Since childhood, Italy has been special to me. It was the first foreign country I visited as a teenager and so it was officially the most exotic place in the world. Although that wasn't hard – frankly, anywhere outside Strathclyde could have laid claim to that title in 1982. I also share my surname with the Italian city of Ancona. (My Italian heritage is all rather tenuous, madly fluctuating, according to whom I'm talking. Needless to say, if I was with Al Pacino, I'd be first generation.) It sounds exotic, but actually Ancona is a port on the east coast of Italy in Le Marche and a city with a bad football team; it's a bit like being named Ronni Grimsby. Obviously, I was very excited about flying into Ancona airport, but then quickly very disappointed at the lack of reaction to my surname at Ancona passport control.
Still, there was plenty to look forward to on a family holiday that would take us from Le Marche, on Italy's east coast, to Tuscany, on the west coast, via Umbria in the middle. As we embarked on the three-hour drive south-west to Norcia in Umbria, we were struck how the landscape quickly changed from flat pastures to verdant hills. Well, I was struck; my husband was frantically trying to familiarise himself with Italian road habits and my two little girls were trying to stick their fingers into each other's ears.
Norcia turned out to be a very pretty and majestic town, spread out on a wide plain at the foot of the Sibillini Mountains. It has pedigree, too – the Sabine city was once populated by the ancient Italic tribe who lived in the Apennine region before the founding of Rome. Dating back to the 5th century BC, Norcia has at its heart the Piazza San Benedetto, named after St Benedict, who was the founder of the Benedictine monastic order and was born here in around 480AD. A monastery still stands here in his honour.
Norcian cuisine has calibre, too, and is renowned for truffles and pork products. The shops that line the main street, Via Mazzini, are decked with the grisly heads of wild boars. I couldn't help feeling sorry for them; those poor piggies out truffle hunting, only to get it in the neck and end up in the same shop as the sought-after fungi. I was reliably informed, however, that it is specially trained dogs and not pigs that do the truffle hunting now. Even worse, I thought – dead and unemployed.
We were staying just off the Piazza San Benedetto at the lovely Palazzo Seneca, a 16th-century palace that is also renowned for its gastronomy. Federico Bianconi, Palazzo Seneca's delightful and charming host is part of a true hotelier dynasty: his family has run hotels in Norcia for more than 100 years. The passion and effort he puts into making his guests feel thoroughly well-treated is almost tangible. We certainly felt very much at home – if home was an Umbrian palace, that is, and not a terraced house in west London. That evening, we feasted on local produce at the hotel's restaurant, Vespasia. My husband declared that his ravioli was the best thing he'd ever tasted, which troubled the girls on the grounds that (a) it wasn't ice cream and (b) their mother hadn't cooked it.
The next morning I was inspired to take a cooking lesson. Flavio Faedi, Palazzo Seneca's chef, who specialises in taking local cuisine and giving it a sophisticated twist, took me through two of his delicious regional recipes – pappa al pomodoro (a thick tomato soup) with breaded egg and roveja (a local pulse) with marinated river fish. It was always going to be an ambitious task, made worse by the fact that he hadn't allowed for having to stop in order to show me how to chop an onion properly. He did it with good grace.
In the afternoon we drove up to Sibillini national park, stopping at Castelluccio di Norcia. This little town's claim to fame is its culinary speciality, Castelluccio lentils, but more pleasing to us was its wildflower-carpeted plateau. It was extraordinarily vivid, as if we had stepped into a Disney animation, with pixels of colour dancing all around us.
We continued further up into the mountains along a very twisty cliff road that rewarded us with devastating views of the region. At the Colle le Cese mountain refuge, we stopped for our next activity: donkey trekking. It soon transpired that there were more people than donkeys and those that were available looked reluctant to interrupt their lunch. But, after some discussion, "mulegate" was resolved, the adults making do with two legs instead of four. Our group plodded further up into the breathtaking mountain scenery for a couple of hours, pausing while Maestro the donkey stopped time and again for snacks.
Happily, our next journey was somewhat faster, if a lot further. We were driving to the Maremma region, on the west coast of Tuscany. Normally our daughters' behaviour in cars brings a new dimension to sibling rivalry ("Elsa can see more trees through her window"; "But Lily has more clouds through hers!"), so long drives are dreaded. But our route was littered with so many hilltop villages and towns that we had plenty of pretty diversions.
At Assisi, the cobalt blue sky accentuated the glistening white of the buildings. Lily and Elsa loved the cool interiors of the churches and were fascinated by the stained-glass windows – although not quite as much as the shop selling Hello Kitty baseball hats.
Our final destination was Tenuta La Badiola, near the city of Grosseto. We were staying at Casa Badiola, set amid rolling hills, cypress trees and verdant flowering shrubs. It is an annexe of the estate's immaculately luxurious L'Andana hotel and, crucially for my husband, there was a golf course, too. So the next morning, we took advantage of the girls being happily ensconced in the kids' club to hit some golf balls on the driving range.
I was brought up in Troon, a town that is pathologically obsessed with golf and, therefore, I was psychologically scarred by it as a child. So this was an extraordinary move for me.
In the afternoon, we collected the girls and took them to the delightful Tuscan town of Castiglione della Pescaia, which has a great family beach with clear warm water and lovely sand. It seemed almost impossible that, before the lowlands of the Maremma were drained 60 years ago, they were uninhabitable marshlands swarming with malarial mosquitoes. As evening fell, we found refuge in a homely trattoria then walked around the town's medieval quarter, an intricate maze of alleyways and arches.
Back at Casa Badiola, we got to try our hand at Tuscan cooking. Our tutor was Eduardo Naud, one of the chefs at L'Andana's two restaurants, La Villa and Trattoria Toscana, overseen by star chef Alain Ducasse. Eduardo was extremely skilled, not least because he managed to retain his cool while making pasta with an over-enthusiastic six-year-old and an exuberant three-year-old. The chocolate fondants only exacerbated the excitement.
Our final night was spent at Alain Ducasses's Trattoria Toscana. We might usually have been apprehensive about taking the girls somewhere so seemingly grown-up, but it was so relaxed and the staff so delightful that they behaved rather well. The traditional Tuscan cuisine combined myriad gorgeous flavours, rather like the Maremma itself with its beaches and wilderness, medieval villages and marshes.
On the drive to Pisa airport, we passed Livorno, another town my ancestors lived in, presumably moving there in the 17th century after annoying the inhabitants of Ancona to excess. I resolved to return (my armies are gathering in the North) and claim my birthright. Dare them to ignore me at airport security when I am Queen of the Italian fishing ports.
Ancona is served by Ryanair (0871 246 0000; ryanair.com) from Stansted.
Pisa is served by Ryanair from Stansted, Bournemouth, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Leeds/Bradford, Liverpool and East Midlands; easyJet (0843 104 5000; easyjet.com) from Luton, Gatwick and Bristol; and British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com) from Heathrow and Gatwick.
Palazzo Seneca, Via Cesare Battisti 12, Norcia, Perugia, Umbria (00 39 0743 81 7434; palazzoseneca.com). Doubles start at €165, including breakfast.
Casa Badiola, Tenuta Badiola, Castiglione Della Pescaia, Grosseto, Tuscany (00 39 0564 944 800; casabadiola.it). Doubles start at €230, including breakfast.
Italian Tourist Board: 020-7408 1254; italiantouristboard.co.ukReuse content