If you read my little letter to the Lady on the Plane, you’ll know that just after Easter we went off on our first ever holiday abroad as a family of five. I’ve been meaning to post about it since we got home, which was now over a month ago. But if you’re interested, or considering an Italian adventure with little ones, read on for things to know and places to go.
What and Where?
Our destination was Puglia, which is the heel of the Italian boot and has long been on my list of places to visit. We flew to Bari, and stayed in a village just between the towns of Monopoli and Alberobello (about a 40 minute drive from Bari). There are a few touristy little pockets, but generally it felt quite authentic and less touristy than many other areas of Italy I’ve visited. If you’re looking for trulli, the little houses with conical roofs for which Puglia is famous, then this is right in the heart of trulli country. And if you’re wondering what on earth trulli are, then they look like this:
It wasn’t a particularly child-orientated holiday – we stayed in a villa in the middle of nowhere, there were no kids’ clubs; and whilst we did have a pool, it wasn’t heated and never got quite warm enough to use. So it wasn’t what you might call relaxing, but it did feel like the most grown-up holiday we’ve had since having our boys…..just with lots of grazed knees and no going out in the evenings.
Spring in Puglia was perfect for us – low 20s most days. But what you don’t get at that time of year are warm evenings. So, once all boys were tucked up in bed, rather than sitting on a balcony sipping cocktails we would curl up on the sofa and catch up with series 1 of Happy Valley. It’s more than a little surreal to spend your days exploring beautiful, sunny Puglia and spend your evenings watching a gritty northern police drama but it worked for us (and how good is Happy Valley?!).
10 things you might like to know if you’re considering going with the kids:
- In Italy, life is very much about pottering: walking up and down streets, lounging in squares, sitting on steps. My boys got very into the sitting on steps bit and have been trying to recreate it since we got home……it’s just a shame the views aren’t quite as pretty. Everywhere is ‘child-friendly’ just because it is a child-friendly culture, but you won’t find lots of attractions specifically aimed at children (unless you’re staying at a resort). Many of our days were spent exploring little towns and stopping for ice-creams.
- Restaurants don’t tend to do children’s meals, so order dishes to share – we usually ordered 2 dishes between our 3 boys which worked out fine (often with some left over).
- Most restaurants close at about 3 and then don’t re-open again until 7.30pm. If, like us, you decided to go self-catering and 7.30 is far too late for you to even consider venturing out with your children, eat out at lunchtime and then get food in for the evenings.
- Unless you’re somewhere fairly touristy, pizza is usually only served in the evenings and not at lunchtime. I did know this, but momentarily forgot one lunchtime – the waiter looked at me like I had two heads when I dared to order pizza. In my defence, he had given me a menu with a whole page devoted to pizza (and nowhere did it say ‘only in the evening’), but I still felt an utter fool for forgetting. If you see a ‘pizza anche a pranzo’ sign, that means you can actually get pizza for lunch; but it’s not the norm.
- Toilets are hit-and-miss. You still sometimes find squat toilets (ie. a hole in the floor), which my boys were less than impressed with. 90% of the other toilets seem to have had their seats removed: you can see the fixings, so it’s like the seat was once there but has been deliberately taken off. Basically, going to the toilet with little ones who a) like a seat and b) don’t want to fall in; can be a challenge.
- Shops in Italy usually close for a few hours in the afternoon – in Puglia this seemed to be from 1-5pm. It was fine for us as we weren’t shopping, but it did make some of the towns feel like deserted film sets.
- Puglia has a beautiful coastline, but many of the seafront hotels have their own private beaches. Which is fine if you’re staying at one, but means you might need to hunt around for a decent stretch of public beach (we went to Pilone, just outside Ostuni).
- And if you are planning on having a beach day, pack buckets and spades from home.
We couldn’t find anywhere to buy them and ended up venturing to the beach with tupperware and spoons from our villa. The boys were happy enough, but it wasn’t quite the same attempting to make sandcastles with lunchboxes and tablespoons.
- I always used to say I would NEVER drive in Italy because the roads are crazy and the driving, well that can be on the crazy side too. But I did and actually….. it wasn’t too bad. Once you’re out of the towns that is. If you find yourself accidentally driving into an old town area then it’s a nightmare and at some point you will find yourself doing a 17-point turn down the narrowest road in town with an irate driver hooting his horn behind you.
- Some of the little streets look so narrow you’d think they must be pedestrianised. But no – cars still manage to appear just when you least expect them. If, like mine, your little ones love to run free, just keep them within arm’s reach – cars can (and do) appear at any moment.
Things to do………
And if you actually want an idea of what there is to do, here are a few things I would recommend. All of the below are a very short drive away if you’re staying around Monopoli or Alberobello:
- The Grotte di Castellana (caves) are well worth a visit. There is either a short tour (50 minutes), or a full on 2 hour tour. We had planned to do the short tour knowing that 2 hours was a big ask with 3 small boys in tow, but we got there just as the long tour was about to leave so we decided to risk it. It was hard work (I spent two hours pretending to hunt for a gruffalo) but we made it round with minimal fuss so if you are tempted by the long tour, do it.
- Just down the road from the caves is a Dinosaur Park, which is perfect for little ones who need to let off steam having listened to a tour guide talking about stalagtites and stalagmites for 2 hours.
- The zoo-safari in Fasano is a full day out. There is a self-drive safari park and a zoo/amusement park – you can visit them both together (which I’d recommend) or just go to the zoo/amusement park without the safari.
- Polignano a Mare is a lovely little seaside town. There is a small (rocky) beach which my boys loved. There was also a little tourist train to take you round the town. I’m pretty sure the driver charges different amounts depending on whether or not you look like gullible foreign tourists – we got well and truly fleeced.
- Alberobello is the most touristy town in the area and is full of trulli and souvernir shops. If you walk up the hill to the church there is a playground just opposite.
- Ostuni is a stunning hilltop town, full of little alleyways to explore and steep steps to climb. If you find yourself in need of a pharmacy, I can recommend the one in the main square which my 5 year old declared ‘the best pharmacy in the world’ (this may have had something to do with the fact that they gave him a lollipop).
- Monopoli had boats and a cannon, Cisternino had good ice-cream and a deserted square (from 1-5pm), Locorotondo had a playground AND a bicycle hanging on a wall; and Martina Franca had a car with a missing headlight. All were worth a visit.
Would I recommend it?
Yes. I loved seeing my boys exploring somewhere totally new, taking in the sights, listening to a new language and watching Peppa Pig in Italian. Whilst it wasn’t particularly relaxing; it was an adventure in the sunshine, and a chance for us all to discover somewhere new together. Which felt good.