The Due Torri in Verona is just The Hotel Detective’s type. Of a certain age, but still beautiful, with a lobby built for another era and where a pleasing dusk prevails even in mid-day. In summer, it’s an oasis from the unrelenting sun. It’s a space that seemed to THD to be dozing, waiting for the pianist to appear and the party to start. A past waiting for the present to show up and the inspiration for this photo. See The Hotel Detective’s other reports at blogs.forbes.com/garywalther.
Gary Walther, the former editor-in-chief of Departures and ForbesLife, now writes “The Hotel Detective” column on Forbes.com
Hotel Adler Thermae makes a great base for exploring Tuscany. Photo credit: Hotel Adler Thermae.
by Geri Bain
Nestled into the Tuscan hills, just a 40 minute drive from Siena and within walking and biking distance of many historic and picturesque towns, Hotel Adler Thermae Spa and Relax Resort, covered in a recent article makes a wonderful home base for enjoying Tuscany. The resort offers complimentary and nominally-priced daily guided excursions on foot, by bike and by van as well as suggested itineraries, hiking and biking apps and free use of bicycles and e-bikes. This made it easy for my husband, 21-year-old daughter and me to follow our own interests—both together and apart. After going off in different directions, we’d always meet up in the late afternoon to unwind in the warm thermal mineral waters of the hotel’s lagoon-like pool before dinner.
Hikers can follow the Via Francigena, or pilgrimage trail, to towns and wineries. Photo credit: Keroack Photography
Hotel Adler Thermae is in the Val d’Orcia, a pastoral region whose ancient fortified towns, vineyards and farms have earned it a recognition as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Hiking trails await just outside the hotel entrance, including the Via Francigena, or pilgrimage trail, created in the Middle Ages for pilgrims heading from Canterbury to Rome. The routes are lovely, climbing to fortified hilltop towns and passing along olive tree groves, vineyards and fields of sunflowers. Several wineries and farms along the way offer tastings and meals, and Tanja, based in the recreation center, was a wealth of information. A network of unpaved “white roads” also criss-cross the region, but the dust kicked up by the occasional passing car led us to stick to the hiking trails.
Bagno Vignoni’s waters have drawn visitors for thousands of years.
Just a ten minute walk from the Hotel Adler Thermae, the tiny village of Bagno Vignoni offers a handful of restaurants and shops. The “town square” (no longer for bathers) is filled with the volcanic mineral waters that have drawn people here since Roman times and that feed the Adler Thermae’s pool. Famous visitors included Lorenzo the Magnificent and Pope Pius II, and there’s a small chapel dedicated to Saint Catherine of Siena. The thermal springs, whose alkaline water is rich in sulphur, bicarbonate and ferrous compounds, are said to have healing properties, especially for the skin, bones and respiratory systems. From here, it is about a 30 minute hike to a tiny 11th century fortified castle town, Vignoni Alto. We were glad we’d brought water; the town offers great views and a small church, but no shops or services.
Hiking trails lead past vineyards, olive groves and stands of cypress trees. Photo credit: Keroack Photography
The Via Francigena leads to the small walled town of San Quirico d’Orcia, an important rest stop for medieval pilgrims and about a two hour hilly hike from the hotel. We loved the sculpted creatures guarding the Collegiate Church of San Quirico, built on the site of an 8th century church and enlarged in the 13th century to welcome passing pilgrims. Nearby is Horti Leonini, a geometrically-pleasing Renaissance Italian garden, and the Birrificio (Brewery) San Quirico, a small, friendly brewery which uses only natural local ingredients. While my daughter and I hiked there, my husband took a guided van tour that also visited the Benedictine Abbey of Monte Oliveto Maggiore and his description of listening Gregorian chants amid the medieval frescoes sounded magical.
Pienza celebrates its great cheeses with a September festival. Photo credit: Keroack Photography
The Hotel Adler Thermae’s guided tour to Pienza turned out to be one of our favorite shared experiences. Standing in the large town square, Tanja, our guide, pointed out the classical arches, columns and symmetry of the architecture. The town’s unified Renaissance beauty was no accident, she explained. In the 15th century, Pope Pius II commissioned architect Bernardo Rossellino to transform the town into an “ideal” Renaissance city to serve as his summer retreat—an early example of urban planning! We were lucky to visit in early September during the Fiera del Cacio, a festival devoted to local pecorino cheese that includes a cheese-rolling competition in Pienza’s main square and street vendors offering samples. We also visited the tiny fortified medieval hamlet of Monticchiello, now best known for its views and restaurants, and a nearby open-air art museum.
