We followed our friends to our rental car at the beginning our short vacation together, feeling a palpable sense of freedom and relaxation. The source of our contentment was easy to pinpoint: we weren’t in charge. While we had all chosen the destination and lodging together, another couple had rented the car and they would be doing the driving and navigating. As Paul and I climbed into the far back seats of the rented van, we felt as much like privileged children under the care of doting parents as any middle-aged people possibly could. We were so unburdened by responsibility that we were practically giddy.
All of which leads me to tell you about Francis Surman.
Francis is the genial, accommodating, and detail-oriented driver and personal assistant who has been working with our guests since 2009. When we hear that guests have engaged Francis for the week, I don’t worry about a thing because I know our guests won’t have to, either. Once they find each other at the airport, Francis will take care of everything. He’s the doting, protective caretaker that can make any vacation a dream.
A guest who just wrote to tell me about her stay said,
“… [and] as to the ALL TIME BEST DECISION EVER: Francis. So caring, attentive, professional, friendly, genuine, knowledgeable, flat out AMAZING person. What he provided was far beyond a ‘driver’ rather he made EVERY experience we had (dining to shopping to hanging out) 10 million times better. I can’t say enough good things about him and our experiences with him.”
That’s not unusual feedback. Francis has a way of knowing what people want even before they can quite put their finger on it. After a week with Francis, our guests go home with the best souvenir of all: a new friend.
I get to talk to lots of travelers who are planning their Italian vacations. Whether you’re getting ready for a late summer trip or starting to dream about your 2017 vacation, my Top Tips for planning a perfect vacation might help.
Tip 1: Start With Any Must-Do’s
If you or anyone else in your group absolutely must see Florence or Assisi or eat a fabulous dinner together at the villa on a particular night, plan those first.
I keep track of things to see or do near Rocca di Benano that might qualify for this “must do” list. A visit to nearby Civita di Bangnoregio tops this list.
Rule #2: Mean to Meander
Hit the open road with only a rough idea of what you’ll do that day, know that you’ll probably get a little lost, and trust that you’ll come back with memories of a day you couldn’t have planned. Choose an opportunistic destination, grab a guidebook and a map (or, if you must, a GPS — but they’re not nearly as engrossing) and go see what your day holds for you. From Rocca di Benano, we like to wander:
- In the direction of Siena. We could do this trip for days on end without seeing even a fraction of the storybook hill towns, thermal spas, wine meccas, historic churches, and gorgeous vistas on the road to Siena. We don’t often make it as far as Siena – that’s why I call this “in the direction of …”
- In the direction of Perugia and Assisi. And those who don’t make it past Deruta can remember the day every time they use the gorgeous ceramic dinnerware they bought from one of the artisans in Deruta.
- In the direction of Montefalco and Bevagna. This trip lends itself to a drive by Spoleto on one way and Todi on the way back.
- In the direction of Montefiascone and Viterbo. These are big towns/small cities that many tourists miss, and there are several Renaissance gardens in the area that are also well with a visit.
- In the direction of Tuscania, Tarquinia and Vulci. A great guide (see Rule #3) could help you learn a lot about the Etruscan civilization while you’re in the neighborhood.
- A drive around Lake Bolsena. There are any number of inviting stops on a circumnavigation of Europe’s largest volcanic lake.
Rule #3: Engage Great Guides
I feel strongly about this one. Great tour guides have enhanced our trips so much over the years that now it seems a little silly not to take that extra step to assure that we get the most out of whatever we go all that way to see. If a site is important, I would rather visit it with a knowledgeable and skilled guide and storyteller at my side.
Do your best to get a great guide. Italy is pretty careful about regulating guides in its tourist areas, but we’ve still managed to stumble over a few bombs. I keep track of great guides and will happily put you in touch with a great one or two. Here’s an example of some of the tours our favorite guide, Emanuela Visciola, has developed for our guests.
Hiring a great guide is a smart investment in the memories you’re creating.
Rule #4: Be Willing to Get Off the Beaten Path
Many of our guests tell us that their most special memories of their visit to Central Italy is of “discovering” small, out-of-the way towns and their people. I love the way “Not Just another ‘Dolce Vita” expressed this in her “Things to Consider When Planning a Trip to Italy” post: “Don’t go somewhere just because you’ve heard the name.” Because there are valid reasons that tourists beat those well-trod paths to famous sites, you’ll miss a lot if you stay off the beaten path entirely.
