It seemed like an inspired idea at the time. The parents of my Florentine roommate, Francesca, were about to celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary. In 1949, they honeymooned in a small, secluded hotel on Punta Chiappa, a finger of land across the bay from Camogli, just north of Italy's famed Cinque Terre coastal region. The hotel and a nearby well-reviewed restaurant could only be reached by boat. Francesca and I decided to treat them to a night at their honeymoon hotel, dinner in the restaurant and then a day of sightseeing in nearby Portofino. We also thought that, this time around, Wilma and Bruno would have much more fun if we went along.
"Ann, this is one of those things you are supposed to talk me out of," Francesca said as we trudged through the cold, dark autumn morning to the train station. At that time, she didn't mean the entire trip. She meant that there was no earthly reason why we were starting out before light. Although it takes about four hours to reach Camogli from Florence, did it really matter if we reached our destination by 10 a.m. or would noon do? How much time did we really need to explore a hotel that was on a deserted outcropping of land? So long as we caught the last boat out to the Punta Chiappa, landing in midafternoon we would be fine. I shrugged, as usual.
At the Florence train station, we met her cheerful parents, who had been up since 4:30 a.m. Bruno, tall and bald with wild eyebrows accenting blue eyes, was dressed with typically exquisite care in a subtle mix of browns, from the silk scarf at his throat to the heels of his Italian loafers. Wilma, more practical about the comfort of Italian trains, was warmly attired in a comfortable beige pantsuit and a warm jacket. They were looking forward to chatting with their daughter on the train for the next three-and-a-half hours. Their ability to converse with me was limited by my failure to learn to speak Italian at a level above that of a 3-year-old. (Actually there were plenty of Italian toddlers that could out-verbalize me any day.) Of course, Francesca got most of the blame for this because, after all, she was a teacher of the language and we had shared the apartment for over 18 months. But she also spoke perfect English (with an American accent) and the last thing she wanted to do in her free time was to give me gratis language lessons.
In La Spezia, at the southern end of Cinque Terre, we changed trains for the local to Camogli. The route provided brief glimpses of the cliffs on which small towns clung. It appeared as if, at any moment, they could slide right into the turquoise sea. Black smoky tunnels repeatedly blocked our snapshot views.
Camogli anchors the north end of the Portofino peninsula. The trendy town of Portofino is at the south. In between is a large nature reserve, accessible only by trail and boat. Camogli is a fishing village, with plaster and stone houses painted in peach and golden-yellow hues placed along narrow switchback roads from the sea to the top of the ridge. The busy harbor does not shelter the magnificent yachts of Portofino, but only the small boats of sardine and anchovy fishermen, the somewhat larger craft of those hunting orata, octopus and ricciola and the small ferry that runs between Camogli, Punta Chiappa and the medieval Abbey of San Fruttuoso, midway on the coast between Camogli and Portofino. It's at the bottom of the tiny bay at San Fruttuoso that a giant marble statue of Jesus was placed, for some reason, creating great photo ops for underwater divers.
The sun shown bright, but a light autumn breeze and the lack of tourists at the Camogli train depot reminded us that it was mid-October. We discovered that we could have slept in, as the next ferry was not going to leave for three hours. Bruno, eager to reach the honeymoon hotel and remembering that 50 years ago he and his new bride were rowed out to the hotel by a fisherman for a small fee, tried to hire one of the boatmen on the dock to take us out. The asking price of 90,000 lire ($45) changed his mind.
Instead, we explored the ramparts of the medieval castle, Castello Dragone, built onto the sheer rock ridge that forms the natural harbor. We lazed in the sun at the end of the levee, watching the fishing boats return with the midday catch. We lunched on bruschetta with fresh tomatoes, basil and anchovies and sipped a local spritzy white wine. Bruno and Wilma seemed to get younger as they reminisced about the seven days they spent in 1949 at the Hotel Stella Maris and their explorations around the Bay of Camogli. I understood the gist of what they were saying, although the conversational flow sped faster and faster as their excitement increased at the thought of returning to their honeymoon hotel.
Impatient, we finally climbed aboard the first afternoon ferry to Punta Chiappa. A group of about 10 noisy Americans got on the boat with their Italian guide who spoke English with a British/Italian accent. She kept up a running monologue about the flora and fauna found in the nature reserve that separates Camogli from Punta Chiappa, as well as about the history of pirates who terrorized Ligurian coastal towns long ago. I hoped they would not be getting off to stay at the Hotel Stella Maris, bringing with them that unique ability of Americans to transform any spot, no matter how exotic, into a place that could be found anywhere in the U.S.
