Two things we didn’t consider when we booked our holiday this year:
1. Italy can be very hot in July (subsequent raised eyebrows and “Italy in July? With small kids? Really?” comments did hammer this home)
2. Our campsite, Norcenni Girasole, is inland – way inland – sitting prettily in the hills of Tuscany but nowhere near even a sniff of a sea-breeze
A week before we were due to leave, I checked the weather forecast; the promise of 37’C and non-stop sunshine did not fill me with joy. Concerns about flying with three kids were quickly replaced by panic over two weeks living in an oven. I scrambled to buy P20 and UV protective swimsuits, and contacted the holiday company to see if we’d have air con – we would. Panic eased, and with a sense of we are where we are, we set off for Italy.
We needn’t have worried. The campsite more than makes up for lack of beach, and with its two huge pool complexes, the cooling down is covered too. So what’s the verdict on Norcenni Girasole?
Italy is famous for a more languid pace of life than we’re used to here – perfect for holidays, but not so perfect when you’re still waiting for main courses an hour after arriving in the restaurant. There are only so many games of hangman and noughts and crosses that can keep three kids entertained. We soon learned the three tricks to eating in the campsite restaurants: Make a reservation, go early before the rush, and don’t arrive starving. Once we figured that out, everything ran very smoothly.
There are three restaurants and a takeaway in Norcenni Girasole, plus two café-bar-gelaterias so there’s plenty to choose from. The food is good and not expensive – typically pizzas are €7 to €9. Our favourite of the three restaurants, Norcenni, had a really good, buzzy atmosphere – the kind of noise level that perfectly dilutes your own kids’ shouts and squeals. And the house Chianti is very nice too.
On a side note, something we were really looking forward to on this trip was the food – we’ve been to Italy before, without kids, and the food was always a highlight. There was one particular bowl of pasta consumed in Florence in 2002 – it cost around a fiver, in a small, local trattoria, and is still talked about in glowing terms in our house today. But finding the fabled bowls of pasta in the off-the-beaten-track local restaurants isn’t as easy with three kids in 37 degree heat. So more often than not, we stopped at the first restaurant we found – usually the most touristy spots, serving up good but not memorable food. My best meal was in Osteria I Santi in Pisa – a small, unfussy restaurant about a five minute walk from the Leaning Tower. Steak on rocket with parmesan; simple and perfect. It might just be up there with the fabled bowl of pasta.
“Are we there yet?” was the refrain from the kids during the relatively short drive from Pisa airport to Norcenni (1.5 hours) and similarly, “Can we go yet?” was what was going through my head during the first few trips to the pool. Which possibly makes me a bad person, but bear with me.
The pools in Norcenni are fantastic and many in number, spread over two separate complexes, however for the first week at least, they were extremely busy, and took getting used to. Minding three kids in pools full of campers, locals, and inflatable dolphins is no mean feat, especially when one child has no sense and wanders off at will.
Over time, I got used to the pools, and they also became less busy – I read a sign in Italian that possibly said pools would be open to “campsite residents only” after July 12th, suggesting no more day-trippers, though I may be wrong about that.
And anyway, that’s just me – the kids LOVED the pools. They would happily have spent eight hours a day jumping in to the big pools, lying down in the small pools, and sliding into the many slide pools. And there’s a cafe at each pool complex, which is very handy for grown-ups who need an occasional time out.
The Kids’ Club
Our kids haven’t been too interested in kids’ clubs to date, and that reluctance continued during week 1 of this year’s trip, but week 2 was a game changer. In the French campsites (at least the ones we’ve been to), there were small, separate kids’ clubs run by each provider. So by definition, there’s an economies of scale issue – many small clubs, run by many busy holiday reps, in relatively small rooms, with limited scope for activities.
In Norcenni Girasole, there’s one club for the whole campsite, and it’s absolutely wonderful. There’s a set schedule of activities, running throughout the morning and again in the afternoon, and all kids on the site are eligible to join in any or all of them. They can pick and choose from activities like football, tennis, t-shirt painting, hip hop, magic lessons, mini-olympics, music lab, science lab and splash time in the pool. The reps who run the mini-club are the same people we saw on stage every night at the campsite amphitheatre, and they’re around throughout the day, high-fiving the kids and stopping for chats.
My reluctant kid clubbers LOVED the mini club in Norcenni and their little brother (who’s too young for kids’ club) enjoyed some playground time while the girls were off painting t-shirts. And the grown-ups very much enjoyed coffee at the café beside the playground. Win win win.
We’ve never had night-life on a family holiday, but this was the year it all changed. Not too radically, but enough to give us a taste of what’s ahead as the kids get older. There’s a central area in Norcenni that’s almost like a village at night – restaurants, bars, a café serving ice-creams and cocktails, live music, a live stage show, and a playground in the middle of it all.
By week 2 (which is clearly when we figured everything out) we realised that the girls could watch the stage show while the small boy played just meters away in the playground, and we could sit watching all three of them, glass of wine in hand.
Overall, the campsite was very, very good. As well as all the food options and entertainment, there was an outdoor activity area with trampolines and zip line (at a cost), and there was a “Luna Park” night once a week with bowling, karaoke, face-painting and billiards for kids (no cost). Two good food shops, a wine shop, a “bazaar” shop with a great selection of swim-wear, shorts, flip-flops, toys, and critically, English editions of Grazia and Marie Claire for when you run out of all your books.
There are tour buses that you can take to Florence, Siena and Pisa (we drove to Siena and Pisa, but took a bus to Florence having heard that parking is a pain.) There’s a free shuttle train on site that runs throughout the day from the “lower pools” to the “upper pools” because the whole campsite is built into the Tuscan hills. Walking is good, but in 35 degrees, a train is great.
Love. We loved Norcenni Girasole. If you’re going to be in Italy, miles and miles from the sea in scorching hot weather, this is the place to be. This was our first holiday inland, and I did miss being near water, but the campsite and the day trips to Florence, Siena, Pisa and Greve made up for it.
The kids loved every bit of it – the heat was tough at times, but the pools kept things cool, as did the air con in the mobile. Throw in an ice-cream or two a day, and everyone’s a winner.
We booked with KelAir for the third year in a row – an Irish travel company with mobile homes in France, Spain and Italy, and yet again this year we were delighted with the service.
And 5 things I couldn’t live without this year:
1. Mosquito spray: if the mozzies like you, you’ll need your spray in central Italy
2. Stain remover: pizza, pasta and chocolate ice-cream every day, meant spills every day, and this stuff got a LOT of use. Next year, I’m only packing black clothes for the kids
3. Coffee: we couldn’t figure out the coffee machine in the mobile home, so stocked up on caffeine at every opportunity – unsurprisingly, the Italians know how to make a good cappuccino
4. Books: reading on the deck at night in 25 degree heat was our sacred end-of-day ritual – I read The Girl on the Train, Second Life, and the one that had me utterly consumed – The Goldfinch
5. Wine: well, we were in Chianti country
So if you’re researching holidays and thinking of Italy, I’d highly recommend Norcenni, and if you have any questions about the site, feel free to post them in the comments below. Happy hunting!
To see the Facebook version of my holiday, and then the real, warts-and-all version of the story behind the photos, see The Facebook Version for HerFamily.ie