PIZZA & PALAZZOS
In the style of the Grand European Tours of old, one family travelled around Italy and discovered why Italians just adore kids – and why your kids will love Italy back.
WORDS AND PHOTOS Hilary Doling
Sitting in an outdoor cafe in the Piazza della Signoria with Michelangelo’s David staring down at us, I look over at my son who is only just visible behind a giant slice of pizza. This Florentine offering is pizza number nine*. Our holiday has become an impromptu gourmet’s guide to the relative merits of Italian pizzas. In my son’s opinion, Sorrento, around the coast from Naples, the original home of the pizza, has scored the highest so far, owing to the superior quality of its cheese (chewier) and its ham (more of it). Italian food rates highly with children travelling overseas but it is not just the pasta and pizza my son has been digesting. We are travelling from Sorrento in Italy’s south up to Venice and along the way he’s taking in the history and the culture too – food for thought you might say.
If you think Roman ruins and children don’t mix then take them to Pompeii. The drama of the volcanic eruption which covered the city back in 79AD, the chance to see ash-preserved bodies with real teeth and the remains of what was probably the world’s first takeaway food store are hard to resist. We have come here with a private guide organised by the Hotel Grand Excelsior Vittoria. The hotel is a history lesson in itself, all be it a luxurious one. It has been owned by the same family since it opened in 1834. In its expansive gardens are the remains of a Roman villa which stood on the site before the hotel, and the old passageways from the hotel down to the beach are like something out of a Famous Five adventure, despite the newly installed lift. At beach level we explore the marina with its ferries to Capri and millionaires’ yachts and take our rented motorboat around the rocky coastline to explore.
Main image: Cathedral, Florence.
Above: Villa La Massa, Florence
‘All roads lead to Rome’ they say, but we arrive by train. A ferry takes us from Sorrento to Naples and then we board a train north. Italian trains are a godsend for touring families; clean, efficient, fun and fast. Just remember to book first class and ahead of time as queues are horrendous. What is the best way to teach a young boy the history of Rome? Send him to Gladiator school of course. Alex spends an afternoon along the Appian Way learning the art of combat Roman style so when we visit the Colosseum he is already a fount of knowledge on the ways of the Empire. “What are you going to call your essay on Rome?” I ask. “The Empire Strikes Back”, he says because the later Caesars were so cruel they “make Darth Vader look like a pussy cat”. We stay at the luxurious Hotel Baglioni in a room as ornate as a jewel box. It is a handbag swing from the Via Condotti (think Bulgari and Ferragamo), so I drag my reluctant husband and son shopping.
I manage to tempt my 12-year-old into the Uffizi by staging a ‘spot the ugliest baby’ contest. The Renaissance artists are inspiring but they really didn’t know how to paint babies. Raphael won. Italian ice cream parlours are almost as good as Italian pizza places, so we spend quite a while finding Florence’s best gelato chocolato but since the pink-walled city is a living history lesson we’re happy to wander. We love Florence so much we stay at the enchanting Relais Santa Croce right in the centre; then move to Villa La Massa on the city outskirts, little sister to the legendary Villa D'Este. The villa is surrounded by orange groves and poplars, its golden walls reflected in the River Arno running past its door. Italian luxury hotels are the most welcoming in the world when it comes to children. The staff seem genetically programmed to love your offspring. We encounter many family-friendly touches but Villa La Massa’s kids’ cooking class is a highlight.
Above: Colosseum, Rome
From above: Faraglioni Rocks, Venice
Off the coast of Sorrento
Venice may be all about the gondolas or the vaporettos which wend their way along the Grand Canal but our son deems both “too slow”. Twelve-year-old boys like speed, their mothers like a little luxury, so we agree that our favourite mode of transport is the private water taxi, all polished wood and cream leather seats, that we take to the island of Murano. Our sleek craft leaves gondolas in its wake along the main canal then darts into a watery maze of alleys so narrow that we can almost touch the crumbling palazzos and bridges so low that we have to duck. The legendary Hotel Cipriani, on a private island on the outskirts of Venice, has its own private launch which leaves from a landing stage near Piazza San Marco. The driver lets my son take the wheel and wear his ‘Hotel Cipriani’ cap. It’s a proud moment. Cipriani is an ideal hotel for luxury kids because it has space and expansive gardens where children can run and play; a unique commodity in a city where palazzos-turned-five-star-hotels are pressed as close together as Italian sardines in a tin.
During our stay in the city, Alex learns how to blow glass in Murano, the blob of coloured glass expanding like bubble gum. He feeds the pigeons in Piazza San Marco, tries on feathery Carnivale masks, turns junior art critic at The Peggy Guggenheim and pretends to be a prisoner in the dungeons of the Doges Palace walking over the Bridge of Sighs. However what we like best is simply to stroll and let the history and romance of Venice seep into our souls. It is a fitting end to our Grand Tour.
On the day we arrive home we’re too jet-lagged to cook so we decide to go out. “What would you like to eat?” I ask my son.
*Hilary Doling would like it to be known that she did also make her son eat salad.
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