Wednesday 26 October 2016

Lake Garda: Pizza, piazzas and pedalos: that's amore

Italian holidays

Sophie White

Published 11/07/2016 | 02:30

The stunning Lake Garda, a jewel in the Italian countryside.
The stunning Lake Garda, a jewel in the Italian countryside.
The Bella Italia Campsite is a magical place that takes over-heated, cranky children and turns them into happy, smiling delights.

Once you have kids, the goalposts of what you consider a good holiday to be, dramatically move.

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In the new post-breeding world, what really makes a perfect holiday is not uninterrupted relaxation (ha) or perfect weather or cultural enrichment. All we can really hope for on a family holiday, is tantrum-limitation and damage-  control. Anything beyond that is a complete bonus.

With this goal of simply surviving, I planned a holiday in the company of the highly mercurial person I made myself and the person with whom I made this histrionic little cutie, also known as my family.

I contemplated our pending week in Northern Italy on the shores of Lake Garda with a grim set to my mouth and the kind of resolve-steeling that GI's presumably engage in before being deployed into battle. I've done enough of this parenting business to know that the first trade-off for a week of lakeside luxury (punctuated by tantrums) was, of course, the two-hour plane journey required to get there. It being summer, the plane was populated by professional parents who clearly knew their shit when it came to international babysitting.

My lack of preparation and forethought was immediately exposed by my dearth of in-flight entertainment for the toddler. All I had by way of distraction was two small toy cars and a bag of dried mango. A family of five two rows away had a mobile entertainment system that rivalled anything from MTV Cribs. I spent the plane journey desperately trying to shield my son from the knowledge that a thing called an iPad exists. Exhausting stuff. Luckily on landing at Verona airport, we were greeted by our resort representative and could immediately abandon all thinking and revert to sheep-mode.

We were shown to our bus and spirited through the northern Italian countryside to our destination, Bella Italia Campsite on the southern end of lovely Lake Garda. My idea of a campsite is mainly gleaned from gloomy, damp holidays in mildewed caravans, arranged in resigned rows gazing bleakly out on steel grey Irish waters, so I was ready to be impressed by virtually anything.

On arriving at Bella Italia on a sunny May morning, first on the agenda was check-in and a stroll around our new neighbourhood. I was beginning to feel tentatively optimistic about the holiday; then I saw the first of the many playgrounds on site within spitting distance of our holiday bungalow. The sight of a playground to a beleagured parent is akin to the sight of an oasis to a parched castaway on a desert island. And I'd already passed TWO between reception and our accommodation. I resolved then and there to never holiday anywhere else again.

Bella Italia is a huge complex about the size of three or four Stephen's Greens stuck together; despite this, it is very easy to navigate, which I resented somewhat as any time I tried to lose my family, they could find me with relative ease. The site hosts about 8,000 holiday-makers at peak capacity, but it doesn't feel crowded and runs remarkably efficiently, especially as more than half of those holidaymakers seem to be children.

I would hazard a guess that the children outnumber the adults two to one easily, but Bella Italia is a well-oiled machine, almost like a factory for familial harmony. Insert child that is over-heated, over-tired and grumpy from air travel and disruption of the all-important routine onto the Bella Italia conveyor belt and watch by a process of playgrounds every 50 metres, jolly kids' club dancers, bouncy castle parks and water slides, as a new child emerges rosy-cheeked, smiling and, most importantly of all, shattered by bedtime. Insert a downtrodden, dead-eyed, exhausted parent on the same conveyor belt and feel a transformation take place.

After possibly years (depending on how far down this road of breeding you've gone) of sleep deprivation, school runs, and tantrums, here at last is respite. On arrival, we are delivered from our children by wagons purveying Nutella crepes, sunshine, impossibly understanding waiters who seem to genuinely enjoy our children's presence and divine Italian pizza at least once a day. Daily, the man and I would agree that we would never be taking our children anywhere else until they were 18 - it was heaven.

We saw the occasional childless group of 20-somethings strolling gingerly around amid the armies of knee-high lunatics who clearly owned the place. They seemed to be having fun for sure, but had the haunted look of people whose holiday was being somewhat invaded by a harsh dose of reality.

With life running so smoothly within the confines of the campsite, it was tempting and indeed very possible to simply spend the week barricaded inside the parameters.

There are several restaurants to choose from, a supermarket, a fruit and veg shop, shops selling various inflatable pool toys, clothes and knick-knacks. There's a doctor on site; there's even a hairstylist. Your every need is catered for just a short stroll from your front door. And really, when there's a two-year-old involved, it's all about tantrum-management. Who needs to find the real northern Italian experience? I could have happily lived out my days there sunbathing under the trees in front of our two-bed self-catered bungalow.

To my mind, the self-catered thing is the only way to go with littlies. Most days we ate lunch out in the restaurants and did breakfast and dinner at home as, unless you want to eat dinner at 5 pm, in my experience dinner out with a toddler is so not worth it. We did venture further afield a couple of times and found that the surrounding area is every bit as welcoming to children as Bella Italia. Italians love children; a few people had mentioned this to me before the holiday, and it is totally true. This warmth is a lovely thing for a parent more accustomed to side-eye and eye-rolling upon entering an Irish restaurant or cultural centre accompanied by their sticky kids.

