locals call it one of Italy’s best-kept secrets, but judging by
the number of people who find their way to the U.S. Army base near
Pisa, word continues to spread through
the travelers’ grapevine.
“secret” is Camp Darby, an ideal home base for exploring
Tuscany, relaxing on a sandy beach on the Tyrrhenian Sea and sleeping under tall pine trees.
Located a few miles down the road from Galileo Gallilei
Airport, Camp Darby offers a wide range of services for travelers on a budget
including rooms, cabins and a campground; a car rental agency; Army and Air
Force Exchange Service facilities (selling gas coupons for Italy) and a
commissary; and an Outdoor Recreation featuring a wealth of trips to such
places as Siena, Florence, the island of Elba and Cinque
stop just outside the gate connecting travelers without wheels to train
stations in Pisa and Livorno.
Camp Darby is just a few miles from extensive
beaches in the resort town of Tirrenia and features its own guarded beach
facility complete with a decent-sized parking lot, lifeguards, beach chairs and
umbrellas, boats for rent, a Greek snack stand, hot showers and more. Patrons
who stay at the Sea Pines Lodge facilities on Camp Darby pay $3 per carload to use the
facilities and safely tuck their vehicle into the guarded lot at the American
A short walk up the beach takes one to various Italian
beachfront eateries for those who want to unwind over a long lunch on the sea.
During our recent visit, a Camp Darby regular recommended we try the La Perla Restaurant, about a 10-minute walk down the beach,
for a decently priced family-style eatery featuring typical cuisine of the
region, and we weren’t disappointed.
The daily specials at the large patio cafeteria include
everything from fresh fish baked in basil and a white wine/lemon sauce to
homemade lasagna, “fritto misto”
(mixed fried fish including prawns and octopus) to your basic pasta dishes.
Washed down with a plateful of vegetables, an Italian salad and bread, a carafe
of chilled local house wine, followed by some tiramisu and strong cups of
espresso and we felt like we really were on vacation — despite having left
soggy German skies the night before.
having a lot of time or the desire to make the long drive down to
Camp Darby, we checked the Internet for the
possibility of inexpensive flights and were rewarded to discover Ryanair offering flights on certain days for as low as
29.90 per person (one way). Of course
by the time we made our plans the price had jumped to
X19.90 per flight. With taxes and
other fees thrown in the total per round-trip flight amounted to about
X72 per person. That still was a lot
cheaper than taking the train and managed to get us from the
Frankfurt-Hahn Airport to Pisa in less than an hour and a half.
at the Sea Pines Recreational Facilities on Camp Darby range from about $16 per night for
a simple campsite during high season (June to August) to $70 for a four-person
room. In between are cabins and recreational vehicle sites.
though July and August are the peak tourist seasons in the towns and cities of
Tuscany, one can still visit the sights
comfortably. The locals advise getting into town early before the heat of the
day or wandering through in the evening. This works well if you have children
and want to spend the day at the beach before strolling through nearby
Pisa in the evening. Italians, like most
southern Europeans, tend to come alive after the sun sets, and Pisa is a lively town full of local
students and citizens even after the tourists have faded for the night.
strolling through Pisa’s many squares such as the Piazza dei
Cavalieri, walking along the Arno
River or marveling at the famed structures on the Campo dei
Miracoli (Field of Miracles) including the Torre Pendente (leaning tower)
and Duomo (cathedral) as lights cast long shadows on
the medieval stone houses fills one with a sense of the wonder at humankind’s
once a mighty naval power on the Mediterranean Sea, before the Arno River became clogged with sand distancing the town
from the sea and Genoa displaced Pisa as the major force in the area in the
13th century, still laid claim to many achievements in the years since maritime
dominance. With an esteemed university, founded in the 14th century, native son
Galileo and noted physicist Enrico Fermi,
Pisa remains a vital Italian landmark.
was meticulously rebuilt after massive bombing raids in World War II.
Pisa may be the nearest tourist attraction, but there are
numerous other sights beckoning within short drives or train rides.
kilometers north of Camp Darby lies the
famed Cinque Terre region. After climbing the winding
coastal roads past La Spezia by car or traveling by
train through a variety of cliff-hugging tunnels, one comes to the village of Riomaggiore, the first of five towns which pour
precariously down the rocky mountainsides straight into the greenish-blue
waters of the Ligurian Sea. Parking is at a premium
along the coastal roads leading down to Cinque Terre,
so arriving early, by bus or train is recommended.
the first village, though, all thought of the breathtaking drive down is swept
away by the first glimpse of Riomaggiore’s dazzling
town. Apricot, strawberry and apple colored houses lean against one another at
an almost 45-degree angle to the slope as the town spills down the hillside. At
the bottom one discovers a sparkling marina and stony beach where the locals
and tourists cool off after hiking the streets of the town.
the stunning views in each of the five towns — Riomaggiore,
Monterosso, Corniglia, Manarola and Vernazza — the
allure for tourists is the fact that one must navigate between them on foot via
dramatic paths hewn out of the rocky cliffs, by train or boat. Walks range from
about 20 minutes between the first two towns to five hours to make the full
distance. There is a small charge to walk on the cliffside
paths which were originally carved out by local farmers to join the remote
the incomparable views, one is very likely to be treated to traditional
observances such as a parade for Santa Maria through the stacked graves on the cliffside above Riomaggiore or a
rewarding conversation with a friendly fisherman or shop owner.
are on a tight budget and want to forgo a restaurant meal, consider picking up
a couple of pieces of focaccia (cut from large pans
of pizza with everything from potatoes and rosemary on them to eggplant and
pesto sauce) from a local rosticerria and munch on
them while wandering the Cinque Terre walkways.
so many other sights located nearby Camp Darby that one will most likely only whet
the appetite for future visits. Florence, Siena, the
island of Elba, Pinocchio’s birthplace in Collodi (also the penname of Pinocchio’s inventor Carlo Lorenzini), the walled city of Lucca, the Cave of the Winds, marble
quarries in Carrera, the beach resort town of
Viareggio and famed painter and sculptor Amedeo Modigliani’s hometown of Livorno are all within a short distance.
information about Ryanair flights visit www.ryanair.com.
To make reservations at the Sea Pines Recreational Facilities
Darby call mil 633-7225
or civ (0039) 050-547 225. Information about accommodations,
the American beach in Tirrenia and more is also
available online at https://www.livorno.army.mil/mwr.
your local library before setting out on a trip to the region is also
recommended. Of particular use to this author were the books, “Italy With Kids” by Barbara Pape and
Michael Calabrese, and Fodor’s “Florence, Tuscany and Umbria.”