A Tale of Two Hotels in Florence

A pano of Florence (click to enlarge) seen from the hill of Piazza Michelangelo.

I have one piece of advice I like to tell pregnant women about how to handle labor and delivery: “Expect the unexpected.” The same goes with travel. The saying went through my head as we marched in stony silence in the rain, loaded down with all our bags, about a half mile from one hotel to another on our first full day in Florence.

We had arrived at the train station the previous afternoon after another figure-it-out-as-we-go, hurry-up-and-wait, run-to-make-the-transfer day of train travel. (Reading the Italy train schedule and decoding the ticketing process is about as easy as figuring out which IRS form to use.) Hooray, we made it! But then we entered our hotel, and the next 12 hours went down as one of those low points that pushed me to the last resort of parental optimism, whereby I tell the kids, “Someday we’ll laugh about this.”

A street near the Duomo, not far from our hotel.

We had booked ourselves into a hotel not far from the Duomo. The location seemed great. The website looked nice. The TripAdvisor.com reviews were good enough. The hotel manager, an American expat, seemed friendly via email. Best of all, we could get a three-room family unit for just 150 euros a night — what a deal! Most decent hotels in the European big cities we’ve visited charge around 200 for a standard room and require us to get two rooms or a pricey suite to accommodate the kids; hence, we’ve mostly rented apartments, which are more affordable. We reserved this three-room bargain for all eight nights in Florence.

Three things travelers should remember, along with “expect the unexpected”:

  • Beware if a hotel’s website showcases photos of nearby tourist attractions and emphasizes its location rather than its rooms.
  • Being recommended by Cheap Sleeps In Italy and Eurocheapo is not necessarily a good thing.
  • If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

The cab dropped us off in front of an unremarkable four-story building that blended in with all the other centuries-old buildings on the block. A small sign listed the hotel’s name along with a handful of other tenants. We pushed a ringer, heard the door buzz and let ourselves in.

Call me crazy, but I expected to see a hotel lobby — you know, something like a receptionist’s desk, a sofa, perhaps a bouquet of flowers. Instead, we walked into a cold, dim entrance with a dirty marble floor and walls painted industrial green. It was empty except for some bikes locked to a metal post. A stairway with a cage-like lift at its center led upstairs.

We heard footsteps coming down, and a young woman — not the one with whom we had been in contact by email — said as a way of greeting, “I’ll unlock the lift for your bags.” Oh, okay, and hello. We piled the bags into the elevator and she instructed us to go to the second floor. I ascended the stairway with dread as the realization dawned this wasn’t a hotel but rather a collection of rooms for rent, the kind that might qualify for a Section 8 voucher back in the States.

She unlocked our door and led us into a narrow annex that contained a rickety desk with stacks of used guidebooks and other ephemera from previous travelers. A mini fridge sat on the floor, and on top of it were a few mismatched mugs and a rusted hot pot. A bunch of dusty dried roses hung as decoration. Oh my god, I thought, I’m back in college on one of those weekenders where we have to crash on the floor at someone else’s rental.

Suddenly, the lights went out, and the woman smacked a button on the wall. “In Italy, electricity is very expensive,” she said by way of explaining why the lights were on a timer. Then she left.

I poked around “the mini bar.” The fridge held somebody’s expired milk and leftover spaghetti sauce, and the hot pot contained calcified water deposits floating around.

Three rooms led off the annex, each with forlorn-looking furniture and its own small, ancient sink. But what really disturbed us were the windows, which were above eye level and made us feel as though we were in a basement instead of on the second floor. The toilet and shower were relatively new and clean, but they were in an impossibly small room connected to the hallway, and a weirdly handwritten sign on a slip of paper taped above the toilet said: Please Keep Bathroom Clean For Others. Clearly, we had rented a group of three rooms with a shared bathroom, not exactly the “family unit” I had envisioned.

Morgan and I looked at each other and voiced what the other was thinking: There’s no way we could spend eight nights there. We could barely stomach the prospect of one night.

“Don’t unpack yet,” we told the kids, and we promptly got online to research alternative lodging. We had made our hotel deposit via PayPal and paid for only one night, so the manager didn’t have our credit card number to charge us for the additional nights we had reserved. We were seriously contemplating “doing the skedaddle” (a phrase I got from Jeannette Walls’ wonderfully wry memoir, The Glass Castle); i.e., secretly leaving and skipping out on obligations.

We googled and called around and finally found a well-reviewed three-star hotel that sounded fabulous (too good to be true?) with a two-bedroom suite, and we could check in the next day. The manager said it normally goes for over 300 euros nightly but he’d give it to us for a special rate of 215. And he only had it available for five nights, so we’d have to leave Florence two days earlier than expected. Fine, I said, trying not to sound too desperate — we’ll take it.

