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Alone With Michelangelo


Girlfriends Rent a Villa in Italy


Evelyn Hannon

Bette Bowyer and Diana Pilsworth are experienced travellers and older adventuresses -- women who enjoy the research and planning process of their trips almost as much as the actual journeys. We asked these members of our Journeywoman Network to share with other readers details of the fabulous trip to Italy they arranged for a group of their friends. Bette and Diana write...

We are a group of nine Canadian women in the 55 to 69 age bracket who love to travel abroad, but often must do so without partners. (Some of us haven't got one and some have the kind that prefers home firesides or gardens.) We plan our vacations around renting large villas, and make them affordable by sharing the costs of accommodation and rental cars, and by cooking for ourselves.

We did our internet research...

This time, via the internet, we'd unearthed the grand villa of Casa Straneo in Italy, which appeared wonderfully old and romantic. What's more, its location in the village of Casal Cermelli seemed to offer contact with small town, 'real' Italians. Casal Cermelli, with a population of just 1,173, is tucked away in the heart of the agricultural triangle framed by Turin, Milan and Genoa. Through e-mail, we arranged the rental for September with owners Ian and Mao of the U.K.

We relied on our mini van driver...

Although we had leased two cars for our stay, it didn't seem wise to drive the hour and a half journey to the villa immediately after a long, overnight flight. Was there a minibus to get us there, we wondered? Using the Net's infinite assets again, we landed on the web site of Panicucci's Taxi Service, based near Malpensa. Pleased with their reasonable rates and quick response to e-mails, we booked a minivan, and co-owner, Sergio Panicucci, cheerfully met us on arrival day.

How good it was to rely on Sergio. We felt the terror of large trucks and small speeding cars as they wove precariously in and out of traffic. However, Sergio delivered us safely to the sleepy village of Casal Cermelli where windows were shuttered and the few shops closed. It was siesta time.

Our 17th century villa was a dream...

Arriving at Casa Straneo, our driver pulled on the ancient bell hanging beside the immense steel gate. The congenial couple who looked after the villa, Dante and Carmela, beamed: 'Buon Giorno,' and we drove into a welcoming oasis of formal gardens -- a sun-filled courtyard lush with trees, a vine-covered arbour and potted plants.

Built in the middle of the 17th century and refurbished in the 19th, the Casa has been handed down through generations of the Straneo family. As Dante and Carmela peeled open shutters to reveal doors to Juliet balconies and a multitude of windows, sunshine poured in. And outside, attached to the villa, we discovered their lovely, little chapel.

The kindness of Italian strangers...

The next few days sped by. An Italian e-mail friend, Laura, joined us for some excursions, and it was a joy to meet her in person. We had found her through HERmail, a web site for women travellers, and asked if she was familiar with the area around Alessandria. Laura replied that she lived nearby and could help with information 'if we kept the English simple,' and we began a nine-month overseas correspondence.

That first Sunday, we went to the 11 o'clock High Mass in the village's ancient church. We were not Catholics and some of us were agnostics, but we dressed in long skirts to be respectful of the church and the villagers. We were welcomed. People smiled. 'We're from Canada,' we told the priest outside in the sun. 'Ah,' he replied, graciously. 'You're staying at Casa Straneo.'







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