Family Friendly Puglia

Borgo Egnazia Puglia

This was our first holiday abroad as a family with Lucia, our two-year daughter in tow. My wish-list was short – but hugely important. Somewhere easy going and as stress free as possible. I had heard so much about Puglia and having explored much of Italy, I was keen to experience Puglia first-hand. This southern region of Italy is still relatively unknown and often overlooked. Located at the heel of Italy, the way of life here is much slower and there are far fewer tourists. Rustic masserias, ancient olive trees, miles of vineyards as far as the eye can see, breathtaking coastlines and ancient hill towns are amongst the main attractions. Invaded by almost every major power through history, the past influences still whisper in the wind almost everywhere. It shared many similarities of rustic Turkey and Greece.

By nature Puglia is less populated than Tuscany or Veneto, it has noticeably fewer cars on the roads and lends itself to a self-drive holiday.

Our holiday started in the beautiful Borgo Egnazia. Borgo Egnazia is set in the heart of the countryside, yet just a short five minute journey by golf buggy to the beach. Designed in the style of a traditional Apulian village everything about this property lends itself perfectly for a family stay.  Pre-arrival, you can order practically anything essential. Bottle warmers, milk, monitors, cots and more I am sure. On arrival, check in was seamlessly completed inside the accommodation by the dedicated personal host, delightfully on hand 24-7.  Families stay in the Borgo area, near to the central piazza, a stone’s throw from the kids club and most importantly, the dedicated family pool.

We had a ground floor room with a private garden which was just perfect for Lucia, where she could safely explore and stretch her lazy travel legs.  Completely private and secure, it also satisfied the need for adult only space during the later evenings.  The children’s facilities in the resort included an outdoor playground and farm area, which kept Lucia and many other little ones entertained. Dining options seemed endless. Our favourite was the trattoria which served traditional wood fired pizzas and local pasta. A huge and unexpected bonus is that all children under two dine on a complimentary basis and the chefs will cater for even the fussiest of toddlers. During the day we wandered around the resort exploring the squares and alleyways covered in pretty bougainvillaea, spotting the elusive lizard that Lucia took a fondness too. We took the shuttle to the popular beach club and paddled in the crystal-clear waters of the Adriatic, and when lunch called, we took shelter from the sun at the fish restaurant and dined on exquisitely fresh seafood, every mouthful worth the accompanying price tag.

The highlight of our stay was a privately guided bicycle tour. I was initially wary, having not ridden a bike for more than 20 years, and certainly not au fait with balancing a toddler on the back seat. Putting my concerns aside, we went on to have the best time with many laughs along the way.  As our stay coincided with Spring, the fields were in full bloom with the smell of poppies and wildflowers.  We rode along quiet lanes towards the town of Savelletri, a coastal harbour with a church and traditional restaurant. A perfect stop for an obligatory gelato before we continued our ride along the fringes of the San Dominico golf course back to the resort.

After leaving Borgo Egnazia we travel onward to Monopoli, where our villa was home for the next week. A brilliant base to venture out from to explore some of the highlights of the region. The attractions around Monopoli are not far with a maximum of two hours to reach the UNESCO town of Matera with its natural limestone caves and gorge.  Not too dissimilar to Cappadocia in Turkey, but on a lesser scale.  During our week we also visit Alberobello, famous for its fairy-tale Trulli houses (hobbit like whitewashed domed houses). The baroque town of Lecce, home to the beautiful Basilica de Santa Croce and the pretty Polignano a Mare, a cliff side town with quaint cobbled streets and artisan shops are the icing on the cake. This fabulous short family sojourn to Italy was well received by parents and toddler alike.

Verdura, more than just a Golf Resort

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When I heard I was going to check out the Rocco Forte Verdura Golf & Spa Resort on the South coast of Sicily, the first question that arose was ‘me and golf’?
Me and spa – now that was more like it!

However I have to say I was proved wrong as I had a thoroughly interesting, enjoyable and entertaining afternoon having a golf lesson. There are two 18 hole championship courses (as well as a 9 hole) with sea views along the 1.8km private coastline.

I would have still been there now however, if I had tried everything on the extensive spa menu, although I did try the four thalassotherapy pools. These are divine and it was impossible not to relax in the soothing waters surrounded by far reaching views, citrus trees and swallows flying overhead. There is an holistic approach to health and wellbeing if you want to take it a step further. Vita Health programmes combine the latest medical techniques, with natural therapies and can be tailor-made for your stay.

