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Sarah Barrell: Line up at the lido for an Italian cultural lesson

Travel notes

If you're packing for the Italian beach this summer, there is a list of essential kit to consider. Swimming togs in this season's colours are clearly essential – coral pink and orange since you ask, and that includes you, chaps. As an accessory you will likely need the hide of a rhino or the patience of a saint.

The Italian lido, a 19th century tradition preserved everywhere from Venice to Amalfi and beyond, is a sort of an anti-beach. At least in the way we imagine a beach when we're stuck under grey British skies craving escape – all palm trees and acres of virgin sand.

On the Italian Riviera, where I have just spent a week, the lido comes with sands as well manicured and ordered as the phalanx of ladies that lie upon them and it is regulated by a code of conduct that is equally well maintained. These coastal conventions aren't necessarily obvious to foreigners but that's OK because someone will always point them out to you.

"Don't let them go in now. Ooooh, really dangerous," says a septuagenarian bather, wagging an urgent finger towards the surf where my five-year-old and her cousins are about to go for a paddle. "And put some shoes on her!"

It takes me several, admittedly badly phrased, questions to find out that I had committed numerous sins. Among them, I had let my child venture into the water within an hour of eating; an action that would almost certainly cause a "congestion" and precipitate intervention from the bagnino di salvataggio. And as the lifeguard appeared to be having a siesta, this would be highly inconvenient.

In addition, the tide was "angry", its writhing, stony sands sure to either lacerate my daughter's feet or hoover her up and spit her out somewhere off the coast of Sardinia. In pieces.

In summer, the Ligurian coast is largely left to young families and retired couples, everyone aged 18-30 having hot-footed it over the Apennine Mountains to the beach bars of the Adriatic. Ah, the communal joys of being painted cheek-by-tanned-jowl with the army of Milanese retirees who populate the Riviera in August, with nothing better to do than comment on your parenting.

But we must not single out Italy, of course, because all beaches have conventions that must be properly adhered to in order to relax. American beaches, for example, are governed by a bewildering list of dos and don'ts that are often enforced by law. On the New York coast I was once hit with a double whammy of two $80 (£50) penalties: one for being seen taking beer on to the beach and one for drinking it (although the Bermuda shorts-clad cop who popped up from behind a sand dune gave me a ticket before I'd even got the beer to my lips).

And, if it takes an African village to raise a child, it takes an Italian beach to holiday with one successfully. Along with unsolicited advice, I also benefited from genuinely sympathetic smiles during five-year-old tantrums and extra pairs of hands when it came to gathering the toys, clothes, and sanity that had been scattered across the beach by sundown.

Add to this the army of older children who cooed over and entertained the younger ones, and I actually managed to read an entire novel; an achievement rarer for a holidaying parent than a lie-in.

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