TUSCANY 2017

My husband and I travelled to Italy in 2004 for our honeymoon. On that magical trip to Venice, Florence and Rome we fell in love with all things Italian – the food, the countryside, the architecture and of course the glorious weather! We vowed we would one day return and so 13 years later we finally got around to arranging that return trip – although this time with 3 kids in tow!

We decided to focus on the region of Tuscany, having become smitten with Florence and the surrounding area during our previous visit. We found superb accommodation in the Tuscan hills, complete with perfect views and a swimming pool. If you ever fancy a visit to this beautiful region, I highly recommend staying at Fortezza di Pozzo (http://www.fortezzadipozzo.it/en/). Run by Luca and Fulvio, the place is the perfect place to relax and also see the sights of Tuscany. Situated on a hill overlooking the village of Santa Maria a Monte it is so tranquil and welcoming. The apartment we stayed in (1 of 6) was spotlessly clean and well equipped and had great views over the swimming pool and countryside. We spent every morning in the pool before going out sightseeing in the afternoon, which was the perfect way to balance out a day with kids.

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There is a lot to see in Tuscany, with little villages dotted all across the region as well as the larger cities of Pisa, Siena and Florence to take-in. Before going we did worry that the kids would get bored looking at old buildings and walking around ruins, but with the early morning swimming and leisurely start to the day, they were actually more than happy to take in the sights.

VOLTERRA

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My husband’s favourite place that we visited, Volterra, is revealed in all its glory after a long drive up a winding road lined with olive trees and views that seem to stretch on forever. It is a truly majestic walled town and is the perfect place to wander, with its meandering streets leading to the central Palazzo dei Priori, it is easy to spend several hours here, taking in the breathtaking views and the Etruscan Acropolis.

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PONTEDERA

In this little industrial town you will find the HQ of the Piaggio company, complete with free Piaggio Museum (yes, free!). Our 3 sons had an absolutely brilliant time here. It isn’t a large museum, laid out over a ground floor and a mezzanine level, it is extremely accessible. The collection is impressive – shiny scooters and an array of other fascinating one-off designs, it is a lot of fun for kids large and small and comes highly recommended as you can see from my kids’ reviews above! Do plan something else for the afternoon (we visited Lucca) because it will only take you a couple of hours to see everything in the museum, including reading all of the information, but remember it is free!

LUCCA

Well, what can I say – birthplace of the composer Puccini, its Renaissance walls, cobblestone streets – it really is picture-book perfect. We were there on a particularly hot afternoon and were so grateful for the cool shade of the narrow streets. We strolled around, marvelling at the quaint buildings, enjoying gelato and just generally soaking up the atmosphere. Later in the day the boys chased bubbles in the central palazzo while Mum and Dad were able to relax with a drink. We then walked through the tunnels under the city ramparts, which housed some sculptures and were eerily quiet – great fun!

SIENA

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With its centre being a UNESCO World Heritage Site, it is well worth a visit. We entered the city through one of the large archways in the city walls and made our way towards the world-famous Siena Cathedral. Thankfully the queue to buy tickets wasn’t too long and we were served within 10 minutes. Once inside the cathedral we were in awe of the decorated vaulted ceiling and the stained glass. The Piccolomini Library is absolutely stunning and the children even enjoyed some quiet time in here viewing the illuminated choir books and frescoes painted by Bernardino di Betto.

Later in the afternoon we bought a delectable selection of pastries from a tiny bakery and took them to the fan-shaped central area, Piazza del Campo, to enjoy in the shadow of the Torre del Mangia. We relaxed here for ages, watching the crowds of visitors listening to their tour guides and eavesdropping for snippets of information. We were quite happy just sit and be there. The boys actually got engrossed in watching a colony of ants carrying off their pastry crumbs and we were engrossed in watching them enjoy this simple pleasure.

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On an evening wander through the side-streets, decorated with fabulous street lamps, we stumbled across a little green-zone and play area where the 3 boys spent some time playing while we enjoyed the view across the city. I fell in love with the beautifully adorned garden terraces which were bursting with flowers. As evening fell we lazily strolled back to our hire car, which we had parked at the paid car-park near the train station, stopping along the way for our evening aperitivo in a trendy bistro.

