Like so many spooky tales, ours begins on a dark and stormy night.
It was our second day in Pievescola, a small town in Tuscany overlooking the Elsa Valley, and it had been gorgeous. But it all abruptly changed as the winds rushed in and lightning lit up the sky. My wife and I were staying at Relais La Suvera, a medieval tower turned luxury hotel, and had been at the pool when we were forced inside the bar.
Together we huddled with a few clichés: a dowdy English couple, a chic French couple and their springer spaniel, and an Italian waiter in a white suit who ran around filling glasses and stopping leaks. The wall sconces flickered with each stab of lightning, and we joked that this was an all-too-familiar setup. One by one we’d be offed, Agatha Christie-style.
OK, to be clear, none of us died. And, to be honest, the Suvera is gorgeous, the staff is friendly, and it’s very relaxing. It is, quite frankly, one of the most charmingly unique hotels I’ve ever been to. But at the same time, it scared the hell out of me.
Here Be Popes
We had driven in from Florence the day before. The hotel is in the middle of nowhere. After exiting the highway, our satellite navigation became woefully confused and we had to rely on street signs pointing the way. But then we saw it: unassuming at first, just beyond a gate, with the check-in office on the road. We were escorted across the gravel landscape, past a fenced-in fountain to our room on the ground floor of a tower–this was the papal villa.
The Suvera, a former fortress built in the 12th century, was given to Pope Julius II by the rulers of the Siena as a
bribe gift of appreciation in the 16th century. You could be forgiven for not knowing the history of popes–really, why would you?–but if you plan on knowing any popes, Julius II is a pretty good one to become familiar with. A vindictive, entitled jerk of a pope, he spent most of his papacy obsessively battling the Venetian Republic only to end up pissed off at France and needing the Venetians as allies. In the end, he saw no accomplishments to his war strategy, but he died trying, so I suppose he should be given kudos for sticktoitiveness.
When Julius wasn’t fighting, he did much for the arts. He razed the old St. Peter’s Basilica and ordered construction of the one that stands today, commissioned Michelangelo’s statue of Moses, and, oh yeah, hired Michelangelo to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.
Though he was busy duking it out with all of Europe while bringing the Renaissance to Rome, Julius still found time to flip La Suvera from a run-down medieval tower into a grand villa with the urgency of an HGTV host. Today, his papal crest is still affixed to the building–where’s your crest, Chip and Joanna Gaines?
The Princess and the Marquis
In the years after Julius II, the home was passed from nobleman to nobleman until it was acquired by the current owners, the Marquis Ricci and his wife, the Princess Eleonora Massimo. The Princess is an actual, real-life, honest-to-goodness princess–she’s the daughter of Princess Adelaide of Savoy and the fifth Prince of Arsoli (fun fact: Victor Emanuel II, first king of a unified Italy, is her great-granduncle)–and the Marquis is an actual, real-life, honest-to-goodness marquis, which is better than being a count but not as good as being a duke.
The Princess and the Marquis transformed La Suvera from a residence into a luxury hotel in 1990 for reasons I don’t understand because I would never want strangers swimming in my pool (if I had a pool, which I don’t). We would encounter these royals throughout our stay.
The Princess was tall and angular, though attractive with a broad smile that she’d flash at me whenever I was willing to butcher Italian to wish her a good evening. She was regularly seen on the property petting the cats. There were a lot of cats. Her husband, the Marquis, was rounder, though by no means heavy set, with soulful eyes. We saw him nightly at the bar. They largely kept to themselves and their family, who also appeared to have quarters on the grounds, while I was told that a majordomo handles their affairs and the workings of the hotel.
But even when the Princess and the Marquis were not seen, their presence was felt. The hotel felt like a living, breathing (possibly literally–more on that later) museum to their ancestors.
We were given our suite, which was named for the Dukes of Genoa (a duke is better than being a marquis, but not as good as being a prince). The first Duke of Genoa was the Princess’ great-grandfather, while the spooky fella pictured above, the second Duke of Genoa, was her grandfather. His photo hung in our room.
We were ushered to our room, entering through a blue-walled antechamber with a parlor and sleeping quarters to the left. It was outfitted with ancestral furniture of the royal families of Savoy. The Duke’s field canopy draped the bed; his battle drums now stood as bedside tables.
I sat in the parlor, rudely wondering aloud to my wife, “Just imagine how many baronesses have farted on this couch.” (A baroness is better than being a lady, but not as good as being a viscountess.) Normally, I would never use such crude vernacular but I had been drinking a bottle of wine grown from the vineyards of the property. It had been accompanied by a typed note from the desk of the Princess and the Marquis welcoming us.
Along one wall stood a grand fireplace with three horrifying little cherubs carved into the marble. I could have sworn these cherubs’ vacant beady eyes remained on me wherever I walked. Opposite the fireplace was a great mirror framed in gold. It shared a wall with the only other apartment occupying the ground floor, the private residence of the Princess and the Marquis. There’s an old Fritz Lang movie called The Thousand Eyes of Dr. Mabuse about a lunatic hotelier who uses one-way mirrors to spy on his guests. While staring at that monstrous looking glass, I couldn’t help but wonder who was looking back.*
[*Editor’s Note: No one was looking back. It’s a normal mirror. The writer is a drunken paranoiac.]
