Tuesday, January 1, 2008

The Maremma Region of Tuscany - Porto Ercole, Orbetello and Porto Santo Stefano

This article also appears on our Italian Journal page.

Off the coast of southern Tuscany a magnificent rock formation juts skyward out of the sea. Known as Monte Argentario, this beachfront haven has long been a popular summer destination for Romans and Tuscans alike. This region includes Porto Ercole, Orbetello, Porto Santo Stefano and, across the harbor on the mainland, Ansedonia.

The town of Porto Ercole is surrounded by what's left of a mighty stone fortress. Much of the wall facing the Tyrrhenian Sea remains sufficiently intact so that an intrepid soul can walk its length while standing tall above the ocean. The wall is narrow and uneven but if you're up to the challenge, it's worth it. But please, watch your step. The sea is so beautiful and the palm trees so grand, you can forget to look where you're going!

Porto Ercole boasts several boating marinas and has long been a sailors' town. It is home to no less than three forts, the most interesting of which is Fort Stella. Named for its shape, it was built in the form of a star. One of its courtyards is a hexagon. Obviously, the architect loved geometry.

After facing down the dangers of the fortress wall, go just outside the walls on the other side of town and grab yourself a luscious gelato. Several kiosks are located at the edge of a park serving sweets and espresso. You can sit at one of the small tables set up near the street or stroll through the park with your gelato in hand. During the summer, these little cafes continue serving well into the night, so you can indulge yourself on the way home from a movie, dancing or a local concert.

The nearby town of Orbetello is surrounded by lagoons and awash in sea air. It attracts young, active tourists making the most of their holidays. At the same time, the past is very much alive. While sitting in an outdoor cafe enjoying a glass of wine, we heard the usual late afternoon noises; cell phones ringing, animated conversations, music from the radio playing inside the bar. Gradually, we became aware of other, less expected sounds. We heard the heavy notes of a tuba, the semi-regular crash of cymbals, and the beat of a bass drum. Trumpets joined in, and notes from a clarinet whirled and danced above it all. The sounds grew louder as the band drew closer, a marching band of old men wending its way through the stone streets into the main piazza. The men arranged themselves in a loose concert formation and played like they were playing for a king. We were never clear on what they were celebrating, but it didn't matter. It was an honor just to be there. A fragile tradition reaching out from the old world into the new millennium, refusing to go without a fight.

On the other side of Monte Argentario lies Porto Santo Stefano. It's a little more chic and high priced, with more of an elite resort feeling. Sure, it has great views and shimmering water, but what does it have that's truly one of a kind? La Stregha del Mare. Located on a two lane road full of hairpin turns without any streetlights, this is a dance club with a difference. La Strega del Mare calls itself a Glamour Club, and it's not kidding. Open from July to September, it attracts locals and tourists alike, including the jet set crowd. You never know who will be standing next to you, vying for the bartender's attention.

House music lovers can dance the night away in the multi-leveled disco as DJs spin the latest tracks. While you dance, look up through the open ceiling and out toward the water, into the night sky. This is great way to dance and hear the current hits on the European charts. Depending upon which night you go, they also feature live band performances.

If you'd like a more sophisticated atmosphere, just go upstairs and make a few turns to find yourself in the piano bar. Sip a drink at a candlelit table and listen to the piano player sing contemporary and standard hits in Italian, English and other languages. It's quiet enough to have a conversation with a partner (maybe someone you just met in the disco?) and good enough to just listen and enjoy. If the impulse strikes, this is the place to dance your best ballroom.

While in Argentario, I was lucky enough to see Dee Dee Bridgewater perform in a park on a makeshift stage. We sat in bleachers that had been erected for the occasion. Although not very comfortable (think: high school football), we soon forgot all about that as Dee Dee began to serenade us. She sang her trademark jazz songbook in English, as were virtually all of her comments between songs. Her Italian-speaking audience loved every minute of it. They responded to the talent, emotion and musicality rather than needing to understand every word. Dee Dee's sprinkling of Italian phrases throughout the performance was enough for the crowd to erupt in wild appreciation.

The hours slipped past, the night grew darker and the music sweeter. As I looked to my right, I saw a glowing full moon shining down on the deep blue, undulating sea. For a second, I wished I'd brought my camera, but I realized that no photo could have done the moment justice. The colors were impossible to capture, the sky too expansive, the music too joyous, the surrounding conversation too animated, to have ever been frozen in a frame.

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