As we crossed the bay, we saw the finger of land that formed the point, the punta, probably created by some ancient earthquake that pushed portions of the ocean floor up into the air. High upon a forested cliff, above the rocky spit of land, was a rose-colored group of buildings that Bruno said was our hotel. As we got off the boat, I heard the tour guide say to her clients, "Oh, that is Punta Chiappa. A beautiful place with an outstanding hotel and also the excellent Ristoranti Spandin." But the tour group remained on the ferry to San Fruttuoso or Portofino.
In fact, we were the only four people to disembark on the deserted concrete landing at the base of the cliff. We looked for a sign to direct us to Hotel Stella Maris. None was to be found, so we lifted our bags and started climbing the rocky stairs up the cliff in the direction of the pink buildings we'd seen from the sea. My first thought after the first 50 or so uneven stone steps was that Bruno and Wilma are 50 years older now than when they honeymooned in this spot. My second thought, after the third switchback, was that I was no 25-year-old either.
We climbed and still there was no sign of the Hotel Stella Maris. When we got to a "Y" in the path, Bruno didn't know which way to go. Wilma didn't recall so many steps. In one direction was a rocky trail; in the other, more stairs. Then a pebble fell from the sky and I looked up to see a man standing on what appeared to be a corner of a deck, hidden in the overgrowth. He was smoking, silently watching our progress. "Dove hotel?" I asked. "Where hotel?" (Verbless Italian is my specialty.) "Qui," he responded, pointing at the stairs with their encroaching vines and trees. We labored on up and emerged on the deck of the honeymoon hotel.
The man was the only person in sight. In his mid-40s, with curly, dark hair, a large hooked nose, black eyes and pitted skin, he wore gray baggy sweats and dirty Docksiders. At his feet, a mangy little orange dog -- half Chihuahua, half golden retriever -- ran in circles. Behind him in a cage a myna bird screeched its one discernible word: "Ciao."
"Do you have identification?" said the man in Italian as we puffed up the last steps. Francesca apparently hadn't remembered this part of the honeymoon.
"Che cosa?" she snapped. What?
"Do you have identification?" he repeated.
The Italian verbiage flew fast now and I struggled to keep apace. "We have a reservation at Hotel Stella Maris. The name is Boni," she said, in part, ignoring his question. I missed his response but when she just stared at him, he wilted a bit.
"OK, I will get the keys." He disappeared, returning with two keys. Still there was no one else in sight -- no other guests and no other staff.
"Do you have any cigarettes?" he asked.
"No," we replied, in unison.
He showed us to two rooms, both without adjoining bathrooms. Again in high-speed Italian, Francesca and our "host" discussed the situation: "We reserved rooms with bathrooms."
"But here they are across the hall, two of them."
"Please show us two rooms with bathrooms."
"OK, I will get the keys."
The next two rooms we saw were dark and dusty from disuse, had no view of the sea and shared a bathroom that looked like no one had been in it for months. Francesca stomped off, muttering to herself. I took up the conversational slack.
"No," I said and gestured at the newly offered rooms while searching my brain for any loose verbs or, more helpful, an adjective or two.
"Make up your mind," he said, "I am busy."
Busy? No other people were demanding to register or check out of the hotel. It didn't appear as if he had been rushing to clean out guest rooms. And he had no more cigarettes to smoke.
Seeing my confused look, Bruno got into the act and demanded to see other rooms with en suite bathrooms, adding that, 50 years ago, there had been fine rooms with views of the sea. The man went away and came back with more keys. He was now removing scraps of ragged paper that said "Private" which covered the room numbers on most of the doors. He was matching the room numbers with the key numbers and seemed somewhat confused.
But the dusty rooms got smaller and the bathrooms got older. He appeared determined to show us every room. We saw accommodations in three different buildings in the compound. The only building we did not enter was a tiny chapel locked with a large rusted chain and padlock.
It became clear to us that we were the only guests in the hotel.
We decided to keep the original rooms we had been shown and handed over our passports, not without trepidation. We had already noticed that there were no phones or TVs in the rooms. Further, we soon realized that there was no hot water and that beneath one sink the wastebasket also served as a catch basin for the drain. The windows had no screens and there were plenty of mosquitoes. The last boat off Punta Chiappa would arrive in 25 minutes. Francesca and I discussed the "escape" option and decided it was too late.
