lifestyle

"I was held hostage in an AirBnB."

The highlight of my trip to Italy was going to be the house in the Tuscan countryside.

I was travelling with two friends and had been delegated accommodation duties for the Italy leg of our European adventure.

I campaigned, hard, to include rural Tuscany on our itinerary. I knew exactly what I was looking for: a villa in the hills a la Under The Tuscan Sun, with a great location, easy transport from Florence and incredible scenery.

The tiny, rustic Bed and Breakfast listed on AirBnB ticked all the boxes. There was a vineyard on the property! The building was old and crumbling and covered with flowers! There were farm cats wandering around!

More importantly, it was only a short walk out of town, where we could visit authentic Italian restaurants and sample local produce. And – praise the lord – the house had WiFi.

The way I pictured our trip to Tuscany.

The person I contacted about staying in the house used an AirBnB profile called “Maria”.

She told me she was twenty-five years old, studying at university, and would pick us up from the town centre and give us a lift to the house when we arrived. I got the go-ahead from my travel buddies, so we booked for three nights.

Fast- forward one month to the three of us sitting on a wall in a small Tuscan town waiting for “Maria”. An elderly Italian man pulled up into the near-empty carpark and started waving at us. We kept our heads down.

“Who the hell is that?” One of my friends whispered.

Then he started calling my name from across the bitumen.

“Zoe!” He yelled, waving his arms enthusiastically. “I take you home!”

I was terrified. How did he know my name? I had no intention of going home with him. I looked nervously around the empty streets.

The man was unperturbed by our obvious terror. He  jogged over, beaming.

My friends and I on our Italian holiday.

“Zoe! I take you home! AirBnB! I am Maria! I am Maria father!”

My friends and I stared at each other, sickeningly unsure. Were we being wrongly suspicious of a lovely old man, or rightly suspicious of a serial killer?

In the end, our decision was made for us. With surprising agility, the potential-serial-killer claiming to be Maria’s father hoisted our bags into the back of his truck and opened the doors.

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“Maria’s father?” I confirmed shakily as we climbed in.

He nodded vigorously and started the car.

The area was beautiful but isolated.

My barely-formed plan to grab our bags and walk back to town as soon as we arrived was quickly decimated. We drove deeper and deeper into the countryside, my heart beating louder with every passing kilometre.

Here, there were no other cars on the road. The houses were spaced acres apart. We didn’t see another human soul the entire drive, and our phones quickly lost reception.

My friend Sarah leaned over in the back seat to show me a message she’d typed.

He’s killed Maria and now he’s going to kill us too.

I tried to laugh and nearly cried.

When we finally arrived at the property, it was a small relief to see it was in fact the house I’d seen advertised online. The  rose bushes were rambling, the vineyard was gorgeous and the farm cats came to greet us on arrival.

Everything was perfect, except we had no phone reception, no WiFi (yet another discrepancy “Maria” failed to inform us about) and no way to leave.

The farm cat was real. So was the dog.

Thinking we’d be in walking distance of the shops, we hadn’t thought to bring food. Luckily (or unluckily, as my friend Jodie pointed out, “if he wants to poison us”) Maria’s “father” offered to cook all our meals for us.

The holiday we planned – swanning around wineries, getting pleasantly tipsy in a hammock, visiting nearby lakes – never eventuated. Instead, we were permanently on edge, forced to communicate in broken English with Maria’s “father” about when we could leave. He conveniently didn’t understand the words “leave early”, and kept repeating “Tuesday” (our scheduled day for departure).

The house was beautiful. The countryside was incredible.

I have never been so relieved to leave a place.

In the end, Maria’s “father” drove us back to town on Tuesday without complaint. We never saw the Maria from the AirBnB profile, but by that point, we felt lucky to escape with our lives.

Over time, the story has became a hilarious anecdote: “remember that time we got kidnapped by an old Italian man in the Tuscan countryside? Oh, we have fun!”

That doesn’t mean I won’t be steering clear of AirBnB forever, though.

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