Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “Questions of Travel”, first published in 1956, just gets more and more prescient. “There are too many waterfalls here; the crowded streams/hurry too rapidly down to the sea,/and the pressure of so many clouds on the mountaintops/makes them spill over the sides in soft slow-motion . . .” she writes, perfectly ventriloquising an exhausted and whining traveller, spoiled by seeing too many wonderful things.
“There are too many waterfalls here” is the kind of po-faced line I expect to find on TripAdvisor. Since I discovered a comment on the site that described a Cuban garden where guests ate breakfast as unhygienic, on account of the disgusting birds, I have a morbid fascination with the things people will find to complain about. My husband and I spent our holiday exploring Puglia and Basilicata in southern Italy. I had heard enticing rumours of beaches with the feel of St Tropez or Capri in the Fifties and Sixties, before sleepy fishing villages became the most sought-after holiday places in Europe, with outposts of Chanel and Dolce & Gabbana, the Mediterranean churned up with superyachts and lunch fraught with the risk of running into Philip Green. (“There are too many boats here,” as Bishop might have observed, “too many tycoons . . .”)
Monopoli on beaches
The first days of our trip were spent sunning ourselves near the beautiful tiny port of Monopoli (“Not just a board game!” the tourist T-shirts insist). On the beach we were asked if we wanted a small or a big tree for our umbrella. Pampelonne Beach in the early Sixties? Quite possibly. According to one complainer on TripAdvisor, this same beach is a real disappointment, and so rocky that he/she had to walk to a whole different beach to get in the water.
While there were, it’s true, some rocks that made the Adriatic look simultaneously blue and green, like a watercolourist’s attempt at sea, young children could clamber in without difficulty, or you could move a distance of perhaps ten yards to walk in through sand. I sometimes wonder how Eden might have been reviewed.
The beach club is called Tamerici – don’t tell too many other English people.
Basilicata was our final stop, right in the sandy instep of Italy. We stayed in Bernalda, which clings to a hilltop, and whose most famous former resident is one Agostino Coppola, who emigrated to New York at the turn of the 20th century. The story of his grandson is cinematic history, and Francis Ford Coppola is single-handedly responsible for directing visitors to his grandfather’s home town. Palazzo Margherita is the luxury hotel he opened there in 2012.
On first impressions, I’d say it’s something of a beautiful curiosity: as luxurious as any hotel you could find in Amalfi or Rome, and yet here it is in this tiny town where daily life hasn’t changed much in decades. Whiners doubtless might argue that there isn’t enough to see, but I could have spent many hours cycling around the town, watching not much more happening than front steps being swept, plants being watered and neighbours chatting.
Every morning I cycled past an old man sitting outside his house peeling a huge plate of figs and each time I hoped and failed to find a way to politely ask if he would let me take his photograph.
While it’s true that the unspoiled places I loved along the coast of the Adriatic and the Ionian seemed (MacBook Airs and Kindles aside) to belong to holidays of a more innocent age, the beach scenes of this summer perhaps seem particularly precious. Even before the horrors of the 14 July mass killing in Nice, there had been reports of terrorists planning to disguise themselves as vendors to attack holidaymakers. The idea is grim, but so, too, is the effect on the hot and bothered vendors with their jewellery and sunglasses that no one wants to buy. In Puglia, a man dressed in white with a small rucksack walking determinedly down the sand through the crowds made everyone stop breathing for a moment. All he was trying to do was to sell massages.
The British Hamptons
This week I’ve had the last beach days of my summer in Norfolk. In all seasons, we spend our weekends at our falling-down farmhouse, bewitched by big skies and the views, destressing by deadheading roses. We are oblivious to the absence of hot water or heating until we have guests. In these bracing conditions, I have long since joked that Norfolk, with its long white beaches and swelling summer population, is exactly like the Hamptons, but now I’m worried it might be true.
On a sunny day, Wells on the north Norfolk coast looks like a Shirley Hughes drawing of how a British beach should be. It was recently named by the Sunday Times as the UK’s best beach but should fans be alarmed by the arrival of an outpost of the high-street holiday chain “Joules Beside the Seaside” that has popped up next to the beach café? In Burnham Market (long since known as Notting-Hill-on-Sea) the bakery has been replaced by a high-end boutique, patronised by people who don’t eat buns. And above Gurneys Fish Shop there is now “Jaipur Plaice”, a summer pop-up selling clothes and interiors and kaftans made in Rajasthan.
The butcher has the air of a man living through a siege and there are dark rumours that fishermen in Wells have been told to wear trousers in the pub. Over the weekend, as I enthusiastically instagrammed my new favourite local, the Hero, a formerly dusty old pub reborn this summer with lobster and chips and macchiatos on the menu, and packed my wet swimming stuff away in my ethically sourced waterproof bikini bag (picked up in Jaipur Plaice), I started to worry I might be part of the problem.
This article appears in the 31 Aug 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Syria's world war