So I encourage our guests to carve out some time for exploring out-of-the-way places. For example, I send people to the “tufa towns” of Southern Tuscany: Sorano, Sovana, and Pitigliano. There, they’ll find few crowds, little glitz and flash, an old town historically known as “the little Jerusalem,” inviting shops, and an unspoiled 12th Century church. More important, they’ll find a much more authentic Italian experience than what they will see in other, justifiably celebrated and very heavily touristed Tuscan towns.
At home in Ohio, my life can be a hot mess — I run too fast without ever catching up, desperately chasing efficiency and accomplishment. In precious moments of clarity, I know that this freneticism is mostly manufactured, born of the American tendency to equate one’s busy schedule with productivity.
I also know that efficiency isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Take, for example, being summoned by one’s Italian bank to come into any branch office and sign a piece of paper. Such was the gist of a letter we received.
We started our quest at our branch in Orvieto, but the office was closed. We walked in the front door, but the bank was empty. Finally, from a darkened interior office, someone proclaimed the obvious: the bank was closed. Posted hours and open door be damned — they were closed.
The following morning, on our way to the thermal baths in San Casciano dei Bagni, we stopped at another branch office. Approaching town, we saw that it was market day. As I eyed the crowds, blocked roads, and parking spaces given over to commerce, my stomach knotted in frustration over my chronic inability to operate efficiently in Italy.
Determined to sign the form and get to the baths, we parked where we could and walked back to the bank, working our way through all the stalls and crowded streets.
Entering the bank, a teller referred us to Il Direttore‘s office, where a diffident, jeans-clad manager lounged at his desk, sitting sideways to the open door. Immersed in what appeared to be a personal, and lengthy, telephone conversation, he finally glanced our way and gave us a surprised, “Oh!!! are you here to see ME???” look.
He invited us in, eventually bid a lengthy goodbye and hung up the phone, and addressed our problem. Apologetically, he explained that we could only sign the form at our branch in Orvieto. He kindly agreed to make an appointment for us at the other branch, and proceeded to call every number could find for it. Each number went unanswered until he finally reached that branch’s direttore on his cell phone.
After a lengthy consultation with his colleague, he told us to go back to Orvieto — the opposite direction from the baths. Fortunately, we were invited to use a much more convenient branch. I direttori promised us that the two Orvieto branches would be uguale (equal).
But we had to hurry, as we were already approaching the bank’s 2-hour lunch closure.
As we tried to rush through the still-bustling market, we encountered a neighbor and spent a few precious minutes catching up with her. Our dreams of the baths dimmed.
Although we reached the next branch before it closed, the woman assigned to our problem quickly determined that we had come to the wrong branch. We told her about i direttori and the “uguale” promise. As the office was being locked up for the lunch hour(s), her fingers continued to work her keyboard. Her officemate jumped in to help, and another man appeared from nowhere to look over her shoulder. Phone calls were placed. An email appeared on her computer screen, and finally the previously inaccessible paperwork arrived.
Filling out the forms in preparation for signing them, we stumbled on a technical question. We knew our commercialista in Rome could help us, but he was in a meeting. So the banker suggested we come back after lunch to sign the forms. The office closed at 4:00, she explained, but she would be there until 5:00.
We hopped on the freeway and raced up to the baths. Enroute, our commercialista handled everything and assured us that the forms were properly filled out and would be awaiting our signatures when we returned to the bank.
We got to Fonteverde in 45 minutes, ate a quick lunch there and had time for a relaxing swim. We returned to Orvieto, signed the papers, and walked out of the bank before 5:00.
At first, I was flabbergasted by the inefficiencies of the process. But then I thought about it … everyone was very helpful. We were personally engaged with the bankers, all of whom were committed to helping us. We got the forms signed. And we got a random market experience, visited with a neighbor, and went to the baths.
Back in Ohio, I bank alone at my own kitchen table with the sterile efficiency of my über-efficient bank’s smartphone app. I try to pause and appreciate a slower pace. That wonderful, highly inefficient, and very satisfying day of banking in Italy helps.
