Fanfare for the Cormòns man
Part 8 of a 2007 Italian travelogue
by Thor Iverson
Samwise – the name we’ve randomly assigned to our GPS – is getting a lot wrong. A lot wrong. It keeps wanting to send us the wrong way down one-way streets, the wrong way ‘round rotaries, and into clearly-marked pedestrian-only zones. Worse, it absolutely refuses to put us on the autostrada. Italy is not exactly the best-signed country in Western Europe, so this has us a little concerned. It’s the first hiccup in a travel-filled day.
Venice in first light is almost shockingly empty (something we’ll remember for next time), and the early-morning departure from our little apartment feels a little like wandering through a movie set before the crew or actors arrive. At Marco Polo airport, we rent a car from a very helpful agent, who commiserates with us over a moment of true absurdity: warned we’ll need a special form to take our car across the Slovenian border, we ask for and receive something a 3rd-grader could have typed up in a few seconds. What’s the point? The agent just shrugs, smiling at the ridiculousness of it all.
But on the fairly featureless road from Venice to Valdobbiadene, neither the car nor official documentation are giving us problems. Instead, we’re bewildered by our GPS. Stopped for lunch amidst tall prosecco vines, I poke and prod it a few minutes, trying to figure out what’s wrong. Aside from its misdirection, the thing that’s odd is that it shows our estimated travel time at something around 92 hours. And then, it hits me: the GPS is still in pedestrian mode. We’ve asked it to walk from Venice to the eastern border of Italy.
Vie di Romans 1998 “Voos dai Ciamps” Isonzo Rosso (Friuli) – 100% merlot. Cloudy to the point of opacity from sediment, and the shaking that’s caused this mutes the wine in more ways than just the visual. Tight and structured, with dark fruit. Very tough to read. 24 hours later, it’s still full of fine silt, but the structure has softened somewhat, and a little bit of blueberry powder has emerged along with a long, sweet hazelnut finish. It’s friendly, but it holds a lot back; even without the shakeup, it’s in a closed stage.
The vineyards of the vignoble from Valdobbiadene to Conegliano are dramatic and quite beautiful, though there seems to be absolutely no rhyme or reason to them. Every slope, hilltop, and exposure is covered with sprawling vines. Some of the sites are among the steepest I’ve ever seen, anywhere. Unfortunately, it’s a Sunday, and so no producers are open for drop-in visits, but there’s enough beauty in the landscape to make up for that lack.
Once through Conegliano, the rest of our drive through Friuli isn’t particularly scenic; occasional vineyards and trees, but mostly bleak industrial stretches and a dense haze that obscures views of the mountains to the north.
Finally, we pull into Cormòns, a town that wears more than a little bit of wealth on its sleeves. The entrance to our hotel is dramatic, but we seem to be the only car in the lot. Is everyone out for the day?
It turns out: no.
Felcaro o troppo caro?
Anyone who’s ever asked me for travel advice knows that I research the hell out of trips. Admittedly, this is less easy in places that aren’t particularly web-enabled (Sicily, for instance, was a planning nightmare, and it showed in the outcome), but I do everything possible to make sure I have exactly the experience I’m looking for. I don’t schedule much aside from basic geography, lodging, and wine appointments, preferring to let the majority of a trip happen as circumstances dictate, but when a whim strikes, I have the whats and wheres that will make it happen at my fingertips.
With an apartment in Venice and another on the way in the Piedmont, I’d hoped for something similarly residential in Friuli. Alas, either I don’t have the right resources or vacation rentals simply aren’t very popular in this region of Italy. Apartments were available in Trieste – too far from everything – and Udine, but in any case we didn’t want to stay in a large city. And so, failing to find the kitchen-equipped apartment of our dreams, we resort to what every guide I can find suggests is the best hotel in the immediate area.
Guides, it turns out, can be very wrong.
At first glance, the Felcaro is indeed a semi-luxurious hotel. There are long modern buildings that stretch along a rather sizeable parking lot, but the core of the facility is an older building that, at least in the common areas, appears to hold a great deal of historic charm. Much of the décor, especially in the dining rooms, seems more Austrian than Friulian or Italian (though I guess there’s significant overlap between the former pair), and posters with a distinct Tyrolean flair blanket the walls.
