Just a half-hour drive from Pisa airport, Viareggio, the second largest town in the province of Lucca, turned out to be our ‘city break’ with a difference.
We just had our annual Italy fix in what started out with the intention of being a city break.
Having booked cheap flights to Pisa, I thought we would use it as a base to explore a little of the surrounding Tuscan region, somewhere we haven’t seen much of before. However, we soon realised that with temperatures reaching 30°C, it wouldn’t be practical or fun to drag three kids around areas of historical interest.
I explored the region a little more and discovered Viareggio on the Tuscan coast. It looked lovely and within easy reach of Pisa, so I based my search there. The most difficult thing about organising a holiday for a family of five is finding accommodation that will be big enough for all of you. It’s one of the most frustrating jobs that takes the pleasure out of my annual holiday search.
More often than not, when you look at hotels on line, you aren’t given the option to have more than two children and when you try to book an inter-connecting room, this is rarely guaranteed. This is one of the reasons why I will never risk booking two rooms in a hotel unless I’m sure that we can be together. I prefer, instead, to find somewhere that will suit the five of us and that obviously makes the search difficult.
Where to stay in Viareggio
I’m happy to say, that I found a hotel right on the sea front in Viareggio that offered a two-bedroomed apartment, complete with living area (with sofa bed) and kitchenette. I couldn’t believe my luck. The Palace Hotel, isn’t one of the largest in the area and it doesn’t have it’s own pool, however, the hotel has an agreement with a privately owned pool directly opposite, right on the beach, where you can pay for usage and also hire sunbeds on the beach, if you want them.
The hotel was beautiful, a pleasant surprise and the room perfect for our needs. My eldest daughter took the sofa bed, whilst the two little ones shared one bedroom and we had the other. Although we were at the back of the hotel and you accessed the apartments via a side gate, not through the hotel itself, we had two balconies and our room overlooked a lovely little tiled courtyard area. I’m also happy to report, that for the first time ever, I actually slept really well whilst on holiday. With my back problems such as they are, I always find when we go away the matresses are too hard or too soft or whatever, they just don’t match up to my own one at home and it makes for an uncomfortable stay. This time, I didn’t have that problem at all.
The staff at the Palace Hotel were so amazing. They couldn’t do enough for you and that adds so much to your stay, particularly given we have a child with dietary needs. At breakfast, my son had a choice of milks: almond, hazelnut, rice, oat and soya. There was also lacto-free milk on offer (though he can’t have that). They gave him gluten free cereals, gluten and dairy free bread and a choice of cakes (though not always dairy free). That, plus the fruit and Alpro soya yoghurt, meant that my son ate like a King every morning. He was more than happy.
Dining out gluten and dairy free in Viareggio
I did some research before we left home (as I usually do), to jot down the names of some restaurants that supposedly catered for allergies and when we arrived, we showed this list to the reception staff, who matched it up to their own list of recommended restaurants. Two of ours weren’t on the hotel’s list, but they booked us in one of them for dinner and directed us towards the other one for lunch.
We didn’t need to worry too much though, as most places in this area seemed well aware of allergies and happy to cater for them. It certainly takes the pressure off when you go out for meals, especially in an area where English isn’t commonly spoken. As long as you can say ‘senza glutine’ and ‘senza latosio’, you can’t go far wrong.
Our favourite places were:
The staff at this restaurant were fantastic and more than happy to swap the menu around in order to find something to suit, not only my son, but the girls too. This is the first Italian restaurant I’ve been to that has its menu on just two pages, but despite the simplicity, we didn’t know what the food was. A very patient waiter sat down with us to explain everything, then made sure we ordered something child friendly for the girls and gluten and dairy free for the little man. Not only that, the food was delicious.
This was another restaurant where we had the waitress running backwards and forwards on our behalf to make sure we could order something suitable for our allergic one. We felt guilty, but ever so grateful at the same time and it was the reason we went back to this place a few times during the course of our stay.
This place is expensive, but if you are a fan of meat, it’s worth a visit. Amaro is a Braceria – a grill – so that means simple, meat dishes, but with maximum flavour due to the quality of the meat. The steaks my husband and I had were so enormous, I don’t know what we were thinking when we ordered them. We could have easily shared. I felt like I was on an episode of man versus food. Gorgeous though.
We had such a feast at this restaurant, having ordered a selection of dishes for all of us to share. This restaurant, being away from the seafront promenade, was also great value for money and well worth a visit if you are taking a walk through the pine forest and fancy a stop off.
We also found the best sorbets and granitas, including a dairy free chocolate version at Gelataria Etna. This may be one of the smaller gelaterias, slightly unassuming, but it’s family run, with the friendliest staff and truly delicious gelato.
Things to do in Viareggio
The beach and promenade
The coastline of Viareggio includes over 20km of sandy beach, each section privately owned and kitted out with sunbeds for hire. The sea, although appearing quite rough, actually proved safe for the little ones, as you can wade out for a sizeable distance before it even reaches your waist.
Alongside the beach is a wide pedestrianised promenade, providing 3km of shops, restaurants and cafes. What is lovely about this area, is that the road is far enough away from the restaurants for them not to be affected by the traffic noise.
Hire a bike
There are cycle lanes everywhere in this town, including along the main promenade and cycling seems the chosen mode of transport for most of the people who live there. If cycling in the heat of the summer sun isn’t for you, there is a pine forest right in the centre of town that provides the right amount of shade for cycling in.
The pine forest
The Pineta di Ponente was an unexpected find for us. Right at the end of our road, what looked merely like an ordinary forest and nothing more turned out to be a hidden gem in terms of activity. On entering the woods on the east side, we thought we’d come to a retirement community. Here, the oldies hang out at the shaded cafe, drinking coffee, smoking and putting the world to rights, whilst across from them, you’ll find a competitive game of something akin to short mat bowls being held.
Then, as we walked further into the woods, on the wide, tarmacked avenue, we came across an inflatable slide and play area.
Further on, we discovered children’s rides, amusement games, go carts and even a giant scalextrics. There is everything in here to keep your children amused for hours.
You will also find cafes and refreshment stops along the way, including these Ciambelle, we discovered at Gato Nero.
My daughters and I decided to hire a bike in the woods one day and we rode the whole length and back in just under an hour. The bikes cost 2 euros each, so it was well worth the money.
Visit the leaning tower of Pisa
As I mentioned, we didn’t book this trip with the intention of moving more than a few paces at a time. And it was right to think that way. It was so hot, that sight seeing would have been hard work. We did, however, take the children in to Pisa one early evening and going from Viareggio by train could not have been easier.
The journey, just one stop to Pisa San Rossare (not Pisa Centrale), took fifteen minutes, followed by a five minute walk to the famous tower and cathedral complex. We looked around the museum and cathedral, but didn’t go up the tower itself, before buying obligatory Pisa relics from the market and then heading back to Viareggio for dinner. Easy.
To say we were a little taken with Viareggio is an understatement. As we’ve now been to Italy with the children a few times, they are becoming as obsessed with the country as we are. We all fell in love with this lovely town and it’s people and I have no doubt that we will return there.