The hotel also offers guided tours to two other nearby mountain-capping medieval walled towns, Montalcino and Montepulciano. Montalcino, the smaller of the two towns, has a small but interesting art and history museum and great views from the castle battlements and the visit was capped off with a barbecue and tasting of the renowned dark red Brunello di Montalcino wines at a countryside vineyard. Montepulciano, one of the larger of the Tuscan hill towns, has a lower and upper town and is known for its Etruscan and Roman remains, Medieval and Renaissance architecture, and most importantly, its red Vino Nobile di Montepulciano. Sadly, we didn’t make it there or to Siena, which is less than 45 minutes away, on this trip. But this was our second visit, and we’ll go back, for sure.
Geri Bain, a widely published travel writer and editor, has written about more than 60 countries and contributed to publications including inc.com, N.Y. Daily News and Robb Report. While travel editor at Modern Bride magazine, she wrote an acclaimed guide to Honeymoons and Weddings Away. She is a past president of the New York Travel Writers Association and former editorial director of Endless Vacation magazine.
A lagoon-sized thermal pool beckons. (Photo Credit) Hotel Adler Thermae
By Geri Bain
Relaxing in the naturally-heated thermal lagoon-like pool at the Hotel Adler Thermae Spa & Relax Resort, I met couples and families from Italy, Germany, England and Switzerland as well as a handful of Americans. Many described the resort as their vacation home; a place they return to once or more during the year when they want to unwind. For my husband, 21-year-old daughter and me, our five-night stay was an idyllic immersion into the sights, flavors and delights of Tuscany.
The hotel is located in Tuscany’s Val D’Orcia region, a UNESCO World Heritage site. Photo Credit: Hotel Adler Thermae
Located about 1½ hours from Florence by car (about 2¼ from Rome), the Adler Thermae overlooks a rolling region of ancient mountaintop castles, monasteries, farmlands and vineyards. The hotel centers on a lovely Tuscan villa and a huge indoor-outdoor pool, filled with the mineral-rich waters that have drawn health- and relaxation seekers to the region since the days of the ancient Etruscans and Romans. Around the pool are alcoves with indulgent massaging jets and a waterfall that gently pummels your back and neck. Most guests walk to the pool and spa in the hotel’s fluffy white bathrobes, creating the air of a private estate.
An outdoor workout space complements the hotel’s large indoor gym. Photo credit: Keroack Photography
The resort’s name aptly describes its allure: a spa featuring the region’s mineral-rich waters and a relaxing ambience that belies its buzz-worthy array of spa, recreational and kid’s programs. For adults, there are classes in TRX suspension training, nordic walking, aquasize, hydrobiking, yoga and pilates as well as indoor and outdoor gyms with treadmills, stairmasters and weights as well as guided excursions—most included in our daily rate. For us, the resort’s varied activities was ideal, allowing us to follow our interests and whimsy, together and apart, without any logistical hassles.
Our spacious room had a private patio. Photo credit: Hotel Adler Thermae
The first thing we noticed about our room was the sunlight flooding in through a wall of sliding glass doors opening onto a garden patio. Inside, we happily noted that our family suite included a comfy sitting area and a separate bedroom, not just a pullout couch. And my daughter appreciated the fast (free) WiFi. With three of us, it also helped that our spacious bathroom had a deep soaking tub and a shower. In fact, all rooms have the same spacious bathroom and either a patio or balcony—the essential difference between family suites and regular rooms is the separate bedroom.
An extensive breakfast spread kicks off each day. Photo Credit: Keroack Photography
As expected in Tuscany, meals were a highlight. The resort has its own herb garden, and most ingredients come from the region. A sumptuous buffet breakfast, served until 11 a.m., featured made-to-order items such as omelets and extensive spreads of fresh local jams, cheeses, fruits, meats, fish, fresh-baked breads and, my favorite, a make-your-own breakfast smoothie station. Lunch was available, but we usually didn’t regroup until afternoon tea—a complimentary spread of cakes and fresh fruit served at 4 p.m. daily.
The restaurant opens to sweeping views of the Tuscan hills. Photo credit: Hotel Adler Thermae
Breakfasts and dinners are served in the villa’s atrium restaurant, which features a retractable sunroof. Dinner, a true event, can be topped off with a nightcap in the piano bar or game room. There is no required attire, but most guests dress up a bit, heightening the elegance of the setting and service. Our favorite dishes were Tuscan specialties such as lasagna made with lean, local Chianina beef, and Scottiglia, a hearty Tuscan stew made with rabbit and deer.
