Enjoying an aperitif on my balcony on our last night in Punta Ala, as the sun dipped below the island of Elba, I wondered who deemed this paradise an appropriate exile for Napoleon. With clear stretches of pristine coastline overlooked by rugged volcanic natural parks, it’s a side of Tuscany not often seen by tourists. On the drive from Pisa airport, all my existing notions were thrown out the window when the coast stretched out before me. But this is the Italians’ Tuscany, one of the last remaining areas of the region that has remained relatively untouched by tourism and the locals outweigh the guests. It retains a sense of authenticity, and the history of the area is kept alive because of it.
Staying in Punta Ala (nicknamed the Orange County of Italy), is to enter a little bubble of modern luxury in an all-around rustic setting. Unlike the tiny medieval towns that dot the coast, Punta Ala was claimed by those wanting a slice of luxury after the boom in the 70s, with the town centre being repurposed to cater to the Italian holiday elite. Overlooking the sea, with its own private beach, golf club, and beach club with spa, the Hotel Cala Del Porto is perfect for those wanting to explore the medieval Tuscan countryside, while having a taste of this modern Italian luxury. Driving into the hotel, the smell of fresh salt water mixes with the distinct scent of pine trees and it feels more like the French Riviera. The sense of glamour is like something out of an old movie; as the guests mingle the hotel staff hand out complimentary bellinis while the sun dips below the island of Elba, casting a pink glow over the yachts moored at the marina below.
It remains a hotspot for watching the rich and famous, with a famous Italian actor pointed out to me almost immediately after I arrived. For those looking for an Italian experience with a hint of sophistication, it’s not a bad way to spend a warm summer evening.
Quiet days can be spent at the Hotel’s private beach club; where you have access to long stretches of white sand, a golf course and spa, and delicious food and drink at restaurant La Spiaggia. Here we feasted on the region’s famous ravioli (served with fresh tomatoes and pecorino cheese as well as gnocchi with zucchini, sage and pine nuts). The fish should not be missed; you can watch the fishing boats sail the Bay of Follonica, bringing home the catch of the day.
From the hotel, it is worth venturing away from the glitz and into the more authentic heart of the Tuscan coast. Just a 20 minute drive along the sea front you reach Castiglione della Pescaia, a medieval sea-side town which becomes the region’s lively hub in the summer. Unlike modern Punta Ala, this was once a medieval stronghold, with the town winding down towards the sea from the imposing castle that sits proudly at the centre. When you walk around the cobbled, high-walled streets within the hill top fortress, it feels completely frozen in time – until a speeding Vespa ambushes you without warning, bringing you back to present day Italy.
In true Mediterranean style, there is a sense of quiet slumber until 11am when the town slowly revives itself, and then again in the afternoon when the locals flock to the beach. But at night the town comes alive – with live music being played on the streets until the early hours, and the locals sipping on bright orange aperol spritz in the restaurants that line the busy streets, the atmosphere is vibrant, inviting and very Italian.
It is easy to get sucked into the charm of the coast, but some of the area’s hidden gems are to be found further inland and within the territory of the national parks. The tiny Etruscan towns which are scattered through the mountains are historical and enchanting, yet so bafflingly normal to their occupants.
The beautiful Massa Maratimma is no exception, and for a taste of the region’s history it’s well worth a day trip. Off the tourist trail, the town remains incredibly well preserved, with the beautiful Piazza and its authentic local shops seeming as though they’ve stood unchanged for centuries.
Outside the archaeological museum I saw a group of diggers uncover Etruscan treasure before my very eyes. Catching a glimpse of gold in the clumps of soil was exciting, but to them seemed like a daily occurrence.
When I went into the local shop to buy a postcard, I spotted a local archaeological newspaper; without seeing the date I would have sworn it had been dug out of the ground by that same team. Everything here looks ancient. When I took it to the counter to pay my €1.50, the shopkeeper looked at me with bewilderment – why would a tourist want to buy this? To them, the history of the region is embedded in their culture.
Being welcomed back to the hotel with another sunset bellini, without the hordes of tourists to contend with, I understood why this area is one of Tuscany’s best kept secrets. It’s the perfect spot to relax and unwind by the sea without sacrificing the authentic Tuscan experience.