Child's play: Alastair Sawday's top 15 family-friendly Italian stays

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I am writing this from my desk in Bristol, with all the frustrations of introducing an article about such stunning places. There is not one place here that I would not give a wet weekend in England for – and if I had a young family, I'd be unable to resist.

Try Sardinia, where – up a long winding road – you will find lone cattle grazing, peasant foods and home-made wines, all in the company of a charming couple who will serve you a sumptuous breakfast before you head for the beach. Or Montelparo, where you sleep among the vines, introduce your children to civilised wine-drinking to the accompaniment of birdsong, and explore lesser-known towns of exquisite beauty. You will be drawn, too, to the ancient water-mill near Arezzo, where there is a tree house for the children and a charming hostess to help you entertain them.

These places are all delightfully different – so don't expect tourist-resort predictability. How can you know what to expect when you have a whole Bucine estate to play in? Woods, fields, valleys and old buildings – and lovely people to sweep you into their embrace. Above Florence, too, there is a house from which you can gaze down on one of the word's finest cities. What an education for your children! Or they can play in 200 acres of Andria olive trees and vineyards, with a dazzling white farm building wrapped around a vast courtyard as their base.

Italy is a family country, as we all know, and your children will be embraced and tolerated as nowhere else. If you are prim and fusty, or yearning for exclusivity and privileged silence, then perhaps you should seek out some more obviously child-free places. But I like having children around; they break down barriers between reserved adults and are a good excuse for us to let down our hair.

Tuscany

1. Borgo Iesolana Agriturismo, Bucine

At the centre of a patchwork of fields, vineyards and woods is this irresistible group of old buildings. Flowers tumble from terracotta pots; arches invite you in out of the sun; a pool beckons and there's a football field for the kids. Giovanni and Francesco inherited the estate from their grandfather and live here with their young families. They have created nine individual apartments, a tasteful mix of traditional and new with good beds and super kitchens. Cookery classes are available should you so wish, or if you prefer to down tools, you can breakfast and get a selection of local treats at the "wine bar".

Borgo Iesolana Agriturismo, Loc Iesolana, Bucine, Arezzo, Tuscany (00 39 055 992 988; iesolana.it). Weekly apartment rental starts at €860, self catering (sleeps 2-8).

2. Il Fornaccio, Florence

High above the Mugnone valley is this blissful and bucolic spot; you could be miles from anywhere. But no: there's a pizzeria that you can walk to and Florence can be glimpsed through the trees. Surrounded by olive orchards and fields, Il Fornaccio (the"bread oven") is a 16th-century farmhouse which has been beautifully restored. Loredana lives here with young daughter Eleonora. She loves company and looking after her guests, preparing breakfasts of home-made cakes, yoghurts, fruits and jams before she leaves for work. The two bedrooms, with spectacular views, feel lived in and loved; one is perfect for families with a private kitchenette and charming courtyard.

Il Fornaccio, Via di Campolungo 297/B, Florence (00 39 348 772 3629; ilfornaccio firenze.com). Doubles start at €80, including breakfast.

3. The Tuscan Mill, Arezzo

This ancient water mill can be found in a sublime valley edged with woods. Its owner, Lulu, lives in part of the house and has done a terrific job of restoration. The tree house in the lawned garden is heaven for children. You can watch your energetic little ones clamber about while you enjoy an aperitivo on the terrace. Dine out here, too; as night falls and the stream is lit up, you'll be hard pressed to think of anywhere you'd rather be. But go out you must – Sansepolcro, birthplace of the Renaissance genius Piero della Francesca, is a 10-minute drive and Arezzo is not much further.

The Tuscan Mill, Il Mulino, Tavernelle 21, Anghiari, Arezzo (07980 544494; thetuscanmill.co.uk). Weekly rental starts at €700 (sleeps 4), self catering.

Le Marche

4. Caserma Carina Country House, Mogliano

Nothing is too much trouble for Lesley, whose easy-going vivacity makes this place a delight to stay in. Cots, toys, DVDs, a bottle of wine at the end of a journey and a welcoming smile – she can provide it all. Just a 15-minute walk down the hill from historic Mogliano and you'll find this magnificent 19th-century country house with its four apartments spanning three floors.

Inside, everything is spanking new and the views are of rolling hills. Outside, the gardens are landscaped beautifully and the pool is inviting. You are in the heart of the lovely, unsung Le Marche area, an easy drive from historic Macerata, and not much further from the Adriatic coast.

