Travel: In love with La Dolce Vita
At the canal by the beach at Viareggio there are a couple of boats parked up where you can get a bit of deep fried fish. They make it fresh. They get little squid, throw in a few prawns and a few whitebait or something. They flour them up carefully, right there in front of you and then they cook them. They take great care about doing it and they take it very seriously. And it is delicious.
Go on down the pier then and sit there and watch the surfers and eat your fish with the little forks. And you find yourself taking great care about it. You find yourself taking it seriously. Because it is contagious, this focus the Italians bring to everything. These people were being mindful long before the Irish Times discovered the idea.
Italy from a distance can look like a somewhat chaotic country. Almost a cartoonish place, with those busty babes on TV and their leaders with their bunga bunga parties. And there's no doubt that there is an element of chaos and corruption to the place. But look closely, and you will find an order to things. You will find people who are deeply immersed in the day-to-day things that matter -- like how they dress and how and what they eat.
In Italy, they sweat the small stuff. They take the everyday things incredibly seriously, perhaps because they realise that that is all there is, that this little tray of squid that you are eating now is all there is, and that you must commune with God when you eat it. And let this be the most important thing you do right now and let this "now" be the best "now" it can be.
It is no coincidence that one of the few Italian phrases everybody knows is La Dolce Vita, the good life. Another popular one is La Bella Figura, which encompasses a whole way of life about how you present yourself, how you behave and the things you surround yourself with. La Bella Figura is a whole aesthetic for life and it trickles right down to the most humble things.
And that's why Italy is the best place in the world to go on holidays, because there is a likelihood that everything you eat will be taken seriously by the person who cooks it and that most of the things you experience as a tourist will have had effort put into them. Slipping into this way of being, this connection with simplicity and intrinsic quality, also gives you that thing we all crave as tourists, authenticity, a local experience, to eat the way they do, to gain some insight in to their lives.
Another way to gain insight into the Italians is to go on holidays with them. It levels the playing field and makes tourists of us all. So we went to the beach where the Italians go to the beach, at Viareggio on the Versilia coast of Tuscany. More accurately, we were outside Viareggio, near enough to Forte de Marmi on the other side of us, so when we didn't feel like the authentico 'Italians at the seaside' holiday, we could go gawping at the rich Russians in the designer shops of upmarket Forte.
Viareggio, for its part, is a little bit like Blackpool. It's a picturesque but democratic enough seaside town. But everybody, from the grandads and the nonnas down to the kids, has a look going on. The very Italian-ness of them lends it a kind of old-school glamour, and a slight Fellini-esque quality. You could watch them all day.
For modern glamour, of the tiny dog/fake boobs/what's she doing with that older overweight dude variety, you head to Forte dei Marmi, where inscrutable Russians prowl around between the designer shops. Forte dei Marmi is great for watching the Moncler-clad sugar daddies, overmuscled younger men and their slightly bored looking women. They all seem to enjoy smoking, driving around and shopping.
Here and there, they sit and pick at food, the couples not talking much. You hear rumblings that the locals aren't happy to see their town being taken over by so many eastern Europeans, but thankfully that doesn't stop the Italians from coming here. And, unlike many EastEurotrash enclaves, Forte dei Marmi retains an earthy charm; you can eat deliciously and reasonably and you don't feel out of place arriving on bikes instead of in a flash car.
This being Italy, even the chic resort towns are child-friendly and our kids both drove little go-karts for the first time here and went on the bumpers in the tasteful but old-school mini-carnival in the middle of town.
Viareggio and Forte dei Marmi are linked by a cyclist highway that runs for miles along the seafront, running parallel to the road just a few yards off it. You'd feel entirely safe zooming up and down with kids on the back, and as long as you get the weather, it's fine. We got trapped in Forte one day during a freak storm that sent mini flash floods down the whole seafront. Suddenly the atmosphere changed to that of a disaster movie. You get the sense they weren't really used to this kind of thing.
Traffic suddenly turned chaotic and immobile and as the bikes were the only way to get back to the hotel, we cycled through knee-deep warm water, a soaked child clinging to me screaming in delight and madness. Mother and junior got rescued by a kindly lido owner somewhere along the way, but senior and I had to cycle the whole way back in the torrential rain. I like to think our little adventure brought us closer, and she still talks about it.
