Have you ever had a scary summer holiday? I’m not talking adventurous pursuits like cycling in the mountains, or kayaking on choppy waters; no, scary in the sense of creepy, eerie, weird, something’s-not-quite-right-about-this-place, scary!
A couple of summers ago, I thought I had booked somewhere special for our holiday in Tuscany. It looked special online, in a kind of fading aristocratic way: marble pillars in the house, statues round the swimming pool and perhaps the cincher; a hidden bedroom. That’s right in the library there was a door-handle disguised as a candlestick which, when pushed, opened an entire wall of books. How cool is that! How could we not book this place, with features reminiscent of a spy film? And how could we have known it would turn out to be more thriller, than spy; more Hitchcock than Nancy Drew or the Famous Five?
Things got off to a bad start the minute I set foot out of our car. Although we had already spent a week in a villa in the mountains – surrounded by trees and streams – I didn’t have a single mosquito bite and yet when we arrived at the special villa and I left the safety of our car, they descended upon me, like bees to nectar, or flies to sh**! Perhaps my seemingly-chicken-poxed limbs, were a warning sign from the mossies:
Get back in the car, turn around and run…
And if they weren’t, perhaps they should have been!
There was a sense of sadness surrounding this crumbling mansion that had clearly seen better days. It was evident that in the past this had been a prominent villa, with wealthy or maybe even aristocratic connections. It was large, imposing and brimming with antiques, treasures and ornaments. Relaxing holiday with children, anyone? And then at some point the villa had been demarcated between a sparring family and also for holiday use.
We were shown around our quarters, which turned out to be the downstairs part to the family home, by the owner’s son and told not to enter one of the doors: it led to a museum which we would be shown around at the end of our holiday. A museum in a villa! How unusual! 🔔 Alarm bells ringing yet? 🔔 They were certainly starting to chime after a complete tour of our quarters revealed yet more locked doors! Once left to our own devices, I had to take a peek: it’s like that don’t touch, fresh paint sign isn’t it, or a red flag to a bull. Finding a key – foolishly hidden on top of a cabinet – I opened the forbidden museum door and encountered an eerily quiet, pitch black stone staircase. As I ascended a few steps – seriously, what was I thinking – I could almost hear threatening music as a horror film’s heroine takes tentative steps into the unknown. Half way up, enough was enough, well actually the shadows lining the walls were enough and I ventured no further. Hastily retreating, I locked the door and promptly positioned a chair underneath the door handle, something I repeated for the other doors leading upstairs, with my husband looking on in mild bemusement.
Topping off this unique villa were the renaissance paintings lining our walls: nude men and women from a bygone-era, everywhere. The questions:
Why are they naked mummy?
What are they doing mummy?
Seemed rather fitting, as their eyes seemed to follow you around the room, or was that my imagination spiralling out of control? After all, if door handles can be disguised as candlesticks in a library wall, what could hidden cameras in bedrooms and bathrooms be disguised as….? 😨
As the week progressed, the oddness because quirky and the creepiness became an odd sort of charming, until I met
Miss Havisham, sorry, the owner of the villa. Her name escaped me, as encountering this tall, skinny, elderly and clearly once-elegant lady with waxy skin and a relatively-still expression; Miss Havisham was all that sprung to mind.
It’s not often that you wish a holiday away, but this formerly-majestic, now curious villa stirred all sorts of emotions. It was quaint, oddly charming, poignantly sad in its crumbling glory and mildly disturbing. So when the promised big day –the ominous tour of the museum – arrived, the alarm bells started going a little haywire! 🔔🔔🔔
Rather than taking the route from our living-quarters, we were led through the lady’s home via yet another staircase. Heralded by pictures of Stalin and Lenin on the left and, get this, Mussolini on the right, I averted my children’s eyes from the ancient pornographic pictures on the walls; some cartoons, some paintings. Not renaissance nudes with conveniently-placed leaves, in this wing, I should point out! Yes, there was definitely a theme going on here. And not your stereotypical old lady’s twee or chintz theme! Never had the Miss Havisham similarities been more apparent: the is she a sweet and harmless or somewhat sinister elderly lady thoughts; the decaying mansion and – the icing on the cake – the museum! Littered with objects, shadows and cobwebs, we saw ancient pages containing French and Italian (pornographic again!) poems, yet more nude pictures, countless ancient and treasured antiquities and something rather macabre I’d rather not recollect. Looking around with a mixture of fascination and discomfort, driving away from that holiday felt something of an accomplishment!