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Episode #188: How to enjoy the incomparable Italian Coast

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A trip to the beach in Italy might conjure up images of living la bella vita on the Amalfi Coast, but with nearly 5000 miles of coastline, Italy has so much more to offer than the 34-mile stretch of the Amalfi Coast. The Italian coast has a diverse array of beaches, landscapes and vibes – from the California-like Lido beach of Venice, the rustic Trabocchi piers of Abruzzo, to the ‘Maldives of Europe’ in Pulgia’s Salento. Easy to get to from most cities, you can find the perfect beach for you – whether it’s a quiet and little-visited cove or a glamorous beach club catering to your every need.  

Show notes
We welcome back Untold Italy favorite – author Corinna Cooke, who writes the Glam Italia series of guides for Italy (most recently with 101 Fabulous Things to do in Venice) and who runs boutique small tours all over Italy. In the past, Corinna has joined us for podcast episodes on what to wear in Italy (episode 150), why you should spend at least 3 days in Venice (episode 132), Italy travel hacks (episode 116), finding inspiration for your trip (episode 104) and itinerary planning (episode 53). In this episode, we talk about something that Corinna adores and makes sure she does on any trip to Italy – a trip to the beach. The long, thin shape of Italy’s mainland means you are never too far away from the coast so it is easy to fit in a few days on most trips or even just a re-charging day trip. While everyone’s fixated on the Amalfi Coast or Cinque Terre, there are so many other beautiful places to visit on Italy’s vast coastline. We learn to relax into everything the beach clubs have to offer and where you can find some spectacular beaches and islands to visit that will give you the true Italian beach experience. 

What you’ll learn in this episode

  1. Corinna eats, breathes, and sleeps all things Italy and alongside her guidebooks and tours, she has many Italy-related projects on the go and spends a lot of time researching and still loves to discover new things all around the country
  2. Recently somebody who had bought my Venice book and was in Venice with her husband, reached out to Corinna on Instagram, because the gelato store that Corinna talks about in the book had blown up a picture of the book cover and the review and put it in the window. Corinna was so delighted and then when she next went to Venice and had a look for herself, she couldn’t resist taking some selfies with it
  3. Corinna has spent a fair chunk of time in Italy over the last year. She was there during the winter for a while based in the beautiful city of  Arezzo which she fell in love with a few years ago. Corinna says that her heart’s in Arezzo and her soul is in Rome. She then ran her Glam Italia tours in May and June which means a lot of time in Rome, the Amalfi Coast, Tuscany and up in Venice. So she spends a lot of time going up and down the country
  4. Corinna found last year to be the busiest travel year she’d ever seen in all her years of traveling to Italy, and then this year actually got even busier. So when you’re planning your trips there, her advice is that you should book everything possible as far out as possible because everything is getting booked out
  5. Katy just checked some prices for Florence in early October and nearly fell off her chair at the prices – with hotels that she normally pays €300 a night are showing at €1,000 a night
  6. Corinna’s superpower is finding cool, interesting and off-the-beaten-track things. Even in the big bustling cities, she advises that you can easily head off the beaten track and be away from the crowds. You often only need to be a couple of blocks away from tourist centers – you don’t need to trek across the other side of town. There are so many things to see and do that will just blow your mind when you get away from the crowds

