Florence, Pisa and the Sting


We woke up one last morning in our apartment in Rome and sadly packed our bags.  Once we had everything ready to go, we left the luggage upstairs and went down for one last breakfast of croissants and cappuccino from the bar downstairs.  We told Luigi it was our last day, and he wished us a good trip.  I don’t know if Luigi spoke a single word of English, but we had gotten to where we could communicate with him very easily.  He was a nice guy.


We went upstairs, and since it wasn’t raining, we decided to walk to the train station.  All of our larger luggage was on wheels, so this wasn’t too difficult.  I had my suitcase rolling, and the camera bag strapped to the top of it.  Then I had what Erin dubbed my “Man Purse” slug over my shoulder.  The man purse was a cloth briefcase that was very well organized.  It had a series of manila folders that had everything about the trip.  They were marked “Airline”, “Train”, “Directions”, “Hotels”, “Tours” and “Misc”.  I also had stuff in it that I needed to get to fast, like the cell phone and my lipstick.  Just kidding about the lipstick, but as you can see, it really was a purse.


The Termini station is on a steep hill, and it was a lot of work pulling the luggage up.  We made it to the top, pretty winded and already sweaty. 


We made it in time to upgrade to the 10:30am Eurostar.  The Eurostar is a premium class high speed train.  We wanted to ride one just to see what it was like.   Our Eurail pass did not include premium trains, and we had to pay an upgrade of  €15.00 per person.   When we got on board, everything was very modern and clean.  Their were no private compartments like they had on some of the other trains, but it was very nice.  Soon after we started, a man came down with a cart and gave us free soft drinks and snacks, like they do an most airplanes. 


An announcement came over the loudspeaker in Italian, welcoming us to the Eurostar.  Then it started over in English.  At the end the female voice informed us that “The train God” could be found in car number three.   I’m sure she was saying “Train Guard”, but it came out clear as day, “God”.  We all looked at each other, and I thrust my hands out over my head and bowed down three times as if to worship the Train God. 


We arrived in Florence, and I whipped the directions out of my man purse.  It didn’t look very far, so we decided to walk it.  We got a bit lost, and ended up walking quite some distance with the luggage.  After doing the same thing in Rome that morning, we were pretty tired and cranky when we spotted the hotel.


The first thing I noticed about the MinOtel Select Firenze is that it didn’t say MinOtel anywhere on it.  It said “Best Western”, which is a well known discount hotel chain in the United States.  I began to worry that maybe the hotel had been sold, and perhaps our reservations might be screwed up.  We humped the luggage up a flight of stairs and came into the lobby.

The front desk and lobby of the Select Hotel in Florence, Italy


The hotel was very clean and modern.  It looked like it might have recently been renovated.  We struggled with our luggage up to the front desk.  When the clerk saw us, he immediately started speaking English.


I told him that we were the  Sheppard's.  He looked at me for a moment and said, “Your reservations are cancelled”.


I told him, “That’s impossible.  We paid in full, in advance a few months ago.  If  they are cancelled, we never received a refund.”.


He pulled out a fax from MinOtel saying that they had never received payment from our “Tour Operator”.  The reservations were cancelled because of this.  They suggested that we might show up regardless, and that they should have rooms ready for us.  But, if we did arrive we should be charged their highest daily rate, and all money should be collected from us in advance.


I explained to the clerk that I had not used a tour operator or a travel agent, that I had booked the rooms directly with MinOtel, and paid with a check made out to MinOtel International.  He attempted to get the main office on the phone, but they were closed.


I told him that the most important thing was that we had a place to say.  He said he had rooms available, but we would have to pay for them.  I pointed out that this would be the second time we would pay for those same rooms, and he offered to give us his best rate.


He collected our passports, and ran my credit card.  Confused, we went up to our rooms.


The person at MinOtel that we worked with was named Anne Balke.  I followed a link from the MinOtel website for phone number to contact the company, and she had a toll-free number in the US.  I couldn’t figure out how to call that number from Florence, so I called my Mother in Los Angeles at our office, and asked her to put me on hold and try calling the number.  She came back on the line and said that she got a recording saying that our area code had been blocked.


Then, I found Ms. Balke’s business card, which clearly said on it “Director, Minotel International, Americas Division”.  There was a regular phone number on the card for her office in Higland, Illinois.  I called it, and got a voicemail with a woman speaking Spanish, then English saying that she could not get to the phone, and to leave a message.  It never said “MinOtel”, or her name, so I wasn’t sure if it was Ms. Balke or not.  But, I left a message just in case saying that there had been a mix-up with our reservations and to please call me at the hotel.


When we were checking in, I noticed a computer in the lobby that looked like it was available for public use. I asked the desk clerk if they had Internet access, and he said that the computer was available for €4.00 per hour.  I bought a card from him, and went over and signed in.  I left an email to Americas@minotel.com, which was the email address I had used to communicate with Ms. Balke.  The subject was “HELP!!!”.  And I explained that there had been some kind of error with the hotel, and I needed her to contact them and straighten it out.


