Art deco architecture, golden sand and glorious food are among the delights of the resort town of Viareggio
At Caffè Shelley, the plates of food just keep coming.
I’m in a back street that’s only a stone’s throw from Viareggio’s pedestrianised Passeggiata a mare – the town’s wide, three-kilometre-long promenade bedecked with shops and cafes that runs immediately behind the stretch of golden beach that defines this little Tuscan town. I have just stopped off for a glass of wine before heading on somewhere for dinner.
Perched on a high stool at an outdoor barrel-table, I’ve been drawn here by the twinkling fairy lights on the bar’s street-side terrace and by the buzz of the chatter from the clientele – all of whom, I now see, seem to be locals.
It’s only when I sit down that I notice everyone is also eating. Little sharing plates abound, piled with all kinds of delicious nibbles.
No sooner has my own drink arrived than the young waiter is back again, this time delivering a plateful of assorted delights – three tiny pizza pieces, a few slices of spicy salami and also some lightly toasted bread to accompany wafer-thin slices of aubergine, steeped in olive oil. And all for me.
What a nice touch, I think. Then, 10 minutes later, I find a small portion of penne carbonara also being proffered in my direction. Well, how could you not? “Si” and “grazie” are the words that spring immediately to my lips.
Another glass of wine is ordered and still the food keeps coming. And so it is that dinner, as such, is abandoned for the night. When I later venture inside to the lovely old bar to pay, I discover that every Thursday night is a foodie night at the Shelley and the only charge is for drinks.
It’s just one of the surprises that Viareggio springs upon me when I visit for a few days in late April. Not least the weather, with beautiful clear blue skies and temperatures well into the 20s every day I’m there.
Viareggio, where’s that? That’s what most people ask when I mention this seaside town on the Tuscan coast, just a short distance from the well-known inland town of Lucca.
I had never heard of it myself until a decade ago when, in a bid to escape the suffocating 42C July heat in Florence, myself and the husband took a train to the coast and ended up in Viareggio. We went for the day but, loving its abundant art deco architecture and its old-fashioned Italian Riviera vibe, we stayed for the night.
It hasn’t really changed. Although the season hasn’t hit its summer stride yet, all the seafront cafes and shops are open for business, although some of the private beaches have yet to unlock their gates.
Yes, private beaches are big business here, all with names like Marco Polo, Amore, Maurizio or Eden emblazoned above their entrance gates. Last time I was here I couldn’t really get my head around how the beach system worked. Did you pay for the privilege of simply strolling on to the sands? Did that include a sunbed and was that charged by the hour or the day or what?
Ten years ago we had walked to the far end of the town, beyond the marina and the port area, and there we found what in Italy they call a “spiaggia libera”, a public beach (which is still there and still public) where no money changes hands but where no real facilities exist either. So no sunbeds, parasols, restaurants or the like.
Still confused by it all this time round, I venture through one of the open gates on my first morning, intent on getting the low-down. The people I encounter here at the private Milano beach couldn’t be more helpful.
Yes, I can wander down on to beach (even with my dog) at any time without paying anything. If I want to hire a deck chair, then that will cost me €10 for the day at this time of year, while a sunbed and parasol will be €13.
Confusion over, I take a stroll down on to the sands – gloriously golden and spotlessly clean – and enjoy the view of the town from that perspective. The colours of the art deco buildings that line the palm-treed promenade are glinting in the morning sunshine, while behind the town the Apuan Alps are reaching for the sky.
From here you also get a real feel for the private beach set-up, the ownership along the beach defined by different coloured sunbeds, all arranged in perfect lines and ready for the summer arrivals.
Not as upmarket as its more chi-chi neighbour Forte dei Marmi, which lies just up the coast, Viareggio nonetheless has the feel of a real town. It’s been an Italian resort visited by Italians since the 19th century.
Away from the touristy promenade (where dotted among the Gucci, Max Mara and designer sportswear shops you’ll find pizza joints and the occasional seaside slot-machine venue) what you’ll also find is a working maritime town where yacht-building and servicing are to the fore.
