Remember my ever-thwarted-by-children dream of lying on a sun lounger with a book and a G and T? Well, sorry-not-sorry but it actually happened, and I didn’t have to abandon my kids or enrol them in a kids club to achieve it. Welcome to Villa Pia, a family-focused hotel on the Umbria/Tuscan border, which I’ve been itching to try out since a widowed friend insisted it was the only place she’d been able to have a real holiday for herself while spending time with her two children.
The 15th century house has 17 bedrooms, all with private bathrooms and a mix of family and interconnecting rooms, decorated in a simple style with the original, cool-to-the-touch, tiled floors. With its faded apricot plaster, blue shutters and shady reading corners overhung with wisteria it looks like a Farrow and Ball fantasy. I kept imagining spies from the eponymous paint manufacturer sneakily chipping bits off the facade in an attempt to rip-off the colours, only to discover that the magic only happens when it’s doused in Italian sunshine and wine. The setting is equally idyllic. There are views of distant hills that unknot the six-year (or however old your kids are) tension you’ve been holding in your neck.
My ever-thwarted-by-children dream of lying on a sun lounger with a book and a G and T actually happened, and I didn’t have to abandon my kids or enrol them in a kids club to achieve it
The journey there proved once and for all that it isn’t possible to have a stress-free family holiday however delightful the eventual destination. After wrestling with hired car seats for two hours on the floor of the dimly lit Bologna airport carpark we’d sworn to murder several Avis reps, get divorced and have the children adopted. Thankfully we hung on in there and drove the two hours from Bologna to Lippiano: the tiny town that’s home to Villa Pia and English owner Morag Cleland’s five acre plot.
As she makes clear on her website this is no ordinary hotel. If you want five star luxury bathrooms, anonymity, chocolates on your pillow or silver service then you’ll be disappointed. Instead, if you’re open to being sociable, you’ll be rewarded with something quite different. More like a country house party than a traditional hotel, breakfast, lunch and dinner are served communally on the Villa’s endless, outdoor dining table. Children eat at 6pm and then are either marshalled off to bed if you are meanies like us, or left to play, read and bop around the courtyard while parents sit down for a four course meal at 8pm. The food is wonderful: fresh and washed down with plenty of local wine.
My extrovert/introvert tendencies coped well with the seven-night-long dinner party, and it was nice to have other adults to help you feel like a grown-up couple on holiday rather than a pair of frazzled, unpaid babysitters. But it’s worth bearing in mind that if your idea of hell is smalltalk, or you want to gaze in to each others eyes privately each night, this probably isn’t the break for you. The enormous upside of the communal approach is the shared sense of responsibility for the children and the instant friendships the small people make. My daughter had four new best friends within minutes – we hardly saw her all week but heard plenty of giggles as she ran with friends around the safe (but not over-safe) grounds. There was a pack of equally happy teenagers and a little crowd of toddlers trailing behind the big kids kept busy by sandpits, swimming pools, ping pong, trampolines, playgrounds, soft play, slides and a swarm of little cars and scooters.
The set-up is all-inclusive in its own, unique family-led style. Need to feed the children at an odd time? Help yourself to a fridge full of yoghurt, juice and bread and fresh fruit galore any time of day or night. Wine and beer are in limitless supply and I made a few pre-dinner negronis and gin and tonics at the well-stocked bar. From books to baby monitors, cots to highchairs everything you need for children is provided meaning we managed to pack pretty light.
Children eat at 6pm and then are either marshalled off to bed if you are meanies like us, or left to play, read and bop around the courtyard while parents sit down for a four course meal at 8pm
We stayed a few minutes walk from the main house in the beautifully restored Palazzo Regina which provides a further eight bedrooms, its own kitchen and playroom and a quieter vibe for those with occasional antisocial tendencies. It would be a great place to split between a group of friends and we did wish we’d had friends with us to mitigate the effort needed to chat to new people day-in-day-out. Also on hand in the Palazzo is Gabriella, who arrives just before 8pm each night to babysit – no extra charge. Though initially worried about leaving the children while we ate we ended up loving our more private set up and didn’t envy the other dinner guests getting up to resettle their children during the pasta course. Do check where you’ve been allocated in advance as if you are in Palazzo Regina it’s worth bringing a buggy/sling for naps by the pool.
As well as free on-site entertainment like Gabriela’s two hour art classes for the children (can you hear the sun lounger calling?) or cooking classes for kids and adults, other (less lazy) guests arranged pilates, additional babysitting, tennis matches and massages. If you can tear yourself away from the free food and wine Perugia and Florence are less than two hours drive away with sweet little towns like Anghiari an easy 20 minute drive for pizza and an explore.
On our last day, as we sat in the shade reading and drinking coffee, our daughter and her new friends made a rabbit from old boxes – sourcing materials, working together and having that very basic imaginative, no-toys-needed fun that we all tell them they should be having while they clamour for the iPad. The little guy built a train track for hours and then had lunch with a mate in the playhouse. Everyone forgot TV existed. Boredom was a lost concept. We all hung out lots but I found myself actively parenting much less. It was that holy grail: an actual holiday with kids.
How to get there
Book a stay at Villa Pia via www.villapia.com. If you aren’t constrained by school holidays Morag recommends June, September and early October for bargain prices and nice weather.
Flights: We flew easyJet from Gatwick to Bologna but there are a number of airports within two hours drive of Villa Pia.
What to pack
Bubble bum inflatable car seat: Don’t fancy hauling your car seat on the plane or risking divorce installing the car rental’s one? Get yourself an inflatable booster seat for kids aged four and up and laugh at fools like us. It packs flat and inflates in minutes. Genius.
Hair dryer: Like gold-dust. Rent yours out for a small fortune when everyone gets desperate on day three.
Packing cubes: I laughed at my husband for buying these but they were super handy to make the scramble for nappies, snacks and toys on the plane easier, and then useful for taking stuff to the pool, and keeping it organised in the room.
Roomy Clothes: For the end of the holiday when you are inevitably half a stone heavier.
Toys, books, sterilisers, cots, pool toys, bed rails etc etc. If you’ve forgotten something you can bet the friendly staff will have it.