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“A man may stand there and put all America behind him.” Henry David Thoreau

He was speaking about the great Outer Beach on Cape Cod, which is now a  national park which includes forty miles of sandy beaches.  That’s right – forty miles.  There is lots of beach access, and if you’re willing to walk for a while you can have a stretch of beach all to yourself.  Even the ‘crowded’ parts of the beach are spacious by Italian standards – if you don’t believe it, check out the Coast Guard Beach webcam here.

If Thoreau were to visit my favorite beach in Paraggi, he might well have written, “A man may stand there and have all of Italy beside him.”  Public beaches in Italy are crowded.  With 5,310 miles of shoreline you might well wonder why. One reason could be that for every Italian there is only .47 feet of shore, whereas each American has 1.58 feet of his shore.  But the real reason is simple: most beaches are not public.

Let me correct that last sentence.  The State owns all the shoreline, and grants access to the public for 3 meters from the water’s edge (tides are not a huge issue here).  But the State also leases most of its beach property past the 3 meter mark to concessionaires who put up hundreds of gaily painted cabanas in which clients may change clothes.  They also cover every square inch of ‘their’ beach with beach beds fitted out with umbrellas.  It’s a wonderful way to go to the beach, if you like lying next to who knows whom and don’t mind paying for the privilege (in Paraggi it’s E30 for one day).  On the other hand, the amount of space given to public beaches is, in many areas, very small, so you will be lying on your own beach towel next to who knows whom anyway, but you’ll be lying on the sand (or stones) without an umbrella, unless you’ve cleverly remembered to bring your own. (It was only recently that a law was passed decreeing that there must be any free public beaches at all.)

In the photo above the public part of the beach is hard to see – it’s between the aqua umbrellas on the right and the almost invisible furled up white umbrellas.  This photo was taken about 8:45 a.m., early by Italian beach standards – but one must go early if one wants a patch of sand.  Here’s the beach an hour later:

Kind of narrow, isn’t it? It’s still early.  In another hour people will be leaving disappointed because there literally won’t be a square inch of space left in which to put one’s fanny.  Meanwhile, the private beaches surrounding this postage stamp are three quarters empty.

We’ve been told that we can put our towels down anywhere in the 3 meter ‘safe zone,’ but we have also been assured that we’ll get some very bad looks.  Anyone who’s received an Italian ‘malocchio‘ knows it’s a good thing to avoid.  Being a feisty American, though, I’m tempted to test the system.

What really seems too bad is that the public’s view of the beach is completely obliterated from the street.  Here is the view from Paragi’s seaside passagiata:

Nice cabana color – but I’d rather see the water!

The sea here is incomparably beautiful, a color somewhere between aqua and emerald, and it is full of little fish that like to show off for snorkelers.  Everything about a visit to the sea is a joy, except for the sitting around on your towel part.  And in fact, even that isn’t so awful once you’re used to it.  In general other beach-goers are respectful of your property and careful not to kick sand on your towel.  And it’s a great way to meet people. Just as everyone shares the narrow roads, they also share the narrow beaches, with a minimum of complaint or pigginess.

Disclaimer:  Paraggi is very beautiful and many people like to go there; other beaches may not be as crowded or be as encumbered with cabanas… but many are.  There are also half-way beaches – they have beds but no cabanas.  We’ve been told one is welcome to sit on the sand at these places, but we haven’t tested the hypothesis yet. We have been guests three or four times at private beaches, and it is wonderfully comfortable to lie on the beds and fun to chat with the neighboring sunbathers.