Play the Italian way

Having a real holiday with little ones isn't always easy, but Siobhan Dolan finds the perfect solution in Umbria
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The Independent Travel

Even after no sleep and a dawn flight to Pisa with two under-fives, it really shouldn't have been that hard to find the Leaning Tower. We'd talked the talk to our four-year-old on the plane, but when it came to actually finding it, we drew a blank. Finally, we were forced to abandon the car and walk, following a conga of elderly tourists who, we rightly assumed, were heading for the iconic landmark.

Even after no sleep and a dawn flight to Pisa with two under-fives, it really shouldn't have been that hard to find the Leaning Tower. We'd talked the talk to our four-year-old on the plane, but when it came to actually finding it, we drew a blank. Finally, we were forced to abandon the car and walk, following a conga of elderly tourists who, we rightly assumed, were heading for the iconic landmark.

It was the only time on our Italian break that we felt remotely lost, as once we reached the comfort of Villa Pia, on the Tuscan-Umbrian border, our hosts proved to be as generous with their vast local knowledge as they were with their hospitality.

We had thought carefully about the best holiday for this particular moment in our lives. Somewhere we hadn't been, but which was child-friendly - Italy fitted the bill. Villa or hotel? We leaned towards a villa as it would offer more flexibility and more space for the children to play. We found what seemed like the perfect one, near a hamlet, before it dawned on me. No other children close by. On the last break, our son hated not having anyone to play with and missed his toys.

And then we discovered Villa Pia, a beautiful Italian manor house with 17 guest bedrooms, run by a British couple and their three bilingual children. Set in five acres of woods and gardens, it is perched on a hilltop in a glorious setting on the edge of the medieval village of Lippiano. As well as stunning views and great food, the villa is within easy reach of Siena, Florence and other historic cities.

More importantly for us, it is great for children of all ages. Younger ones love playing in the courtyard, with its selection of ride-on toys and play-houses. There's also a small playroom (great for babies) with yet more toys, along with dressing-up clothes. Older children can explore the woods and gardens surrounding the villa - home to a range of wildlife, including lizards and other unusual bugs, as well as log swings and a treehouse. And both parents and children seem to get hooked on the games room, set just above the house, where there is table football and table tennis.

Just beyond the vineyard is the swimming pool, with its breathtaking views ("It's like swimming in a picture!" someone said), a small sandpit and a trampoline.

While the children rapidly make new friends, it can be just as sociable for the grown-ups: meals (which are included in the price, along with drinks, fruit and afternoon cakes - except for Thursday, when only breakfast is served) are taken in the sunken courtyard around long tables, or in the annexe bordering the courtyard in the evening.

Sharing good food and drink and parenthood must rate as two of the most effective icebreakers. Most of our fellow-guests agreed that Villa Pia is close to perfect when it comes to pleasing all the family. Its magic even seemed to be rubbing off on one forty-something dad who was clearly struggling to adapt to the joys of holidays with two small children. His only audible complaint focused on "all those horrible plastic toys in the courtyard", although his offspring seemed very impressed with them. His wife kept reassuring him, "Darling, it won't always be like this..." Many of us wished that it would.

We had heard that Italy is very child-friendly, but it still came as something of a shock to find that, as a family, we were welcomed rather than just tolerated. One evening, we stopped at a small local pizzeria: they couldn't speak English and we couldn't speak Italian, but they quickly suggested what might be best for our children, and had their food on the table in minutes.

Morag and her family are always on hand with tips and advice on places to go and things to do, enabling you to make the most of what is on offer. We were grateful, for example, when she advised us to visit Siena rather than Florence with the children, as Siena was not as busy and easier to get around with the buggy. We had a great day there, and our four-year-old son was thrilled by all the symbols of medieval pageantry displayed in the churches and museums, and loved hearing stories about the Palio, the notorious annual horse race in the Piazza del Campo, where we stopped at a café for lunch. The ice-cream wasn't bad, either.

We also explored some of the towns close to Villa Pia, including the medieval fortress village of Anghiari, which boasts what must be the playground with the most beautiful view in the world - the Tiber Valley. On most days, though, we didn't travel too far from the villa. For one thing, it was so relaxing to swim, or sit in the courtyard watching the children play and taking in the views. Also, my husband, in particular, was reluctant to miss out on the superb food. In fact, one morning, when my son and I were a little late back to the car following a stroll around the pretty town of Arezzo, we were bundled into the car, Mafia-style, and driven at high speed back to the villa just in time for a fantastic buffet lunch.

The children's food is great, too, and one afternoon, Morag organised an informal cookery lesson. The villa's cook gave us a pasta masterclass. On the menu: a delicious spaghetti dish with garlic and cayenne, and fresh pasta with spinach, Gorgonzola and walnuts. The hands-on approach was also enjoyed by smaller guests, who happily wandered in and out, leaving interesting doughy creations in their wake.

Later, as we sat watching the children play, an argument broke out. After a few tears, a little boy stepped forward and announced: "Don't worry, everything's going to be alright." As we returned to our glasses of wine, we knew that he was right.

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

GETTING THERE

The nearest airports to Villa Pia are Florence, Bologna, Pisa and Rome. Florence is served from Gatwick by Meridiana (0845 355 5588; www.meridiana.it). Bologna is served from Gatwick by BA (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com) and from Stansted by easyJet (0905 821 0905; www.easyJet.com). Pisa is served from Gatwick and Manchester by BA and from Liverpool and Stansted by Ryanair (0871 246 0000; www.ryanair.com). There are regional flights with Alitalia, BA, easyJet and Ryanair.

STAYING THERE

Villa Pia (00 39 075 850 2027; www.villapia.com), Lippiano, Italy. A week's full-board starts from £350 per adult and £105 for children (aged two-12) sharing. Off-peak, shorter breaks are also available.

MORE DETAILS

Italian State Tourist Office (020-7408 1254; www.enit.it)

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