The salt grotto and exotic saunas complement the spa’s diverse treatments. Photo credit: Hotel Adler Thermae
The wine and herbs of the region also turn up in many of the resort’s spa treatments, most notably their signature Brunello Ritual for couples, which includes a wine-enriched bath in side-by-side tubs, and my daughter’s favorites, vinotherapy facials and scrubs. While the towel-only sauna attire took getting used to, we also loved the distinctive sauna and steam rooms, which we usually had to ourselves. The Philosopher’s Cave, with stalactites and stalagmites, was the most visually interesting; Artemisia has steam infused with herbs, Salino’s salty steam spews amid Etruscan jugs and murals, and Olivae is an olive-wood Finnish sauna.
We could happily have spent a week unwinding at the resort, but Tuscany was at our doorstep and the Adler Thermae made it easy to explore the region with guided outings by foot, van and bike.
Geri Bain, a widely published travel writer and editor, has written about more than 60 countries and contributed to publications including inc.com, N.Y. Daily News and Robb Report. While travel editor at Modern Bride magazine, she wrote an acclaimed guide to Honeymoons and Weddings Away. She is a past president of the New York Travel Writers Association and former editorial director of Endless Vacation magazine.
(Photos courtesy Consorzio del Formaggio Parmigiano-Reggiano, YouTube clip courtesy Walks of Italy)
Overshadowed by Rome, Venice, Milan and Florence, Parma hasn’t found its way to many travel itineraries. As a food enthusiast, I was drawn to this lesser-known destination like paparazzi to a movie star.
Before my journey I wasn’t very adept at distinguishing one grated cheese over another. If I could assign blame for my unsophisticated palate, it would lie on my grandfather who spent the better part of his career working for Kraft Foods in Chicago. My idea of good Parmesan cheese was stuff shaken from a shiny green cylindrical can—and if it was good enough for J.L. Kraft, my grandfather’s boss—it was good enough for our family.
On a tour of a cheese house on the outskirts of Parma, I was about to taste the error of my ways. Traveling the countryside, passing farm after farm, I was reminded of the cornfields of Illinois where I grew up. However, most of these fields were home to hay and grasses that I later learned were fed to the cows that produce the milk that becomes the cheese.
Harvested green and rolled into dozens of wheels around 10 feet in diameter, the grasses were now a golden hue and ready for delivery to the dairies. Not 20 minutes ago I was in a bustling city of 400,000 plus residents and now I was in rural Italy where farmhouses were a half-mile or more apart, separated by huge squares of hayfields as far as the eye could see.
Stirring the cheese
Now inside the cheese house, I study a man who is standing waist high to the edge of one of eight enormous copper cauldrons. He was gently stirring a concoction of whey (a fermenting agent), rennet (a coagulating agent) and two purposely-different batches of cow’s milk.
Collected from the Po Valley, considered Italy’s most fertile farmland region, the milk came from cows whose sole purpose is to produce milk for the creation of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese. Half the milk had been gathered the day before and, thanks to a natural separation process that occurs overnight, it was absent cream, which was removed to make butter. The other half was fresh, still warm from the morning milking.
Working with a stainless steel whisk resembling a giant eggbeater, the man stirred busily, separating the curds from the whey.
Out of sight below the copper funnel was the gas-fired heat source, which slowly brought the mixture to a temperature of 120 degrees. Up until the 1960s open fires that made the facilities very smoky, and the job of whisking the ingredients quite dangerous, heated the vats.
After 15 minutes a woman wearing a white lab coat appeared next to the vat. Dipping in a ladle, she retrieved a sample of the cheese to be, eyeing it to see if it was fermenting and coagulating properly. It was and the process continued.
Appearing next was a cheese expert from the Consorzio del Formaggio (the Cheese Consortium and the Italian equivalent of our USDA), an organization created for the quality control of cheese.
A second-generation cheese master, the youthful looking man was very knowledgeable about cheese making. He, too, dipped a ladle into the vat. He sniffed the mixture, checked for the proper consistency, and then gave the batch the thumbs up. At that, two men approached the cauldron, gathering a white mass that was on its way to becoming the famed cheese. They separated it into two pieces, each weighing about 80 pounds.
The pieces were placed in cheesecloth tied to a long wooden pole. This action allows the cheese to be suspended in the liquid remaining in the vat and for the next five minutes the cheese continued to ferment.
Once removed the pieces were wedged into round Teflon molds about the size of a Tupperware cake preserver, where they drained for 10 minutes or so. They were then transplanted into metal molds, where they were branded with the number of the cheese making plant, as well as the month and year of production, and the dairy so the cheese can be tracked as it continues to age.
