A solid strip of unattractive beach resorts stretches north along the coast from near Pisa to the Ligurian border. This Riviera della Versilia ought to be something more special, given the dramatic backdrop of the Alpi Apuane, but the beaches share the coastal plain with a railway, autostrada and clogged urban roads, while the sea itself is far from being the cleanest in Italy. The resort of Viareggio provides a lively diversion on a coastal journey north to the stunning Cinque Terre. Otherwise, the only real appeal lies inland, exploring the famed marble-quarrying centre of Carrara.
Tuscany’s largest seaside resort, VIAREGGIO, 22km northwest of Pisa, may feature on few independent travellers’ itineraries – everyone wants picturesque former fishing villages and converted farmhouses these days – but it does still cling to a certain stately elegance. The real problem is that the sheer demand keeps prices alarmingly high in summer, when many hotels insist on at least half-board. Apart from a free stretch south of town, most of the beach has been parcelled up into private strips, charging around €20 for a day’s use of a sun lounger and parasol.
Life in Viareggio centres on the grand seafront boulevard, Viale Regina Margherita; locals and visitors alike promenade each night beneath the palm trees that line this 3km thoroughfare. Interspersed among its imposing old hotels are several fine Art Nouveau frontages, as well as a plentiful array of bars and restaurants. On a balmy summer evening, the ensemble has a strip-like neon-lit aesthetic more American in feel than Tuscan. To see Viareggio at its liveliest, come for its famously boisterous Carnevale in February, when for four consecutive Sundays it stages an amazing parade of floats, or carri – colossal, lavishly designed papier-mâché models of politicians and celebrities (w viareggio.ilcarnevale.com).
CARRARA sits just inside the Ligurian border, 28km north of Viareggio, and enjoys a fame that far outstrips its modest size. Ever since the Roman era, the mountains here have been a principal source of marble; everyone from Michelangelo to Henry Moore has tramped up here in search of the perfect stone. Despite fierce modern competition from Brazil and India, Carrara still ranks among the world’s largest producers and exporters of marble, shipping out a million tonnes a year from the container port in the middle of ugly Marina di Carrara. But quiet Carrara itself has a pleasant, rural feel and comes as a relief after the holiday coast.
From the central Piazza Matteotti, pedestrianized Via Roma heads north to the attractive Piazza Accademia, with steps down (west) to the old town and Carrara’s Romanesque-Gothic Duomo (daily 7am–noon & 3.30–7pm), adorned with a lovely Pisan-style marble facade. Gracious Piazza Alberica, at the heart of the old town, is the focus for a biennial summer display of contemporary marble sculpture, Scolpire all’Aperto, when internationally renowned artists arrive to create new works in public. To get the full low-down on marble, call in at the impressive Museo del Marmo on Viale XX Settembre, 2km south of town (Mon–Sat: May–Sept 9.30am–1pm & 3.30–6pm; Oct–April 9am–12.30pm & 2.30–5pm; €4.50).
Colonnata and the marble quarries
- There are nine daily buses to Colonnata from Via Minzoni in Carrara; get off when you see the Visita Cave signs
Any short trip into the interior brings you to the startling sight of the marble quarries. To get a closer view, head up the twisting road towards Colonnata, 8km northeast of Carrara. Once there, you’re confronted by a huge, blindingly white marble basin, its floor and sides perfectly squared by the enormous wire saws used to cut the blocks that litter the surroundings.