Going Coastal

  • Italy has 7,900 kilometers/4,900 miles of coastline plus, it has hundreds of islands. There are so many incredible opportunities for you when going to Italy
  • The Amalfi Coast is only a tiny 34 miles long, so with so many people headed to this tiny stretch, whilst beautiful it does get busy and expensive and there are so many alternatives that will be cheaper, quieter and a more relaxing experience
  • Corinna takes her tourists to the Amalfi Coast but normally at the end of her tours, she takes a week or at least a few days at the beach. She loves being by the sea but she would never go to the Amalfi Coast or to the Cinque Terre for her personal vacation
  • It’s generally not a big stretch to get anywhere on the Italian coast because it’s quite a narrow country. You can usually get to the coast quite easily and the peninsula is surrounded by multiple seas – the Mediterranean, Adriatic, Ionian, Tyrrhenian and Ligurian.
  • There are so many fantastic places that are going to give you the experience that you’re dreaming about if you think about a trip to the beach in Italy. When you close your eyes and dream about being at a beach in Italy, you’re not dreaming about being there with three cruise ships full of people next to you – as you will get on the Amalfi Coast and Cinque Terre
  • Corinna advises against August if you can avoid it because everywhere is going to be packed, booked out, hyper-expensive and super hot
  • For a lot of people, if they are coming across the world to Italy, especially if it is for the first time, they’re not thinking about being at the beach. They’re thinking about all the monuments they want to see and being in the big cities etc. But it is an interesting part of Italian culture – their beach culture and can be a great addition to a trip. There are lots of great ways that you can go and spend a half day. Corinna is the queen of the half-day trip and has found all these great ways she can slot one in
  • Everyone should combo! When you’re planning a trip, if you’re planning a trip to Italy in the hot seasons, we would definitely advise including some time at the beach, if you can only fit in a half-day or even better if you can do a combo trip. If your trip is 10-14 days then you can spend most of it sight-seeing and doing the ‘big’ stuff and then do perhaps 3 or 4 days at the beach
  • A beach experience in Italy is very different than a beach experience anywhere else. It’s different from the rest of Europe and it’s different from Corinna grew up in New Zealand, where it’s Black Sand beaches and they’re wild and for Katy with the big open-access sandy beaches she is used to in Australia
  • Beach time in Italy is as iconic as the images of people riding around the piazzas on Vespas
  • In Europe, they have an accreditation for beaches called Blue Flag – the best beaches are Blue Flag beaches and Italy has more than any other country in Europe. It has 281 beaches that have been credited as being Blue Flag beaches
  • It’s based on 32 points of criteria, but it generally means that they had a level of excellence over the past four years. It includes being measured on sustainability. They’re not building condo blocks and destroying nature, which a lot of other countries are
  • Corinna spends a lot of time at the beaches in Italy, but is always amazed how far she can swim out (and she’s a pretty powerful swimmer) and can look down and see the bottom. It’s clean, clear and gorgeous
  • If you’re traveling with kids, they have green flag beaches which cover the same as blue flag ones, are trash free, etc but the green-flag beaches are the best family beaches because they will have clean sand, shallow water and lifeguards. You normally have a long stretch of shallow water so kids can be playing and they’re not going to get caught by the waves
  • There is a huge variety of different types of beaches in Italy. The wide, sandy beaches in Sardinia and in Puglia, while other places have pebble beaches and rocky beaches
  • Katy initially thought she wouldn’t like a rocky beach but realized she actually doesn’t like sand in her hair, swimsuits – everywhere! So she really loves them
  • Corinna loves both. She has lots of sandy beach places in Italy that she loves. They’re so beautiful and the sand is so fine and gorgeous. She doesn’t like spiky rocks when you have to wear water shoes to go in the water but then there are a lot of places that have these platforms where they’ll set up all the sun chairs and everything so you just lie out on the platforms and then dive off in and swim and they have ladders that you climb back up from. So you can be at a rocky beach and not ever have to come in contact with the rocks. Sorrento and Ortigia, Sicily are both good examples of those types of setup
  • If you’re planning on going to the beach, even if only for an afternoon, you want to do a little research and just have a look and see what beaches are near and if they’re rocky beaches or sandy beaches