We had reservations at 4:00pm to see the statue of David at the Academia  in Florence.  So, we asked the desk clerk what would be the best way to get there.  He suggested the bus.  He sold us five bus tickets for €1.00 each, and said that any of the bars in town could sell us tickets to get back (he only had five). 


We walked down to the stop, and got on the bus.  The tickets had to be stuck in a little machine on the bus that printed something on them.  Later I figured out that for the €1.00  you could ride the bus for one hour.


We got off at the end of the line, which is where the hotel clerk said the Academia was.  We looked around for a while, very confused.  Then I noticed one of the buildings had a banner that said “Academia”. 


Having our hotel reservations screwed up made me wonder about the reservations I purchased online for seeing the David statue.  All I had was this paper that I printed myself off an email they sent me.  It didn’t look very official.  But, we went inside regardless.


When they saw the paper, they walked us past everyone and right to the ticket window, where we were handed five tickets and they pointed to a door.  We showed our tickets to the attendant, and walked in, and there was David in all his glory.


I was kind of shocked at how fast and easy that was. The website we used to make the reservation was InItaly.com


The statue of David was really awe-inspiring.  It almost seemed alive.  You see pictures of it, but they don’t capture the detail of the veins and muscles.  Erin, Christian and I sat for a while on a bench and looked up at the statue.  Jane and Casey were on the other side doing the same thing.


The museum had other artwork, including some statues that were done in plaster as prototypes for ones that were later made in marble.  Later, walking around Florence, we saw some of them in various piazzas and on buildings.


When we finished, we walked around the area, and ended up at this huge, very ornate church called The Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore.  Jane noticed that you could pay to go to the top.  I saw that it was something like 400 stairs, and Erin and I opted out, feeling tired after dragging luggage over both Rome and Florence that same day.


Right after Jane, Christian and Casey went inside it started to rain again.  I bought an umbrella from a guy on the street.  We tried to stay dry and warm while we waited, and I wished I had gone ahead and climbed the church.


Casey at the top of the The Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore


When they came back down, we got on the bus and headed back to the hotel.  Except that we missed our stop, and ended up having to walk a distance that was probably farther than if we had just walked back to the hotel from the church.


When we returned to the hotel, I noted that nobody from MinOtel had called me.  I figured that it was probably night in the US, so Ms. Balke probably had not gotten my message yet.


We went to dinner at a local restaurant called Osteria De' Golosi that was recommended by the desk clerk.  I had one of the best steaks there of the entire trip.  It was thick, tender and just barely seared on the outside.  It was one of the two best restaurants we ate at during the entire trip.  During dinner it started to rain very hard with thunder and lightening.  I told everyone that if it didn’t stop by the time we were ready to leave, I would ask the restaurant to call a taxi. 


We sat for a while longer, drank wine and enjoyed one of the best meals of the trip.  The rain stopped just after I paid the check, and we walked back to the hotel and turned in for the night.


When we got back to the hotel, there was still no call from Anne Balke or MinOtel.  We decided to call some of the other hotels to see if they had been cancelled.  The Hotel Toscana in Interlaken, Switzerland said that we had been cancelled, but they had rooms for us. The lady on the other end expressed sincere concern for us.  I went ahead and gave them my credit card number, and told her we wanted the rooms regardless.  There were also two hotels in Paris we had booked via MinOtel.  Neither of them could understand what we were trying to say.  So, we figured that they must also be cancelled.  We went downstairs and got on the Internet and made new reservations at Best Western Hotels in Paris.  Before leaving home, we had already changed out the hotel in Fougeres, France because we learned that the MinOtel listed for Fougeres was actually in the next town. So that one was already handled.


I also called Travelguard, the company that we purchased Trip Interruption insurance from to tell them that we had a potential claim.  I was impressed that when I called them, their first concern was for our well being.  I had already jumped the gun and lined up new hotels, but the first thing the offered to do was find us new places to stay.  They wanted to make sure we were safe and secure before transferring me over to the claims department.   The claims department asked a few questions and told me that I would have a claim form waiting for me when I arrived home.


The next morning, I woke up bright and early and called MinOtel at their main office in Lausanne, Switzerland.  I spoke with a lady name Franciose.  She explained to me that all of our reservations were cancelled because the person we paid in the United States had never sent them our payment.  She mentioned Anne Balke by name, and said that MinOtel was in the process of initiating legal action against her, and that we should consider the same.


I told Franciose that Anne Balke was not my travel agent.  She was an agent of MinOtel, who answered at their official call center in the United States.  I hadn’t made the check out to Anne, I made it to MinOtel International, and it was cashed that way.


She told me that she was sorry, but there was nothing that she could do, except offer to book new rooms for us.  I asked if those rooms would be complimentary, since we had already paid for them.  She said they would not be.  I asked if they could extend a discount because of the circumstances, and she said that they could not, the rooms would be at “rack rate”. 


I complained bitterly, and asked to speak to a manager. She informed me that none of her “Directors” were available. I noted that “Director” was the same title Anne Balke had on her MinOtel business card.   She said that she would speak to someone when they came in and call me back.  I told her that when she talked to her Director, to let them know that I wanted to know how I was going to be compensated.


