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OPINION: Is Italy’s west or east coast the best place for a holiday?

Choosing which coast to visit in Italy can be a tough call, particularly if you’re planning to spend most of the time sunbathing and swimming. Reporter Silvia Marchetti shares her insights on the pros and cons of both.

OPINION: Is Italy’s west or east coast the best place for a holiday?
Which Italian coast should you choose when booking your holiday? Here are the pros and cons of both. Photo by Azat Satlykov on Unsplash

The Tyrrhenian west coast and the Adriatic east one are very different, and each come with their pros and cons.

In my view the Tyrrhenian side of the boot wins, because even though it tends to be more crowded due to the many art cities located along it, its beaches have fewer facilities for families and the shores are more ragged, with rocks and cliffs ideal for solo and adventurous young people. 

The Amalfi coast’s picturesque fishermen villages, or Liguria’s Cinque Terre, feature tiny pebble stone bays cut between high cliffs with little space for sun umbrellas and beds.

The Adriatic, on the other hand, is a mass destination for foreign sunbathers, very popular especially among German and Russian tourists. The east coast has Italy’s widest and flattest sandy beaches, which make it an ideal spot for families – but also very crowded. 

READ ALSO: Private lidos take up more than 40 percent of Italian beaches: report

The Adriatic shore is one long line of adjacent beach facilities that run for kilometres from the northern Friuli-Venezia Giulia region down south to Puglia. 

Beaches in the seaside towns of Rimini and Riccione, located along the chaotic Riviera Romagnola renowned also for its wild nightlife, feature up to 50 rows of sun beds and umbrellas in summer.

More sunbeds than sand… Some parts of Italy are heavily built-up with an abundance of services. (Photo by ANDREAS SOLARO / AFP)

Beach facilities there resemble open-air condominiums where there are children’s playgrounds, restaurants, sleeping areas, dance floors and changing rooms for clients.

One good thing, though, is the constant presence of bay watchers and lifeguards at each facility, who are present throughout all eastern coastal regions and very helpful if you don’t constantly want to look after the kids. Beach resorts often come with big seaside multi-floor hotel buildings that look like city offices. 

To escape the crowds on the Adriatic coast you need to pick niche, rocky spots with very few beaches such as the Conero Hill in the Marche region and the Gargano promontory in Puglia.

While the Adriatic coast’s wide and easily accessible beaches are great for children and older people, the sea is not always clear and there are just a few top scuba diving and snorkelling spots, such as the beautiful Tremiti islands.

The Tyrrhenian sea, which is deeper than the Adriatic, is packed with diving sites: Ustica island in Sicily and Ventotene isle in Latium are Italy’s top diving meccas brimming with barracudas and giant groupers.

Tyrrhenian waters are cleaner too: in 2021, its shores won more bandiera blu (Blue flag) awards for high water quality standards than Adriatic beaches.

READ ALSO: Where to find even more of Italy’s best beaches

There are also more protected marine reserves along the west coast, which guarantees a pristine environment, and more free beaches without facilities and lifeguards. While this ‘wild’ aspect may be attractive to many, it could make some beaches not suitable for families with small kids. 

Family friendly beaches tend to draw in more crowds. (Photo by ludovic MARIN / AFP)

On the other hand, given its relatively shallow waters, the Adriatic is blessed with reasonable stocks of fish, so if you long for fishing expeditions it’s the perfect destination. 

However the real plus point of the east coast is its strategic location facing other Mediterranean countries and allowing tourists, particularly from the US, to expand their holidays and exploit Italy as the door to the ‘Old Continent’. From the ports of Bari and Ancona, ferry boats depart to Greece, Slovenia, Croatia and Albania.

The winning asset of the Tyrrhenian, other than its translucent waters and baby powder beaches, is the huge artistic heritage it offers visitors. The west coast boasts the top must-see Italian cities usually picked by global tourists (Rome, Naples, Florence) which all lie, or are close to the sea – except for Venice (the gem of the Adriatic).

READ ALSO:

The cultural appeal of the west side makes the central national highway, the A1 – otherwise known as Autostrada del Sole – a very trafficky infrastructure. 

There are also mesmerising fishermen villages with a mythological vibe along the Tyrrhenian coast, such as Gaeta and Sperlonga, where it is said Odysseus, the legendary Greek king, landed during his wanderings.

Plus, most of Italy’s UNESCO heritage-listed sites are located along or near the west shore. For instance, the archaeological excavations of Pompeii are among the top tourist hotspots in Italy.

READ ALSO: Life in Italy in 2022: 10 things to add to your bucket list

Generally speaking, the appeal of popular places along the west coast inevitably translates into more expensive hotels and travelling costs but it depends on the specific location. 

A photo shows a general view of the archaeological site of Pompeii, near Naples. (Photo by Andreas SOLARO / AFP)

The major west coast lure for sea dogs, sailing amateurs and fans of the tan is that nearly all Italian islands are located in the Tyrrhenian sea and reachable from the mainland.

The two island regions of Sardinia and Sicily are accessible by ferry boat from Naples and Civitavecchia, while the Tuscan archipelago, the Pontine islands and Sicily’s dozens of ‘satellites’ such as the Aeolian, Egadi and Pelagie isles are tropical paradises just a stone’s throw from the cultural highlights.

READ ALSO: Ten percent of the world’s best beaches are in Italy

Even though both coasts are stunning and are worth exploring, personally, I’d chose the Tyrrhenian over the Adriatic any day, and not just because I’m a Roman who lives in Rome. 

It has a diversified offer of artistic sites and beaches, inlets and cliffs that allow you to savour the most of Italy in just a few days. 