A Stroll Through the Gardens
After drinking a bottle of wine on an empty stomach, my wife and I decided to roam the gardens. They were large and meandering and, though we were quite alone, we felt the need to whisper. Occasionally we would hear the laughter of children off in the distance or the padding of footsteps, but we never came across another living, breathing person along that walk. Instead, we were watched by the statues.
One statue in particular gave us a start, as it was crawling with insects. It had a human-like face, too human for my liking, and it gave us a pathetic look as though it were trapped beyond the stone.
Oh My God, Oh My God, Oh My God, Is This Wall Moving?
We went for a drink at the bar and that’s when I saw it.
As is customary for those who are given undeserved luxury, I had run around capturing photos with my iPhone the moment we were left alone in our new digs in the Duke of Genoa Suite. And now, sitting at the bar drinking another bottle of wine, I revisited my photographs. The iPhone 7.0 unnecessarily takes live photos and due to this annoying preset, I was able to see it: something strange–moving–in the blue matte paint of a photo of the antechamber.
Almost imperceptible, just a few inches above the chair: it almost looked like a face. Everything else in the photo remains still but for that strange little movement. I showed my wife and her hand rushed to her mouth, horrified. Why was the paint moving? [*Editor’s Note: It’s a lens flare.] What was it? [*Editor’s Note: It’s really just a lens flare.] And what would become of us? [*Editor’s Note: You’ll drink until fall asleep and wake the next morning and carry on with your vacation.]
A Vomiting Statue’s Connection With a Grieving Madman
As we’d had a fitful night full of nightmares of demonic cherubs and dancing lens flares, we canceled our plans to ride horses through the vineyards and instead spent the whole of the second day at the pool. It was practically empty. The chic French couple read while their dog slept at their side; the dowdy English couple chatted merrily. It was a lovely, relaxing pool–despite an eccentric feature that commemorates a story of gloom.
At one end of the pool, there’s a sculpture that dates back to the 16th century: a face vomiting water into the deep end. It’s said to be the design of Pirro Ligorio, an artist with a gift for creating gargoyle-like horrorshows. His one-time patron was the condottieri Vicino Orsini of Bomarzo (a condottieri is better than a soldier but not as good as a lord), who allegedly succumbed to madness after the death of his wife. In order to cope with his grief, he commissioned Ligorio to fill his gardens with grotesque sculptures of monsters. If you take a two-hour journey south of the hotel, you can still see these statues in what’s now referred to as the Monster Park.
It was just after our stay at the pool that the thunder came roaring in. We left the bulimic gargoyle at the pool and took shelter indoors.
We fled to the bar where we waited out the storm, but soon enough it was time for our dinner reservations–and we’re never late for grub.
The hotel’s restaurant is across the empty street, just outside the hotel gates. There were several tuxedo-clad waiters despite our being the only guests. We sat at a corner table. The thunder continued to roar. At one point, the electricity went out. When the lights came back on again, the waiters were all staring at us–eight eyes watching us, as many as in a spider’s skull. One of them, who went without blinking, said ominously, “It happens all the time.”
A creeping forboding happened upon me again–like the opening scenes of a horror movie from the 1930s, we were the strangers who wandered into a foreign inn on a dark night, who wouldn’t heed the cryptic warning from a group of superstitious locals; we’d venture into the night to die. Our deaths would be a prologue to someone’s story.
But who cares? We’d been drinking, after all, and the food at this inn on this dark night was shockingly good. I’d heard a rumor that they were trying for a Michelin star, and though it may not have been quite at that level, it was a beautiful meal. I would have been happy for it to have been my very last.
A Beastly Mark
We drank a lot of grappa after dinner and walked the grounds with glasses in hand. The rain had ended, the clouds had parted and revealed, rather ominously, a full moon. The cats darted through the gardens and we walked through freshly-spun spiders webs. It was silent but for the dripping of water from trees.
That night, we went to bed happy. But when we woke, we saw the horror.
My wife’s right calf had a mark that had swollen to the size of a bocce ball and was warm to the touch. It pained her to stand, even more so to walk. We left the hotel that morning for Bomarzo and then to Rome, where the swelling grew even larger. A pharmacist gave her an antibiotic ointment and a fistful of Benedryl, which reduced the swelling. Only then could we see the bite marks.
Two fangs, about a centimeter apart, had gotten her. Could the Princess have secretly been a vampiric devil who feasted on my wife in the night? Or was the Marquis a cursed werewolf who descended upon her under the full moon? Or was it simply a spider whose web we had crossed while drunkenly wandering through moonlit gardens?
We’ll never know.*
[*Editor’s Note: We know. It was a spider.]
To Brave the Suvera Again
In the days since leaving the Suvera, I’ve wanted nothing but a return to its tower. Perhaps it’s calling to me from across oceans and mountains and vineyards, perhaps it’s summoning me back. It beckons my return to its tomb of oddities, perhaps to consecrate me as a part of its collection.
More conceivably, it is a most remarkable hotel whose historic luxury swept me back to a once-upon-a-time fantasy that one usually encounters only in storybooks or museums. Perhaps I’ve been longingly romanticizing the uniquely sublime vacation experience rather than concentrating on the mundane dullness of sitting at a desk and staring at a computer. And yet the photograph still pulses.
Was it actual specters or an imagination run wild* that made me believe such things went bump in the night? And is it the siren song or the daydreaming that beckons my return?
Does it matter?
[*Editor’s note: It’s the writer’s imagination.]