The Italian playground that's fighting for its soul

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Forte dei Marmi's newest hotel looks like it belongs in Miami and its pricey villas are full of Russians. And yet this Tuscan resort is trying very hard to remain authentic, says Sarah Barrell

A man in a black suit with black-mirrored shades leads me to a vast Bentley; its paintwork, black, hums in the heat haze. Inside, behind black-tinted windows, the air is white cool.

This is not my usual Italian welcoming party – my in-laws prefer something a little less showy – but then I've never been to Forte dei Marmi, and by Italian standards it's a fairly unique resort. Given that this seaside town has most lately been associated with, if not the Russian mafia, then that country's wealthy elite, my transfer vehicle seems appropriate.

I find myself on Forte dei Marmi's narrow, pine-shaded streets within half an hour of leaving Pisa airport. Nowhere are the spaghetti roads and dramatic cliffy drops into hidden, rocky bays that characterise stellar Italian resorts such as Amalfi or Portofino. Here, a landscape of square, modern villas and contemporary takes on country houses line a neat street grid. A palm stretches up from behind a gated driveway, an electric-blue sports car sit in front of a manicured lawn. Inland, behind this orderly patchwork, are the elegant folds of the Apuan Alps, in front, a stretch of golden sand.

Such a controlled containment of nature is more Santa Barbara than nearby Siena, yet grid-plan towns are not uncommon in Italy. Several along the Tuscan and Lazio coasts have risen from the marshes as modern, angular marvels. The region's heritage may be ancient (it was the northern heartland of the Etruscans) but it was depopulated in the Middle Ages when it became waterlogged as a succession of wars interrupted drainage schemes. Malarial lagoons, marshes and swamps ensured that this was a corner of Italy untouched by even keen northern Europeans during the 19th-century grand tours. Until after the First World War and Mussolini's new era towns, much of this region was populated by mosquitoes and water buffalo (the latter are still reared on the Lazio/Campania border to the south, for the prized mozzarella di bufala).

Forte dei Marmi was one of the early towns to grow out of this wetland. In the mid 1800s, Grand Duke Leopold II picked up on a plan, first mooted by Julius Caesar, to drain the marshes, using thirsty, sky-scraping pines that now scent the air in the summer heat. But the town evolved two centuries before that, around a wharf built to transport the prized white Carrera marble taken from the nearby mountains and exported to feed the Renaissance's hunger for sculpture. Today, the old town centres around the duke's forte dei marmi, the "marble fort" that gives the place its name. Some might say it actually centres around Via G Spinetti, a street-shrine to international designer shopping that reminds me of Rodeo Drive in Los Angeles.

Italian "royalty" such as the Agnelli family (of Fiat cars) have been summering here for decades. Susanna Agnelli (granddaughter of the Fiat founder, Giovanni Agnelli), whose house stands a few blocks from my hotel, wrote the best-selling family memoirs, Vestivamo Alla Marinara (We Always Wore Sailor Suits), which immortalised her adopted seaside town. Agnelli died last year and her house is now the Augustus Hotel.

I wonder what she would have made of the place today? In the 1970s, Susanna was mayor of nearby millionaire's playground Monte Argentario, elected on a prototype green ticket when she defended the pretty promontory from elitist overdevelopment. Today, with an influx of Russian holidaymakers and Russian investment, Forte is suffering the same fate.

Like many resorts around the Mediterranean, once discreet Forte has lately become a hub for rich Russians who have drastically pushed property prices up. So much so that the town's mayor, Umberto Buratti, made the news last month when he announced that he would effectively ban foreign investment.

"The Russians are angry," he says, straightforwardly, when I ask him about his plans and the press they received. Angry as they are, there's no sense that Buratti will back down. "I want to protect Forte dei Marmi and preserve its ties to its past," he says. "I want to make it possible for local people to be able to enjoy holidays here, like they always have."

Under Buratti's ruling, holiday homes will only be sold to long-term Italian residents or to locally born buyers, and there will be restrictions on how quickly they can be re-sold. He's also planning to pedestrianise the centre of town, catering to the huge number of (very polished) bicycles that fill Forte's streets. And judging by my hotel, Principe Forte dei Marmi, there may be a new era dawning for the town's hotel scene, too.

The newly opened Principe may take its name from the chintz-and-chandeliers tourist address that used to stand on this prized plot, but it couldn't be more distinct. It's a pioneering departure from the rest of the resort's hotels that are thick with a 1950s' design ethic, characterised by creaky service and silver-domed dinner trolleys. But I'm not sure where the hotel fits in with the mayor's "locals only" edict, especially when you consider that (whisper it) the holding company is part Russian.

