Florence may be the Renaissance capital of the world – all that breath-taking architecture, those stunning museums, art galleries, churches, squares and fountains, fecund with tubs of sublimely delicious ice cream – but frankly I’d had enough of it.
My mother moved to Tuscany when I was in my late teens and I went there, every summer, for the next 15 years. During this time I was dragged around every museum, every church, every hill top town, and made to marvel at every single painting right down to the most obscure frescos in the most out of the way places. I knew the markets, the views, the line of almost every row of cypress trees from Cortona to Montepulciano and I had more cut-price Prada make-up bags from the outlet store near Montevarchi than you could possibly fill with eyeliner.
I even got married in Italy – a four-day prosecco-up in San Pietro a Dame, Tuscany, where we drank our bodyweight in fizz, stuffed our chops with porchetta only for the Anglican priest from Florence to get both our names wrong in the hilltop chapel.
So you can see, over the years, I had given Tuscany and its capital some substantial love and attention.
When my mother left Italy for France, I never went back. Why would I? I’d been there, I’d done it and I’d bought some very lovely handbags along the way. I also had children. Two of them.
However, there’s a moment between building sandcastles and filling them up with luminous lollies when you realise, perhaps, sometimes, you should be doing something a little more edifying in the holidays. You start to think maybe we should do something more challenging, shake things up a little.
“How about Florence?” I heard myself saying one evening. And so it was we found ourselves on a plane to the city’s Peretola airport with the six and 10 year old. I had been in and out of this airport so many times over the years; and yet on arrival I couldn’t recognise it at all. In fact I couldn’t recognise anything. It was dark and raining and I had absolutely no idea where we were going. I have to say I panicked a little as I sat in the passenger seat of our hire car, hunched over the map, confused. Where to go? How to get to Villa Di Bagnolo, Impruneta? Was it north or south? I turned the map left and right. Which way out of the sodding airport? This had been my stomping ground for years, and it turns out I didn’t know it all.
Eventually, after quite a lot of shouting, much map flapping, some speedy reversing and aggressive U-turning, we arrived at the Villa not hugely later than we’d said. Barbara Beltrami could not have been more charming as she showed us around the house (her old family home), which was massive. Not just a bit big. But HUGE.
An 18th-century manor house with a wine and olive estate about 20 minutes south of Florence, Villa di Bagnolo sleeps 14 and has a private pool and tennis court as well as a chef on tap should you need one. An interesting decorative combination of Nancy Dell’Ollio meets Downtown, it has Jacuzzis, marble bathrooms, fancy art on the walls, Venetian glass chandeliers and most importantly of all for us – a fractious family from London – bottles of red wine (from the estate) in the kitchen for the grown-ups, and a large television in one of the many sitting rooms, for the children.
After an early night, we were up and out and in a taxi heading for Florence before 9am. As the sun burst through the cloud, the driver dropped us by the Ponte Vecchio and the glittering Arno river.
“I’d like a room…with a view!” declared my daughter.
“Yes,” agreed my son, nodding sagely. “So would I.”
And that was it. I don’t know how, or why, or quite how and why it happened. But they fell in love with the place. Children, I know can have good days and bad days, but it seemed that every day we had in Florence was a good day. A dreamy day. A magical day. The charm, the atmosphere and the architecture of the city wove an enchanting spell, like it has done to millions of travellers for hundreds of years.
They walked up and down the cobbled streets, peering up the alleyways. They stood open mouthed in the Piazza della Signoria. They could not believe the size of the Duomo. They loved stroking the nose of the fat bronze boar in the Wool Market and they even let me show them one of my favourite paintings – Pontormo’s Deposition in the Chapel of San Felicita. They tripped, they skipped, they scoffed pizza and then they self-combusted at the choice of ice creams at the various gelaterias (our top tip is Gelateria Santa Trinita on Piazza Frescobaldi where they serve the most extraordinary black sesame, and fig and ricotta ice cream).