The cheese wheels were placed in a cooling and drying room where they’d remain for two to three days before being submersed in a saline bath. For the next 22 days they’re turned every two to four hours to assure a thorough salt exposure, which helps the rind form properly. At the end of the brining period, the wheels are removed and stacked with thousands of other wheels in a drying room.
To be deserving of the Parmigiano-Reggiano moniker (and to be exported as such), the wheels must age for 24 months. Wheels labeled stravecchiones have been aged four years and are exceptionally good.
With the exception of not having an open fire under the copper cauldron Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese is produced much like it was about 800 years ago when Benedictine monks invented the process. Through the centuries, cheese makers have remained loyal to the practice of not using chemicals and automation, instead relying on fresh milk and noble traditions passed along through generations of artisans.
Nibbling bits of cheese, I browse the cooler for the bounty I’ll take home. As I ponder my selection I’m introduced to two men and a boy about 12 years old. I’m told through a translator that they are the grandfather, the father and the son/grandson, cheese makers all, who operate this facility. Today they produced 32 wheels of cheese, which is about average.
Collectively, the 500 plus facilities throughout the region annually produce some three million wheels of which approximately five percent makes it to the United States.
When buying the golden delight, look for the oval firebrand on the rind that reads Parmigiano-Reggiano or the dot pattern bearing the same name, two identifiers that guarantee that consortium experts have certified the cheese as the real McCoy.
To the senses, the relatively low fat, easy-to-digest cheese typically has a sharp, buttery flavor accentuated by the effervescent “fizzing” found in small white spots throughout the wedge. These spots are flavor crystals created by a natural concentration of amino acids and they basically give the cheese a little extra kick when it hits your tongue.
The tour concluded, I head back to Parma, weighed down with about 14 pounds of shrink-wrapped cheese so I can safely get it through Customs. When I get home I’m tossing that shiny green cylindrical can in the trash.
To buy 100 % Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, shop Costco, a specialty food store (e.g. Whole Foods, Sprouts, Trader Joe’s) or go online to places like www.zingermans.com, www.murrayscheese.com and www.igourmet.com.
Kim McHugh, a Lowell Thomas award-winning writer, has been skiing for 40+ seasons. His articles have appeared in SKI, Hemispheres, POWDER, Colorado AvidGolfer, Luxury Golf & Travel, RockyMountainGolfMag.com, The Washington Post, The Toronto Sun, The Denver Post and Tastes of Italia.
We didn’t really need George Clooney to tell us Lake Como is romantic. Greta Garbo made the point in 1932 in the movie “The Grand Hotel.” And so did the 19th century composer Franz Liszt who declared that “the story of two happy lovers” should be set there. Lake Como is the ideal setting for a fairy tale wedding, a honeymoon, an anniversary celebration, possibly even a proposal.
Lake Como, ringed by stately Italian villas the color of faded terra cotta and burnt ochre, is touted as a playground of the rich and famous. Celebrities are spotted at Villa d’Este, the Grand Hotel Tremezzo, or the villa of a Russian oligarch. But does one have to be rich to take a romantic getaway at Lake Como? Actually, no!
We were visiting the Milan Expo about an hour’s train ride from Como, and I thought it would be nice to surprise my gentleman friend with a romantic weekend for his birthday. A little research revealed that there are a number of moderately priced hotels and Airbnb rentals available. We checked into the Hotel Metropole Suisse, (150 to 300 Euro) a quaint hotel dockside on the main square in Como. The same family has owned the hotel for 200 years and fronts on the lake, offering sweeping water views. It will appeal to veteran European travelers who appreciate old-fashioned furnishings and hefty brass keys. Those who enjoy up to the minute renovations might find the Palace Hotel just across the square more to their liking. It’s moderately priced at 150 to 380 Euro , but belongs to the Villa d’Este group. If you’ve recently won the lottery, by all means check into Villa d’Este itself which starts upwards of 700 Euro. But whether you’re a platinum card holder or a struggling student, the beauty and the history of this fabulous northern Italian lake region are yours for the asking.
Boats serve as buses plying the waters day and night. Slower tour boats take two hours to travel the length of the lake while hydrofoils can make the trip in half that time. We crossed the street and hopped one of the hydrofoils to the magical village of Bellagio, 18 miles north of Como, to visit the spectacular gardens of Villa Melzi. Though it’s not available for weddings, many brides pay a fee to use the grounds as a backdrop for photos and it’s not hard to see why. In the spring, the gardens are ablaze with blossoms of azaleas and rhododendrons and the mild subtropical climate supports an amazing variety of flora and fauna year round. The charming village of Bellagio is lined with dockside cafes and picturesque steep steps climbing up the hillside. It’s tempting to settle in for the afternoon.
