Puglia, Italy Days 5-7: Wedding at the Borgo Egnazia

This is the last blog in a series about a trip my fiance and I took to Puglia, Italy, for a friend’s wedding. See Saturday, Sunday, Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday.

Thursday 9/18
Borgo Egnazia

I wake up at our hotel room in Matera before Olivier and decide he needs to sleep this morning. So I go for run. I find my way around the cliffs easily after getting so lost the night before. Aside from a local blasting music from a boom box strapped on the back of his bike, singing in Italian and peddling up and down main street, I am only person up and definitely the only working out. Italians look at me like I’m crazier than crazy bike guy.

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When I get back, I shower, pack, and eat two croissants; one plain and one made with chocolate chips and filled with Nutella, for measure. We decide croissants in Italy are definitely not as good as croissants in France.

We drive to the Bari airport to drop off our rental car. On the ride, we discuss what it would have been like to live in Middle Ages — a town like Matera was built for protection and survival, near a source of water, where people could hunt and gather and live in cave homes sheltered from intruders in the cliffs. I think even though it all sounds romantic, people spent their whole lives just trying to eat and not get killed. And we are pretty fortunate today in the US for not having to spend every day worrying about getting speared in the back, or dying from childbirth or dysentery. And now that we have it so good, we need fast cars and skydiving to get the thrills that were once everyday life. That people couldn’t have been as happy as us tourists, dropping by for a day to drink wine and eat croissants. Olivier says he thinks happiness is relative. I think he’s just arguing to argue.

We drop off the car. Guy who checks us in notes a couple of scratches. We tell him they were already there; first guy who rented us the car refused to note them because they were too small. The first guy is there: He denies it. But Olivier took iPhone photos of scratches before we left (they’re dated and everything), which we show to the rental company. They still have us fill out paperwork that basically says we’re responsible. But insurance covers it. Now it makes sense. This is the Italian way of doing business.

We cab it to Borgo Egnazia, the hotel where our friends are holding their wedding weekend (Thursday to Sunday):

Borgo Egnazia map

This place is insane. The lobby’s air vents are all perfumed with a signature fig milk scent. There are candles everywhere (must be someone’s job just to run around and light them all day). Justin Timberlake had his wedding here three years ago; this is also the place where sultans from India come to get married. This sounds like our friends.

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The front desk tells us the hotel was built — three years ago, by Americans — to look like a typical Italian village, complete with its own cathedral. The design is convincing. Except everything is so perfect it all looks same to me…and I keep getting lost.

We eat lunch by the pool. Servers are “polite,” pulling out chair for me but not Olivier, and giving me a menu with no prices printed. (Olivier, of course, gets a menu with prices.) I want to pull out my own chair and see prices. We order pasta with saffron and mussels, local white fish with roasted vegetables:

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Then we spend the rest of the afternoon at the pool, reading:

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That night, we go to a wedding welcome dinner in a nearby restaurant, among olive groves. I give my bridesmaid speech to Emily and Matt, the couple. I had planned it thinking this was the rehearsal dinner, and it would be 20 of their closest friends. The realty: It’s 120 people. Emily, my friend, is only person laughing at my inside jokes. I am humiliated. So I just get really drunk (we later find out that each guest drank an average of 4 bottles that night).

Friday 9/19

7:40 am: Splitting hangover. Can’t fall back asleep. Olivier is out. And mad at me for mouthing off last night. I lay in bed, then slip out at 9am. I don’t make a peep.

9:30 am: Yoga class by MOH. I get the spins in child’s pose; almost puke in downward dog. Two girls do just that in bathroom.

12pm: Olivier and I skip out on socializing for an amazing massage at the spa.

2pm: Rent bikes to try and go to the beach club, where the rest of the wedding party is, instead of taking the bus with the rest of the guests. We are proud of ourselves for being adventurous. We bike to wrong beach. We go back, take the bus.

3pm: We arrive at beach club our friends have rented out and hired a DJ to give it a boozy brunch atmosphere. We feast on a huge Italian buffet with six types of pasta, seafood, cheese, grilled veggies, rose wine on ice; then we float on rafts in the lagoon. The bride’s photogs are stationed hidden behind bushes on cliff taking pics of us. We pretend we’re celebs.

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Dinner that night is in “Borgo Square” of our hotel. There are candles everywhere, and even more food: A chef making burrata in a giant barrel as we watch. Other chefs slicing steak and ribs, serving pastas and cheeses. During dinner, an 8-person traditional Italian band played while four traditional dancers danced. Then the piece de resistance: Three hours in, a 20-person Brazilian drum band arrives and plays for the next four hours.

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This is not even the wedding day.

We note we will probably never be invited to a wedding like this again. Including our own.

Saturday 9/21

Olivier and I go for run in morning around the golf course next to the hotel. An Italian security guard kicks us off 20 minutes in: Guess some things are too tacky for even guests to do.

After preparing at the hotel, we load on buses to go back to Ostuni, the place we visited on Day 2:

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But this time, it’s to attend the wedding of my friend. She and her husband met and live in New York, but they love Italy and decided it was the place for their wedding.

The ceremony takes place in the same cathedral that Olivier had commented — before we knew it was where our friend’s wedding was going to take place — that he would want to ditch our beach wedding and have a wedding in a church if it looked like this:

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We take photos of the bridal party on our iPhones before going into the church:

Ostuni wedding party

This is the last I got of the wedding itself, since I was busy doing my bridesmaid duties…but the local Ostuni newspaper featured the wedding that weekend.

