Umbria’s Villa Pia is a family-friendly hotel with a difference. Absolutely finds it enchanting
Words Amanda Constance
The mere mention of ‘family-friendly hotels’ normally sends a small shiver down my spine. I fancy myself an intrepid traveller, a wild adventurer. Not for me the all-inclusive ease of a baby-friendly bolthole. Silly me – if only I’d known about Villa Pia I might avoided ten years of stressful, scratchy experiences with wailing toddlers on uncomfortable hot beaches.
When I told a friend I was going to ‘some kiddie-friendly place’ in Umbria, she said: “You’re not going to Villa Pia are you?” in the sort of hushed reverential tones normally reserved for religious idolatry. This is the effect that the hotel has on
in-the-know breeders. Its online testimonials heave with grateful parents proclaiming: “I actually had a holiday!” Celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, Villa Pia has grown from small beginnings into a 25-room hotel in the hilltop village of Lippiano on the Tuscan/Umbrian border. The main building is a 15th century country manor house, flanked by two converted barns, located on a steep hillside directly below an 11th century castle. The views of farmland and rolling hills, cypress trees and hazy purple mountains go on forever. The house is as beautiful as you would imagine: cool, dark rooms, wrought iron railings, painted shutters and wisteria-covered terraces. But there’s more to it than this. Many hotels look good but they don’t have the slavish following of Villa Pia. We met guests there who have been four, five, even eight times – their children growing up with annual trips to the hotel.
From the moment we descended the drive into the main courtyard, we knew we had arrived somewhere quite different. It was like arriving at a brilliant house party that was already in full swing. Mums and dads were lolling in deckchairs while little ones took over the play equipment in the courtyard and crowds of older children dashed around playing imaginary games. The bell then rang for lunch and everyone helped themselves to a resplendent buffet before grabbing a seat and chatting to whoever was next to them.
Our first experience was much like the rest of our week. Villa Pia has all the fancy trimmings of a five-star experience but none of the formality. This makes for a lovely atmosphere but the serious secret of Villa Pia’s success is that it is the very definition of ‘family friendly’. Morag and Kevin, who bought the property in 1997, raised their three children here. They understand the needs of children and, more importantly, their pie-eyed parents. Everything at Villa Pia has been developed to keep children happy and occupied, and give their parents a proper break.
Children need space and Villa Pia has five acres of it. There is endless space for the kids to play freely in complete safety. The swimming pools are cut into the hillside; lying on a lounger there feels surreal. Someone cleverer than me described it as “like swimming in a picture, as if someone has imposed a Hockney on a Piero Della Francesco landscape painting.” The pool for the little ones is blood-warm and deep enough to be both safe and fun. Our five year-old barely left it all week.
And just when you really want to be left alone to read, Villa Pia comes up trumps. It runs cooking and art classes for children, craftily timed for after lunch, so as that second glass of wine kicks in, your little darlings skip off to make pizza or cardboard guitars, leaving you with the blissful chance to snooze for a couple of hours in the sun.
Then there is the glorious food for which Villa Pia is rightfully lauded. Meals are served by a small but prodigious army of ladies from the village in chef’s whites and cloche hats. Breakfast is a buffet, served in the converted barn. Lunch is a grand buffet spread – if you like lots of different, delicious salads, from roast vegetables, to lentils, melanzane parmigano (every day!) and pasta in every conceivable form then you will understand why I still miss the Villa Pia lunches.
Dinner is in two parts – the children are all fed together at 6pm on friendly fare such as cheesy pasta, sausage and chips, pizza. Parents reconvene at 8pm for drinks followed by a decadent four-course meal, with wines and coffee a plenty. If your baby monitor doesn’t reach the dining room Villa Pia will provide you with a babysitter so you can have a guilt-free grown-up evening. For some of the newer mothers we met, this was their first taste of freedom in months.
And here we get to the crux of it. Villa Pia has guests returning again and again because it is the staff that make it. Paola, Aniko and Alessandro make each and every person feel like they are at home. Children’s names (and yours) are learnt in jiffy and the staff work quietly and constantly to make sure you feel at home. A note of caution: guests are governed by the school timetable so during term time expect pre-schoolers. We were there in half term and the dominant age was six to nine.
Our 12 year-old was slightly adrift – apparently the older children are there in July and August (along with 30c-plus temperatures). So plan accordingly. And if you are an anti-social sort, not given to pitching in and chatting, Villa Pia is not for you.
If you do want to drag yourself away from the drinks room, there is loads to do in the surrounding area. This is Pierro Della Francesca country and his Madonna del Parto hangs in nearby Monterchi and his Legend of the True Cross – considered one of the Renaissance’s finest works – is in Arezzo. But unless your five year-old is alive to the charms of an early Renaissance master (ours most certainly wasn’t) I suggest you stay put at Villa Pia and do very little. The kids were brilliantly entertained which meant we could do what most exhausted parents really want on holiday… precisely nothing. I highly recommend it.