Hotel Suite Inn SO THIS IS LOVE…
by Ornella Fiorentini ♦
Speaking in the soft, encaptivating tones we use when recounting a fairy tale, my mother let down her long brown hair and began the story that I knew by heart:
“We called you Paolo because you were as handsome as your forefathers. You were born in the farmhouse next to the great ruin of Ghiaggiòlo Castle, the military fortress standing in the Tuscan-Romagna Apennines, to which the fiefdom of Malatesta di Verrucchio belonged in the thirteenth century. It is said that it was within the walls of that castle that Paolo and Francesca read the tale of Lancelot and Geneva … and, overcome by emotion, exchanged their first kiss”.
I had trouble getting to sleep in the bare room that was permeated with the fragrance of the vanilla essence my mother wore. A cheap plaster cast of the ancient gold and red emblem of the Malatesta family was fixed to the ceiling. My father Gualtiero had discovered that he was a descendant of the poor-branch of that powerful noble family, having spent most of his savings on a ten-year research into our family history. He was a farmer by vocation and necessity; with ruddy cheeks and sleeves rolled up over his muscular forearms, he worked hard on the farm from dawn to dusk. He had just one desire: to hang my degree in the coat-of-arms room. I knew I could not disappoint him. I worked hard at school. I was fascinated by the coloured stones of the mountains; I filled my pockets with them, and the following morning emptied them onto my desk, though my teacher never approved my efforts. At the age of ten, I understood that nobody understood me, but I was not discouraged because the Malatesta motto was the Indian elephant does not fear mosquitoes, namely that the strong and brave care nothing for the humiliating inadequacy of their neighbours. The screech of the owl, perched on the ruined octagonal bastion, marked out time. My mother sewed in the dim light of a single lamp. Sitting on a stuffed stool, she transformed into the old nurse of the Ghiaggiòlo Castle, the person who harboured the secrets and confidences of the lords who had lived there. I day-dreamed of being a brave mediaeval knight who would wield his silver sword in defence of the weak and the dispossessed. I could visualize the steaming nostrils of my lavishly-adorned and spirited white steed, I could hear his hoofs pounding on the cobblestones of the ancient manor as the trustworthy nurse narrated her tales of the Malatesta’s fortunes. It evoked the Middle Ages, a time now remote that, for an only child who was used to roaming among the green fields of the valley below, became as vivid as any legend. I identified with it.
“Malatesta di Verrucchio, nicknamed Mastin Vecchio by Dante, was a skilled politician, a leader, and father of the crippled Gianciotto and Paolo “il Bello”. Your namesake had the misfortune of falling madly in love with the splendid wife of his elder brother, Francesca da Ravenna. She was very unhappy. While still very young she had been forced to marry a rough and vindictive man, and her passion for her brother-in-law equalled his. The couple were caught while asleep in tender embrace by the jealous Gianciotto, who ran then through with his sword. Drops of their blood fell on the adulterous book that recounted the tale of Lancelot and Geneva. If the Great Poet had not included the story of the two lovers condemned to Hell for their lust in his Divine Comedy, the murder of these two would probably have been forgotten. In the fifth Canto, the souls of Paolo and Francesca come to Dante, like two doves flying to the nest, and the poet faints, overcome by the strength of his emotions,” said my mother in a serious voice as she finished the story.
She kissed my forehead, turned off the lamp and left the room. Lying there alone, I brooded over the fact that romantic novels could lead to disaster. Although my admiration for Lancelot knew no bounds, I resolved never to read such stories; instead, I would concentrate on how the world was created by studying rocks, mountains and fossils. I was also convinced that, as a descendant of Paolo “il Bello”, I would one day meet my own Francesca. But I hoped that the maiden would be single so I could marry her and avoid any serious trouble. I awaited my meeting with such a damsel all the way through junior high school, but there was no sign of the girl that would capture my heart. I was disappointed, but was sure that I would be luckier in senior school. From the isolated mountain of the Ghiaggiòlo Castle, my father Gualtiero sent me to a boarding school in town. I grew taller. When I looked in the mirror, I was pleased to see that no pimples marred my good looks. My once-curly black hair was now straight apart from the odd curl falling over my forehead. My attractive nose, strong jaw and dark blue eyes were much appreciated by the female spectators who watched me playing basketball. After the game, my fellow team-members introduced me to the girls who wanted to go out with us; but they were called Sara, Sue Ellen, Sharon, Antonella, Lucia, Noemi or Camilla; there was no Francesca. I concluded that I would have to wait longer. Perhaps the only woman I was destined to love was in no way sporty. In fact, I imagined her as pale, shy and retiring, a veritable romantic who was as passionate about mediaeval history as I was. From Forlì I moved to Bologna to attend the Faculty of Geology. Basketball started to bore me. I enrolled in a school of folk music where you could also follow courses in mediaeval dance. I enjoyed learning the traditional “saltarello”, “ronda” and “carola”: lively, almost crazily-fast, dances. I had to stay fit to make a good impression when taking part in the historical re-enactments that were held periodically in the squares of the old town. I had to give up smoking for the Ars Saltandi. I imagined that Lancelot was frugal in his ways and stopped drinking, even becoming a vegetarian, much to the distress of my father Gualtiero who was known throughout the countryside around Ghiaggiòlo as an expert pig-butcher. The last Christmas lunch spent at home, where the family was already celebrating my imminent degree, was a variety of pork dishes provided by my father’s last victim. The smell of barbecued meat was unbearable to me. When my father saw me drinking water and eating nothing but boiled potatoes and a slice of cheese, he feared I had become sick from the fatigue of my unfinished thesis on the fossils of the Friuli geological sites. I reassured him that I was in excellent physical shape. To show just how well I was, I danced a frenetic “saltarello” in front of the guests. My father watched me in silence, then shook his head. His eyes were moist. Roughly, he enquired:
“Have you got a girlfriend in Bologna?”