Caserma Carina Country House, Contrada Mossa 16, Mogliano, Macerata (00 39 0733 557 990; caserma-carina.co.uk). Weekly apartment rental starts at £450 (sleeps 2-4), self catering.

5. Villa in the Vineyard, Montelparo

Take the steep winding road from Montelparo – with a thrilling final lap leading to the house – and you'll find a haven of birdsong and tranquillity. This is a smart villa built in traditional style and constructed from local materials and it's all enviably eco: solar panels for hot water, top-notch heating and insulation and ionised water for the pool.

There's an apartment upstairs occupied in the holiday season by the owners (charming, English, happy to provide occasional meals), a further apartment on the ground floor and wonderful valley-of-vineyards views.

Whisk the children off to the sea (unspoilt Altidona); arrange wine-tasting with a local grower or visit one of Italy's loveliest cities, Ascoli Piceno, which is just a half-hour drive away.

Villa in the Vineyard, Contrada Celestiale 16, Montelparo, Ascoli Piceno (01309 692394; villainthevineyard.com). Weekly rental starts at £560 (sleeps 4), self catering.

Puglia

6. Lama di Luna - Biomasseria Agriturismo, Andria

The sister of Pietro's great-grandmother once lived here, until 1820; Pietro bought the farm back in 1990, and it was only then that he discovered the family connection. It was "meant to be".

Pietro now lives here with his family. He is young, lively, charming and passionate about this supremely serene place. It comprises 200 acres of olives and vines and a dazzling white farm building wrapped around a vast courtyard with a central bread oven and its 40 chimney pots "telling the story" of the many farm workers who once lived and laboured here. There are 11 lovely rooms (two are family suites), a veranda for watching sunsets and stars, and a glimmering new pool. Mountain bikes are free to guests and nature surrounds.

Lama di Luna, Montegrosso, Andria (00 39 0883 56 95 05; lamadiluna.com). Doubles start at €140; suites from €230 (sleeps 4), both including breakfast.

7. Trullo Giardino, Brindisi

This is a glorious Italian getaway, with friendly owners next door to make you feel in famiglia. Trulli are unique to this quiet Itrian valley, and this 19th-century trullo is typical with chunky walls topped by five conical roofs like magicians' hats. Inside, it is doll's house-pretty, a warren of softly lit white walls, local tiles, low arches and quirky antiques peek from nooks and crannies. Enjoy a lazy barbecue on the terrace, a snooze by the shady cedar, a splash in the shallow child-friendly pool or fire up the pizza oven. Head out to local markets, Cisternino town and the Adriatic coast.

Trullo Giardino, Contrada Calongo 25, Cisternino, Brindisi (00 39 328 547 0038; trullogiardino.com). Weekly rental starts at €650 (sleeps 4), self catering.

Umbria

8. Le Terre di Poreta, Borgodella Marmotta, Spoleto

This venerable 370-acre estate, in the family since 1673, lies in a landscape of tranquillity. Approach through olive groves and wash up in the hamlet of Poreta. Two friendly dogs and the owner, Filippo, live in the villa up on the hill and welcome you on board. The Borgo, with 11 rooms and seven apartments, exudes exclusivity yet feels unexpectedly relaxed and children of all ages are welcome. This is a resort of the classiest kind, with a kitchen for cookery courses and a trio of pools.

Le Terre di Poreta, Poreta 74, Spoleto (00 39 0743 274 137; leterrediporeta.it). Doubles start at €120; apartments from €180 (sleeps 4), both self catering.

9. La Cuccagna, Gubbio

A big, traditional farmhouse – meticulously restored after the Assisi earthquake – with beautiful panoramas across hills, olive groves and the odd tower-topped hamlet. Paths lead through olive trees and herbs (plus a veg patch for guests to raid) to a hammock and exquisitely sited infinity pool. The cowshed cottage is cosy and the bedrooms in the farmhouse are simple. Everywhere, lots of child-friendly space. Your lovely hosts Salvatore and Sarah ensure a special stay.

La Cuccagna, Fraz S Cristina 22, Gubbio (00 39 075 920 317; lacuccagna.com). Doubles start at €120, including breakfast. Weekly cottage rental from €600 (sleeps 4), self catering.

