This article also appears on our Italian Journal page.
Let’s pick up this story at Il Querceto, a villa in Castellina in Chianti, during the last week of April, 1998. Laura, the owner, was an energetic woman who seemed to do the work of 3 people. She had already informed my friend Lana and me that due to the upcoming May Day holiday weekend, we would have to find other accommodations for the upcoming Friday night. This meant we’d have to pack up everything & vacate the villa Friday afternoon. However, we were welcome to return to the villa on Saturday & stay for another week (which we did; who says “no” to that?). No problem, we thought. Lana & I prided ourselves on traveling without compass or reservations. How hard could it be to find a place for one night? We had just landed in this cozy spot for another 7 days. Surely the gods are with us. Sometime over the next few days, I mentioned this situation to our Italian friend, Gabriele. He said he would find a place for us. Fine, we thought. Let’s go shopping!
As we flitted around Tuscany, we heard bits & pieces about this May Day thing. It seemed every Italian would take 3 or 4 days away, as this year it fell on a Friday. Hotels had been booked for months. We saw TV predictions of bumper-to-bumper traffic from everywhere in Italy on the way to everywhere else in Italy. Keep in mind that neither one of us had ever heard of May Day before, except as something you screamed if you were having a military emergency.
We didn’t hear back from Gabriele for several days. Lana & I discussed our options. We seemed to have only one: worst case scenario, we find some public place and/or a bench and stay up all night, returning to Querceto the next day. We’d take only a backpack each for easy transport, as Laura allowed us to keep our other luggage in one of her storage areas for the night. Thursday afternoon flowed into Thursday evening when our phone finally rang. It was Gabriele, telling us that he had found us “the last room in Siena.” Located through the ever-powerful Italian social network, one room of a rental property in Acqua Calde, just outside of Siena, remained unrented for Friday night. Gabriele would drive us there. This could work.
We piled into Gabriele’s car Friday afternoon and set off for Acqua Calde. Many winding roads later, we made a right turn onto a side street and pulled over. Walking through the gate to the front door, it suited Lana & I just fine. Quiet, surrounded by a green field and trees, we were welcomed by a large, enthusiastic Labrador. The front door opened and Gabriele did all the talking (in Italian, of course). We were introduced t0 Max, a late 20-ish, handsome and (we would later learn) single man who lived on the property with his parents. We met his mother who was very sweet but seemed to be just on the edge of physical pain. Every move she made was slow and deliberate, as if specifically calculated to avoid discomfort. Her smile was wide and warm, but we could see the pain in her eyes.
Meanwhile, Gabriele was wheeling and dealing. For all of us to hear, he confirmed the price of the room and how it would be paid (in cash). Max brought us all upstairs to see the room. The hallway was wide and our double room was at the far end. I was so happy to see a stereo set up at the foot of the bed. “Great! We’ll have music!” I said. Gabriele, smarter than I about Italian accommodations, turned to Max and said “Funziona?” (“Does it work?”) Max sheepishly replied, “No.”
The deal was made and as it was the middle of the day, Gabriele offered to drive us to Siena on his way back to Poggibonsi. That sounded great to us. After agreeing to meet the next day near a café by the rental property to bring us back to Castellina, he dropped us off and we were let loose in Siena.