Under the watchful eye of Brindisi’s imposing stone memorial to fallen World War I sailors, a lone rower glides over the calm waters of the city’s harbour. It’s a beautiful day and tourists stroll along the palm-lined wharf in the late summer afternoon sun. But the rower is not the only one on the water. Also in port is an Italian warship, the 133m long ITS San Giorgio. Inside, awaiting launch, is an amphibious assault vehicle, and inside, like a Russian doll, I find myself crammed shoulder-to-shoulder with my comrades. The rear door of the vehicle is closed and we are plunged into total darkness. The engine fires up and for a moment the only thing that permeates the blackness is the roar of its 525hp engine and the diesel fumes escaping.
Luxury brands have long offered special gifts for their valued customers and friends. But this “backstage tour” is of a completely different order. For one thing, it’s not aimed at professional customers at all – but rather at customers, in this case those of watchmaker Panerai who paid £47,500 for the special edition Submersible Forze Speciali Experience, a watch diver who has the privilege of having your ass kicked by Italian special forces.
We move forward as the tracks descend the ramp into the water. I grab something to grab but too late, I’m on the lap of the person in front of me, then thrown back again. I’m disoriented in the dark as the driver propels us through the water and the first wave of seasickness sets in. My stomach isn’t as resolute as it could have been, lunch having been the few spoonfuls of Italian combat rations I was able to swallow. Coming from a country famous for its kitchenthe box of medaglioni di carne bovina in gelatina (jelly beef medallions) was somewhat disappointing.
Panerai has a long history with the Italian Navy, having been its official supplier of waterproof watches in the 1930s, but this is the first time the Marina Militare has opened its doors for a collaboration like this. At first, they weren’t keen on the idea. “When we first contacted them in 2018, the conversation took us 30 seconds because they told us: ‘We are not Disneyland. We are serious people,’ says Jean-Marc Pontroué, CEO of Panerai. “To be accepted, we had to come back to them to explain the historical context.”
Other Panerai experiences have taken guests to Bora Bora with French freediver Guillaume Néry and the Grand Tetons with mountaineer and photographer Jimmy Chin. Coming soon are experiences with the US Navy Seals and a trip to the Arctic with polar explorer Mike Horn. The long-term objective is to offer about five experiments per year.
My compatriots are a mix of CEOs, lawyers, tech entrepreneurs, investors, and collectors from around the world, some of whom are square-jawed alpha males. But not at all. Others have been gifted with the experience by a generous employer, relative or partner. And it is clear that not everyone followed the preliminary training plan. One of them tells me that the only exercises he does are swimming and basketball, which will be of no use for what lies ahead.
The experience begins with a welcome dinner among the traditional limestone Trulli houses of Alberobello. At 08:00 the next morning, we marched to the force’s Carlotto base. The scene is somewhere between Full Metal Jacket and daddy’s army as our motley crew come to attention for the national anthem, the raising of the flag and an address by the Brigade Commander, Rear Admiral Massimiliano Giuseppe Grazioso. He greets us, the way Marines like to greet guests, ordering us to do 20 push-ups.
Over the next 48 hours, we are immersed in the life of the Marina Militare. There are rides on a high-speed assault craft and armored vehicles mounted on machine guns, and low-altitude flights aboard an NH90 helicopter, which are only on the good side of the fun and terrifying spectrum. There’s hand-to-hand combat training with a man who looks like he’ll slit my throat in the blink of an eye and a close combat initiation where, in my excitement, I manage to shoot on the hostage, albeit with a retort. To keep things authentic, there are many more push-ups, often in the heat of the day and wearing 10kg of body armor. It’s tough, even for executives with ripped abs and pumped up arms at the gym, but absolutely brutal for those who took the experience as a surprise.
But the experience is not only physical. Dinner at the end of the first day is at the beachside fish restaurant Saleblu, whose wooden deck and canvases give it the feel of a sailboat at sea. Above gnocchi and cuttlefish at white chocolate mousse, Panerai’s marketing director, Alessandro Ficarelli, explains that the whole point of the experience is to offer something “that you can’t find on Google”.
Of course, there are tour operators for high net worth individuals like Cookson Adventures and Pelorus who specialize in taking clients – often led by ex-Special Forces types – to the farthest corners of the globe by superyachts and helicopters. And there are brands that have handed over their star athletes to paying customers, like Red Bull, which is selling a Mont Blanc ascent with former Gurkha and Himalayan record climber Nirmal Purja. But in the luxury watch market, there is something unique about what Panerai does.
Is it worth it? Among the paying customers, the one who has difficulty walking says: “Absolutely”. A German plumber from Munich in designer jeans grimaces. “The heart says yes, the head no,” he says.
For more details on the next Panerai experience, go to panerai.com