Tuscany’s hilltop towns steal the headlines. Its cities are among the finest in Europe.
But stay on the coast — around 155 miles in length — and you can have the best of both worlds, dipping in and out of the sea and in and out of the culture.
It’s far easier to get around than the more famous Amalfi Coast, but you can still enjoy those hilltop towns because the dramatic Apuan Alps rear up behind the beaches to the north.
We’re staying in Villa Gilda near Massa, around a 50-minute drive north of Pisa, and ten minutes from Tuscany’s northern coast. The hotel’s owner, Hilda, was born here and, straight away, we feel like family members.
Hilda’s 84-year-old mother still works in the kitchen and Nonna’s (grandmother’s) cake is served at breakfast. Their chic (though pricey) beach club could be in Nantucket and, of course, the restaurant serves delicious seafood. Only in Italy does it seem right to eat spaghetti in a swimsuit.
Up the coast, in Liguria, are the famous Cinque Terre villages, now so crowded that you need a pass to hike between them. Instead, we take a hop-on-hop-off speedboat from La Spezia, a 40-or-so-minute drive from Villa Gilda, to Porto Venere (€20 per person return).
It’s pretty, with tall peach, pale blue and terracotta houses along the harbour.
Above them is St Peter’s Church, which has a long list of couples hoping to wed with the Ligurian Sea as a backdrop. Higher still is a castle ruin.
The same boat will take you to the opposite island, Palmaria, which is scruffier, with an army base, a derelict feel and parched rocky interior. We like it. But for a few walkers, we have the pebble beach to ourselves. Drop in to the walled town Sarzana on the way back, which has a lovely big square where you can catch the last of the evening light with an aperitivo.
The Apuan Alps, which rise up behind the coast, are famous for marble. It is so commonplace, you’ll see blocks parked by the side of the road. Even the kerbs are crafted from the stone.
From a distance, the mountains look snow-dappled. Closer up, in the village of Colonnata, you can see where the stone has been cut. One old lady tells me this is the most beautiful view in all of Italy. She may be biased, but it is quite something.
Tuscany is jammed full of historic art, but Pietrasanta, a 20-minute drive from Massa, attracts contemporary artists.
Michelangelo chose his stones on-site from the marble quarries in Carrara and Pietrasanta and even helped plan the roads that were needed to transport them.
Henry Moore worked here and the Colombian artist Botero (he of the bloated figures) has a house on the hill above it. Botero’s sculpture The Warrior is right outside our hotel, Palazzo Guiscardo — a good location from which to enjoy the town on their bikes (€10 a day). We pedal to Forte dei Marmi, a spot favoured by Russian visitors, which is full of designer shops and has a huge Wednesday market.
Then it’s on to the only public beach on this stretch, where you have to supply your own shade and resist the hawkers.
It’s not smart, but it is still blissful to sit in the evening sun as it turns everything Aperol spritz orange.