Lazio

10. Giommetta, La Stalla, San Lorenzo Nuovo

Approach across open fields and through electric gates to a long, low farmhouse and be greeted by Eva, warm and effusive. Your home is the Porcellaio, the old piggery, a single-storey building perfectly restored. Expect a charming rusticity combined with luxury. Outside, there's a big open garden with sandpit, play area, swing, and one lovely communal pool. Young families could spend the whole holiday here without budging, but budge you must. It's on the border of Tuscany and Umbria and Orvieto is a delight, a car-free hill city reached by funicular railway.

Giommetta, Madonna 12, San Lorenzo Nuovo, Viterbo, Lazio (00 39 3398 271641; feriehusitalia .no). Weekly rental starts at €2,500 (sleeps 8), self catering.

11. Relais Teatro Argentina, Rome

Five-star service with family charm and the elegance of a vintage palazzo – in central Rome. This boutique hotel, run by gentle Paolo and his niece, Carlotta, is steps from Largo Argentina's ruined temples. It's an easy walk to the Campo dei Fiori, the Pantheon and Rome's backstreet galleries. Palatial bedrooms, some triples, have king-size beds and long draped curtains. Kids under three stay free and extra beds can be provided. Fresh pastries, fruit and coffee arrive on a breakfast trolley and Paolo and Carlotta are like your own personal concierge.

Relais Teatro Argentina, Via del Sudario 35, Rome (00 39 06 9893 1617; relaisteatroargentina.com). Doubles start at €143, including breakfast.

Piedmont

12. Castello di Tagliolo, Tagliolo Monferrato

The castle, part of a medieval borgo, has been in the family since 1498; from the cobblestone paths to the 900-year-old church, the place oozes history. It's a very peaceful and safe place for young families, with lovely child-friendly gardens.

The apartments, neither huge nor hugely luxurious, have heaps of charm. You can use the communal oven in the garden, or rustle up a meal in your own little kitchen. A housekeeper shows you the ropes.

This is arguably Italy's best wine region so book up tastings at the family's cantina or head to Asti for a glass of bubbly.

Castello di Tagliolo, Tagliolo Monferrato, Alessandria (00 39 0143 89195; tagliolo.se). Weekly apartment rental starts at €700 (sleeps 3-6), self catering.

13. Villa Tavallini, Pollone

Wind your way up the drive to this airy villa that was built as a summer retreat. Welcome to the Versaldos' charming home. It is wonderful for kids and deeply hospitable. Gaetano and his elderly mother greet you on arrival and show you to your rooms in a separate wing, with bright-tiled, near-retro bathrooms.

The sitting room is cosy with filled bookshelves and an old-fashioned furnace that's lit on cold nights. Best of all is outdoors: manicured lawns, five acres of forest to explore and shrubs for kids to get lost in. Lovely Gaetano is eager to take guests on hikes of the mountains and hills.

Villa Tavallini, Pollone, Biella (00 39 393 016 2580; villatavallini.it). Doubles from €80, including breakfast.

Sicily

14. Anime a Sud, Modica Alta

In Modica's Baroque heart is a small 19th-century townhouse in which history and modernity magically combine. Off a narrow, broad-stepped alley, a friendly housekeeper invites you in and shows you the ropes. Find cool, calm, stylish and unexpectedly spacious interiors. The double is off the open-plan living room while the family room is up some steps and opens to a big dining terrace that twinkles at night. It's a snazzy house but children are welcome and Modica itself has endless fiestas to keep them entertained, and some lovely beaches are just 20 minutes away.

Anime a Sud, Via S Lucia 9, Modica Alta, Ragusa (00 39 338 927 5393; animeasud.it). Weekly rental starts at €910 (sleeps 5), self catering.

Sardinia

15. Stazzo Chivoni, Luogosanto

Tranquillity and simplicity at the end of a long winding road in Sardinia's hinterland. This charming Milanese couple swapped the city for nature and beaches (just eight miles off), lone cattle grazing, peasant foods and homemade wines: life in the slow lane. He is a garden designer and has created an outdoor haven in harmony with the landscape. Your lodgings are made up of your own bright sitting room with a rustic bohemian decor off which is a sweet bedroom– the perfect size for a small family.

The breakfasts are sumptuous and are brought to the pergola in summer. Come here to escape, spend time together and be at one with nature.

Stazzo Chivoni, Chivoni, Luogosanto, Sardinia (00 39 328 691 4505; bbsardinia.it). Doubles start at €60, including breakfast.

* Sawday's new 'Special Places to Stay: Italy' is out now, priced £15.99. To buy a copy go to sawdays.co.uk

* For more information and booking details for all the properties featured go to sawdays.co.uk

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