Beaches and cooking lessons might not seem a match made in heaven, but a number of our most popular cooking vacations are in seaside locations such as the Amalfi Coast, Puglia, Sicily, the Italian Riviera, and the Cinque Terre. What could be better than a morning cooking lesson, lunch to follow, and then an afternoon relaxing on the beach? Or a trip to see the local fishermen as they bring in the day’s catch, from which you can select fresh seafood for tonight’s dinner? Or even a boat ride to do a little fishing yourself?
Although we offer seaside cooking vacations everywhere from Mexico to Greece, my European beach experience is from summers spent in Italy. So, today we’ll break down the facts and culture of beach life in Italy.
Beach life in Italy:
- What are the beaches like?
- Are they really clothing optional?
- Is it safe to swim in the water?
- Do you really have to pay to gain access?
There are many myths surrounding Italian beaches—and not all of them are untrue.
First, the question everyone seems to ask: will there be naked people frolicking on the beach? While there are some totally nude beaches, usually topless is as much as you’ll see at any Italian beach. No frolicking, just women sunbathing without their tops, and it is treated as pretty much blasé, so don’t be an ugly American by gawking. Does everyone go topless? No, there is a definite mix, and you should feel comfortable with whichever option you choose.
Are the beaches in Italy nice? Beaches in Italy look very different than beaches in the U.S. First, there might not be sand. Some of the most beautiful Italian beaches are on rocky coastlines, and the beaches consist of anything from pebbles to large boulders. I personally have been to beaches where I’ve needed a thin pad (sort of like you’d use for camping) to make lying down comfortable. And one of my favorite beaches in Sardinia, Italy, is entirely rock, and the trick is to find a boulder the right size and shape to lie on it. What matters to the Italians is the water: the clarity, color, temperature, and cleanliness, not the type of beach accompanying it.
Swim off the island of Capri on a culinary vacation to the Amalfi Coast.
Paying for Access
So are there sand beaches? Yes, absolutely. Most beaches are sandy, but even these are not like beaches you’ll find in the U.S. For one thing, the sandy beaches are usually private. This means that you have to pay a fee to enter, another fee to rent a chair, another still for an umbrella… you get the picture.
Instead of people lying on multi-colored towels and children digging in the sand, you will find row upon row of uniform lounge chairs and umbrellas. There is an ongoing polemic in Italy about access to the beaches, whether it ought to be free, and where paid private beaches should be allowed or outlawed. But until things change, expect to have to pay for beach access. Of course, if you are staying at a hotel or rental that has its own private beach, you are in luck, although you may still be expected to pay for some of the amenities.
Are there any public beaches? Yes. You will usually find these marked as a spiaggia libera, but note that some of them are in more populated and urban areas, can be dirtier, and might be hotspots for thieves or pickpockets.
Dive on in?
Is it safe to swim in the water? This depends entirely on the beach. Just like in the U.S., some of the beaches will have strong currents, and not all of the beaches will have lifeguards. In addition, it is possible to encounter stinging jellyfish.
Another note on safety: while Italians still resist the dangers of sun cancer and seem to try to out-tan each other every summer, the Italian sun can be very hot, particularly in the middle of the day. So take plenty of sunscreen and consider starting with morning or late-afternoon beach hours until you get used to the sun.
By Peg Kern
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