Week Thirteen - You only go around once... 09/23/2010
It is hard to believe that nine years have passed. When we wake up on 9.11 we stop and remember 2001 and send out our thoughts and prayers.
Day Eighty-Six September 11th
Up to a warm Tuscan sunshine. We wander around looking for breakfast eventually finding a plate of meat and cheese (the same as last evening) some stale cereal, a bowl with random fruit set on a table and some flavored yogurts from the supermarket. Trying to figure out the coffee maker is near impossible. The tables are still in disarray from dinner and there is no one about for the first half hour or so. We simply fend for ourselves and try to make the best of it.
By late morning we move to our new room. Finally, I also get the password to access the Internet. The one they gave me last night was incorrect.
Sitting on a bench outside the “pizza oven and barbeque” area because this is the only place I can get a signal, by the way the barbeque is filthy and has been turned over to the cats, I discover we have paid roughly 2.5 times the amount it would cost to book the same week online. Worst fears confirmed.
Then we start to look around. Everything here is shoddy. The “winery” sits behind a locked fence towards the back of the house, all the machinery sits idle, disconnected, propped up and leaning together. Below, sitting in a flat outside the fence, are bundles of wine bottles, covered in dust and dirt, clearly untouched in ages.
The pool is unusable for a four year old. There is no way for him to get in or out. The tiles around the edge are loose in places and most of the furniture is old and broken in some way. The umbrellas have pieces of notebook paper stuck in the stands to keep them from tipping over. They do anyway and blow into the pool almost taking out Adele in the process.
Then we check into our new room. There are holes in several windows, big ones cut in for some air conditioning system used at some point in the past but never fixed. The unit sits idle in the corner taking up space, cord and connects draped about. The shower is moldy and the oven is covered with pieces of old food, the carpet is stained, the fake plant is covered in dust, the springs show through the worn pillows on the sofa. The kitchen is completely bare: the fridge is not turned on, there is not ice or cold water, no spices, salt or pepper, not even olive oil. The pictures on the walls are faded faux art posters from 1996 placed in plastic frames. The television is a 12-inch model from years ago, my computer has a larger screen. There is no Internet access from here since the wireless only works very near the “office.” It is not for the faint of heart and is uncomfortable in every way. You don’t want to take off your shoes.
Starving, we try and walk to the “local village”. It is 7k away. There is a place at the base of the hill but the nice women working in the kitchen tells us it is very expensive and she does not recommend it. That is until she realizes we don’t have a car then she shrugs her shoulders and wishes us luck. Clearly we need a car.
This is insanity coming full circle as we had a discussion with Lauren, the women from Boston, asking if we could keep the car we had and the pick up in Florence for Sunday, giving us mobility to settle in but they said no we don’t need one and that we needed to be picked up yesterday. This means we now need to spend another thousand dollars for a car so we can get away from this place during the week. There is nothing in walking distance.
Not knowing what else to do we talk to Fabrizio. He refuses to address our concerns about paying 2.5 times the going rate and appears shocked at what the folks in Boston charged us for last evening. Even he scoffs at the price for the room. He tells us there is nothing he can do for the rates of the room and the classes but that he will agree to cancel the driver for the “eight hour driving tour” since we will now have a car and we don’t need a driving tour. He says he will take the 400E he would pay the driver and use it to rent us a car. He also suggests that “maybe there has been a mistake in the billing” the “maybe we have been charged too much for the cooking and the children” and that he will check with Lauren. Maybe it is a way to save face and to get everything back on track. I have no idea.
When we do some quick math and send an email to Lauren in Boston outlining our concerns with the room and suggesting a partial refund she refuses and becomes increasing hostel. Apparently they have not heard of customer service. It is a very bad situation. We have clearly been taken advantage of and for a lot of money.
There is a welcome dinner that is supposed to be “a tour of the winery and a wine tasting.” There is neither. They serve Campari and soda in plastic cups and finger food at the “pool house.” Again, there are no drinks for kids and no alternatives for them to eat, if they refuse the same meat and cheese from last night and breakfast or the items made by a class earlier in the day, they go hungry! Melon balls and cured meats just don’t work for four year olds.
Dinner is very odd. We sit with the Australian women again and a couple from Dana Point that arrived today. The host Fabrizio joins our table and hovers over the new arrivals, retelling the tales about wine making from our lunch the day before. There is one other table with three guest couples and then two other tables: one with the staff of the nearby stable and the other with their children. None of us can figure out what they are all doing there. They all keep to themselves and don’t mingle. The least they could do ask if we want to include ours kids at the kid table. Instead they sit with us.
