The new type of hotel rescuing Italy’s hill villages
It was an unusual invasion: well-to-do people, most speaking strange tongues, and pulling their belongings behind them on little wheels. Arriving as couples, families, groups of friends, they spent money in the village shop and ate at its few restaurants. Feathers were occasionally ruffled when an outsider sat in some local’s chair at the bar but, overall, these “tourists” were seen as a good thing. This is not somewhere remote in the developing world, however, but Tuscany, just a few years ago. People often fail to grasp how much more there is to this region than Chiantishire and coach tours. Tuscany is bigger than Wales and almost as mountainous, with plenty of places where no one’s heard of Waitrose or – until recently – wheelie bags.
One of these villages, Semproniano, amid undulating woods and golden farmland in southern Tuscany, is Fulvio Ponzuoli’s childhood home, to which he returned in 2008 after a business career. He could see the potential of the 1,000-year-old village atop its wooded hill, and decided to develop it using a model dreamed up in Friuli, north-east Italy, in the 1980s as a way of reviving earthquake-ravaged communities. The model is the albergo diffuso, which translates best as “scattered hotel” and has really taken off this century. Rather than building a hotel to bring tourist euros into a picturesque village, or knocking buildings together, an albergo diffuso takes the more sustainable route of refurbishing empty or abandoned homes – generally within 150 metres of “reception” – as its guest rooms.
So at Fulvio’s Borgo di Sempronio (doubles from €85) reception is up the street from the bar, breakfast is in a former medieval storehouse round the corner, and rooms (with bathrooms and kitchens squeezed in corners and up steps) are in a dozen listed buildings, mostly built before 1400, dotted through the maze of alleys.
And though Fulvio and his partner, Roxana, are serious foodies – they grow a lot of their own food, plus ancient forms of wheat and pulses – they deliberately didn’t include a restaurant, preferring to see their guests bring custom to existing village businesses.
My husband and I had a two-bedroom suite up the hill, furnished with a mix of stylish new pieces and antiques – one bed was from an 18th-century brothel in Prato, though the mattress was new, Roxana assured me – and staying there offered a real village feel, particularly on warm evenings, when people sat on steps to chat and two small boys defeated baddies up and down “our” street.
If we’d been able to tear ourselves away, Grosseto, Lake Bolsena and the Maremma coast are within an hour or two’s drive, the Saturnia hot springs and ski slopes of Monte Amiata nearer. But we preferred ice-creams at local hub Bar Tubino, reading in the square at the top of the village, and a 10-minute pootle to the tiny Knights Templar village of Rocchette di Fazio – even prettier than Semproniano, it is now home to just 10 permanent residents.
At the other end of Tuscany, over a high Apennine pass, Ercole Lega has been running restaurant Locanda Senio in the village of Pallazzuolo, by the Senio river, for over 30 years. His wife, Roberta, works slow-food miracles in the kitchen and they have gradually been adding cosy period-feeling en suite rooms in narrow streets (doubles from €105 B&B). Alpine-feeling Pallazzuolo is very different from Semproniano, with red and green shutters on sturdy stone houses and steep wooded hills all around. There’s wonderful walking nearby, in mountains reaching to 1,187 metres, and, for urban buzz, trains run from nearby Marradi station to Florence (€12 return, about an hour), Bologna or Faenza.
Ercole is passionate about alberghi diffusi. “It’s the most genuine type of tourism,” he said. “It can’t be faked, packaged or taken over by a multinational. Visitors live cheek by jowl with the people of the village, eating food and wine produced here, or next door.”
And the food and wine are excellent: at dinner (on the terrace by the chlorine-free pool), Ercole was full of information about the history or provenance of each of the five courses he brought out to us. Standouts were radicchio and almond crostini, smoked salmon with tiny grapes the size of redcurrants, gnocchi stuffed with ricotta, and Roberta’s homemade breads.
Italy’s regional governments are gradually setting up legal norms for alberghi diffusi, simplifying the licences hugely. To Roxana and Ercole’s irritation, Tuscany is still wrangling over details, but Puglia, in the south, enacted legislation in 2012, and several of the region’s white stone villages have taken the idea and run with it.
Founded by Greeks in the fourth century BC, Polignano a Mare, south of Bari, is famous for cliff diving and for Domenico Modugno, writer of the Frank Sinatra hit Volare. In its old town, B&B dei Serafini (doubles from €90) is “diffused” around nine buildings, with breakfast at its own cafe on Piazza San Benedetto (bag the cliffside terrace table for over-water caffè and cornetti). Our diminutive but sweet room was on the other side of the square: we sunbathed on its sea-view roof terrace then enjoyed live music, drinks and food in the piazza till late, before staggering, ooh, 75 metres back home.
One problem with alberghi diffusi can be getting to them by car: satnavs struggle with steep, narrow alleyways, and village centres are often car-free anyway. Albergo Diffuso Monopoli (doubles with kitchen from €120 B&B) solves this by collecting guests from wherever they park in Monopoli town and taking them to their “house” in a tuk-tuk. Opened by a group of friends in 2014, it has 16 rooms and apartments in buildings around the old town, plus reception with cafe for breakfast. Our first-floor open-plan room, with a typical Pugliese arched ceiling, was in a courtyard off a street full of Italian life, and minutes from beaches and great-value fish restaurants such as Da Zi’ Ottavio (77 via Barbacana).
Another thing that has taken off this century in Puglia is wine: and nights in alberghi diffusi can be happily interspersed with vineyard tours. Try Cantine Polvanera, 50km from Monopoli, a working family winery producing top-quality reds, including a Decanter gold award-winning primitivo. A slicker operation is Tenute Rubino, near Brindisi, which makes classic and innovative wines from salty seaside vineyards. A tour can finish at its wine bar on the seafront, where wines are paired with bruschette, cured meats and cheeses (tour and tasting with lunch €40pp).
The Itria valley, south of Monopoli, is the place to see Puglia’s trulli houses, and in its centre loom the whitewashed walls of Locorotondo – which instead of traditional conical houses has cummerse, narrow townhouses with steep stone roofs. In several of these, the Sisto family have created albergo diffuso Sotto le Cummerse (doubles from €90 B&B), with, so far, 10 apartments in formerly abandoned buildings (two more should open this year). Breakfast is at super-cool Docks cafe, with valley views from its terrace.
The albergo diffuso is perfectly suited to Italy, where almost every hill is topped with an ancient settlement, most beautifully atmospheric and tragically depopulated. It’s also perfectly suited to travellers wanting a sense of place and contact with locals, not other tourists.
And if your holiday spending can help keep a 1,000-year-old village alive – well, as the Italians would say, Come non amarlo? (What’s not to love?)