Glitzy Tuscan retreat is trying to stop locals being forced out by wealthy Russian visitors.
After years of welcoming well-heeled tourists from around the world with open arms, one of Tuscany's smartest, most discreet beach resorts is in revolt against outsiders, wealthy or not.
Forte dei Marmi – the traditional summer retreat for Italian captains of industry, writers and film stars – is changing the law to try to stop locals fleeing because of house prices driven out of control by incoming Russian millionaires. The town's combative mayor, Umberto Buratti, is reserving space next to luxury villas with sea views for new homes that will only be sold to locally-born buyers or long-term residents. Other Italian resorts with similar problems will monitor the experiment with interest.
"We want to safeguard the character of the town instead of seeing it turn into a place with no ties, as anonymous as a motorway service station," Buratti said.
"Not everyone here is rich or Russian," added local councillor Michele Molino. "You look at the designer shops round here and we could be in London."
Despite the economic crisis that has kept some smart Muscovites at home, local estate agents expect up to 500 Russian families to descend this summer, following in the footsteps of super-rich visitors such as Roman Abramovich and splashing out up to €100,000 at a time to rent villas for the season – albeit a snip compared with the €20m reportedly paid out to buy the biggest villas nestling behind bougainvilleas between the broad beaches and Apuan Alps.
"Five million is the norm now, but if you go just a few miles inland prices drop by two thirds, which is where the locals have disappeared to," said a local estate agent, Umberto Giannecchini.
On the seafront, Humvees and Ferraris descend on beach clubs like Twiga, where €1,000 will reserve a table in the VIP section and Russians spend up to €15,000 on a night out.
It is all a far cry from Forte dei Marmi's 16th-century origins, when Michelangelo built a road from quarries inland to load marble on to waiting ships. The artistic tradition continued into the 20th century with the arrival of Thomas Mann, Aldous Huxley, Giacomo Puccini and Henry Moore, followed by industrial dynasties such as the Agnellis and the Morattis.
"Despite their wealth, the Italians here have always loved elegant simplicity and understatement," said hotelier Paolo Corchia, pointing to the tradition of CEOs and aristocrats shopping by bicycle at the town's family-run shops. Where those stores once proliferated, Gucci, Dolce & Gabbana and Miu Miu – with a shop window full of coyote fur stoles – now draw in the Russians.
The Milanese agree with the locals' revolt. "I want to bring the local artisans back in the centre," said Milly Moratti, wife of Inter Milan chairman Massimo, "the fabulous tailors and focaccia bread sellers I remember as a child that have been almost completely replaced by designer stores."
Holding out on Forte dei Marmi's main square is Vale, the bakery which has turned out focaccia since 1924. "We are thinking of selling up since our traditional clientele is dying out and the Russians don't like focaccia," said the owner, Daniela Nardine, though the mayor's intervention may yet change her mind.
Born and bred in Forte dei Marmi and the son of a tailor, Mayor Buratti said he is seeking to preserve a local culture handed down from the fierce tribes who defied the Roman empire and the Roman slaves who later settled, leaving traces of their accent in the local dialect. But he is not getting too misty eyed. "The locals were the first to profit from the rising house prices by selling up and buying houses in the hinterland," he said. "That is why there will be a ban on selling the new houses for 20 years."
If he can defend local stock from extinction, Buratti is happy for some of the Russians to stay, generously conceding that the visitors from the east have become more refined over the years.
"They have come a long way from the early 90s, when they would order the most expensive Brunello red on the menu then dilute it with water," he said. Locals recount how one oligarch even bought a bicycle and hired an Italian cycling champ to teach him to ride it.
But at the Piero beach club, a family-run bastion of old-fashioned wooden huts and blue-blooded sunbathers, the Russians are still few and far between. "Visitors here must understand you don't need to show off," said manager Roberto Santini. "The Russians come in, look around, wonder why we are a landmark, then leave."
As lifeguard Lionello Sacchelli watched over bathers including a former Italian finance minister and a football star, he recalled his favourite bather, Florentine aristocrat Anna Corsini, who was taking dips until she died last year at 98. "She was exquisite," he said. "She didn't care about designer labels and always said 'please' and 'thank you'."
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