To give an idea of size it takes 6 minutes to drive to reception from the main entrance. It is like a little village. So many places to explore, activities for all the family (water-sports, boat trips, tennis, football, gym, yoga, pilates) and peaceful spots to spend some time, on the beach, by a pool on a veranda or courtyard. If you fancy, grab a bike (pick up and drop where you please) and cycle around at your leisure. Otherwise go by golf buggy or take a stroll to your chosen spot. If you do want to explore further afield there is lots to see and do in the area. There is always help at hand for any questions.

Lastly, a word about the food. It is superb. A choice of four restaurants (and there are also five bars), all in exquisite settings with outdoor terraces and views over the sea or hills. Much of the produce is grown at Verdura and you can taste the Sicilian sunshine! I loved the herb garden. I participated in a cookery lesson and picked up many tips. The chef was full of fun and teased me endlessly when I tried to toss the pan too vigorously losing some of my ingredients onto the floor. He made it look so easy!

The chefs have oodles of passion and they use the abundant natural produce of the island which are in particular, olive oil, oranges, lemons, eggplants, freshly caught fish and of course tomatoes. To wash it down there are a fine selection of Sicilian wines.

The rooms and suites all offer uninterrupted sea views and are, as you would expect, elegant and very comfortable and well spaced-out. Overall I would say it is a great place to relax, unwind and be pampered as there is an overall sense of peace, the service is great and oh yes, fabulous for golf – and as it turns out you don’t have to be especially interested in golf to enjoy Verdura.

Sicily – An island of surprises

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Coming in to land at Palermo’s small modern airport the first view that strikes most travellers is that of the beautiful mountains. This is an island full of surprises – welcome to sicily.

Palermo, the capital city of Sicily, can be a fantastic base from which to explore the stunning north western region of Sicily.  However it is Palermo itself which gives you an introduction and insight into Sicilian life – and driving.  It is considered completely normal – and indeed expected – to double park, and certainly scant attention is paid to any form of obstruction reducing the speed and flow of the already heavy traffic, yet further.  It is a buzzing traffic filled and chaotic place, day and night.

A wonderful oasis of peace, luxury and calm is the Villa Igiea tucked away on the outskirts and offering harbour views, a gorgeous garden with citrus trees and Bougainville – and a grand wedding dinner on the night of our arrival.  To see the guests arriving, immaculately dressed with a touch of discreet sparkle for a formal evening was a treat.  This was our second and equally colourful introduction to Sicilian life.

In Palermo We walked in the old town within the Quattro Canti from where most of the sights can easily be reached on foot. We spanned history and admired the Arab Norman art, baroque buildings and exquisite mosaics.  We also enjoyed some of the delicious “street food” , much of which included locally caught fish.  However, also To be found was another local speciality:  finely sliced spleen, which is marinated then fried and served in a roll with a little cheese. Your turn next.

Cefalu, approximately one and a half hours east of Palermo, makes an equally good base for exploring.  Here you will notice the red tiled roofs and twin towered cathedral.  From almost everywhere you will have differing views of the sea.

Nearby Monreale should also be visited with its stunning cloisters and 12th century cathedral in the old hillside town, displaying some incredibly fine mosaic art.

As soon as you are out of the Palermo district the landscape changes completely.  Gone are the concrete suburbs and dense building, replaced by lush green rolling countryside and both olive groves and plentiful vines.

To the west Segesta has a stunning Doric temple and theatre, whilst the view from the top of the mainly pedestrian Erice is absolutely stunning – in fact unbeatable on a clear day.

Heading south and east with few signs of habitation and a multitude of crops growing it is hard to believe that such densely populated areas exist so nearby.  Wheat, tomatoes,  oranges, tangerines, artichokes, fennel as well as almonds, grapes and vines grow in abundance. Gone is the glitter, this is farming country.

Not far from Agrigento on the south coast lies the spectacular Valley of the Temples. Not to be missed if at all possible. Or spend a night in the area and wake up to the most amazing view.

Continuing to the east coast via Ragusa the landscape changes again and you are on a plateau, which like the mountains can get snow in the winter. There is also apparently good skiing on Mt Etna – yet another surprising fact about Sicily.