Rome’s coast: Beach, or outdoor living room?Posted on June 29, 2017
This is what you probably don’t associate with a relaxing day at the beach: Forty-five minutes in the car, windows down, hot air streaming in. Traffic; a long, slow snarl that snakes towards the coast, tangling up hopelessly at every on-ramp and poorly-placed stoplight. And a painful hunt for an acceptable parking space; a space where you might have a chance of actually extracting the car at the end of the day.
It feels like a mass-exodus from Rome, and in a way, it is. It’s the weekend; the city is relocating to the sea.
The Roman coastline, or the litorale romano as it’s known in Italian, is not the nicest stretch of beach in Italy, not by a long shot. In a country blessed with a massive quantity of incredible coastline – think of the golden sand and crystal-clear water of southern Sicily, the dramatic cliffs of the Amalfi Coast, or the famously turquoise water of Sardegna, just to get started – the beaches near Rome pale in comparison.
Sure, there’s sand. And water. There is a wealth of beach clubs to choose from, all of them offering sun beds to elevate you off of the sand and umbrellas to shade you from the fury of the midday Roman sun. Most of them also offer something to eat, and some of them offer something really good to eat.
Still, as far as Italian beaches go, the litorale romano fails to impress. Without the dramatic views, limpid water or charming seaside towns that you can start to find as close as an hour and a half from Rome, what you’re left with is convenience and tradition: You go to the beach near Rome because you can’t stomach the thought of a summer Saturday in a boiling city, because it is close, and because, if you are Roman, it is probably what you have always done.
In the (nearly) five years that I’ve been living in Rome, Saturday beach days in Maccarese, one of many small communities along the Roman coastline, have become part of my own summer tradition. I actually find the predictable ritual of the whole thing to be relaxing: Wake up, slather myself with sunscreen, into the car as early as possible in an attempt to beat the beach traffic, except that we never manage to beat the beach traffic. Arrive (finally), find parking, buy two sun beds and an umbrella for the day in our usual beach club, the ridiculously tacky-chic but much-loved Castello Miramare. Alternate between sun and shade, reading and staring out at the kite-surfers skimming along the waves. Eat a panino, read some more, watch the sun sink lower in the sky.
Here, the beach feels like an outdoor living room – or, rather, a series of outdoor living rooms laid out all across the sand. There is an odd sense of privacy even when there are people within a few metres in every direction – gossip runs rampant in groups of friends, couples kiss passionately while smooshed together on a single sun bed, and middle-aged women casually pull off their bikini tops in shameless pursuit of the perfectly even tan. Personal drama plays out in public here just as it would behind closed doors at home; by the end of the day, I feel like I know the deepest secrets of all the beach-goers around me.
Really, the whole experience isn’t exactly about the sea. On a hot day, you would expect the water to be full of people swimming, floating and splashing around. But other than a few people standing in the shallowest bit of water while chatting and a couple of kids tossing around a ball, everyone is on the beach, a healthy distance away from the water. Mostly, the sea is there to provide a refreshing backdrop to the stretch of sand, the neat rows of umbrellas and all those conversations that happen around them.
When I want to really spend some time on the beach – in a way that involves actually swimming and enjoying the water – I book a trip to a place like Sicily, or a weekend away on a small island like Ischia. We’re about to drive down to Calabria, where I’m told the water is spectacular, clean and clear and framed by dramatic hills. These places do an excellent job at satisfying that desire for some quality, real beach time; for the rest of the summer, for all those hot, muggy weekends from June through to September where staying in the city during the day feels like an insurmountable challenge, the litorale romano and its unique brand of predictable, routine relaxation fits the bill quite nicely – even if it does always involve a traffic jam.
Note: Given that I can never bother to bring my camera to the beach, most of the photos in this post are quick, poorly-framed iPhone snapshots. The two good photos were taken by Alessandro, who is occasionally more inclined than I am to pull out his camera at the beach.