Puglia takes on the family challenge

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squo;S ONE of those dilemmas that make you bone-deep thankful to be born in the twenty-first century, austerity notwithstanding. Two hundred years ago my ancestors faced problems like: “Will I be transported to a hellish penal colony if I steal that pie to feed my children?”. One hundred years ago: “Those Germans are looking feisty, should I enlist?” Today: “Hmm. Is it better to rent a villa or stay in a hotel when you are going on holiday with small children?”

An intractable, thorny dilemma. In a villa you have privacy, space and somewhere to sit out and drink your own body-weight in rosé while they sleep; in a hotel someone else does the cooking and cleaning, but when the kids go to bed, the parents are stuck in the bedroom. It’s a conundrum, and the Senior family selflessly volunteered for a holiday experiment to attempt to solve it. With one 18 month old, one four-year-old and some nerves frayed ragged by a dawn Ryanair flight, we arrived in Puglia at the southern tip of Italy to find out.

Puglia has some incredible things to offer – the food is amazing, the beaches are good, the towns are stunning, but the countryside is a bit disappointing. It’s flat and agricultural – the Norfolk of southern Italy, but with better food.

If we were underwhelmed by the scenery, however, we were overwhelmed by our hotel. The Masseria Torre Coccaro is an old fortified farmhouse, converted into a five star hotel. It is understated and elegant. It takes a huge amount of behind-the-scenes work to be this good. Flowers tumble in artfully artless ways wherever you turn, the whitewash on the Masseria walls is hurt-your-eyes fresh. The staff are expensively charming, and the food at both the formal and informal restaurants is excellent. Breakfasts are a good test of how luxurious hotels are, and this one was a peach – Parma ham, artisanal cheeses, freshly squeezed orange juice, home-made yoghurt, platters of chilled fresh fruit and a dizzying selection of home-baked cakes, amongst many other delights.

But this is also a haven for children. Those expensive staff chuckle when the rampaging kids check their path, smile indulgently when a defiant baby chucks risotto on the floor. The pool is made to resemble a beach, so it gets deep only very slowly, and just off the pool area there is a kids’ play area with sand and a giant trampoline.

In the days we were there, our daughter joined a pack of five or six English kids that ran together from morning to late into the night. They spent most of their time being pirates, or so it seemed when the baby refused to be fobbed off with a bucket of water and I was forced to look up from my Kindle. In the evenings, not wanting to leave them alone in our two stunning rooms, they came to the restaurant with us. Imagine white-clothed tables lit by candles, sitting among the flowers and olive trees – and some slightly feral children shouting: “Yo ho mateys away!”.

Of the Senior clan, then, the oldest child would definitely vote for hotel. She had the best holiday ever in the whole world, apparently – although we were lucky with the ages of the children. The Masseria Torre Coccaro does have a kids’ club based out of its lovely beach club, 3kms down the road, but the children seemed happy enough entertaining themselves by the very safe pool. In another of those small touches that distinguish a truly lovely hotel from a merely luxurious one, the Masseria has loads of bikes to borrow (and even a bike man to check the saddle is tight before you set off). We cycled to the Beach Club through endless groves of twisted olive trees, bent like resigned old men with daisy-flecked feet.

Much to our eldest’s distress, we left the Masseria, travelling further south – almost to the heel of the boot. On the drive down we agreed. Nothing could beat the Masseria; dilemma solved. A little voice from the back agreed emphatically. And then we arrived at the Villa Specchia.

On the edge of the beautiful medieval hill-town of Specchia, the villa sits in its own walled garden, which is bigger than our local park. Mostly on one level, with polished parquet floors and antique furniture, the inside is stunning. But the star of the show is the covered loggia, with a view across the grounds to the swimming pool and the weeping willows beyond. Oh, and the maid. Did I mention the maid, Cosimina, who made us dinner on our first night, breakfast every morning, and cleaned as well?

The very welcome presence of Cosimina transformed the villa experience. Without the domestic baggage that comes with self-catering, we were free to concentrate on the important things, like creeping up on the frogs in the pond at the bottom of the garden, sending them hopping into the water to delighted gurgles from the baby. Like lying under the shade of a willow tree reading, or wandering into town for a plate of antipasti and grilled meats from the little restaurant next to the butchers. Even, reluctantly, venturing out down the road to the sea, joining the throngs of Italian day-trippers diving from the rocky coast into the sparkling Adriatic.

None of this loveliness helped us come to any conclusions. I liked the privacy of the villa: no fear of small talk between the pool and the bar. Lara preferred being with the gang at the Hotel. The baby seemed happy in any place which had ice cream; which pretty much summed up my husband’s attitude to the excellent local wine. So home again, none the wiser, but fatter, browner and happier. We’ll have to try to crack the conundrum another time. It’s the dilemma that keeps on giving.

PUGLIA
What you need to know:

Villas

Specchia
<a href=http://www.thinkpuglia.com/ThinkPuglia-Villa-Specchia.aspx#sections target=”_blank”>Villa Specchia</a> sleeps up to 10 and costs from £5,825 per week. Service and a cook on request. It can be booked exclusively through Think Puglia, www.thinkpuglia.com on 020 7377 8518. Think Puglia has around 30 villas all over Puglia and includes a 24 hour concierge service. They are also happy to arrange yachts and speedboats, wine delivery to the villa, in house cooks and cookery courses. In 2011 Think Puglia's big sister, Think Sicily was voted “Favourite Villa Rental Company in the World” by readers of Condé Nast Traveller.

To get to Villa Specchia, fly direct from London Stansted to Brindisi with Ryanair.

For more information on Puglia please visit Think Puglia’s Guide to Puglia www.thinkpuglia.com/guide-to-puglia.aspx

Masseria Torre Cocarro
Costs from £111 per person per night on a B&B basis, including VAT and services.

Babysitter service upon request, is €15 per hour for one child or €20 per hour for two children.

To get to Masseria Torre Cocarro fly with Ryan Air from London Stansted to either Bari or Brindisi airports, which are around. 40 minutes from the Masseria.
www.masseriatorrecoccaro.com
+39 080 482 93 10