Dis Moi Oui nook at Grand Hotel Tremezzo
But we had made a reservation to lunch at the Grand Hotel Tremezzo, a short 20 minute boat ride across the lake. It would be an economical way to visit the hotel, enjoy its panoramic view, and to sample the cuisine where the famed Italian chef Gaultiero Marchesi consults with executive chef Osvaldo Presaggi. We were barely seated before the waiter brought us Prosecco to toast our own story. I had a silky vitello tonnato studded with capers and my friend the homemade tagliatelle.
After lunch, we took a little spin through the hotel to admire the striking juxtaposition of contemporary furnishings in the classical building, the elegant Greta Garbo suite, and, yes, more acres of gardens. And so devoted to romance is the hotel that there’s even a secluded proposal nook in the garden called “Dis Moi Oui” (French for “tell me yes”), named for a famous engagement ring. The T Beach Club pool literally floats in the lake and its T Bar can be an appealing perch for an aperitivo. The hotel property borders on the 20 acres of magnificent gardens of Villa Carlotta, one of the few other villas open to the public.
On the return to Como, the boat passes by one stately villa and diminutive village after another. One cannot miss the beautiful Villa Balbianello, the setting for a “Star Wars” episode and a James Bond classic “Casino Royale”. Surely we had arrived in Paradise.
We headed back to our hotel’s lively Ristorante Imbarcadero for dinner. The convivial dining room was crowded with tables of obvious regulars. We began with fresh seasonal asparagus drizzled with olive oil and paper-thin Carpaccio topped with a tangle of shaved fennel. We couldn’t resist two classics—veal cutlet Milanese and veal scaloppini a limone. Both were perfectly cooked. Since we were already in something of a restaurant time warp, we finished up with the iconic Italian dessert, tiramisu. So ubiquitous was tiramisu in American restaurants in the 80s and 90s that Nora Ephron gave it a cameo in her romantic comedy Sleepless in Seattle. Tom Hanks’ character, worried about getting back into the dating scene after several years, and being confronted with some exotic sexual practice, presses his friend to tell him what tiramisu is. “Some woman is going to want me to do it to her and I’m not going to know what it is,” he pleaded. Little did he know that is just a deliciously simple espresso soaked ladyfinger & mascarpone delight.
The next day it was time to do some sightseeing in the town of Como. Of course, it has a Duomo. What Italian town of note doesn’t? It’s quite striking and if you had never seen Milan’s towering structure you would be sure this was a stairway straight to heaven. The magnificent structure begun in 1396 took some 300 years to complete. And it supports some 2,000 stautes. Interestingly, the most prominent statues are those of two pagan native sons of Como, Pliny the Elder and Pliny the Younger. There are other significant churches and museums to explore as well, including one devoted to Alessandro Volta, the inventor of the electric battery, who was also born in Como.
Over the years, Como’s main claim to fame has been silk. The secrets of silk production were imported to Italy from China after the year 1,000 and became the mainstay of its economy. The business of actually raising the silk worms was stopped after World War II and ironically the yarn is now imported from China. But Como is still the leading manufacturer of Italian silk and the favored source for designers from Giorgio Armani to Ralph Lauren. Those interested in the whole process from worm to woven scarves should visit the Silk Educational Museum. Shopping opportunities for silk ties and scarves, some at bargain prices if they’re not sporting designer names, also abound. The renowned Ratti even has an outlet store.
A perfect place for an early evening aperitivo is Palace Hotel’s Garden Bar Ceccato, which offers panoramic views of the lake is frequently booked for wedding receptions.
Sales manger Fabio Griffini joins us for a Prosecco and expounds on the ever expanding wedding business in Como. One of his clients, a wealthy Texan, is booking rooms at both Villa d’Este and the Palace Hotel, some 70 rooms in total. He also recounts stories of Russian extravagance. A bride’s father was footing a bill for one million Euro. The groom’s father, not to be outdone, threw another million Euro into the pot. The venues were so hard pressed to spend such vast sums that they staged concerts with famous expensive singers.
But romance doesn’t always have to be so expensive. A charming California couple we met dockside had rented a modest apartment on Airbnb for their honeymoon. Having been a student in the area years ago, the bride was enthralled by its romantic aura. The groom, who makes cured meats for a hobby, was equally enchanted because all his recipes come from Italy.
Como itself has another recipe in its repertoire Griffini tells us. When the April to October tourist season ends, the town switches gears from leisure to business conferences. We would be happy to return any time for work or pleasure. Our only regret is that we weren’t able to spend more time on these sparkling shores.
