A place in the Tuscan sun

The Roman glitterati flock to the Argentario coast for summer hedonism in clifftop villas. John Irving returns every year for the area’s wild beauty, its famed bottarga and a taste of la dolce vita.

By John Irving
Under a canopy of reeds and bamboo, long hours lounging and lazing round the uncleared table. On the plastic cloth the remnants of a summer lunch: fish skeletons, scraps of salad, watermelon rinds, crumpled napkins, scarlet wine stains, bottles half-empty. The tinkle of glasses and the chatter of lingering bathers, mostly Romans. Skinny cats loitering under the table, flies hovering in the air.
Bagno Florida is a bathing establishment I discovered a long time ago on my first visit to this part of the Tuscan coast, and this is an experience I've repeated, or tried to, at least one day a year ever since. The owner, mop-headed Ulisse Tantulli, is a man who doesn't waste words.
"Ciao, Ulisse," I say whenever I get there. "Ciao, biondo, bentornato," he always replies. We hardly ever say much more than that, but he always pours me a glass of his own wine from the nearby village of Fonteblanda.
Beyond the sand, the waves steam in the hazy afternoon sunshine. Rearing up dramatically along the coast is Monte Argentario, the silver mountain. This massive rocky outcrop was given its name, some say, by sailors at sea, dazzled by the glint of the leaves in the olive groves on its rugged slopes.
Ulisse's beach lies on the seaward side of the Tombolo della Giannella, a long, narrow sand bar, six kilometres long and 300 metres across. The water is shallow here - you stop touching the bottom almost half a mile out. Another sand bar, the Tombolo della Feniglia, lies far off to the south. Between them, the two enclose a large lagoon, the Laguna di Orbetello.
My first view of Monte Argentario was a blur of pastel grey on a pink background one morning at dawn, at journey's end after an overnight drive down from the north into what was unknown territory then.
I was living in Turin in those days and, after holidays spent in nearby Liguria, I wanted a change of scenery. I'd seen a classified ad under "Vacation Rentals" in a freesheet: "Argentario. Comfortable summer apartment. Living room, two bedrooms, kitchen, bathroom. Sea view". I found the place on the map: deepest south-west Tuscany, almost on the border with Lazio; it appealed to me. I phoned the owner, who turned out to be a Turin journalist, agreed on a price, collected the keys and left.
First impressions were inauspicious. The apartment, unswept and undusted, was on the top floor of an ugly cinder-block building by a railway line. There was no lift and the sea was a barely discernible speck of blue in the distance. The place was in Albinia, a village originally built in the 1930s by Mussolini to house workers on a swamp reclamation scheme. For centuries salt was extracted at the mouth of the nearby river Albegna, where the Forte delle Saline, a customs post built by the Spanish in the 16th century, still stands. It was the whiteness of the salt, albus in Latin, that gave the river - and later the town - its name.
Today the mainstay of the local economy is tourism and in summer Albinia fills with holidaymakers.
I learnt why on that first visit. After a couple of days of scrubbing, the grubby apartment and its grimy location became the base for a memorable stay. And many of the places I discovered then I still frequent today. Ulisse's beach, for example.
The only town of any size in the area is Orbetello, which stands magically on an isthmus in the middle of the lagoon. It's connected to Monte Argentario by a manmade causeway, the Diga Leopoldiana, built by Grand Duke Leopold II of Tuscany in 1842. The drive there in the last light of day, when the water gleams on either side of the road, is always memorable.
If Orbetello is the gateway to Monte Argentario, the gateway to Orbetello is a monumental triple arch adorned with the coats of arms of Spanish rulers. It's a reminder, like additions to the Etruscan city walls and fortifications, of 150 years of Spanish rule, from 1557 to 1707. The Spanish had been preceded by the Etruscans, the Sienese, the Romans, and the barbarians, among others, and succeeded by the Bourbons.
With palm-lined boulevards, Orbetello was an elegant resort in the 1920s and '30s; today it's a lively fishing port. Founded in 1943, the local cooperative, Orbetello Pesca Lagunare, has 60 or so members who fish for eel, grouper, flathead mullet and umbrine, processing much of their catch to sell in their shop and serve at their lagoonside restaurant.