Vincent tries desperately to play with the other kids. It is almost painful to watch him try and connect as he wants to play so badly. The other little boy’s mother does not seem to want her son to stray too far.
At one point I find Vince on the stairs to our room, just sitting there on a step, head held in his hands, almost in tears. When I ask him why he explains that he was trying to play cars when the other little boys mother came and “hurt him on the arm when she grabbed him to come away, he was crying.” When I tell him these things can happen sometimes he looks up confused and hurt with a look that says, “but mommies don’t hurt kids”. It is heartbreaking. Then to add to it all he says, “I just want to be friends.” I have tears as I write this.
Day Eighty-Seven September 12th
After another breakfast, the same as yesterday, I head off to find Fabrizio to take me over to the airport to pick up the car so we can get out of here for the day. He is beside himself and unable to speak to me. Apparently he read our email outlining a few of the issues with the room (the holes in the windows, springs in the couch and food in the stove to name a few) and now he refuses to speak to us because we have insulted his house and in turn his family. He actually brushes me off with his hand and says he must not speak to me about these things any more as it is too painful for him. I ask for someone else and he points me to a woman down in the kitchen.
Regarding the ride to the airport he lets me know he will call a taxi since he does not want to ride with me due to our email on the room condition. It is unbelievable. We agree on an 11:30 pick up.
At 11:30 Fabrizio suddenly wants to drive me over, I can only assume it is to avoid paying the taxi fare. When we get to the car rental counter I ask if he would like to charge the car or pay cash to which he says he can do neither. I offer to wait for him to go to an ATM and he refuses claiming he does not have any money. He gives me “his word” that he will get me the money in cash or charge back 400E to my credit card (350E for the driving tour and 50E for the unused airport transfer) as soon as we get back to the villa.
Meanwhile Lauren from Boston sends an email responding to our concerns and suggestions with the following:
“Subject: Cooking Vacations has the right to and will remove you from the Program without refund.” You would not believe the email so I will spare you the detail. To think that this is their response to the issues we have with the condition of the room and to our suggested compromise on the package rate. It is all really insane.
I cannot believe that this is how they handle customer complaints. They seem to be getting more and more aggressive with each email so we stop the correspondence. The situation is clearly impacting all of us, including the kids.
By the time I get back from picking up the rental car, Teri is sitting in disbelief, incredibly uncomfortable and near tears, Adele is in tears and sobbing sitting by the bags and Vince is visible concerned. Enough is enough, we need to leave.
It is very difficult to actually pack the car and get out as Fabrizio follows our every move and aggressively tries to stop us. He keeps waving his cell phone and dialing the woman in Boston, then pushing the phone at me demanding I speak to her. When I tell him that Lauren should call our cell if she wants to talk about the situation it only gets worse. It seems that once he realizes we are actually leaving he panics. By the time we get the car doors locked and start down the drive my hands are actually shaking. What a way to spend a summer vacation.
Without reservations for the night we head to a Tourist Office just outside of Florence in Fiesole to try and find a room. They have none but recommend a new hotel just down the hill that recently opened. Apparently they may have a few rooms since they are so new. So with nowhere else to go and daylight hours fading fast we head over with fingers crossed.
The entrance looks like every other Tuscan Villa on the block so naturally we pass by two or three times before we actually find the place. When we do manage to locate and enter the gates and start up the drive towards the main house our frame of mind immediately improves. By the time our tour of the main house is over and we have selected a room we know we have found a home for a few days.
This has been some day: the hardest thus far. They say adversity makes you stronger. Today, I am not so sure…
Day Eight-Eight September 13th
Welcome to Il Salviatino!
The Villa has been a private residence until the recent owner upgraded the place and turned it into a five star hotel. It has 45 rooms, all unique and different ranging from ours (the smallest) to a grand suite with a fireplace so big you can stand in it. The library is too much to try and capture with words. The dining area is perched above a formal garden and overlooks the lights of Florence. The swimming pool sits down a hillside tucked away in a private valley. It is the complete opposite of the last few days and a much needed refuge to all the chaos.
