The Tuscany with kids plan - gladiators, fiestas and ice cream
Tuscany with kids was venturing into proper family holidays abroad territory. We’d been building up to it slowly, starting with Sun caravan holidays in Cornwall, then throwing in a ferry to the Isle of Wight and Brittany.
It was time for a plane, a dash of culture, sunshine and swimming. Italy, home of pizza and ice cream; historic hill towns and gladiators, had cross-generational appeal.
There would be a chance to visit Narnia-like Florence, cobbled car-free Lucca, Volterra – home of vampires, ancient Rome and the dazzlingly white and sprinkler-sparkly Pisa.
Camping in Italy?
We’d seen that campsites on the continent played in a whole different league, with pools and bars that you’d actually want to go to, not just because it was raining and there was nowhere else to go.
We’d learned from our French trips that Vacancesoleil have the same campsite lodges/chalets/tents as Eurocamp and Canvas but are generally a lot cheaper. In the Italian heat, upgrading to an air conditioned chalet seemed wiser than boiling under canvas.
Discovering that all summer holiday accommodation is about a third cheaper in the last week of August and that flights from Bristol go to Pisa for about £50 a head, the August Italian campsite plan was born. Would the children’s pale English skin sear on first exposure? Long sleeve shirts were bought in readiness.
Tuscany with kids - the arrival
The boys exited the plane in Pisa excitedly and then nearly expired on the viscous tarmac runway. They did not enjoy the subsequent dragging of luggage around the rows of shimmering cars, playing hunt the hire car in the full blast of the midday sun. So far Italy was not a family favourite.
Family harmony was not restored during the several hours spent attempting to leave Pisa airport and head to our coastal campsite. There was a junction which looked very much like a four- leaved clover on the sat nav, which we looped at least 4 times (every leaf), being flung off in various directions, including at one point back to the airport. It didn’t help that this involved a toll every time we took the wrong leaf. Also not helpful was that several junctions seemed to share the same number. Oh, and putting the tiny signposts on the side of the road after the point where you were supposed to turn off, is not that great either.
Tuscany with kids - Best campsite ever
Bit shouty, but we got there in the end, arriving at the very cool Park Albatross, chosen because of its 5 pools, funky trees and proximity to Tuscan villages. We were pleased to have cheated and gone for a wooden tent instead of a real one and were looking forward to camping in our little decked cabin under green pom pom trees. Real tents are available for those with no need of aircon or beds or toilets. I take my hat off to you.
Heading straight to the one of the 5 pools was priority number one. It’s a big site and a 20 minute walk with swim kits was producing levels of hot skin not previously encountered by the children.
It was mid-afternoon, and disappointingly, the rest of the campsite had beaten us to it. Not a lounger to be seen, let alone the shade of an umbrella. We parked up on the concrete, a thin towel taking the edge off the hard baked ground and threw ourselves in the water. Noted firmly to self that pool days would require an organised and early towel laying plan.
Children were then fully entertained by cool fountains and a mini waterside. Adults were distracted from fact they were sitting on the floor, by watching fellow campers attempt to scale slippy water hills in the pool, with varying degrees of success.
The Ferragosto Fiesta
The first evening happened to be the 15th August, when Italians celebrate Ferragosto, a day of rest designated by the Emperor Agosto himself in 18BC. The Roman Catholics later sought to imbue the holiday with religious significance by also nominating it the day to celebrate the Virgin Mary’s Assumption to Heaven.
So for historic and religious reasons, the campsite threw a huge party, laying out tables the length of the site. A sit-down dinner was provided and wine was topped up out of what appeared to be fertilizer bottles. Dancing on tables was starting up as we led our party to bed at about midnight. Italian families are hardcore party people.
To keep everyone happy, we had decided to go for a pool day/trip day schedule, starting gently with a stroll to the local beach. This was surprisingly rubbish with gritty grey sand and terrifying waves that knocked grown men to the floor as they entered the sea. The wave victims were then spat back out on to the sand, where they struggled on all fours to regain a standing position and some semblance of self respect. Good for spectating, if not participation
Despite the toxic hangover, we thought we might be able to drive to a better beach, but going further down the coast only seemed to make things worse. Here, there was some kind of power plant flanking each end of the bay. You could hire your own pedalo with pink slide which looked just perfect until you realised your flight off the end torpedoed you into a jellyfish soup, much like a scene from Finding Nemo. So – beaches out – towns in.
Day trips from Tuscany with kids
Tuscany with kids trip 1. Florence - city of statues
Having fully relaxed at the campsite (sort of) it was time to see what Tuscany had to offer. Florence, capital of Tuscany, birth place of Leonado Da Vinci and Pinoccio; and with an international reputation for unsurpassed beauty seemed like a sensible first destination choice.
After the airport driving disaster, we decided on park and ride options for touring anything other than the doorstep. The trains were fabulous, with old fashioned wooden interiors, ticket machines in English and costing only £20 for an intercity journey. Toilets were the European adventure kind, much to the outrage of the children. Cultural bonus.