The smoking and preserving techniques they use were likely introduced by the Spanish. Scaveccio, the local take on escabeche, involves marinating eels in barrels of boiling vinegar and pepper. Another specialty is anguilla sfumata, eel marinated in salt and vinegar, fixed on skewers, brushed with the red pepper sauce they call pimento and smoked over pine branches. The fishermen also smoke fillets of umbrine and flathead mullet. This last fish has always been vital to the city's economy; in 1414, when Siena gave Orbetello its coat of arms depicting a lion, the locals added a trident and a flathead mullet to reaffirm their seafaring traditions.
The fishermen make bottarga di Orbetello by extracting the mullet's roe, pressing it into layers, salting it, washing it and leaving it to dry for a week or so. They recommend grating it over spaghetti with a splash of extra-virgin olive oil, a squeeze of lemon and a twist of black pepper. In the old days local fishwives used to make bottarga in their cottages; today it's the cooperative's best-selling product.
Not that the labours of the fishermen of Orbetello end here. They also take visitors out on their boat, the 38-seat Remus, for guided tours of the lagoon and its lavorieri, two canals that allow seawater to run in and where the mullet congregate.
The northern side of the lagoon, towards the Tombolo della Giannella, is a nature reserve. Fringed by cork and pine trees, and Mediterranean scrub - sage, juniper, myrtle, thyme, rosemary, oregano - it's populated by foxes, wild boar, badgers and porcupines, plus a rare species of tiger beetle, found only here and in the Camargue in France. Situated on the main migration routes, this is a paradise for birdwatchers. Species as various as the flamingo, osprey, avocet, spoonbill and great white heron stop off in the reserve, also a popular breeding for the Arctic and little terns.
A provincial road runs down the middle of the Tombolo della Giannella to Monte Argentario past pine woods, beaches, holiday villages, stables, agriturismi, pizzerias and restaurants. An osteria of note is Ristorante Villa Ambra L'Oste Dispensa, where Stefano Sorci and his wife Francesca serve local recipes with fish supplied by the Orbetello cooperative's fishermen. "Sometimes they tell me about the dishes cooked on boats in days gone by," Sorci says. "I collect these forgotten recipes and then recreate them in my kitchen."
Inland and coastal traditions meet here. Take the house specialty, rana pescatrice alla cacciatora, monkfish stewed in a herby tomato sauce. "The recipe was given to me by a dear friend whose grandfather had handed it down to him," says Sorci.
The Tombolo della Giannella road leads on to Porto Santo Stefano, rebuilt after bombing in World War II. It's a town of ochre façades, green shutters, biscuit-red roofs, and two harbours - the first is the main boarding point for ferries to the islands of Giglio and Giannutri, the second is for private yachts and racing boats. The late American yacht designer Olin James Stephens II, designer of six America's Cup race-winners, loved the place and local craftsmen often repaired his boats. He was made an honorary citizen of Monte Argentario at Porto Santo Stefano in 2004, during Argentario Sailing Week. Other recipients of the honour have been Queen Juliana of the Netherlands, who owned the 24-room Villa Elefante Felice nearby, Nobel Prize-winning Russian nuclear physicist and political dissident Andrei Sakharov and Mother Teresa, who came to deliver her acceptance speech in 1988.
Heading westwards, the Via Panoramica, the scenic road that encircles Monte Argentario, winds along the rocky coast, the hills dense with the villas of moneyed Romans and Florentines. I was once invited to dinner on the lawn of one. We dined suspended between the sea and the stars. I was the guest of the son of a Roman banker, the fiancé of a friend of a friend in Turin. At midnight, receipts and chits were produced, figures added and divisions made. Much to my amazement, I was asked to pay for my share of the meal. Penny-pinching is sometimes the way of the wealthy, which, I suppose, is why they're wealthy in the first place.
Past coves of white sand and turquoise water, some of them accessible only by boat, on the southern side of the promontory, is the legendary five-star resort hotel Il Pellicano: a cluster of cottages on a woodland cliff that plunges, terrace by terrace, via a pool and a rocky beach to the sea. It was opened by the British aviator Michael Graham and his wife Patricia in 1965. Those were the dolce vita years, and everyone who was anybody, from Hollywood to Carnaby Street to Cinecittà, would come to stay. Emilio Pucci, Douglas Fairbanks Jr, Charlie Chaplin, Kenneth Tynan, Henry Fonda, Ted Kennedy - they and many more are immortalised in the period photos that plaster the walls of the hotel bar and corridors. More recent visitors have included Sting, Bono and Kate Moss.
