The Italian Beach

January 2011

This is the time of year when we are exhorted to dream of summer holidays by the sea. Can anything offer a clearer view of the difference between the Italian and the British frame of mind than the Italian idea of a beautiful beach? Of course, one should not make generalisations about the tastes and habits of whole nations, but here goes.

In Pisa airport, passport control is approached via one of those zigzag tape corridors well known to airport users (for which there ought to be a special name), where you either shuffle forwards in a queue or walk needlessly and repetitively backwards and forwards to cover a very short distance. A huge advertisement for a hotel complex on the coast dominates the room. In pride of place in the middle of the ad is a picture of a typical Italian “beach”: rows and rows of blue parasols – dozens, almost certainly hundreds of them – in perfectly straight lines, in a tight grid. Each parasol is neatly flanked by a pair of deckchairs. In between the dense symmetry of beach furniture there are narrow strips of clean, pale sand. For Italians, this just shows a familiar and typical bagno, the semi-privatised part of the sea-shore where every family pays large sums to hire those parasols and deckchairs for weeks or months in the summer, allowing access to the sea in front, and the bar and changing rooms and car park behind. Nearly all the coastline of Italy is taken over by bagni like this; the one pictured is just bigger, smarter and probably more expensive than most of them.

For North Europeans, with romantic notions of mountains and wilderness, pictures of our ideal beach are everywhere in holiday advertisements, in newspapers and on hoardings. It is an empty stretch of pure sand, perhaps with one tanned and slim couple holding hands in the shallows; or just a palm tree and an exotic wooden boat. It’s a place that in your dreams you have to yourself (of course in practice this is not so). I would guess that for most British travellers the serried ranks of the bagno are worse than unattractive – in fact, utterly repugnant. We like access to our sea-shore to be free; and if we hire a deckchair on Brighton beach, we want to be able to plonk it higgledy-piggledy just where we like, and preferably not too close to anyone else.