When she called back, she again, told me that there was nothing they could do. She said that I should take the matter up with Anne Balke.  I told her that I had tried to contact her but could not reach her, and asked if they had different contact information than I did.  Plus, that Anne Balke was not my employee, she was their employee and if MinOtel had an internal problem with their staff, they shouldn’t make it my problem, since I was their customer. 


The story is fairly complex, and I have opened up a website to tell my side of it and to warn consumers about what happened to me when I booked rooms with MinOtel.  The site is called MinOtelRipOff.com.


Thankfully, we had credit cards with enough money available to book new hotel rooms, and we did not end up on the street 6,000 miles from home.  If it were up to MinOtel, we would have.  Yesterday, I received an email from Pierre Goy, President of MinOtel saying that he had an offer to settle an that he would contact me next week.  (Note: Minotel did quickly settle our claim, including all money paid to Ms. Balke, and all of the extra money we had to pay for replacement hotels.  They even included some extra money for our inconvenience. Mr. Goy has also extended an invitation for us to stay as his guest at his personal hotel in Lausanne when we visit Switzerland again.  Ms. Balke is still unaccounted for as of this writing).


What happened to us was a disgrace, but we did not let it ruin our vacation.  Our plans for our second day in Florence was to take a day trip to Pisa.


We took the train from the Florence station to Pisa.  It was not a very long trip.  When we got off the train, we looked around for maps, and discovered that we were on the opposite side of town from the tower.  We decided to walk it.  It was a fairly long hike, but we looked at shops and bakeries as we passed by.


Finally, we looked around a building, and got our first look at the leaning tower of Pisa.  Once gain, I got that strange awe struck feeling.  We walked toward the tower and all took pictures in front of it:


Joseph at the leaning tower of Pisa


We were hungry after the long walk, and ended up at a sidewalk café just down the street.  We ordered pizza in the shadow of the tower of Pisa.


We wanted to visit another town called Luca.  But, first, I really wanted to climb the leaning tower.  They sell tickets to go to the top.  Erin and Casey wanted to go to.  Jane stayed on the ground.  Christian went over to a bar to take pictures of us on the tower.


The Leaning Tour of Pisa  (2 Min 39 Sec.)
We Climb the Tour. Local laugh at me when I'm out of breath)


Inside the tower there is a narrow spiral staircase.  Everything is marble, the steps, the walls, everything.  Once in a while you can turn out of the staircase and go out on a balcony and walk all the way around the tour.  Then you go back in and wind around to the next level.  Finally, you make it to the top.  It’s like standing on top of a big white cake.  There is a guard rail that on me came about chest high.  There was a magnificent view, and it felt really special to be standing on one of the most famous buildings in the world.


Me, Casey and Erin at the very top of the Leaning Tower of Pisa, just to the right of the flag.


When I got down I told Jane how it was inside. Then took the video camera and pointed it at myself, flipping the screen around the front so I could see my head and the leaning tower off to the side and said into the camera, “Climbing the Leaning Tower of Pisa… among the coolest things I’ve ever done”.  Then we headed for the train station to Luca.


Luca was a beautiful little town.  Full of shops and history.  We went to a restaurant and told the waiter we something authentic from the town of Luca.  He brought us a soup called "Ferinata" made from a type a type of wheat called farina.  It reminded me a bit of lentil soup.  It was very good. 


During this meal I observed that Italians use olive oil like a condiment.  A man took the oil and poured some in his soup.  So, all of us did the same thing.  It tasted really good.  He told us about olive oil.  That the best kind of unfiltered, first press and cold pressed.  He said that if the oil is inexpensive, it is never any good.  I tasted the oil and it had a lot of flavor, and actually tasted like olives.  I made a note of this and when I got back home.  It is difficult to find in the US.


I asked the man what they called people from Luca. He said that they are called “Luccese”.  I remembered an Italian market in Sun Valley, California where I lived growing up called “Luccese Italian Market”.  We used to buy fresh pizza there to take home and bake in our own oven.  He said that the people who owned the market most likely came from Luca.


The people at the restaurant treated us like family.  It was an enjoyable experience.  At the end, the bill came and it was only $50.00 for six people, including wine.


When we left, it was raining hard.  We walked through Luca and got very wet.  At one point, Christian was video taping me and I looked at the camera and said, “We are in Luca, Italy.  It is raining hard.  We are walking with metal skeletons over our heads as lightening is striking all around us.  I’m sure this is absolutely safe”.

Video: Back to Florence in a Thunder Storm  (2 Min 02 Sec.)
{We are from Southern California. We rarely hear thunder!)

By the time we got to the station we were soaked.  We said goodbye to Luca, and got on the train back to Florence.


About half way back, the train stopped in the middle of nowhere.  We figured it was to let a high speed train pass.  But, we sat in this spot for over an hour. I began to wonder if it was one of the famous Italian rail strikes.  But, after a while, the train started up again. We got back to Florence rather late.  It was still raining, so we took a cab back to the hotel.


Next: Undaunted after being swindled, we press on to the town of Montecatini.


But first: A shot of Casey leaning on the rail around the Leaning Tower of Pisa:


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