If you want culture, Florence and Siena, and even Pisa, are within easy striking distance.
The quaint walled town of Lucca is half-an-hour away from the Versilian coast, and here, alongside the shabby grandeur, you also see Italian commerce, capitalism at its purest, where the baker is still the baker and tourists and locals queue to get into deep discussions about how much foccacia they want him to cut off which slab.
We favoured thin light sheets of pastry with mozzarella and tomato. It sounds basic but it was the lightest, most refined street food you ever ate. Cantini is the nicest patisserie you ever saw, perfect for sitting outside with coffee and loads of their tiny carefully crafted buns while the kids chase pigeons around Piazza Bernardini.
There are fantastic little artisan food shops, or as they are known here, food shops. There isn't a supermarket in sight within the walls, and the locals clearly buy their food in the local shops, prodding and sniffing at length before committing. There's that focus again, that immersion in the moment. The seriousness of the business of deciding what to eat next. And everyone has their place in this delicate ecosystem -- the baker, the meat guy, the sweets and cakes woman, the fruit and veg guy.
You'll even get great cheap leather goods here that they will actually tailor to your fit or needs in the shop for you, because miraculously, the guy in the shop is a craftsman. You'll get fantastic cheap kitchen stuff too, non-brand bare necessities to them, which look like design classics to us.
But, ultimately, it's all about the food and the wine. While the seafront is lined with places of varying quality, make sure you head off the front to eat in local family restaurants too, because watching Italians eat is all part of the fun -- from the guys in suits who come in at lunchtime and eat a three-course meal on their own, with intense focus and a little jug of wine, to the four-generational families joyously all talking together as they savour food, dote on children and love and respect the elderly all at once.
When you get old you want to end up here. Older people are everywhere, as ubiquitous as children. Both ends of the age spectrum are knitted into the social scene and the nightlife, and it keeps the old people young and teaches the kids how to behave.
I know all this might sound like a romantic view of the whole scene but I can't help but be swept up by the romance of Italy. I love it all. The textures of the landscape and the buildings and the towns, the food, the atmosphere, the noises, the style everywhere you look. This is a country that knows how to live, and how to live for today.
There are regular flights from Dublin to Pisa, which is less than an hour from Viareggio. It can be hard to find good family-friendly hotels in Italy. We stayed at the Una Hotel Versilia just back from the beach at Lido de Camiore. We stayed in a one bedroom apartment, which essentially meant the kids had their own bedroom. The room also had a kitchenette and washer/drier, which was a lifesaver for a family. They are quoting a rate of €199 per night. We paid a little more than that to have breakfast included. There was a 25m outdoor pool and a smaller, indoor,heated one and the hotel also provides bikes for guests. See www.unahotels.it/en for more details.
The beautiful hill town of Pietrasanta is a few miles inland and here everything looks more like the Tuscany of the brochures. It has the requisite square and duomo and little streets full of chic little shops. There is also a constantly evolving selection of giant sculpture in the piazza. Pietrasanta is like an accessible open-air art gallery that has become a melting pot for artists from all over, with sculpture seeming to be a favourite, due, perhaps to the nearby marble quarries. For a touch of culture in a laid-back environment this is perfect.
Obviously every time you drink the fantastic local wines you are saving a fortune so you need to drink them at every opportunity. Montecarlo DOC is different from the other Tuscan wines because it's made with Semillion, Sauv Blanc and Pinot Blanc grapes, and lends itself well to all the fantastic seafood you'll be eating. Montecarlos are crisp fresh whites that should be drunk young and are perfect after a hot day at the beach when you have a tight face and a slight sleepiness. It has to be said they go down well with lunch too.
3. Cinque Terre
If you fancy something a bit more rugged than Florence or Pisa, you could drive, or better still, get the train an hour down the coast into Liguria to the world-famous Cinque Terre. You can get at the five variably accessible villages of Monterosso, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola and Riomaggiore by boat, with ferry services or more personal options available. From the sea you will also take in the full grandeur of the coastline that has entranced holiday makers since the romantic poets invented the notion of getting away from it all.