Battle of the beaches: Italy's vanishing coastline

The sandy coast, lifeblood of Italy's tourist industry, is being blown away by the wind. Peter Popham reports from a resort losing its fight against the elements

Mauro della Valle is an officer in the Italian armed forces, but his passion is for the sea and the beach. And all his spare time is spent at Soleluna, the lido which he and his wife Luciana run at San Cataldo, the town beach of Lecce, in Puglia, on the heel of the Italian boot. He serves drinks and snacks at the lido's bar, chats with the regulars, and, as one of the lido's two certified banigni or lifeguards, takes turns gazing stonily out to sea.

And what he sees there is depressing. Because San Cataldo's beach, like that of dozens of others around the Italian coast, is blowing in the wind. It is shrinking season by season. And its future as a viable holiday destination is shrinking with it.

Lido Soleluna is a cluster of gleaming white huts and wind-breaks with tomato-red roofs at the northern extreme of San Cataldo beach. Visitors pay €4 (£3.20) per day to use its showers and lockers, its umbrellas and loungers. But increasingly, Soleluna is teetering on the void. Twenty years ago, Guido, my taxi-driver, tells me as we drive the 12km (7.5 mile) dual carriageway that leads from Lecce to the beach, there was 15m of sand sloping down from the lidos to the aquamarine sea. There was room for half a dozen rows of ombrelloni and loungers, and sand beyond for children to play, space for the beach volleyball net and plenty of margin for those who wanted to avoid it.

"But today the beach is barely five metres wide," he said. "People don't go to San Cataldo any more. There's no sand left. They go further down the coast, where the sand is still in place. It's a shame. San Cataldo was always the main town beach. My parents told me that when they were young, the whole town used to go down to San Cataldo on the tram that went out there. The trams were packed. When I was growing up 20 years ago, the tram didn't exist any more but the road to the beach was jammed with traffic. Look at it today: it's practically empty."

San Cataldo has not simply shrugged and bowed to the inevitable. For years, Lecce's town council has been fighting to save the resort. Look down from the bar of Soleluna and you see rough stone piers jutting out from the beach at intervals along it. They are designed to minimise the effect of wind on the sand that remains. But the larger purpose of these arms stretching out into the sea is to receive new loads of sand from elsewhere in the Adriatic, so the beach can be reborn.

It's called "beach nourishment" and it has been practised on vanishing beaches across the world, with varying degrees of success. It is a remedy Italy will find itself using more and more often in the years ahead, if it wants to hang on to the millions of tourists, domestic and foreign, who spend their holidays on the 3,952 kilometres of Italian coastline that are taken up by beaches because 42.5 per cent of them are suffering erosion. In Puglia, the figure is 64.6 per cent, in neighbouring Molise to the north, 91 per cent. And with sea levels predicted to rise between 18cm and 30cm in the next century, things can only get worse.

Beach nourishment works like this: you find a tranche of sand of the same type and consistency as that which is disappearing; suck tens of thousands of cubic metres of it into the hold of a dredger; transport it to the coast, then pipe it on to the beach.

As Mauro della Valle explained to me, Lecce solved its problem – in theory – seven years ago. "A hydrographic expert hired by the town identified a huge stash of sand six nautical miles out to sea from Brindisi [40 kilometres north of Lecce] and 90m below sea-level," he said. "The sand was exactly the same type as ours. The idea was to suck up 250,000 cubic metres of sand, which is the equivalent of 20 football pitches. That's a lot, but according to our expert there are two million cubic metres of sand down there. Piping it on to San Cataldo beach would take a month. The plan was ready in 2001, and the town council obtained a promise of €5.5m from the European Union to fund it."