On the recommendation of our Topflight rep, Ulaf - who was on hand to make sure that basically, we didn't have to lift a finger, everything from booking tours to arranging a buggy for us was taken care of - we took the bus, on our third day, from the campsite to the nearby city of Verona to take in the sites with a guided tour. Before getting on the bus, I steeled myself just praying that my companions, mostly mature couples by the look of them, wouldn't see my son as the enemy. As we followed our wonderfully engaging tour guide around that beautiful, dusky pink city - Verona is largely built from rose coloured limestone from the nearby Valpolicella region - I was relieved to discover that toddlers and golden oldies are actually well-matched in the walking tour stakes, the pace and frequent stops suited us all perfectly.

The city is a very manageable 40 minutes from Bella Italia and boasts one of the largest amphitheatres in Italy, an impressive structure so well preserved it is still in use for music concerts and festivals with a capacity of 16,000, though in ancient times it held an incredible 30,000 spectators. Seemingly everywhere in Verona - a UNESCO heritage site - there is stunning architecture, from antiquity through Medieval and Renaissance periods to admire. Strolling the streets offers the perfect way to drink in perfectly preserved sculptures, shady vine-draped courtyards and the general atmosphere of romance.

A visit to the balcony of Shakespeare's doomed heroine Juliet turned out to be a bit of a scrum, as eager tourists elbowed and jostled each other out of the way to cop a feel of a bronze statue of the tragic lover standing in a tiny courtyard beneath the balcony. Juliet's breasts have been molested so enthusiastically over the years that the right one has actually gone shiny. I spent a long time in the dark enclosed alley leading to the courtyard reading the messages crowding the walls, left by lovers who visited the romantic site. Scrawled proclamations of undying devotion shout over one another and stretch from the ground underfoot to the curved ceiling above.

Fortified by delights from the market stalls in Piazza Delle Erbe - they do a sort of portable sweet fondue with gooey chocolate and skewered fruit that is just what one needs to fuel relaxed aimless wandering of the sort done on holidays - we headed homeward to our lakeside retreat.

Another jaunt out of the campsite took us to the nearby town of Peschiera, a ten-minute walk from Bella Italia. From here we went by boat to explore the town's fortress that is bordered by a series of interconnecting canals. After the injection of history and culture, we felt better about our true destination, theme park Gardaland, a short hop from Peschiera by shuttle bus, which satisfied the toddler for many a tantrum-free hour. There are roller-coasters that the man adored and costumed characters aplenty. The toddler was enrolled in The Kung Fu Panda Academy for a happy stint, and we also hit the aquarium, the highlight of which was one of those freaky glass tunnels where sharks eyeball you as you amble through and incongruously cheerful-looking rays glide overhead.

On the fourth day, we struck out from our campsite refuge and took on an arguably more edifying adventure. We went cycling en famille. Like everything else about this holiday, the procuring of and use of the bikes was incredibly easy. We rocked up to the Bella Italia bike rental shop and were fitted out with bikes, helmets and toddler carrier in under 10 minutes. We chose a gorgeous 40km round trip downriver to the town of Valeggio Sul Mincio for our Famous Family Go Cycling adventure.

Our destination was the gardens of Parco Giardino Sigurta, where visitors can explore the 10km of pathways and trails of this beautiful estate by foot, bike or buggy - golf buggy that is. Highlights were the maze, the views looking down over the lush, surrounding countryside and the farm where the toddler lost his mind over goats and deer, while the man and I lost our minds to a repetitive cycle of Old McDonald.

Before heading homeward to Bella Italia, we broke for lunch at an idyllic riverside restaurant in a huge garden where the toddler could roam free, pestering other families and playing with the provided toys. The cycle back gave me time to ponder the question: How the hell will we ever coax the toddler back on that plane and convince him to leave this paradise of pizza and piazzas? It might be time to purchase that iPad after all.

Getting there

Sophie travelled to Lake Garda with Topflight, Ireland’s Italian specialist, staying at the highly sought after four-star Bella Italia in Peschiera. Topflight offer holidays to Lake Garda with flights from Dublin, Cork and Belfast.

Bella Italia is also perfectly located for day trips to Gardaland, Verona and Venice. Accommodation options include apartments, hotel rooms, bungalows and mobile homes.

There is limited availability for 2016.

Take three: top attractions

Restaurant Vecchio Mulino Beach

The sunny terrace was just feet from the water’s edge and commanded views of the lake, the distant mountains, and intrepid pedalo explorers. The waiters wore dapper matching shirts and caps; the white tablecloths were pristine, the simple pasta dish and crisp white wine, faultless. I was genuinely waiting for Zelda and F. Scott to arrive with their entourage at any moment. Oh, and my son ate for free. Heaven.

Piazza Delle Erbe, Verona

Relax with a coffee or gelato in the bustling square in the centre of Verona. Formerly the town forum during Roman times, it is a vibrant mix of architectural influences, from classical Roman architecture with the Palazzo Maffei adorned with sculptures of Roman Gods to the 12th century Torre de Lamberti — a 85-metre tower built as a lookout to warn off invading Venetians.

Italian Pizza

The first draft of this insert contained 900 words, 734 of these being the word ‘pizza’. I could see it needed work. Presumably, not everybody is as obsessed as I am when it comes to pizza. Currently, our relationship is platonic but if it was physically possible for a human and a pizza to take their relationship to the next level, by God I would. My goal for this trip was to eat pizza at least once a day. In this, I succeeded.

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