“No. I haven’t met my Francesca yet,” I replied calmly.
His face reddened as he struggled to catch his breath. He called my mother, who came over. He told her:
“I’m afraid … that our son … has been forgotten by God”.
Little did the worthy Gualtiero expect the impact of his words. I went to my room. I packed my suitcase while my great-aunt Esterina, a feisty woman, born and raised in the mountains and rough as the rocks, screamed at her nephew Gualtiero at the top of her voice:
“It’s your own fault! Your obsession with your family tree has led to Paolo refusing to eat and drink like a normal human-being in his desire to be an aristocrat!”
That very day I left Ghiaggiòlo, never to return.
I caught a train to Bologna; the city was cold and gloomy, and I was more depressed than ever. Just as the end of my long-awaited degree in Geology was within my grasp, I could no longer afford my studies. I didn’t know what to do with myself but I concluded that it was my duty to preserve my dignity, a possession that can be neither sold nor traded. I would find a way to manage alone. Just as I was entering the deserted flat I shared with my roommates, in the depths of depression, my mobile phone rang. I was tempted not to answer the unknown landline number that appeared on the display. It was bound to be a wrong-number. Who would want to send Christmas greetings to a man who was a hopeless misfit like me? The ringing stopped, only to start over. My annoyance increased, but ungraciously I took the call:
“This body is uninhabited …”
“As far as I could see, you danced a very good “saltarello”. I used to love taking a turn at the local dances when I was a girl. I fell in love. I got engaged, but we never married because the war broke out and Mario had to leave for the front. When he was killed, I cried until I had no tears left to shed. Then I decided to remain … “single”, as you young people say. I remained faithful to the idea of Love. Dear Paolo, I understand how you feel. Your Francesca will arrive when you least expect it”.
“Great-aunt Esterina …” I stammered in disbelief. I was moved.
The sun, which had flooded the valley of my childhood, began to shine suddenly in the bare, dark kitchen where I stood.
“I’ll take care of you from now on. Send me your bank code … is that what you call it? Send it to me”, she said and hung up.
I did so and the money soon arrived in my current account. My great-aunt Esterina, who had always lived in a small hut that looked like a fortress among the hills, had evidently decided to dig into her reserve of gold pounds bearing the head of Queen Elizabeth, in her opinion an icon of style, which had been purchased through her lifetime and put aside for a rainy day. Emboldened by her generosity, my mood improved, and I went back to following lessons in mediaeval dance. At the end of March, I graduated with top marks; the following week I replied to an advertisement in the newspaper, passed the interview and was offered the job to start work the following Monday at the landfill that had been damaged by subsidence near the Reno river in Emilia. I wanted to refuse as I had been planning for weeks to travel to Friuli to visit the region’s uncontaminated geological sites. The head of human resources said there was no chance of getting an extension: either I started on the agreed day or they would take on the next successful applicant. I really had no desire to spend my days breathing in the foul odours of the landfill for one thousand and four hundred euros a month. I said I had to consider the offer. I would let him know. I stood up and said goodbye. He glanced at me, an expression of disapproval on his lips. He too pronounced a dire sentence:
“Paolo Malatesta, I fear that … you are a dreamer. There is nothing worse you could be nowadays”. I left for Udine the following day aboard the trusty old flaming red Fiat Panda that my great-aunt Esterina had lent me. The boot held my pickaxe, ropes and a helmet with a head-lamp as well as a sack for collecting rock samples, my boots and my torch. Once at my destination, I had decided to follow a widely-acclaimed nature itinerary that I had studied down to the smallest detail: the karst spring of the Fontanone di Timau on the left side of the Valle del Bût, the Avostanis Lake in the heart of the Carnic Alps, the Attila Cave in Pian di Lanza, the Bosco Bandito above Cleulis, the Upper Tagliamento Valley and the wide bend of Ampezzo, in whose geological museum I intended to retrace the