Steve Cummins visits Viareggio, the resort that is just a short hop to cultural hubs like Florence, Pisa and the incredibly pretty Cinque Terre.
ONE of the first things you notice whilst walking the narrow streets of Viareggio is how few English-speaking holidaymakers you are amongst.
Despite its unending stretch of sandy beaches, boutique shops, millionaire yachts and fine restaurants, this Versilia Riviera seaside resort in Northern Tuscany remains something of a hidden gem as far as Irish and British tourists are concerned.
It’s a little surprising that the secret isn’t out.
Viareggio is the perfect jump off point for those wishing to pair a lazy Italian beach holiday with culture-fuelled day trips to nearby Florence, Pisa, Lucca, and Le Cinque Terre.
Each of those tourist favourites lie less than two-hours away, while Pisa Airport, served by direct flights from Dublin — from March until November — is just 30 minutes inland by train.
Viareggio itself is a buzz of charming cafés, markets, curio shops, boutiques and seafood restaurants.
A city of 64,000 people, in truth this locale is no bigger than a large town with much of it easily accessible by foot, or better still by renting a bicycle.
As you might expect, the more intriguing restaurants and shops are located back from the beachfront within the maze of streets between the train station, at the very east of the city, and its line of old art-nouveau facades along the coast.
These bleed, in both directions, into the neighbouring towns of Lido Di Camaiore to the North, and Torre Del Lago to the South.
Torre Del Lago is the more famous and just a short bicycle ride away through gorgeous pine forest.
This woodland area, backing off from the beach, plays host to families pairing camping holidays with all that the seaside has to offer.
It also draws in culture vultures with the town most renowned for being the home of the celebrated composer, Giacomo Puccini.
Often referred to as the greatest creator of Italian opera, Puccini’s association is celebrated each July and August with the Festival Puccini, an opera extravaganza held in an open-air theatre by Villa Puccini, the composer’s former lakeside residence.
Puccini later moved the short distance to Viareggio and he is not the only prominent cultural figure associated with the city.
The Piazza Shelley marks a rather morbid link with Percy Bysshe Shelley, the English Romantic poet, whose body washed up on Viareggio’s beach after he drowned in 1822.
To meet Italian quarantine regulations, Shelley’s body was buried in the sand at Viareggio before being dug up a month later and cremated.
He was just 29, and his link to the city is marked by a square, a statue and a number of cafes and restaurants named in his honour.
Viareggio’s cultural significance isn’t, however, solely entwined with its past. If you’re looking for something current and colourful, then look no further than Carnevale.
This flamboyant Mardi Gras festivity takes place over five consecutive Sundays in February and March and is the best time to visit the city.
Broadcast live on national television, Carnevale sees society’s high become low, and the low become high.
Artists work year-round to create huge, complex papier-mâché floats that poke fun at politicians and celebrities.
Think St Patrick’s Day, but with added colour and no rain. By day these vibrant floats dominate Viareggio’s promenade before the city erupts into a succession of all-night parties.
Side streets give way to spontaneous musical dance parties awash with colour.
It’s no surprise then that Italians from all across the country flock to Carnevale with the celebration long established as second only to Venice in terms of size and scale.
Such an attraction can make accommodation within the city problematic, but if you are organised and book ahead then do try get into one of the plush hotels along Viale Giosuè Carducci.
This street looks directly onto the promenade allowing you easy access to a break from the madness.
The best of these hotels is Hotel Plaza e de Russie, a reasonably priced offering noted for its excellent rooftop restaurant and bar.
It is the perfect spot to sip on a glass of Sauvignon Blanc whilst enjoying an unobscured sea-view as the parade passes.
While Carnevale sees Viareggio burst into life each spring, the main tourist season isn’t short on attractions either.
Topping up the tan is the big draw although beach bods should be warned that the largest, and most attractive, beaches are run by private clubs.
This means having to pay to use them, with a parasol and sun-lounger costing anything between €20 and €50 to rent for the day.
Less prosperous sun-seekers looking to throw a towel on the beach will have to make do with a sliver of ‘free beach’ on the main promenade or take the 20-minute hike to the larger free area on the far side of Viareggio’s marina.
