Walking cross-country to an Italian Beach with Marcel Proust, Cecilia Bartoli and Joni Mitchell

I was constantly tempted to explore the countryside when I took in the view from my roof garden of the house that I rented for my holiday in the Italian village of Gabicce Monte in Emilia-Romagna -tempting though it was to stay in the tranquil environment of my own space.  Trips to Italy have to take in the art galleries, the architecture, the food and the wine, naturally, to say nothing of the sun and the sea, but the countryside is also pretty spectacular. So I came down from my rooftop to explore the national park of San Bartolo that lay there at my doorstep.

The temperatures were hot for an Englishman and, being car-less, the journey had to be taken on foot but, as I’ve discovered since having to give up driving, it is at walking pace that you really see the countryside in its many details but I tried to keep out of the sun as much as possible by walking on the shadowy side of the paths and roads sheltering under my trusty hat.

I had seen from my roof that there was another beach on the other side of these hills, one that looked a great deal more interesting than the rather tame resort atmosphere of Gabicce Mare. I had decided to find it in this wonderful  part of Italy where vast areas of green open out onto Adriatic blue.

The weather had turned hot just before I arrived in Italy after the whole of Europe had been suffering from a miserably cold Spring but there were compensations now because the countryside looked fresh and green.
The green was punctuated with dashes of yellow from the many bushes of broom that were in full flower while I was there.

Part of the way was by footpath but I also joined small and mostly empty winding roads where the only people I saw were passing and necessarily fit cyclists.

Now, in gaps between the trees, I could see the Adriatic Sea in the distance looking somehow more blue because of the green.

Then more cyclists who may be challenged by these hills but who usually greeted the straggling English pedestrian with a friendly “salve!” or even the less formal “ciao!”

This road is known as the Strada Panoramico Adriatica and is a great favourite for competitive cyclists and up here in the hills, they were more of them than walkers.

I was perfectly happy at my gentler pace even though I was more than a bit envious of the fitness these cyclists showed tackling the unforgiving hills in this heat. I was tempted to come back another year and to see how well I could cope. You can tell that cylcling is a big deal in these parts because and the other end of this road, as it descends into Gabicce Mare, there’s a lively example of graffiti cyclisti.

Walking though allowed me to  stop and to admire the wild flowers that were still growing in abundance along the sides of the road. Another advantage of being in Italy on the cusp between Spring and Summer.

The small gardens that I passed showed just how casually cultivated plants grow in these parts too like this cliff top rose garden that gave me my first view of my beach destination at Vallugola Bay.

On another day I was to see the beach from out at sea where I could put it into geographical context and see that it really was far from the madding crowd.

Now, though, I was ready to lie back on one of those sunbeds on a beach that was still remarkably free of tourists considering the perfect weather.

Italy does beaches well and, even though this was a relatively remote spot, civilised comforts were easily hired. Inevitably, as this is Italy and we weren’t near any towns, most of the sun-worshippers had arrived by motorbike.

I deserved a little lie down so it was just a question of booking my space for another pleasure that brings me every year to Italy – lying by the sea on long sunny days.

First though I needed one of those rather smart umbrellas.

Much better.

Then it was really only a matter of self-indulgent relaxation. It took me a long time to discover the pleasures of lulling around on beaches but now it’s become an annual necessity. All I needed was some good coffee, a little shade and my now indispensable Kindle reading machine where daily copies of The Times of London and the The York Times were delivered by clicking a button.

My main reading experience this holiday was the great epic À la recherche du temps perdu – In Search of Lost Time (Remembrance of Things Past) by Marcel Proust (1871-1922) in the English translation by C.K. Scott Monchrieff. A massive novel (or really seven novels) written between 1909 and his death in 1922.

So not very Italian, this great French masterpiece that studies memories involuntarily brought into our conscious state by moments such as the famous incident early in the series when the author tastes a madeleine cake with his tea. When finishing the book, the notoriously nocturnal Proust spent three years mostly lying in bed during daylight hours writing.  I thought it was appropriate enough then to read it lying down even if I was allowing more than a bit of daylight onto my skin.

Marcel Proust (1871 – 1922)

The morbidly nocturnal Marcel Proust was remarkably unlike the two charmingly lively salvataggi (life guards) at Vallugola beach but reading his languorous, long-limbed prose in such a setting, I could imagine Monsieur Proust lying out there on one of those sunbeds conjuring images of moodily timeless Summer days.

Proust is a good awakener of our senses and it was not long before I was drawn to the pleasures of swimming in warm Southern European waters.

It isn’t really very surprizing that human beings like hanging out on beaches.

Soon I was venturing in, delighted to find that the water had been prepared by some mythical butler to the perfect temperature. If only our sea was like that in England.

Adriatic Sea, I’m missing you already.

So there it was, the sun, the sea, some coffee and my Kindle. What else could I possibly crave? Well, music of course. Luckily I had my iPod with me stocked up with holiday listening.

This year it was the always inspiring Joni Mitchell and, new to me, her powerfully moving and very beautiful album Turbulent Indigo (1994) (my Summer project is my own private Proust and Mitchell festival).  Those of you who know might think I’m dodging “the light like Blanche Dubois” but then, I’m reading Proust so no apologies. Turbulent Indigo will now, in true Proustian style, conjure up images of Italian beaches. I had to have some Italian music with me too though and the exciting Italian mezzo-soprano Cecilia Bartoli came up with the answer just for me when she released her thrilling new recording of what is possibly my favourite opera: Norma (1831) by the Sicilian composer Vincenzo Bellini (1801 -1835).

Vincenzo Bellini (1801 – 1835)

It might not be perfect (what is?) but Cecilia Bartoli’s version of this glorious music is genuinely thrilling and, also as Proust would expect, Bellini’s aria, Casta Diva,  about the Moon will now always remind me of bright golden sunlight on warm Italian waters. More Italian experiences next week.

Cecilia Bartoli

Meanwhile, I’m getting into gear for the imminent publication (in October)  of my novel, Stephen Dearsley’s Summer Of Love, the story of a young fogey living in Brighton in 1967 who has a lot to learn when the flowering hippie counter culture changes him and the world around him.

You can already pre-order the book from the publishers, Ward Wood Publishing:


…or from Book Depository:


…or from Amazon:


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