FLORENCE, Italy -- The piazza in front of the Duomo here is packed. To my right, a Japanese tour guide waves her umbrella. To my left, a German leader barks at his charges. I try to move closer as a gaggle of U.S. exchange students shuffle past. That's when it hits me. No one is speaking Italian. Which makes me wonder, where do the Italians go in the summer?
The answer? Italians escape their sun-baked cities in favor of the azure Mediterranean where pine-covered mountains slide into the sea and jasmine-scented breezes make a sweater indispensable on evening strolls.
Unheralded dots on a Mediterranean coastal map, Castiglioncello and Quercianella will deliver an authentic Italian vacation to visitors who dare. Fewer than two miles apart, these resort towns have distinctly different personalities -- Castiglioncello is sophisticated and bustling, while Quercianella is quiet and shy. Pack your Italian dictionary; while you will find people who speak English, it is not the norm. That, of course, is part of the adventure.
Visiting Quercianella is like taking a step back to the Italy of 20 years ago. Nuns still walk the streets in full habit, and ancient Italian nonnas sweep the sidewalk in their amorphous housecoats. The town has a quiet magic about it -- look closely and you will see that the nonnas are sweeping bougainvillea petals, and the nuns are so timid they decline to be photographed.
In sleepy Quercianella, one greets the day with a cappuccino -- it is Italy, after all. At Bar Arcobaleno (Rainbow), Simona serves morning customers their frothy brew. Although, she doesn't speak English, cappuccino is universal. Unlike larger cities where there is strict protocol about paying a premium to sit at a table (which is why most Italians drink coffee standing at the bar), in Quercianella one can leisurely drink coffee at a table for no premium.
With the day officially jump-started, the next stop, of course, is the turquoise sea. A friend once told me the only thing in Italy that's organized is the beach, and it's true. Italians head to their favorite bagno where they rent a chair, umbrella and changing room for a day or a month. Every bagno sports a beachside coffee bar that also serves panini and pizza along with beer, sodas and ice cream. In Italy, no one is ever more than a few steps away from good food and coffee.
A favorite bagno in Quercianella is Porticciolo del Chioma. Three shallow rock-encrusted pools provide entertainment for small children while two swim platforms bob in the deep water. The days are hot, but the water is brisk, and Italians soak up the sun between coffee breaks, lunch and the occasional smoke.
Enjoying a postcard perfect view is part of Quercianella, and Locanda Garzelli, a restaurant overlooking the Mediterranean, allows one to continue the fairy tale during dinner. The menu is in Italian, but, happily, owner Francesco speaks English. Choose your pesce del giorno off a platter of the day's catch, pair it with crisp white wine and relax as the concerto of the sea plays in the background.
For traditional Italian seafood fare, Villa Margherita (a popular wedding spot for locals) is the best dinner in town. Proprietress Tanya hails from England, so the menu is translated into perfect English. A standout appetizer is antipasti del mare, and the seafood risotto is arguably the best in the world: a cornucopia of mussels, clams, shrimp and calamari in a rich broth suffused through al dente risotto.
Travelers with an adventurous spirit won't want to miss Il Calesse Trattoria, where the local fishermen go to eat fish. There's one catch; the menu is verbal and they don't speak English. However, four little words save the day: nero risotto, vino bianco. The black rice is made with the ink of the squid and is topped with seafood. Still hungry? Try the pesce miste fritte with batter so delicate it barely holds the tender fish together.
For a livelier Italian experience, head to Castiglioncello, long a magnet for the rich and famous. Dwight Eisenhower and Winston Churchill met here after World War II. In the '60s, Marcello Mastroianni, star of "La Dolce Vita," summered in this elegant beach town.
Although the movie stars have left, it is easy to see what drew them here. Impeccably maintained houses cascade down the pine-covered mountainside into the charming town square. Vibrant violet bougainvillea tumble over walls, while fuscia and white oleanders crowd every street and walkway. As in any Italian town, the coffee bar is the hub of morning activity and Caffe Ginori has been serving patrons in Piazza della Vittoria since 1946. It's not unusual for people to be two-deep at the bar on a summer morning sipping cappuccini and savoring the freshly made pastries.
Because Italians worship the sun -- no concern about skin cancer here -- the next logical stop is somewhere near water. Narrow stairs cut into the tall rocks leading to Bagno Lido and Bagno Italia. From the bluff above, hundreds of brightly colored umbrellas resemble parasols ready to adorn tropical drinks.
For a unique seaside experience, try Le Forbici, a beach club featuring a spectacular infinity pool. Lounge chairs interspersed with sumptuous geranium-filled flower boxes line the grassy terraces overlooking diamond-encrusted water. Le Forbici's terra cotta terrace provides a particularly scenic spot for a sunset apiritivi.
Need an escape from the sun? Take a leisurely stroll through Il Pineta. The canopy of pine trees always keeps this park shady and cool. And though it provides a peaceful respite in the day, at night it becomes alive as throngs of people stroll its corridor to enjoy the evening breeze and entertainment.
Quercianella and Castiglioncello provide a true Italian vacation. Once you've savored these seaside villages, you, too, will flee the cities to bask on their golden beaches.travel
Anne Lutz Zacharias is a freelance writer who lives in Mt. Lebanon (email@example.com). First Published June 3, 2012 4:00 AM