Childhood horizons

Dave Craven with his daughter Maisie at Lake Garda.
Dave Craven with his daughter Maisie at Lake Garda.
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Taking his young daughter to Italy, Dave Craven finds that letting the train take the strain is not such a bad idea after all.

SO many people had said how the arrival of a “little one” would put an end to any hopes of travelling far afield ever again.

Forget about backpacking or exploring foreign climes. Even a basic city break would be insurmountable. We might manage a couple of nights in a Scarborough bed and breakfast, but only if grandparents were in easy reach.

At first I just shrugged it off as excessive negativity from people who had no experience of such matters. However when people who already actually have a “little one” pretty much nodded their heads in agreement, I began getting concerned.

It was a bit of a disappointment; at 34, I still only had a couple of stamps in the pages of my passport and I felt they were now going to be left remaining pretty lonely. At least for another 18 years.

Fortunately, my partner was less easily dissuaded. She said we were going to Italy regardless and not just for a couple of nights.

We were going for 11 days, visiting four or five cities, we’d maybe take in a lake, and – here’s the rub – we’d do it all on the train, with the “little one” on my back throughout and a backpack full of nappies on hers.

Easy. We’d have fun she promised.

As is so often the case, she was not wrong.

Maisie was 14 months old at the time of travelling. She had been used to getting carried around from an early age, first in a sling on my front and then on my back, whether on daily dog walks, trips out into the Dales or up the Yorkshire coastline.

So, that didn’t daunt me. I was pretty confident she’d be okay. And, as we soon discovered, if she played up, well, the Italians do a good line in ice cream....

Trenitalia, the country’s prime train operator, offer a terrific value pass and for us, taking in Rome, Florence, Pisa, Siena, Venice, Verona and Milan it proved ideal.

The general intention was to stay in hotels near railway stations as it would both reduce the amount of walking needed with everything in tow but also, invariably, leave us in a decent central spot to start seeing some of the remarkable sights.

The Radisson Blu in Rome offered a perfect such location, being literally over the road from the city’s station.

We were able to discard our main bag in the well-appointed family suite and quickly set off for the Colosseum which was just a 15-minute walk away

It is hard to decide which is the most eye-catching and fascinating of the eternal city’s numerous sights. After three days there, you can almost get to the point where you just take yet another grandiose piece of architecture, stunning statue or epic fresco for granted.

The Vatican museums, along with the Sistine Chapel and St Peter’s Basilica, have to be visited, but here’s a little tip; never mind buying tickets to beat the crawling queues – if you have a baby or toddler, we were informed by a tour guide that you can actually head straight to the front. Thankfully, she was right.

The beauty of the train service in Italy, meanwhile, is its sheer simplicity. That is not in terms of the level of service – their second class is more akin to our first – but with regards how effortless the whole experience is.

Of 14 journeys we made, a late departure was encountered only twice and that amounted to a total aggregate of about just eight minutes.

The carriages are clean and spacious, while the travel itself proved so smooth and swift.

It helped that negotiating our way from city to splendid city, no journey was much more than about 90 minutes in duration, meaning Maisie had no time to get bored or restless and the magnitude of the whole trip was nicely narrowed down into manageable segments.

With helpful staff, so easily accessible and such regular and reliable services, not only would I advocate it as a great way in which to travel with a young child but also in general too.

I certainly would never hire a car in Italy again; why put yourself through the rigmarole and hassle of trying to battle their relentless traffic and navigate your way through road systems that resemble a bowl of spaghetti? Put your feet up, instead, relax and unwind and prepare yourself for the next beguiling destination.

Twelve to 18 months is probably a good age to try taking a child on such a jaunt.

They are not too heavy to carry for a few hours at a time but, equally so, they are also ready to get out and stretch their legs probably around the same time as you are envisaging a cold beer. Or espresso, of course.

When it comes to tips on the actual getting around foreign cities with a toddler attached, the same rules as at home largely apply; principally, always have food and toys at the ready.

In fairness, the main entertainment for Maisie was the limitless supply of welcoming local people wanting to say “Ciao bella!”; the Italians have such a warm and receptive attitude to children that is so refreshing and almost virtuous.

The best example of this was at the truly hospitable Hotel Giardinetto, a lovely little place in Desenzano whose kindly staff made Maisie feel like part of their own family during our spontaneous stay around Lake Garda.

We had originally planned on a day trip but after eight days soaking up so much culture and history, not to mention the ubiquitous pasta, while meandering through the fascinating streets of Rome, Venice, Florence and the like, we opted to sacrifice three days in Milan for three days by the lake instead, with a less intensive schedule. It was an ideal way in which to round off the trip – and to start thinking about where that next train could take us...

Getting there

Rooms at the Radisson in Rome start from £135.

The InterRail Italy Pass is available for three, four, six or eight travel days within one month and costs from £111 to £186 and on each day you can travel on as many trains as you want. Children under 15, travelling with at least one adult in groups of two to five people go free and there is a discounted rate for travellers under 26.