Saturday, August 13, 2011

Camping in the Louvre

Dan nailed it: staying in an old Italian villa is like camping in the Louvre.

Villa Mila deserves more than just a single post. The house really is exquisite. Our living space was about 10,000 sf. There's a second stairway leading to another wing, closed off by velvet cord. Several rooms had two sets of double doorways and were locked. Three of us did manage to unlock the internal door leading to the attached chapel, which was hot, musty and used for storage of misc. religious objects and IKEA housewares still in their original packaging.

The bathrooms had working bidets. (Try explaining those to your kids.) The hardwood floors creaked, especially in our room. Four of our friends mentioned ghosts as there seemed to be no reasonable explanation for doors opening and closing randomly at odd hours.

The villa is hidden from the street by 8' tall stone walls. It's reached by prying open two green, weathered barn doors then driving under a covered archway past the 400-year-old stables. A large field is to the left with the pool and gardens behind it. All of the rooms are dark, with ornate, heavy window treatments. At first we attributed the darkness to the house being kept shuttered up during the heat of the day. But during Week 2, when the heat wave passed, we realized that the walls themselves were painted in dark colors or were paneled. The hand painting was beautiful with many religious details or elaborate scenery. The grand foyer had swords and rifles hung above oil paintings of dour family members and a large marble shelf atop the lattice-covered radiator. There was also a low entry hall table, which we kept buried under sunscreen, insect repellent, guide books, maps, keys and shared receipts.

The room we spent the most time in was the smallest room, the library, which had reliable wifi, the lightest colored walls and the most amount of natural life. It held only one sofa and two small chairs so it was a real accomplishment to be seated comfortably!

The formal living room, which we alternatively drank limoncello in and let the kids use for crafting, had an enormous Phantom-of-the-Opera-style chandelier. It was covered in cobwebs, too. The floor was parquet tiles covered with throw rugs.

This is the fourth European villa we've rented and our first experience with the house manager living on site. She was well-intentioned and quite helpful, down to finding our fish-like friend an Olympic-sized pool to keep her conditioning intact for the Trans Tahoe Relay. She arranged for two different chefs to come in and cook for us, which was one of the highlights each week. However, The Pinks could not understand why she, or any of the other Italians we encountered, smoked. None of us could understand why she became unglued when the kids hauled the mattresses from the third floor to the first in order to have a mass sleepover in the music room, which was easily 20 degrees cooler than the third floor.

There's the de rigour pool on the property, where the kids spent a fair amount of time. Each house we've rented in Europe has the same cheap white plastic lawn chairs -- the stuff you see at Safeway -- and this was no exception. Why is this? Perhaps Americans hang out more in their yards than do Europeans?

In hindsight, the best part of the villa was its prime location for integration into (or observation of!) village life. It was at the end of the one-horse-town's main drag and adjacent to the murky Adige river. I loved being able to hand the kids a 20 Euro bill and asking them to return with pizza. I met a friend for coffee at La Boulange here in the burbs this week and noticed how noisy it was. At Cafe Teatro, Villa Bartolomea's equivalent, it would have been much quieter with people sitting together but not necessarily speaking animatedly, drinking their coffee slowly, not necessarily powering through breakfast.

As is typical in Europe, commercial hours are approximate and not set to optimize revenue. Shops are closed either Sundays or Monday mornings, sometimes both. In Modena, shops are closed Thursday afternoons. We wanted to buy a bottle of Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena and the shopkeeper in one of Modena's best-known food shops, although physically in her shop and speaking to us, would not open the door for us to purchase a hundred dollar bottle of vinegar.

I could write a book on the foods of Northern Italy. In fact, many books have been written on the subject. Instead, here, I'll tell you about three grocery stores near the villa. To get a grocery cart, you insert a Euro coin in a slot and the cart becomes untethered from the others. When you
return your cart the coin comes back to you. This is quaint. In Italian grocery stores you must bag your own groceries and pay for the bags. This is not quaint although it does encourage reuse.

Familia was 2 km east of the house. It was adequate, much like a large Trader Joe's. This is where we did our initial provisioning because of its proximity to the house. It's biggest drawback was its limited produce selection.

Galassia was 7 km north. It was like a large Safeway with the addition of basic housewares, that cheap patio furniture and appliances. I bought additional fans here during the Week 1 Heat Wave. We shopped here whenever we were going to get my favorite pesche gelato at L'Arte del Gelato.

We didn't discover Interspar, also 7 km north and near L'arte del Gelato, until the end of our trip, sadly. It's Costco without the membership. We should have provisioned there! Dry pasta was literally two aisles. I could never have imagined so many shapes and sizes of pasta. Truly. Beverages took up an entire aisle -- sodas, bottled water, juices. Cheese was one side of a refrigerated aisle, pork products being the other side of course.

And of course none of these places are open on Sundays.

1 comment:

Postcards From The Hedge said...

Now I'm feeling nostalgia for Villa Mila...the Bialetti coffee pots, the funny split kitchen, the ground floor big enough to ride a bike (hello Dan) and the Saturday night disco across the tree-lined street.

Thanks for the walk down memory lane.