But on day two, the Uffizi was the game changer. Or more accurately it was Elisabetta Marchi’s children’s tour of the Uffizi and Michelangelo’s David that took our trip to a new level. Perhaps the power of extraordinary art does actually transcend? Or maybe Elisabetta is child-whisper of epic proportions? All I know was that I had been dreading taking two truculents around one of the greatest museums in the world. And it, in fact, turned out to be the highlight of our trip.
Elisabetta had an encyclopaedic knowledge of the gallery and knew exactly where all the Botticellis were hidden. She had just the right amount of anecdote to keep the hard of learning amused and, just when they looked like they might flag, she produced Caravaggio’s Medusa Shield, with its frankly scary snake hair, or the breath-taking Annunciation by Leonardo Da Vinci, while recounting to my daughter the brilliantly schlock story about how a Mrs DiCaprio first felt her baby move in front of this very painting, hence the other famous Leonardo’s christian name. It was the perfect story, at the perfect time, which made my daughter pause, look and then stare.
Then we were off to see David, who unlike quite a good few world cultural icons I could mention does not disappoint. And there was Elisabetta again with the stories about how the marble was second hand and the questions as to whether David had catapulted his stone, or whether the rock was still in his hand, ready to sling it at Goliath.
The rest of the week was spent going back and forth to Florence looking at more art, eating more ice cream, visiting goldsmiths’ studios and taking horse and trap rides around the city. Then it was back to the Huge House, where we swam, played tennis, took a tour of the vineyard, tasted the wine and where hilariously one evening a chef, the extremely patient Lisa Banchieri, gave us a cooking lesson during which we all learnt to make ravioli and tiramisu.
We discovered plenty of out-of-the way restaurants, including Il Battibecco just five minutes down the road from our house, which had a large, open fire and electric green first press olive oil. We even made it to The Mall, the vast outlet shopping centre that kept me in cut-price designer schmutter through out my twenties. It had doubled in size and didn’t appear to be so bargain-like any more.
But it was San Gimignano that proved to me, I really knew nothing.
“San Gimmy” was always painted as the epitome of hell when I was teen. Full of pink expats, sweating old Campari it was to be avoided at all costs. In fact I had so successfully avoided it in all my 15 years of visiting Tuscany that I had never been. What a fool. On a crest of a hill, with its 14 towers, the walled town rises out of the green landscape like a medieval Manhattan; the architecture is stunning and when we visited the squares were almost empty of tourists and the torture museum had just enough horror to charm my children. It was also the perfect size for six-year-old legs.
In fact, Tuscany could not have been more beguiling for the six and the 10 year old; charming, easy and punctuated with handy pit stops, not to mention dripping with the most delicious ice creams in humanity . I don’t know what I had been thinking avoiding it all this time. Florence is fantastic for kids. Perhaps I just had to embrace my inner child to see it.
Florence is served by Vueling (0906 754 7541; vueling.com) from Gatwick and Luton and CityJet (0871 221 2452; cityjet.com) from London City. Pisa is served by a wider variety of airlines including easyJet (0843 104 5000; easyjet.com), British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com), Ryanair (0871 246 0000; ryanair.com) and Jet2 (0871 226 1737; jet2.com).
Imogen Edwards-Jones was a guest of Tuscany Now & More (tuscanynowandmore.com, 020 7684 8884), which offers a week at Villa Di Bagnolo from £382 per person based on eight people self-catering. Tuscany Now & More offers a range of villas across Italy with a selection of exclusive activities, excursions and services.
Gelateria Santa Trinita, Piazza Frescobaldi, Florence (00 39 055 2381130, gelateriasantatrinita.it).
Accademia and Uffizi galleries, Florence (uffizi.com). Admission €12, advance booking recommended although tickets and tours can be organised through Tuscany Now & More.
The Mall Outlet, Via Europa 8, Leccio Reggello (themall.it).
Il Battibecco, Via Vittorio Veneto 38, Impruneta (00 39 055 231 3820).
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