It’s all about the beach clubs

  • In Australia and New Zealand, they don’t pay to go to the beach, and you have to take everything with you – umbrellas, beach tents, ice fridges – lots of bits and pieces. 
  • But both Corinna and Katy didn’t take long to get hooked to the way they do the beach clubs in Italy. 
  • The beach as a destination, can be called Lidos, stabilimenti or bagni. The beach clubs will have rows of beach chairs and umbrellas and you come in and you pay for them for the day
  • You can arrive there not having to already have your swimsuit so you can arrive there looking polished, as so many of the Italian ladies do –  because you just spent your day doing something less casual. Then when you arrive at the beach club they have really nice changing rooms to use. You’re not getting changed in a toilet, you’re getting changed in a proper changing room. Most of them will have toilets and showers too. So then when you are done with your beach day, you don’t have to head to have your aperitivo-looking post-beach bedraggled
  • Most of us look a bit grungy after we’ve been at the beach all day and your hair is all messed up and you’re covered in sunscreen. You can have a shower and put yourself together, put on a nice outfit and head off for aperitivo of dinner
  • Most of these stabilimenti will have a cafe of some description. It might be basic, but if the Italian truck stops have fabulous coffee bars and great food, even the most basic beach club bar is going to be good. They’ll be able to make you great drinks and there’ll be some snacks. Depending on the beach club it works its way up from basic to some pretty chic dining options
  • Some clubs have rental towels. They often have lockers, so you can lock up your handbag/valuables and you’re not worrying about your stuff on the beach, which is particularly great when you’re factoring in a beach afternoon into part of a broader trip
  • There can be cabanas that they rent out. You’ll have people who come to that beach for the whole summer and they’ll rent the cabana for the whole time or they’ll rent it for a month or three weeks. They’ll have all of their beach stuff in this cabana – their towels, sunscreens and games for the kids – everything you can possibly think of
  • What Katy loves the most is being able to get a cappuccino or a glass of wine while you’re lying on your beach with the sea lapping at your feet
  • One of the things that makes it quite different from the beach in other countries is the visual. You don’t have condo buildings and ugly modern builds around you. Most places that Corinna goes to and you can seek out will have historic Italy behind you. These villages still look like fishing villages. This is what everyone loves about the Cinque Terre and the Amalfi Coast that still looks like that, but so does most of the Italian coastline

There’s a beach in Venice?

  • A beach in Venice isn’t what springs to mind for most people when they think of Venice, but the city’s Lido beach out on the lagoon is a stunning beach
  • When she’s in Venice, Corinna always factors in beach time. She’ll normally finish one tour in Venice and have a couple of days off and then her next tour will start in Venice so will fit in a day around this. They also have a day on her tours where they will go to Murano and Burano and sometimes she can get them to go to Torcello too.  So for that day, they’ll have a Vaporetto Pass, so if you’re doing similar you can use that pass to go to the beach the same day
  • In the summertime when it’s warm Corinna oftentimes will get everyone who wants, to go back to grab their swim gear, and then jump on the Vaporetto and go over to Lido. They’ll probably get there about three o’clock in the afternoon. They’ll have had a full day’s activities already so a beach club there will be chill time
  • Lido is one of the islands off of Venice on the backside of it is on the Adriatic. It’s got this beautiful, fine, golden sand and the water is gorgeous – which you might not expect
  • You can pop over there and spend two or three hours at the beach and you haven’t given up much of your travel day. When you’re going for a half-day or just part of a day, you won’t pay the full price for your sun chair – it will be a reduced price
  • There’s one beach club that Corinna likes to use in Venice called Des Bains 1900. You get off the Vaporetto at Lido, and the main street that crosses from one side of Lido to the other is the Gran Viale Santa Maria Elisabetta. Walked down the street and right at the end is the beach club Blue Moon which is pretty average. But what Corinna does – when you’ve got Blue Moon right in front of you, hang a right, and the first one you come to with thatched roofs on the cabanas is where she recommends. You can’t miss it as it doesn’t look like any of the others. It’s called Des Bains 1900 and it is fabulous. They turned up there at about three o’clock and they only got charged 20 Euros per person, which included renting a fluffy white towel and getting one of these thatched cabanas. The swimming is fantastic. The water is clean and warm. It isn’t icy cold water as you might expect so far north

