Continuing to walk away with an apologetic shrug, arms raised to heaven as a witness to the inevitability of his statement, the man turned down the call from the ambassador's wife. "Sorry, milady, but I've got to get my spaghetti al pomodoro," said the beach hawker, impeccable in his white linen shirt, khaki shorts and moccasins. And he headed to the nearest beachfront restaurant for his noon meal, which would likely cost more than the exquisitely embroidered linens he peddles on the sandy beach of Forte dei Marmi.
In this ancient Tuscan village lapped by a docile Mediterranean, it's always summer like we knew it as kids: Nothing, absolutely nothing is allowed to come between us and our R&R.
And that's why I count only one summer in my life when I didn't spend at least a weekend here. For I know some places a few hundred or a few thousand miles away with purer ocean, more active sports scene, more vibrant nightlife, more exotic scenery.
But only at Forte can a workaholic like me plop down on a deck chair, literally feel the weight of a year of work drain away like the fine golden sand among my fingers, and sense that I am resolutely, untouchably, finally on vacation.
Nature and history have worked together to make Forte dei Marmi into an understated, luxurious retreat from anything that can mar a vacation by the beach elsewhere -- pesky things like heat, traffic, treacherous waters and busloads of loud vacationers.
The low gradient of sandy beach means you can wade for at least 50 yards into a green sea blissfully empty of anything more predatory than the occasional rubbery jellyfish. The beach is all private, so that a hefty entrance fee buys you either an ombrellone, a giant umbrella, or a larger tent with at least two deck chairs, two canvas cots and a table.
Past the row of white, blue and green cabins where you change into your swimsuit is a cool pine forest interrupted by formal gardens and half-hidden villas of Italian industrialists, aristocrats and anybody else who's willing to rent them for an average $20,000 a month.
I like to bike around them in the morning, when the only noise is the intermittent cicada and the fizz of lawn sprinklers. At Forte, vacationers switch from cars to bikes as soon as they change from shoes into sandals -- except a bike here isn't one of those complex things with gears, but rather something that looks like it belongs to the pre-World War I era when the Florentine aristocracy started building summer houses here.
If I'm feeling particularly athletic, I might loop through the sand road in la Versiliana, a small, pristine pine forest where early-20th-century poet Gabriele D'Annunzio used to ride half-naked on horseback in the rain -- as told in a poem of his that every Italian school child knows by heart.
If, on the other hand, my vacation breakfast of Nutella on slices of saltless Tuscan bread hasn't been enough, I head into town itself, named after the central fortress that stood at the end of the marble route from the nearby Carrara quarries to the sea.
In the fortress' shadow stands Vale, whose oven disgorges bomboloni (fried pastry puffs full of cream or chocolate) and focaccine, palm-sized rounds of chewy, sea-salt sprinkled crust that somehow I always find myself ordering by the dozen.
The only mornings I stay away from downtown Forte are Wednesdays, when the mercato takes over one of the pine-ringed squares. Throngs of fashionistas forego the beach to grab cashmere sweaters at relative bargain prices from the open market stands under the impassive eye of Armani and Benetton salespeople in boutiques across the street.
Once I've repaired under the ombrellone, I usually manage the supreme effort of getting out of the deck chair only to scurry across the hot sand into the sea. When it's rough and the bathing establishments fly red flags instead of their colors, it becomes a natural whirlpool close to shore.
When it's calm, I like to swim or take a patino -- a boat that looks like a wooden catamaran propelled by oars instead of sails -- out about 250 yards to the red buoys beyond which sailboats and yachts travel.
Hanging on to the bobbing buoy, I look down at least a dozen feet of emerald water at the sun-streaked, rippled sand bottom. In front of me are miles of beach, the thick line of pines beyond unbroken by high-rises, and the Alpi Apuane ringing it. This little-explored part of Italy's mountainous backbone looks just as imposing and craggy as the real Alps, but the spots of blazing white near their crests are marble quarries, not glaciers.
Hidden around them are easy day trips: Carrara, where Michelangelo went to get his marble; Pietrasanta, with its sculpting studios; Lucca, with its medieval walls and towers; the Garfagnana with trails that smell of forest coolness; and even Florence are all within an hour or less from Forte.
After heading there at night for their rustic restaurants, which are genuine and cheap, it's back to Forte for a post-midnight tradition I've been doing since I sneaked my way into La Capannina at age 15 under the glare of Otello, the bouncer.
Since its heyday in the 1960s, this restaurant-disco-piano bar on the beach has managed to be the spot where everybody -- from teenagers to 60-somethings -- hangs out, despite recurrent rumors of its demise and a stringent dress code that bars sneakers and, God forbid, flip-flops.
Aug. 28, the feast of Forte's patron saint, Sant'Ermete, is the one night when the beach is open so the bathing establishments can hold viewing parties for the fireworks off the pontile, a long wharf from where fishermen cast round nets.
On all other nights, bagnini (lifeguards, but really caretakers) will look askance at you if you're still there after sunset. After folding the umbrellas and gathering the soberly colored, matching towels that covered the deck chairs and cots, they have to groom the sand with a giant comb so that your private corner of bliss will be untrodden tomorrow.
Which is why I feel guilty when I wake up on that last evening, the tang of sea salt on my lips -- for I must have been dozing off with my mouth open. The sunset on my back, I try to scamper without making too many steps on the just-groomed sand, only to leave golden footprints on the wooden walkway the lifeguard just rinsed.
I shake off the sand, put on shoes and get into a car, aghast at the long, hard work year that began that very moment.
Perhaps I'll travel across continents before returning, and perhaps there'll come a time when I'll be uncomfortably perched on some hot corner of seaside paradise and a friend will ask me with a triumphant smile, "Isn't this better than Forte?"
I'll politely acknowledge the gorgeous water and the exotic fish.
But deep down, my answer will be a resounding "no." Nothing beats the moment of abandon when, in my cocoon-like chair, a blissful smile spreads across my face that proclaims, "Sorry, world, but I'm off."
If you go:
- Tuscany: http://www.turismo.toscana.it/new/index.html
- Getting there: Forte dei Marmi is about 200 miles from airports in Milan and Rome and less than 80 miles from popular destinations like Florence and the Cinque Terre. Railways and freeways connect all points.
- Where to stay: The best accommodation at Forte is renting a villa; numerous real estate agents have summer listings: http://www.versilia.toscana.it/forte/agenzie/. For shorter stays, two hotels, Hotel Augustus & Lido (http://versilia.toscana.it/augustus) and Villa Roma Imperiale (http://www.villaromaimperiale.com) offer suites in villas, starting at about $630 a day in summer.
- Beach access: You need to rent at least an ombrellone at one of about 100 beach establishments, for at least $50 day. Some of the best ones are Bagno Rosina (Via Arenile 1); Bagno America (viale della Repubblica 4); and Bagno Piero (http://www.bagnopiero.com).
- Summer events: Lectures and performances at La Versiliana Festival (http://www.laversilianafestival.it); Puccini operas at the open-air theater in nearby Torre del Lago, where he composed many of them (http://www.puccinifestival.it). In September, La Capannina hosts Premio Internazionale Satira Politica (http://www.museosatira.it), with awards for international political cartoons. Fireworks accompany the feast of Forte's patron saint, Sant'Ermete, on Aug. 28.