Beverly Stephen, the former executive editor of Food Arts magazine, is currently an independent journalist and consultant specializing in food, travel, and lifestyle. She began her career as a newspaper columnist and reporter with the San Francisco Chronicle and the New York Daily News.
Not unlike Joseph’s fabled coat of many colors, the houses of Isola di Burano, a small island in the lagoon just north of Venice (www.isoladiburano.it), are more colorful than a 64 ct. box of Crayola Crayons.
Originally a fishing village dating back to Roman times, Burano became known for producing extremely fine, intricate lace by hand beginning in the early 16th century. Today however, most visitors come to Burano to feast their eyes on the architectural rainbow of square two and three story houses that blanket the island. Some say the tradition of painting each house a unique color – no two adjacent houses are the same – originated as a method of defining property limits. Others say the practice developed so that local fisherman could find their way through the dense fog that often envelopes the island. However, locals like to spin the tale that each house was painted a different color to help sailors who may have had a bit too much to drink make their way home to the right house. The houses range from bright and bold freshly painted colors (right up to the rooftop satellite dish) to muted, faded and peeling but, in every case, the color palette of the island is guaranteed to surprise and delight.
Deborah Loeb Bohren is a fine art and travel photographer. Photography has been Deb’s passion since her father put a camera in her hand when she was only five years old. Today she combines that passion with her love of travel, using her camera to capture the intersection and interplay of light, line and color to create visual stories from the flea markets of Paris to the dunes of Morocco and from Machu Picchu to Havana and beyond. She lives in New York.
The tourist’s week I spent recently in Rome was – as it always seems to be in that unusual city – a dream of perfection. The sun came out every day and turned my scarf and gloves unnecessary. The low winter sun made silhouettes of the stone pines in the Borghese Gardens; I inhaled the aroma of dry wood and heard the bambini scream with pleasure as they painted their mouths with gelato. A mischievous waiter, seeing me unhappily seated at a two-top beside a banquet of two dozen raucous revelers, discreetly included me in their wine service. In the Coliseum, selfie sticks – lances of the 21st-century Centurions! – flailed against the gas-flame blue of the sky. I even made a discovery: the Roman street musicians are the best in the world (their secret: they don’t push).
The only disappointment I encountered, alas, was in the Romans themselves. Again and again – and from people well integrated into the country’s la dolce vita class – I heard the same sobering incantation: ‘There is no future for us in Italy.’ The economy, the corruption, the Mafia, the political paralysis, the pessimism and the cynicism, always waxing and waning in the rhythms of Italian life, seemed to have reached critical mass. The coffee was perfect, the monuments still melted your heart, but the dominant mood was disperazione. The consensus was absolute: Everything had to change.
InterContinental de la Ville Roma
So it may seem counterproductive for me to advocate for the maintenance of the status quo at InterContinental De La Ville Roma, a storied dowager with one of the best locations in the city, on Via Sistina near the top of the Spanish Steps. My advocacy may seem especially strange as, some seasons ago, in these very same e-pages, I remarked on how run-down the hotel had become and called for a make-over. I’ll stand by that. There is a fine spider’s web of fraying elegance overlaying the place: the carpets, drapes and fabrics need replacing, the corners of wallpaper have curled and paint is scuffed and faded, and I hesitated before flinging my jet-lagged carcass onto the sketchy bedspread (though only briefly). But this is cosmetic stuff – essential, expensive, but not radical. What the De La Ville Roma needs to avoid is a gut renovation that replaces its idiosyncrasy with the modern-day luxury of minimalist decoration, incomprehensible lighting systems, and neo-Bruce Weber art, the luxury that screams, look how global I am, look how much money we spent. No, the old-school charm of the De La Ville Roma, with its strangely shaped and arranged guest rooms, indifferently decorated terraces with their gobsmacking views, legendary Nero-esque breakfast buffet, opera-set décor, relaxed and clubby lobby bar, its quiet and anonymity and Roman everydayness, its resolute unhipness, and almost comically friendly and attentive staff, all of whom seemed to have been shipped over from the set of an Ernst Lubitsch comedy – all, all of this must stay the same.
