Gaeta: 300 steps to paradise
The best beaches near Rome are the ones furthest away from Rome. Although I’ve never been there myself, asking Romans for their opinions about beaches has led me to believe that Ostia – a 30 minute train journey from Rome – is basically an open sewer. All right if you just want to sunbathe, but don’t risk a swim. The polluted waters of the Tiber flow into the open sea, making beaches close to the capital an uninviting prospect. Further north, Santa Marinella seems cleaner, but you still have to be careful. This slightly alarming article on pollution at Lazio’s beaches gives you some idea.
Go south, however, and the coastline improves dramatically, with the occasional hint of the Amalfi Coast. Sabaudia, Sperlonga, Gaeta. Valeriano kept promising to take me to Gaeta, hyping up the beautiful, unspoilt beach and the amazing food. “The best caprese in the world is at Gaeta”.
When he was younger, Valeriano and his friends used to sleep on the beach. After a late night out, they would drive to Gaeta in the early hours of the morning, avoiding the traffic and getting the best spot on the beach. We set off considerably later, leaving Cassino mid-morning and arriving at Gaeta about an hour later (mainly due to the traffic).
Our destination was not the main beach at Gaeta, but a more remote beach known as 300 gradini (300 steps). How do you reach the beach? By going down 300 steps. That’s like climbing two thirds of the way up (or down) St Peter’s Basilica.
Before the steps, though, was lunch. I had been looking forward to this lunch for months. Finally, the famous caprese. I don’t remember the name of the restaurant, and I kind of like the idea of keeping it secret anyway. It’s a casual self-service place perched between the road and the cliff edge, near the steps.
We sat at a table surrounded by grape vines and peach trees, with a spectacular view of the sea. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d seen a sea that colour – a dazzling blue, edging into green near the shore. Lunch was a gigantic caprese, a loaf of bread, and a couple of bottles of Nastro Azzurro.
Nothing I write can possibly do justice to the deliciousness of the caprese. A juicy ball of mozzarella the size of a small child’s head and the most divine tomatoes I’ve ever eaten, dripping in olive oil, with some olives, celery and onion thrown in for good measure. Calling any other caprese “caprese” is an insult to the caprese at Gaeta, and my mouth is watering at the memory of it.
And then there was the beach. Golden sand, crystalline water. Behind us, cliffs, trees and waterfalls, and in front of us, nothing but blue sky and sea. For the first hour or so, the only thing to spoil the tranquillity was a helicopter, swinging back and forth between the land and sea as it collected water to extinguish a fire raging somewhere up above. We drowsed in the shade of the umbrella then went in the sea, gasping at the shock of the cold water. At the other end of the beach we waded out to a shrine in a grotto. Tiny crabs scuttled across the rocks and nearby, a man stood waist-deep in the water trying to catch fish.
“Un piccolo paradiso,” said Valeriano.
Getting there: Getting to 300 gradini without a car isn’t easy. Although I haven’t tried it myself, the best way would be to get a train from Rome to Formia-Gaeta (1 hour), and look for a bus or, ideally, a taxi.