Were we doing the right thing, suddenly moving out and paying significantly more per night? What if the new place was nearly as bad, and what would we do for the final two nights when we needed to be in the Florence area? (We’re here for the duration of the week because I’m running a trail marathon near the city on May 8.) We didn’t know — we just wanted to get the hell out of that room and get our heads around the situation, so we headed out for food and drink.

Eating at Eby's -- the calm before the storm.

We found exactly what we needed, just a half-block from the flophouse: a hole-in-the-wall burrito place! We couldn’t remember the last time we tasted tortillas, guacamole or Mexican spices. ¡Qué buenísimo! Eby’s Latin Bar at the corner of Via dell’Oriuolo and Santa Croce is un tesoro (a treasure) — a blissful break from pizza and pasta, with a wide selection of non-Italian beer. I ordered a Belgian ale and Morgan got a wicked brew called Lucifer. We topped it off with a sugary crepe. Boy, did that dinner cheer us up and fortify us for the night ahead, during which partygoers and drunks sang and screamed outside our window well past 1 a.m.

The next morning we woke bleary from an awful night’s sleep and prepared to leave. We debated one more time whether and how to return the keys and break the news to the manager. We could (a) just go and leave the keys in the room; (b) make up a “family emergency” excuse; or (c) be honest, explain the room wasn’t what we expected and emphasize the inability to sleep with the nighttime noise, and apologize. Honesty is the best policy, we told the kids, and Morgan went next door to the manager’s apartment while I started taking the luggage downstairs.

Less than a minute after Morgan emerged from the manager’s room saying, “Okay, let’s go!” a woman in her pajamas stepped out looking stricken. She had a shock of uncombed hair and big, fearful eyes that made her small frame look even thinner. “You can’t do this to me!” she said, stopping us in the hall. Her hands and voice were shaking as she became more enraged. “Eight nights! I set aside three rooms for eight nights! What am I supposed to do? There’s no way I can rent them out now! You can’t do this!”

She began detailing her financial troubles and raged again, “Do you know what you’re doing to me?”

Colly and Kyle stared at her, mirroring her big-eyed fear. I told her I was terribly sorry and would talk to her about it, but first I needed to take care of the children. I led the kids downstairs with our bags and told them to wait there.

I could describe the scene further, but later on my daughter wrote about it in her journal, and her perspective captures it better than I could:

“I’m sorry, we have to leave,” a hushed voice says.

“But you can’t just leave,” a higher, more panicked voice says.

“I’m really sorry,” the hushed voice says again.

The voices argue for a long time. Meanwhile, my brother and I are sitting on a cold hallway floor trying to make out what’s going on upstairs. The hallway is all concrete with cracked, pealing paint on the wall. I stare at a faded picture across from me of Mary holding baby Jesus.

“How long do you think we’ve been sitting here?” I ask my brother.

“I don’t know, ten minutes?” he replies.

“My butt’s numb,” I aimlessly say.

“Mine too,” he says.

What’s going on? We’re moving. Well, we move a lot, but this time we’re not supposed to be moving …

We finally got out of there, but first we gave the manager an additional 200 euros to partially compensate for her loss. I still feel sorry and guilty about her situation (hence I’m not publishing the name of her hotel) and lousy about the high cost of our mistake.

The rest of the week did, thankfully, go well. Our new hotel, Loggiato Dei Serviti, is better than we could have hoped, and we would expect to pay almost double what they’re charging us for the impressive two-room suite. Built in 1517 (!), the hotel used to serve as guest rooms for a monastery. It sits next to a church in a big old city square called the Piazza della Santissima Annunziata.

Our much-improved hotel room at Loggiato dei Serviti ...

... and the view out our window.

We were so relieved to arrive there, and we expressed new appreciation for hotel amenities. “It’s amazing,” Morgan joked, “they have these people in the lobby who smile and carry your bags!”

The hotel is around the corner from the Galleria dell’Accademia, where we viewed Michelangelo’s David, and just down the street from the Duomo, where we hiked the 414 steps up the campanile. We also have run around the hillside behind the Piazza Michaelangelo, studied Botticelli’s masterpieces at the Uffizi, marveled at re-creations of da Vinci’s contraptions at the very cool Leonardo da Vinci Museum (the kids’ favorite museum here by far), and discovered two fantastic restaurants I’d highly recommend to any Florence visitor: La Giostra (a slow-food gourmet gem, just a few doors from Eby’s burritos), and Ristorante Accademia in Piazza San Marco (I crave their wholewheat pasta with lamb ragu).

We leave Friday, which works out well — we now realize that five full days are enough for Florence — and we’ll spend two nights not far away in the town of Prato, near the start line for the mountain marathon. Then we hit the road on Sunday to start the Switzerland loop.

In spite of the rough landing, we’ve had several good days homeschooling and sightseeing here in Florence. I can hear us years from now reminiscing about David in the buff, Venus in the clam shell … and that livid lady in the spooky hotel!

Ponte Vecchio over the Arno.

The kids and I check out the base of a 13th-century church, San Miniato al Monte, above Piazza Michelangelo.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,