It’s that time of year again, the sun is shining, the temperature is soaring, you can reduce your wardrobe to a series of T-shirts with a cardigan thrown in for good measure. And in Italy the summer means one thing – “il Mare” – the seaside.
Traditionally, from late June until early September Italians transform themselves into a sun-seeking, fun-loving bunch of beach bums. Everything from magazine covers and shop fronts to TV graphics adopt classic maritime garb – with rolling sea waves at the bottom of the screen, parasols and snorkels jauntily displayed left, right and centre.
However, there has been another side to the Italian seaside experience over the past few years – the economy. The thermometer might be hitting the 30s but the state of the Italian economy seems to have declined year after year and summerly beach reports seem to reflect the depressing news. “60 per cent of families will not go to the sea” shouted one recent headline and it has become a staple part of the season for news reports to ask the vital question, “Will you be going to the sea this year?” The seaside is inextricably linked to the nation’s soul. Whole cities have a seaside version of themselves set up and waiting to scoop out the gelato, sometimes hundreds of kilometres away such as Milano Marittima, for example. But just about any inland town has its own seaside getaway.
The country with by far the longest coast in the Med takes the beach very seriously but once you experience it, it’s hard not to be charmed. The joy of the beach is to people watch. Turn up alone and you will leave feeling you know the five or six people around you very well until you realise you haven’t even shared a word. The social osmosis is extraordinary; young, old, toned or chubby, Italians share with the beach the intimacies of their lives all within a sweaty hair’s breadth of a reclining neighbour. When you’re done with the beach (normally at around 17.00 even though this is when light and temperature is at its most lovely) it is customary to nod to your stranger friend and say, “Buona sera.” The perfect and most serene summertime friendships are formed.
And long may the Italian seaside survive. Despite the reports, to a mere observer the beaches seem as thronging as ever. The nation’s financial concerns mean that the culture of going to the sea for six weeks off work to top-up your tan might be over for Italy. But as long as the crowds come, chat, frolic and relax for a short while at least, Italians will still be masters of the sea.
David Plaisant is a researcher for Monocle 24