Historic Italy, cool for kids

By Jo Carlowe, March 28, 2008

A hotel that is close to perfection for children — and not a bucket and spade in sight

This is the best place ever, exclaimed my daughter, Lucy, aged five. She had just spotted an enormous trampoline, so she would have said the same if we had just arrived at a soft-play area at a north London industrial estate. But actually, this really was the best place ever.

Russet and golden fields, rolling hills punctuated by cedar trees and olive groves — Villa Pia truly was exquisite. An 18th-century manor house, it was on the Tuscan-Umbrian borders in the tiny village of Lippiano, 415 metres above sea level and once a prominent 16th-century Jewish settlement.

But Lucy was oblivious to the postcard scenery and history; she had kicked off her shoes and was making her way to the trampoline with two-year-old brother Alex in tow.

“Look, a playground!” yelled Lucy mid-bounce. Soon she and Alex had clambered off the trampoline to try the slide and roundabout. Our exploration of Villa Pia’s grounds continued to take in the five acres of box-hedged gardens, the bamboo wood, a range of terraces and the courtyard with ride-on cars for the kids and hammocks and garden chairs for the grown-ups. There was also a tiny soft-play area, an indoor playroom, outdoor pool and all-weather tennis court.

And to reach all of this you had to step through the hub of Villa Pia — its large kitchen, with 13th-century wood-burning fireplace and drinks, fruit, bread, jams and yoghurts on tap. As a result of this 24-hour help-yourself policy (including the baby-friendly essential of constant access to milk and a microwave), the manor house has an extraordinarily informal feel. Adults lounged around in the communal areas, rising only occasionally to hone their coffee-making skills on the Gaggia espresso machine. Kids roamed in packs playing adventure games in the bamboo wood or checking out the fairy or animal dress-up costumes in the playroom. It was very easy to forget that this was a hotel at all. It felt more like arriving at a friend’s country pile for some unspecified party or reunion.

A team of smart staff kept the place spotless, while British owners Morag and Kevin were at hand to provide information about the area and its surrounding attractions. In the main cooking area, women with enormous shoulders — presumably from years of rolling pasta — toil to create wonderful dishes including tagliatelle, ravioli, lasagne and mezze lune (half moons).

“I had a pasta machine but the cooks insisted on rolling the pasta by hand as they say it is smoother and thinner,” explained Morag during an adult cookery demonstration. It takes around 45 minutes to thin-out the pasta but fortunately, when it came to the children’s cookery class — run on a weekly basis for kids from two to 12 — the pasta had been pre-rolled.

At Lucy’s class, she learned to make biscotti — two pavesini biscuits stuck together with Nutella, dipped in orange juice and rolled in coconut, followed by traditional biscuits covered in jam, then pizza and focaccia. The only blip came when the cooks turned away for a nanosecond giving Lucy and friend a chance to over-salt the focaccia.

The class lasted around two hours and Lucy was completely engrossed. Pleasingly, the experience seemed to dispose her to be more adventurous than usual when it came to the kids’ 6pm buffet. The food was traditional Italian fare with plenty of choices of vegetables and pasta.

In the evenings, the adults congregated in the kitchen to snack on olives, nibbles and wine, while the children settled into bed. This was followed by a sumptuous four-course dinner made with seasonal food sourced locally and eaten around a long communal table in the dining room. There were ample vegetarian options such as lasagne with artichokes, free-flowing wine and plenty of opportunity to get to know the other guests.

With the promise of truffle hunting in the morning, Lucy and Alex were happy to settle in their bedroom, which adjoined our own in the main house. There are 17 bedrooms in total — some in the house, others in the former barn or stables. All have private bathrooms and retain original features and furnishings.

The next morning, our guide introduced us to the head truffle hunter, and his specially trained dog. The dog quickly sniffed out a likely looking patch and the hunter dug away with a vast implement. A grenade-shaped black truffle was finally revealed and the dog rewarded with a doggie snack.

My son Alex, who enjoys a rich fantasy life (mostly involving Fireman Sam, Peter Pan and acts of derring-do) was in his element. He relished the chance to use the digging tool (which was three times his size) and to chase after the dog in hot pursuit of hidden treasure. At one point he even dug up a clump of earth, proclaiming it to be a truffle. Following the hunt, we were taken for a tour of Tartufi Bianconi, a truffle farm in the Upper Tiber Valley, and enjoyed samples of black and white truffles and a range of patés made from olives and porcini mushrooms. Alarmingly, Lucy, who frequently professes to like only pizza and ice-cream, decided to add white truffle to her food list — a mere snip at around £195 for 30 grams.

After so much rich food it was hard to waddle further than Lippiano village with its 13th-century castle (one turret is from 1080CE). The castle is privately owned but Morag can arrange tours for her guests. We climbed the steep steps hoping to see over the valley, but there was a mist. Without it, we would have enjoyed views across Tuscany and Umbria. Siena, Florence and Assisi are just an hour’s drive away; Rome is about two hours; and there are Gucci and Prada outlets tantalisingly close —fortunately my credit card was spared by the kids’ unwillingness to be dragged from their haven. Besides, we were only there for a long-weekend — a fact that kept excursions to a minimum but mercifully spared our waistlines.

Last updated: 2:37pm, September 10 2008