As with most novels, one of the key elements in researching the Sam Wylde thrillers is making sure the settings and backgrounds are as accurate as possible. There’s always someone out there who will point out that you can’t see the featured street corner from a particular restaurant window (and besides, the windows are frosted). That wasn’t so difficult for book one, Safe From Harm, because it was mostly set in North London, just down the road from us. But book two (working title: Nobody Gets Hurt… which might be a tad misleading) opens in Monaco and moves on to Forte dei Marmi in Italy. Monaco we know reasonably well from visiting the Grand Prix, but Forte…. Well, here’s something we wrote about it, following our research trip.
On balance, Italy has little to thank Mussolini for, but he did gift the country the seaside resort of Forte dei Marmi. Up until Il Duce’s time this stretch of coast, thirty minutes’ drive north of Pisa, was all marshes and mosquitoes. The dictator ordered the land drained and by the 1930s swamp had segued into chic seaside. It has remained the ne plus ultra of Italian coastal resorts ever since, its appeal undiminished, even if that appeal takes a little decoding.
Its setting is, however, undisputedly wonderful – a long, beautifully manicured beach, a collection of high quality, low-rise hotels and villas, backed by what looks at first glance like majestic snow-topped mountains. But the icing on those peaks is actually the marble that gave the town its name (up there are the Carrera quarries, frequented by Michelangelo and, er, James Bond in Quantum of Solace). So the scenery is easy to get; it’s the social mores of the place that take time for the visitor to appreciate and unpick.
“There are lots of people who just don’t understand Forte,” said the café owner serving us our morning espressos. “You British for instance. But there is a secret to this town. You know what is?”
“Money?” We asked, thinking of the cost of the previous night’s dinner on the seafront.
He laughed. “Well, that helps. No, it’s that Italians come here for rilassante. You foreigners rush around, you must do Lucca, Florence, Chianti. The Italians visit Forte for the relaxing.”
This is evident in the languorous, and unchanging, rhythms of the town. Forte rises late – at my hotel, breakfast was served until 11am. After that it is a stroll or a cycle (bikes are big in Forte and well catered for) to one of the beach clubs, to soak up the sun. There will be swimming in the pool or the sea, and a little light lunch, followed by a siesta. Come the evening there will be a passeggiata around and along the pier, an aperitivo perhaps, possibly some shopping (Gucci, Prada, Vuitton and other essential brands have conveniently set up here), followed by a leisurely and late-ish dinner, a nightcap, then bed. Repeat.
And repeat they do. Forte is, like the Hamptons to which it is often compared, one of the few remaining resorts where people regularly decamp for a month or more in season. True, these tend to be a moneyed elite – Giorgio Armani has a villa here, as do various members of the Agnelli family, the F1 fraternity and the Juventus football club. It has a symbiotic relationship with Milan much like Deauville traditionally did to Paris – where the well-held city folks go to play (or in this case, relax). Some book a cabana or umbrella/ sunbeds at one of those beach clubs – the bagni – for the duration of the stay, as their family might have done for generations.
Nothing baffles the British quite like the ninety-odd wall-to-wall – or fence-to-fence – beach clubs that have colonised the shoreline (in season there is only a narrow strip for public access either side of the pier). With their colour-coded beach huts, changing rooms and umbrellas, sand combed into submission by an army of bagnini, discreet waiters (or butlers in some case), restaurants and pools, they sometimes feel like they have been dropped in from a decadent Visconti movie. But if you want to dip your into the sea, you have to play the game and pay to enter (at least at those that will allow day visitors in).
We told the café owner that paying to sit in a club and line up like sardines on a rack was an anathema to the British. He corrected me on the first count. Unlike in lesser resorts – his head indicated Viareggio next door – the sunbeds are not laid out so close together that you feel like it is a giant grill. He also pointed out that we Brits are expected to lug umbrellas, windbreaks, towels, picnics, children and other bulky paraphernalia down the beach, arriving red-faced and panting. This flies in the face of the whole concept of maintaining la bella figura (the beautiful figure) that the Italians strive for. What you are paying for at a beach club is freedom from this sort of donkey work.
And in the high season of July and August, which you should avoid, pay you will – up to 350 euros a day for a cabana/ tent or two at the swankiest clubs, with food and drink on top. But always take advice as to which club to frequent. Many hotels have arrangements with a particular bagna.
The Byron, where we were staying – and where Sam Wylde will stay, briefly in Nobody Gets Hurt – for instance, had special rates at the simple Beppe opposite (from around £36 a day for a sunshade and two sunbeds), which has few bells and whistles, and also with the aristocratic and usually exclusive Bagno Piero (from £56), to the far south of the strip. Although it is a foreign concept, a day at a beach club, as long as you aren’t paying full whack, is well worth the cost of entry, if only for the top-class people watching and the feeling of being part of a long, unchanging tradition. Besides, we came to Forte to watch the wealthy at repose, and there is no better place for that than a bagno.
In recent years the peace and harmony of that tradition has been somewhat disrupted (again, mostly in high season) by the arrival of the Russians, who don’t quite play by the rules. “You could tell them instantly,” said one local. “The women only ride tricycles because they never learned to balance on two wheels. The men only look at the right hand page of the wine lists, where the most expensive bottles are.”
Forte was not impressed. Its style is far more low key. For various reasons – including Putin’s exhortation to holiday at home – the Russians have stopped coming in force. Last year the number of armoured Humvees and lurid Lambos parked along the front dropped significantly. Forte breathed a sigh of relief. Normal service had been resumed.
Incidentally, you don’t have to pay Oligarch prices and eat at Bistrot (Via Achille Franceschi 14, calling from UK 00 39 0584 89879) or Lorenzo (Via Giosue’ Carducci 61/ 00 39 0584 874030) – away from the seafront strip there are less swanky choices such as Nelson Club (8 Via Roma, dialing from UK 00 39 0584 80801), il Timone (234 Via Giuseppe Mazzini 234/ 00 39 584 752759) and Al Bocconcino (7 Piazza Giuseppe Garibaldi/00 39 0584 80375), which will feed you good food at something closer to Pizza Express prices. But if you feel like splashing out, or are in a particularly romantic mood, try venturing onto the waterfront for sublime seafood pasta at Osteria de Mare (4 Via Achille Franceschi/ 00 39 0584 83661), watch the setting sun throw painterly strips of crimson across the sky, breathe deep of the sea breeze, just forget about the size of the bill and relax. Then, you’ll have cracked the Forte code for good. Although, sadly, thanks to some good new and bad news that arrives during dinner, Sam doesn’t get a chance to relax.
DETAILS: British Airways (0344 493 0787/ba.com) has return flights to Pisa from Heathrow from £96. Hotel Byron (book through Small Luxury Hotels of the World, 0800 0482 314/slh.com/hotelbyron) offers double rooms from £195 (two sharing), B&B.
Holiday Autos (020 3740 9859/holidayautos.co.uk) offers car hire from Pisa airport from £26 per day.