Viareggio, Italy

Trip Start May 27, 2007
Trip End Sep 01, 2007

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Thursday, July 12, 2007

7/12 It was a letdown to leave the Cinque Terre and the unbelievably picturesque villages. I took the train (late, again) for 4€ to Viareggio. On the way we passed through Carrara and I could see their famous marble quarries. It wasn't a pretty place because it was so industrial and the mountains had been destroyed. All of the nearby towns also were full of marble-related businesses. Even the most utilitarian buildings in the area were made of marble (like the train stations). I read that Michaelangelo travelled to Carrara to pick out the marble he would work into his masterpieces.

The train to Viareggio only took 40 minutes but my first impression wasn't very positive. Rick Steve's doesn't include Viareggio in his book but it was interesting because there were not as many tourists. The town looked old and run down from the train and around the station. I grabbed my backpack and headed out to find my hotel wondering if I should have chosen a different town.

On the way I encountered the most amazing street market. It was like I had stumbled upon a Fiesta store stretched out for 20 blocks or more! I'm not kidding. There was booth after booth selling anything and everything for just a few Euros. There were lots of clothing stalls and the women were stripping on the spot to try on clothes. It's Italy so no one cared. I ended up buying 2 Speedos for 5€ and I definitely did not try them on in the middle of the street (one was a little short on fabric though and might be ditched)!

I had never heard of Viareggio before I started researching places for this trip. It's actually on my itinerary because I wanted to see this private beach club that had pools on the sea as well as a gym and a nice beach. A little background: Viareggio is the most important resort in the Tuscan Riviera and stretches for 10km along the seashore. It began as a small fishing village on the banks of the canal Burlamacca which divides the town into two parts. Throughout the town the beach is more than 100 meters wide and in front of two large pine forests - one inside the town and the other stretching 6km along the coast of Torre del Lago. The latter forest is still in its natural state and crisscrossed with a series of wide trails. Viareggio also has an important Naval shipyard as well as many private companies working in the boating industry.

My hotel cost more than the usual places because I could not find anywhere else to stay. I arrived at the hotel around 11am and was able to check-in since my room was free. I was very impressed since this is the first place on the trip where the room could be a Marriott or similar in the US. I had a TV, AC, comfortable furniture and plenty of space. The bathroom was sleek but the shower had just a drain in the floor causing me to create a minor flood every time I used it.

I headed out to explore and it seems like the city is slowly being gentrified. It's an interesting contrast because you have the blue collar workers from the shipyards but also tourists. The town has created a wide, long promenade along the sea with upscale shops and restaurants.

The beaches in Viareggio are monopolized by private beach clubs. I couldn't even see the water until I was well outside of town. These beach clubs are kind of like a beach country club. Families belong and come to the same one year after year. Each one has a little different atmosphere and different amenities. They all have wall-to-wall beach chairs and umbrellas.

I decided to go to a free beach by the nature preserve out of town that is supposed to be nice. Unfortunately the map wasn't quite on the scale I thought it was. I didn't think this place was very big but I walked and walked and walked. The walk was very pretty though since it was on wide dirt trails through a tranquil pine forest. The forest reminded me of Duke Forest or even the south side of Memorial Park, but flat. There were hardly any people so I just listened to the birds and other critters.

After about 90 minutes I finally reached the right beach. The forest is probably 6km long by 5 km wide so I could have walked along the water the whole way but the sand is much harder for me to walk on so I preferred the packed trails. While I was walking I kept thinking how incredible it is that this forest has been spared from developers! It's valuable real estate but treasured by the townspeople so hopefully it will never be touched.

The forest is separated from the beach by a wide swath of sand dunes (note no thru road just parking on the ends!). It reminded me of the way a beach should be and the way they probably are before all of the development starts. There was a simple wooden walkway over the dunes to the beach. The scenery was made even more incredible because the Apennine mountains are not far away and serve as a backdrop. Each section of beach had it's own snack bar as well as chairs and umbrellas. I was so exhausted from the walking that I got my lounge chair and collapsed.

I finished "The Mayor of Lexington Avenue" which I highly recommend. It was one of those 'shot in the dark' books I bought when I ran out of books I had planned to read. The water felt good but the visibility was poor with so many people in the water. When I got ready to leave I asked what the best way to return to Viareggio was (since there were tons of people at the beach but the trails just had a handful of people). I was told that basically you need to drive (mainly scooters) or bike. Ugh.

At the beach I had looked on with envy as groups of friends enjoyed a festive day. All of my travels would be so much better with friends and family along!

I visited the largest grocery store in the area to get supplies because I save money by not eating out much. As in Spain, my food interests don't mesh with the local appetites. The primary dishes here are ham, sardines, olives/olive oil, wine, tuna(on pizza!) and pasta. I've had pizza slices at restaurants but am scared to order something I can't see for fear that it won't be what I expected and I won't want to eat it. Without a kitchen my food options are limited but I've managed to still eat plenty.

For the first time I saw a Power Bar knock-off! They are called Power Sport bars and came in chocolate or banana. I had to get some to see how they compared. They are thinner and softer than Power Bars. The chocolate had a different flavor but they weren't as bad as I expected and I wish I had bought more!

