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Traveling in Italy with kids

Published on: May 01, 2008

Leaning Tower of PisaImagine this: You take your morning latte and go outside for a walk in the gold morning sun. The scent of jasmine follows you through the sloping vineyard down to the pool. Your weightiest decision is whether to hang out here at the villa all afternoon with the kids or go for a bike ride in this piece of Tuscany until the cook arrives to prepare dinner.

What kind of dream is this? One without kids, right? Well, wrong, actually: You can have your dream and children, too. Welcome to — benvenuto a — Lucca, Italy.

Three generations of my family traveled to Lucca and spent 10 days in a rented villa. We were nervous about bringing the kids, not wanting our Italian adventure to turn into just a week by the pool — something we could do anywhere. We did a great deal of planning before we arrived, trying to balance culture with play. That planning, coupled with the flexibility of having a home base, made an enjoyable vacation for everyone.

Rent a villa, rent a bike
When staying in Italy, having a pool handy is a huge hit with kids — as is the gelato and the pizza. Having those familiar things accessible helps them push outside their comfort zone. OK, we usually had to tear the kids away from the pool, but once they got going, they loved our tour of Florence, a trip to Pisa, and bicycling! Cycling is popular in Lucca, and there are a number of bike-rental agencies. Streets are narrow and traffic is minimal or prohibited, so it’s fairly safe to ride all over the city center.

Lucca is a walled city, so the destination itself provides a visual cue for conversation about history, starting with “Why did they need those walls, anyway?” And, if you rent bikes, you can actually pedal around the city — literally — on top of those walls!

Like other Tuscan towns, Lucca has a thriving villa rental industry. You can do your own legwork, or you can hire a villa agency to do it for you. Katie and Jim Edmunds, Americans who live in Lucca with their three children, run Villa Aquilea. They’ll not only rent the villa to you, they can also provide a chauffeur, cook, and baby sitter. They’ll customize a package for you with massage, cooking or language classes, day trips and even organize pizza making in the wood-fired oven at Villa Aquilea. They specialize in serving families.

Day tripping
In less driving time than it takes to eat a snack, you’ll find Pisa in one direction from Lucca and Collodi in another. The leaning tower and the cathedral in Pisa fairly glistened on the warm, sunny day we visited. Kids have to be 8 years old to climb the tower, but our daughter, who was too young, thought it was pretty cool just to walk around it and look up.

Collodi, birthplace of Pinocchio author Carlo Collodi (né Lorenzini) is a quiet town about 15 minutes from Lucca. To commemorate the author, the town created Pinocchio Park, a park with interactive exhibits based on the book. There’s a whale fountain that kids can walk through, a ship, a maze and sculptures that depict characters from the story. And just as Disneyland has Mickey, Pinocchio Park has characters from Pinocchio who wander the park and greet visitors. On our visit, they overcame the language barrier with magic tricks.

Farther afield, day trips can include the quarries at Carrara, the source of Michelangelo’s marble, the museum in Vinci that houses prototypes of Leonardo’s inventions, the beaches in the Cinque Terre, or a hike in the Garfagnana, a region in a national park. All of these destinations are an hour or less from Lucca. Florence is a 90-minute train ride from the Lucca station and it’s a good idea to plan it as a day trip. Many museums now require reservations, so having a guide to negotiate that detail for us was invaluable.

The nitty-gritty
There’s an international airport in Pisa, with direct flights from New York and London. Lucca is also accessible by train, and you can rent a car once you get there. The dollar isn’t what it used to be, but a vacation rental is usually a better value than a comparably nice hotel with a pool — plus three restaurant meals a day.

And, speaking of restaurants, no discussion of Italy is complete without mentioning food. Lucca — and everywhere else we traveled — was full of good food. The advantage of having your own kitchen in Italy is that you can choose whether to splurge and eat out or be frugal and eat in. Either way, you’ll be well fed.

End a day — or end your trip — at Locanda Vigna Ilaria, a slow-food restaurant just off the road between Lucca and Carignano, where children are welcome. Their careful, thoughtful, mostly local menu and friendly attention might make you think you are actually dreaming in Italian! Buon appetito — and buon viaggio!

Christine Johnson-Duell is a poet, an avid traveler and an Italophile to her roots (which, as it happens, are Sicilian). She lives in Ballard with her husband and daughter.

Books for kids:
Pinocchio by Carlo Collodi
Galileo for Kids by Richard Panchyk
The Year I Didn’t Go to School by Giselle Potter
Starry Messenger by Peter Sis
Da Vinci and Michelangelo by Mike Venezia
The Diary of Melanie Martin: or How I Survived Matt the Brat, Michelangelo and the Leaning Tower of Pizza by Carol Weston

Books for adults:
The Reluctant Tuscan: How I Discovered My Inner Italian by Phil Doran
Rick Steves' Italy 2011 by Rick Steves
Europe Through the Back Door 2011 by Rick Steves — Hands down, this is the best background resource on how to plan a trip to Europe.

Villa Aquilea — A villa rental company that specializes in serving families
Luxury Italian Villa Rentals — A mix of high-end and affordable apartments and villas for rent in or around Lucca
Context Travel — Tours of Florence
New Horizons — Tours of Florence and elsewhere in Tuscany
Rick Steves' Europe Through the Back Door — Invaluable travel advice and information
Locanda Vigna Ilaria — A slow-food restaurant just outside of Lucca
Galileo Galilei Airport — Pisa International Airport
Auto Europe — Car rentals
Pinocchio Park
The Leonardo Museum
The Leaning Tower of Pisa — That famous leaning tower
Cicli Bizarri — Bike rentals in Lucca, just inside the city walls in Piazza Santa Maria
Europe Through the Back Door Travel Center, 130 Fourth Ave. N, Edmonds, WA; 425-771-8303
Wide World Books and Maps, 4411-A Wallingford Ave. N, Seattle, WA; 206-634-3453, 800-534-3453

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