On our recent visit to Benano, Paul and I made a new friend — Alessandra. She’s looking forward to meeting our guests. She doesn’t speak a word of English, but that’s OK. I’ll give you a head start, and you can use sign language to complete your transaction. All you really need to know is that she sells wonderful homemade cheeses and homegrown legumes at her shop, which is just a stone’s throw from Rocca di Benano.
Any former guests reading this will remember the expansive stretch of flat farmland just above the tiny village of Benano where our villa is. Taking the hairpin turns up the steep hill just behind Benano, most newcomers are shocked to find themselves on a broad plain, far different from the hilly terrain in the opposite direction.
I often walk or jog along the road up there, and my phone is loaded with photos and videos of the big flock of sheep that I occasionally get to see being herded to another pasture across the road. The bells worn by the sheep that clang as they graze are among my favorite sounds of rural Italy.
Those sheep, it turns out, produce more than memorable “ear candy” — they also produce the milk Alessandra’s family uses to make a variety of delicious cheeses and fresh yogurt. You won’t regret buying some mellow pecorino, creamy ricotta, or tasty ricotta salata to have around during your stay in Benano, or having Alessandra seal some of it in plastic for your trip home.
The rest of the road on the plain is lined with fields of plants that I couldn’t recognize. It turns out Alessandra’s family grows chickpeas and lentils there. Specialties of the region, they’re the main ingredients in some of my favorite Italian soups. Of course, being sold dried, they also travel well.
Beware the little shop’s limited hours of operation: Thursday evenings (5:00 – 8:00) and Fridays and Saturdays (9:00 – 1:00 p.m. and 5:00 – 8:00). When Alessandra and her husband Francesco are not minding the store, they’re tending the sheep and crops and making cheese.
Antiques don’t particularly excite me, yet I love the Arezzo Antiques Fair. I planned this trip around a visit to the Antiques Fair, even though it meant shaking off jetlag and jumping out of bed early on my first full day in Italy.
Arezzo is a small city in Tuscany about an hour north of Benano. On any regular day, it’s a lovely place to visit. On the first Sunday of every month and the preceding Saturday, however, this otherwise quiet little burg hosts a sprawling antiques market and bustles with activity. Hundreds of vendors come from all over the country, and many thousands of people, many with dogs on leashes or babies in strollers, come to buy — or just look. The city is jammed with booths and tables, and the crowds can be thick. Paradoxically, the mood is chill.
This was my third visit to the fair and my first time by train. The direct, albeit not nonstop, train from Orvieto made it a wonderfully easy and relaxing trip. Even better, the Arezzo train station is a very short walk from the town’s main piazza. I can’t imagine ever deciding to drive again.
My chosen schedule reflected my eagerness for the fair, and I was lucky that Olga was game to go along with my “the early bird gets the worm” madness. Not only did we get to the Orvieto station with plenty of time to enjoy a cappuccino before our 7:20 train, but we got to Arezzo even before many of the vendors were ready for business.
But it was a bright and brilliant spring morning and I was back in Italy! So I suggested we do what I always do when there’s time to kill in Italy: go check out a church. We opted for the Cathedral of St. Donato because it’s at the top of the town and abuts a lovely, quiet park with a knockout view of the fresh and verdant countryside.
Beyond the church and park, though, antiques are the name of the game. Vendors stand near their tables, piled high with their wares, and engage lookers with the same friendliness as they do serious shoppers. They are happy to educate the lookers, and mamma mia, did we look! We looked at linens, coins, furs, jewelry, maps, paintings, things worn around the necks of livestock (my Italian failed me on this description), wrought iron accessories, intricately carved boxes, and furniture.
Oh, the funiture! There were upholstered pieces, lots of armoires, table and chairs, dressers, and nightstands. The styles ranged from rustic–even primitive–to ornate and refined. There was outdoor furniture and indoor furniture. There was furniture I loved and furniture I hated. It was mind-boggling.