We bus back to the hotel, and after cocktails on the roof, we bus again back to the hotel beach club. It’s lit with hundreds of candles. We eat until we’re stuffed and dance until 4am to the tunes of BBC DJ our friend flew in. Private fireworks show: included. It is over the top, and it is beautiful:

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6 Lessons from Planning My Tulum, Mexico Destination Wedding

I spent this past weekend with my fiancé and parents in Tulum, Mexico, checking out venues for our November 2014 wedding.

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Although I worked at TheKnot.com few years ago writing up “real weddings”, I remember very little advice I could actually use to plan my own – especially since I’m planning a destination wedding (The Knot is terrible for those). So I figured it wouldn’t hurt to share a few tips I learned from the first stages of planning our destination wedding. My biggest takeaways after our first big scouting trip:

1) Use a Google spreadsheet. Yep, it feels a bit like work…but Excel is the best way to compare costs across hotels, and doing it in Google meant I could share the doc with your fiance and parents, who can all edit it at the same time. We asked each hotel we were considering for a proposal (specific line items like reception/ceremony setup, food, drinks, etc.), then used one doc to compare per-person and per-hour costs (for dinner, open bar, DJ, etc.). While we figured the hotels probably didn’t include everything in their estimates, we got a feel for how specific items compared at each venue – which gave us a much better idea of which spots were overcharging and for what.

2) Stay at your top hotel picks. This seems like a no-brainer if you’re planning a destination wedding, but one hotel planner told us some couples don’t even visit the hotel before putting a down payment on their wedding! We found that you just can’t know some things until you visit: our top hotel pick looked great online, but the first night we stayed there we realized that besides ugly cracked paint and weather-worn wood, the bath mat (which we hadn’t yet touched) was covered in blood spots. Ew!

3) Take a walk. We went for a jog along the beach the first morning we were in Tulum and saw a few hotels that looked nice but weren’t on our list, and we would have otherwise missed them just driving by. We had emailed one of these hotels before our trip but nixed it because the reservations department took over two weeks to respond (not a great sign when you know you have to depend on them to arrange everything for you long-distance). But when we saw this same spot from the beach we knew we had to give it a second shot: it had gorgeous private townhomes, pretty white cabanas on the beach, the best cocktails we tasted in Tulum – and all at a similar cost of the other hotels we were considering. When we met with the hotel manager, he acknowledged that reservationist was not on top of his game and personally helped push our requests through to get a prompt new (and discounted!) quote on the rooms. It’s now #1 on our list.

4) Try the food. Our favorite hotel on paper had bland and boring food – not a great sign for the wedding reception (even if they’re hiring outside vendors to cater the meal). A cute hotel we hadn’t found in our online searches but saw on our morning jog ended up having the best food of any of the venues we tried…delicious fresh fish and spicy margaritas. It’s now #2 on our list.

5) Set deadlines. A lot of destination venues in the Caribbean are on island time: A colleague who married last June in Jamaica said that though she loved her hotel the planner rarely responded to her requests – so she ended up doing most of the arranging with vendors herself via email from New York. Asking for quotes on deadline is a good way to get a feel for how responsive the venue and planers are going to be when you’re 2,000 miles away and really need them – because if they can’t meet deadlines when they’re trying to sell you the hotel (or at least give you a reasonable estimate for when they can get back to you), they definitely won’t be there to help once you’ve already handed over a wad of cash.

6) Negotiate. Most venues assume you’re going to negotiate…so if you don’t you WILL overpay. You and your guests are bringing the hotel lots of extra revenue, not only because you’re booking a bunch (if not all) of their rooms for a minimum of three nights and paying for a pricey wedding party, but also because your guests will buy plenty of food/beverages the other days they’re there. That means the hotel will definitely give you a deal on the rooms you book if it means the difference between getting your business (or not). One hotel dropped their prices by 10% from the prices on their site the first time we emailed for an estimate and another 15% on our second request; the hotel manager verbally dropped the prices another 15% when we met with him.

And here were our top picks for boutique hotels in Tulum; they all range from ~$200-$400/night per room before negotiations:

1) Ana y Jose: A high-end, family-run hotel with cozy apartment-style rooms featuring air conditioning and a private Jacuzzi or pool.

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The hotel’s restaurant is one of the oldest in the area (sand on the floor makes it feel casual); it serves yummy Mayan bread with every meal of seafood-based, local cuisine. The beach is covered in perfect soft white sand.

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2) The Beach Hotel: Minimalist and modern; spacious. The “deluxe” rooms have a swim-up pool, an outdoor bathtub on the roof and an indoor Jacuzzi.

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The adjoining restaurant/bar has the best food in Tulum (and an awesome Xmas tree made out of wine bottles when we visited!).

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3) Hip Hotel: Owned by Ana y Jose, this hotel has more of a casual palapa-style feel; the rooms cost about 1/3 less. A wide-open, plaza-style restaurant overlooks the ocean and serves yummy casual Mexican food.

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4) El Pez: In Turtle Cove, a protected, quiet and private beach area surrounded by rocky cliffs, a casual Mexican-style hotel with a small pool and a big grassy lawn by the ocean.

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Lots of rocks in the beach (not great for swimming) and the paint is a bit worse for wear – but prices are totally reasonable so we’re figuring it’s a good overflow for guests who want to pay less.

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And our top pick outside of Tulum?

Le Reve hotel in Playa del Carmen:

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It has a beautiful, big, clean pool, a spacious outdoor restaurant with the best haut Mexican food (think really really yummy quesedillas, shrimp tacos, guac) we ate anywhere in Mexico.

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The only drawbacks were the location (it’s not within walking distance of any other places where guests could go out) and the beach (a bit more rocky than sandy). But it’s still high up on our list of hotels depending on what the other spaces can offer (we’re still working on learning to negotiation in Tulum…).