Livorno’s heartbreaking work of staggering genius never had a chance

In Italy politics always rule. Everyone knows it. If it’s not politics then it is bureaucracy or some legislative bulimia that kneecaps projects, new ideas and ultimately innovation. These elements combined to kill the wave pool project at Livorno, a pretty town overlooking the sea of Tuscany, whose fate seems to be that of early death. Today ‘Wave Park Livorno’ is running out of gas after a long haul full of controversy.

Despite the efforts to place Italy in the international surf arena, there are strong efforts to pull the nation back to a time before anybody knew it as a surfing destination. In this latest case horses trampled surfing. Yes, horses. What do the two things have in common? Apparently little, but actually a lot. 

The fact remains that Livorno is horse crazy. But even as the Mayor, and the City Council picked the ponies over perfect peelers, the Tuscan surfing scene and the rest of Italy’s surfers have risen up and started a petition that could change everything, but most likely will change nothing.

Here’s what happened:

Livorno is a city of over 150.000 inhabitants. It faces the sea and has a commercial port. A picturesque Mediterranean port, obviously it is a cruise tourism destination, Covid permitting. No one around here has forgotten the shipwreck of the Costa Concordia in 2012 (32 dead, 110 wounded, a beast that sunk a few meters from the coast with all the world watching).

Two designs for the Livorno wave pool
Two views of the Livorno wave pool proposal that incorporates the plot’s horse race track. Images provided by author.

A short distance away stands the Pisa airport. A small but functional airport. The airport in Florence is only 1.5 hours away. Milan is 3.5 hours away via the highway, Rome almost 4 hours. And considering that this place has a mild climate even in wintertime, it all makes Livorno an almost perfect location to welcome tourists, surfers and sport lovers. The Tyrrhenian Sea, when it is in a good mood, dishes up rideable waves for locals. There is also an old, abandoned structure a stone’s throw from the surf, the racecourse “Federico Caprilli.” For one hundred years this track was remained popular until it closed in 2016.

Giovanni Sambaldi, the 43-year-old CEO of Indalgo company and a life-long surfer, along with a group of architects led by Paolo Monti, had an idea. Why not turn the abandoned racecourse into the first Italian wave pool? In 2019, after months of analyzing maps and working on CAD programs, the first images leaked out. The renderings and solid proposal plan were submitted to the City and the owner of the track. They were well received and it looked like Italy would get its first wave pool. In between plan submissions and breaking ground, there were elections – i.e. a new Mayor – and then a reopening for public comment on the project. The main theme was, “What about the great history of horse racing and the track betting business?”

There are generations of Livorno fans who still recall with bright eyes the party nights (yes, the races were held at night) and the famous “Coppa del Mare” (Sea Cup) prize. The last one was held in 2015, complete with an opera-esque ending where winning horse Too Much Trouble dropped dead upon crossing the finish line.

livorno horsey mathew-schwartz
Horse racing, err, horse betting is a big deal in Livorno. Photo by Mathew Schwarts.

Shortly after the incident, the company who owned the track went bankrupt and closed the gates. Then the surfer Mr. Sambaldi and the group of architects proposed to Mayor Luca Salvetti plans to transform it into a sports center with a one-hectare wave pool, hotel, bars and more. The track would remain, so Livorno could still honor its horse waging past.

Italy is not fast when it comes to public decisions. Even the simplest ones take a long time. If Alaia Bay in Switzerland took six months to obtain all the permits, in Italy you can be sure that even in the best-case scenario it would take six years. At ‘Wave Park Livorno’ it took two years just to slam the door.

The nail in the coffin came in mid-April 2021. On a cold, rainy night every party present voiced opinions to the council. The surf community hit the town hall, social media and raised a fuss on the corners of the streets. But in the end, the council refused the wave pool application.

But while Livorno said arrivederci to Italy’s wave pool dreams and surfing, the council threw out a big ciao bello to the horse racing business. The City decided to spend 2.3 million euros to put the track back on its feet for a limited run of six summer races. Yes, just six. And what happens after summer? “We’ll see”, said the city. But in all probability – and this is how it goes in Italy – the racecourse will close again.

LIvorno is a destination port
Livorno is a destination for cruise ships, including the ill-fated Costa Concordia (main image with artist illustration) which ran aground in 2012. This photo by Maria Laura Gionfriddo.

Not everyone knows that you can surf in Italy, but Tuscany has been the cradle of the Italian surfing scene since the beginning. Here the first communities were born in the seventies and eighties, and today, Tuscany has a strong and thriving community and a growing surfing economy. It is not surprising, therefore, that an online petition started from a group of five associations and has collected more than 1,500 signatures in just a few days. The Mayor said he is willing to listen to future proposals, but the city’s official documents state otherwise. Meanwhile, Mr. Sambaldi has publicly said he’s sorry for getting everyone’s hopes up and is negotiating for a surf park with other parts of Italy.

The tragic prophecy of the racehorse Too Much Trouble seems to have cursed this project (even long before the finish line.) For now, the ‘Wave Park Livorno’ is on standby, but Italian surfers haven’t given up or stopped dreaming of a wave pool under the Tuscan sun.

About the Author: Antonio Muglia is an Italian surfer working in the communications industry. You can reach him at [email protected]