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Travel back in time on the Italian coast

Bagno Colombo Guido, one of the many private beach clubs that line the shore in Viareggio, Italy.

Alyssa Schwartz

The problem with relinquishing control of travel planning – especially to a partner who doesn't know you all that well – is that it's a gamble. It's not that I'm a control freak, or that I lack an adventurous spirit. But when you've spent months dreaming of the enchanted mountainous forests, rugged shorelines and iconic pastel-hued fishing villages of Italy's northwest, of indulging in really good pesto and driving stretches of Tuscan coastal highway, it makes you want to reach back to that moment when you absently glanced at the map and said, "Sure, Viareggio looks fine, book it," and snatch it back.

Less than an hour from Liguria's most southerly villages, Viareggio seems close enough that one imagines more of what has made Italy's northern coastal province such a draw. Viareggio is the last in a string of Versilian resort towns frequented mostly by Italian and northern European vacationers, coming at the end of a road lined with campgrounds and snack bars and roller rinks and mini-golf. Rolling through, you can practically hear the whine of Italian teenagers with the annual vacation en famiglia imposed up them. "I don't want to go." Or maybe I was just feeling bratty as the coastline flattened out and Liguria's green mountains shrank in the rear-view mirror.

But since I'm well past that stage in life, I took a deep breath and braced myself for Viareggio. I watched the palms and Mediterranean pines fly past as we cruised toward the unknown and told myself that I didn't want to drive back up those heart-stopping cliff roads again anyway.

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For most North Americans, the Italian coast means the area we had just left behind, or else Amalfi. Italians might flock to the Tuscan shore – particularly during Ferragosto, the August holiday, or for Viareggio's famed Carnivale parade each spring – but good luck finding any tourist information online in English. It's simply off our radar. (Even my companion had vague answers for booking us there – I suspect she, too, looked at the map and thought, close enough.) And so we pulled into town with that rare sense of having no expectations at all.

What we found was a quintessential 1930s seaside resort. It's practically a caricature of itself, from the wide promenade Passeggiata Margherita, with its sprawling sidewalk cafés and ice-cream parlours, to the private beach clubs, which evoke a time where bathing was such a modest affair I feel compelled to refer to my suit as a "bathing costume."

Razed by fire in 1917, Viareggio was almost entirely rebuilt in the twenties and thirties, when art nouveau and Liberty architecture were the ruling aesthetics. Today, most of those buildings have been beautifully restored, housing, just as they did 80 years ago, grand hotels and restaurants. If you ignore the scaffolding at the southern end of the promenade where some of the structures are undergoing repairs, it feels as though someone put a bell jar over the town, trapping it in another era. Or, I ponder from the patio of Ristorante Casablanca on the passeggiata where we snack on pizza Napoli and watch locals pedal lazily past looking like movie extras, as though we're on a sound stage of an old summer-holiday film. Adding to the curious "this can't be real" feeling is the fact that although we're metres from the sea, when I sniff the air, it smells more like the orange blossoms flowering everywhere than the briny waft of salt you'd expect. (At the beach the next day, I stick my finger in the water and give it a lick – not so salty; I later learn this has to do with the Mediterranean watershed.)

From the colourful, curved turret of the now-shuttered Excelsior Hotel to the majestic, immaculately restored Grand Hotel Principe di Piemonte, built in 1921 by Florentine engineer Giuseppe de Micheli, Viareggio's architectural gems are best viewed from the promenade. Inside the Principe di Piemonte beach club, photos from its inaugural season – 1938 – confirm that aside from resort-wear fashions, little has changed. The club, one of the many stabilimenti balneari that line Viareggio's shore, is like a mini day resort, complete with pool, full change facilities and admission fees that include lounge beds and an umbrella. Entry doesn't come cheap (full access at the Excelsior Beach club, where our hotel has an arrangement, can run as high as €45, or $57, a day during peak season), but as with everything else here, there's a throwback elegance that is hard to come by elsewhere. For time travel, the price isn't actually so bad.

Though it's unseasonably chilly during our stay – the lounge chairs, colour-coded by beach club and meticulously laid out in a grid formation that spans about six kilometres of waterfront, all sit vacant – it's impossible to resist walking barefoot on the seemingly endless stretch of velvet, putty-coloured sand, strikingly different from the pebbled shores farther north.

It's also windy – red-flag weather. I turn my back on a lone windsurfer gliding across the water, and gaze back at the splendid architecture, and, beyond that, the white-faced cliffs of the Apuan Alps. Of course, while they look like perfect snow-topped peaks, the mountains are covered in marble; the fact that it's not really snow brings back that movie-set feeling. Either way, the view is lovely.

Getting there

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Viareggio is a 30-minute hop from Pisa – the nearest airport – by car or train. There's also train or bus access from most major Italian cities, including Rome and Milan.

Where to stay

One of the city's most stunning art nouveau landmarks, the Grand Hotel Principe di Piemonte reopened in 2004 following a 19-month restoration. The hotel features a rooftop pool, spa and a Michelin-starred restaurant. From €233 ($295) a night, including breakfast. 44-0-20-7380-3658;

What to do

Gran Caffe Margherita is a prime example of the local Liberty architecture. The café dates back to 1902 (it was rebuilt in 1928). Open for lunch and dinner. 30 Viale Regina Margherita;

Carnival Museum, Cittadella del Carnevale, shows visitors how Viareggio's famed papier-mâché parade floats are made. Via Santa Maria Goretti;

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Where to eat

All of the cafés along the passeggiata feature pizzas and local seafood. For a less touristy dinner, head 10 minutes inland to Romano, an elegant dining room with excellent cheeses, local wines and the sweetest seafood pasta I tasted the whole time we were on the coast. 122 Via Giuseppe Mazzini;

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