PISA

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Known world-wide for its ‘leaning tower’, I was kind of dreading the crowds of tourists visiting there in the height of summer. But, I knew if we didn’t visit for an obligatory ‘hold up the tower’ picture while in the region I would regret it. We didn’t visit when visiting Florence on our honeymoon because we ran out of time and the boys were eager to see what all the fuss was about. We found a free car park easily enough which was within walking distance to the tower and made our way, along with the throngs of tourists to the Piazza dei Miracoli.

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There are hoards of street vendors and stalls to pass-by along the way, so do be prepared to hold onto your handbag and say ‘no’ a billion times, unless you fancy haggling for some Pinocchio pencils or a Ferrari baseball cap. The tower itself, situated next to a Cathedral and Baptistry, is actually pretty impressive. Despite having seen pictures of it, I wasn’t quite prepared for the bizarre sensation its tilt actually evoked.

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The kids of course loved it and took up their positions for forty thousand shots of them in various poses appearing to hold-up, push over, karate chop, karate kick, dab-shove, forward roll, backward roll and handstand against the tower to name just a few…It was a lot of fun I have to say and we have some great family pictures to look back on. We didn’t go into the tower because our youngest son was underage (over 8s only – so bear this in mind to save disappointment), so we just spent some time walking up and down the streets, discovering that Pisa is in fact a beautiful city with a lot more to it than just the leaning tower. A stroll along the river and pizza in a side street café made for a relaxing afternoon away from the crowds.

FLORENCE

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No trip to Tuscany would be complete without visiting Florence. The backdrop to many of our favourite honeymoon photos, we were eager to show the boys some of the places we had fallen in love with. Florence is a vast, but still walkable, city with an abundance of things to see and do. For older kids and adults there are numerous museums and galleries to visit, but with our boys still being fairly young we decided that a walking tour taking in some of the most well-known landmarks would suit us best. Our hosts at Fortezza di Pozzo recommended using the park and tram system, and I am glad we heeded the advice. It made entering the city so much easier and meant we avoided receiving a hefty fine for entering the ZTL area (basically a no-drive, no-parking zone). The tram-ride was short and brought us right into the city centre, close to the train station and near to the hotel where my husband and I stayed on our honeymoon. We were so excited to show the boys around. We took them straight to the magnificent Duomo with its striking terracotta-tiled dome, before heading to the Mercato Centrale for some lunch. This indoor market hosts an array of vendors selling their wares from the local region. We bought snack-sized pizzas and some cakes and took them outside to eat on the steps. It was extremely cheap, but tasty, and provided the necessary energy for a an afternoon of walking, taking in the Ponte Vecchio and its jewellery shops and finishing up at the Piazzale Michelangelo – the best spot to get a great view across the city and a great photo opportunity! The long walk back tired the boys out and they were relieved to board the tram after a busy day of sightseeing! The following day we lazed around the pool all day long, well deserved in my opinion!

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CAVALLINO MATTO

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One of the things we do try to do on holiday is dedicate a day to things that the kids really want to do. Usually that comes in the form of a theme park! Having walked around cities and ruins in scorching sunshine, it seemed only fair that they have a day off from culture! I went online to look for a theme-park because I wasn’t familiar with any well-known ones in the region. I came across Cavallino Matto and after reading the reviews and checking out the prices I purchased tickets for the family to spend a day there.

We have visited lots of theme parks over the years, including Disneyland Paris, and I have to say I was super-impressed with Cavallino Matto. It was spotlessly clean, had an excellent variety of rides to suit all ages, great food outlets, water fountains to refill your water bottles with fresh drinking water (essential in the heat), we queued for no more than 10 minutes, there were loads of rest-zones where kids could play freely while parents took the weight off for a few minutes. Overall, a fantastic family day out, well worth the money and made for a peaceful drive home with 3 sleepy, satisfied boys.

