals, attracts many Milanese regulars; the Perché has the fewest number of umbrellas and a clique of elegant Forte old-timers; Piero is the most established as well as the best known outside Forte.

As the sun starts to set, the bagnini and their crews comb footprints off the sand, line up deck chairs, and fold umbrellas. If you go to watch the sun sinking into the sea as it wraps every curly and wobbly cloud in vermilion and mauve, you'll be the only one there. When you leave you'll have to be careful not to muss up the sand, but instead to skip onto the narrow boardwalk that goes from the water to the cabins at most bagni.

A holiday town in every respect, Forte was thought up around what to do in between long spells of doing nothing—which have the precise if unspoken purpose of allowing one to fall into a trance. Tanning, l'abbronzatura, twin sister of la villeggiatura, may have been invented to keep people out in the elements longer, flat on their backs or their stomachs.

But Forte is not just for tourists, unlike so many resorts: here, everyone, including those working at hotels, restaurants, and bathing establishments, take time out for il bagno, la focaccia, and il riposino. It's one of the last remaining take-it-easy capitals of the world—with Italian food. Wasn't it the Greek philosopher Plotinus who said that the eyes have to become sunlike in order to see the sun?(I'm glad I named my cat after him.)

THE FACTS

The high season runs from June through September; spring and fall are ideal for those who want to trek in the mountains and have the beach to themselves.

HOTELS
In general, the best places to stay are the beautiful converted villas along the Viale Ammiraglio Morin. Most have highly personalized service and excellent food.

Hotel Augustus & Lido 72 Viale Amm. Morin; 39-0584/787-200, fax 39-0584/787-102; doubles from $350. The two-story red villa, built in the 19th century, once belonged to the Agnellis and has been recently and wonderfully restored. Note: Hotel Augustus & Lido will be closed until April 2003
Hotel Byron 46 Viale Amm. Morin; 39-0584/787-052, fax 39-0584/787-152; doubles from $240, including two meals. This vanilla-colored, delicately restored Liberty period mansion has small, sun-filled drawing rooms, bay windows, and terraces.
Hotel Franceschi 19 Via XX Settembre; 39-0584/787-114, fax 39-0584/787-471; doubles from $285. One of the very first villas to have been turned into a hotel; therefore legendary—and often booked up. It has a charming garden.
Pensione America 24 Via Cristoforo Colombo; 39-0584/787-253, fax 39-0584/787-191; doubles from $200. The only establishment that still calls itself a pensione. People book years in advance, sometimes for the entire summer.
Albergo Pietrasanta 35 Via Garibaldi, Pietrasanta; 39-0584/793-726, fax 39-0584/793-728; doubles from $192. An eccentric and stylish palazzo, 10 minutes by car from Forte. Rooms are individually decorated in high Surrealist—modern.

BAGNI
A spot at one of these bathing establishments can be rented by the day, week, or month. The daily fee, which ranges from $50 to $100 (depending on the distance from the water), typically includes the use of a cabin for changing, an umbrella, and a handful of beach chairs and lounges. Most offer a simple lunch. The choice of bagno boils down to a matter of style.

America 2 Via Arenile; 39-0584/83996. One of the most fashionable bagni, with a tiny, fantastically good restaurant for lunch. Great at sundown for caipirinhas and again after 11 p.m.
Angelo Levante 76 Via Arenile, Vittoria Apuana; 39-0584/ 881-600. Just north of Forte, if you want to see restored dunes.
Annetta 23 Via Arenile; 39-0584/89314. The trendy bagno of the moment.
Piero 1 Viale della Repubblica; 39-0584/81647. Under the same ownership since the 1930's, it has wooden cabins with tiled roofs and an entertaining pool scene.
Perché 4 Via Roma, Marina di Pietrasanta; 39-0584/22991. On one of the quieter beaches, with fewer ombrellones.

RESTAURANTS
Pizzeria Orlando 80 Via Cristoforo Colombo; 39-0584/80763; focaccia for two $9. Open till 3 a.m. for focaccia and crostata, a crumbly tart. Kids come here after a night of reveling; others come at all hours for lunch and snacks.
Caffè Soldi 2 Via Roma; 39-0584/787-227; breakfast for two $9. Good for morning cappuccino—and for watching what people who visit Forte do when not lying on the beach.
Ristorante Lorenzo 61 Via Carducci; 39-0584/840-030; dinner for two $115. The best restaurant for fish, very cosmopolitan and in the center of town. Book ahead.
L'Enoteca 40 Via Garibaldi, Pietrasanta; 39-0584/791-962; dinner for two $40. On a cobbled street, with steaks cooked on a wood-burning grill and a stupefying array of little-known wines.

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