There’s a woman at the front desk. She looks surprised to see me. Very surprised. She doesn’t speak any English, so I proceed in my halting Italian. It turns out that my reservation is complete mystery to her. I produce a confirmation email. She stares at it, no doubt convinced it must be fake, or that some detail must be wrong. (Maybe I should show her the Slovenian border pass; that’ll fool her.) Except that her name is at the bottom of the email, which makes denying its existence or accuracy somewhat difficult. As the silence lengthens, I begin to have one of those classic traveler stress experiences, in which the possibility of being without lodging starts to sink in. Given the complete lack of other apparent guests, I wouldn’t normally worry…except that strewn across the counter are pamphlets for what appears to be a very major jazz festival. Said festival is this week, and the hotel appears to be the place where all the bands are staying.
The woman disappears into a back office, apparently checking her computer for electronic evidence that I haven’t faked this email, perhaps in concert with Slovenian border guards or something. Then she returns for what must be her tenth fruitless scan of the reservation book. Finally, I can’t take the silence anymore. In Italian: “do you have a room for me or not?”
With a distinct lack of grace, she produces a key and points up the stairs. I guess that’s a yes. I nod, thank her with as much politeness as I can muster, and exit to collect Theresa and our luggage. As we sweat and strain up the staircase, we notice that all the hallways and passages are dark. Extremely dark. And there are no switches anywhere, although it’s hard to be sure in the gloom Eventually, we grope our way to our room, no doubt scraping the wallpaper a few times along the way.
The room is even darker than the hallway. And somewhat dank. We drop our bags and spread the drapes at one end of the smallish room, which open onto a nice balcony overlooking the town and, in the foreground, a little plot of vines. So far so good. It’s a little chilly for relaxing on the terrace, but the air has already improved the room’s aroma.
However, the chamber’s problems don’t stop with its smell. The corners of the ceiling have quite a collection of interwoven spider webs…webs which don’t look all that new, though a small army of live spiders are doing their best to add to them. The carpet is…less than clean. And the bathroom (in the style of many an old but much-used European hotel, with rickety fixtures and no ventilation) is worse; the shower doesn’t appear to have been cleaned in some time, and there are hairs in the bidet and sink. Several light bulbs have burned out. The minibar is unplugged. The room is very cold (though this isn’t helped by the open doors, which we eventually shut), and repeated attempts to warm it only result in a noisy blast of cold air from the radiator. The room is, frankly, a disaster.
I head downstairs, phrasebook in hand, to attempt to describe our issues to the woman at the front desk. Either she doesn’t understand me, chooses not to, or doesn’t care. In any case, maintenance is apparently impossible for the rest of the evening, though she does promise to look into the heating situation. I also ask if the hallways might possibly be lit, which sends her to a hidden board of circuit breakers. Why isn’t the power even on? Has the hotel been condemned or something?
Somewhat afraid of her response, I ask if there’s an iron we can use. She says yes, but repeated prompting fails to offer any hints on its location. So…I guess that’s a no.
I return to the room to find Theresa in an exceptionally foul mood. We contemplate departing to locate a better hotel, but I point out that late on a Sunday afternoon, that might not be the most productive course of action. Somewhat hesitantly, we decide to stick it out for one night, and then see what happens.
Over the course of two days and nights, this is how matters eventually resolve themselves: the hotel, having lost our reservation for reasons that aren’t entirely clear, is unprepared for any guests until about three days after our arrival. Thus, the condition of our room. Later in the evening, on our way to dinner, we find a younger woman at the front desk; not only does she understand some English, which stops me from having to look up words like “radiator” and “spider webs” and “soap scum” in a pocket-sized English-Italian dictionary, but she seems much more eager to help us with our problems. She takes a pass at the heat issue, and replaces our light bulbs while we’re at dinner, but despite her efforts the first evening is spent in an ever-deepening icebox. The second day, we leave a long and painstakingly-translated note for housekeeping that details all our issues, determined to pack up and leave should they not be addressed by the time of our return. When we return from our travels on Monday evening, the bathroom is much cleaner (though it never achieves completely satisfactory cleanliness), the carpet is vacuumed, and the heat is functional and adjustable. The spider webs are never removed, though their residents are. We decide to stay.
We’ll also find that breakfast at the hotel is a fairly dismal collection of indifferent pastries, meats, cheeses, and overcooked-to-bursting hard-boiled eggs, with the only real bright spot the house-made jams. Promised amenities like pool tables are in the locked modern wings, with neither signs nor lights to aid in their location. Perhaps the modern rooms are better (pictures on the hotel’s web site seem to indicate that they are), but I’ll never see one. The only real positive, other than the younger desk clerk who remains the sole helpful member of the staff over the duration of our stay, is the free wireless internet that’s available, though one must negotiate with the front desk and then sit in a gloomy conference room to make use of it.
