Travel /
Lifestyle /
Toscana

Forte dei Marmi: the Two Sides of the Luxurious Seaside Destination

“Forte has always been a luxury resort, but, unlike others in Italy, it has maintained its allure over time…”

Forte dei Marmi, or rather simply “il Forte”, takes its name from the 18th century fortress in the town’s main square, built to protect the famous marble of the nearby Apuan Alps. Il Forte’s ancient history goes back as far as Ancient Rome, though the town was officially born in 1914 after gaining autonomy from its bordering municipalities. From that moment, Forte began the path of ascent towards its undisputed status as the seaside destination of the international jet set. We are in Versilia, a stretch of coastline in northern Tuscany, loved in equal measure by Italians and foreigners. Roma Imperiale is the name of the most popular neighborhood. Located outside the center, south of the city, Roma Imperiale owes its name to the cooperative society that, at the beginning of the 20th century, bought the land and sold the lots to wealthy vacationers. Here you will find the first villas dating back to the late 19th century, as well as those built in the 1920s–surrounded by gardens of cypress trees, hydrangeas and geraniums, and behind walls that shield them from passers-by. Here were the homes of the Italian nobility and upper-middle class, from the Agnelli family to the poet Gabriele D’Annunzio to the Ginori of porcelain. Today, they are the homes of Berlusconi, Armani and Cavalli, but especially of a multitude of multi-millionaires (Russians, Ukrainians, Germans, Arabs, Americans and South Americans). Forte has always been a luxury resort, but, unlike others in Italy, it has maintained its allure over time, knowing how to adapt for over a century to newer and newer concepts of wealth.

Forte’s narrative is mixed and as always, the truth lies in the middle. Many stories chronicle queues of Maseratis, Ferraris, and Lamborghinis; of breakfasts to the sound of Crystal champagne; of tailgating at Flavio Briatore’s Twiga beach club; of those with luxury bling bling, who boorishly want to be surrounded by footballers and showgirls. And then there’s the other Forte. 

Helicopters land at Cinquale, then one can get around on foot or by bicycle, in sandals and a caftan. Notables choose Forte for its village size and relative normalcy and not for its livery or nightlife.  

Revival and Nostalgia 

Just across the street is the other Forte, that of the legendary Capannina. Founded in 1929, this bathhouse-turned-club has seen counts, intellectuals, Hollywood stars, and national celebrities. Gino Paoli has performed here with the song “Sapore di Sale” (“Taste of Salt”), Edoardo Vianello with “Pinne Fucile e Occhiali” (Rifle Fins and Glasses). Ornella Vanoni and Patty Pravo have also made appearances. Today, you can still find some VIPs, as well as a line of curious onlookers and regulars, at the unmissable show at the piano bar of actor Jerry Calà, the protagonist of the famous film Sapore di Mare (“Taste of the Sea”) which brought the whole of Versilia back into vogue in 1983. La Capannina is proof that Forte has remained true to itself. The club was there at the time of the first aristocrats; it was there during the Dolce Vita years of the Italian post-war summers; it was still there during the cinematic revival of the 1980s that showcased the loves of the wonderful 60s. Another 40 years have passed since then and still people dance at La Capannina out of curiosity and nostalgia, in search of the “spirit of Il Forte”.

This spirit of Il Forte endures in iconic local family establishments such as da Lorenzo, Bar Soldi, and the Vaiani family restaurants Osteria del Mare or Pesce Baracca street food (awarded the best in Tuscany by the Gambero Rosso food guide in 2019). You can sleep in the neo-Renaissance Villa Agnelli, now part of the Augustus Hotel & Resort. But then Peck has already opened a branch of the famed Milanese delicatessen, rumors abound of new additions like Nobu Armani’s, and new hotel and restaurant openings are still in the works. Russian investors? Not only. Many Italians also see ample space for elite tourism and are reshaping hospitality and beaches.  

Summer by the Sea 

Bagno Dalmazia is the oldest of the bagni and has had its wooden sun loungers and traditional awnings since 1910. Everything is luxurious: at Forte, the aesthetics of the baths are preserved by a strict regulatory plan. There are no swimming pools allowed on the sea and the houses cannot be taller than the trees that surround them. Luxury is privacy, space, service. 

