We Honeymoon in Italia
by John Mendelssohn
Cosmos call the one-week tour my bride and I booked for our 2002 honeymoon The Magic of Italy, but Amazing Illusory Walls of Italy would be more like it. We'd had to rouse ourselves at 03.30 our first morning as man and wife to get ourselves in time to fly to from Gatwick to Venezia to begin the tour. Thus, we were woefully knackered by the time we'd been driven through the most depressing industrial wastelands in Italy to the most dismal hotel in all western Europe, the Hotel Poppi. But if we imagined we'd be able to enjoy a wee nap, we had another thing coming. We soon discovered ourselves able to hear every syllable of ordinary conversations (most of which began, "Blimey, have you ever seen an uglier hotel room?") three rooms away and an apparent argument between maids on a different floor altogether. We could see the walls, and even touch them, but clearly there were none there!
Unable to sleep, we decided to take the bus into Venice. In its brochure, Cosmos slyly refers to some of its hotels as being not in Venice, for instance, but in the Venice area. The Hotel Poppi was probably only slightly nearer to Venice than to Solihull. Reaching Piazza le Roma, Venezia's bus terminus, required a great bloody long ride on a bus full of locals who might not have boarded looking as though they wanted to strangle someone, but had certainly come to look that way as we proceeded fitfully through the ugliest industrial wastelands in Italy.
The next morning, to get our actual tour bus into Venezia, we were required to get up shortly before the milkman. This would prove a pattern. The morning we left Firenze for Rome, it seemed to be so that we could arrive in the not-particularly-charming Tuscan hamlet of Greve to wander around gazing disconsolately for half an hour at the chiuso (that is, closed) signs hanging in shop windows before we reconvened, at 09.00, for what was billed as a wine-tasting, but which in fact was a visit to a local wine shop whose yawning proprietors had sleep encrusted in their eyelashes.
Avoiding Piazza San Marco, where we understood one to be 6.8 times more likely to be shat on by a pigeon than one who smokes three packs of Gauloises a day for 30 years is to contract emphysema, we spent a substantial portion of our time in Venezia sneering contempuously at the dreadful curios on sale at the thousand stands lining the Grand Canal. Despite the protestations of my new bride, I bought myself a commodore's cap bearing the city's name and a striped gondolier's shirt, both made in China. The expressions of embarrassed horror on the face of our fellow tourists when we reboarded our coach more than justified their combined purchase price.
If the walls of the Hotel Poppi were the thickness of the page on which this might have been printed if British magazine editors fancied my writing, it soon turned out, they were at least as substantial as those of the Hotel Caraval, near to Rome, and the Hotel Delta, in the same time zone as Firenze. When, on the third night of the tour, we finally realised that we would never catch up on our sleep and decided to have our long-deferred wedding night, everyone in five rooms to either side of us apparently heard the first tender intimacies we whispered to one another as man and wife. It was not a bonding experience.
Being bussed from one hotel with illusory walls to the next, we were commonly let out to relieve and refresh ourselves at one or another of the huge AutoGrill facilities that line Italy's autostrade, and there confronted a succession of women seated between the gents' and ladies' toilets glowering pre-oncologically from the middle of thick clouds of cigarette smoke, serving no apparent function other than to collect tips. It was only after our fourth interaction with these malign unfortunates that we realised how to make our interactions with them more pleasurable — by grinningly exulting, "Thanks so much, I really enjoyed it," while dropping 20 eurocents into their baskets after leaving our respective facilities.
In fact, a great many Italians who live in popular tourist destinations look no less miserable between May and the end of September than the AutoGrill toilette attendents, and who can blame them? Imagine your own town swarming with sunburned gelato-slupring Brits and American college students braying nasally at one another about how the last place they'd visited had been like totally this or like totally that. But we discovered that turning the morose or hostile frowns of local motorists into delighted grins was as easy as stepping into a zebra crossing. Italian law apparently discourages the vehicular maiming of pedestrians, but is silent on the subject of missing them by so little and at such a great speed as to spin them round like tops. Exhilarating!
In Firenze, we devised another splendid way to make our own fun. Imagining that the pleasure of considering great works of Longhi, Schiavone, Verrocchio, Correggio, the Pollaiolo brothers, Semolei, Garofalo, Ghirlandaio, Beccafumi, El Greco, Scarsellino, Pontorno, Empoli, Palma il Vecchio, Masolino, and Hans Holbein the Younger was likely to be considerably diminished by sunburned middleaged fellow tourists from Macclesfield implacably cooing, "Ooh, isn't that one loovely," to either side of us, we declined the optional (that is: additional charge) tour of the Uffizi Gallery, and explored the city on foot. In Piazza della Signorina, noting small armies of tourists being marched to and fro by guides holding aloft umbrellas, scarves, and other items by which those who waddled dutifully behind could keep track of them, we decided to feign a tour of our own. I attached a banana to the shaft of a discarded umbrella, held it high above my head, headed with a purposeful-looking expression toward the opposite end of the square. My bride, a wonderful sport, trudged dutifully behind.
Within 50 metres, I was delighted to discover that our ranks had come to include Japanese, German, and Canadian couples, a lone Japanese teenager with dyed hair the colour of mud, and a chimpanzee.