We spend the morning settling in and re-energizing. The kids have school; I catch up on the journal and Teri books much of our upcoming Turkey trip. By mid-afternoon Teri and the kids head off to a park while I tackle more bills and logistics back home.
It is a day spent trying to forget about the cooking school fiasco and shaking off the trauma of the experience. Honestly, it was all so shocking to the system that we are sort of pacing through the day reviewing the last 48 hours and wondering what happened. You know the feeling when someone takes full advantage of you, knows that you know they are doing it, and then does it anyway? We got taken for a ride and it feels terrible.
I have dinner with Vince on the terrace while Teri and Adele get in-room service. Vin and I play with magnets and have fun sitting under a big tarp during a hard rainstorm. It is nice to be sitting warm and dry and enjoying the time together. At the end of the day we all watch the US Open and drift off to sleep.
Best to be here more so than anywhere else.
Day Eighty-Nine September 14th
After breakfast on the veranda, it is oh so civilized here, school starts with a new class taught by dad: gym. I figure some organized exercise might be in order to burn off some energy and keep everyone fit (including me!). We start with jump rope and move on to various forms of long jump, high jump and leaping in general. Vince gets to be the coach, one of his favorite things in life, and Adele gets to jump, one of her favorite things. For the two-hour class all is well.
Except for Teri who has been on the phone dealing with the computer (remember the new computer stuck in customs in Koln? It finally arrived, about five days behind us but then our friends left for vacation so it got delayed again. They just got back and now we need to figure out logistics.
Apparently we cannot get it to Italy with any certainty. The mail is so unpredictable that everyone recommends against using it. At one point we are considering taking a train back to Stuttgart to pick it up until we learn it is something like 14 hours to get there. In the end, we decide to try and send it back to the States so our friend Denise who meeting us in Ravello at the end of the month can bring it back over to us in person.
If it gets delayed in customs on the return to the States we will pass the thirty-day return window with Apple, miss Denise’s flight and end up with a computer that we cannot seem to get hold of sitting idle in LA. It takes the better part of the day to figure all of this out. Perhaps it was not meant to be.
The pool, or should I say pools, here are pretty spectacular. While Teri struggles with FedEx, we lounge around for the mid-afternoon stretch, have some lunch, stage underwater swimming contests, work on our floating and try to relax.
The hotel has set us up with Uffizi reservations for Adele and Teri at 5:15p so we all load up into the car and drive downtown. On a side note, the hotel washed our rental car for us because they noticed some dust and dirt and they thought it best. Not once did they wash it, but twice because it rained after they washed in the first time so they thought it needed a second rinse. I swear to you this is true. We are ready to move in.
It is surprisingly easy to drive downtown, just about ten minutes or so. And by shear luck we land a parking space right along the Arno just a quick hop from the museum. In no time the “chicas” are viewing art and the “chicos” are sitting in the main square chasing pigeons. I ask you, who had more fun?
In less than an hour, after all we did the Louvre in two hours flat, the “chicas” bump into us by chance and we all decide to find a place for a quick bit. If you come to Florence stop by the Cantinetta dei Verrazzano just off the Piazza and tell the waiter you’re a Yankee fan. Then run and duck for cover. Apparently the Red Sox nation is alive and well in Florence: so says the man whose mother is a native Bostonian father native Florentine. He was born in Italy but you would never know it as he easily converses in English (yes, with a Boston accent), Italian and French. The food is great, conversation lively and atmosphere just what you need after the hustle and bustle of the main square.
From here we head “home” to the Villa on the hill and take advantage of our wireless connection for Skype calls to family back in the States. It is always good to be reminded that despite the wrongs and injustices people inflict upon you that life goes on and you really need to put them behind and move on. Leave the negative energy back at cooking school.
After all you only go around once in life, might as well make the best of it.
Day Ninety September 15th
Breakfasts are becoming one of the highlights of the day. All of the hotels include breakfast with the room and the meals are top notch. Today starts with pancakes, fresh fruit, yogurts, eggs, a plate of salami and cheese, fresh baked bread and strong coffee. Ah, so good to be an Italian! It will be tough going back to Cheerios with skim milk let me tell you.
Sadly, we must leave. The service here has been some of the best we have experienced in all of our years of travel. In fact, the overall experience here makes Il Salviatino one of the best hotels we have ever stayed in. There is no doubt in my mind that we will return. If you ever get the chance to stay do not miss it.