geomorphology of the territory from the Silurian sea to the Alpine Orogeny. An extraordinary holiday awaited me in Friuli, to be spent among limestone, dolomite and flint. If there had been a Francesca to share this experience with me, the world would have been perfect; but I resolved that I was not going to be saddened. My adventure in Italy’s far-eastern corner was to begin from the hill of Udine, which, according to legend, was built from the mass of helmets piled high by Attila’s warriors after the capture of Aquileia in 452 AD. I booked a room at the Hotel Suite Inn, housed in a historic building on Via di Toppo. The photos I had seen on the web had convinced me: rough beams on the ceilings, maple and oak furnishings, wooden stairs, novels available for the guests to read; the rooms appeared welcoming and bright. I was equally attracted by the rich breakfast. I could enjoy the honey sourced from local beekeepers, delicious cakes, organic jams and fruit. I would taste the cheeses with freshly baked bread and leave the meats to the omnivorous guests. The Hotel Suite Inn would undoubtedly be the ideal base from which to set off in the morning to head north east and discover the breathtaking beauty of the Carnic landscapes. Upon returning to Udine in the evening, a hot shower and a good night’s sleep in my generous bed, which promised to be very comfortable, would set me up for the next day. Long walks awaited me as I searched for my beloved rocks, the grey stone with a white vein extracted from the area of Torreano, renowned also for generous stretches of precious vines. I had read on an illustrated booklet that from these grapes the Albano Guerra Winery produced Malvasia, Ribolla Gialla, Picolit, Refosco, Sauvignon and Pinot Grigio; I would get one bottle of each red and white wine to take as a souvenir for great-aunt Esterina, who has always enjoyed her wine, to be delivered along with the Fiat Panda at the end of my journey. I would explore the rocky bed of the area’s streams and analyze the sediments of the high-altitude lakes. When I phoned the Hotel Suite Inn, Giuliana replied. I had the impression that the owner was frank, simple and hospitable. Who knows why I imagined that she wore a smile, that she was tall and shapely, like the women of the Celts who had settled the plains to escape the harsh weather of the mountains and cultivated the fields there, before the arrival of the Romans. She was unperturbed when I arrived, wet-through on my return from the hill of Udine, wearing grey-green Bermuda shorts, a camouflage sweatshirt, boots and with my backpack slung over my shoulder. She smiled with understanding, and the doors opened in welcome, not just from this hotel, but from all over Friuli. She offered me an Austro-Hungarian blueberry-flavoured Früchtetee and some biscuits that greatly refreshed me. I randomly chose a book from the shelf. I found myself looking at a novel about the tales of King Arthur and I started reading. The novel talked of King Arthur, Tintagel, Avalon and Lancelot … who fell in love with Geneva. My memory replayed the lines of the fifth Canto of Dante’s Inferno; Francesca’s moving story, followed by Paolo’s shade, touched me to such an extent that I experienced Dante’s sensations. I sank into a love swoon. It was as though I were feeling the sensual suffering of Paolo il Bello myself. I could not lift myself from the armchair. I gasped for air, almost losing consciousness. As I looked up from the book, an unknown girl with a long golden-yellow robe appeared in front of me. Her hair was the colour of ripe wheat. A poppy-coloured velvet ribbon tied her tresses in a braid. She was wearing a coral necklace around her neck. Her hands clutched an ancient book with a stained back. I realised she was holding the tale of Lancelot and Geneva. I jumped. The notes of a mediaeval quadrille played in the background and the graceful vision vanished. I repeatedly invoked the name of my lady. Perhaps I fell asleep, lulled by the atmosphere of warmth and well-being that reigns in every angle of this hotel. When I awoke from my slumber shortly afterwards, I heard Giuliana’s worried voice asking me, “Are you all right?”. I nodded. “But, Paolo… when is Francesca arriving?” she inquired, her tone expressing concern. I raised my eyebrows, doubtful about what to say. I did not want to disappoint Giuliana, who now seemed to be expecting my lady friend. “Soon,” I replied in a whisper before climbing the stairs to my room.