In my role as optimistic American, I said, "Well at least we will have a nice meal tonight." Francesca didn't look convinced. "Let's walk down and make a reservation," I urged, flashing my best California smile.
Francesca went to ask for directions from our host. I tagged along. We found him telling Bruno and Wilma about his recent dental treatment. He relayed that the strong pain medication he was taking didn't work and asked again for cigarettes. Bruno offered him aspirin, which he declined. "I hate it here," he continued. "Nothing to do. No one is here during the week. I've been here four months. It was all right during the summer, but now ... " His voice trailed off and he looked pensively out to sea.
"Where is the Ristorante Spadin?" Francesca asked.
"Aren't you going to eat here tonight?" he asked.
"Yes," Bruno said.
"No," Francesca said and asked again for directions to the restaurant.
After receiving some vague instructions, she asked, "Do you have a flashlight we can use tonight for the stairs?"
"No, but there are some lights on the path."
Leaving her parents, who were sitting at a table on the deck sorting through two partial decks of old playing cards (courtesy of the hotel), Francesca and I set off for somewhere "past the boat landing." As we descended the stairs, mosquitoes started to muster around us in small clouds.
"Have you noticed that these are a different kind of mosquito?" Francesca asked. "They are striped. I bet they are the kind that came from America in a boatload of tires and are causing people to die of encephalitis."
"Oh," I responded.
"I take my parents off on a trip to revisit their honeymoon hotel and if they don't break an ankle or a hip going up and down the stairs in the dark to dinner, they will be murdered in their bed by that drugged-out guy who will kill for a cigarette by tonight, and if not that they will get encephalitis or meningitis or some horrible mosquito disease and die a slow, agonizing death."
Sometimes Francesca's command of the English language and her rampant paranoia leave me speechless.
Ristorante Spadin was closed. "Open on Saturday and Sunday," the sign said. It was Friday afternoon. We stood silently on the restaurant's empty patio staring out into an enchanting view of the bay. We again thought about the last ferry, now scheduled to arrive in 10 minutes.
"I think he's a drug addict," Francesca said of our host. "I think they use this as a safe house when they transport drugs along the coast. We better find him some cigarettes." A bit confused by the association between the drug house and our host's nicotine withdrawal, and not at all sure where we would find cigarettes, I just murmured agreement.
Back at the ferry landing, we saw a man standing in a small boat. He was shoveling live sardines from a bucket of water into a plastic bag. Francesca asked if there was some place else to eat on the punta. "Maybe on further," he said and gestured back the way we had come.
Around the corner from the closed restaurant, a pathway and more stairs finally led to a group of five or six houses. Punta Chiappa was home to a small fishing village. A sign said "Bar" so we asked if we could get an evening meal. "Yes, come back at 7:30."
We returned to the hotel. On the deck sat Bruno and Wilma staring out at the bay and at Camogli off in the distance. "I want to be on the first boat out of here in the morning," Bruno said. "That guy is crazy. He says some Hungarian lady owns the hotel now."
Francesca and I wandered off to a corner of the grounds to further discuss possible scenarios, real or imagined, for the impending night at the Hotel Stella Maris. We found a mostly destroyed lookout tower, recently crumbled walls and one nicely arched window. Two marble plaques etched with a quote from Byron -- one in English and one in Italian -- clung to the partial brick facade. I guessed from the quote that, long ago, Byron appreciated the peace to be found in Punta Chiappa.
"I don't think this is a hotel anymore," Francesca said, "No wonder I had so much trouble finding it to make the reservation. And no one at that bar knew who was running it now. I think we should leave or see if the lady at the bar has rooms. I won't sleep at all tonight."
"Well," I said peering down the cliff, "there goes our last chance to get off the punta." Far below us in a glorious blue sea, the final ferry of the day pulled away from the boat landing 10 minutes behind schedule.
"I don't think we are going to be murdered in our beds, but it would be nice if there was just one other guest," I said.
At that moment, a man in a white bathrobe (not our "host") came walking from the hotel toward us. He stepped into a low enclosure of bushes, turned on an outdoor shower, stripped down and proceeded to wash.
"Stranger and stranger," I murmured.
"The three owners have arrived," said our host as Francesca and I rejoined her parents on the terrace. Two tall, dark men (one newly clean) and a small, blond woman sat on a higher terrace, talking in hushed tones. Our foursome sat on the lower terrace silently watching the sun sink into the sea. Our host, who was now identified as "Lino, from Genoa," went back and forth between the two groups, smoking constantly (apparently re-supplied by the "owners"). We learned that he had been a seaman. He was the "cook and manager" of the hotel now. That evening he was serving "last night's roast and maybe some pasta with pesto" to the owners.