The Italians continue to be super-friendly. They are always helpful with directions and inquisitive about my travels. I'm often asked where I'm from and haven't had any negative feedback yet despite plenty of anti-Bush graffiti. The French could take some lessons from their Italian neighbors.

7/13 I didn't think my ankle could take the long walk back to the beach today so I decided to visit the big beach club that had first attracted me to Viareggio. It cost 20€ for the day but included the gym(saw but didn't use), 3 pools(swim cap required), classes(Spinning seafront), Internet, beach, etc. The 50m pool is fresh water but I chose to swim 1500 in the 25m salt water pool. It was a struggle! I've gotten so out of condition but it felt good to do something besides walk.

There were a ton of kids at the club but I noticed all of the young people were in terrific shape. I've decided a lot of it is genetic since most Italians have roughly the same body type and little body fat. Must be nice!

In Viareggio I've had a more difficult time with the language barrier. The computers aren't set-up in English so I have no clue what my Windows messages are. All around me I hear people talking and I have no idea if they are speaking to me or not. What if they are talking about my bad wardrobe or warning me that I'm about to step in dog poop or alerting me that I'm headed down a dead-end road? It's a weird feeling.

In Viareggio, as in the rest of Italy, they are big on conservation and recycling. My hotel has all lights activated by motion sensors. At the gym yesterday the showers required you to put your membership ID into a slot in order to turn the water on! Fortunately they had a cold shower that I could use since I didn't have a card. It seemed like a great way to save water. Who knows, maybe the member gets a bill for the amount of water they use!

I've been impressed with how close families tend to be in Europe. I've seen grandparents taking care of babies and kids very often and being an important part in the rearing of the children. With the extended family living together in many cases it sure is easier to do here than in the US. The grandparents all seemed to be enjoying the responsibility so it is a good arrangement for everyone.

I've been thinking how nice it would be if my friends and family all lived in the same neighborhood (European style so we wouldn't need cars). We would see each other on the street, picking up a morning pastry or newspaper, walking our dogs, going to dinner, etc. I see friends in Europe run into each other all the time and share a few minutes with each other. All of the time we spend driving could be spent as quality time instead. I know it's impractical but it's still a nice thought.

7/14 Having recovered, I walked back to the far away beach again. I wanted the exercise and really enjoyed just walking through the incredible seafront forest. I also knew how far the beach was so I was better prepared. The beach was a lot more crowded (Saturday) but the weather was again perfect so I read and admired the scenery.

Viareggio is quite a summer destination for many Italians. The 53rd annual Puccini Festival was underway as well as a big summer concert series. During my visit I could have seen Norah Jones or Ricky Martin. Others in the series were Dionne Warwick, Elton John, George Michael and lots of other has-beens.

7/15 I was up super early and watched CNN before going for a walk around town and a visit to the Internet cafe. It was even hotter today but I walked through the forest back to my original beach. It was packed! They were sold-out of lounge chairs(!) so I went to the beach next door to get one. I could see an island off in the distance and figured that it was probably Elba. I tried to read The Poe Shadow by Pearl but it was slow going.

I made the long walk back through the forest one last time. My back has been sore(as usual) but my nerve pain and swelling hasn't been as bad as in Houston which may be due to the constant activity here. For dinner I picked up a mushroom and edam cheese thing at a cafe around the corner from the hotel. I forget what they called it but it was liked a folded over pizza slice and was excellent. I crammed everything in my backpack again and dreamed about it being light and easy to carry (but I do benefit from my exercises with the 10 lbs of ankle weights that I carry).

7/16 The things you don't plan for. I was up early since I had a 7am train to Siena. I headed downstairs to checkout and there was no one around. The reception area was totally dark with no sign that someone had just stepped away. I hit the bell on the counter but no one showed up. I did it again with the same result. Then I tried to open the front door to see if the employee was outside smoking but the door was locked! I then went exploring and the other doors were all locked as well!

What if there had been a fire! We were all essentially locked in. Maybe there was a fire escape from the upper floors but on the ground floor I could have gotten in a small inner courtyard but that was it. At this point I'm thinking that I could miss my train. I hit the bell again but no luck. I tried dialing 0 on the phone. Then I tried 9. I'm just so surprised that a nice hotel would have a situation like this. What if Lee wanted to go run and get a pastry?

The sun was up and people were walking by outside(it was 6:20am) so it wasn't like some of my occasional very early mornings. I tried the phone again and finally someone answered! I said I needed to checkout and they said someone would be down in a minute. After 7 minutes a gentleman came down and apologized but I never quite understood why no one was there and why we were all locked in. The walk to the train station was short so I was still able to make my train.

I enjoyed the time in Viareggio because of the nice accommodations(despite the snafu) and beautiful beaches in the nature preserve. I just was so impressed that someone had the foresight to save the forests! The scenery was awesome with the wide beach, sand dunes, pine forest and the Apennines! It was nice seeing a town that has fewer tourists to get a better idea of how Italians truly live.
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