Beach clubs elsewhere

  • The type, style and cost of beach clubs can vary greatly
  • Last year Katy and her family went to a very fancy beach club on Capri – Le Ondine, Marina Piccola. It was incredibly expensive but it was a divine experience – something Katy will never forget. I was like, It’s one of the top days
  • Some beach clubs are not that pricey, but in Capri, you’re going to get them as pricey as you can go 
  • In another expensive spot, Porto Cervo in Sardinia, you could be paying 200 dollars a day for a chair, 200 Euros a day
  • Corinna generally figures somewhere around 20 Euros is reasonable if you are not in one of the super tourist areas, so you it can be a really nice, affordable experience. It can be fun to do the fancy one just for the experience of it but not if you’re planning on going more often
  • Corinna is not so crazy about the beaches around Rome but she’ll go there all the time as they are easy to get to and have nice beaches, if not as chic
  • A friend of Corinna’s has just bought a house in Vasto, in the Abruzzo region. She’s doing renos on it and when Corinna discovered that Vasto, which she hadn’t heard of was very much like Lecce, one of her favorite places in all of Italy, she decided a visit was in order.  The cities were built at about the same time with the same architectural style. You have Vasto on the hill and at the bottom of the hill, it’s a little beach and you’re on the Adriatic
  • Corinna’s plan had been to rent a place on the beach. Go up in the mornings into Vasto town to explore and then an afternoon on the beach. Things, however, didn’t quite go as planned because she accidentally booked a place in Marina San Salvo, which is 13 kilometers further down the beach. It was a town that was more like a new build town. It isn’t old and historic, nor particularly attractive
  • When she first arrived she just thought “Oh, dear, what have I done?”. Especially as she didn’t have a rental car and the public transport around there is terrible. But it actually turned out to be a brilliant twist of fate because it forced her to just slow down and she just spent her days on the beach. The beach club was incredible. The water was wonderful and you could swim out as far as you could manage and you’d still be seeing straight to the bottom
  • She returned to the same beach club because they were all on the same stretch and she’d enjoyed it there. The first morning she went, people were looking at her, because this is a place that the same people go to over and over – they maybe don’t see a whole lot of new faces. At lunchtime, everyone takes a break. They go home and they have lunch and maybe a little snooze – to be out of the main heat of the day. Then about three o’clock in the afternoon, they go back again. When Corinna came back again, the nonnas that were a couple of seats down from her, nodded to acknowledge her. One of them beckoned her over and not knowing Corinna could speak Italian, tried to show her to put sunscreen on her back by doing it for her. And then it became a ritual – every day the nonnas would be putting sunscreen on her back and shoulders! And every day they would ask what she ate and where she went for dinner. She made all these great friends
  • Whilst there Corinna took a boat excursion out to the nearby Tremiti Islands. This kind of place really makes her wonder why is everybody going to Capri. Capri is lovely, yes, but it’s very overcrowded. You go to the Tremiti islands and they’re so beautiful and they feel pretty undiscovered by mass tourism. That day on the boat excursion was one of the best days of Corinna’s entire life!
  • Corinna wasn’t particularly expecting anybody to talk to her on the boat trip. She just thought she’d go to the gorgeous islands, jump off the boat and go swimming and that would be great enough. But less than a minute in and people were chatting to her, offering her coffee. There was a wedding party – a bride and her bridesmaids doing a bachelorette thing. They were about Corinna’s age and lived nearby. By the time they got to the first stop, she was friends with everyone
  • This is the kind of chance to interact with people you get when you’re away from the crowds

More than the Cinque Terre – Ligurian beaches

  • Liguria is amazing for beaches. Everyone goes to Cinque Terre, but they’re missing out on the rest of the region’s coastline
  • You can just get on a train for half an hour from the Cinque Terre, and you can be in a whole other world like Camogli. You’ve got beautiful beaches. The Bay of Silence is amazing- one side is the sea beach and then the other one is the bay. There are rarely English-speaking people there. It’s so pretty and unique
  • Katy always tries to build at least two or three days, especially in the summer to head to the Ligurian coast. Abruzzo might be a bit harder to get to/is a bit more adventurous, but Liguria is very easily accessible
  • Corinna has lots of people reach out to her asking her about staying in the Cinque Terre and she’s always like, “Oh, for heaven’s sake, no! – go in for a day but there are all these beautiful places up the coast and you have a completely different experience.”
  • The cost differential is drastically different staying on the Cinque Terre to other destinations on the Ligurian coast. Even what you’re going to pay for a cappuccino and how that experience is going to be will be vastly different. If you’re wall to wall, shoulder to shoulder with all the cruise ship people, you have a very different relationship with the coffee maker than you do if stay somewhere like (where Corinna stays) in Santa Margherita di Ligure
  • You can get the exact same beauty as you get on the Cinque Terre – those towns are gorgeous, but there are equally gorgeous, equally colorful towns further up the coast too without the crush of people