Florence fact: The Ponte Vecchio has crossed the river in Florence for a thousand years, (barring a post-flooding rebuild in 1300) surviving the fate of all other Florentine bridges which were blown up in WW2, as ‘Hitler himself deemed it too beautiful.
We checked out the famous bridge and marvelled at the abundance of statues . Squares were literally filled with them, like a set of frozen Narnia characters. Florence, I knew from my History A level days was the epicentre of the Renaissance art and architecture. I did not know that Michelangelo’s David and Botticelli’s birth of Venus could both be found right here. In fact Florence holds one third of the world’s art heritage, a tall order for one afternoon’s visit.
Rather than pay or queue for galleries and museums with smallish children, we wandered around stone men, horses and lions and amongst intricately architectured buildings reading the odd paragraph from the guide book on a shady bench with an ice cream. Kid/adult enjoyment balance – tick.
Tuscany with kids trip 2. Tea in Lucca
Tea times back at base camp were generally massive pizzas followed by ice creams/cocktails (depending on age), listening to live music under fairy lit trees (adults), and playing in a large and sandy pit/adventure playground (kids). We did, however, manage to persuade the family to leave the campsite idyll and venture out for dinner one evening to historic Lucca, billed as the prettiest walled hill town in all the land.
We were drawn by the guide book’s description of broad, tree-lined pathways leading along the tops of its massive 16th century ramparts; the city walls encircling the original Roman street plan.The town square is the old Roman forum and no cars are allowed.
Lucca fact: Napoleon conquered Lucca in 1805 and installed his own sister as queen.
As it was dark when we arrived, we didn’t get any photographs of this magical place, but it was like dining in a huge open air castle. First we walked the ramparts before navigating the tiny car-free streets to the central square, where tables and chairs clattered on the white cobblestones under pretty white awnings. We ordered wine under the stars and pizza, of course – when in Rome (nearly).
Tuscany with kids trip 3. Hill towns - Volterra
Tuscany is famous for its hill towns. Soaring up into Volterra, we were rewarded with bright heraldic flags and history literally coming out of the walls. Its impressive city fortifications were constructed in an equally impressively early, 4BC.
Volterra fact: Volterra allied with Rome over 2000 years ago, was then an independent city for a while before being run by the Florentines (not the cakes) from the 12th Century and by the Medici’s from the 15th.
So it was more of a Roman city than the Medieval one I had labelled it in my head. It was practically middle aged by the middle ages. It only became part of Italy in 1860, when it was ready to draw its pension.
We entered through the grand old gates, oggled the city streets, perused the alabaster shops and explored fields beyond the city walls. It was atmospheric, beautiful and the ideal home for the fictional vampire elite in the Twilight series (an added layer of interest for any teenage family members.)
With older children a guided walking tour would definitely have been called for; so much easier than reading a book. As it was, its Roman ampitheatre and baths remained unexplored. Good excuse to come back.
Tuscany with kids 4. Rome in the rain
Having parked and ridden locally on smaller day trips, we thought we were now Rome-ready. The plan was to ditch the car at a station in the suburbs to avoid manic mid-town driving mayhem. Approaching the Roman outskirts, a lot of quite terrifying swinging across 6 lanes of traffic already seemed to be required from everybody. After a few Grand Prix style circuits we were more than ready to abandon the car. But where? We’d driven quite some distance past our destination station before finding a car-sized gap. Having no idea what any of the parking signs meant, we were destined to spend the day slightly on edge that the hire car would have been towed by the time we found where we’d left it again. Risked it for a biscuit and trained it in to the centre.
To say a building has been used from Roman times seems a little unspecific in this city, so I’ll go for its construction date of 79AD. Within its walls, slave gladiators and criminals have met their end, animals have been hunted and sea battles reenacted. Over 400 years, 400,000 people and a million animals are estimated to have died here. It was hard to imagine these scenes. The walls stood grey against the steely skies, and without a 65,000 strong baying crowd, seemed disturbingly unassuming, having been conquered by time, earthquakes and stone robbers.
A self-tour of the outside is possible and, very helpfully for our large group of budget travellers, free. You can go right up to the walls for a photo shoot. Gladiators and Roman soldiers are available for a fee.
We set off from the Colosseum walking through ancient Rome, past our first levitating yogi.The ruins of the old city lie in pieces next door, behind metal grilles, still undergoing investigation. The thing about Rome is there is almost too much history. We perused the sections of the guide book attempting to absorb about 2000 years in 10 minutes. We then continued our explorations, walking down narrow lanes, past majestic buildings on the way to our next must-see Rome destination, as dark clouds gathered ominously above us.
The Trevi Fountain
Vying with motorbikes for the pavement, we turned a corner to find ourselves sharing a piazza with a thousand other tourists and the Trevi fountain, and managed to muscle our way to the front for a photo shoot.
The fountain is a real life film star, with the fame to match.
Trevi fountain fact: It marks the end of an original Roman Aqueduct that brought water into Rome. The architect actually lost the original fountain design competition, but as the real winner was a Florentine, the locals objected and Nicola Salvi got the green light for his fabulously over the top waterworks. Completed in 1762, and opened by the Pope, the theme as told in statue form is “The taming of the waters”.