It’s still a fishing town, the boats moored along the waterway at its port end testimony to the fact that this is how many residents of Viareggio still earn their living.
I am on a mission, meanwhile, to discover if a place we happened upon a decade ago is still trading and so I find myself at 1pm on my first full day here heading for the town’s permanent market area, located between the railway station and the seafront and spread out around Piazza Cavour.
To my delight L’Acciuga is still there, still as spit-and-sawdust as ever it was, and still serving superb seafood – if you don’t mind eating out of a tinfoil takeaway carton, helping yourself to plastic cutlery, and drinking out of a plastic cup, that is.
In reality it’s a fishmonger’s that also serves a selection of seafood and L’Acciuga is the real deal.
I opt for a kind of Tuscan paella with prawns, clams, squid and mussels all competing for space in my full-to-the-brim tinfoil container, with some beans thrown in, giving the dish its Tuscan twist. What a feast, and all for €9.
On my final evening I cross over the Burlamacca canal, the waterway where lots of fishing boats are moored, and take a stroll around the old port area of the town.
The sun is beginning to sink, a few locals are sitting outside some of the bars, just shooting the breeze and having a beer, and I spot a fisherman as he chug-chugs his boat slowly along the canal and back home for the night. It feels like a completely different world to the more full-on ‘passeggiata’ just across the bridge.
That’s the great thing about Viareggio; it’s not just one town, it’s several. And from the seaside promenade, to the back streets around the market, to the fishing port and the yachting marina, I love them all.
Roslyn was a guest of Hotel Plaza e de Russie, a 44-room/suite hotel on Piazza Massimo D’Azeglio and affiliated with Relais et Chateaux. Double room, including breakfast, from €285 per night in June; plazaederussie.com
Fly to Pisa with Ryanair (ryanair.com) or Aer Lingus (aerlingus.com). Viareggio is just 20 km away.
For packages, check out Topflight (topflight.ie).
Eat out at Buonamico (trattoriabuonamico.com), a family-run restaurant since 1901; L’Acciuga, Piazza Cavour, 0039 0584941570; Caffè Shelley, Piazza Shelley, 0039 0584945845
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Fly: From Dublin to Naples direct with Aer Lingus
Stay at: Grifo Hotel, Casamicciola Terme; grifohotel.it
This seaside town lies between Genoa and the Cinque Terre in Liguria, and is famous for its lace, orange trees and open-air cafes. A plus is the almost entirely pedestrianised Old Town.
Fly: Dublin to Milan with Aer Lingus or Ryanair. Two hours by train to Genoa, then a 30-minute train trip on to Rapallo
Stay at: Hotel delle Rose; hoteldelleroserapallo.it
This Puglian town in the south of Italy comes with a plethora of good beaches (Cala Porta Vecchia, a lovely cove in the Old Town is a real gem) but is also, apart from the beaches, a wonderland for anyone interested in art and history
Fly: Dublin to Bari with Ryanair, then the town is less than an hour by train or bus
Stay at: Palazzo Indelli; palazzoindelli.com
Set right on the sea but built into the cliffs that rise behind it, Sciacca, on the south coast of Sicily, is a town with strong North African influences, a fantastic fish market and a number of beautiful beaches. It’s also famous for ceramics and its close proximity to the Greek ruins at Agrigento.
Fly: Dublin to Palermo with Ryanair, then take a two-hour journey by bus
Stay at: Melqart Hotel; melqarthotel.it
5 GABICCE MARE
In the Marche region and facing on to the Adriatic’s Bay of Angels, Gabicce Mare is a large town popular with Italian holidaymakers. Renowned for its picturesque setting and its long, wide sandy beach, the resort is prime territory for both beach and cycling holidays.
Fly: Dublin to Bologna with Ryanair, then take a two-hour train journey via Rimini
Stay at: Blu Star Hotel; hotelblustar.com