About halfway through a Tuscan summer the heat begins to really take its toll. Oppressive heat, like a hair dryer pointed in your face. Stone piazzas that bake all day in the sun, trapping the heat like an oven. Crowds. Rare air-conditioning. You begin living off things that don’t need any cooking at all: paper thin slices of prosciutto from the butcher and thick slices of fragrant melon. Fresh mozzarella or wobbly ricotta. Tomato salad, over and over again. Gelato.
The locals deal with it in two ways: a midday siesta, where from about lunchtime until 3:30pm (but in many places, even 4 or 5pm) shops are closed. And escaping to the seaside. It’s still hot there, but at least you can cool off in the water and cool evenings by the sea give you a bit of respite from the hot day.
Tuscany is blessed with beautiful coastline — about 400 km of it. And luckily all of it is quite easy to get to from the cities. Here are a few highlights (and tips) of my favourite holiday spots along the coast:
Castiglioncello — a pretty beach town not far from Livorno with rocky and sandy beaches and easy access thanks to the train station that is walking distance to the beach and the town. It’s about an hour and a half from Florence and a 30 minute bus or train ride to Livorno. Have breakfast or aperitivo at the classic Caffe Ginori in the middle of town and a wonderful meal of homemade gnocchi with vongole and pesto or crostini with marinated anchovies and stracchino cheese (my favourite) at Dalla Wilma. Next door is the natural gelateria Bar Vittoria, which is worth going back to for seconds. Station Gallery is an eclectic spot for a spritz before dinner, but if you want to be by the sea, Il Cardellino is in prime position. Find yourself a patch of free beach between Bagno Roma and Bagno Nettuno (or pay around 30 euro for an umbrella and 2 chairs for the day). When you’ve spent too much time in the sun, young children will love the playground in the cool pineta (pine forest) that separates the train station from the seafront.
Bolgheri — it’s not on the beach but it’s only 4 kilometers from it and makes a nice afternoon or evening trip if you’ve got a car. The little town is charming and quaint and clearly dedicated to food and wine. Gelato at Caffe della Posta is lovely and will keep the kids quiet while parents are wine tasting. To keep everyone happy, though,
head to Bar U on the Via Aurelia just before you turn off for Bolgheri. It’s cheap, cheerful, with the feel of an outdoor pub, but the food is fun and clearly made with love (think an odd mixture of Tuscan burgers, homemade crisps, delicate 61 degree eggs and crostini with anchovies. And really good cheesecake) [update: Very sadly this seems to have closed, I’m leaving this information up here in the hope that they decide to reopen though! In compensation, though quite a different vibe, try Bolgheri+, it’s more a bustling, modern restaurant but right in the heart of Bolgheri]. Not far is another pretty country town, Castagneto Carducci, on a hill top surrounded by olive trees. We stayed at a rustic and friendly organic agriturismo called Colle Donatucci.
Isola d’Elba — the largest of Tuscany’s 7 islands is full of beautiful beaches and towns worth exploring. Most ferries depart from the port of Piombino, which can be reached by train to Campiglia Marittima and then a shuttle bus. Taking a car onto the ferry can be quite costly in the high season, so consider renting a scooter once you’re on the island. I recently visited Capo d’Arco near the ultra pretty town of Porto Azzuro on the northeast side of the island. It’s a quieter, more secluded part of the island, where all you might want to do is spend all day by the sea. If you like the sound of a secluded island, have a look also at these posts on Giglio Island and visiting Monte Argentario.
I’m now back from holidays, sweating away in a house that never seems to cool down. It’s not even August and I’m already beginning to crave a refreshing, crisp morning, you know the kind, when you need a nice hot cup of tea or coffee to warm you up and perhaps an extra layer over the summer clothes you’re tired of wearing, soup, a roast and anything baked. But in a few months time, I know I’ll be looking at these photographs and longing for the hot sun beating down on my face and all that summer produce, the sea breeze in my hair and the feeling, that incomparable feeling, of swimming in the crystalline sea.