We love and adore Italy and now wonder why we haven’t had it in our travel sights before. But landing for the first time in any country always comes with some anxiety – our heart rates go up a few bpm, our palms get sweaty and we growl at the kids more than usual – and this was the case for our first day in Italy too.
Our Ryanair flight from Dublin to Mlian Malpensa Airport landed on time and we did the now familiar family hustle (thankfully down to three pieces of luggage from the previous four) through the airport to the rental car desks.
After a lengthy wait at the Europcar desk, where we wondered why rental car company ‘check-in’ processes still remain so inefficient compared with airlines, we found our small car and loaded it up to the ceiling tetris-style.
In what’s becoming almost routine, we entered the address of our accommodation in the regional map downloaded into Google Maps, messaged the AirBnB owner of our likely arrival time, and set off for a breath-taking, if white knuckle, drive through the endless number of tunnels and lofty bridges around Genoa. After being passed by the local Porsche club at mach speed, we turned off the expressway toward the Apuane Alps, soon winding up narrow, winding mountain roads wishing and hoping for sturdy anti-skidding-off-the mountain-side barriers and being continuously disappointed.
Italian mountain villages are stunning, appearing as jumbles of terracotta topped blocks, built from random lego blocks and then glued as a mass to impossibly precarious locations. How each resident is assigned a meaningful address is a mystery to us Aussies from the neat and orderly road grids of suburbia. Somewhat creepily, Google Map just KNOWS and after a couple of passes (requiring a 27-point turn at the end of the road) we parked outside a house ….. that looked nothing like the AirBnB pictures. Uh oh.
Lisa tentatively knocked on the door. A friendly man answered and, after reviewing the AirBnB booking on our phone, looked perplexed and shook his head. Was Google Maps wrong and we should be looking further down the road? He had no English and us no Italian (we hadn’t discovered Google Translate yet) so made a couple of phone calls and in a jiffy his son arrived, explaining there was no known AirBnB in their village. Uh oh. They were lovely and clearly concerned for us but there nothing more they could practically do.
At this stage, we’d all been awake since 5am and it was now late afternoon. The kids sat quietly in the back looking pensive and we put on the determined cheeriness of a tour group leader and drove down to the largest town in the area hunting down wifi and gelato.
We parked at the town square and, while the kids ran around in circles clutching their icy bounty, Lisa pinged a message to AirBnB customer help and then booked an affordable place to stay in a different village about 20 minutes drive away. AirBnB were super responsive, expressing concern at our predicament and describing their protocol for contacting the property owner and, if bogus as suspected, obtaining a refund to use for a future booking.
Feeling buoyed by these developments, our collective mood took a massive hit not 20 minutes later when we couldn’t identify for certain which slightly crumbly building was our accommodation and, in any case, all the buildings seemed deserted. After our fourth multi-point u-turn on yet another ridiculously narrow road, I parked on some impossible slope and started door knocking. Well, the kids all broke down as one, convinced we were homeless, and begging us to all remain together in the car as security against the big scary world outside.
Then, off in the distance with dusk falling a little red truck came trundling up the hill towards us. And smiling like a cheshire cat was the property owner, apologising profusely for not having much time to come and meet us (understandably!). Relief and joy. Lisa and the kids got settled in while I raced down the mountain, gearbox screaming, to the supermarket before it closed.
The important detail to reveal in this story is that the bogus AirBnB property was (a) a new listing, (b) hadn’t received any prior reviews, and (c) did not respond to either of our messages in the lead up to our stay. Individually, each of these is not necessarily a reason for concern, but all three together and it should read as a red flag. We’ve learnt to always message owners well in advance, even with somewhat unnecessary questions. It’s not a guarantee but it should indicate the property is authentic.
What surprised us most is AirBnB’s responsiveness and efficient process for securing a refund. And, once again, we’re reminded of own propensity for travel fails ….. and the kindness of strangers.