Sunday 17 December 2017

Moments of reality in Tuscany

BRENDAN O'CONNOR

THINGS could have spoiled this holiday. Every communication from home mentioned the amazing weather. Yes, it was that week. When Ireland was bathed in record-breaking sun. We were in Italy, and the weather was a bit patchy. We had a sick child too. She got sick on the first day. So that could have spoiled it too. But it didn't. Not even that could spoil it. Because we were in Italy and we were in a place and a hotel that was the culmination of a year or two of internet searching.

The Una Hotel Versilia ticked a lot of boxes. In Tuscany, but by the seaside; modern, clean design, which can be hard to find among the 'olde worlde' grand hotels in Italy; family-friendly suites with a little kitchen, a separate bedroom and even a washing machine, and a good breakfast. It didn't disappoint. And those of you who go to Italy know that all these things are hard to find. So in a way this place was a minor miracle.

The hotel was situated at Lido di Camaoire on the strip between two of Italy's best known resorts. A few miles away is Viareggio, popular with Italians. In the other direction is Forte Dei Marmi, a high-end resort frequented by Russians, and full of designer shops. Between the two there are 10 miles of beach carved up into various private lidos. The Italians do the beach well. You pay, but the furniture and the set-up is better than you'd have in your house.

We frequented a family-run lido where we were not charged for the use of the beach if we bought a few drinks or ice creams or a bit of lunch (spaghetti with tomato sauce or clams; that was it; though he made mine a bit piccante). This was largely to do with the fact that it was off season and they were happy to see anyone spending a few quid. The grandfather and I would stand squinting out to sea, he with scant English and me with a couple of words of Italian and we would somehow communicate about a wide range of subjects as we scratched our bellies and contemplated the quiet beach. The kids enjoyed the swings and the playhouse. I taught the older daughter a bit of table soccer, and we took the odd dip in the sea. Nice, lazy afternoons where you felt you were having a real Italian experience.

It is these moments of reality that I love in Italy. Nearby Lucca -- so good we visited twice -- was beautiful. We looked round the cathedrals and whatnot, but things like suddenly finding a little sun-drenched square full of Italians eating pizza on rickety tables from a pizzeria that looks a hundred years old and joining them to chow down, or sitting outside the Pasticceria Taddeucci eating their delicious dinky pastries, while the elder daughter engaged in her favourite holiday pastime of chasing pigeons -- these are the moments you remember.

More than Viareggio or Forte Dei Marmi, it was Pietrasanta, in the hills above the coast, to which we were drawn repeatedly. It is here that Michelangelo got the stone from which he released David, and many artists and sculptors make their home here, for the local stone and the bohemian vibe. We ate Sunday lunch on the cobbled street outside the Michelin-recommended Ristorante Fillippo. It was slightly posh and the local produce was done with great finesse and refinement, reduced to their essential elements in an almost molecular fashion. The ambience was relaxed and friendly and the waiter took great time to explain every dish. But took the needs of the kids seriously as well. Which is the kind of thing that's great about Italy. They are relaxed and casual, but take everything quite seriously too.

The hotel had bikes with all sorts of kids' seats on them but it had been a while since we had cycled and I worried whether we'd be safe. Then one evening I cycled out to get pizzas and discovered the idiot-proof cycle lanes that run the length of the coast. So for the next few days we cycled. I had the toddler in front of me, while the older one was in a seat behind her mother and we zoomed up and down to neighbouring towns and beaches, bickering and singing and stopping off for seafood lunches. It made me feel oddly close to the baby. The two of us cycling along, not really chatting, but communing, she either in a zen trance or waving at everyone and even falling asleep one evening en route to dinner at the fantastic Cantina da Bruno.

And then back to the hotel room, which was a haven, particularly if it was raining or the child was feeling under the weather -- that's when you really need a gorgeous room with some space and light, so people can hang out and chill and watch a DVD or read a book for a while between outings and activities. It was also a place you could rustle them up a bit of pasta if dinner is going to be too late for them, and indeed, where you can wash some clothes.

And where breakfast can be heaven. Is there anything like breakfast on holidays, everyone sitting down together, eating heartily, trying different things and leaving behind a glorious mess? At the Una Hotel Versilia, you could start it all with freshly squeezed juice, which, along with a good plate of fruit, I felt absolved me for the fried eggs and toast course and the bun course with two coffees. After a day or two, the juice girl knew you wanted plenty of ginger in your carrot juice. Like all the staff here, and most of the people you meet around, she was lovely, friendly and warm, warmth being the ingredient that can often be missing in modernist hotels. The pool was gorgeous, set in an expansive lawn where you could lie on the grass or in the shade of the trees on a sunbed, and the staff were always on hand with help and advice and to organise anything you wanted.

We are going back there, as soon as possible. This time we'll fly into Pisa, which we couldn't do on this occasion so we had over a two-hour drive from Bologna. Pisa is nearby. The flight is about two and half hours, which is as much as I can stand with kids, and then you are straightaway into somewhere that has enough of a flavour of really being in Italy with enough of the facilities of a tourist destination to make you comfortable in between your dips into reality. The weather in Italy and at home, and the sick child could have ruined it. But they didn't.

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