The Indian Summer has come to an end in the UK so last week’s promise of a high pressure system over Italy bringing blue skies and warm days was too much to resist. The other enticement being that Skipper has been out in Viareggio, near Pisa, for a couple of weeks already, while I tie up loose ends at home before we head off for another adventure. After getting used to living in each other’s pockets for a long time, the days back in the UK on my own and under grey skies were beginning to drag a little. It couldn’t have worked out better. I found a lovely cheap flight at a nice time of day and Skipper even had the foresight to borrow a car to meet me at the airport – no trains or buses for me! Sheer luxury. Ironically Viareggio was sloshing about in torrential rain when we arrived, but no matter. A good bowl of pasta and a glass or two of red wine put that right. And the rest of the week was wall to wall sunshine.
Viareggio was our home port for a couple of years – in as much as we had a home. One winter we became landlubbers and lived for a few months in an apartment block outside town. A concrete monolith set in long deserted steel-fenced gardens with a collapsed swimming pool below, overshadowed by pine trees with green billows of compact dusty needles at the top of their spindly trunks. The complex had been built as exclusive holiday apartments decades ago and had fallen out of fashion. We were the only residents. From the fifth floor there were fantastic views at balcony height of the tree canopy that surrounded us. We would watch the setting sun dip below the trees, dropping faster each day as the days grew shorter, but still marking the sky with vivd streaks of colour above them. In the distance, to the north of us, stretched the Apuane Alps, bare quarried faces of white Carrara marble making them seem snow covered all the year round. It had the isolation and magnificence of Jurassic Park. We could hear, but not see the sea. It was the sound of restless water, not at all like the rhythm of a tidal sea, but a constant wall of low white noise in the background.
The beach was a few minutes away, through a locked electric gate and along a path through the shaded woods. Deserted in winter, it was covered in storm debris brought down to the sea by the rivers and drainage canals: whole tree trunks, smoothed by the attrition of furious tumbling water, twisted bleached tree roots, branches and sun worn driftwood. Entangled in all of this would be the residual faded litter of the summer tourists: broken parts of parasols, ragged pieces of towels; lost toys: a doll’s torso, a deflated beach ball; tin cans, and the ubiquitous plastic water bottles.
The driftwood forms were endlessly fascinating. They looked so brittle and light – as if they could be made of balsa wood. I would have loved to have brought one or two of them back to the apartment, but they were in fact incredibly heavy and impossible to move from the sand. Which shows how powerful the water forces were to get them there. At the end of the winter the town starts the big pre-season clear up. Bulldozers and trucks arrive at the beach and everything is scooped up and driven away, leaving the sand flat and raked and empty again.
One brilliantly blue-sky day in February – actually it was Valentine’s Day – we walked along the beach and Skipper decided to gather quantities of driftwood for a fire. We stayed until sunset, warming ourselves, watching the sun sink into the sea. In summer the beach turns into long stretches of colour-designated paddocks of sun loungers and parasols, each set up by a restaurant or bar on the road adjoining the beach. For a few euro you can pitch for a day, your neighbour centimetres away on the next lounger. The mountains somehow fade, despite their everlasting snowy caps, the sea is a pale grey. In winter, it is far more beautiful.