s a child there was no better treat for me than a trip to the beach, where I’d happily bob about in the briny. That was once-upon-a-time in England.
The Italian experience is completely different.
Yes, of course, Britain has plenty of urban seaside resorts, the kind with piers, ice cream and Punch and Judy. But between them are vast swaths of wild coastline, not a café in sight. The downside is lugging everything you own from the car park to the beach, which for whatever reason is never close enough to be convenient.
I remember my Dad wrestling with deckchairs, windbreaks, blankets, food to feed the brood, and a comfy chair for granny. Then we’d all descend a steep cliff and onto a rocky beach for a few hours, until inclement weather invariably beat everybody and into the nearest teashop.
There are advantages to such up-and-down weather. Children are unlikely to develop heat stroke or burn up; there are rock pools to explore and sand castles to build; and swimming in an untamed sea is exhilarating.
Italy beaches do things differently. You need only to tuck some sun cream into your thong, get some stylish beach wear together, and wait patiently while a handsome young man sets up your sun lounger. He’ll then bring you drinks and snacks to keep you going until you have a shower and change into something more formal so you can pop over to the restaurant for lunch.
After a nap, it’s time to “swim” in warm water (it barely gets past your knees) and ensure you’re evenly tanned, after which you can retire from the shoreline to prepare for dinner. And the Italian way has its own advantages. Children can play safely in the surf, the food is great, and it’s always sunny (or nearly). But all this costs money, and if all you want to take the kids for a swim and a picnic you also run the risk of incurring the wrath of the style police who frown on eating in public and can’t understand how anybody can just sit on the sand.
But there is a compromise: the lake.
For those who won’t let go of Britain and don’t quite embrace Italy, the lake is perfect, particularly for those who love a bit of the rough and unready.
Our favorite lake is in Sybilline Mountains National Park, near Macerata. The lake, which the sun gives a bright turquoise glow, sits under the Sybilline Mountains (Sibillini in Italian), part of the central Apennines. Refreshing clear waters stream down from on high. There are few cafés and sun loungers.
Overall, the lake attracts a somewhat different kind of person, the sort that doesn’t mind too much if you crack out some sandwiches for lunch and might even dare to be bare (much frowned upon act in Italy). Still, on high days and holidays the lake turns more “civilized,” assaulted by a cavalcade of camper vans.
But Italians just don’t do “roughing it” very well. Instead, they feel compelled to travel in big white boxes that contain every possible creature comfort, which in turn gives us entertaining people-watching opportunities.
The family that sat next to us this Ferragosto brought with them the following: a table and chairs, a table cloth, cutlery, china, glasses, deck chairs, a seemingly never-ending supply of food-filled Tupperware. They also set up their own lakeside awning. There were three of them, la Mamma, a woman of monstrous proportions who sank down in a deck chair as soon as she arrived, with Papà and son bustling about to provid her every possible comfort. Lunch was four courses, after which Papà was dispatched to fetch coffee at the nearest café (a kilometer away) after which they all settled down to play cards followed by a nap.
We got an intimate glimpse of their domestic routine, from the way they ate to the way they used la Mamma‘s voluminous tent of a dress to change under, not to mention their constant, good-humored chatter.
Watching all this made for entertaining afternoon (bear in mind I live in the middle of rural nowhere and don’t have a telly). But just as I thought they’d be my featured show, an enormously tall woman walked past smoking a cigar. Beside her was very short bald man.
I began looking for the hidden camera. Such is summer.