Although I didn’t know I needed it until I saw it, I found the perfect bucket for the hearth in Benano. The kindly and laconic vendor suggested a price and, when I didn’t nibble, explained that it was from the late 1700’s and came from the Veneto region of Italy, where it had belonged to a noble family. As I looked it over, he pointed out the evidence that it had hung over a fire and showed us that it had been hammered by hand. When he suggested a price that included a “first sale of the day” discount, I could resist no more. Isn’t it pretty?
We got to know Olga and Alex when we bought Rocca di Benano in 2008 and they came on as our caretakers. In short order, they became so much more. They’re now the trusted managers we rely on to make the business run. More than that, though, they’re dear friends.
It would be impossible to run an Italian rental villa from Cincinnati without lots of help. Throughout the year, on Monday mornings (afternoon in Italy), Olga and I fire up Skype and catch up on mundane things like house repairs and maintenance; vexing utilities bills; and news from the village. I look forward to these calls, which are even better when Alex drops by to say hello. It’s a connection to long-distance “family” that I cherish.
Once the rental season starts, our communications multiply because we have guests to fuss over, each with their own needs and desires for the perfect Italian vacation. Here’s where Alex and Olga really show off how good they are. They welcome our guests when they arrive, but only after having stocked the house with specific groceries that each incoming group or family requests. They make restaurant reservations, have retrieved lost guests, and have rescued locked-out guests (even in the middle of the night). Alex grills an occasional dinner on the terrace and Olga sometimes stops by with a baked goodie. They find and return items left behind including, incredibly, a diamond stud earring that a group of guests had searched for over several days but couldn’t find. Most important, they help our neighbors understand our guests and our guests understand our neighbors.
They both grew up in Moldova and came to Italy, separately, 16 years ago. They met in Turin, after they had each been in Italy for a year. It was love at first sight for Olga, and it didn’t take long for Alex to catch up. Together they have created a comfortable, productive, and love-filled life in Italy. They both speak Italian, Romanian, and Russian. Olga is an Italian citizen, and Alex is working on it. Alex speaks English, and Olga is working on that.
They work hard. In addition to managing Rocca di Benano, they’re the caretakers of another beautiful villa owned by our good friends Jeff and Robin, who introduced us to Alex and Olga. Alex also works at our favorite agriturismo, Pulicaro, and Olga is working on a Masters degree in Philosophy and Spirituality. They live about 10 minutes from Benano in a cozy house that sparkles with warmth. If you happen to be exploring nearby Torre Alfina, you may just run into them.
They cherish visits with their families, who are scattered all over the world. We are blessed to be part of that extended family. They take wonderful care of us and shower us with kindness and affection. And they take care of our Italian rental villa business by treating our guests as family, too.
We can’t wait for you to meet them!
The first time we rented a villa was on a vacation we took with another couple to Positano, on Italy’s beautiful Amalfi Coast. The view from this 2-bedroom / 2-bathroom apartment was just as spectacular as advertised. Breathtaking, really. Very, very romantic. Everything was perfect … except for the tiny detail that the second bedroom could be accessed only by going through the first bedroom. We had rented a beautiful two bedroom apartment with an incredible view and zero privacy.
We want the surprises awaiting guests at Rocca di Benano to be good surprises — like how inviting, restorative, and relaxing an Italian villa vacation can be.
From the moment prospective guests contact us, I describe the villa and the area as accurately as I can and offer to provide all the personalized help they need to make their stay at Rocca di Benano a trip of a lifetime. I know how important this trip is to them, and I love to pass along tips that can make the difference between it being a project and a vacation: time-tested advice on flight itineraries, transportation to Benano, how and where to rent cars, international drivers licenses, and the various forms of trip insurance to consider; user-friendly information on getting to the villa (taking into account that said users might be jet-lagged) and everything they’ll find when they get there; and tips on all the “don’t-miss” attractions, vistas, tours, museums, trattorias, gelaterias, shopping opportunities, and cultural experiences guests would want to know about — whether they be found at Benano’s doorstep, in one of the lovely hill towns that dot Umbria, Tuscany, and Lazio, or on guests’ day trips to larger cities like Rome, Florence, and Assisi.
