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