But Moscovite bling, the Principe has not. Retractable glass walls entirely open up one side of the hotel, the green of the gardens made seamless with the white marble and glass of the foyer. The casually suited staff and clean, curvaceous interiors would not look out of place in Miami. And neither would the clientele. During my stay, a svelte Mexican seemed to have permanent billing in the hotel's stagey foyer. Dressed only in a pair of small red swimming trunks and a lazy smile, his louche poses were perfect against the grand, elliptical staircase that recalls the iconic centrepiece stairs in New York's Guggenheim Museum.

The hotel's 28 rooms are no less sculptural. Glass walls (curtained) divide bedrooms from bathrooms, dressed with high-end Italian design names such as B&B Italia, Flexform, Maxalto and Armani Casa. Giant flatscreen TVs compete with oceanic beds for dominance, and each corner of the room is so gently up-lit, back-lit and glowing that it's like a soft-focus movie. That is, if you can work the bank of unnecessarily complex switches.

Several of the rooms have balconies big enough to host a small cocktail party and every chair is designed seductively, entreating you to lie, rather than sit in it. My room overlooked a 1920s-style Tuscan farmhouse, rented out for €80,000 (£66,460) a month. It's occupied for the entire summer.

If you want to indulge voyeuristic urges, head for the roof terrace and restaurant. It stands head and shoulders above everything else in the area, with 360-degree views of the glittering sea and mountains. Up here, you're near eye level with the flat-top canopy of sky-scraping Italian stone pine trees, a lofty position that feels almost part of the natural incline of landscape from mountain to sea.

From my supine position on yet another basket chair, a fiery sunset casts the wrap-around terrace in beatific gold, and a life-is-beautiful glow radiates from perfectly dressed patrons. I eat delicate dim sum with a bitter-sweet orange dipping sauce and sushi expertly created from the local catch: both food types uncommon to Italy's traditional dining scene.

The chef, Alessandro Filomena, can't resist further plying me with a classic grilled platter of langoustine, dorado and giant prawns. The bar staff, led by a comedic duo from southern Italy, are equally beguiling, producing a "rapini" (lemon sorbet, prosecco and vodka), a digestive-cum-desert that's like slipping between cool sheets on such a hot night.

The fact that I could face a wine tasting the next morning at 10am is either shameless or a testament to the hotel's well-chosen venue for such a diversion. Tenuta San Guido is a boutique vineyard that produces Sassicaia, the red that has single-handedly revolutionised Italian wine production. It's usually closed to the public, but the hotel has a special relationship with this family-run business, whose Sassicaia was granted its own DOC (Bolgheri) in 1994, the only wine from a single estate in Italy with such status.

Under the guidance of Robin Gevaert, the hotel's sommelier, I drink the earthy, rich red sitting in the cool of the vineyard's modern glass vaults, with a view of the cypress avenue eulogised by the Italian poet Carducci in the distance. It's a class act to follow, but lunch on the sands at the hotel's beach club, Marechiaro, comes close. Forte's beach is lined with elegant, 1920s-style wooden beach huts, each painted in family colours and fronted with groomed sand and a phalanx of sunbeds. Principe's, in keeping with its inimitable style, is spacious, butler-served and redolent, yet again, of a hipster Miami beach hotel. Once the season gets under way and Max, the hotel's excitable DJ, sets up camp, the club may well compete with the resort's perennial La Capannina for nightclub supremacy.

Yet, for the moment, things are quiet. The hotel may be fully booked but its beach loungers remain unoccupied, as do the pool cabanas. Perhaps everyone's on the hotel's yacht (yes, of course there's a yacht) or in their rooms, fighting with those recalcitrant light switches.

I care not as I wander around the silent spa, from one pink-lit steam room, to another blue-lit ice cabin and try to revive myself in the lily-littered pool. For a moment, I forget where I am. The sleek international minimalism that defines this hotel is far from the bright, 1950s' modernism that lies at the heart of Forte dei Marmi. But perhaps, as the mayor would insist, a new era for this young seaside resort has begun.

Compact Facts

How to get there

Sarah Barrell travelled to Forte dei Marmi as a guest of easyJet (0905 821 0905; easyjet.co.uk), which flies to Pisa from London Gatwick, Luton and Bristol from £31 each way, and of the Principe Forte dei Marmi (00 39 0584 783636; principeforte deimarmi.com), which offers double rooms from €495 per night.

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