The plan was rubber-stamped by two successive court hearings and the regional government gave it environmental clearance. But just as work was about to start, Politics raised its head, with a capital P. The sand targeted for the transplant operation was six miles out to sea, but six miles out not from Lecce but from Brindisi. The two towns have been bitter rivals for centuries: as in practically all corners of Italy, familiarity breeds contempt, manifested in what is known as campanilismo, literally "belltower-ism", intense, chauvinistic pride in collective self, and equally pronounced loathing for the nearby other. Lecce and Brindisi are very near, but also very far: Lecce is perhaps the most elegant town (at its historic heart) on the Puglia coast, adorned with insanely overwrought baroque churches and remarkable Roman remains, Brindisi is a meat-and-potatoes port town whose importance has always been that it is the major crossing point to Greece. Politically, the two towns are also on opposite sides of the spectrum, Brindisi belonging to the centre-left, Lecce to the centre-right.

The friction goes back centuries. Lecce's exquisite centre has as its centrepiece a high, slim column topped with a statue of Sant'Oronzo, the 1st-century bishop eaten by lions under the eyes of the Emperor Nero, a column that once punctuated the end of the Via Appia in Brindisi, until it was stolen by Lecce during a raid centuries ago.

So, when the Mayor of Brindisi, Michele Errico, learnt that Lecce was about to top that crime by plundering "Brindisi's" sand, he would not have been an Italian politician if he had not played the card for all it was worth. The town went into attack mode. Local environmentalists organized a human protest chain along the beach. Tourists were pestered for signatures, and as the issue was presented as Lecce stealing the sand from Brindisi's beach, 10,000 of them obliged. Fans of the local football club held up a long banner during home matches reading, "Hands off our sand".

A third court hearing, possibly influenced by the flood of hostile publicity, confounded Lecce further by finding against the scheme. And the summer season of 2008 opened with splendid hot, dry, sunny weather, temperatures up to 34C, a clean sparkling sea, but at San Cataldo, an ever-shrinking base of sand from which to enjoy it. What sand remains has black algae on top at the water's edge; and the disappearance of the sand not only from the upper but also from the submerged parts of the beach means bathers have to tiptoe and wince their way into the water over nasty rocks.

Mauro has built an elevated wooden walkway with handrails to allow his customers to get into the deeper water without inconvenience. But on the beautiful July day when The Independent visited, only a handful of bathers dotted what remained of the sand.

Mauro della Valle, a warm and gregarious character, keeps his cool, but Lecce is getting angry. The town's most important politician is Adriana Poli Bortone, a senator, a former mayor, and now deputy mayor, the woman who has driven forward the plan for rescuing the town's beach. Today she makes little effort to disguise her wrath. "We find ourselves confronted by a long series of defaults on the part of the Puglia region, which risks blowing to smithereens all the work the Lecce council has done over these long years in commissioning high level studies on the replacement of the sand, studies that should have been commissioned by the region. Now the risk is that, if the regional authority is not in a position to present its coastal plan by the end of the year, the €5.5m grant awarded for the repair of Lecce's coast will be forfeited."

Brindisi, and its political allies in the regional council, did not budge in response to this broadside. But La Bortone had another card up her sleeve. Last week she told a correspondent of La Stampa newspaper, "Brindisi doesn't want to give us the sand? I'm sorry, but we will take it from Albania". Ms Bortone had found someone across the Adriatic who was willing to play ball. Albania had helped Corfu rehabilitate its beaches; now the Prime Minister, Sali Berisha, with whom Ms Bortone boasted of having an excellent relationship, was prepared to do similarly for Lecce.

But unfortunately for Lecce, the democratic virus has arrived in Tirana, too. Ms Bortone may have reached an understanding with Mr Berisha, but clearly he had not got around to sharing that understanding with his parliament. The upshot: consternation among Albanian MPs this weekend, with the deputy leader of the Socialists, Erion Brace, fiercely attacking Mr Berisha and pointing out that the Albanian coast was not his personal fiefdom.

Behind the row is the fact that, when Albania came to Corfu's aid in the 1990s, environmentalism was unknown in Albania; today it is a force to contend with. And now, with that final hope removed, it looks like San Cataldo will soon be requesting the last rites.

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