A room with character at the InterContinental de la Ville Roma
Call me sentimental, but remember, if you will (actually, if you can), the Beverly Hills Hotel before it closed for a big makeover in 1992. It was somewhat shabby and out of date, a condition famously symbolized by the fact that the rooms had window-unit air conditioning rather than central air. If you were a snob or a square, those window units were a liability, but the hotel’s cooler contingent saw them as key icons of the hotel’s appeal, part of its hipster semiotics, along with the swank signage and banana-leaf wallpaper. When the place reopened a zillion dollars later, there may have been central air, but the place was chill in Fahrenheit only. It was the Beverly Hills Hotel in quotes, its soul and savor extracted – the hostelry version of a Stepford Wife. (The same thing happened, by the way, to the Beverly Wilshire, were you could at one time find John Wayne peeling the hookers off of his arms in the El Padrino bar, and a pre-face lift Warren Beatty feeding movie-star catnip to the checkout girls at Brentano’s bookstore. Sic transit gloria glamour.) Death By Renovation: Do we want to see the same fate befall the De La Ville Roma?
Lobby of the InterContinental de la Ville Roma
In fact, while other great Roman hotels have been ‘upgraded,’ and new places have come on the scene, the De La Ville Roma remains layered with its suave history. During the Roman Empire, the land formed a part of the Gardens of Lucullus, developed by the great general and politician whose name is synonymous with extravagant gourmandizing; beginning in the sixteenth century, a monastery occupied the site, and what is today the hotel’s inner courtyard functioned as a cloister. In 1924, the Hungarian architect József Vágó combined the multiple structures into a hotel – which quickly became one of Rome’s most prestigious – and its modern life began: the hotel’s back door made it a popular choice for philandering politicians, and the place became a favorite among film stars, rock musicians, and supermodels. And it’s comfortable: With 192 rooms (24 of them suites), the De La Ville Roma isn’t especially large, and the public spaces, though mostly high-ceilinged, are intimately scaled, which offer the hotel the welcome flavor of a private villa, a quality enhanced by the multiple terraces and balconies.
Dining terrace at the InterContinental de la Ville Roma
The availability of the outdoors, the curiosity encouraged by the terrace-ringed communal courtyard, give the De La Ville Roma a distinct companionability, a sense of community echoed in the second-floor outdoor dining terraces and the Emperor’s Terrace, the rooftop bar/restaurant that opens in the warm months.
I know. My Italian friends are right. The nation needs to change – to confront, and vanquish, the liabilities that have beavered away at its greatness and now threaten to drive out its best and brightest daughters and sons. But a second visit, and perhaps my own maturation, has reminded me that some things should be eternal. Rome is one. And the world beyond the revolving door at Via Sistina 69 is another.
Marc Kristal is an architecture, design and travel writer. Kristal, a contributing editor of Dwell and a former editor of AIA/J, and has written for The New York Times, Architectural Digest, Elle Decor, Wallpaper, Surface, and numerous other publications. In 2003, he curated the exhibition ‘Absence Into Presence: The Art, Architecture and Design of Remembrance’ at Parsons School of Design, and in 2009 he was part of the project team that created the award-winning Greenwich South planning study for the Alliance for Downtown New York. His books include Re:Crafted: Interpretations of Craft in Contemporary Architecture and Interiors (2010) and Immaterial World: Transparency in Architecture (2011), both from The Monacelli Press. Also a screenwriter, Kristal wrote the film Torn Apart. He lives in New York.
This month, we’re giving away an amazing bike trip in Italy with ExperiencePlus! (you can enter here). Rick Price and Paola Malpezzi-Price founded the company that would become ExperiencePlus! in 1972, an eternity ago in the world of adventure travel. Italy was and is their specialty, but today the company offers biking trips to two dozen destinations and is owned by their daughters, Monica Malpezzi-Price and Maria Elena Malpezzi-Price. I caught up with Maria Elena at the Adventure Travel World Summit in Kilarney Ireland last fall to ask her about ExperiencePlus! and its continuing role as an adventure trailblazer.
Your parents were adventure travel pioneers when they founded ExperiencePlus! in 1972. What do you and your sister do to keep their original vision alive, even as you deal with a new generation -or two-of travelers?
From the beginning, and still today, the emphasis has always been about combining the advantages of a bicycle, a human powered vehicle that is independent so you can start and stop when you want for photos, gelato, coffee and more gelato. The two wheeled pace is slow and yet you can travel significant distances.
What we find has changed is how people decide where to go and when. We have developed shorter and longer tour options for most of our trips. Most itineraries now have a 7 or 8 day option and a 10 – 12 day extended option so that we can accommodate different needs for different travelers. We also find that more people want to just travel with their friends or on their own schedule so we found ways to easily set up custom dates or private trips within our schedule. There are certainly differences in the newer generations but we find that ultimately the desire to explore and the delight people have in exploring by bike hasn’t changed that much.
Biking in Northern Argentina with ExeriencePlus!
