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Italy's Punta Ala, where the sea beckons and relationships run deep

Swimming and sailing classes are just a few of the sports on offer to families who vacation in Punta Ala. Families return year after year to give their children a break in nature and let them reunite with friends they only see in the summer.
Adam Raney/NPR
Swimming and sailing classes are just a few of the sports on offer to families who vacation in Punta Ala. Families return year after year to give their children a break in nature and let them reunite with friends they only see in the summer.

PUNTA ALA, Italy — For Italians, the August vacation almost always means time at the beach with family and friends. And most people go back to the same beach year after year, as families gather and pass down traditions from one generation to the next.

About a three-hour drive north of Rome on the Tuscan coast lies Punta Ala, an exclusive beach resort developed in the 1960s and '70s. You won't find archaeological sites or ancient Roman ruins. In fact, in some ways it is the least Italian looking of resorts. There are big houses with big yards, tennis courts and stables for horses. It's a sporty getaway for people in the know and people with money to spend.

Kids who return year after year look forward to endless days playing soccer and other sports with friends they make in Punta Ala. Many families say they return year after year because they remember forming lasting friendships in the upscale resort on Italy's Tuscan coast.
/ Adam Raney/NPR
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Adam Raney/NPR
Kids who return year after year look forward to endless days playing soccer and other sports with friends they make in Punta Ala. Many families say they return year after year because they remember forming lasting friendships in the upscale resort on Italy's Tuscan coast.

Private beach clubs complete with cafes, restaurants and rows of umbrellas for rent line the shore. The water is clear and the sun is constant and strong. The isle of Elba is visible from the beach. And yachts are often moored right offshore, or at the upscale marina.

Despite the natural beauty, the day begins for many, not on the beach but at La Pasticceria Siciliana — a pastry shop on the ground floor of a 1960s-era drab apartment block.

The espresso is strong, but it's the pastries — Sicilian classics like ricotta-stuffed cannoli — that draw regulars here, year after year.

The morning dilemma: What delectable pastry to choose at La Pasticceria Siciliana before heading down to the beach for the day with family and friends. Every day the cafe opens at 7 a.m. serving up Sicilian pastries to Punta Ala's well-heeled set.
/ Adam Raney/NPR
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Adam Raney/NPR
The morning dilemma: What delectable pastry to choose at La Pasticceria Siciliana before heading down to the beach for the day with family and friends. Every day the cafe opens at 7 a.m. serving up Sicilian pastries to Punta Ala's well-heeled set.

Emily Mangozza, who grew up in Rome, is starting a new family tradition. On a recent morning she was on the terrace of the Siciliano feeding her 10-month-old son Edoardo a cornetto — an Italian croissant.

"The cream fillings are amazing," Mangozza says. "We live in Switzerland now and they just don't know how to make cream like this. I think here it's like a totally different experience."

Francesco Issich is the third-generation pastry chef at La Pasticceria Siciliana, Punta Ala's go-to bakery for Sicilian pastries like ricotta-filled cannoli and aragosta, crunchy lobster-shaped miniature pastries stuffed with sweet cream or ricotta. His Sicilian great uncle and his father opened the bakery in 1969.
/ Adam Raney/NPR
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Adam Raney/NPR
Francesco Issich is the third-generation pastry chef at La Pasticceria Siciliana, Punta Ala's go-to bakery for Sicilian pastries like ricotta-filled cannoli and aragosta, crunchy lobster-shaped miniature pastries stuffed with sweet cream or ricotta. His Sicilian great uncle and his father opened the bakery in 1969.

More than filling him up with pastries, she dreams of instilling in Edoardo a love of nature and sports with repeated trips to Punta Ala.

"They have sailing school, they do horse riding, tennis and swimming, " she says, "so it would be lovely for him to pass his summers here."

A 10-minute walk down the hill to the Tyrrhenian Sea, a branch of the Mediterranean, a dozen kids are carrying small boats together down to the shore for their daily sailing class.

Kids from all over Italy take sailing classes in the summer in the calm waters of Punta Ala on the Tyrrhenian Sea, a branch of the Mediterranean.
/ Adam Raney/NPR
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Adam Raney/NPR
Kids from all over Italy take sailing classes in the summer in the calm waters of Punta Ala on the Tyrrhenian Sea, a branch of the Mediterranean.

Nearby, a young boy, Francesco, takes swim lessons in the shallow sea that's as transparent as a pool. His coach, Manuel Ciurli, toned, tanned and popular with many moms, corrects his strokes. Ciurli, a former Italian backstroke champion, runs the only swimming school here, complete with lap lanes bobbing on the waves.

Manuel Ciurli, a former Italian backstroke champion, teaches swim classes to the same children year after year in Punta Ala's calm, transparent sea.
/ Niko Raney Ferrero/NPR
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Adam Raney/NPR
Manuel Ciurli, a former Italian backstroke champion, teaches swim classes to the same children year after year in Punta Ala's calm, transparent sea.

While guiding a young student in the lanes, he says, "It's always touching to see children change over time, getting big and coming back. It means that you have passed something meaningful on to them. And who knows, maybe even some of the children will become competitive swimmers."

In Punta Ala, children are often left to run free, bouncing between the waves and the shade of the pine trees. Cristian Bartoli spends hours on the soccer field with kids he's known all his life.

"It's great because you get to see all the friends you haven't seen over the past year," he says.

Laying on the beach, time slips by. Countless sand castles built, destroyed and washed away. Sometimes lunch hour arrives and the sun has sapped your energy to walk to the many restaurants along the Lido promenade facing the beach.

That's when Attilio Annoni, driving his golf cart packed with fruit, is a welcomed sight.

Attilio Annoni is from Naples but has spent the past 14 years selling fruit and fresh mozzarella di bufala along the beach in Punta Ala on the Tuscan coast.
/ Adam Raney/NPR
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Adam Raney/NPR
Attilio Annoni is from Naples but has spent the past 14 years selling fruit and fresh mozzarella di bufala along the beach in Punta Ala on the Tuscan coast.

Cantaloupe in Italy is usually a much sweeter tasting melon than what is typically found in the U.S. When asked how the cantaloupe is today, Annoni slices one open, revealing its deep orange shade. "Look at the perfect color," he says.

Annoni is from Naples, but every summer of the past 14 years he's been here, selling melons, peaches, even exotic tropical fruit. He makes a little extra too selling mozzarella di bufala from his connection in Campania — back home near Naples.

Annoni is quick to say what he loves about this place: "Punta Ala, it's like a family here. We all know each other."

Community, that's what he is getting at. And there are many communities who feel a special connection to Punta Ala.

Under a tall pine tree another reunion spot — Filipino domestic workers who travel with their employers from places like Rome, Milan and other cities meet up twice a week for conversation, cards and a potluck.

"These gatherings are important because it gives old friends the chance to reunite," says Juanito Altibuono, who moved to Italy from Bologna 40 years ago. "Filipinos I've met in Italy are like brothers and sisters to me."

With the sun going down, Ilaria, a mother of two who didn't want to give her full name, is being tackled and tickled by her giggling daughters. She struggled for several minutes to explain how much she loves coming here year after year. Finally, one of her daughters takes her hand from her mouth and lets her speak.

"I know so many people here. My friends with whom I grew up now have children...and our children play together just like we did. It's really beautiful to see that. And of course you eat well! In Tuscany — you have it all!"

In years to come, her children might find themselves on the same beach telling the same stories to their own children about the joys of their endless summers here.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

A beachgoer taking in the scene on Punta Ala's beach.
/ Adam Raney/NPR
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Adam Raney/NPR
A beachgoer taking in the scene on Punta Ala's beach.

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