FIESOLE

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This was my favourite day out of the entire holiday. Nestled in the hills on the outskirts of Florence, Fiesole is an absolute gem. When I visited here on our honeymoon I couldn’t believe how uncrowded the village was, seeing as it is bursting at the seams with history and interesting things to see. I crossed my fingers as we ascended via a winding road, hoping for a similar experience this time. We found free parking close to the centre and walked up the steep hill to the little Monastery of St. Francis, where apparently Albert Einstein came for inspiration and Leonardo Da Vinci tested his inventions in the nearby hills!

A wander around the Monastery is truly tranquil and it houses tons of interesting artefacts, including a mummy! The little church provides welcome relief from the midday sun and we left just as a wedding party arrived – what a stunning place to get hitched!

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Next on the agenda was a visit to the Musei di Fiesole, with its indoor archaeological museum and impressive Etruscan and Roman ruins outside. There were hardly any other visitors there and we more or less had the ruins to ourselves. We strolled around for hours, reading the history and walking among the ruins. The boys busied themselves following lizards in the hope of catching one (no chance!). There are thousands of lizards here, taking shelter among the cool rocks of the ruins and it was great fun watching the boys tiptoe around in their attempt to capture one. We allowed the boys to use our phones to take silly selfies in the amphitheatre (hilarious result when I looked back on them later!) and just had a great time walking around this peaceful spot before going for an early dinner in a local restaurant.

Tuscany is by far one of the most beautiful places I have ever visited. Yes, the roads are quite daunting to navigate (although very well signposted) and it is not necessarily a ‘child-friendly’ place in that there isn’t a lot of entertainment aimed solely at children. However, we found that leisurely strolling around beautiful villages, buying food from small, local outlets and just seeing where the little side-streets led to was massively rewarding. Other than when visiting Florence and pre-booking tickets for Cavallino Matto we didn’t plan our days out. We headed out to a different town or village every other afternoon, with the days in-between spent by the pool, and had the most fun and relaxing holiday. There was so much for us to see as grown-ups, but the kids never moaned about being bored, there were ants to watch and lizards to chase after-all! Food was always easy to come by and we never went hungry once! We enjoyed gelato every day, sometimes more than once. The coffee was superb everywhere and you don’t need to spend a fortune to eat well either.

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SOME OF OUR FAMILY TRAVEL TIPS

  • This year we decided we were only taking hand luggage (for 16 days!?! Yep). We had a case each packed with our clothing and we bought all of our toiletry supplies on arrival. This way we saved on luggage costs and we had more than enough clothing to see us through the entire holiday. Never again will I drag a heavy suitcase around an airport filled with things I won’t wear or use, plus, the boys loved being responsible for their own cases! Win Win!
  • When booking our flights to Pisa I originally priced flights from Belfast. They were quite expensive so I spent some time looking at different options. I eventually found flights from Belfast to Luton with a flight from Luton to Pisa a few hours later. The cost was actually half the price of the Belfast-Pisa flights and meant we could splash out a little more on finding accommodation with a swimming pool. And actually, during the wait at Luton we played games, read our books and chatted, so by the time we arrived in Italy we were already in relaxed holiday-mode so it worked out really well.
  • One thing I did spend a lot of time on was researching accommodation (TripAdvisor is your best friend here). We wanted somewhere quiet but with easy access to roads for travelling around with ease. It is definitely worthwhile spending time on this and contacting the owners of rental properties for more information. Sometimes the response by an owner can give you a feel about whether or not the place it right for your family. Luca at Fortezza di Pozzo was helpful from my first enquiry and I am so glad I booked to stay here.
  • Allow for some down time. Yes, you want to see everything and do it all, but remember, holidays are for relaxing too and spending time with the people you love. We visited during a particularly hot summer and if I had planned outings for every single day it would have ended in disaster. Walking around in the heat is exhausting for kids and adults alike and takes its toll. It is good to see the local region, but it is also good to have some time to chill out, read a book, play in the pool with your kids, listen to the cicadas and take a deep breath.

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