April 23, 2018 | Rome, Italy | °C

Ostia, property of Papà

Ostia took off as Rome's principle seaside destination after World War II, though it was originally built up under Mussolini.
By Marco Lori
Published: 2016-08-22

hen I was a kid in Rome of the 1970s my family often trekked to the summer seaside at Ostia. For my father, the short trip had all the ingredients of a sacred rite. The real family vacation wasn't until August, but that didn't stop him from taking time out from work in the dog days of July.

My father never worried that he'd have to go back to work the next day. All he wanted to do was beat the heat, even for an afternoon.

My father prepared such trips as if he were making plans to invade Russia, never mind that Ostia is an hour away. He took command structure seriously. He also liked routine. Since beach traffic was always bad, he'd want us on the road by 7 a.m. Traffic wasn't the only reason. A key part of his strategy was getting there while he could still scout out the "right" place for our umbrella, usually very close to the sea. That was a fair enough goal since by midmorning the hordes began arriving.

Leaving at 7 meant we'd have to get up an hour before that. In all, the entire process of getting ready took two days. My father didn't want to leave anything to chance. He also wanted to make sure he had every possible convenience, and that was the family's job.

Little has changed since the 1970s, with the resort as popular as ever.

Let's run down the list of my father's essential needs: A giant beach umbrella; folding chairs and lounge chairs (he had to check the cushions first); a lunch table and chairs; at least six food containers; a portable freezer for water (a little) and wine (a lot) — with arctic temperatures essential; that day's newspaper; that week's crossword puzzle magazine; a fishing rod (for what purpose wasn't clear; this was Ostia, the beach, not a pier); and assorted fatherly things.

There were usually five of us in all, six if you counted my maternal grandmother who never turned down an invitation to spend the afternoon at the beach. We didn't own a station wagon or an SUV, just a normal car filled with 50 percent family, 40 percent paternal gear and maybe nine percent engine. That left about one percent for other stuff, including maybe toys. With luck we could even fit in a few bathing suits and towels. But we were kids. We didn't care. We just wanted to go to the beach.

My mother was in charge of the beach feast and she started cooking it a day before. She'd make antipasti, one or two plates of pasta (with clams or maybe lasagna), at least one meat main course (usually something grilled), salad, and our typical family dessert, peaches with white wine. Add a couple of bottles of my father's own white wine and we had our traveling banquet.

The trip itself was easy, since most Romans just don't hit the road early. It's not in their nature. My father knew this. Roads were deserted. We had to keep the windows down no matter what since my mother hated drafts and car air conditioning was still about 20 years away, at least in Italy.

Mom and Dad were so happy to be going to the beach they smoked half-a-pack of cigarettes between them. I was stuck in the back with my brother, sister and a bunch of towels. Our backseat mantra was survival.

We'd get to the "free" beach at Castel Porzio between 7:30 and 8 ("free" matters because most of Ostia is still run by seaside cabana enterprises that rent out whole stretches of beachfront). My father's planning always worked like a charm. Leaving early meant no traffic, no parking problems, and not a soul on the beach. Nothing could go wrong based on the underlying principle that hell was other people. If you avoided them, you were home free. But forget about other people. I don't even think the fish were out at that hour.

If you can imagine Tibetan Sherpas on a Himalayan peak you can see us as we made our pilgrimage hauling items from car to beach. Once my father picked out a strategic spot, we'd haul all the goods to the anointed spot. My father, meanwhile, carried the burden of his newspaper.

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