We have valiantly tried to leave her in the nightmares of holidays past, but the legend of Candy and her malevolent modus operandi prevails. Her ghostly shadow of incompetence lingering on through many a mirthful tale.
Like many great stories, ours began over a few glasses of wine. My good friend Tania informed us of yet another trip to visit her parents on the Italian Riviera. Rolling my eyes, at the injustice of being born to South African parents with no second home in Italy, or anywhere else, I poured another glass of wine. Not Chianti sadly, but good old SA Pinotage. Wouldn’t it be great if my fiancé and I could join her? I must have said that out loud because before I knew it, we were three bottles of Pinotage down, and plans were being laid.
Tania, her good mate Dave, my fiancé Werner, and I would combine our trip to Italy with a visit to the Munich Oktoberfest and a layover in Paris. It all seemed so simple – get an experienced Travel Agent to organize our Trip of a Lifetime. And then sit back, relax, and enjoy una magnifica vacanza!
Step 1: Visit said renowned Travel Agency and finalize the arrangements. Picture the scene: Tania (with some Italian travel experience and very definite ideas) and I (with a total of zero European travel experience) arrive at the bustling Agency where the energy is palpable - the world championships of anticipation. Caught up in the buzz, we quickly spot the only available agent in the large room and make a beeline for her. Perhaps we should have taken her inactivity (read indolence) as the first sign.
We did not.
Candy seemed as sweet as her name. We left that day innocently secure in our confirmed Air France flights and her experienced and professional understanding of our instructions on the cities we wanted to visit (Venice, Florence, Rome, Munich, and Paris) and the tours we wanted to book.
“Ladies, you are in capable hands. You need not worry about a thing.”
Famous last words.
Step 2: Keep in contact with said Agent and continue building the travel file. Losing myself in the splendors of her recommended hotels with the breathtaking images and descriptions of the exotic surroundings had me living in goosebump city! Perhaps I got a little too lost in the photos, and not enough in the information. Candy seemed to be outdoing herself - as the expert among us she knew exactly what she was doing. It was all coming together beautifully.
Or so we thought.
Step 3: Luckily, we had decided to book the Munich leg ourselves, so Tania and I, assisted by her father Auri, sailed through the simple process of booking a fab-looking 4-star hotel near the train station in Munich. (Girls, you want a hotel near the station. Logistically it’s very important to be within walking distance). Followed swiftly by our Oktoberfest tickets. Booked, paid for, and confirmed in record time. Munchen sorted!
If only our esteemed Travel Agent Candy had heard the echo of Auri’s wise words.
We then turned our attention to finalizing two tours (the rest we had left up to Candy – our expert). The Angels and Demons tour in Rome based on the book by Dan Brown combined a visit to all the best attractions with a whirlwind run-through of the story. We did our research, booked, paid, and got our confirmation in a jiffy, just as we did for our Chianti Wine Tour in Tuscany. Tick.
We celebrated our travel-agent-coming-of-age with some more SA Pinotage.
I was particularly impressed with the Paris hotel that Candy had booked for us. It was a 4-star hotel in the Opera District called The Ambassador. And ambassadorial it was! All I knew about Paris was that it’s an extremely expensive city to visit. Candy, however, had outdone herself here! She had found us the most magnificent hotel in the most sought-after and prestigious area (The Opera District!) at a reasonable price. So reasonable in fact, that it would be the cheapest leg of our trip. I couldn’t believe her ability - and our luck. Her magic wand had been working overtime that day. Who says Paris is expensive? Clearly, they have never met Candy – Travel Agent Extraordinaire.
She should have come with a disclaimer: “Actual distances have not been considered, nor has logic of any kind, or economical common sense for that matter.”
The big day finally dawned with the promise of adventure ahead. Nothing could dampen our spirits and for the first two days, everything went fabulously according to plan. We arrived in Genoa and Auri was waiting with his wide smile, open arms, and big heart.
Charming Loano was everything we had imagined it to be. The quaint beaches distinctively dressed in their colorful umbrellas and deckchairs beckoned toward the sparkling Mediterranean where we soaked up the golden rays, The gelato was heavenly and the gastronomic delights conjured by Chef Auri eclipsed the most scrumptious Italian meals ever served to us back home in SA.
Our hearts and stomachs were content. Bring on Venezia!
And this Readers is where the real story begins.
Dragging our cases through the deserted pre-dawn streets of Loano, even the early morning chill at the station couldn’t dampen our warm anticipation for Venice. The Floating City of Dreams and Sighs (well more sighs in our case).
Around 5 hours later we arrived there via Milan … or so our Bus Driver from the train station told us: “Questo e Mestre. Arriverderci.”
Luckily Tania’s Italian was good enough to get us through most situations: “Uh, guys, I think this is our stop.”
Confusion. Where were the canals, and the ancient architecture sprouting out of the mysteriously green depths? Where were the water taxis and gondolas?
Where was Venice?!
In her infinite wisdom, Candy had booked us into a hotel in Mestre (a borough of Venice). Technically she had done as we had asked – except the Club Hotel was 9kms away from any hint of a Canal. Our disappointment cloaked by the darkness of the late hour we wended our wary way to said hotel through ordinary suburbia.
