Feature image: A lakeside bar in Porlezza, northern Italy. Thanks to Hope Needs for the photo!
Think of Italy, and your mind will most likely wander to topics such as pasta, pizza, fashion and a football team known for their shrewd defensive strategy. Think of beach holidays, and the first destinations that spring into your head will probably include parts of southern Spain, Turkey and the Greek Islands. Furthermore, many people’s idea of a holiday on the beach is somewhat tarred by images of gaudy bars, rowdy drunks and inauthentic resort towns from which the local culture has been driven out by the sun-tan-seeking hordes.
However, sunbathers and swimmers alike can find plenty of opportunities to work on their tans and their breaststrokes in Italy, and they won’t need to forsake any opportunities to engage with the country’s unique lifestyle either. Having travelled quite extensively throughout the land of enormous meals and manic hand-communication, I would be hard pushed to think of a greater pleasure than wandering by the sea or lake, deliciously refreshing ice-cream in hand, as the baking sun dries me off following an invigorating swim.
From all my memories of so many Italian adventures, here are three watery highlights, all of them quintessentially Italian, all of them swimmer’s dreams, and all having more to offer besides their exquisite beaches.
Porlezza. Few have heard of it. In fact, I had never even heard of it myself until my summertime boss told me I was going there to work in an English camp for two weeks. And now, having spent two weeks basking in the sunshine in all its lakeside glory, I’ll never forget it.
Even the lake alongside which Porlezza resides is not the most widely heard of. Known by locals as Lago di Ceresio, it is more commonly referred to abroad as Lake Lugano, taking this name not from any Italian source but from the town across the Swiss border which its waters form a part of. So close is Porlezza to the national frontier that many of its inhabitants commute into Switzerland for work every day, cleverly combining Italian costs of living with Swiss wages.
With the population barely exceeding 4,000, Porlezza is a tranquil and unpolluted spot, and its waters are among the cleanest and most refreshing that a swimmer could desire. As well as the lakeside beaches, spectacular countryside also lies uphill, the nearby waterfall providing an escape from reality and a bathing experience like no other. What’s more, the trek through forestry and the ensuing views one must go through in order to get to the naturally-produced shower and pool further heighten the magical ambience.
Porlezza’s sense of isolation is also augmented by the probability of needing a boat to get there, although not across Lake Lugano as one might expect. With buses connecting the pleasant village to Menaggio, a ferry can be used from there to cross Lake Como to the somewhat old-school train station of Varenna. Visitors can alternatively come and go through Lugano, although they will need to be prepared for a steep incline in prices for just about everything once they venture into Switzerland.
Of all the delightful towns surrounding the deservedly-lauded Lake Garda, Sirmione is arguably the one from which the lake can be most thoroughly enjoyed. A small peninsula protruding into the lake’s southern tip, it is surrounded on three sides by clean, clear water. Not only does it have fantastic beaches at the peninsula’s tip, but the castle is another sight for sore eyes, the water flowing under its drawbridge featuring endless breadcrumb battles between brightly coloured ducks and coots.
As well as the castle and the usual lakeside attractions, Sirmione also offers its visitors some Roman ruins to explore and some more modern bathing facilities. The Grottoes of Catullus – somewhat curiously named considering they are the remains of a Roman villa and not, in fact, a grotto – lie at the northernmost end of the Peninsula, while at the opposite end those seeking relaxation can find one of Italy’s most prized thermal spa complexes in the very poetically-named Terme di Sirmione.
As an open-water swimming-enthusiast, I’ve dipped my feet in many a lake, sea and river by now. However, when asked to pick a highlight from all my watery escapades, it’s surprisingly easy. As far as swimming is concerned, there is nowhere quite like the Amalfi coast in the south of Italy. Staying in the incomparable campsite of Villaggio Nettuno, the surreal feeling of those coastside holidays owed both to the stunning beauty of the sea and the sumptuous local culinary specialities. With water so clear that every fish and rock can be seen perfectly, every beachgoer will struggle to believe his or her luck at having encountered such a breath-taking paradise. The dazzling visibility also makes it an unmatchable location for snorkelling and diving, the latter being taught in the campsite’s official PADI diving centre.
Another feature of the region just outside Sorrento that makes it unmissable is the existence of something known as a granita. In appearance it resembles a slush puppy, but to describe it in such terms would be an insult to its fresh taste which can send the senses into ecstasy under the hot sun. The Sorrento peninsula also has a distinctly yellow colour, owing to the abundance of lemons growing from its trees, meaning that it is no surprise that the finest limoncello, a delicious liqueur perfect to wash the dinner down with, is brewed and bottled in this region.
Many of the country’s waterways remain unknown to me, Sicily and Stromboli in particular being very high on my bucket list. Whether it be salty, fresh or cascading down a rocky mountainside, water always has a very strong draw for some of us, as does a country which produces some of the world’s finest wine and food. The opportunity to not only combine both but to also throw some forest hikes, historical buildings or lemon-flavoured liqueur into the mix gives Porlezza, Sirmione and Villaggio Nettuno their own respectively unique appeals, and makes all of them unbeatable for anyone who likes to feel genuinely abroad and benefit from the presence of the beach at the same time.