We were right -- we were the only guests. Three new ones were due to arrive the next day. Lino also informed us that the hotel had been a convent at one time, which explained the chapel. Blowing smoke over our little group, he was content to describe, at length, his life at sea and how the new hotel experience paled in comparison. I tuned him out, but later got the Reader's Digest version from Francesca.
We left for dinner in the dying light and made it safely, though thoroughly bug-bitten, to the bar. The proprietress took us upstairs where, to our pleasant surprise, there was a large dining room with a panoramic view. The first lights of Genoa and Camogli began flickering on around the bay. With relief we also saw a few lights turn on, marking our path back to the hotel.
Dinner was marvelous. Maybe just for its normality. Dish after dish of steamed shellfish, pasta with pesto and baked whole fish arrived at our table, accompanied by fresh vegetables and a light, local white wine. Later, two other tables filled with diners -- a local family and a couple from a tiny pensione next to the bar. The fabulous fried seafood they were served made us want to start our meal all over again. During dinner we learned that the Hotel Stella Maris' owner from 50 years ago was long dead, but fondly remembered, and that the hotel was now owned by unknown Italians and was leased for operation by the threesome we observed earlier. The padrona of the bar was suspicious of the whole setup.
We walked slowly and carefully back up the many steps, moving in and out of dim pools of light and perilous dark sections of the path.
"Did you just stay in your room 50 years ago?" I asked Wilma.
"Oh no, we were here for a week and we went up and down every day. But then we were in our 20s, you understand." she said.
Breathless, we reached the hotel's terrace. Light glowed from the tall windows that walled the former dining room. The huge room no longer contained any guest tables. Only one round table with three mismatched chairs and a tarnished silver candelabra sat in the middle of the room. The candles threw flickering light on the three "owners" as they ate last night's roast. At the far end of the room, a grand piano supported another glowing branch of candles. Farther along the building, Lino could be seen through the high windows of an industrial kitchen.
We slipped unnoticed off to our beds. At the doors to our rooms, we wished each other a safe and restful night. Francesca gave her parents instructions to put a chair under the doorknob. Bruno said he expected that he would be up early, but that he would let everyone else sleep in. Francesca said she thought we would all be early risers.
Wilma had the last word: "Francesca dearest, I've been thinking about this and I do believe that Bruno and I are in the exact same room as the one we stayed in on our honeymoon." With a bemused smile at the kindness of motherly love, Francesca kissed her parents and went off to bed without another word.
Inside the room, the tiger-striped mosquitoes swirled hungrily, but there was netting over the beds. I crawled under my net to discover that something remained of the honeymoon hotel: the mattresses, soft, sagging, lumpy and damp. Francesca was right. Sleeping would be impossible -- not because of homicidal drug dealers, but because of murderous mattresses.
The night was a symphony of sounds; a modern symphony, one of those that's so discordant that one is never able to drift off in the concert hall. An hour after falling asleep I woke to the buzzing of a frustrated mosquito; close, but not within siphoning distance. At this, I rolled from warm dampness to cold mustiness and caused the bed to protest with the grinding of loose nails against old wood.
Thirty minutes later, the squeak of the bathroom door and the rumble of Bruno's voice disturbed the quiet. From the corner sink, a duet played of syncopated drip, drip, drips; the porcelain tone from faucet to sink and the metallic sound from drain to wastebasket. The wind picked up at about 3 a.m. causing the lock on the window shutter to slip, but the windows held firm. Twin banging doors told me that Bruno was up at 5, and Francesca's attempt at turning our squeaky doorknob 20 minutes later made me abandon the idea of another nap.
Dawn was as beautiful as it was welcome. Francesca's parents looked as fresh and rested as the day before. Bruno, arrayed in grays and tans, commented on the fine weather and appeared not to fully understand when I asked how their night had been. "Haggard" would best describe both Francesca and me.
We breakfasted standing, although Lino had set a lovely table for us on the terrace. Breakfast was included in the price of the rooms, but a sign on each bedroom door said sitting breakfast service would be 10,000 lire ($5) extra per person. We would have splurged if there had been any indication of a sumptuous repast to go with the cutlery; but flies rose off of the brioche on the bar, the only food in sight. The coffee, hot and strong, provided enough of a jolt to get us moving down the stairs. We caught the first ferry for Portofino as the sun crested the ridge.