By Sarah White
“Cena? Non ce stasera,” the barrista tells us. Dinner will not be served tonight. The little restaurant of the Torre Cambiaso hotel is closed, because this is a Monday.
This means there really WILL be no dinner, because the nearest restaurant is so far down the mountain that the cost of the taxi alone would equal a dinner.
My husband Jim and I have arrived at this baronial-estate-turned-hotel high on a promontory overlooking Genoa, and we are in the kind of personal low that predictably overtakes anyone who’s been in transit more than 24 hours and has been told there will be no dinner.
The problem, when you are planning your next trip, is to capitalize on knowledge gained on past trips but avoid the trap of thinking you are an expert. That was my situation as I organized a visit to Italy’s Cinque Terre region for my husband and me, in celebration of our twenty-fifth wedding anniversary.
On our last Italian trip, we arrived in Venice midday, too early to check into a hotel, too tired to sightsee. With nowhere to place our bodies, we ended up in a small park, taking turns napping on each other’s shoulders, desperately sleepy and disenchanted. I swore I would plan better this time.
The way cross-Atlantic flights are timed, the midday arrival is unavoidable. So I set myself to finding a hotel in Genoa that would offer a restful improvement over that dingy Venetian park. Google’s top search result presented me with Torre Cambiaso, “located in a former manor house with a unique tower. It was once the home of a noble family, and is set in its own private gardens with a swimming pool… A walk through the gardens leads guests past a lake, several grottos and a secluded grove where peacocks roam.”
I settled in to read the consumer reviews, and chuckled with a knowing smile at descriptions like, “We struggled to get any service from the bar and when we did we had to wait while a waiter could find the time to get us a coffee!” Yes, we experienced visitors appreciate the unhurried pace, and the less-intrusive service style, of Italian waiters. Those poor uptight Americans imposing their rush-rush attitudes. While several reviews mentioned the remote location as a negative, to me that sounded tranquil–perfect.
I composed the scene in my mind; lounge chairs in the private garden with the peacocks and all, enjoying drinks brought (however lackadaisically) to our elbows as we dozed in afternoon sun. The Torre Cambiaso got my click and credit card deposit for one night’s stay. We would fly to Genoa, arriving midmorning.
That was the plan. Instead, we were delayed in Rome awaiting our connection, and those sleep-desperate hours I’d tried to place in the Torre Cambiaso’s sundrenched garden instead took place in hard plastic chairs in Fulmicino Airport. When we finally got to Genoa, afternoon had turned to evening and “sundrenched” turned to merely “drenched.”
A taxi took us in pouring rain high into the hills above Genoa. Something came back to me from my Googling, a consumer comment saying, “ I was well aware that this hotel is not near anything,” which had preceded a complaint about difficulty getting dinner.
We check in. Our room is small but the setting is baronial, with modern amenities crowded by heavy antiques. We went to find out when dinner service will begin in the little restaurant on the ground floor, where the website promised “Italian and Ligurian cooking styles combine.” And that’s when the barrista gives us the bad news.
The moment is ripe for domestic dispute. But wait, the barrista is promising that the staff will put a cold plate together for us! And there’s a complimentary bottle of white in our mini-fridge. This will do.
When the tray of dinner arrives, we decide to take it upstairs to the library area under the eaves. There we picnic on an array of cheeses, olives, arugula sprouts, breadsticks, and a sliced composed meat called cima. Jim (a chef) is excited to see the cima, a Genoa specialty he’s read about. A veal breast is wrapped around a pate of ground veal, eggs, and pistachios. “It’s no stranger than bologna,” Jim says, damning with faint praise.
The meal and wine raise our spirits. Already we are catching the spirit of the place, imagining it filled with conference-goers or wedding guests. Before long we return to our room, where sleep slams into us.
We wake to find the rain lifting. In a gallery overlooking the courtyard a breakfast buffet offers pastries, rolls, cereal, and blood oranges.
The waitress is stiff with us, and no friendlier to the other guests—a trio of conference planners who have arrived in advance of their event, and a pair of women, probably travelers passing through as we are. Did Google seduce them too?
After breakfast Jim and I explore outside. Maybe now we’ll inhabit the scene I composed when I booked us here, lounge chairs and peacocks and all, revised to feature a cappuccino in morning sun instead of wine at sunset.
Online I had read that the Torre Cambiaso grounds cover 100 acres. I now realize that most of those acres are given over to a working farm. The actual grounds for guests comprise no more than half an acre, falling away steeply from the manor house on its narrowing promontory.
The amenities described online are packed as tightly as clothes in a suitcase. We follow a garden path that winds in hairpins past rose bushes to the grotto. A gas grill squats in an alcove, ready to be wheeled out for summer weddings. A little watercourse flows into a swan pond (the “lake” of the online description). The path leads past cages housing peacocks and swans to a small formal garden surrounding a fountain. At the bottom of the garden stands a little faux Grecian temple, a party house now locked up and in disrepair. I imagine a terrazzo floor inside, a ghostly string quartet playing as guests of the Baron Cambiaso dance.
But here comes the rain again—forget cappuccino with the peacocks. I’m picturing myself here with a conference, or a friend’s wedding. The Torre Cambiaso has a peculiar air of being perfect for somebody, sometime, but not us, not now.
But no matter. We’ve completed our “inserimento.” We summon another taxi and leave without a backward glance.
Our short stay at Torre Cambiaso was a microcosm of any stay anywhere, the predictable highs and lows in mood, the twists of fate. These are the complications that deliver the traveler to the next story and the next.
Lately I’ve been asking for stories of “inserimento”–arrival and settling in. This essay concludes the series for now–but feel free to send further “true stories well told” on this theme. See submission guidelines here.