"If Thoreau could have stayed at one of the cottages in the grounds of Il Pellicano," writes British novelist Will Self, "the one at Walden would have remained without a tenant forever." This is a quote from his introduction to a coffee-table book published last year, Eating at Hotel Il Pellicano (Violette Editions), in which Antonio Guida, the executive chef at the hotel's two-star restaurant, presents 11 five-course menus, each dedicated - more name-dropping here - to an illustrious guest: Missoni, Noguchi, Ponti and more.
Ingredients are fresh, seasonal and locally sourced, but the cooking style and influences of Guida, a native of Puglia who has worked in the kitchens of Pierre Gagnaire in Paris and Annie Féolde at the Enoteca Pinchiorri in Florence, travel much farther afield.
His spring menu last year offered sautéed vegetables served with Il Pellicano's garden herbs and flowers, karkadé-marinated onion and Venus clams; hake with oysters and shiso sauce; roasted blue lobster with Marsala, barberry and smoked potatoes; tempura of scampi and monkfish; tartare of anchovies with sweet and sour sauce; sweetbread and cinnamon with marinated mashed carrots in citrus juices - and those were only the antipasti.
At the end of this anticlockwise tour round the Via Panoramica, after more beaches below and old watchtowers above, is the fishing village of Porto Ercole, smaller and more historical than Porto Santo Stefano.
In the high season, meaning July and August, the berths fill up in the little harbour, but otherwise it's a laid-back place. Here, the former Spanish presence takes the form of two 16th-century quayside fortresses, Forte Stella and Forte San Filippo. In between them are fish restaurants with the usual names: La Lampara, La Sirena, La Grotta del Pescatore, Il Gambero Rosso. Frequent visitors in the early postwar years were the Italian novelist Alberto Moravia and Americans such as composer Samuel Barber, poet Robert Penn Warren, novelists William Styron and Gore Vidal, and Jackie Onassis (then Jackie Kennedy).
An Australian came, too: Alan Moorehead, the writer, journalist and historian. In 1960 he built a villa and planted eucalyptus. Once, his friend the American author Irwin Shaw paid him a visit: "I had met Alan Moorehead during the Blitz in London in the winter of 1944… As we sat on the terrace... we ate the good meal, drank some wine, looked at the trail of the moon on the sea below, and secretly congratulated ourselves that we were together in such a place so many years after the bombs, the landmines, the invasions, the generals."
Moorehead was also friend and mentor to another Australian, Robert Hughes. In 1964 Moorehead persuaded the penniless young art critic to seek his fortune in Europe; it was Moorehead who put him up in his Porto Ercole villa later the same year. "A huge living postcard" is how Hughes described the town, which became his base for forays around Tuscany on a Vespa. At last he was seeing all the art he had only ever known through photographs. One painter he fell in love with was Caravaggio, who died near Porto Ercole in the summer of 1610. He's believed to have been struck down by malarial fever on the beach south of the town. "There was art before him and art after him," wrote Hughes, "and they were not the same."
Porto Ercole has a long connection with cinema, too. In 1962, while shooting Cleopatra at Cinecittà in Rome, Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor slipped away here for what Burton describes in his diaries as "a clandestine weekend". "We gambolled like children," he wrote, "scrambling down the rocks to the sea and enjoying ourselves as if it was the last holiday."
The town itself has also been a popular location for films, as American author John Cheever discovered to his dismay in the 1950s. He had rented La Rocca Spagnola, the 16th-century fortress that overlooks the town, for the summer. "When we arrived we found that the signorina had rented the place out as a movie set. There were two light generators in our yard and a company of about 45 people wandering around, acting, eating sandwiches and relieving themselves."
In 1954 Mario Camerini shot Ulysses starring Kirk Douglas on the beaches and cliffs of Monte Argentario, and in 1999 Anthony Minghella set many scenes of The Talented Mr Ripley here.
The Tombolo della Feniglia is less developed than Giannella. It's a place of sand dunes and pine woods, ideal for cycling and walking. Back on the mainland, Ansedonia is a beach resort with a distinguished past. And just to the west sits Cosa, founded in 273BC, once a major Roman trading port, said to have been abandoned by its population following an invasion by rats. Its walls, defence towers and some buildings with mosaics and wall paintings are still visible and visitable.
The beaches to the south are popular among left-wing politicians, academics, artists and writers. Many own summer houses around Capalbio, further inland, nicknamed the "Little Athens" for its historical and artistic importance during the Italian Renaissance. Even the President of Italy, Giorgio Napolitano, used to spend his summer holidays at the establishment called L'Ultima Spiaggia, "the last resort". After which all roads really do lead to Rome.
  • Author: John Irving