We followed tradition and the films, by throwing a coin in the fountain (the money goes to fund a supermarket for the needy, if it doesn’t get pilfered).
In an ironic twist, the Roman waters refused to be tamed and the heavens opened above us. As the seemingly biblical torrents lashed down, we took refuge in the less biblical McDonalds, with the other not insubstantial number of Roman tourists. As we sat on the floor, the interior stairs ran with water somehow entering the building from above and pooling around us. A fight broke out outside – like modern day gladiators. This was not Audrey Hepburn’s Rome, but more of a Michael Caine adventure.
Several damp Big Macs later (no pizzas for us despite being in Rome and everything), it was time to risk the heavens and step out on to wet cobbles with soggy sandals.
We were excited to be headed towards another country entirely, the Vatican, and had brought passports with us just in case. The guards are a spectacle in their own right. Descended from an ancient Swiss regiment, they brandish medieval scythe weapons and look a bit like jokers from a pack of cards. No one asked to see our passports.
Entering the main square where the Pope addresses crowds on a Wednesday, you can tell you’re on holy ground by the army of saints looking down on you from the colonades. It was a shame to miss the Pope but the upside was we joined a small queue for a look around inside St Peter’s Basilica. The Basilica is free. You can pay and queue to see the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican Museums but the free ceilings in the rest of the Basilica are also by Michelangelo and were sufficiently spectacular for us.
Vatican fact: The church holds that if a body does not decay, a person is holy. The Vatican offers a helping hand by preserving bodies of those destined for future sainthood. Papal corpses are covered in wax or bronze and placed in glass coffins like an eerie Snow White. (Noses and hands have been known to fall off alarmingly when less effective embalming techniques were deployed).
The boys were mesmerised by the sight of Pope John XXIII, who died in 1963.
Back outside the Basilica, unsure as to whether this was a drinking fountain or a real fountain, the youngest took a gamble and climbed aboard in the hot afternoon, hoping the holiness of the water would save him if it turned out to be the latter. The guards seemed untroubled by the statue clambering.
As a bonus Vatican activity you get to send a postcard from the mini Vatican post office, baring a pretty unique stamp. We may not have got a passport stamp but the boys were happy with a real one instead.
Blisters having formed from badly fitting wet shoes, our Roman adventure drew to a close. We limped back to the train and thanked the damp heavens that our car had not been taken by the police. Only one more gladiatorial road combat was required before escaping to the tranquillity of our campsite home.
Tuscany with kids trip 5. Pretty Pisa (head for the sprinklers)
For our final Tuscany with kids trip, we trained it to Pisa to look at the wonky tower. The day was hot and heads leaned out of old style wooden windows catching the breeze as we rolled through the Tuscan countryside.
On alighting we were greeted by the rainbow of architectural spendour that are the streets of Pisa. I don’t know why but I had not been expecting it to be quite this spectacular. It is home not only to its famous tower but medieval palaces, bridges, churches and a Twelfth Century University.
Arriving at the Leaning Tower, I was unaware that it would be surrounded by quite so many dazzling white historically important and photogenic buildings. Photographers tend to cut the others out of the picture but you really need the others, because they are amazing, and also to capture the lean.
Leaning Tower of Pisa fact: Already tilting when it was completed in 1372, the 56m white-marble cylinder is the bell tower of its neighbouring cathedral. It took 200 years to build, and the fact that the ground was too soft was spotted early on in the project, but the builders pressed on, adding a second, third, fourth and fifth storey anyway. Gravity shifted with each layer, resulting in tilts in various directions before settling on today’s position where the top hangs a good 15 feet over the side. Mussolini tried to shore it up by only made it worse.
The American army this time were the ones to decide it was too beautiful and refused to destroy the tower, which was being used by German lookouts in the war.
The tower is found in the walled Piazza de Miracole (square of miracles) in one of the finest architectural complexes in the world. Within the square, the buildings represent the journey of life from cradle to grave by way of the baptistery, cathedral and cemetery.
Sitting on the marble stairs. like some kind of ancient Roman philosophers, we skim read about the various icing-like edifices and enjoyed the view. An absolute highlight for the kids, which may not be strictly allowed but they still talk about to this day, was spending the remainder of the afternoon running through the sprinklers that were attempting to save the grass.
Tuscany with kids - Summary
How could a Tuscany with kids holiday not be a winner – home of boy-sized pizza, cappuccino, ice cream and civilisation. It has seen man eating lions, empires, the original Classical art then its Renaissance sequel. Its own beauty has saved it from destruction. We only scratched the surface, but it was an incredibly pretty one.
The boys have voted Italy as the best holiday ever and since I started writing this we have booked to go again this summer. Venice here we come. Unless Covid beats us to it.
Tuscany with kids -Lessons learned
Towns yes – beaches no.
Vatican passport stamp, no – Vatican postcard stamp, yes.
Wine from a fertilizer bottle is a novel but not a good idea.
Italy – loved by American GI’s, Hitler and jellyfish
There is enough to see on the outside without needing to go in (the dead Popes and Michaelangelo’s ceilings aside).
In Pisa – head for the sprinklers!
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