The Dalmazia was acquired in 2018 by the Hotel Principe, which brought the cuisine of star chef Valentino Cassanelli and a service that costs €250 per day on average (it’s among the most luxurious bagni on the coast). Space on the coast, however, still lives on seasonal rentals or is handed down from parent to child: everyone has their own bathroom, cabin and deckchair neighbors for generations. And it’s always the same beach, the same sea. Equally lovely is the Bagno America with its Kelly green umbrellas and lounge chairs. Built in the 1970s, Bagno America is frequented by the guests of the Villa Roma Imperiale, a lovely, family-owned boutique hotel, with private terraces and balconies overlooking manicured gardens. It’s one of those iconic locations that brings the same guests year after year to Forte. The film Sapore di Mare was shot at Bagno Marechiaro, a place that boasts of hosting the poet Eugenio Montale and the family of Thomas Mann under their umbrellas for seasons. The singer Andrea Bocelli, by dint of going to the same bagno from his Forte villa, bought Bagno Alpemare in 2016, turning it into an establishment that offers security guards, cabin safes, massages, and a private transfer service. It worked, and its presence attracts a nice international audience. 

 

Shopping in the Center

With a population of 5,000 in winter and 50,000 in summer, the challenge, as in many resorts, is to maintain authenticity. There is no longer a stationer nor a shoemaker, and the streets of the historic center are dotted with boutiques of big luxury brands. Vestivamo alla Marinara (“We Used to Dress as Sailors”) is the title of the autobiography of Marella Agnelli, wife of Mr. Fiat. Today, they sell cashmere, Gucci, Prada, and Made in Italy brands that line the streets of the historic center. Along the town’s main piazza, La Cesteria di Forte dei Marmi has sold wicker beach bags, baskets and placemats since 1968. These streets are so upmarket that the Gli Ambulanti di Forte dei Marmi was born, a consortium with a registered trademark that brings to the square stalls selling cashmere sweaters, embroidered sheets, and ceramics on Wednesday mornings (and Sundays in high season). It is the most luxurious market in Italy, but paradoxically, it was invented to protect the small merchants of the surrounding area and the local crafts that otherwise would not have found space (the rents that run in the village are quite high). Normally, the season closes in Sant’Ermete on August 28th with fireworks from the pier. At one time, everything closed, but today, the challenge is to elongate the season and make people understand that there is more to Forte than the sea.

Land and Shadows

All you have to do is walk along Forte’s long pier or look inland: from the beach, you can see the mountains. The Apuan Alps are exactly eight kilometers from the shoreline: here, marble is quarried and exported all over the world. There are lovely walks, which the real regulars, who confided in me, take to escape the hot summer evenings. “If we talk about territory in Forte, we are talking about countryside and mountains, not just the sea,” Valentino Cassanelli, star chef at the Lux Lucis restaurant, explains. Born in Modena, he will soon be celebrating 10 years at the helm of the restaurant with a fine-dining menu that pays homage to Via Vandelli, the commercial road that connected Modena to Versilia for centuries and that led him here as well. Sitting in the panoramic dining room, you don’t look at the sea but at the land, and so the dishes include cockscombs, nettles and prosciutto, combined with cacciucco fish stew, mantis shrimp and sea bass. “To make bread, we use the ancient grains of Pietrasanta, grown just behind the stately villas, and the Pastino of Seravezza, an ancient carrot that is grown on commission from the university to save its seeds. No one eats it anymore, but it’s very good.” And then there are the pine nuts from Forte, the oil from Quercetano (a local olive cultivar) and chestnut flour–ingredients of a cuisine from a land that looks to the sea and of seafood dishes that do not forget their peasant roots. “Today, tourists don’t go to sunbathe. They want the shade, the very shade of the famous Versiliana gardens,” says Cristina, convinced that Forte essentially offers a lifestyle, 12 months a year.

La Capannina di Franceschi

Ristorante Lorenzo

Bar Pasticceria Soldi

Osteria del mare

Augustus Hotel & Resort

Bagno Dalmazia

Bagno Alpemare

Mercato di Forte dei Marmi

Villa Roma Imperiale

La Cesteria Forte Dei Marmi

Bagno America