It is a beautiful day for driving. The funny thing about the GPS is that after awhile you blindly follow it even if instinct tells you otherwise. We knew the town of Portonovo was almost due east of Florence and on the coast. So why then, when we are cruising at 130K towards Bologna, due north and inland, don’t you say to the GPS, “are you sure?” Maybe it’s the English voice that is getting me, after all she is so polite when giving directions and she tries so hard with the long Italian street names.
At around 5p, after 3 hard hours of travel, we turn down a narrow single lane road following a sign to Portonovo. This one is in the middle of the country. It seems a bit out of whack that Napoleon would build a seaside fort in the suburban Bologna. We are over 200k in the wrong direction. What do you do?
It’s 5p everyone is hungry and getting grouchy by the minute, we have nowhere to stay and the prospects are dim. It is getting dark earlier here so by the time we re-assess and decide to head towards the coast night is falling. 6p turns to 7p turns to 8p and we are still driving.
Napoleon was a mad man. Every time he conquered someplace he gave it to one of his family members for safekeeping. At some point he built a fort in Portonovo on the Adriatic Sea to protect the town of Ancona from the British of all people. Apparently they always got under his skin.
Luckily for us the fort is now a hotel. When we leave the highway and make the final descent to the sea with have no idea where we are or what lies around us. All we know is that we are clearly in the middle of nowhere. No phones, no lights, no motorcars.
There are big cannons guarding the main entrance, back light for effect and dramatic as can be when driving up out of total darkness. It is magical. There are big thick walls with little windows closed off with shutters. A main room in the center is surrounded by breezy interior walkways. Everything is made of stone. The place was built in 1803 based on plans designed by Michelangelo. All that and the ocean’s so close, the waves so loud, that you feel like you are sleeping on the beach.
Adele and I try and see the ocean and get our bearing but it is too dark to make much out beyond the break. We go to sleep having no idea what we are in for.
Day Ninety-One September 16th
It is sunny when we rise. Even before the buffet we rush to check out the beach. It is glorious. That’s right, glorious! Rocks worn by the sea lead down to clear blue water. No sand here for the meek and mild, just miles of rocks and ocean. The bay is perfect. Having grown up across the street from one I appreciate a good bay when I see one. This one is perfect. Think Cinnamon Bay on St. Johns only with rocks, the warm, salty Adriatic Sea and Italian hills spilling down to the shore. I cannot get over it.
We take full advantage of the buffet (as always) and then go to school for an hour or so, but all the while our minds are at the beach. By 10:30a we are swimming. The salt content is so high here you can taste it when you lick your arm. Plus, you float so easily!
The rocks are something: some flat, others round, many that look like eggs, a few agates tucked in here and there. We spend hours checking them out. The flat ones build excellent fort walls to protect the crabs from the waves. The long oval ones are great for massaging backs. There are skippers that easily jump half a dozen times and small pieces of tile from the “olden days” mixed in now and again. By noon my pockets are so full of “keepers” I cannot stand.
Meals are pretty uncomplicated as we are in Umbria, the “slow food” capital of Italy. This means that almost everything is grown on the hillsides and caught in the bay. Then it is prepared with the utmost care and doled out slowly over time. Lunch can take hours, dinner even longer.
Since we are here mid-week in September, no one else is save for a few locals. The kids can run freely, watched over by everyone on the beach. We are able to sit and enjoy our meal while they run and wade. It is nice and peaceful.
After lunch we take one more dip before going back to nap. Adele is swimming really well. We actually head out about 25-30 yards off shore for the first time, far out by any standard. She does the crawl back in, nice and relaxed, never worried, treading when she needs to. It the first time she is actually swimming and she is beyond excited. So am I knowing she can handle herself in the water. A milestone. When she wins the 200 fly at the 2020 games I will be quick to tell the world that it all started here in the Adriatic.
Vincent befriends the Italians. There is a pack of locals, probably three generations deep and maybe four families wide, that finds him irresistible. The elders take him under their wing and help him catch crabs to put into his little plastic cup. He squeals with excitement while they laugh with sheer joy. Both sides talk a mile a minute neither having any idea what the other is saying. Vince is naming the crabs, talking about Lightning McQueen and telling them all about how the crabs can come on the trip around the world. They all nod, shout out “Vincenzo!’ and clap hands.
