- The Sandersons, their two children and friends, tried the Villa San Michele in Puglia, on the boot of Italy’s heel
- It was a seamless experience, from a holiday welcome pack, app to plan the trip and concierge service
- During stay, villa hostess Donatella cooked traditional Italian food, cleaned and provided babysitting service
As a stressed-out, workaholic father I was unequivocal… I did not need Oliver’s Travels complimentary nanny service for my first foreign holiday with my two young kids Zak and Nell thank you very much.
Babysitting…? Pah, not for me! I’ll spend every waking minute with the little darlings.
No sir-ee, together we are going to fall in love with Puglia, on the boot of Italy’s heel and nostalgically look back 20 years hence as die-hard Italophiles.
Together we will discover the whitewash narrow streets of Ostuni ‘La Citta Bianca’, the baroque gem of Lecce and marvel at the trulli village of Alberobello.
Luxury: Set in five acres of exotic gardens with olive trees and giant cacti (think Jurassic Park) Dan’s home for the week sleeps eight and blends relaxed bohemion décor with antique furnishings and stylish modern features
Laughs on the sand: Nell runs on the beach as the family made the most of the plus 30-degree temperatures on the coast. This was at the Blue Wave Beach, one of the many ‘lido’ beach clubs close to Ostuni where you can hire sun loungers and buy food
Argh, who was I trying to kid?
Twenty-four hours after arriving at our destination – the really rather splendid Vila San Michelle, a fabulous family-friendly 13th-century former monastery with a swimming pool, pizza oven and even its very own medieval cave – I was on the phone to our ‘hostess with the mostest’, concierge Donatella Pia to take her up on her very kind offer of some babysitting.
So with the little darlings off our hands, Mrs S and our holiday companions, a Michelin-starred chef (Chris Bailey), a personal trainer and his pregnant wife were free to enjoy some adult time sampling the local culinary delights of nearby Ceglie Messapica.
In fact, it’s fair to say I wish I’d taken advantage of all complimentary concierge services on offer from villa holiday specialists Oliver’s Travels – taxi pick-up from the airport and a midweek ‘maid service’ spruce up etc – before we arrived to make things go that little more smoothly.
Catered for: Villa San Michele’s British owner Ian transformed this former crumbling old Italian nobleman’s residence into a child friendly, private oasis with hammocks and sun loungers beneath canopies
Home from home: Everything for holidaymakers’ comfort has been considered in this wonderful retreat, particularly the kitchen (pictured), which has a stocked herb shelf, dishwasher, coffee maker, toaster and even a traditional pizza oven outside
Relaxing: While the kids are splashing around in the pool, which is a safe distance from the villa, why not get away from all that noise for some quiet contemplation in the lounge (pictured) with the Lonely Planet to plan the following day’s next adventure
Luckily, I did however make use of Oliver’s rather handy pre-holiday gift box and its mobile phone app that manages your booking, provides maps, a holiday check list (remember your passports!), the weather, foodie suggestions, sightseeing ideas and tips locally for the kids so that you’re not flapping from day one lost for ideas having left the Lonely Planet at home.
We already knew we could take my two on a bear hunt at the ZooSafari Fasanoladia or whizz down the slides at the Carrisiland Acquapark before we even arrived.
Having spent the previous week in Sicily, our nine-hour journey to Puglia was not helped by our rental car blowing a tyre and me having to gesticulate wildly at a portly stranger at a service station using my Italian repertoire of ‘Gino Ginelli, tutti frutti, Toto Schillachi’ before he understood I needed some help changing it.