This isn’t a bad option, although additional amenities such as toilets and beach bars are in short supply.
It’s while on this walk that us more cash-conscious holidaymakers get an eye-watering glimpse of how the other half lives.
The stroll around Via Michele Coppino will take you past another of the city’s attractions — its luxury super yachts.
Viareggio is internationally renowned for its shipbuilding and all of the major yacht builders have bases here.
Those of us who can only dream of stepping aboard one of these luxury liners must make do with gazing upon them.
Owners with super yachts regularly moored in the marina include Chelsea football club owner Roman Abramovich.
For those wishing to test their sea legs, the daily boat trip from Viareggio to Le Cinque Terre is a must.
While the ferry is less glamorous than an Abramovich yacht, the view of the gorgeous Tuscan coastline remains the same.
The ferry collects passengers at Viareggio, Marina di Carrara and the millionaire’s playground that is Forte dei Marmi, before continuing on towards the Gulf of Poets.
There is a brief stopover at Portovenere, a gorgeous village surrounded by clear blue water, before the ferry continues to Le Cinque Terre.
This Unesco World Heritage Site is one of Italy’s gems and comprises of five centuries-old seaside villages built into the cliff face.
Each of these is made up of colourful houses, cafes, vineyards and steep terraces.
You can travel between each village on a train that takes around five-minutes, or hike along the coastline.
Each trek between villages takes roughly an hour, although some of these walks are closed from time to time due to falling rocks.
While the boat journey from Viareggio to Le Cinque Terre takes around three hours each way, a train trip can be made in around half that time.
What you miss out on in sea-views is made up for in time spent around the villages and the benefit of not being on anyone else’s schedule. Viareggio’s busy train hub is a huge asset to the tourist and what makes the city a perfect Tuscany base.
Hourly trains will get you to Florence in 90-minutes or to the wonderful walled city of Lucca in a half-hour.
Pisa, Siena and Pistoia are between one to three hours away with regular trains until late into the evening making day excursions very doable.
Viareggio wouldn’t be a Tuscan city to recommend without having fine food.
The city has two Michelin Star restaurants, the stunning Il Piccolo Principe with its rooftop view over the seafront, and Ristorante Romano, which offers a high-end seafood experience. In truth though you don’t need to spend big to eat well here.
Many of the city’s Trattorias serve fine pasta and pizza dishes from around €6, although you can expect higher prices and lower quality along the quick turnover eateries on the promenade.
The real value is found further inland, with Nitens on Via Michele Coppino among the city’s finest mid-market offerings.
The food here is creative, varied and flavoursome. This is Michelin Star quality without the price tag.
Nitens is also among a small member of Viareggio restaurants beginning to catch on to the trend in gluten-free dishes, with gluten-free pasta and pizza slowly finding its way onto menus.
That slow change is what makes the city so attractive.
Viareggio offers you all the modern amenities and transport facilities we have come to expect, but you can also get lost in the lazy ambience of the liberty-style buildings, the lack of English and the local shops.
An Italian city off the beaten track, a resort in which to enjoy being idle in an idyllic setting.
Dublin to Pisa flights run until November 3 and from March 17 from €70pp
A shuttle service will bring you from Pisa Airport to the train station where you can take a 20-minute train to Viareggio. Or, a bus takes 35-45 minutes.
If flying to Milan, factor in a four-hour train journey to Viareggio.
Best Western Grand Hotel Royal ( www.hotelroyalviareggio.it ), Plaza E de Russie ( www.plazaederussie.com ) and Esplanade ( www.hotelresidenceesplanade.it ) are good three-star options on the promenade.
www.trivago.ie has rooms from €80 a night.
For those happy to camp, good bungalows sleeping 4-5 people can be rented from €60 per day.
What to see:
The sites Carnevale takes place over five Sundays in February and March, on February 7, 14, 21 and 28, and March 5.
Tickets cost €18 for adults and €13 for children for each day – www.viareggio.ilcarnevale.com
Viareggio hosts a popular market every Thursday mornings.
Nitens on Via Michele Coppino is among the city’s best restaurants Trattoria Pizzeria La Bitta offers a tasty, authentic pizza experience.
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