Belfast Telegraph

TRAVEL GUIDE: Tuscany

You Chianti beat it — a camping holiday in Italy’s Tuscan countryside has to rate among the most relaxing holidays you could ever have.

I spent 10 nights with Thomson Al Fresco at their brilliant Norcenni Girasole camp site which is nestled among the beautiful wooded hills above the town of Figline Valdarno — in the heart of Chianti country.

The Norcenni Girasole Club at Figline Valdarno is within driving / train distance of the beautiful old cities of Florence and Siena. Being a hillside location, the pitches are neatly and steeply terraced, giving amazing views of the surrounding countryside.

My family and I stayed in a Vivaldi Luxury mobile home, which sleeps up to six people. Being the largest mobile home in Thomson Al Fresco’s range, the luxuriously kitted-out and air-conditioned Vivaldi home offers comfort by the cushion load and it's more spacious because it's longer with not one, but two twin bedrooms cleverly positioned at one end and a double at the other.

Outside the front door there was a decked veranda which we put to great use at night. It was pure bliss to enjoy a barbecue outside, sitting on the veranda with a glass of beer or wine, looking across the rolling Tuscan countryside.

The scenery is beautiful but the driving can be tricky as there are miles upon miles of windy mountain roads to manouvere in the area. Tuscany is a region of hill towns filled with lush vineyards and olive groves, dotted with medieval towers, and is spectacularly scenic. Norcenni Girasole is a large campsite with two enormous pool complexes, one at each end, and a miniature train ferrying residents between them. The train is a great asset, not because the distance is particularly great but because the site is so steep. The most weight you put on during this holiday will be on your calves!

With that in mind no need to worry about indulging in fine food and wine. Norcenni has four restaurants, all outdoors and shaded but with fantastic views of the country. We ate regularly at the Vecchio Ristorante with its fantastic meat dishes grilled on an open fire. One of the house specialities, the pork ribs, were especially good.

But the beauty of Italian food is that even simple things — like Tuscan bread soup, a simple pasta dish or bruschetta are just as good and Tuscany is the place to prove it. Many an afternoon we enjoyed a bowl of delicious homemade pasta at restaurants on the site or in local villages.Not that you need to eat out all the time. As I mentioned, the mobile homes in Norcenni Girasole come supplied with their own barbecue. In terms of facilities, the campsite has tennis courts, football pitch, playgrounds, several water chutes and slides, and a lazy river (probably more accurately described as crazy judging from my son Matthew’s experience of it) for floating down on oversized inflatables. There's also a supermarket, gift shop, pizza takeaway, two bars, a disco and an amphitheatre, where kids are entertained.

The camp site operates on a no-cash basis. Instead, you buy credit on a card issued on site and then use that instead of money. The site even has its own wine cellar where you can try out the local chianti before your evening meal.

One of the most popular shops at Norcenni is the gelateria which has a vast selection of colourful ice creams.Norcenni Girasole is a great base from which to explore Tuscany and there are countless day trips to be had.Even though we had a hire car we decided to try one of the tours offered on site. We opted for the trip to Volterra and Pisa — home to the world famous Leaning Tower.Our first stop was the hilly town of Volterra — once known for its alabaster production, but now more famous for its place in the current Twilight series of books and films.

The walled town's roots go right back to Estruscan times. You can stand on the walls and look down at the Roman Theatre, dating from the 1st century AD.

Volterra is the home of a family of vampires called i Volturi in Stephanie Meyer's blockbusters Twilight saga.

It is also home to an alabaster workshop which offers fascinating tours and an excellent range of unusual gifts.

After Volterra next stop was Pisa where we were looking forward to seeing its freak of architecture.

On the way there the bus stopped at a typical agricultural Tuscan country house where we were offered a sumptuous lunch, tasting food and drink produced on their farm — tomatoes, wine, cheeses and various meats.

Pisa, just over 60 miles away from our base, had always been on my “to see before I die” list.It's worth the visit just to see its 400-year-old leaning tower. My children, Niamh and Matthew, were delighted to get their picture taken “holding it up”. We weren’t too fussed on climbing the Leaning Tower but if you are make sure to book tickets in advance online. We caught the 20 minute train journey in the nearby town of Figline Valdarno to the medieval city of Florence as this was much less hassle than driving and finding a parking space.

Florence is a great city for strolling around, not least to see the incredibly faithful reproduction of Michelangelo's David in Piazza della Signoria, next to the Uffizi.

We also went up the Duomo (cathedral) and followed the crowds across the Ponte Vecchio (bridge). If they aren’t your thing, Florence is also a popular shopping town.

Other holidaymakers recommended going to Siena, with its impressive Piazza del Campo, one of the finest medieval squares in Europe, and the walled town of San Gimignano. However with so much also to do at Norcenni Girasole we never got a chance.

At least this gives me the perfect excuse to return to these Tuscan treasures (including Norcenni Girasole) in the future and from my experience with Thomson Al Fresco I will be sure to book with them again!

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