By Valerie Fortney Schneider
Some travelers choose a hotel based on location, others based on ambience, while some prefer to focus on the food. The Hacienda Zorita in Ledesma, Spain, serves up all three in style. It’s situated near the city of Salamanca, which was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its well-preserved historic center that is awash in beautiful buildings. The hotel is part of the “albergo diffuso” concept, where guest rooms are placed in renovated houses or buildings in the village – in this case in a 16th-century monastery building. The albergo diffuso model has been popular in Italy for several years, but Hacienda Zorita marks the movement’s expansion into Spain.
Hacienda Zorita is billed as a “Wine Hotel and Spa,” with two restaurants and a vineyard on the estate. Spa treatments include decadent-sounding vinotherapy; the old chapel has been reworked into a wine cellar that holds 1,400 barrels. The hotel’s restaurants utilize organic food grown on the estate’s farm to serve specialties from the Salamanca area, a region that neatly skirts the border with Portugal. Obviously, wining and dining is a priority at this new inn.
But there are albergo diffuso hotels in Italy that are just as eager to showcase their cuisine. Italy is, after all, a nation where food is a focal point. The Locanda Senio sits where Tuscany brushes against Emilia Romagna, a region known as the culinary capital of Italy, where delicacies like Prosciutto di Parma, Bolognese sauce, and Parmigiano Reggiano cheese come from. The owner of the Locanda prides herself on the inn’s cooking. In fact, she did a historical study of the region’s cuisine and now prepares traditional fare from forgotten fruits and herbs that she learned about during her research. Everything is seasonal, so hearty polenta and citrus-scented sausages give way to spring soups and sun-ripened summer vegetables. (See: www.locandasenio.com)
Up north in the alpine area of Cuneo is an albergo diffuso that is a mountain chalet. The Locanda degli Elfi lounges in the lake-dotted highlands near the French border, serving up warm hospitality in a rugged, beautiful setting. The kitchen lovingly prepares the region’s Italian specialties with a French flair, turning out handmade pasta, potato gnocchi and other mountain dishes in a rustic, romantic setting. They’re extremely accommodating of special dietary requests and gladly prepare vegetarian, celiac or lactose-intolerant plates on request. The small restaurant serves the marvelous meals on the panoramic terrace or in the cozy solarium. (See: www.locandaelfi.it)
The Castello di Proceno, north of Rome near Viterbo, is a regal contrast to other albergo diffuso properties. Located on the borderlands of Lazio, Tuscany, and Umbria, the once-noble castle looks like something in a fairytale, complete with crenellated tower and walled garden. The castle’s stables have been turned into a rustic dining room where local, seasonal dishes are influenced by all three regions that surround the estate. There are richly flavored mushrooms in autumn, game meats in winter, and garden fresh vegetables through the summer, so guests dine like royalty on the garden’s bounty. A fabulous feature here is that the owner, chef and sommelier team up to offer cooking classes, where guests can spend one to three days learning the secrets and skills of creating healthful, authentic meals in a friendly, interactive course that includes wine pairings specific to each meal. (See: www.castellodiproceno.it)
While the albergo diffuso movement has become known for its unique concept of recuperating unused but charming buildings in partially abandoned villages, it is also becoming noted for the hotels’ seasonally sensitive restaurants that proudly serve the time-honored recipes of the region, assuring that their grandmothers’ traditions and dishes live on.