HOLIDAYING in Tuscany can inspire daunting thoughts of wildly expensive breaks alongside ranks of annoying, well-heeled Middle-Englanders.
Tony Blair (remember him?) and his family visiting the holiday villa of an accommodating Italian prince a few years back epitomises much of the stereotype.
But – whisper it softly – thanks to no-frills air travel and the modest delights of static caravan parks, a wonderful holiday in this beautiful corner of Italy is now within reach of lesser mortals.
In fact, book the flights early enough, and there’s no reason why a two-week family break in the Tuscan sunshine, complete with flights, car hire, and self-catering accommodation, shouldn’t set you back any more than a package holiday to one of the Med’s less cultured fleshpots.
And, if the weather’s right, it could just turn out to be one of the best holidays of your life.
Let’s get one thing straight first, though. Static caravan parks can conjure up images of the industrial-scale behemoths that straddle much of our nation’s coastline.
Not so the Tuscan version. Our home for 10 days, booked through UK-based company Venue Holidays, was in a delightful woodland setting nestling underneath the stunning, medieval, hilltop village of Castagneto Carducci.
Forget about the row upon row of caravan units stacked closely together too – we’re talking of a quiet place with space for just 220 caravans and tents discreetly spread out over the picturesque site.
The facilities were superb, too.
One large pool and one children’s fun pool were enough to ensure even the most demanding of offspring remained – literally – happy campers throughout the stay.
An on-site shop, impressive restaurant, kids’ playground and adventure playground added to the overall impression of convenience, while Brian the ever-chirpy rep was a handy point of contact for indispensable tips on day trips and nearest supermarkets, etc.
If you can afford it, it’s well worth spending the extra to stay in a caravan rather than a family tent, as we did during a previous European campsite holiday. Be warned that such tents can get steamier than an Andrew Davies TV adaptation in the height of summer.
Inside the two-bedroom caravan there was enough basic cooking equipment to turn it into a proper home from home. (The option of having linen provided, available for £15, is worth taking up to avoid having to bring bedding with you.) More square-eyed visitors might gripe about the lack of telly but, hey, that just conformed to my personal idea of bliss. Instead, the glorious evenings offered the terrific natural entertainment of psychedelic fireflies whizzing around the site.
Were the site anywhere else, it might have been a wrench to leave it even for a few hours. But with the region’s beautiful beaches just four miles away and with the must-see sights of Pisa and Florence an easy drive away, it was a perfect base for much this richly historic corner of Europe has to offer.
Pisa – with its famous leaning tower and its associated piazza that must rank as one of the world’s best picnic spots – was a mere hour’s drive away.
Florence – home of an embarrassing wealth of world-famous art galleries, the stunning Duomo cathedral, and the beautiful still-inhabited olde worlde bridge of Ponte Vecchio – was less than two hours’ drive away or an even more leisurely (and very reasonably-priced) train ride away.
Other worthwhile day trip spots included the must-see citadel of towers that is San Gimignano, rising out of the undulating sun-baked Tuscan scenery like a miraculous crown of stone.
The important towns of Siena, Lucca and Livorno are all within striking distance too.
And as a spot of light relief from the area’s rich tapestry of history – mostly emanating from its historic position as the beating heart of the Renaissance – there’s a great little theme park five miles up the coast, offering unlimited rides on the assorted roller coasters and attractions once you’ve paid your entry fee, while the beaches just 20 minutes south of the site offered glorious stretches of golden sands and the invitingly azure Tyrrhenian Sea, backed by plenty of shady woodland for some much-needed respite from what can be the area’s fierce summer heat.
Quick tip – avoid the beaches on Saturdays and Sundays to avoid that “Barry Island on Bank holiday August” feeling as Italians from far and wide take to the water.
The area’s fine food and wines should need no introduction. Suffice to say, pasta and even the simplest of sauces will never taste as fine again after a visit to an authentic Tuscan restaurant.
If it all sounds idyllic, well, the 10-day trip just was. Blue skies and daytime temperatures of well above the UK average clearly helped. Families would be well advised to bring the odd board game, though, as this part of Italy has little need – and hence little provision – of the kind of wet weather summertime entertainment offered in our rainier corner of the world.
There were minor gripes. After paying for a holiday, it rankles a little that families with babies should be expected to pay extra, even if it is just £3 per day, for something as basic as a cot, highchair and baby bath. And such family-friendly facilities should always, in my view, include safety gates and child-proof locks on doors, windows and cupboards as standard – but that’s probably more of a moan about the travel industry in general.
If you’ve never visited Tuscany before, it’s well worth a try, offering something for everyone from gourmands to culture vultures to sun-seekers to difficult-to-please children.