For the next two days, we bussed in and out of Venice fitting in as many delights as our limited daylight hours would allow. We covered glassblowing in Murano, the Bridge of Sighs, Doge’s Palace, and St Mark’s Square, as well as the obligatory Vaporetto rides along the Grand Canal. Exploring on foot we even got hopelessly lost in the warren of tiny passageways ending up on the far North side of the city, nearly causing us to miss our evening bus and prompting some hilarious ‘Blair Venice Project’ moments along the way.
Strike 1: Venezia 10 out of 10. Candy 0.
A new day, a new city, and renewed hope in Candy! It was time to head to Firenze, the spectacular renaissance City of Dreams with its abundance of art, medieval architectural style, and Tuscan cuisine.
The brief had been simple: a hotel in Florence, near the start of our early morning Walking Tour which she had booked. On arrival at the iconic Santa Maria Novella Train Station, however, we quickly realized that our esteemed travel agent had booked us into the elegant Hotel Antico Masetto - in Lamporecchio – a mere 35 miles or one-hour train ride away from where we wanted to be.
Tania’s lips became dangerously thin under extremely narrowed eyes, while Werner tried valiantly to figure out the map ignoring Dave’s snippy comments and tightly folded arms. As the eternal optimist, I pointed out the charm of the little town in the rolling hills but was halted in mid-sentence by Tania’s glare.
Strike 2 for Candy, and this time we were not as charitable in our forgiveness.
Our Tuscan tour, however, awaited and forced to store our luggage at the train station, we headed off into wine country. We weren’t disappointed by the picture-perfect towns, farm tour, and lunch pairing, and even stumbled upon a wine festival in the little French-inspired town of Greve which numbed our frustration considerably.
The next morning, thanks to Candy, we were up well before the sun even thought about peeping over the Lamporecchio hills and throwing some espressos and brioches down our throats, we made a mad dash in taxis and trains to get to the start of our walking tour. We just made it. Was it too much to ask for accommodation in the city where we wanted to be?
We spent a memorable day wandering over the Ponte Vecchio bridge and rubbing the back of Porcellino in the main piazza (according to local legend the bronze pig can foretell if you will visit again). We admired the art at the Uffici Gallery and the statues in the Piazza della Signoria and were awed by the magnificence of the Duomo with its iconic gothic façade.
Firenze and our marvelous walking tour did not fail us, even though Candy had. However, there was still an opportunity for her to impress with the Rome leg of our holiday.
She did not.
Sadly, Candy’s complete ignorance of distance was again proven when we arrived at our hotel in ‘Rome’ which was not one, but two train rides away from Roma Termini Train Station. Yet another hour at least from where we wanted to be. Our characterless Holiday Inn was situated in a business and industrial district far outside the actual city.
There was no redemption this time for Cursed Candy.
Waiting despondently for our first of two trains Tania could no longer hold back her frustration and anger and crumpled into a wailing ball of tears. Drowning in our own disillusionment and disappointment, we all agreed to sacrifice our second night at the business traveler’s delight and booked ourselves into a splendid little hotel near the train station (Auri’s prolific words were echoing louder now). Affordable, perfect location, and five minutes of research. Tick.
In the end, Rome was magical. From our fantastic Angels and Demons tour to the Spanish Steps and Trevi Fountain, the Colosseum and Roman Ruins, climbing to the top of St Peters dome and seeing the Sistine Chapel. We even saw the Pope addressing the crowds in the Vatican Square, live - surely the Angels were smiling upon us now.
They were not.
Of course, the self-arranged Munich leg of our trip went smoothly. The hotel we had booked was perfectly located and extremely comfortable. The Oktoberfest was a whirlwind of German beer, Eisbeins, and the most magnificent amusement park one will ever experience in any lifetime. We had outdone ourselves.
And then, it was time for the final leg of our journey and the one I was the most excited about – Paris! I could not wait to see our luxury hotel in the Opera District.
But once again, Candy’s magic wand proved to be a Devil’s Trident. This was not only her final strike – but a death knell.
The Ambassador Hotel was in fact The Ambassadeur Hotel, and it was nowhere near the Opera District, but situated in the Turkish District on the outskirts of Paris - the ‘dodgy end’. No wonder it was so affordable.
“It’s impossible! LOOK AGAIN!” I all but shouted at the haughty assistant at the train station’s information desk.
Her Parisian features almost relaxed in sympathy at the desperation and exhaustion on our faces, but the curse of Candy had struck again! She had sent us the incorrect hotel name and information altogether, and when we finally stumbled into the actual hotel lobby an hour later it became apparent that this ‘hotel’ was hardly worthy of the one lonely star that sat proudly above the door adorned in heavy iron bars.
The Eiffel Tower, scenic night tour of Paris, and boat trip along the river Seine, as well as the opulence and grandeur of Versailles hardly dented our anger, fueled further by her complete lack of empathy and assistance when we finally informed her of her monumentally massive errors.
Years later we still laugh about Cursed Candy and our hotels from hell, but nothing can take away the priceless memories of our special time together in the most glorious places one could ever hope to experience.
The lessons learned are scorched deep into our minds and hearts, and never again will we naively rely on a Travel Agent – no matter how sweet her name may be.