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Monday, June 1, 2009

Lessons learned: how not to find a place to sleep in the small towns of Italy

At Rome the Second Time we think of ourselves as reasonably knowledgeable about Italy. We rarely make a hotel reservation and come into smallish towns simply asking or looking for signs.

We had never failed to find an acceptable place to rest our heads. We've told friends to do the same - just go into a town and look around. But we learned a hard lesson this past weekend, when, after scootering out of Rome 25 miles and hiking for a couple hours, we almost ended up sleeping in the fields. [A second post describes the major hike we took and has some suggestions on trekking in the mountain range that is Italy - photo right from top of the mountain - why we do all this!]

On Friday afternoon after a hazardous almost 2 hours on the road (we made the mistake of leaving Rome along with all the Romans for the long weekend), we scootered into a small town nestled at the base of the Lucretili mountain range. We picked the town of Moricone so we could do a short (since we didn't get out of Rome until 2:30 p.m.) hike starting just outside the town. Our elaborate planning led us to assume we would stay overnight in Moricone, because it also would be the jumping off point for Saturday's longer hike.

We had seen two B&B signs as we came into Moricone, and when we came off the trail Friday about 6 p.m., we located the first of them, where a young woman of about twenty telephoned her father, then returned to tell us that no room was available (why, we're not sure - didn't want to bother? did we look scuzzy, coming off the hike, showing up with helmets? clearly they weren't full). The other B&B was temporarily closed (a friendly townie led us to the proprietor who was in obvious mid-reconstruction).

What to do? We scootered 8 miles or so to a larger and more well-known town, Palombara Sabina, a classic hill town with fortress, etc., where we fully expected to find a hotel. Palombara S was full of people, but had no hotel, no B&B (we talked to a knowledgeable young mother in the town square). Bill was understandably about ready to collapse from having started in Rome, and then driving these spaghetti mountain roads on the scooter.

My only solution (short of going all the way back to Rome - or lying in a field) was to head to a town another 12 miles out of our way (into the blinding, setting sun for poor Bill) and start calling a list of B&B phone #s I had pulled off the Internet when we thought we might head into the area (the Sabina mountains) for an art exhibit. [And this version leaves out a couple more towns we tried - one with thermal baths where we assumed there had to be a hotel. Insult to injury: just past the 6 miles of blinding sun was a billboard (!) that said there was a B&B 6 miles "indietro" (back) in a town that wasn't even on our map - we weren't about to risk that and fail.]

We finally got to Passo Corese, a town on my Internet list, a crossroads, but found NO signs for hotels or B&Bs. The solution? Stop at a bar, order a beer, and then start calling. The first place on the list was "B&B dei Mori," and a lively voice answered the cell phone. He seemed glad to help us, tho' he said he would call us back (did we trust that? should we wait or call down the list? would the phone battery hold up?), then he did and said (after asking were we at the train station or in a car... well, no, we answered, we're on a scooter) he would come and pick us up, he was 5 minutes away (Bill - but we just ordered a beer!).

In about 10 minutes (beer glasses emptied), a lively man jumped out of his car and spotted us Americani in an instant. We followed Marco on our scooter as he drove us up and through and out of the town (Bill, I asked from the back of the scooter - where are we going now??) to a rectangular housing block with bar, restaurant, etc. on the bottom floor ("suburban" Passo Corese?) (photo at left). We were led up to "Pensione dei Mori" also known as "B&B dei Mori," where Marco showed us the price on the door (Euro 60 (about $84) for a double room with private bath), told us no breakfast was included (I guess it's just a B), and asked us if we wanted to eat dinner in his little "sporting club" that was off the same hallway - "it's a family business," he said (his business card reads "Bed & Breakfast Pensione Club" - it's certainly all that).

For us, Marco, full of smiles and joy and practicing his few English words with obvious pleasure, was now something approaching a savior... an hour earlier we were exhausted, had no place to sleep and wondered what would become of us - would we simply have to drive back to Rome, not having found a bed or dinner--not even the mountain, as it turned out--and did Bill have the stamina left to do it? Now we had a bed (a bit spartan for Euro 60, but clean and serviceable) AND a meal in an authentic Italian "club" (photo left) where we were joined by 8 or so men who ate mostly at a common table. The tv blasted from the wall, and we were deliriously happy - good food, fresh and cooked for us - Marco clearly aims to please - plentiful wine, and even double Limoncello to end the evening. The charge for the meal (we shared most of the courses, having seen they were large), which we found out only the next day when we paid our bill, was Euro 30 ($42) --not a steal, but not bad.

The next morning, Marco was gone. We have a feeling he does a bit of everything. So we don't have a picture of him, but we give you here a couple of our pensione and eatery. Marco's email is and the cell phone # we used is 339.118.4255 - if you want real Italy.

Lessons learned: Italy's small towns, even if the most picturesque and ideal for tourism, aren't really ready for tourists. These areas, highly rural, but dotted with towns, lack the standard small motels/hotels of the U.S. - they don't leave the light on for you. Restaurants, yes, because the Romans like to go out on a Sunday to eat in the countryside. Bars, yes, because the locals won't go far without one. But hotels, no. You can see where there once were many, but now travel is so easy (for those with a car and highways, vs us with scooters or people on trains and buses) that there are no hotels in the more remote (not THAT remote!) areas. B&Bs and agritourism are filling some of the void, but they don't advertise everywhere. We don't like pinning ourselves down with reservations, unless we have to, but from now on we'll do some Internet searching ahead of time and come with a list of places and phone #s (and the phone charger) in a ring of small towns around our target.


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