Italy’s Adriatic coast is, on the whole, a very local place: a summer playground for Italian families. Ranks of colour-coded umbrellas mark the progression from one beach 'concession' to another along interminable stretches of flat white sand; nondescript developments of high-rise hotels occupy the flat shoreline, overlooked by more ancient towns in the hillier hinterland.
Gabicce Mare is a delightful exception to this rule. To the west, it melds into the northern Adriatic beach resorts, separated only by the canal that marks the border between the Marche region, and neighbouring Emilia Romagna.
But rocky heights descending to the coast to the east link Gabicce to the wilder, more rugged area of Gabicce Monte and the Monte San Bartolo nature reserve. Intrepid visitors wanting more remote sands away from the beach umbrellas, can trek to secluded coves below the nearby hamlets of Fiorenzuola di Focara and Casteldimezzo: it’s an abrupt switch from order to wilderness.
At Gabicce Mare itself, the sweep of white sand widens from east to west — from woodland to canal. Breakwaters keep any rough sea off the strand where stabilimenti (essentially, beach cafes) and hotels arrange umbrellas and deckchairs in neat, brightly coloured rows.
It’s the way Italians do the beach: a daily or weekly rate will get you some shade, somewhere to lounge and the right to use the establishment’s bathroom and shower facilities; if you’re staying in a beach-side hotel, this will probably be included in the package. On the sand between seats and briny, children desport themselves, teenagers preen over beach volley moves and parents stroll and chat.
At lunchtime, the mouthwatering smell of fritto misto (fried mixed seafood) and spaghetti ai frutti di mare (spaghetti with shellfish) wafts from the cafes lining the shore, over the sand and out towards a (very un-Italian) pier which these days is looking rather forlorn, waiting for redevelopment.
The scene here in high season is for those who like their beach peopled and pulsing. North-westwards along the coast, the pulse quickens still further in Riccione and Rimini, which are club-culture meccas. Committed party-ers can take a train at Cattolica-Gabicce station for the short hop to Riccione; if you don’t dance the night through until the first train back at around 6.00am, you can always walk the six-odd kilometres.
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It’s a very different scene in the opposite direction, where wooded hills climb swiftly towards the Monte San Bartolo nature reserve. (A shuttle service between Gabicce Mare and Monte spares you a hot hike.) Here out-of-time walled villages — fortified against pirate attacks — retain a distinctly Medieval air, and sandstone cliffs plunge seawards from a high coastal plain where farmers work their fields between thick woods of poplar and downy oak punctuated by splashes of orange-flowered pomegrate and sweetly perfumed gorse.
The occasional path (the one from Fiorenzuola is perhaps the best) winds its way down towards narrow, pebbly coves.
In low season, you may find you have these to yourselves, give or take a lone wanderer or two, picking through driftwood or examining the sea-sculpted stones known as cogoli in the local dialect.
In season, you’ll have to share, though only with people hardy enough to brave the 20-minute slog (bring water) — or those with boats who pull into the bays. In the park’s higher reaches, dense woods shade tracks that are perfect for exploration on foot or bike.
Gelaterita is a great place to cool down with an excellent lemon sorbet, or one of many creamy flavours of ice cream made in-house.
Telodiro Lounge Bar is an all-day beach-side cafe, serving breakfast and light lunches. But it’s as a cool evening aperitivo hang-out that it comes into its own, with craft beers and cocktails.
Heading uphill towards Gabicce Monte, Osteria del Sorriso has good fish and superb views across the beach below.
Back from the coast, the Marche region is a little-visited area of spectacular, unspoilt countryside. Just 30 kilometres to the south, the walled city of Urbino — a Heritage-listed site — was a centre of art and learning in the Renaissance. Its Palazzo Ducale houses works by Titian, Raphael and Piero della Francesca.
On calm clear days when the sea shines blue, locals claim they can see the outline of a town beneath the water. Valbruna, as it’s known, is Gabicce’s very own Atlantis, and though documentary evidence of its existence is noticeably lacking, divers have retrieved so many ancient statues, potsherds and mosaic pieces from the sea bed between Gabicce and Fiorenzuola that many insist on clinging to the legend.
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This article was written by Anne Hanley from The Daily Telegraph and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.