Comfort: The Sandersons’ villa has four well-proportioned bedrooms and the same number of bathrooms so that it comfortably sleeps eight guests. Zak, five, got very excited when he ran up to the top bedroom ‘up the castle steps’
Fluffy towels: The villa was comfortable and spacious with a giant ‘swimming pool’ bath in the en-suite of the master bedroom (left) and a shower with a port hole window looking out to the back garden in the spacious bathroom (right), one of four
Sun setting on a perfect holiday: Once the kids are safely tucked up in bed, this was the view from the pool as Dan cracked open the beers and lit up the traditional pizza oven to try his hand at the local delicacy with some tips from host Donatella
Having done battle with southern Italy’s woefully insufficient SS18 duel carriageway and hot-headed, impatient drivers, we arrived at the long gravel drive behind imposing gates to the wonderful boutique-style ‘masseria’ Villa San Michelle, lovingly restored eight years ago by London-based retail entrepreneur Ian Campbell-Smith, requiring some much-needed R&R. It has been available to rent for the past two summers with Oliver’s Travels.
Set in five acres of exotic gardens with olive trees and giant cacti (think Jurassic Park) our home for the week sleeps eight and blends stylish décor with antique furnishings and stylish modern features.
‘Wow, we are sleeping in our very own castle!’ shouted my excited five-year-old boy Zak as he ran room to room of our home for the week to pick out where he would be staying.
And he was right.
Ian has transformed this former crumbling old Italian nobleman’s residence into a child friendly, walled, private oasis with hammocks, sun loungers beneath canopies, a number of options for al-fresco dining and toys aplenty like table tennis and swingball to keep the kids entertained.
Everything for kids has been considered – even down to the distance between the property and the pool to give you peace of mind that they won’t wander off to the water without you noticing.
There were also tons of water inflatables that we used to dive-bomb off in our games of pirates and battleships.
But often I opted to while away the hours under the baking Puglia sun, swaddled in a lazy canvas chair casually sipping shandys.
‘But what I think really sets this place apart,’ Ian tells us, ‘is the grotto!’
Grabbing a torch, our enthusiastic host leads us through the grounds to the top of some steps that take us down into a secret pitch-black limestone cave 60 metres deep that was used as a church in the 8th century and has a large stone alter inside.
Ian morphs into a giddy schoolboy as he points to one of three genuine medieval frescoes on the wall. ‘Incredible isn’t it?’ he added. ‘The Italian government said I couldn’t touch it when I bought the place in 2009, but why would I want to? It’s awe-inspiring.’
Wash away your stress: In 2009 the Villa San Michele was a run down, dilapidated 13th century former nobleman’s residence
And that it is.
Back above ground our charming fortified farmhouse is situated slap bang between Brindisi and Bari, to which low-cost airlines now regularly fly to.
I’d wanted to come to Bari since I was ten after Italia ’90 and my England football hero at the time David Platt moved to the city.
Culture vultures come to Puglia for more sophisticated reasons: For the Italians, the region is like Cornwall. They come here for the sun (it didn’t rain once!), wild beaches, rugged coastline along the Adriatic Sea, rustic charm, relatively few tourists and seriously good, affordable, local food (especially the pizza).
With local produce and lots of virgin olive oil the cuisine is ‘cucina povera’, or peasant cooking… simple, but absolutely delicious.
A definite holiday highlight was the lovely Donatella and her mother Mia cooking classic local cuisine – bellissimo. What a treat!
Exotic: The garden, which is the size of five football pitches, is a wonderful mix of olive trees and giant cacti
We tucked in to a delicious melon and traditional capocollo (Italian pork) of Marina Franca to start with a selection of local cheeses, orecchiette with homemade tomato sauce and a course of locally source beef – all in the comfort of our own villa as our little ones slept soundly. And I was given a complimentary Italian cookbook should I be brave enough to try some for myself.
Among the rich and famous tempted to the region are Helen Mirren, Meryl Streep and French actor Gerard Depardieu, who have all bought holiday homes here. While we holidayed here the daughter of New York’s king of retail Jeff Sutton – the 522nd richest man in the world – staged her £15million lavish wedding here. And a famous Hollywood actor stays in the Villa San Michele – but Ian won’t tell me who it is…
All in all, as winter bites and the dark evenings draw in, I look back with fondness at the family memories we created at the Villa San Michelle in perfect Puglia.