Fordyce Maxwell: Gallows humour, useful for holidays

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I’D NEVER closed a hotel before. Not alone, true, but as our slightly disgruntled band filed out to the train on a Sunday morning, emotional Italian hotel staff were clearing tables for the last time.

It was to their credit that they, some with more than 20 years service, weren’t tired as well as emotional after a trying week of first rumours then confirmation that the owner had pulled the plug on what had once been an imposing four-star hotel.

It still was, according to the travel company, the build-up provided by their brochure queried by those members of our party who had checked comments by recent visitors on various websites. We hadn’t, not entirely trusting websites and still believing that it is better to travel in hope than arrive.

It certainly was this time, although in the discussions that followed during the week it became apparent that men take a more phlegmatic approach to moderate bathroom facilities and adequate, if uninspiring, breakfast and dinner menus than women. Value for money was the most frequent argument – if we’d been paying half the price what was a two-and-a-half star hotel at best (Liz’s assessment) might have passed muster. Instead, it was a disappointment, saved only by the cheerful service of the staff, a touch of the band playing to the end on the Titanic.

The clues were there early in the week. When the head waiter insists on showing a cluster of guests a YouTube clip from Fawlty Towers on his mobile phone and claiming “That’s us! That’s the way we’re going,” it is a hint. Staff referring to the painstaking, lugubrious, senior desk clerk as “Basil” was another. Furniture being first labelled then disappearing during the day while we were in Florence, Pisa, Lucca, Siena or San Gimignano – all good value for tourists of an inquiring mind and often good fun – was yet another.

Naturally, being British and thrown together in what we liked to think of as adversity – “Have you ever seen coffee as thick as that?” “You’d think you could get a decent cup of tea,” “Our shower has mould,” “Honestly, not spinach again!” “The swimming pool is freezing” – a modest form of gallows humour developed to remind us that things could be worse on a holiday.

My favourite was a description of a river cruise where the good news was that the boat didn’t sink. The bad news included cabin floors flooded, and not with water, a bug and poor food. “And,” said the recounter of the tale, poking cheerfully round that night’s main course, “someone died.” We couldn’t top that, so didn’t try. But next time we’ll check travellers’ websites against the brochure. «

Twitter: @FordyceMaxwell

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