Tuesday, January 1, 2008

The Maremma Region of Tuscany - Ansedonia

This article also appears on our Italian Journal page.

Directly across the harbor from Porto Ercole lies Ansedonia, an almost sleepy little town with some of the best beachfront in Tuscany. Rather than the rocks and pebbles that greet you on so many northern Italian beaches, Ansedonia offers soft, velvety sand and invites you to dig in your toes. Ansedonia is where some of the wealthiest families in Italy have their summer retreats (like the Agnellis, for instance).

The water is warm and clear and, when the breezes are right, the perfect liquid highway for windsurfers. Many of the locals are ardent wind surfers, and even if it's not your idea of fun, watching them is hypnotic. There's something about the silhouette of a triangular sail gliding silently across the water, powered only by the breeze and guided by a solitary human being that relaxes the mind and opens the heart.

Because it's a seaside town, most people own a raft or a motor boat. Hitch a ride with someone and get the experience of a lifetime. This area of the Tyrrhenian Sea is characterized by jagged stone formations jutting out of the water. Depending on the size of the rock, some areas are fit for cliff diving, while others are home to luxurious retreats of the wealthy. It's easy to feel envious, but as you skim the water's surface in your little craft remember that you're enjoying the same sun, surf and scenery for a fraction of the cost!

On the beach you can rent a lounge or umbrella or bring your own. Conveniently, there are bathrooms and small huts where you can change your clothes. Water aerobics are popular, and an above-ground pool stands on the sand just for this purpose. Classes are given regularly, with the instructor shouting encouragement from a wooden platform outside of the pool. However you choose to spend your day at the beach, be sure you stay long enough to watch the breathtaking sunset. It's surprising how many people leave before this natural wonder begins. Don't be one of them. Stay and watch one of the best shows around.

One of my most memorable experiences in Ansedonia was when my Italian host instructed me to find small clams at the beach and bring them home for that night's dinner. He was planning a special dish and the clams were essential. He told me to sit at the water's edge and run my outstretched fingers just under the wet sand. There I would find the small, nickel-sized clams for our repast. I had a paper cup of water nearby, and I put the clams immediately into the cup. I was to fill the cup three quarters of the way with clams and be sure to keep all of them covered with water at all times. If any of them were uncovered, they would open too early in the process, ruining the taste. 'Don't let them open' was my mantra. I walked home with the cup of clams, making sure the water didn't spill out of the cup, exposing the precious cargo to air. When I arrived at the villa, the clams were rinsed and added to homemade angel hair pasta, olive oil and garlic. The heat from the pasta opened the clams and their flavor infused the dish. It was heaven.

You don't always have to eat at home, though. A tasty restaurant on the beach called Al Cartello offers specialties for lunch and dinner. Fresh seafood, pasta and locally grown vegetables are served up from the deceptively small kitchen. Lighter fare is also available, such as varieties of pizza, along with beverages and gelato. Al Cartello is constructed as a large hut with a thatched roof, wood floors and windows without glass or screens. You can eat inside and watch soccer on the T.V., or eat outdoors at one of the many umbrelled tables. At night, it's especially nice to settle in at one of these outdoor tables. Torches blaze all around in the sand and small candles grace the tables. The gentle, steady sound of the surf in the darkness sets the perfect mood.

During my visit, Al Cartello hosted several private parties, with 'private' being a rather loose idea. One night, friends threw a birthday party and it seemed the whole town was there. The food was served buffet-style and live music played. We danced on the sand until we were hungry, and then ate and danced some more. At some point, everyone jumped into the water for a moonlight swim. The sky was full of stars and we watched in wonder as a few of them shot across the sky, leaving streaks of light behind them.

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