Cultural differences at beach clubs

  • There are free beaches as well though you have to seek them out they are often just a tiny sliver of beach. We highly recommend paying for the beach club, as they tend to be in the best positions
  • The owner of the beach club, which traditionally has been mostly owned by families (though that is starting to change), but the owners are responsible for taking care of their patch of land. So you will find everything is clean – there’s no trash, there’s no cigarette butts – everything is nice and pristine
  • The beach club experience is generally friendly and people will often come up and talk to you – especially if you’re there with your kids. Corinna was at a beach club in Santa Margherita with her son who was 10 or 11 at the time. They had just set up and a glamourous Italian mama comes up, exuding fabulousness, pointed at Tommy and she says “You, what is your name?” After he nervously replies, she says “Tommy, you’re going to come with me. You’re going to come and play with my boys.” She had three boys standing behind her and she just took them off and he had the time of his life. Everybody has the same beach chairs every day and people would come over and say “Tommy is coming with us for lunch today. We see you later.” It’s a great thing to do when you’ve got kids because the Italian culture is very child-friendly and your child’s not going to be sitting there by themselves on the beach. They’re going to be incorporated into everything and they’ll be running around. Tommy didn’t speak a word of Italian and these kids didn’t speak a word of English, but they all just had fun
  • Katy’s family caused a bit of a stir last year because her kids were in the cover-up clothes like sleeved rash vests that kids in Australia wear because of the skin cancer problems they have there. The Italians were quite intrigued by this. They have a different lifestyle when it comes to dressing for the beach
  • Corinna finds you don’t burn as easily at the beach there – as you would in Australia, New Zealand or Phoneix, Arizona where she lives
  • Dress-wise, Corinna always recommends is to have a beach cover-up. You don’t tend to see so many people wandering around in just their swimsuits in Italy – wandering the streets. In fact in Sorrento last year, the mayor put in a new law that you’re not allowed to walk around in a bikini top or shirtless for men. You’ve got to be covered up
  • Wherever you are if you’re going to be walking up to a cafe bar to go grab a drink or something to eat, most people will throw a little something tidier and more modest on top

Where else to head to the beach?

  • Corinna can never get enough of Puglia. It’s another fantastic destination if you’re wanting to spend some time at the beach. If you were going on vacation in Italy in July, a great plan would be to stay in a villa or apartment in Puglia with a view of the water
  • The Maremma coast in Southern Tuscany is also somewhere Corinna loves and spent a lot of time there last year. The water is turquoise and it’s generally just gorgeous and non touristy
  • Corinna spent some time in Porto Santo Stefano, where you can jump on a ferry and go up to the lovely island of Giglio
  • One of Corinna’s best friends is from the UK and sold up everything and now has a home in Basilicata. She’s moved to a gorgeous little town called Rabatana that was built in the 800s when the Arabs were running that part of southern Italy. She’s made this gorgeous thousand-year-old house into a little Airbnb. Corinna goes to stay there a lot and it’s a 20-minute drive from her little hill town down to the beach, which is white sand beaches. Incredibly beautiful and no tour busses. The only people that go down there really are Italian and some British people because they can be a little more adventurous with travel
  • Whilst the Amalfi Coast is crazy busy, dropping down below there is a different world. So from Salerno downwards, even when you’re still in Campania you have the Cilento coast which is amazing and then further south again the stunning beach of Calabria or jumping over to the island of Sicily

Italy beach tips

  • Most people from outside of Europe going to Italy tend to go for around 10-14 days. If you spend some time in a place that’s not super touristed it can make a huge difference to your trip so even if the rest of your trip is in key, famous places, you could set aside 3 or 4 days for the beach somewhere with less mass tourism
  • Think about the terrain. Parts of the Italian coast are quite vertical. If you’re going to the beach on the Amalfi Coast, for example, those dramatic cliffs are stunning but they also mean you likely have to get to the top and bottom of them at various times. When Corinna stayed in Priano there were so million stairs down to get down to the stony beach each day and getting down wasn’t the worst part – heading back up at the end of the day was the real challenge. In other places like Puglia and the Maremma, you don’t have those issues
  • If you have more time and a sense of adventure you’re going to find some amazing options. There’s a little island called Budelli, a bit north of Sardinia which has a pink sand beach. It is awkward enough to get to that it won’t be too full of Instagrammers

