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Under the Tuscan Sun

Discover the true buona vita with a trip to the elegant Forte dei Marmi --Tuscany's Marble Fort.

Italy has no shortage of vacation hotspots, but the ancient Tuscan village of Forte dei Marmi is truly a jewel sparkling on the Mediterranean Sea.

One of the first, and now most popular, Tyrrhenian seaside bathing resorts, this exclusive getaway is just a 30-minute drive from Pisa and close to renowned Italian cities such as Florence, Lucca and Siena.

A vibrant nightlife and stunning restaurants have contributed to Forte dei Marmi's reputation, and it's not hard to reach, as Milan and Rome are also only about 200 miles away.

Forte dei Marmi is definitely a luxury getaway -- the high-end

hotels and villas can run up to $600 a night in the summer season -- but the town still maintains a relaxed informality throughout.

It owes its name to the ancient fort, built in 1788, for transportation of high-quality marble.

It also hosts a famous open-air market each Wednesday, during which the downtown square is filled with not only fresh fruit and vegetables but incredible bargains on designer-brand clothing.

Nestled under the stunning backdrop of the marble-studded Apuan Alps and surrounded by the gentle waves of Mediterranean, the village's natural beauty inspires relaxation.

And it even offers something for the history buffs: Artists such as Michelangelo and Donatello were frequent visitors in the 1500s, as they quarried for the best marble found only in this part of Italy.

Walking though this picturesque town is always pleasurable, but bicycling -- Forte's most widely practiced form of traveling -- through its narrow streets takes you to every point of interest without hassle.

Stops that cannot be missed include the gorgeous pine forest park, La Versiliana, where cultural events often take place, as well as the nearby Lake of Massaciuccoli -- a destination for any nature lover.

While traipsing anywhere amid the hilly and awe-inspiring beauty of Forte dei Marmi, you can easily get the feeling that you've been transported into heaven.

Early risers, interested in taking in the Northern Apennines' dramatic scenery, should take a morning trek up the Alps. It is an extraordinary adventure, and the views are unforgettable.

The way back down will inevitably work up a desire for a hearty Etruscan midday meal at any of its outstanding

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restaurants, offering wonderful gastronomic delights.

And unlike many other European cities -- where unadventurous Americans who may not care to try out the local cuisine are comforted with the presence of U.S. fast-food chains -- there are no McDonald's or Starbucks to be found in this upscale area.

When in Rome

But no one will be disappointed by the culinary options here.

When you hear the town's church bells ringing, you'll realize what a big event the Italian lunch hour is -- definitely not a harried Wall Street half-hour break.

One morning, I hopped on my bicycle (which was included with the rental of my villa), chose from the infinity of bike paths and cycled through the green landscape. By the time I arrived in the town center, Piazza Garibaldi, I decided to check out the local stores for unique souvenirs.

A little before noon, one shop owner reminded me that the store would be closing shortly. I assumed it was just that store, so I moved to another -- which also began to shut down.

When I inquired what was going on, the clerk said he was closing for lunch -- and would be back open again at 4 p.m.! The angry, entitled tourist in me was initially fired up, but then I realized I needed to learn from, and appreciate, the village's relaxed pace.

There's ample reason to enjoy the extensive midday break: Who wouldn't want to linger over a delicious meals, made from traditional recipes with food grown within a few miles of the restaurant, rounded off with warm tiramisu and cappuccino or

frutta gelato

(fruit ice cream)?

The only thing to do then is relax in a beach chair or stroll alongside the water, wafting into genuine peace on any of the sandy beaches.

When work resumes in the midafternoon, life comes back into town, and shops, art galleries and stores then stay open until around 10 p.m., leaving visitors ample time to cruise through and shop at their leisure.

A trip to anywhere in the sweet, vineyard-laden hills of Tuscany requires a visit to Forte dei Marmi. It will provide restful days, exciting nights and a blissful escape from the rigors of daily life.

And even a taste of Forte Dei Marmi's charm will help you carry that blissful smile long after you depart.