Ultimately, I cannot recommend this hotel. When everything is at full function, it’s not at all a bad place. But it deserves neither its reputation nor its tariff.
Carta or cart?
This is an agriturismo?
Full of despair at our lodging, we take a short drive out of town (Samwise is now functioning at peak efficiency) to La Subida, for dinner in its highly-regarded trattoria. It’s in a beautiful location, with a striking interior (that, tonight, seems to be full of Austrians). Staffed by family, the restaurant serves just one set menu (albeit with a few options in the middle courses) of fresh, pure, of-the-earth food in a hybrid Friulian/Slovenian style. We nosh at a lovely, measured pace, lingering for about three hours over some truly striking food.
But first, there’s the wine list, which we’re handed long before food is mentioned. That’s a good thing, too, because it’s novel-length, with spectacular prices on extensive verticals of the best and brightest of Friuli, most of which I’ve never even heard of outside my research for this trip. Magnums, at even more ridiculously low prices, abound; I’ve never seen so many on a single wine list. It’s like oenophile heaven, in book form. I make some tentative selections and then wait to hear about the food, sipping a complimentary glass of bubbly.
Cantina Produttori Cormòns “Cava Carmònis” Brut Riserva (Friuli) – Light grass brushes freshly-cut melon. Easy-going and pleasant.
The service is terrifically pleasant, with a low-key feel appropriate to the surroundings. Our waitress explains the menu and its options in slow, careful Italian, making sure we understand (she’s equipped with the English words if we don’t) before she proceeds, which is enormously helpful for both our enjoyment of the meal and our growing but still minor skills in Italian. This is the thing the French just won’t do with eager but language-mangling tourists. Italians are just different; they seem to regard all such encounters as potential teaching moments, and we’re grateful for it.
I start my meal with thick-cut deer carpaccio served with shredded horseradish, pomegranate seeds, and greens. As modern usage would have it, this is the Best. Carpaccio. Ever. It’s full of powerful flavor and soulful elegance, with a stunningly evocative quality to the meat, I could eat kilos of this in a single sitting, if allowed. Next is a mélange of primi – though I guess that should be primi misti – served one at a time, which leaves Theresa (who orders just one) a little bereft: ravioli with a flawless late-season pomodoro sauce, pumpkin gnocchi with a very herbal beyond-basil pesto, and a dense, eggy, almost bucatini-like pasta with an awe-inspiring ragú. I’m in culinary nirvana.
To the amusement of our waitress, I move on to a slab of rare venison in a fruit-enhanced reduction sauce (I must have hated Bambi as a child), which is served with candied apples and caramelized root vegetables; again, the superior quality of the meat carries the dish. A local cheese menu is up next, from which we stuff a few slivers into the unfilled corners, and then there’s dessert: a chestnut cream in pastry. Also worth mentioning: the house-made bread is excellent, and unquestionably the best I’ve had in Italy.
Girolamo Dorigo 1993 “Montsclapade” (Friuli-Venezia Giulia) – A Bordeaux-styled blend (the waitress says merlot and cabernet franc, but I presume there’s some cabernet sauvignon in it as well) that is, frankly, a lot better than many highly-reputed Bordeaux these days. It’s sophisticated and polished, and still nowhere near full maturity. Black fruit skin, tobacco, buffed leather, and smooth earth roll and caress the palate. Beautifully structured, long, and supremely elegant. Stunning.
After dinner, I’m asked if I want a digestivo. But of course. Our waitress proceeds to wheel a double-tiered grappa cart to our table. It’s insanely impressive, and I simply can’t decide from the multitude of choices, so I ask her to pick a pair for me. After a little negotiation, she provides two local distillates…one soft, the other more aggressive. Unfortunately, I don’t get the correct names on either, and my notes are no help.
verduzzo grappa (Friuli) – Flowers in a strong wind, twisted and bent into themselves. Fascinating. (The brand here includes a number…1896 or something along those lines, though that’s not it.)
“blend of red grapes” grappa (Friuli) – Lurid and chocolaty, which I sometimes find to be the case with red-grape grappa. I like it, but it’s not exactly refined.
The cost for all this luxury is €170, which seems a terrific bargain to me. I’d love to return, but there are so many other places to go in the region that it’s unlikely. Unlike the Felcaro, however, I cannot recommend this place highly enough. It’s magical.
Copyright © Thor Iverson