In helping our guests prepare for their villa vacation, I’m mindful of the experience we had renting another Italian villa in a rural part of Puglia. It wasn’t until we had driven around for what seemed like hours that we realized that the directions and hand-drawn map to the villa were wholly insufficient. We were relieved to reach the English-speaking villa manager on her cell, but she was at a soccer match and couldn’t get away to help us. She advised us to stop and ask for directions. Soon a group of men had spilled out of a bar and were leaning over our car’s hood studying the incomprehensible map, also to no avail. Finally, one of them hopped on his ape and led us for several miles in a totally different direction, to a place he thought the villa might be.
It was quite an adventure just to find the villa we had rented. The memory of the helpful Italian barflies is great to recall, but the episode made for an unnecessarily stressful afternoon. We are determined not to subject our guests at Rocca di Benano to any such drama.
I give our guests good directions to our villa and how they’ll get the key, but I don’t stop there. We realize it takes a lot more than directions and a key to achieve our goal of making sure our guests enjoy the best that our corner of Italy has to offer. I want them to unlock more than just a beautiful villa. I want them to unlock their trip of a lifetime.
Until the open office revolution reared its ugly head, I never gave much thought to workspaces. Though unremarkable, my offices were always just fine.
And then Corporate America became besotted with the promised miracles of open offices. Without walls separating people, creativity would flow. Collaboration would flourish and we would be more productive. We kind of expected whiter teeth and smarter kids, too.
I’m happy to see more articles talking about the downsides of cubicle farms. I think very fondly of my years at work, but not of the years my team and I spent in the basement (try though they might, they could never get us to call it the lower level) in our “veal pens.”
And now my I work at my kitchen counter. Or a comfortable armchair. Or, when I’m in Italy as I am this week, here.
It’s yet another thing I love and appreciate about retirement.
Part I: Wherein The Passport Gods Giveth
When I suggested that we go to Italy early next month, Mom jumped at the idea. Then she groaned in misery. Her passport had expired and we would be leaving in just over 3 weeks. She didn’t think there would be time to get a new passport.
Of course, there was plenty of time. The U.S. State Department’s Passport Office operates a very efficient system. It’s easy to download an application from the website, and the passport office offers a couple of levels of expediting the new passport. While Mom walked to drugstore in Bothell to get the required photo taken, I sat at my computer in Cincinnati, filled out her application, and emailed it to her. She got back, wrote the check (it cost an additional $60 for the expedited service), signed the application, and packaged it up with her expired passport. The little package was in the mail the next morning.
Her new passport arrived about 2 weeks later.
Part II: Wherein the Passport Gods Taketh Away
Ever hear of the Schengen requirements? If you’re traveling to the Schengen area, which includes Italy, you need to know about them. This is from the State Department’s website:
Entry into any of the 26 European countries in the Schengen area … requires that your passport be valid for at least three months beyond your intended date of departure. If your passport does not meet the Schengen requirements, you may be refused boarding by the airline at your point of origin or while transferring planes. You could also be denied entry when you arrive in the Schengen area.
This is serious stuff. The passport gods can taketh away your vacation.
The State Department website continues:
For this reason, we recommend that your passport have at least six months’ validity remaining whenever you travel abroad.
Six months’ validity! This doesn’t fall into the “common knowledge” category.
Keep the passport gods on your side. Renew early and often.
Be not afraid of life. Believe that life is worth living, and your belief will help create the fact.
– William James
When I asked my mother if she wanted to go to Italy on very short notice, I knew she would say yes. One doesn’t issue half-hearted invitations a woman who has lived more than 80 years unafraid of life. If she’s afraid of anything, it’s that her life will end before she’s had enough excitement. She doesn’t want to miss anything.
Her habit of finding excitement in unlikely places mortified me as a teenager. As if anonymity would shield me from the slings and arrows of adolescence, I wanted nothing more than to be unremarkable. I yearned for a normal life that would be spectacularly unworthy of note. And there I was, plagued by a remarkable mother who was not afraid of life. It was my curse.
If I could tell my teenaged self anything, it would be this: calm down. You can’t imagine how fast the years are about to spin away. Long before you’re ready for it, you’re going to find yourself middle-aged and hoping you inherited some of her spunk.
And so it is that Mom, who still doesn’t act her age, and the middle-aged me trying to live life as fearlessly as she, are going to Benano next month. I’ll keep you posted.