The results of my informal Family Holiday Highlights Survey took me by surprise. Devised and carried out by myself – the mother of three children, aged ten, nine and five – it involved one simple question: what was the best day of your Italian holiday? Was it (a) a visit to the Roman amphitheatre in Verona; (b) a day spent at a water theme park; (c) a ride on a gondola in Venice; (d) a ferry trip on Lake Garda? The overwhelming winner was – to my surprise – the gondola ride. Even five-year-old Magnus opted for that one. The aqua park – the outing I thought would be the outright winner – was only runner-up.
I was surprised because last summer I thought we’d covered every fun family holiday experience to be had: camping in a friend’s field, zoo trips, an amusement park and several jaunts on a boat. The overwhelming winner had been the amusement park – a day filled with scary rides, water slides, and numerous portions of fries.
But this time, the trip to Venice took our combined breath away. It was a first visit for the whole family to the city that floats on water – a city which, for me, had been a collage of clichéd postcard images and corny ice-cream ads. Yet, in reality, there is little that is clichéd about Venice, and catching a glimpse of this iconic conurbation through the eyes of children made it really special.
Arriving early in the day, we approached the city from the station side and sauntered through the surprisingly uncrowded streets; there are, of course, no cars on the streets of Venice, so you can let your children run ahead without constant nagging – apart from the concern that they may run headlong into a canal.
However, what really made the day was a gondolier by the name of Victor whom we found parked by the Grand Canal. His immaculately maintained gondola had belonged to his grandfather – five generations of Victor’s family had been gondoliers, and his 19-year-old son Jacobi was set to carry on the tradition. In true Italian form, Victor immediately understood children and the concept of family entertainment. He could instantly recall all of the children’s names, and as soon as we boarded the gondola, Victor handed Magnus his boater hat to wear throughout the trip. He then invited each child to have a go at punting with him. For nearly an hour, we wove our way down and around tiny waterways and canals – all five of us loving every moment of it.
We lunched at the aptly named Ai Gondolieri – a stylish restaurant that’s more of an evening venue, so our timing meant we had the run of the place. The children adored their ribbons of al dente pasta in a delicious wild duck sauce; for me, the highlight was the risotto and oh-so-perfectly chilled glass of prosecco.
By the time we wandered into St Mark’s Square, the day was getting long for those with little legs and we found ourselves surrounded by hundreds of 21st-century pilgrims: tourists. So we called it a day and headed back to the train station.
We were staying in a three-room apartment just outside the town of Peschiera on the southern banks of Lake Garda at the four-star Parc Hotel Paradiso & Golf Resort. Bitter experience has taught us that apartments work best for our children – put them in a hotel room and it’s like watching caged animals systematically destroy their habitat. There was a choice of no less than four swimming pools and a buffet breakfast and supper at the hotel next to the apartments, which meant that rarely did all five of us sit down at the same time to eat, someone was always on the move getting that extra bread roll or scoop of ice-cream.
We spent much time around Lake Garda – the largest and allegedly the cleanest of the Italian lakes. Out of season, it seemed to me an obvious destination for families – not too hot, easy access to lots of great local cities – yet few Brits choose to come here.
Set amidst stunning scenery (best enjoyed on one of the many ferry trips that chug across the lake several times a day), most of the towns along the lake’s shore are beautifully preserved with clean pedestrianised streets and shorelines teeming with swans and ducks. Here, there are also several amusement parks to choose from – we opted for Aqua Paradise.
What can I say? There’s a lazy river that Magnus simply wanted to go round and round and round, a baby lagoon with a pirate ship in the middle, a wave pool and a water slide, which caused much hilarity as the force of the water on the way down meant various bits of swimwear kept being pulled from small bodies in all the wrong ways...
The Roman amphitheatre in Verona was a bit of a gamble. After all, family holidays are always a fine balancing act – trying to gauge which activities will work for children and which for adults: often not the same ones. Bang in the middle of the city, it is one of the world’s best preserved Roman stadiums. Its modern-day use is as a venue for concerts and operas, but 2,000 years ago it was an arena for bears, lions, gladiators, fights – activities and characters that are guaranteed to capture a child’s imagination, and you can find yourself sitting on a Roman stone bench for a considerable chunk of time as questions about size and scale and gore just keep coming. Our question-and-answer session was only brought to an end by a thunderstorm – this natural phenomena further enhancing the drama of this most magnificent of settings.
If I was to carry out a survey of our top five holidays as a family – our Italy trip would definitely come near the top. Why? Because it’s a destination where children can enjoy the same places, experiences, mealtimes and excursions as their parents, and that’s something very rare and very special.
Inghams Lakes & Mountains offers a choice of accommodation in Peschiera, Italy, from four-star spa hotels to self-catering apartments. Tel: 020 8780 4433 or visit www.inghams.co.uk
Look at our Europe section for more lovely travel ideas.