Full immersion in Italian village life is the philosophy of the “Albergo Diffuso” holiday formula.
On a balmy summer evening in the late 1990s, Daniel Elow Kilhgren, a young philosophy graduate of Italian-Swedish descent, took a trip on his motorcycle among the mountains and valleys of the Gran Sasso-Monti della Laga National Park in the heart of Abruzzo. He suddenly came upon the little village of S. Stefano in Sessanio and the discovery changed his life.
Couched on a rocky outcrop 1,250m above sea level, the village was once an important crossroads between Rome and the Adriatic. Governed by the powerful Medici family of Florence, it had also been a prosperous manufacturing centre for carfagna, a rough black wool used for making monks' habits and soldiers' uniforms. Up till the 19th century, the village had a population of some three thousand. When Kilhgren arrived, it was virtually deserted; its population had shrunk to 80, mostly elderly, people, eking out a parsimonious existence on money sent to them by emigrant relatives.
Kilhgren realised at once that the village had tourist potential. It was surrounded by beautiful, unspoiled countryside. The views in all directions were stunning. The village itself, huddled inside its massive stone walls, was perfectly preserved in its original mediaeval form.
He was determined to keep it that way. Any new buildings, he believed, would have spoiled its time-warp integrity. He began by purchasing two abandoned houses and adapting their interiors to create accommodation suitable for modern visitors. With an almost obsessive regard for authenticity, Kilhgren combed local antique shops and markets to find original pieces of furniture. He commissioned traditional woven bed covers and rugs and installed concealed lighting. The only concession he made to the needs of modern visitors were the en-suite bathrooms.
Two decades later he has 20 properties, including residences inside the noble Palace of the Loggias and self-catering units in the old watch tower. The reception, meeting room and restaurant are in the former community mill and warehouse. The Casa della Posta (post office), five minutes out of town, has been added, offering tennis courts and free use of bicycles. It has become a popular venue for weddings, meetings and events and the deserted village of S. Stefano in Sessanio has taken on a new lease of life.
The enterprise, which he named Sextantio after the name of the earliest known settlement in the area, is one of the first and purest examples of an albergo diffuso.
The idea first took off in the Alpine area of Carnia (Fruili-Venezia Giulia) after the earthquake of 1976, when government funds were allotted to restore houses and promote tourism. A pilot project, the Borgo Maranzanis, was launched in Comeglians near Povolaro (Udine) in 1982, and 13 years went by before Corte Fiorito, the second model of an albergo diffuso, opened on the west coast of Sardinia near Alghero. The new hospitality formula was officially recognised at legislative level in 1998.
The National Association of Alberghi Diffuso was created in 2006. The association has set up strict guidelines for membership. The requisites needed to qualify as an albergo diffuso include its position in an inhabited town centre, with rooms in different buildings situated no further than 200m from the central reception, all under the same management and with the inclusion of hotel-type services. The albergo diffuso should be situated in the middle of a living community and blend into an authentic local setting.
New model of hospitality
“Many people have difficulty in understanding what an albergo diffuso is,” says the association's president Carlo Dall'Ara, a professor of tourism marketing and originator of the formula. “They think it is simply a network of buildings around a central core. But it is much more than that. The idea behind it is to inject new life into small towns and villages, so many of which are fighting against the problems of shrinking populations. It is a new model of hospitality that helps sustainable development. It is another concept of hospitality, involving the entire community.”
The association now has just over a hundred members. Regretfully, however, a number of establishments that are listed on websites as alberghi diffusi do not conform to the association rules but resemble more closely conventional hotels.
“One of the main problems is that alberghi diffusi are regulated at regional, not at national level, and the regulations vary,” Dall'Ara explains. “So there is no standard model for the whole country.
“The core philosophy is that guests should feel they are part of the life of the borgo (historic old town). They live in genuine former homes. They can go to the bar for a coffee and a chat with the locals. They can buy local products and take part in local festivals.”
La Taverna, in Frosolone in Molise, is a good example. Visitors can participate in the transhumance festival on late May, when the drovers arrive with their herds of cattle on their 180 km trek through the mountains to the summer pastures. Frosolone was famous for centuries for its master smiths and metal workers, forging handcrafted knives and scissors. A few craftsmen are still in business, and there is an annual knife and scissors festival every August. You can also see demonstrations at the local museum (Museo di Ferri Taglienti).
Again in Molise – Italy's most underrated tourism area – La Piana dei Mulini at Colledanchise, 12 km from Campobasso, offers sojourns in a picture-book rural retreat, with accommodation in a charming old farming hamlet and a mill house suspended over the mill stream and spanned by a wooden bridge.
A different kind of experience awaits visitors in the baroque jewel borgo of Scicli, near Ragusa (Sicily). The Scicli AD opened five years ago and receptionist Valentina is enthusiastic:
“An albergo diffuso gives guests an experience that is out of the ordinary. They can feel they are part of the place and not simply observers. We promote a type of tourism that is the opposite of mass tourism.”
Hopefully mass tourism will not overtake Scicli, although the town is bound to lure ever greater numbers of people. As well as being a listed UNESCO World Heritage site, it is one of the locations used in the popular Commissario Montalbano television series.
Nearer to Rome is the Albergo Diffuso Specchio di Diana (Diana's Mirror) in Nemi, Castelli Romani. This ancient inn, which Byron is believed to have visited, was transformed from a restaurant and pizzeria in 2012. The Specchio di Diana has two rooms inside the main building and five suites in apartments spread around the village. Nemi is a pretty village, perched on a spur of rock overlooking the little crater lake of Nemi, a well-known landmark in the days of the Grand Tour. The annual strawberry festival in early summer is a major event.
Cecilia Di Onisi at the welcome desk is also pleased with the formula: “Before, we were registered as a Casa Vacanze (literally “holiday home”) and people only came for brief stays. As an albergo diffuso our guests have more contact with the owner and the people of the village. We mostly get people who are nature lovers and walkers. Most of them are couples and a good number are foreigners.”
After the slow beginning, the formula is finally catching on. “There's a growing demand for this type of accommodation,” Dall'Ara told Wanted in Rome. “Bookings last year were up 5 per cent.”
One developer who has not been discouraged is Daniel Kilhgren, who has now branched out into his second property, this time in the unique troglodytic limestone crater of Matera. Work began in 2006 and finished three years later, yielding 18 luxury rooms in former cave dwellings overlooking the lunar landscape of the Murgia park. The Albergo Diffuso Le Grotte della Civita of Matera has been created with the same attention to detail that distinguishes the other Sextantio AD at S. Stefano. The Matera property includes an ancient deconsecrated rock church which can be used for candlelit private parties or romantic tête-à-tête dinners.
“The AD model is now being developed in other countries such as Ireland, Japan, Switzerland and Croatia,” comments Dall'Ara. “We hope, however, that success won't distort the spirit and nature of the initial concept and its aims.”