There's really nothing unique about the Hotel Europa, either. It's probably similar to many small hotels in Florence and throughout Italy. It boasts just two stars out of five, is in a converted convent that's hundreds of years old, and has a handful of modest but clean rooms.
But if there is anything unique about the Hotel Europa, it's Gassime himself. In our brief stay in Florence, he charmed our socks off. First, he made a potentially frustrating experience--a miscommunication about our reservation that left us roomless on the first night--into a minor road bump and a memorable moment in our trip. He found two empty rooms, had them made up immediately while we waited, and constantly checked in to let us know the hotel's staffers "were working for us."
Over the next three days, we watched him say a cheerful good morning in at least four different languages to the various guests. Gassime personified graciousness. By the time we checked out, we felt like we were leaving family behind. We left him with a small gift, a thank-you card and the promise that if he ever comes to Canada, we'd love to return the hospitality. He thanked us, but said he's too busy catering to tourists to do any touring himself.
Apparently, our experience at the Hotel Europa is not unique. We picked it because of similar testimonials on sites like TripAdvisor. In fact, if you search for Hotel Europa online, you'll find a litany of kudos for Gassime. As we were checking in, a lady from the States asked me if we'd picked the hotel because of TripAdvisor. When I said yes, she said she had as well. She was traveling with a fairly large group. Although Gassime has never sought fame, by quietly doing his job and providing exceptional service, fame has found him.
And there you have an essential quality of the Internet. As we define community around topics of common interest, in this case trips to Florence, we join together to create our own celebrities. We make the Gassimes of the world heroes, and lay a trail so that others can follow in our footsteps. Through travel sites like TripAdvisor and others, we create our own recommendations.
Search acts as the connector to these nuggets of information. We gain the benefit of others that have been there and done that. The good is separated from the bad in a way that defies gaming the system and keeps everyone honest. I picked every place we stayed through the recommendations of others online, and we didn't hit one dud. But better than just finding clean rooms, we found new friends, like Gassime.
Across Europe and around the world, diligent travelers are now finding these hidden heroes. They're the people that run the kind of places you used to have to know a local to find--and even then, you could never be sure if you were getting a bum steer to a cousin or friend.
Another hidden hero was the family that runs the Donna Rosa Ristorante in Montepertuso, high up the mountain above Positano on the Amalfi Coast in Italy. This little gem of a restaurant is run by the energetic and talented Raffaella family, a wife and husband who drew their two grown-up children back from successful careers in various parts of Italy so they could do something together. How do I know this? I found it online. Donna Rosa has also found a measure of fame online, including being one of the favorite haunts of Diane Lane when she was filming "Under the Tuscan Sun."
I like to think that I'm somewhat unique in the amount of online research I do prior to a trip. But the number is growing, and I'm sure that people like Gassime are starting to notice their small but increasing online fame. I hope that Gassime's hotel continues to thrive, and that Donna Rosa's reservation book stays full. These are rewards that come from a job well done, and I for one think it's a very good thing that the Internet can make down-to-earth, gracious people like Gassime and the Raffaella family heroes. All too often we make our heroes from less worthy stuff.