x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Taming 'the ferals' with ragu

In my experience there are few times in life when the reality is better than the fantasy. Lunch at the Acquacotta was one of those occasions.

It is essential when travelling in Italy to plan each meal well in advance. Which is why we knew where we were going to have lunch in Florence even before we left Rome. Once we realised the waiter at our hotel in Rome was from Florence we asked the obvious question: "Where is good for lunch with three young children?" Without a moment's hesitation he suggested Acquacotta, a five minute walk from the Regency Hotel where we were staying.

"It is family run," he said. While looking at the children, otherwise known as the ferals, he added, "The signora has children of her own; she will understand." We boarded Italy's new superfast train at Rome's main station at 11.50am. By 1.16pm we were already in a taxi headed towards the hotel, a beautiful building in a typically elegant Florentine square. We had no time to explore; the Acquacotta beckoned.

In my experience there are few times in life when the reality is better than the fantasy. Lunch at the Acquacotta was one of those occasions. It is simple and homely and the signora is charming. The ferals, for the first time in memory, finished their food (mezza penne with ragu) and actually sat at the table throughout lunch. They didn't even break anything. Afterwards we explored Florence. Miraculously, we even got into the Uffizi, the first time I have managed that in about 10 years. Bea, aged nine, the most artistic of the bunch, was impressed with Leonardo da Vinci's Annunciation and Botticelli's Venus. The other two seemed keener on the roof terrace. It is difficult to know if something like the Duomo will impress children; I had talked it up as one of the biggest churches in the world. Living in the UAE, they can grasp the concept of something being the biggest.

"Bigger than the tallest building in the world?" asked Leo. I explained the subtle difference. Olivia, the lead feral, aged 10, loved it. She stood on a street corner and drew a picture of it while Bea and Leo spent 20 minutes at one of those little tourist stands that sells everything from postcards to mini statues. "This will cheer you up," said Leo when they returned, handing me a postcard of the naked David.

From the Duomo we wandered to Piazza della Repubblica where there is a gorgeous old-fashioned carousel and an equally old-fashioned Italian cafe called the Giubbe Rosse where Rupert, my husband, and I sat enjoying coffee. We had less than 24 hours to see as much as we could of Florence so it was off to the Ponte Vecchio. The girls said it didn't feel like a bridge. Leo wondered what it would be like to jump off. Happily, it started raining so we had a good excuse to head back to the hotel for tea.

For dinner we went back to the Acquacotta, but this time we went alone. There are only so many meals you can have with children, even while you're travelling with them. Helena stayed at the Regency Hotel (www.regency-hotel.com; 00 39 055 24524). Double rooms cost from US$518 (Dh1,902) per night, including taxes