There’s disappointing, and then there’s interaction with any form of hospitality on the Tuscan-Ligurian coast. It’s not all bad, but it is extraordinary just how not-good almost everything is: knackered hotels coasting by on the muscle-memory of charm they lost twenty years ago; beachside restaurants serving staggeringly average, poorly-cooked fish; charmless bars chucking a glug of Aperol and a fart of flat prosecco in a cup with a couple of ice cubes and slamming it down on your table with a sneer of acknowledgement.
And the prices. The prices! Forte dei Marmi, where my wife’s family (and, more recently, I) have been going for the last thousand years or so, is one of the ritziest of all the beachfront towns strung out along the coastal expanse from Pisa to Genoa, which means it is also one of the most hilarious, cost-wise. Like, mega, morbidly-obese-permatanned-plutocrat-sized LOLs. I have seen a fifty-Euro plate of pasta; I have seen a twelve-Euro Diet Coke (250ml, natch); I have seen a whole baked seabass sparely feeding two people for the bargain-basement price of 80 quid a head. Hotels – never a strong suit for Italy in the first place – are even more risible: clapped out old buildings, tiny rooms, some charcuterie offcuts and fridge-cold fruit for breakfast. And 400 Euros a night, easy.
Why do we let them get away with it? It’s not like there aren’t other coastlines. What is it in our national character that looks at a room with peeling decades-old plaster or an unadorned plate of pasta with beans for which we are expected to pay through the nose and thinks “oooh, lovely” not “ummm, is that it?”. It’s Elizabeth David’s fault, probably, or The River Café’s: the agrarian Italian fantasy they have successfully peddled to the credulous middle class celebrates first and foremost Italy’s simplicity, its no-frills escapism from the superfluous trappings of modern urban existence. Grumpy old man practically throwing your food at you on the way past to fawn over a laughing table of locals? Yes, but it’s a profession here; it’s so admirable that they see it as a job for life. Maggot in your fig, fresh from the tree? Oh but the aroma! Bland white fish, served with underseasoned potatoes from the oven? Ah: sprezzatura!
The other reason we keep coming back, of course, is that when Italy – European travel’s quintessential girl with the curl – is good, she’s very, very good. And so even if you’re in Forte dei Marmi – perhaps you have been invited to a wedding nearby, and fancy a daytrip – there are a few places worth the splurge. Whatever happens, avoid Bistrot, which has parlayed its inexplicable Michelin star into a disgustingly expensive menu served with genuine contempt by greased-up besuited wankers. But do max out the credit card at Madeo (a roadside joint that does indecent things with fresh porcini when in season), or at Enoteca Marcucci, in the stunning neighbouring hillside town of Pietrasanta, where a vast wine list jostles for attention with a regularly changing modern/trad Tuscan menu and gorgeous outside tables.
There are even a couple of places which won’t necessarily break the bank: on our most recent visit, we discovered Pesce Baracca, which – if a little Ruth Rogers faux-humble for the designation of “fish shack” – does have a fishmonger on site, and offers either fast casual street food snacks or a slightly slower (but scarcely more formal) a la carte. It’s fresh and generous and genuinely excellent – the sort of place that should be two a penny around here. Instead, there’s only really Pozzo di Bugia, on the way out of town, to rival it: a slightly less seafood-heavy menu, but some truly good, typically brown seasonal Tuscan food, alongside a surprisingly broad wine list given the rickety seating arrangement.
Or, you know, you could just escape the tyranny of Tuscany entirely, and flee to neighbouring Liguria. We made it as far as Portofino this year – a gorgeous train journey skirting mountains capped not with snow but marble, before the arrival of some major frying-pan-into-fire vibes when confronted with the extortionate, mediocre places ringing its storied harbour. But! Stray a little further and there are some great finds dotted around the nearby towns. Santa Margherita Ligure offers Trattoria dei Pescatori, an outwardly unarresting glass-fronted lunchtime spot which does solid lasagne al pesto and phenomenal pansotti: pasta so liberally stuffed with bitter wild herbs that you instantly understand why they got the name “pot-bellied”, served in a creamy walnut sauce. Or cobble together an impromptu picnic with provisions from Seghezzo(a real treasure trove of a delicatessen) and focaccia from Pinamonti; maybe even chuck in a pot of homemade pesto from Casazza, a tiny, gloomy fresh pasta operation just round the corner.
Up the coast from Portofino is Camogli. The area is reasonably well connected by rail, but far more fun is to navigate the network of hourly ferries and make the journey by sea. Getting to Camogli necessitates a change at San Fruttuoso – an impossibly picturesque abbey in a borderline inaccessible bay. If you’re not the adventurous type, maybe go no further, and conclude your journey here: in Da Giorgio, there is certainly a worthy candidate for a seaside lunch featuring perfect trofie al pesto.
But if you can tear yourself away, Camogli is well worth a look. For one thing, it’s much less populated by twattish yacht folk than Portofino, and its harbour is (to me at least) even more beautiful. For another, it’s the starting point for one of the great coastal walks, which will – in six or seven hours, depending on fitness – take you all the way back to Portofino. Gird yourself with some Focaccia di Recco from Revello – a sloppy, very cheesy delicacy that has earned protected IGP status and which only a handful of bakeries have the relevant approvals to make (it probably isn’t the best fuel for a long walk, but: cool story!). Then it’s onward and upward to San Rocco – with an emphasis on the upward. There is a serious, if relatively short, climb, up a series of seemingly never-ending stairs: absolutely not one for the more horizontally inclined holidaymaker.
But the view from the top is worth any amount of panting and sweating in the midday heat: proper top-of-the-world stuff. And lunch, when you get there, isn’t bad either: either grab yet more focaccia from Panificio Maccarini and eat it while strolling through picturesque San Rocco, or sit down for a longer affair at La Cucina di Nonna Nina, the embodiment of all of your fantasies about hidden hilltop trattorie: a handwritten menu, local delicacies (like picagge, chestnut flour “ribbons” with pesto), extraordinarily simple, intense flavours.
Then down, down, down, and up, up, up, and down some more and up some more and scrabble a bit across some cliff-faces whilst genuinely alarming drops lurk menacingly to one side. Honestly, this walk is a killer. But that feeling of slipping into the cerulean bay at San Fruttuoso to cool off before one final assault on the hill over to Portofino is magical, as is the feeling of total bodily and spiritual contentment as you sit nursing your sore joints and an after-dinner Negroni at Puny (Piazza Martiri dell’Olivetta), the least objectionable of the local restaurants.
Until you get the bill, that is.