The last time I rented my beach home south of Rome to a French couple, I thought they’d laze all day under the sultry sun. Instead they drove across half of Italy in 14 day trips, visiting Florence, Naples, Sorrento and Calabria. 

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OPINION & ANALYSIS

OPINION: Mass tourism is back in Italy – but the way we travel is changing

The pandemic is shaping the future of tourism in Italy with a 'rural revolution' among travellers keen to escape the crowds, says Silvia Marchetti.

OPINION: Mass tourism is back in Italy - but the way we travel is changing

The pandemic is changing travel in Italy, though its full effects will take time to set in.

The Easter holidays ‘testing ground’ has proven that mass tourism has returned to Italy’s most popular cities like Venice, Florence, and Rome, though visitors for now are mainly Italians or Europeans.

Cities and regions have drawn up post-Covid plans for safer and more sustainable holidays, including by opening more sites to reduce crowds, limiting the number of tourists in specific historical districts, and offering more eco-friendly or unusual experiences, for example through the nationwide Scopri l’Italia che non sapevi (‘Discover the Italy you didn’t know’) project.

In order for these plans to be fully implemented we’ll likely need to wait until next year. However, there’s already a new outlook.

Cities are now focussing on offering more food-related experiences to travelers, spa stays, and day trips to escape the crowds, which guarantees social distancing and reassures people.

But I think the change in pace will come from travelers themselves. I believe it’s individual demand that is most rapidly and profoundly shaping the nature of tourism right now.

OPINION: Why Sicily’s archipelagos are the best part of Italy for island-hopping

There’s a growing interest in sustainable ‘off the beaten path’ travel among visitors. Think visits to tiny unknown villages and parks, or quirky, rural tours and unique, tailored experiences along shepherd trails in Abruzzo, old mule routes and across bandits lands like in Sardinia.

Talking to Italian tourism experts, I realized that the post-Covid era has accelerated, and consolidated, mutations already underway in the sector prior to the pandemic. 

Not only do people want to see sites and artistic monuments, they long for activities and tours with a knowledge jolt. They want active and tailored holidays with personalized itineraries.

For instance, I recently discovered a new niche biking route that crosses rural Sicily from coast to coast luring cycling amateurs amid grazing sheep, sleepy villages, green rolling hills and wheat fields. Cyclists get to sleep in farms and B&Bs located in bucolic semi-abandoned hamlets.

In Florence, tourism experts say travellers now want alternative ways to explore and experience the city away from the crowds, such as by sailing in fishing boats or paddle-boarding along the Arno at night, or taking sunset boat trips with live music and evening drinks.

There’s a demand for high-adrenaline activities like climbing the Etna volcano in Sicily; stays in unusual ‘floating boat hotels’ around the Gargano promontory of Puglia or along Piedmont’s waterways; underground trips to explore caves, prisons where the wicked Holy Inquisition tortured ‘heretics’, and dark ancient Roman aqueducts.

Roberto Nini, head of Narni’s underground tours, says he has full bookings for this summer from abroad.

“Our Inquisition tours have always been popular, but there’s something about crawling into the bowels of the earth that’s reassuring during Covid and disquieting at the same time, and tourists love this”, he says.

A rural tourism-led revival is underway.

“The pandemic has boosted the appeal of off beat old villages that guarantee social distancing”, says Fiorello Primi, head of the Borghi Più Belli d’Italia’ club promoting Italy’s most beautiful villages.

MAP: The best Italian villages to visit this year

“We’ve seen a boom in foreign tourism last year, and this trend is bound to increase this summer. The pandemic has revived many forgotten spots, where traditions survive, fresh air and social distancing is guaranteed”, he says.

Tourists also long for simple, rural stays with a ‘bucolic-farmer vibe’ where they can do unusual things, like go on porcini mushroom hunts or learn to make sheep cheese, or even discover the secrets of sheep shearing. Last week I visited the stunning remote village of Castel di Tora near Rome, overlooking a pristine lake. Excited locals told me all houses were being spruced up for foreign holiday makers – the shutters restored and the balconies fixed with such care and passion it was quite touching to see. 

Rural stays and wine tours in the Italian countryside are top of many travellers’ wishlists this year. Photo by MARCO BERTORELLO / AFP

In the northern Franciacorta wine region, demand for vineyard trekking and yoga among the vines has increased, according to winemaker Fabio Lantieri de Paratico, a founding member of the Franciacorta consortium. 

“It’s mystical, solitary, healthy and allows to tap into the essence of nature. Tourists are always curious to learn why our territory makes such great wine”, says Lantieri. 

This is what I call ‘savvy experiential tourism’, and this will be the tourism of the future, not just in Italy but particularly in Italy which has so much to offer. Tourists are looking beyond touristy things and craving more in-depth stays. 

An ‘alternative’ tourism revival is also being led by a new generation of farmers, cattle breeders and shepherds who instead of fleeing their land in search of work elsewhere are recovering lost ancient lentils plantations on southern islands, old salt windmills, and healthy Saracen crops imported by pirates in the middle ages in Sicily. 

They take tourists on tours and rent studios, eager to share the ‘archaic’ knowhow of their ancestors.

READ ALSO: Is Italy’s west or east coast the best place for a holiday?

Old shepherds’ trails, so-called tratturi used for transhumance in the past, are also being recovered for tourism. You get to sleep in tents and move around on horse or donkey at a laid-back pace, and totally unplugged. 

I was invited once to take part in a tratturo adventure, and you really need to prepare to live ‘rudimentally’ for days. It gives a fresh glimpse of Italy’s old world; a unique experience which is also what the ‘new normal’ in Italian tourism will be all about.

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