When to head to the beach

  • In July and August anywhere you can see the sea is going to be packed and you’re going to have a very different experience to going at the times of year. In August all of Italy and Europe are not on vacation too and heading to the beach. They’re all using their cars and everything gets a lot more congested. Every place is going to be booked out and booked out at its highest price
  • Everywhere is packed right now and Florence is probably the worst. This amount of people puts an extreme strain on the local life because you have when you have all these tourists going there in July when it’s super hot, everyone’s firing up their air conditioning in the hotels in Florence and it’s pulling energy from somewhere and you might get the next town along having brownouts and they’re suffering
  • September or June are much better choices. This is Corinna and Katy’s opinions but others may disagree. Someone Corinna knows goes to Rome every August and finds it great as there’s hardly anybody there as they are all off on vacation
  • Peak times and mass tourism do not make for the happiest of fellow holiday-makers or for the people offering the various services who are exhausted. You will find your interactions with locals are much more pleasant away from peak season. You likely wouldn’t even see any locals during peak seasons as they are keeping out of the way

Find out more from Italy and beach-loving Corinna

  • From corinnacooke.com you can find all her links – her books and tours. All her books can also be found on Amazon here
  • On social media, Corinna is mostly active on Instagram at @corinnatravels. When she’s in Italy she adds a lot of content to show people what she’s up to – seeing and experiencing in real time

About our guest – Corinna Cooke

Author Corinna Cooke is a favorite guest on Untold Italy. Originally from New Zealand, she fell in love with Italy thanks to a high school art history teacher who introduced her to Italian Renaissance art. After moving to London and traveling throughout Europe, she couldn’t stop returning to her beloved Italy.

Now living in Phoenix in the United States, Corinna is a woman of many skills. She leads several Glam Italia small group tours to Italy each year and writes guidebooks of the same name exploring her favorite corners of beautiful Italia. And her “day job” is a make-up artist. But, her heart is always called to Italy. 101 Fabulous Things to do in Venice is her latest book full of fascinating stories, tips, and tricks on how to have a fabulous time in Venice. 

You can find Corinna on these channels:

Corinna’s books

Glam Italia! 101 Fabulous Things To Do In Venice: Fantastic Finds In The most Unique City On Earth
Glam Italia! 101 Fabulous Things to Do in Rome: Beyond the Colosseum, the Vatican, the Trevi Fountain, and the Spanish Steps (Glam Italia! How To Travel Italy)
Glam Italia! 101 Fabulous Things To Do In Florence: Insider Secrets To The Renaissance City (Glam Italia! How To Travel Italy)
Glam Italia! How To Travel Italy: Secrets To Glamorous Travel (On A Not So Glamorous Budget)

Places mentioned in the show

  • Arezzo – charming town in Tuscany off the main tourist track
  • Ortygia – a small island that is at the historical center of the city of Syracuse. The island is also known as the Città Vecchia (Old City)
  • Torcello – oldest of the Venetian islands 
  • Lido – beach on the lagoon in Venice
  • Le Ondine – a popular beach club Caprfi
  • Porto Cervo – coastal town in Sardinia
  • Gran Viale Santa Maria Elisabetta – street at the Lido in Venice
  • Des Bains 1900 – beach club Venice
  • Vasto – in the south of Abruzzo, a hilltop ancient Roman town overlooking the Adriatic sea
  • Lecce – a beautiful city in Puglia known for its Baroque architecture
  • San Salvo – town in Abruzzo, on the Adriatic coast near the border with Molise
  • Tremiti Islands – an archipelago in the Adriatic Sea, north of the Gargano Peninsula
  • Camogli – fishing village on the west of the peninsula of Portofino, on the Golfo Paradiso in Liguria
  • Santa Margherita – port town famous for red prawns
  • Sestri Levante – town on the Baia del Silenzio, the (Bay of Silence)
  • The Maremma – a coastal region in Tuscany
  • Rabatana – ancient town in Basilicata
  • Salerno – city at the very bottom of the Amalfi Coast
  • Porto San Stefano – town on the Maremma Coast
  • Giglio – island off the Tuscan coast
  • Budelli –  island off Sardinia with pink sand

Resources

  • la bella figura – literally translates to “the beautiful figure.” It is a concept in Italy of everything looking good and being perceived well by society
  • lido, stabilimenti, bagni – different names for the beach clubs found around Italy

Resources from Untold Italy

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