Yesterday’s hell, today’s paradise, tomorrow’s nightmare

Why bother sightseeing when we can do *this*?
Home, sweet home

In years gone by you couldn’t have paid me enough to persuade me to go on the kind of holiday we have just had. An Italian holiday camp packed with pools, water slides, overexcited kids, blaring Europop. … and Germans. Being eaten alive by mosquitoes. Slumming it in a cramped mobile home without direct access to TV or the internet, which felt like stepping back into the dark ages.

Now, however, the shoe is very much on the other foot – it’s very much the perfect holiday destination for us. Until it all goes wrong, that is.

Yesterday’s hell

According to Inferno, the first part of Dante’s Divine Comedy, the inscription “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here” is written on the gates of Hell. If you had asked me four years ago, I would have told you it might as well be written above the gates to the Eurocamp park in San Vincenzo, Tuscany where we have just spent a week’s holiday.

I mean, come on.

First of all, there is the Germans – who by my count made up half of the holidaymakers at the camp, with the Dutch the next most-represented nation – and their early morning towel-laying. Yes, it’s a cliché. It also happens to be true. Not so much “we will fight them on the beaches” as “we will battle them at the pool-side”. And we will lose. Miserably.

Yes, the Germans have beaten us to the pool again ...

Then there is the Europeans’ frankly appalling taste in cheesy dance pop. I am convinced it must be an infringement of my basic human rights for camp reps to fire up a thousand watt speaker on a daily basis and subject everyone within a half-mile radius to the all too familiar strains of ‘classics’ such as DJ Otzi’s Hey Baby or the more contemporary Alexandra Stan’s Mr Saxobeat.

At least I managed to survive the week without being subjected to Las Ketchup, Spagna or David Hasselhoff’s beloved-by-the-Germans anthem Looking for Freedom, which was something.

Although we did get a dance remix of the theme tune from Knight Rider, and I caught two minutes of an old Baywatch re-run on TV in the supermarket one day. There is no escaping the Hoff.

Musically, it was a bit like being at the Eurovision Song Contest, but without the less-than-meritorious geopolitically-driven voting. (And no Jedward – so there was an upside.) And I haven’t even started on the evening Euro-cabaret entertainment, which consisted of two Germanic types on guitar and keyboard belting out Euro-ised covers of classic 80s hits. When you’ve been subjected to an alcohol-fuelled teenage singalong of Purple Rain followed by It Must Have Been Love and Sultans of Swing, you know it is time for bed.

Today’s paradise

However, when you have two young boys who love water, access to toddler-friendly lagoon-style pools complete with water slides – which Isaac took to like the proverbial duck to water – and 30-degree temperatures in which to enjoy them, the attraction of a holiday village suddenly becomes more obvious. Throw in a gorgeous miles-long beach within walking distance. And then add the fact that we were travelling along with three other sets of friends, all with boys the same age as Zac and two with younger girls, and a whole world of play – and more importantly child-minding – opportunities opens up.

Built by Mr Silly, apparently

That meant Heather and I could go out for a rare dinner for two, and we were able to sit on the patio in the evenings and relax with our friends over a nice bottle (or two, or three) of chianti or pinot grigio without needing a patio heater or seven layers of clothing to stave off the cold.

Highlights? Zac having the confidence to tackle the big water slides on his own over and over and over again. Watching him climb back up a slide to tell off two teenage girls who had just accidentally knocked him off it. Toby delighting in pushing and pulling an inflatable boat around the pool, and confidently dragging me into the sea as if he had lived by the beach his entire life. Both boys sitting together on a bed companiably watching Fireman Sam DVDs. Zac marvelling over the Leaning Tower of Pisa and declaring that it must have been built by Mr Silly. Toby charming the child-friendly locals with his perpetual wide-mouthed toothy grin. Zac being given a free doughnut at the supermarket after saying “grazie”. Revisiting our favourite town of Lucca – memories of our previous trip can be found here – which was recently visited by Top Gear for one of their madcap challenges.

These were all little things – and ever so far removed from the kind of holidays we used to take – but they were all enjoyable moments nonetheless.

Tomorrow’s nightmare

As we approached the end of the week both boys were exhausted from their daily exertions, and I think all four of us were ready to head home on Tuesday. Which was the point at which our hitherto dream holiday became a bit of a nightmare. On Monday lunchtime we were informed that our flight home had been cancelled due to an Italian transport strike – a rare example of efficient Italian organisation! – igniting an afternoon and evening of phone and internet activity. Fortunately we were quick enough to rebook ourselves on to a flight the following day. (K and K’s teenage girls, who were also due to fly back on Tuesday, were unable to do so until Friday.) We had to find out whether we could extend our stay by one night – we couldn’t – which meant finding alternative accommodation. And then the car hire needed extending, as did our airport parking at Gatwick. Our insurance company needed to be spoken to, not to mention our respective workplaces. In the meantime, the kids needed monitoring in the pool so we couldn’t just drop everything. In short, it was all a bit stressful, and took us right out of the holiday mood.

There were upsides, of course. We did manage to get everything sorted out (although at a not inconsiderable cost), which meant another adventure for the boys. The extra day allowed us to stay overnight in Pisa – and take the boys to see the Leaning Tower, which we would otherwise not have done. And there are many worse places we could have been stuck for 24 hours than in one of the loveliest parts of Italy on a sunny summer’s day.

Still, it did really bring home how much more complicated life is when you have to make fresh arrangements at short notice with two young children in tow. In the past Heather and I would have quite happily rocked up and hunted down a room somewhere. With a pair of tired and hungry boys, however, all we wanted was to know that we had a guaranteed room at a specified hotel with a cot for Toby laid on.

Times change. We weren’t able to do the kind of things on this holiday we have done on previous trips to Italy – haring round cities on foot, strolling through museums, leisurely meals out – but equally we did many things we would not have ever considered doing.

One man’s hell really is another man’s paradise – even if the two men in question happen to be the same person.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.