They were magical days, that I passed like a traveller from times past, climbing steep and tricky paths, visiting caves and exploring caverns, resting by abandoned mountain huts and drinking the icy water of gushing waterfalls. I was greeted warmly by the rare passers-by that I met. I was comforted by the natural kindness of the people of Friuli who talk to each other in an incomprehensible language. My mind was filled with the legends I had heard of sbilfs, goblin-like creatures that guarded the woods and frightened away those who dared to profane them. They could be spiteful and rough with intruders. An old farmer advised me to keep an iron coin in my pocket to ensure safe passage if I were to meet any sbilfs dressed in red. I realized that he was referring to the devil and I kept three coins in my pocket, just in case. I never imagined, however, that reality could surpass my wildest dreams when, as the sun was setting on a clear April day, I decided to stop and admire the emerald Cavazzo Lake before returning to Udine. I had heard tell of the perturbing Buse dai Pagans, a huge dome-shaped cave near the Rio Chianevutta gorge. In ancient times it served as a refuge for the pagans who plundered the Christianized villages of the valley. I wanted to see for myself what it was like, fascinated by the idea of retracing the history of the High Middle Ages of which, I am convinced, we know little or nothing at all. The cave’s entrance reminded me of the gaping, voiceless mouth of a giant. I turned on the light of my caving helmet and entered. A water snake slipped through my feet. I took a few steps towards the darkness and was surprised to glimpse some bright flames in the distance. I also heard a voice. I thought it was another fearless hiker who had lit a small bonfire for warmth. I went deeper into the damp cave until I reached a stone chamber that formed a natural amphitheatre. My heart jumped. The sight of the girl with the long golden-yellow robe that had appeared to me in a dream some days before almost brought my heart to a complete stop. To avoid frightening her, I stayed half-hidden behind a boulder. The oval of her face shone with ethereal beauty. I felt a strange languor, believing myself to finally be in the presence of my Francesca. I sighed, though no sound passed my lips. I saw her move in dance, then stop. She bowed to an imaginary audience. She clutched a worn dove-coloured book to her breast and, in a clear voice, recited from the fifth Canto of Inferno:
Whenas we read of the much longed-for smile
Being by such a noble lover kissed,
This one, who ne’er from me shall be divided,
Kissed me upon the mouth all palpitating.
Galeotto was the book and he who wrote it.
That day no farther did we read therein.
The wave of emotion caused me to stumble: in one of the least-frequented geological sites of Friuli and perhaps of the whole of Italy, I had found the woman who I had been anxiously awaiting for twenty-five years. I could not hold back any longer. I stepped into the light of the fire, moving from my hiding place among the rocks. I walked towards her. I observed her with the respectful devotion that a troubadour or a wandering knight would have shown towards the damsel saved from the jaws of the dragon by St. George. I regretted not being able to proffer a red rose. I tried to hold back the wealth of mixed feelings that had my heart in turmoil. I gestured with my arm and removed my hard-hat as though it were a plumed-helmet; I bowed and stated simply:
“I am Paolo Malatesta.”
The young woman took a step back; she raised her hands to her face. Her cornflower eyes widened and moistened with a tear-drop, like a drop of dew. This was not weeping, but restrained joy.
“Paolo il Bello, the brother of the rough Gianciotto?” she dared to ask.
“I am a descendant of his,” I commented with a failing voice.
I knelt before her. I took her delicate hand and kissed it. The sharp stones pricked my knees left uncovered by my Bermuda shorts, but I felt no pain. For all the gold in the world I would not have left that sweet grip.
“I am Francesca Veronese, drawn to acting by passion. Tomorrow evening I will recite the fifth Canto of the Inferno at the Castle of Udine. I came here to perform a dress rehearsal and concentrate on my part.”
I did not rush my reply.
“I am a geologist and I am enchanted by the magnificence of the Friuli mountains. I would like to invent a profession that would permit me to be a troubadour-geologist for hikers.”
I looked more closely and noted that Francesca was not wearing a wedding ring, I breathed a sigh of relief. I was to be spared the terrible fate of my ancestor. The fire went out. In the darkness our two hands met. We felt blessed by fate. I switched on the light of my helmet and we walked towards the cave’s exit. I led Francesca into the cool night, lit by a full moon that stirred our senses with the tender scent of spring. We fell into each other’s arms. We exchanged our first kiss.
“Where are you staying?” I asked.
“I am supposed to be sleeping with relatives in Udine tonight …” she replied with very little conviction.
“Giuliana, the owner of my hotel, is expecting you, though I didn’t know when I might meet you. We will sleep in my room … ”
Francesca gave me a sideways glance. I quickly added:
“I will sleep on the couch. I presume you want to have the large bed to yourself … so you can focus on tomorrow night’s debut.”
“Yes!” she replied, enthusiastically.
When we reached the parking lot of the Cavazzo Lake, we unwillingly let go of each other’s hands. We shared a smile of intimacy before each getting into our cars. We left for Udine, certain that this was Love. True Love.