You’re based in the US and your sister is in Italy. Is that a competitive advantage when it comes to planning and running trips?
We definitely find that having a solid base in North America, where most of our travelers come from, and then another headquarters where most of our trips are operated helps us in terms of logistics, staffing, trip development and overall quality control. It actually mirrors how we grew up, part time in the United States and part time in Italy and so for us it seemed like a logical way to maintain our “split identities.”
What is the most under rated ExperiencePlus! destination for biking?
Northern Argentina, around the Salta area, is likely not on the top list of cycling destinations for most people, but we have found a fabulous combination of diverse scenery, breath-taking landscapes, friendly and welcoming people, good roads and great food. We started running trips in Chile and Argentina about 10 years ago and although we don’t offer as many dates as we do in Europe, we are seeing an increase in interest. They are great “winter” destinations for those of us in the Northern hemisphere and although they have a slightly different character than our European trips, the beauty of the regions and the interesting history make up for that. After all, if we can pedal the vineyards in Italy and France, why not Chile!
Biking in Spain with ExperiencePlus!
For riders who’ve done some of the classic rides in France and Italy but want that special mix of old Europe, great food and scenic countryside, which destinations might you suggest?
I’m partial to our cycling tours in Spain because in my days as a tour leader I spent most of my time there. Whether it is our bicycle tour in Andalusia (a harder trip), or pedaling the Camino de Santiago, or our easier Catalonia tour north of Barcelona, Spain always seems to surprise people with its history and interesting food.
Wine tasting in Bavaria with ExperiencePlus!
Another destination is Germany. Germans travel by bike more than almost any European nation and so their own network of roads and streets and bike paths are incredibly friendly to cyclists. Our bike tour in Bavaria often receives high praise from longtime customers who have cycled all the “classic” destinations because of its picturesque towns, great routes and good food. The trip follows Germany’s historic “Romantic Road” and in fact, it has even been called by some of our senior guides – who are not even German! – as one the prettiest tour that we have.
You mark your routes with chalk dust? Who came up with this great idea? Does it really remove the need to look at a map?
Our father, Rick Price, came up with this idea in 1986 or 87. It is considered by many of our travelers’ one of the biggest advantages of traveling with ExperiencePlus! Anyone who has cycled in a local charity ride or even just with a group of friends knows the feeling of having to navigate with a group of cyclists.
Chalk marks show the way with ExperiencePlus!
Imagine a family road trip when your GPS is broken and you aren’t sure whether you should go right or left at the next intersection. There are multiple opinions, arguments and the feeling like you are just going around in circles. Our arrows take all of that anxiety away and truly allow for people to ride at their own pace and they do in fact remove the need for a map. Of course, Rick was also a geographer and so we still provide very good marked maps for every day! The arrows are “chalked” each day by one of our tour leaders who rides out in front, usually an hour or two before others leave. They are not permanent and they aren’t paint. One of the beauties of the arrows is that we can really take people on small tiny back roads that would otherwise be hard to explain with cue sheets or with maps.
Any new destinations for 2015 or 2016?
One of the key design principles we work on for all of our itineraries is that people can ride from point A to point B without getting into a vehicle unless they want to! In fact, the allure of being able to say you cycled from point A to point B is part of what gave way to our ExpeditionPlus! trips in 2006 when we first ran a tour from St. Petersburg, Russia to Istanbul, Turkey. Since that first Expedition trip we have developed other continental scale 30+ day Expeditions and almost every year we design a new one. Our 2015 Venice to Kalamata Expedition tour sold out within 2 weeks. For 2016 we are reimagining the Eastern European expedition, this time from Tallin, Estonia to Istanbul, Turkey and we are also looking at a Scandinavian or Rhine River to Danube River Expedition.
ExperinecePlus! in the Dordogne region of France
Most cyclists don’t fall into the “I want to cycle 2000 miles over 30 days” camp and most of our trips are perfect for the recreational cyclists. So we have designed some exciting new tours that are meant to more of an introduction to cycle touring, called Sightseer Tours. These tours still include cycling every day but they also have more options for half day activities off the bike and the cycling is on quiet roads and bike paths. For 2015 we have two such trips: a Veneto and Lake Garda tour as well as one along the Loire Valley in France.
And where are you off to next?
I’m headed to Italy in February for a conference and to also have some meetings with our guides and guide selection as we plan for the season. But in April I’m very excited to be on our inaugural tour in the Alentejo in Portugal. My sister Monica has some plans to go out and scout some new tours, either in Southern Italy or the new bike and barge tour. We seem to never have a shortage of places to go, just a shortage of time!