For dinner we go to the other place. Not to be outdone, it is certainly as good as the first. This time we start with fresh mussels in white wine, lemon and garlic, just like when I was a kid on Long Island. My kids cannot believe we used to pick them when I was little on Sunday afternoons right from our beach on the Long Island Sound. That’s followed by a truffle and fresh catch risotto. The sea breeze blows gently in and the waves lap the shore. Really, why ever eat out again? Can it get any better?
After a tough day we end up exploring the fort with Vincent’s headlamp looking for crabs and making sure the cannons are kept at bay. If Napoleon only knew…
Day Ninety-Two September 17th
It’s raining again. I cannot believe that we are finally on the perfect beach to burn off a few days and relax for a bit and it is raining. What have done to offend the weather gods so?
Let’s be honest, not much can slow us down if we sense a good day to drive. Besides the hotel is supposed to be full this evening so its at best only a 50% chance we will clear stand by. By the time we swing by the desk to see if they have room for us for one more night we already have a full tank of espresso and one foot out the door.
The front desk guy hems and haws. He frowns, shakes his head, points at the computer, shakes his head some more, stands up and shakes his head, actually slaps his head full on with the palm of his hand and then disappears to the rear office. We stand in silence. After several minutes of hushed conversation he emerges and quietly whispers, “it’s OK, but we only have 53.” We stare back blankly. It is like he is speaking in some kind of code. His eyebrows dance up and down.
Last night we were in room 50, right next to the office, so we can only imagine what room 53 is like. He waves us on to follow him, “we see if it works”. Then we all walk into the restaurant. Thinking he is going to put us in the kitchen, I immediately start to think up excuses to rescue us. He holds the door until we are all inside, then he marches us out the other side and down a long narrow stone corridor we have been using to get to the beach.
Suddenly he stops in front of Napoleons suite. I have no idea why he decides to gift us a night in the best suite in the house at the same cost as our small little one room next to the office but he does and it is unbelievable. We have two big rooms and separate bath, television with English kids programming, and separate beds for Adele and Vince. All this on a rainy day when staying inside is inevitable.
By the look on our faces and the shrieks of joy from the kids, he knows that we know and appreciate what he has done for us. He never breaks form. When I confirm it is for the same price as the other he almost half smiles, just for a second, and then he shrugs his shoulders saying, “yes”.
I draw the math card today and Adele and I start in on the multiplication table. It is so much fun to watch others discover something. She dutifully writes out 2-12 along the top and sides, then we start along the horizontal ending at 144 and then finally we back fill sections. Each time she fills in a row and starts to see how the numbers form patterns and relate to one another she gets a rush of excitement. It is as if she is the first to discover a great secret about something she really loves and it makes it all the better.
After school we need to run into the city of Ancona to pick up cash for the apartment in Rome. The payment wire was too difficult to pull off on the road so we need cash when we check in tomorrow. Unfortunately, with the ATM limits on International withdrawals, it has been difficult stock piling. If you head over seas make sure you up your daily limits before leaving the states.
The first two machines don’t work. This is common in Italy but we are still concerned. Finally, on the third try, we find one that does. My card is working but Teri’s is still out of commission. For the record, we spent almost an hour on the phone with BOA two days ago and they assured us it would all be in working order. I can’t stand that bank.
Ancona offers little except a boat ride to Croatia if you are so inclined. We are not but we are hungry and we do find a little out of the way pizza join with very good extra thin and crispy slices. This is Roman style pizza.
Once back at the fort Adele and I are determined to swim, even under cloud cover. We find the water to be so warm that we are actually warmer swimming than standing on the beach. Once we get in others soon follow, kind of like they were waiting for someone to take the first plunge.
By the time we get back Vince is literally bouncing off the walls: he has so much energy. I eventually get him outside where he just runs and runs in circles around the patio by the beach. It is crazy. For a full half hour all he does is run. You would think that he would be worn out come dinnertime, but no, he is still as manic as ever, only now he is tired as well, always a dangerous combination.
To thank our hotel for the upgrade we decide to eat in the restaurant onsite and drop some coin in the kitty. The food here is excellent. Lemon sole, a mixed fresh catch grill and pastas for the kids. They even have lobsters on ice, watching us eat and still moving around if you look close enough. Vince holds out until dessert thanks to the iPad and the Backyardagins. In the end we all begin to melt.
Despite the rain it has been a good beach day and a most pleasant stay at the fort. We really love Portonovo and hope to return someday, but as of tomorrow all roads lead to Rome…